Article ID: JAR1912PH | By: Philip Tallon
A movie review of
The Rise of Skywalker
Directed by by J.J. Abrams
(Rated PG-13, 2019)
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Editor’s note: We realize that various interpretations and reactions to storyline elements in this film and their ramifications have been debated. We offer this review as one plausible viewpoint. Please also be aware there are **SPOILERS**, as major plot points are discussed.
The opening crawl of The Rise of Skywalker begins with “The dead speak!” Though some have teased this line for its silliness, it establishes a crucial plot point: Emperor Palpatine, thought to be dead, is back. I find no fault in the directness of this line, but I do question its truthfulness. In The Rise of Skywalker it’s hard to see how almost anyone is really dead. Though “force ghosts” and influential ancestors have always been a part of the Star Wars universe, in this supposed last film in the Skywalker saga, it’s not so much that the dead speak, but that the dead won’t stop talking. The dead are so present that Obi-Wan’s warning in Episode IV shifts from being a hopeful boast about Jedi afterlife to a kind of grim, cinematic prophecy: “If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.” So it is for all the dead here. They are never far, far away.
It’s not too much of a spoiler to say that all the main characters from the original trilogy make important appearances. But the overwhelming presence of beloved-but-deceased characters from past movies prevents the new characters from having many important scenes that aren’t haunted by the influence of their ancestors. Midway through the film, the characters wind up in the middle of an ancestor festival on a strange planet where the locals are celebrating a festival to their ancestors, which, C-3PO informs them, happens every 42 years. It’s a cute wink. A New Hope (1977) came out 42 years ago (the same year I was born). It’s also thematically central. This movie is one big festival to the ancestors: literally and cinematically. Faulkner quipped that the “past isn’t dead. It’s not even past.” J. J. Abrams’s loving homage to the original trilogy suggests a new take on the quote: “The original trilogy isn’t dead. And the new trilogy isn’t even original!”
Abrams’s The Force Awakens (2015) invigorated audiences with a return to the rhythms and fluidity of the original trilogy. After suffering through the leaden performances and bureaucratic maneuverings of the prequels, we were all delighted that Abrams delivered something that felt like the Star Wars that we remembered, even if the plot and characters seemed like a remix of A New Hope. The Rise of Skywalker attempts the same feat again, but this time with less charm. Like Return of the Jedi (1983), there’s another planet-killing threat, another three-part climactic battle, another redemptive arc, and the same Emperor, cackling madly and attempting to corrupt the soul of our main hero. In order to discuss the meaning of the film, I’ll have to get into some details, so spoilers will follow. You have been warned.
As a point of comparison, The Last Jedi (2017) skillfully hid its indebtedness to The Empire Strikes Back (1980). Like Luke, Rey hears a devastating piece of information about her identify, struggles under the tutelage of a wonky, isolated Jedi master, and the heroes suffer betrayal from someone they thought was an ally. But the reversals felt fresh and unexpected. Writer and director Rian Johnson used the audience’s investment in the characters and the mythology to upset and undermine. Though this understandably caused a backlash, his installment offers some of the most interesting ideas about the Force. Johnson is with Luke. The Force does not belong to the Jedi. Abrams’s film, in many ways, reverses those ideas. In The Rise of Skywalker, the Force is mainly just for those who inherit it from the dead (or the only mostly dead). The revelation about Rey’s lowly parentage suggested a new direction for the Star Wars mythology. The final shot of a servant boy calling his broom to him and looking out at the night sky suggested a universe of stories unconnected to the lineage of Skywalker and Palpatine. Here, Abrams reverses gravity, drawing us away from the edges of the Empire right back to the bright center of the mythology: the Skywalker story. In his climactic battle with Rey, Emperor Palpatine promises that “this will be the final word in the story of Skywalker.” The film’s final scene, however, offers a resounding rebuke to the Emperor (and perhaps to Johnson), as Rey proclaims herself the adopted daughter of Luke and Leia. She becomes a Skywalker.
