It’s literally impossible not to compare a new Star Wars product to it’s predecessors. Mostly because producers of The Rise of Skywalker and it’s director JJ Abrams, who’s also the co-writer, co-producer and director of The Force Awakens, have handcuffed themselves to the past on their own volition. To be fair, every fan of Star Wars has done the same. Watching Skywalker, you would believe the shadow of the Death Star and Darth Vader are inescapable, even though both are near 40 years perished. The latest film, billed as the last in the Skywalker Saga, attempts to tie the past to the present but does so in an arduous yet rushed way.
That classical approach, which has been dismissed by some critics as “fan service,” is actually just [JJ] Abrams and crew appreciating and building upon what it is that people love about the Star Wars characters and universe. And if there is one thing that I’ve learned from initially panning a movie because I thought it had too much fan service, and then learning from the error of my ways, it is that fan service should not be dismissed simply for existing. It is only a problem if it isn’t well executed.
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker was not well executed. The above quote was written by Matthew Rozsa of salon.com in an attempt to defend and praise Abrams’ work. Throughout Rozsa’s defense of Skywalker, he uses words “logical” and “tidy conclusions” in ways that come across as lazy, myopic and, ironically, illogical. While this isn’t an attack on one individual, he does represent a larger problem with the discussion around Star Wars, in particular The Last Jedi, a movie in pop culture that’s as divisive as any movie that I can remember: fans idolization of Luke Skywalker and their love of Star Wars has create serious blind spots in critically engaging with these films in a meaningful way.
For example, in Rozsa’s defense of Rise of Skywalker, he criticizes the much maligned Canto Bight plot in The Last Jedi by describing it as a “subversion” and “a waste of time.” Later in his review, he criticizes The Rise of Skywalker for not properly utilizing Rose. These two beliefs should not possibly exist within the same person because without Canto Bight, you don’t receive the true beauty and purpose of Rose.
The Canto Bight plot functioned on multiple levels: first, it showed the ramifications of war, slavery, capitalism and their effects on the Star Wars universe as a whole outside of the Skywalker family. It gave viewers pragmatic reasons as to why rebellion has been raging throughout different generations, something that none of the previous films explore beyond heroes battling the Empire or the First Order firsthand. Seeing the extremes of planets and spaceships being blown up hold weight, but watching child slavery, animal cruelty, the wealthy elite class being built on arms dealing to the Resistance and the dangerous consequences nihilism (as seen through the character of DJ) have an effect as well.
Also, and most importantly, Canto Bight serves to give depth our anti-hero Finn through the wisdom, optimism and love from Rose. Finn is not intrinsically motivated to do right; he’s only guided by his instincts to protect Rey, a woman that he’s in love with. While his love for Rey keeps him on the right path by default, he’s, effectively, a coward. (Don’t read “coward” as harsh; it’s understandable that a person that was a child slave to the First Order would want to flee them as quickly as possible at the expense of everyone else.) However, it’s Rose, not Finn’s love for Rey, that keeps him on the right path for the right reasons: “That’s how we’re going to win: not fighting what we hate, saving what we love.” Through Rose, Finn learns finds motivation to stand against, not flee, the First Order. It seems as if “subversion” is a dog whistle for “I don’t care about anyone in this story other than Rey or Kylo Ren.”
The Rise of Skywalker does no exploration on who these characters are (not just Finn and Rose but everyone not named “Rey” or “Kylo”) which is similar to criticism lobbed at Return of the Jedi. The only thing that Skywalker asks of it’s audience is to take one more hit of nostalgia for old time’s sake, which is similar criticism lobbed at The Force Awakens.
Going back to Rozsa’s piece, he wrote, “The lesson of Rey’s origin and her relationship to Luke and Leia… firmly states that a Jedi’s worth comes from her own actions and character” but, to the contrary, this is not a message the movie relays. In The Last Jedi, we see the growth and strength of Rey while balancing the fact that she’s not of the Skywalker or Kenobi lineage, a theory that many fans wanted to be true. But by making Rey Palpatine’s granddaughter, the powers that she has feels now cheap and slightly unearned; the Force power she yields is, literally, grandfathered in and her choice to become a Jedi feels more obligation than destiny.
