The Rise of Skywalker: Memorabilia without Memory, a Misunderstanding of Hope

Note: this contains basically all the spoilers

It’s impossible to talk about The Rise of Skywalker without addressing the huge, hateful backlash to The Last Jedi and to a lesser extent, The Force Awakens.

The endless, painful conversations about how Rey is a Mary Sue, how she must be related to powerful legendary Jedi, how Rose Tico is a terrible character, how Luke’s character was ruined because he’s not a superhero, etcetc, have all been rattling around the internet, along with aggressive harassment campaigns that hounded both Daisy Ridley and Kelly Marie Tran from social media. It is hard not to see Rise as responding to, even pandering to those specific voices within fandom.

Many have framed this as a sort of “impossible situation”, that the film had to somehow please both the new fans brought in by The Last Jedi and also the older fans of the series that hated it, but this treats the actions, criticisms and the desires of the fans as equivalent and equal. That those who oozed misogyny and racism in their reviews and their harassment campaigns are somehow the same as everyone else.

Which brings me to how Rose Tico has been conspicuously absent from the merchandise and the promotional material. Within the film itself, we see Rose being not just excluded from the main fetch quest of the story and given no subplot of her own (in a film just bursting with pointless digressions), she is written out of the emotional lives of the “core” group of Finn, Poe and Rey. There is no acknowledgement of the bonds she forged with Finn and Poe in The Last Jedi. Finn doesn’t even list her a friend when he talks about the people he cares about.

The list of “corrections” do not end there, of course, as the film positions possible heterosexual love interests near two of their leading men (the queerbaiting has been disgraceful) and even brings Luke Skywalker back to apologise for his actions in The Last Jedi and blandly dismiss them as simply him being overwhelmed by fear, gutting his own character’s complexity. It treats Luke’s submerged X-wing as an unfired Chekov’s gun instead a potent symbol of the choices he has made and the past he left behind.

The central plot of Rise concerns Rey’s parentage which was very satisfyingly resolved in The Last Jedi. They were no one in particular, not great heroes nor villains. Along with the rest of the film, this formed a central thesis of how the Force belongs to all of us and not any specific bloodline. That this isn’t a story about birthright. Larger fandom and critics, including myself, have written extensively about they found hope in this message.

I saw Rey as a metaphor of my own imposter syndrome at a time when I needed it the most, when I felt acutely aware of how I myself was laying claim to a tradition that I had simply no right to by blood and birth.

The only people who were still asking the question of who Rey’s parents really were are those who were convinced that great power could only come from magical blood. They were convinced that she had to be from some great bloodline, that she could not be interesting and worthy of her story being told in and of herself.

Magical lineages are hardly without baggage in fantasy fiction. They are fundamentally inseparable from the rhetoric of eugenics and racial purity. Which isn’t to say that every single story to ever deal with inherited power or magical blood is bad, but when the previous film has not only made a point of refuting it as an idea but has been been widely celebrated for doing so, then to retcon that it cannot be a neutral choice.

But more than that, to reveal that Rey is Palpatine’s grand daughter denies her a satisfying resolution to all the emotional beats of her character and makes her a puppet in Palpatine’s ridiculous, inscrutable plans.

After two films, her arc is positioned to be one of dealing with her abandonment issues, of coming to terms with how poorly her parents have treated her and to try to let go of that and build new relationships. We have seen in her flashes of unbridled rage that hint at dark side temptations. She has lived a solitary, lonely life on a desert planet and we don’t know how she’d take to all the attention that comes from being the new hope of the Resistance.

All this is destroyed with the reveal that her parents are secretly good people who were only trying to protect her. The narrative is no longer about her overcoming and resolving those feelings as those feelings are revealed to be a lie. Her capacity for anger is now not something she struggles with because of her life experiences or her character, of injustices that she has been witness to or guilt she may feel; they are because of her blood.

