I’ve come to the conclusion that there is no point asking questions about the plot of The Rise of Skywalker, which sees Our Heroes racing around the galaxy in search of various MacGuffins which will eventually help them tackle the resurrected Emperor Palpatine, who’s assembled a massive secret fighting force on a remote planet.
The film just isn’t interested in considering such pressing procedural questions as, “How did Palpatine hide all those ships?” “When did Sith Lords get the ability to come back to life?” “How did the First Order not notice the traitor in their ranks?” and so on. There are a lot of these questions. The answer to all of them is *shrug*.
No, The Rise of Skywalker is, I think, best read in terms of its emotional content; as an example of what Adam Roberts calls the “visual spectacular”. In this reading, things happen because they make emotional (rather than logical) sense; they fit the meta-narrative that director J.J. Abrams is trying to tell. So: what is that meta-narrative?
I want to start with one of the scenes I found most effective; by which I mean, it damn near made me cry. Towards the end of the film, as Rey faces down the fearsome Emperor Palpatine, the Resistance faces certain destruction at the hands (cannons?) of his mega-army. Someone comes up with a daring plan: what if we just ask for help from everyone in the galaxy? Everyone who hates the First Order? And, at the last minute, the cavalry arrives, a motley fleet of thousands of ships of all kinds and sizes, led by the legendary Lando Calrissian – “That’s not a fleet,” says a First Order officer in wonderment, “That’s just…people.”
Just people. Just ordinary people who have chosen to resist tyranny. This is the sentiment at the heart of The Rise of Skywalker, maybe of all of Star Wars since Episode IV. Here I like Andrew Rilstone’s reading of the film as a place where ordinary people – like Poe’s ex-lover Zorri or the ex-Stormtrooper Jannah – get outsize roles and meaningful character development. And it’s impossible – or, at least, it was impossible, back in December when coronavirus was hardly a blip on the West’s radar and we were all still worried about climate change and American politics and Brexit – not to see in the film’s strong imperial/resistance imagery (filtered through the lens of most current pop culture) metaphors for the rise of the co-opting of the machineries of government by the alt-right; which is to say, it’s impossible to watch The Rise of Skywalker without thinking about Donald Trump. Not just because the imagery is in itself suggestive, but also because everything is about Donald Trump at the moment, meaning a lot of pop culture referencing itself, creating a cultural shorthand that means The Trump Administration. What The Rise of Skywalker is intending to suggest, clumsily, is that this is a time for ordinary people to make extraordinary decisions; to resist, in the small ways that each of us can, the rising tide of intolerance, bigotry and tyranny.
Not just that, though. The Rise of Skywalker is full of ruins – the ruins of the original trilogy, Episodes IV through VI – most notably in a magnificent scene in which we see the Death Star II fallen into a turbulent sea, rotten, dead, yet full of menace. Rey is dwarfed by it, larger in death than it was in life, as she clambers through it in search of some plot coupon or other. She and Kylo Ren, who inevitably turns up to battle her there, are like “squeaking ghosts” (Tolkien) amid this colossal wreck. And there are other fragments of the original films too: Leia herself, played by a Carrie Fisher who was dead before filming began; an aged Lando Calrissian; Luke’s old spaceship, brought up from the depths of another sea. There is in this semi-Gothic abundance of ghosts and ruins and fragments a sort of nostalgia for the (imagined) simplicity of an earlier age. In the original films there were no parents grieving for radicalised sons; no children taken by the empire to be made into soldiers; good and evil were separate, easily distinguished; to return to real-world politics, we were not fighting an enemy within. I don’t want to suggest that The Rise of Skywalker is morally ambiguous; it clearly isn’t. But it is about living in an authoritative regime in a way that the original trilogy isn’t (and the prequel trilogy is). The world of The Rise of Skywalker is weary, the realm of the ordinary, not of heroes.
Which makes the film’s assertion that, contrary to what The Last Jedi had to say, Rey is actually the scion of an important family – Palpatine’s family, no less – puzzling. Or, not puzzling, really, in the way that the various plot inconsistencies are not puzzling; just annoying, and self-contradictory. There are other anti-progressive moves on the part of the writers that are problematic for an anti-Trump reading of the film: the sidelining of Rose Tico, the only woman of colour to have a starring role in the Star Wars universe; the fact that the only significant female character apart from Rey, Leia, gives up her life to redeem her son; the ultimate redemption of Kylo Ren, mass murderer, architect of genocide, radicalised space Nazi in all but name. None of these things speak particularly of standing up to bigotry, more indeed of enabling it.
In fact, let’s talk about Kylo Ren some more. I recognise, intellectually, that Kylo’s redemption, based as it is on saving a single very important life before he dies, is unearned and insufficient to atone for the millions of lives he has canonically ruined. But Adam Driver sells Kylo as conflicted, misguided, ultimately lovable teenager so well; I may also have shed a tear at the film’s climax, when Rey and Kylo get the kiss they’ve been building up to for three films. This is, though, of a piece with The Rise of Skywalker‘s feelgood, ill-examined liberalism: ordinary people are important, thus we must give the benefit of the doubt to all people, even if they are mass murdering space Nazis (who are “ordinary” by dint of really being confused teenagers, and isn’t everyone confused and misguided and hurt some of the time? Yes, J.J., but most people don’t turn into white supremacists).
While I enjoyed The Rise of Skywalker, I wouldn’t say it’s a good film. There are great ideas, but most of them don’t go anywhere much. The writing is lazy, depending on a general cultural shorthand to generate much of its affect, which means that the conclusions the narrative comes to are muddled and contradictory. I can’t really see myself watching it again, is what I’m trying to say.