(Caveat — this essay will be full of spoilers, so please don’t read this until you have also been disappointed by this movie. I’m not a Star Wars devotee, I’ve never read a novelisation other than the old Splinter in the Mind’s Eye, have no idea what Clone Wars is and have not seen a single episode of The Mandolorian.)
Star Wars — the Rise of Skywalker is a disappointment. The previous two movies in the final trilogy, with their first female lead, first lead black character, first lead asian female character and the stories that were crafted around them showed promise. The indication that the Force was there for any ‘nobody’, even a young stableboy, were all very good moves in the right direction. The Last Jedi was about rebellion in the face of impossible odds, where there was still hope at the core. These movies are artefacts of a culture reflecting the rise of the far right across the world, as well for the first time actually in power in the US, UK and other European states, challenging those postions as well as the patriarchy and privelege that dominates our culture. And if you think that is quite a statement to make about what are for all intentional purposes commercial movies rather than ‘art’, just remember the opprobrium they received and where that came from.
This final film however has no story to tell. Its only message is consumerism, devoid of any heroic mythology, of any heart warming enthusiasm, in fact devoid of hope, as all the hope we saw raised by the earlier movies is dashed on the throne of the Sith Lord himself, JJ Abrams. To carry that metaphor further, the unseen baying crowds of Sith in the arena scene — were they Disney board members and shareholders?
I’m not going to write a summary of the plot, simply because there isn’t one. The movie doesn’t function as a narrative in the traditional sense, having no actual beginning middle or end and having no discernible point or direction of travel. We are actually warned of this by Abrams himself in the implausible hyper-skip scene, where Poe jumps the Millennium Falcon from one pointless, disjointed and unconnected place and backdrop to another.
Throughout the movie there are scenes that seem to have been created purely for the trailer, as they have no place in the story at all and make no logical sense. One is the scene between Rey and the TIE fighter in the desert. It’s so pointless, it’s as if she wanders off just because now is the time for that scene to be done. Coming off that scene is the ridiculous ‘truck-switch’ lifted from Raiders, where it seems the only people who don’t know Chewie is not dead are the characters who have never seen that movie. The other such scene is the ‘evil Rey’ with the ‘swiss army lightsaber’ which literally is no more than ten seconds, has no function in the plot, is completely unexplained and not referenced again. It references the scene in Empire where Luke faces the Dark Side as a part of his training. But compare those two scenes and the way they are handled.
Finn’s character, his unrequited love for Rey, hero worship of Poe and being the object of Rose’s crush — is relegated to a Hollywood black character trope, hearkening back in some way to the very era the Star Wars movies were made to invoke. He is literally parcelled off to lead the ‘Black Folks’, even presented with a new black female potential love interest. It’s actually like he’s been segregated away from the white members of the rebellion. A whole other article and study could be done on this, but to be frank I’m not in any way qualified to write it. His plotline is literally killed off in the third act, with no conclusion or resolution. Finn still loves Rey but this is going literally nowhere. Twice, facing imminent death, he is about to tell her how he feels but doesn’t, and this is relegated to some sort of running joke in the exchanges with Poe. I was half expecting a repeat of the princess/pirate conversation in Episode IV… but I’d be reluctant to write what would be there instead of pirate. And there is no closure, it’s totally left up in the air or just ignored, like pages of the script were just arbitrarily torn out — if they even ever existed.
The script and direction around the Poe / Finn relationship is just awful, the characters babbling over each other, there being no sign of any relationship between them, no mutual support or rivalry, in fact no development at all. The only reference to what has gone before is Finn still wearing Poe’s jacket. Poe is written almost for comedy relief it seems, and has no function in the story.
Rose is no more than a cameo, all the interplay between her and the other characters, as well as her delightful and refreshing character, gone. She is relegated to exposition and technobabble, and in some respects is even unrecognisable.
In The Last Jedi, the link between Rey and Kylo Ren is fascinating, and leads into all kinds of interesting questions that could have been expanded on, but in this film it is no more than a plot device and all subtlety is lost.
