Embracing the Mess
An interesting criticism of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019) is that it’s ‘fan service’.
I wasn’t aware that fans desired plot holes, shallow characterisations, contrived narrative, an incomprehensible edit, and the return of a villain long dead. They were never on my wish list. I don’t think they were on anybody’s.
The Rise of Skywalker isn’t fan service. It’s damage control. It’s Disney backtracking from what they’ve given us and trying to find the Star Wars in their Star Wars.
And they accomplish that in the tiniest and briefest ways.
The Rise of Skywalker puts the trio of main characters in an adventure together. It gives Rey an iota of humanity. It respects its legacy. These things exist fleetingly, which is a sizeable improvement over its predecessors. Unfortunately, they occur about six hours too late into this trilogy.
The moment The Force Awakens (2015) launched, the Sequel Trilogy was doomed because all Episode VII did was rehash the Original Trilogy. Did we really need another antagonist doubting their commitment to the Dark Side? Did we need another incarnation of the Death Star? Did we need a watered down version of the Empire? And I’ve gone on about the characters. But this is exactly what director JJ Abrams did when he rebooted Star Trek – imitation rather than creation.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017) destroyed the fledgling trilogy’s shitty foundation and built nothing, yet some people still defend it. I don’t get why. Critics claimed it represents Star Wars as grown up and hardcore fans didn’t like that. How? How exactly does this story do that? By subverting our expectations of who Luke would be? Because Rey’s identity is passed off as her being nobody?
The mischaracterisation of Luke has been widely condemned – even by Mark Hamill himself. This is not to say Luke couldn’t have been in a bad place, but given our foreknowledge of the character it needed greater investment than a handful of throwaway lines.
And Rey being nobody? So what?
One of the criticisms of the Prequel and Original Trilogy is everybody’s related. The Prequels tell the story of Anakin Skywalker. The Original Trilogy is the story of his son, Luke Skywalker. What a shock that they’re related. That would be like criticising Prince Charles for being next in the line to the English throne.
The only stretch in the Original Trilogy is that Leia is revealed as Luke’s brother. But that’s not there to further the familial connection. When Darth Vader is failing to turn Luke to the Dark Side in Return of the Jedi (1983), George Lucas felt Luke needed greater motivation to lose his shit and be tempted – enter the possibility that his sister might be turned. Darth Vader teases Luke with this. Luke grows enraged.
Rey being nobody just means some random somehow flukes her way not only into the story, but every necessary connection to ensure that the story happens, e.g. meeting BB8, meeting Finn, finding the Millennium Falcon, meeting Han Solo, Luke’s lightsabre calling to her, etc.
The representation of Luke Skywalker (or ‘Jake Skywalker’, as Mark Hamill calls him) and Rey’s identity have generated an unwarranted mystique which leads people into believing The Last Jedi is doing something daring, when in fact it’s pedestrian and implausible.
Look at the rest of the story, for example:
- the First Order fleet chase the remnants of the Resistance fleet, which mirrors the Imperials pursuing the Millennium Falcon in The Empire Strikes Back (1980).
In that story, the Millennium Falcon can’t make the jump to light speed – a mechanical difficulty that is an extrapolation of the ship being a ‘hunk of junk’.
In The Last Jedi, the Resistance can’t jump to light speed because:
- they have only enough fuel remaining for one more jump, and
- the First Order can track them through hyperspace.
Rian Johnson has to invent two new premises (fuel consumption, and hyperspace tracking) to perpetuate this stupidity.
Why don’t the Resistance split up? If Finn and Rose can take a little ship undetected and jump out of there, why don’t the others? Why doesn’t the Resistance leap to the allies they signal at the end of the story and lure the First Order into a trap? Why don’t the First Order jump their fleet in front of the Resistance?
In actual fact, the fuel’s irrelevant if the First Order can track them through hyperspace. It then doesn’t matter how many times the Resistance jump because the First Order can always track them, so why introduce the cost of fuel? It’s likelier there so the ships can be cornered.
One final point: the invention of this tech means that Resistance ships can now always be tracked in stories in this universe (unless they invent tech to scramble the tracker – you see how dumb this is getting?).
- While being pursued by the First Order, Finn and Rose are able to go off on a side mission to find a master hacker. They fail, and are thrown in prison … with another master hacker. Well, that’s fortunate. He breaks them out and BB8 incapacitates their pursuers by firing coins at them. Where he got all these coins and then where he fit them all is anybody’s guess.
- Poe has to learn maturity, because his superior won’t tell him – or anybody else – their plan for retreat. Then, instead of recognising he’s becoming belligerent and confining him, she leaves him free to wander so he can organise a mutiny.
- Rey confronts Kylo, incapacitates him, and then decides to leave the antagonist alive. At least I can excuse Obi Wan doing this to Anakin in The Revenge of the Sith; Anakin is limbless and burning and doesn’t seem long for this galaxy. Rey has the chance to end the conflict. She doesn’t.
- The Resistance take refuge in a deserted base. The First Order decide to launch a ground assault, when they could just blow the crap out of the mountain that holds the base. Also, Finn and Rose don’t know anything about this base, but just happen to make it there as the doors are sliding close. Phew. That was a lucky break!
