At the core of J.J. Abrams’ latest Star Wars movie, The Rise of Skywalker, is the basic question we all struggle with throughout our lives, “Who are you?”
One of the dangers of storytelling in film is that of ‘raising the stakes.’ Characters have to consistently overcome larger and more dangerous threats or the audience loses interest.
This is something at the core of why a portion of the Star Wars fan base was angry with Rian Johnson over his choices for Luke Skywalker in The Last Jedi.
This is important to cover before we get to the new film.
Mild Spoilers Ahead
Luke ‘leveled up’ in Return of the Jedi and his failure with Kylo Ren felt like a retrograde, diminishing one of the great heroes of modern mythology. Kylo Ren simply wasn’t a bigger threat than the Emperor.
Interestingly Rian Johnson addressed this very point in a recent Twitter exchange.
And I always agreed with Johnson on this point and thought his take on Star Wars up there with the greats of the series. Johnson achieved something for Luke Skywalker in The Last Jedi that is truly special.
He took the young, conflicted hero whose fundamental humanity saves his father from despair and with it everyone else to a bitter old man hiding from his mistakes, taking on responsibility that wasn’t his.
His redemption comes from acknowledging his failures, apologizing to those he hurt and sacrificing himself to save his sister, the Resistance and the soul of his nephew.
Luke took on their sins as his and offered them all a chance for redemption, while never breaking his vow of non-violence. Johnson elevated him to true mythic status.
In The Rise of Skywalker, Rey comes face to face with a similar revelation about her past that Luke did in the venerated The Empire Strikes Back. The stakes have been raised for her with this seeming plot reversal about her parentage.
She has done nothing but struggle with her abandonment throughout the films. This is her central conflict now and it pushes the action for the entire film.
It fueled an anger and loneliness which conflicts with an ultimately kindhearted, open, and positive person. We see this dichotomy early in the movie as she solves the problem of a wounded serpent of Jungian proportions with compassion and then loses control of her anger competing with Kylo Ren in the very next scene with potentially devastating consequences.
That shatters her carefully-maintained view of herself as being on the righteous path. And that carries over all through the second act of The Rise of Skywalker, culminating with her committing a terrible act of violence when confronted with her real shadow, not the false one earlier in the film.
That leads her to making the same mistake Luke made, running away from her failures, not accepting her capacity for violence as part of her.
That brings me to everyone else. Particularly the two male leads, Finn and Poe. Both of them also come face to face with their pasts in ways they are uncomfortable with. Finn’s realization that he’s not unique as a First Order deserter helps him trust his feelings are something more than just instinct.
The same goes for Poe, who has to confront his past to give them a chance against Palpatine. These are men who are profoundly ashamed of who they were trying to make amends. And writers J.J. Abrams and Chris Terrio, rightly give them female counterparts as mirrors to their past.
In Poe’s case, the man he’s become impresses Zorii Bliss enough for her help him and be inspired by him in the end. In Finn’s, Jannah’s mere existence provides him with the courage to state what led him to where he is. That courage allows him to be a real hero, rather than the one who tried to carelessly throw his life away in The Last Jedi.
Even C-3PO’s subplot plays with this idea of identity, with equal parts pathos and humor. For the first time in the entire series, 3PO is a fully-realized character.
By the time the movie’s over, everyone knows who they are, where they come from and what they want.
Family Ties that Bind
But, ultimately, these sub-plots are there to support the main story of Rey and Kylo Ren.
Their relationship is as complicated as any in the Star Wars mythology. And given the structure of the story presented, the inclusion of Palpatine as the main villain makes perfect sense. Since I’m trying to avoid spoilers I won’t discuss them here.
The journey for Kylo Ren in the Rise of Skywalker is coming back to his real identity as Ben Solo. Anyone with an ounce of sense knew this would be his arc in this film. That’s not up for debate and it’s not a spoiler.
The bigger question was how it would be presented and whether it would be believable.
And I can say without any reservation that for all of the minor quibbles I have with The Rise of Skywalker, Ben’s conversion and redemption is most emphatically not one of them.
In fact, every single step of his story is note perfect. And again, any problems I have with the movie in terms of pace or editing are minor compared to getting the essential story right.
Ben is a boy, an out-of-control child with insane power and given no boundaries. I won’t spoil one of the truly moving surprises in the movie, but all I can say is that the call back to The Force Awakens is perfect.
Through this Ben learns just how deeply a parent’s love for their child can be, no matter how many terrible things the child has done or mistakes the parents made.
And the parents in the audience are reminded that it’s a job which never ends.
There are subtleties in these scenes I missed completely on first viewing. J.J. Abrams truly doesn’t believe in having any fat whatsoever in his films. It’s a failure in my opinion because it robs certain scenes of their potential weight.