Even her compassion, her connection to Kylo Ren is framed not as a complex bond forged from recognising a kindred spirit in the loneliness of the galaxy. It isn’t born of shared vulnerabilities. It is now explicitly the result of her magical blood: she is descended from Palpatine and him from Anakin that they are thus a “force dyad”.

If anything, it turns the idea that Rey is important because she is loved on its head. It becomes a clue in the endlessly unfolding mystery boxes of misdirection. The fact that Rey is loved is reframed as evidence for greater cosmic importance. The Great Kylo Ren wouldn’t have been so obsessed with her if she had been “nothing”, therefore she must be “someone”.

As a reveal, this isn’t simply a change to her origins as it is a revelation that is core to the film’s plot. Unlike the reveal of Vader being Luke’s father, this doesn’t challenge her neat ideas of good and evil like they did Luke. It isn’t an uncomfortable truth. It doesn’t upend her quest for revenge against the man who killed her father like it did Luke’s, a quest he presumably undertakes because he feels a kinship to his lost, idealised father (a reminder that even in A New Hope, farm boy Luke learns his father was a Jedi knight and he gains his Father's Sword) was was trying to live up to a legacy and the reveal about Vader is a realisation that the legacy isn’t what he thought it was. If he was truly trying to be like his father, then surely he needs to be like Vader? And since he doesn’t, he needs to examine why. It hurts because it upends what Luke sees as his place within the world. That all works very well.

Rey being related to Palpatine, however, simply doesn’t do any of this. It isn’t a painful truth that upends beautiful illusions or an overly neat world view of good and evil. If anything, it returns to her a simpler one, that certainty that she has felt about her parentage being the missing piece she needed to “solve” her own life. It strips her of all agency or even emotional catharsis within the plot that she is allegedly central to. The belonging she seeks turns to have indeed been behind her all along. She doesn’t need to move on from the comforting excuses she has been making for them, she gets to cling on to the idea that they were good people despite the very tangible neglect and abandonment she has suffered.

And yet also none of this because her parentage is told to us like an expository checklist.

Palpatine now pulls all the strings and orchestrates it all, and the puppets are denied even half a scene to reflect upon how they might feel in being part of this.

The Rise of Skywalker is built, even structured around sequences and scenes, props and places from the original trilogy. Much like archetype of the trivia-obsessed “fan”, its approach is one of sterile cataloguing. These things are not loved because they mean things within the narrative, they aren’t loved for the symbolism they hold in their specific moments within the story or what the reveal about character, but they are loved as fetishised object to be owned and labelled. The is memorabilia without memory.

As such, each of the sequences and scenes, props and places are recreated with barely a shred of meaning beyond recognition and perhaps some semblance of nostalgia. But the film itself does not seek to create meaning of these pieces. It doesn’t try to breathe new context or tap into what these props, places, titles, etc may mean to the characters themselves.

Remember how in JJ Abram’s Into Darkness, there is a dramatic pause for when Benedict Cumberbatch reveals his name to be Khan, a name that means nothing to any of the characters present with him in that room? It is a name that has not been established in any way as significant within the film itself to the audience. As a reveal, its only possible resonance is to those who recognise the name from the previous films. It is an appeal wholly to nostalgia and nothing else within the established language or lore of the narrative.

In contrast, we have a moment in The Last Jedi where Luke sees the old hologram of Leia telling Obi-Wan that he is her only hope. It doesn’t just exist as an indulgence of nostalgia and recognition for the audience, it underscores the narrative parallels between Obi-Wan and Luke, how both have become lone hermits and more importantly, it means something for the character of Luke himself. He is remembering how his younger self felt when he first saw that hologram and how it had led to him on this grand life-changing adventure. He is remembering all the feelings he had and has for his sister, how he has tried to save her, how he has failed her.

Rise is replete with moments that are firmly the former and not the latter. And in repurposing these pieces of other stories, it turns them into junk. It strips those pieces of meaning and nuance and feeling, expecting you to love it simply because it is recognisable.