It was a special feeling believing that anyone, any true believer in the Force, could draw it’s power and wisdom. Seeing Broom Boy use the Force to grab his broom and then hold it like it was a light saber made me gush over the possibilities of this franchise.
Now, that feeling is over.
The Rise of Skywalker is a good action movie with no stakes and gorgeous looking people but it’s nothing more than a pleasant Saturday night at the movies. And how massively disappointing is that?
“You’re still holding on; let go!”
Luke Skywalker was a boy that desperate to find his purpose, much like everyone else. He wanted to grow beyond his home and the invisible shackles that bind a person to their predestined role in life. Eventually, Luke was pushed to his mental and physical limits, succeeded and failed, but still believed in the good of people, even in the good in someone as demonic and fascist as his father Darth Vader. In the process, he grew to become the galaxy’s greatest hero. But that was the boy, what about the man? There was a significant gap in between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens; what’s his prospective after being a war veteran and the chosen savior? He became broken.
Luke’s role in The Last Jedi may be the most important in all of the films: he clearly identifies how hubris, blindness and exclusion are dangerous when it comes to religion. How is it that Yoda, Mace Windu, Obi-Wan Kenobi and the entirety of the Jedi council cannot identify a Sith Lord in their presence or allow Anakin’s metamorphosis into Vader? And how could someone, Luke, so young be expected to rebuild the Jedi while carrying the burden of being labeled a savior?
Being told the religion you believe in and love is flawed can be and is hard to accept. To have one’s faith shattered is watershed moment in the lives of many, a moment that few truly recover from. Growing up in America, especially in the black community, Christianity is the primary practiced religion and from birth we are told that that Jesus Christ is the only way to righteousness. Once you become older, you begin to ask questions that don’t have definitive answers. You even begin to ponder if you’re a good person for even questioning God to begin with. I imagine this is a similar experience that people went through when Luke’s faith was shattered in The Last Jedi. This seemingly perfect, all knowing religious order, that many people have adored since 1977, was something else. To hear Luke use the word “vanity” when describing the Jedi must have felt incomprehensible. But it was his truth that was thoughtfully explored by The Last Jedi writer and director Rian Johnson and beautifully and painfully acted by Mark Hamill.
The Rise of Skywalker had room to explore themes of religion, spirituality, war, love, sacrifice and hope but it chose not to and was a lesser movie because of it. Almost every canonical movie attempts to find depth in one or more of areas but it feels like JJ Abrams doesn’t care to try. Apparently, neither did the actors. In an interview with Hypebeast, John Boyega “didn’t necessarily agree with a lot of choices” in The Last Jedi and wanted more pairings as Finn with Poe and Rey. In Skywalker, we got the pairings but nothing special or significant came of it. Finn barely holds conversations with Rose in TROS, a character he’d just spent the entire previous film bonding significantly with. It’s bewildering how either little trust Abrams has with the audience or how ineffective he is at writing complex stories.
If fan service means erasing originally for the sake of entertainment and myth building/propping, then it’s time for it to die. A part of me feels quite sad that the soul of The Last Jedi was almost completely stripped by The Rise of Skywalker while mined was the last bits of nostalgia from the original trilogy. People that were disappointed that Rey wasn’t a Skywalker got their wish. People that wanted Rose to shut up got their wish. People that wanted their savior Luke to be a squeaky clean hero god got their wish. And it was, ultimately, unsatisfying and shortsighted.
Dan Le Batard, former journalist and current ESPN personalty, is someone that welcomes criticism and controversy (but not just for the sake of controversy). Le Batard does a lot to demystify the sanctity and self-seriousness of sports and continually tries to place sports and society at large in their proper context together while sports companies and media members work to keep them separate. One day, while going against a faceless internet troll, he posed, “I’m not telling you how to think. I’m asking if you’d like to.” That’s my challenge to Star Wars fans: if Star Wars means so much to so many different people, why must the heroes be infallible? Why must the only stories be told through god-like totems and not actual people? Why hold on the idea of a person and not who they actually are?
When we look back at The Rise of Skywalker, without being hyperbolic, it will be held as one of the worst in the entire franchise. And when the next Star Wars trilogy is crafted, hopefully it’s creators will give us characters that are flawed, that have hatred and love and everything in between inside of them. We don’t need another billion dollar popcorn movie.