But when I noticed these details the second time through they spoke volumes.
Not only is Ben’s conversion believable it elevates his act of kindness above that of his grandfather. In the end, Ben is stronger than Darth Vader, strong enough to let go of everything he achieved, give freely of himself to someone else and become worthy of being loved.
Anakin couldn’t let go of Padme and it destroyed him. Ben let’s go of his shadow self and it remakes him.
And none of that would have been possible without Rian Johnson taking Luke Skywalker on a personal journey into the desert for 40 days, folks.
For Star Wars to continue as a modern mythology worthy of its predecessors and its place in popular culture, it’s storytelling has to be willing to challenge the expectations of the fan base who want the safe and comfortable.
But it also has to remain true to the big story of humanity.
To do that it had to tackle the very big problems of how we act towards each other during times of abject crisis and complete chaos. And that’s what this trilogy of films is about because that’s where we are in the cycle of our own cultural breakdown.
These films had to talk to us about how to act during periods where traditional roles break down, families torn apart, and institutions questioned as they are revealed to be inadequate to contain the chaos.
If they didn’t do these things they would truly fail us as Star Wars films. Because Star Wars isn’t empty spectacle. It isn’t easy or trite, even though it paints with very broad strokes.
These are the things all mytho-poetic stories grapple with to one extent or the other. To complain that The Rise of Skywalker didn’t elevate above fairy tale for young adults and ‘become literature‘ as my nemesis Walter Chaw at FilmFreakCentral suggests is 1) to miss the point of fairy tales and 2) over-intellectualized, pretentious twaddle.
Because at its core, literature is simply fairy tale with delusions of grandeur.
And young adult fiction is the most important form of literature, since it speaks directly to those hungry for the blueprint to adulthood and open to a trans formative experience.
I’d say those voicing these complaints are themselves most in need of this reminder.
That’s what the purpose of these stories is, their value to us as people. It is precisely why they are important. Star Wars as modern mythology understands that. It’s what George Lucas aimed for with the original film.
This trilogy of films depict a time where the galaxy is literally in hell.
The image system in this film gets this. The heroes travel through fire to confront Palpatine in a place that is death itself. The last act of the movie is almost devoid of color. It is unrelentingly bluish-gray. What life is there is faceless and without voice other than Palpatine’s. The legions of Sith just chant wordlessly in unison, chillingly.
The heroes are confronted with an evil they can’t hate, but have to absorb and reconcile with. Rey defeats Palpatine by finding her true family and standing tall giving his hatred nowhere to go until it consumes him.
These films are the end of the cycle, breaking down what’s left of the old world: the remnants of the Skywalker family, the Old Republic, the Jedi and the Sith.
Beyond Gender Studies
In times of crisis traditional roles fail. That’s why these films can feel like an indictment of men who should be leading, and a celebration of toxic femininity, even though they most certainly are not.
In these confused and confusing times where everything is being questioned, especially gender roles and even the definition of what gender is, Star Wars, I think bravely, confronts this head on.
The male heroes of this trilogy, Finn, Poe and Ben, are not up to the task at the beginning. They are all boys. Making them boys doesn’t demean them, it gives them room to grow and it comments on what’s wrong with the world they inhabit (and ours).
But those ‘men’ in the fandom that can’t handle being confronted with their own adolescence are the ones most triggered by these movies. They want to grind their grievance against a society actively trying to devalue them, and I get that.
But it’s not Star Wars’ job to have sympathy for them, to validate their complaint.
It’s Star Wars’ job to tell them, sack up and be men. Yup, life isn’t fair. Going to Toshi Station and bitching about “wokeness” isn’t cool, it’s pathetic. Find a better way or fail as men.
Finn, Poe and Ben all do that, they all grow up. Being pushed to the brink is what makes boys into men, girls into women.
It’s not deep but it is.
When viewed dispassionately the trilogy provides blueprints for these three very different types of boys their path to becoming men worthy of a woman’s respect and love, even if they don’t get the girl in the end.
And it’s not by being slaves to empowered feminist superwomen. There isn’t one of those in these movies. Because even Rey can’t overcome Palpatine on her own. When this movie is over, she’s a widow, burying both her past and Ben’s, but finally having a name she can be proud of.
Looking at The Rise of Skywalker that way, Star Wars doesn’t flinch in its defense of traditional gender roles. Competent men and women lead. Great people inspire. Women support those worthy and together confront the unknown as partners.
This is how to overcome chaos and create a better world. If you aren’t up for it, stay in your mom’s basement and eat Fritos.
Star Wars has always known exactly what it is and who it is for. If it isn’t for you anymore than maybe that says more about you than it.
To me each one is a gift. As a father the greatest gift is a Star Wars film my daughter loves.
Disney, so far, is five for five.
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