Take Rey’s claim to the Skywalker name.

“Skywalker” isn’t a name that is established to hold meaning to Rey. She studied under Luke, but has, at best, a strained relationship with him. She studied under Leia, who she is hardly shown to be very close to (constraints of repurposed footage), and Leia never took the Skywalker name as her own. Leia relationship with Vader and the Skywalker legacy has always been framed as fraught one (what with having been on the opposite sides of that war). Beyond that, she isn’t shown to have any meaningful relationship with Anakin or even Shimi, though she does know of Vader’s legendary redemption.

So when she tells a stranger that her name is Rey Skywalker, the only established resonance is what the Skywalker name means to the audience. That we have been following the Skywalkers as a “family saga” of sorts and as such, the name is significant to us. But even then, unlike many other Families within popular media, there has never really been an attempt to define what being a Skywalker means to any of the individuals within it. Everyone knows that a Lannister always pays their debts, or that only a Borgia can truly love a Borgia. These families and their names are significant not just because they are central to these big sweeping narratives, but also because their stories have given them an identity. If a character in any of those stories were to claim to be a Lannister or a Borgia, there is immediately introduced the question of how well the embody the values and ideals of that family.

Rey has none of that. Are the onlooking force ghosts of Luke and Leia meant to imply that they have adopted her in the afterlife? Have they given her the belonging that she has spent so long yearning for? And if so, why haven’t we seen that scene?

There is simply no inkling of what being a Skywalker means to her, why she would be given it or why she would seek to claim it.

And we can do this for just about every shot, every object, every sequence that the Rise of Skywalker repurposes like it were detritus, loosely glued together with a narrative that it can barely bring itself to care about. It is possible to find joy in this senseless regurgitation of objects, but it would be a joy that you as an audience bring to the film, an echo of your own fond memories from previous films.

Porgs blink gormlessly at the screen and Ewoks make another cameo. Lando and Chewie both have significant screen time and yet somehow neither have any character development or meaningful arc. The Millenium Falcon flies quickly. Iconic catchphrases are muttered. Leia’s own never-before-seen lightsaber comes and goes as though it were nothing but an interesting prop, something to add to your collection.

It isn’t that references or even answering joke-y “plot holes” are all bad. Star Wars has very successfully found ways to fill old “fan questions” with actual thematic depth. The very flawed Rogue One answers the pedant’s question of why the Death Star has a convenient weak spot that can be easily targeted by the Rebels. But its answer isn’t one of logic and logistics. It seeks to make the flaw in the Death Star’s design a symbol of those who are not able to openly resist the Empire but are secretly undermining it nonetheless. An idea that feeds into Rogue One’s larger themes of the cost of hope and how behind the heroism of one lone individual are the sacrifices and labour of numerous others.

But when Maz gives Chewie that medal that everyone has been complaining about him not getting since the first film, this isn’t a culmination of an character arc that he’s been going through. Not only has he never once complained about not getting a medal, it also isn’t part a larger plot about how Chewie feels undervalued as member of the team or the Resistance. There is no catharsis because it has been given no meaning throughout the film. It’s just there. Just one more empty reference.

There is a call to arms in The Last Jedi that goes unanswered by an apathetic galaxy. It is part of the film’s parable about failure, about how to cling on to hope in dark times, about how we win not just by lashing out at those we hate, but saving those that we love. The film was full of these beautifully wise, beautifully phrased sentiments that were baked into its story. They are sentiments that I have returned to time and again in the bleak three years since I first heard them. They were timely, to say the least.

The Rise of Skywalker repeats this hopeless, desperate call to arms, but gives it a superficial happy ending as numerous explicitly civilian ships[1] show up to help fight a literal planet-destroying army. The refrain is that the opposition win by making you feel alone when you aren’t. A resonant enough sentiment, but the film has done little to earn it. The convoluted fetch quests that make up the bulk of film aren’t about connecting with lapsed resistance cells or building up a larger community. They don’t spend their time trying to inspire others or even subvert the influence of their enemy. When seeing injustice, the characters don’t put aside their Very Important quest to go help.