Then there is the ending that doesn’t end anything. Chewie gets the medal he didn’t get in Episode IV (handed to him, no ceremony, no parade), there is a token gay kiss (so token that you could miss it if you blinked and could be nothing more than an over-amorous mother), no resolution between the characters at all, no explanation of how the events have made the characters feel. Rey buggers off to Tatooine for absolutely no reason, buries Luke and Leia’s lightsabers and in the middle of literally nowhere has a random encounter with an old lady to whom she introduces herself as Rey Skywalker.
The ending, which should have paid off and completed all the previous arcs did nothing of the sort. Compare this for example to the first and second ending to The Return of the King. We have no idea what happens next, how the characters have been affected by events, no resolution. We have no idea even whether Rey will live out her days as a moisture farmer on Tatooine, or hermit-like as Ben Kenobi, or even why she went there in the first place. All the characters at this point are left in the air and directionless. What was the point of the rebellion? Why were Poe and Finn even fighting in the first place?
But why have I stated that Rey is now no more than the latest Disney Princess? The technical definition of the Disney Princess, for marketing and franchise purposes, runs along the lines that to qualify for the line-up the character has to be an actual princess, and feature as the central character in her own animated movie. Elsa isn’t a princess because she is an actual queen. (Note that Moana was also inducted into the line-up, but was the only one who didn’t have an actual real-life coronation when this was done.) Typically the plot of a princess movie, most of them based on the original fairy tales anyway, is that the disowned, disinherited beautiful princess, hidden away or living in poverty is restored to her rightful status and throne usually via the intervention of a prince or male hero.
In Rise of Skywalker, Abrams makes Rey an actual princess, being taken away from the evil grandfather Emperor into the wilderness the to keep her safe. Instead of Rey and Ben fighting side-by-side as equals, they did so spectacularly before, he rescues her not once but twice. When the Princess Rey (again, pointlessly and inexplicably) drops dead after defeating the Emperor, Ben comes in to raise her from the dead by sacrificing his own life. Rey has no agency, having taking the step to do whatever it takes to defeat her grandfather, even here her choice has been taken away by the rescuing prince. And let’s also not forget that the redeemed Ben is also an actual prince, being the only surviving member of the Organa royal family of Alderaan after the death of his mother, Princess Leia. In this way, does the whole saga amount to nothing more than a dynastic struggle between royalty, as the commoners and plebs fight pointlessly in the skies above? The Force as something accessible for all, even the young stable boy, is also once again relegated to the bloodline midichlorians.
It seems that the only things preventing Rey from joining the Princess franchise then are that she was in a live action film and her prince died, leaving her alone at the end of the film rather than ‘living happily ever after’. Perhaps the death of Ben after their first kiss was seen by the writers as a clever reversal of roles — but unfortunately it falls completely flat, as the death in the first instance was never explained, and Rey is prevented from immediately raising ben to life again by his ‘transcending’- a sign that he has been redeemed in the eyes of the Force.
I did say above that the previous two movies reflected the times they were produced in, and undoubtedly this one does too. But instead of seeing an inspirational tale of hope and popular resistance, of heroism, diversity, friendship and family, we got privilege, aristocratic status, patriarchy and yes, it was White with a capital W. When the ‘people’ arrived in their armada to defeat the (utterly ridiculous) star destroyer fleet, all we see is a bunch of ships. Not even a montage of who or what was flying them. Faceless and voiceless, these weren’t people, they were props, or pawns on the board who would all die needlessly unless the Emperor himself is destroyed by the only people who matter. And yikes, another plot hole. The presence of the rebel fleet at the end is completely pointless. All it needed was Rey to kill the Emperor, and all the imperial fleet fall out of the sky — everywhere across the galaxy.
I suppose the message here could be that really it doesn’t matter what the little people do, that we will always have the super-rich, entitled, hereditary billionaires who have the only right and position to rule over us. We get Trump and Johnson and other right wing leaders because this is the way things are, as the little voiceless people on the ships, it doesn’t matter a damn whether we get shot down in flames or successfully hit the target with our X-wing. But in reality of course it’s the little people who get sent off to fight and die in pointless wars whilst the ‘leaders’ fight from their gilded thrones.
The patriarchy can rest easy, as Prince Ben is redeemed in his rescue and ultimate sacrifice in the rescue of the unruly princess, who happily accepts a hermit’s exile as punishment for challenging the establishment.