Fear is the path to the dark side: Rise of Skywalker (2019)

We get it, Disney: a lot of very vocal fans didn’t like The Last Jedi. We don’t even have to call all of the dislike of Episode VIII an expression of toxic fandom; Rian Johnson’s stab at Star Wars was designed to be something of a slap in the face of business as usual, and while I loved the daring of many of its ideas, they weren’t always executed altogether well. At times I could see what Johnson was going for but felt that he was doing so in ways that were clunky or at odds with other things the film was trying to do.

Nonetheless, The Last Jedi had ideas, it had a vision, it was interested in doing more than being the Star Wars cover band that The Force Awakens was, even if that one delivered its version of A New Hope‘s greatest hits with panache. If Rise of Skywalker wants to do something, it’s kowtowing to the loudest and most toxic critics of The Last Jedi. It doesn’t have a vision other than that of apologising loudly and unthinkingly for the perceived mistakes of the previous episode. In short, Rise of Skywalker may just be the most cowardly expression of fan service I have ever seen.

To be fair, Rise of Skywalker isn’t an inept piece of filmmaking like the prequels often were. On a technical level, there are things to like: the visuals are often stunning, even when what is presented isn’t particularly coherent or credible. The actors do a great job of giving their characters as much life and believability as is possible with the script they’re working with. Like The Force Awakens, J.J. Abrams’ second Star Wars film certainly looks the part – though often only until the characters open their mouths and deliver their lines or until the plot rears its ugly head.

If Rise of Skywalker just was a cover version of Return of the Jedi, it would still be middling at best, and for the last third or so of the film that’s exactly what it’s aiming for. We may not get any ersatz Ewoks, but other than that the film’s climax lifts a lot almost directly from the showdown with the Emperor on the second Death Star. In fact, while we don’t get a literal Death Star, we get Star Destroyers that have been upgraded so that they’re able to blow up planets all on their own. All that is newish about Rise of Skywalker is packed into a first half that rushes from one location and setpiece to the next with little in the way of cohesion, so that the film feels like two parts. Part 1: here are all the cool new places we came up with during our brainstorming sessions, blink and you’ll miss one; and Part 2: And here’s the stuff that really matters. How do you know? Bbecause you remember it from earlier films.

What is most egregious about the film, though, isn’t what it regurgitates but the purpose behind its regurgitations. The main mission of Rise of Skywalker seems to have been to undo The Last Jedi and many of its strongest ideas. To my mind, a lot of fans misunderstood what The Last Jedi‘s purpose was: while the film’s main villain may have said, “Let the past die. Kill it”, that’s not what the film was arguing. Instead, the point it made was that what needs to be killed is the fetishisation of Star Wars as a series of tropes and the way these tropes have become ossified into something hard and dead. The Last Jedi didn’t say that Star Wars needed to be killed but that Star Wars was being killed by rote repetition of what we’ve seen so many times already. Star Wars = Death Star, X-Wings, Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker, sprinkle with some funny droids and hairy wookiees.

Evil, cackling space wizards, gargantuan planet-killing superweapons, dynasties of power, fate and genetics as the twin driving forces of the plot: Johnson’s take on Star Wars was that the series had become its own prison, and that a certain kind of (self-proclaimedly true) fan had made themselves gatekeepers of what Star Wars must be. Those fans would say that Rey had to come from Force-sensitive blood, because otherwise how could she be a powerful heroine; Johnson’s reply was that blood and parentage don’t make heroes. The fans wanted to know more about Snoke, a revamp of Emperor Palpatine by way of Hugh Hefner’s wardrobe? Johnson cut Snoke in half, because he didn’t matter to the core conflict, and anyway, we’d already played with that particular action figure. Fandom said that Star Wars was defined by its tropes, Johnson looked for its heart instead.

The Last Jedi was accused of cheap snark at the expense of Star Wars, but the heart of the film wasn’t sarcasm but pure emotion. As I said in my write-up at the time: ” The Last Jedi tells us not to turn our legends into Holy Writ – but neither does it tell us to break our action figures, tear up our posters and throw our X-Wings into the trash. The film may have a laugh at fanboy dogma, but it definitely values the power of fairy tales and legends to inspire children.” In that respect, some of the themes of The Last Jedi weren’t all that different from 2018’s Into the Spider-verse, which reinvigorated the dream we had as kids, not of being a Spider-man fan but of wanting to be Spider-man ourselves. Johnson’s film said: a Jedi or a Sith is not made by their parents, or by the number of midichlorians. In order to become the hero of your story, you don’t need to have Darth Vader or Luke Skywalker as your father. The film makes the following proposition: we may be nobodies, but we can dream ourselves better, and we can choose to act on that dream. It’s what kids back in the late ’70s, and many more since, have felt: that you could pick up that cardboard tube or that broomstick and imagine yourself to be a space-faring hero.

Enter Rise of Skywalker, armed with a big eraser to remove the stain of The Last Jedi. Rey is a nobody? No, that’s a lie, how could a nobody ever be that powerful, in fact she’s the granddaughter of the biggest, baddest villain of them all – and even though we saw him fall to his death in Return of the Jedi, here good old Palpy is again as well. Luke is a crabby, bitter old man haunted by his failures? No, glowy force ghost Luke has seen the error of his ways and now is kindly grandpappy Luke. Kylo renounces his Darth Vader-cosplaying ways, because “the past needs to die”? Give him ten minutes and he’ll have reforged his helmet, eager to follow in every one of Vader’s big, bad footsteps. Let’s not even mention Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) from The Last Jedi, bullied off of social media by a pack of trolls calling themselves fans. She gets, what, two minutes of screentime, which is generous, considering the extent to which those ‘fans’ hated her. Why? Because. Because all that Star Wars is, what it can and should be, according to Rise of Skywalker: fan service. Callbacks. The only thing that gives meaning to a character, plot point or scene is that we’ve already seen it, and the less it is varied, the better. Where The Last Jedi looked for the heart of Star Wars, using the series’ tropes in order to subvert them and make them new, Rise of Skywalker venerates the tropes like a mummified corpse. It totally buys into Palpatine’s desiccated beliefs.

Much of this was already the MO of The Force Awakens, but arguably the first film of the sequel trilogy didn’t just remake A New Hope, it also introduced us to a number of new characters. Certainly these weren’t miles removed from the heroes of old, the Lukes, Leias and Hans, but they had potential and they were acted well, arguably better than the characters of the original trilogy and most definitely better than those of the prequels. If The Force Awakens was a palate cleanser after George Lucas’ inept prequel trilogy and The Last Jedi aimed to vary the old tune to reinvigorate Star Wars, Rise of Skywalker feels like year-old wookiee jerky left in the pantry for too long.

If the creative team behind Rise of Skywalker truly agreed with the criticism leveled at The Last Jedi, they could have made that argument in the film. Instead, they didn’t actually engage with Johnson’s film but instead waved their hands at us and did a bad impression of Alec Guiness: This is the Star Wars you’re looking for. Go about your business. Move along. Marvel at the familiar. Gawp at the same old. Enjoy this, because you enjoyed it fifty years ago. We’re sorry we tried to challenge you, we’re sorry we dared to treat this galaxy of yours as something that deserves to be treated with courage and a heart. We’ve polished this mummified corpse to a sheen so you can come and look at it again and again, and it will always look the same. In fact, thanks for modern effects tech, it will look better than ever. Just ignore the smell, because that won’t get any better.

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