Within the film’s narrative, the Resistance have done nothing to reach out and nurture their spark of hope. We don’t see why people show up, we don’t see what has given them hope and pulled them from the grip of apathy. We don’t see what finally made them rise up. The film and the characters within have been wholly focused on the search for Palpatine and his secret lair.

Poe Dameron even unlearns everything he did in The Last Jedi about responsible leadership and rushing headlong into danger. He is again the reckless flyboy and moves not an inch forward in his characterisation beyond briefly being motivated by his lost his love interest.

Finn spent The Last Jedi going from running away from the fight to running towards it. He accidentally fell in with the Resistance in the first film and he spends the second coming around the to cause itself. Rose’s passion inspires him. He responds to the ugly inequality that he sees and by the end, he’s willing to call himself a rebel. It feels only natural that the third film should build on all this, that this is where he comes into his own as leader, that having been inspired, he would inspire now. Perhaps he would go back and find the children kidnapped by the First Order and made into stormtroopers. But there is none of that. He is confirmed as Force sensitive and that is that.

This all doesn’t just feel cheap, it feels like an attempt to retcon the very message of The Last Jedi. As though it’s saying, to obsessively and narcissistically focus on tearing down your enemies is very much enough. More is not needed.

There was a very understandable resistance to the idea, introduced in The Phantom Menace, that the Force is something that can be measured objectively. That there should remain a mysticism, a religious aspect to the Force and its balancing is central to Star Wars.

The Last Jedi showed the Force as the connections that exists between all things living and death. It explains the Force as more than being about than just lifting rocks, more than just feats of magic. The film shows the many ways that the characters are each connected to the world around them, how observations of that world, a compassion for it can save them, such as the crystal foxes that the Resistance follow out of the cave or the fathir that Rose and Finn ride through Canto Bight.

The Rise of Skywalker takes a rather different approach to the Force as Finn and Jannah both cite it as the reason for defecting. Jannah even says that it wasn’t a decision that she made, that it just happened. It feels like a desire to take any agency or moral complexity from their decision. The Force is framed more as a meddling imposition rather than something that dawns upon you as you are inspired and perceive the connections within the galaxy[2].

Rey meditates to connect herself to all the dead Jedi who have ever lived. Thus meditation isn’t a stepping away from the self and feeling the connections to a wider galaxy, meditation is about plugging yourself into a legacy of super powered special people who would grant you use of their accumulated super powers. It reduces the Force to the metaphorical lifting of rocks, which Rey also does in this film to no particular purpose. It becomes this cool visualisation of how she has come into her powers rather than anything more.

The very idea that a connection to the Force is about a connection to all the dead Jedi rather than everyone and everything else in the world further reinforces the idea of Jedi being above every one, apart and special. It further erodes any sense of agency within Rey as she acts seemingly more as their vessel rather than something that she chooses or has a complex relationship with.

The Last Jedi was celebrated for questioning the legacy of the Jedi as wholly and unquestionably good. Luke and Yoda discuss failure and the end of their order. Kylo Ren wishes to kill the past and for all that Rey salvages the sacred texts, they are also said to be but mediocre manuals. It harkens back to all the ways that the prequel trilogy showed the Jedi Order as corrupt and failing. There a real sense of legacy being something vast and complex, something that one doesn’t simply wholly accept. It was relatable to many of us who struggle with imperfect traditions and cultures, creating new interpretations, finding bits that we want to celebrate and reject.

This nuanced understanding of tradition and legacy is dismissed by Rise. Every step of its tortuously long fetch quest has been mapped out by their predecessors. The ancient texts do have all the secrets and more importantly, the triumphant moment doesn’t come with new understanding or a celebration of new connections, but a cacophony of dead Jedi in Rey’s head. Even ones who have never spoken to her before, that she has no real emotional connection to and only mean anything to audience, they all show up to “help”.