Since everything is an issue now, the fact that I liked The Last Jedi more than The Rise of Skywalker will undoubtedly seem to mean something about my cultural affiliations. If anything, though, it’s simply a desire to experience some of the pleasurable disorientation of the first films, where we were thrust into a new universe with strange names, strange worlds, and a unique brand of magical possibilities. The prequels, interstitial films, and sequels have largely seemed content to fill in the backstory and gaps of the originals, when what drew us to the original trilogy was the thrill of wonder and exploration.
Because this is a journal concerned with Christian reflection on cultural matters, perhaps it is good to shift from filmic complaint to discussion of the big ideas and themes of The Rise of Skywalker. As always, the theology of Star Wars is a bit of a syncretistic muddle. The Force at times seems to be a dualistic struggle between good and evil, but at other times bends toward the good. The dark side is easier to fall into and more violently forceful, but there seems to be a universal, moral code that dualism itself can’t provide. Feelings are important sources of knowledge, but feelings can still be wrong. The voices in the characters’ heads may mislead them. In many ways, Lucas’s mythology operates like a diffuse, impersonal magic, with evil force powers as a potent corruption of the good, but possessing no absolute necessity. The arc of the Star Wars universe, perhaps not necessarily, but certainly habitually, bends toward the light.
With the repeated emphasis on the dead, however, The Rise of Skywalker amplifies a minor theme into a major one. Luke tells Rey that “a thousand generations live in you,” which will remind fans of Avatar: The Last Airbender (2005–2008) of the way that all the previous avatars live on in Aang’s subconscious. This atavistic element is also equally true of the dark side, and of the film. Palpatine’s unexpected and unbelievable return makes Rey’s identity the key battleground for the Emperor’s plan. If he succeeds, which we have little reason to think he will, a thousand generations of Sith will live in her instead.
As with most of the other films, the hero’s main challenge is to find a way to defeat evil without becoming evil. Force isn’t enough; sacrifice is required. This is a theme no Christian should despise. Usually in Star Wars, the older generation sacrifices themselves for the younger (Obi-Wan and Vader for Luke; Leia and Han for Ben). Such a sacrifice can also be redemptive for the one who dies, as it is with Vader. The Rise of Skywalker resolves Kylo Ren/Ben Solo’s pained storyline with a new twist. Freed from his hatred and false idolatry of Darth Vader, Kylo/Ben and Rey’s love-hate relationship culminates in a final act of love that heals Ben’s heart, Rey’s body, and concludes with a brief kiss.
Despite my complaints about how derivative most of the film is, I must say that Kylo and Rey’s relationship is one of the most original and dynamic aspects of the trilogy, and ends well. Their mystical “Forcetiming” from the last film allows for one of the most stunning battle sequences in this one, which takes place in two places at once. Kylo/Ben is a fascinating character who offers a new take on a Star Wars villain. While Darth Vader’s redemption came as a mild surprise, even to him, it would seem, Kylo’s redemption seems possible but never inevitable. Like Kylo and Rey playing tug-o-war with the transportation pod, we feel the pull of his mother and grandfather throughout the trilogy. Rey, on the other hand, never seems in real danger of corruption. Both figures, though, are in search of an identity.
It’s notable that the search for identity is far more present in the new trilogy than in any other Star Wars installment. Both Kylo and Rey are looking for a family. Kylo’s journey is a prodigal’s return to the parents he forsook. Rey’s journey ends with her adoption of the name Skywalker. It’s a theme that most modern people can connect with. Presented with endless options for our own identities in a post-Christian, postmodern world, it’s easy to see the cultural confusion that surrounds us. Even the critical wrestling over the Star Wars movies exemplifies our need to situate ourselves in a larger story. We’re not divided about the proper meaning of Star Wars. If there’s a bright side to the mixed results of the new trilogy to satisfy as well as we all would like, perhaps it’s simply this: we need to look beyond Star Wars for a story big enough to make sense of our lives. —Philip Tallon
Philip Tallon, PhD, is an assistant professor of theology at Houston Baptist University. He’s the author of The Absolute Basics of the Christian Faith (Seedbed, 2016).