- Kids with brooms now have the Force. Um, okay. So it’s no longer a potential you need to learn to master. Now people just have it and can do it.
- The Resistance have rings that identify who they are to one another. I’m sure the enemy will never learn about those!
This is not mature storytelling. This is not Star Wars growing up. This is unmotivated, contrived, dumb plotting.
The continuity is awful, too. I don’t know how characters get from Point A to Point B. An example is when Captain Phasma is about to have Finn and Rose executed in the hangar Vice Admiral Holdo rams the First Order fleet. When we return to Finn and Rose, the hangar is on fire. Now Phasma and her legion are on the other side of the hangar in perfect formation. Then BB8 is somehow inside an AT-ST Walker and organises a rescue. Then Rose is in it. Then Finn is in it. I understand the audience can fill in these details for themselves when the answer is implied, e.g. if it ‘s a vehicle at ground level the entry is self-evident. But the AT-ST is like thirty feet high in a hangar that’s burning. How did anybody get up there?
To top it off, writer/director Rian Johnson decides to kill the antagonist (Snoke), a supporting antagonist (Phasma), and a supporting protagonist (Luke Skywalker).
How much did that change what was meant to come? I actually think … not very much. I’m guessing if Snoke remained alive, he would’ve taken Palpatine’s place in The Rise of Skywalker. In The Force Awakens, Snoke is only seen as a hologram, so he’s operating from somewhere else. I’m guessing it was always going to be from the Sith homeworld, until Rian Johnson employed Snoke in the flesh, then lopped him off.
The biggest problem is the Sequel Trilogy really has no idea what it’s about. Although the Prequels get off to a murky start, the story is meant to be about the rise and fall of Anakin Skywalker. The Original Trilogy is about Luke Skywalker’s rise to become a Jedi knight and his battle against the Empire. And the Sequels?
It’s not actually about Rey. She’s an adjunct to what’s going on. It’s not about her discovering her identity, because that has no bearing on events. She could’ve been anybody – or nobody – and it doesn’t impact events. Compare that to the Original Trilogy: only Luke can redeem Anakin. Darth Vader wouldn’t have listened to the appeal of anybody but his progeny. Rey could be the fifth Beatle and it wouldn’t matter.
The Sequel Trilogy is actually about the fall and redemption of Ben Solo. He’s the only character who genuinely has any growth. Rey doesn’t change. Poe doesn’t change. Finn changes a little, embracing his role in the Resistance. There’s no reason he changes. It’s just that the writers realised he couldn’t be the scared deserter yet again.
The thing I don’t get is why do these stories shy away from the antagonist’s embrace of the Dark Side?
The Prequels did it also. Anakin doesn’t change to the Dark Side because power corrupts him – which is what it should’ve been about. He changes because he fears he’ll lose Amidala, and Palpatine teases that the Dark Side offers abilities that could save her. The story hints at politics and perspective but doesn’t explore them in depth. (Apparently, the novelisation does this much better.)
Surely the best route would’ve been that Anakin’s love of power corrupts him. It would seem a legitimate concern if you have a power like the Force. Where does that power end? I would’ve preferred the Jedi prohibited all superfluous use of the Force – like Obi Wan levitating a mapping device back to his hand in Attack of the Clones (2002) – because the fear is use and familiarity of power would encourage largesse, and then the desire of more power.
Why did Kylo Ren need to be redeemed? He has no genuine motivation. He just does it because the story wants to echo the beats from the Original Trilogy. Obviously, they try to force motivation on us – Rey saving him, his inexplicable link to her, and … well, that’s about it.
One of my criticisms of Star Wars is that the universe largely looks the same, regardless of who’s in power. We’ve now had eleven movies and one television series, and has anything looked different in any of them? The Empire, and then the First Order, is feared, but why? There are the grand statements, like the Death Star blowing up Alderaan, and the Starkiller Base blowing up whatever planets it does. But it would’ve been good to see a shift in how everyday life functions so we can see a demarcation between the Republic and the bad guys.
As far as The Rise of Skywalker goes, I would’ve loved if it embraced the mess The Last Jedi had left, rather than attempt and fail at reversion.
For example, they should’ve fast-forwarded five years. The First Order should’ve grown to reign supreme. Kylo Ren should’ve matured into a formidable Sith Lord with multiple apprentices (brooking the traditional Sith ways). The First Order should’ve pursued the remnants of the Resistance, trying to eliminate them for good. They could perform spot searches and interrogate anybody and everybody to uncover leads, and publicly execute sympathisers (those rings would look pretty stupid now). Darkness and tyranny could’ve fallen over the galaxy. Rey should’ve fallen to the Dark Side, and Finn – who was developed as her genuine friend in The Force Awakens, and which was touched upon in The Last Jedi – should’ve redeemed her.
And in stopping Kylo, it wouldn’t have been about redeeming him but killing him as the Big Bad, and liberating the galaxy from the First Order’s stranglehold.
But, then again, why do anything remotely original?