Rise cobbles together a “performance” from leftover footage of Carrie Fisher[3] from The Force Awakens to tell the end of Leia’s story, but the seams are painfully obvious. The lines she speaks feel nonsensical and strained. Instead of offering a loving tribute to a beloved star who has passed away and mourning with the audience, it feels disconnected. As a performance, it simply cannot have humanity and nuance and meaning, because all these lines have been clearly taken out of context and badly stitched together. Instead of a celebration of what a legendarily good actor she is, of all the charisma, brilliance and even line-rewrites she brought to the role, this feels like an insult. It implies that she is nothing more than a recognisable face who speaks lines.

More than that, though Leia’s story becomes all about sacrificing herself to bring her son back from the dark side. Something that is repeatedly explained to us by other characters because she isn’t here to tell us herself. It’s subsumes her story into Kylo’s without the catharsis of him actually getting to work through any of the betrayal or bitterness he may still feel from his childhood. Unconditional maternal love brings him back, but in the bluntest, most simplistic of ways that undercuts whatever other themes are at work.

Leia appears to Kylo Ren during what can only be described a sexually-charged duel between him and Rey. The two of them are drenched in water and the symbolism is about their tempestuous passions. To write Leia into that scene feels like a fundamental misunderstanding of the duel and whatever antagonistic sexual tension that he and Rey share. He’s not about to kill her, he wasn’t even the one who first drew his sword. It simply isn’t a moment where he’s about to do a Dark Side thing that she needs to call him back from.

And so Leia herself just becomes one more in the long line of symbols Rise uses without any comprehension of what she might mean.

This use of iconography and aesthetics without meaning fundamentally erodes them, rendering them so many pretty colours.

We retell old stories and breathe new life into tropes not because they are familiar, but to create new meaning. Stories have this wonderful capacity to inspire us, to show us humanity, to connect us and the symbols within them are not just there to be recognised, something cool that we remember loving from our childhood. They have value, they are anchored with memories, with meaning.

Worse than the empty calories of nostalgia, are the additions that feel simply incoherent and bring with them deeply uncomfortable subtext. It is also important to note much a central them could have brought these disparate threads together. A central theme would give the uncomfortable corrections or continuity changes some semblance of purpose.

After all, like any longstanding storytelling tradition both ancient and new, Star Wars is very malleable, but the point of that malleability is to shape it around big ideas. Even the “good” Star Wars movies have changed things, after all.

The question isn’t about the film disrespecting a canon that has been in stone, but the every present question of “why this?”

Why are we checking in with ewoks when they seems to have been completely uninvolved in this new fight against Palpatine? Why is Lando asking Jannah who her family is out of the blue? Are we down yet another rabbit hole of every female character needing to be some established character’s daughter/ex-girlfriend/etc? Why was that planet we were on for a handful of scenes destroyed? Isn’t it remarkably convenient that it’s destroyed after it has fulfilled its narrative purpose of being a place the characters went to, thus not derailing their plans? Why is Maz even here when last we saw she was embroiled in guild business?

Should there perhaps have been a strong throughline around bringing together and creating compromise between different resistance factions with wildly diverse backstories and motivations, then the additions of Jannah and Zorii would feel less like positioning potential female love interests near their popular queer ship of Finn and Poe[4]. Should there have been this overarching theme of redemption and confronting past sins for all characters, then perhaps Poe’s sudden change in backstory from having always been an ace pilot for the New Republic to a “spice runner” (ie. drug smuggler) would seem less like a lapse into awful stereotypes about Latinx people.

And I stress that many of these decisions wouldn’t necessarily become good with the addition of a central theme, but at least the question of “why this?” wouldn’t always bring up deeply uncomfortable or painfully shallow answers.

Despite an attempt to inspire hope, there is a real bleakness to Rise.

Kylo Ren has been always been positioned a mirror to Vader. His possible “redemption” has been exhaustively discussed and debated, and still undoubtedly remains divisive. But it is hard to dispute that in a film where death is rendered almost meaningless with numerous fake outs (Chewie, Zorii Bliss, C3PO gets memory wiped, even Kylo himself after being stabbed the first time), seeing him die feels empty. Instead of being offered atonement or having to face the people he has wronged and to make amends, he fades away and there isn’t even a beat to mourn him[5].

Despite the supplementary material builing up to it, Rise makes little attempt to explore why Ben Solo fell or how, beyond the puppeteering of Palpatine, who is now responsible for all the voices Ben has ever heard in his head (including Snoke, seen in a jar like pickled vegetables). It offers little as a character study, unlike The Last Jedi, where his toxic masculinity was at the heart of his character. He never reexamines his place in this story nor does he let go of poisonous ambitions. We don’t return to his obsession with Vader. The reframing of his connection to Rey as one of a “force dyad”, born of their bloodlines eliminates even the idea that he might be learning from her compassion or empathy.

Kylo’s mask returns but devoid of meaning. It’s breaking was hugely important to his arc in The Last Jedi, and even his removing of it was significant in The Force Awakens, when Rey and the audience both see him for the first time. But here, we only have the logistics of it being mended. It is hard to say what it means. Is it a return to old, toxic coping mechanisms? Has he gained new understanding of his legacy? Who knows?

Vader’s mask also makes an appearance, lovingly focused on by the camera, even as it probably means very little to Rey. In Awakens, Vader’s broken mask stood for Kylo’s ambitions and how he would intended to live up to his grandfather’s legacy. It was central to his character. Rey speaks aloud his greatest fear, that he would never be as good as Vader. But it in Rise, it is deeply unclear what he now understands as “what Vader started” and thus what he needs to do. He never comes back to the mistakes Anakin made or the power he wanted from that path. His redemption is wholly framed as a reconciliation with his parents, but even Han doesn’t demand he explain himself.

That Kylo’s room is itself now this white, sterile museum of props instead of the brooding, black quarters he had in The Last Jedi feels arbitrary. It isn’t informed by his character or any arc that he is on. Rey being in that space should bring a degree of intimacy, an opportunity for her to glimpse who he is in private, if only to build to that kiss they share. But there is none of that.

His room is just is that way because more Significant Objects need to be on screen.

And even as stumbles as this broken man who seeks to come back from his nebulously defined mistakes, who now apparently understands what he needs to do and fears only that he isn’t strong enough to do it, the narrative denies him any opportunity for atonement.

We can’t save each other after all.

[1] I don’t want to make a big deal about this but it feels faintly like a bit of second amendment wankery. There are plenty of roles everyday people and their ships could fill in a story about resistance that isn’t on the very front lines against a fleet of planet-destroying warships. If nothing else, the little ships of Dunkirk come to mind.

[2] Yes, I’m aware of how ridiculously mystical this sounds, but I do think that’s the point of The Force.

[3] I had honestly thought they had more leftover footage. It’s not uncommon for there to be a whole world of lost scenes and cut subplots. Perhaps there was a scene where Leia talked more with Rey about her fallen son in The Force Awakens and they were going to use some of that that. But by the look of things, there simply wasn’t.

[4] They should really just kiss. If the Chinese censors complains, the studio can always cut it for that market. It’s almost as though foreign homophobia and censorship (both, I stress, very real) is being used to justify their own terrible decisions.

[5] Like many, many other things, extended universe knowledge actually makes the ending even more depressing as it becomes impossible to view Rey wandering alone on Tattooine as hopeful. In old canon, if half of a force bonded couple dies, the surviving partner feels as though part of them as died too. It is an open wound that never heals. Which is the sort of melodramatic nonsense one wants from a soap opera in space, but rather casts a downer note on Rey being alone. And the film must know that I know this because it expected me to care even slightly about Palpatine’s clones (also from the old extended universe).

novelist, hair wizard, game designer

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