Well, I’m not sure what to make of the title.
It’s not quite as straightforward as A New Hope or The Force Awakens, nor is it as clunky as Attack of the Clones or as obvious as Revenge of the Sith. But after the abrupt drop of the trailer for the final installment of the great space saga that began 42 years ago this May, we’re left with just as many questions about The Rise of Skywalker as we had the instant before we saw Rey in the desert, igniting her lightsaber against the screaming approach of Kylo Ren’s TIE Silencer. Has the returning creative force that is J.J. Abrams managed to craft a satisfying end to this particular tale after the creative choices made by Rian Johnson in The Last Jedi left a vocal group of hardcore fans mewling over their spilt blue milk? Is Star Wars going out in a blaze of exploding Death Star glory or limping, exhausted into a gentle fade away like Luke himself on his mountainside hideaway?
Star Wars as a series of movies isn’t one that lends itself to a lot of different interpretations. You either buy into it and love it or shrug your shoulders and regard it with indifference. (There tends not to be a lot of people who actively dislike it, save your typical clove cigarette-sniffing film critics who believe George Lucas and his generation killed the art of cinema.) More to the point, there generally aren’t a lot of ideas at work in each movie, beyond the exploration of the archetypes of good and evil. Ambiguity is nowhere to be found, and character motivations are generally skin deep, that is, “we must do X before Y happens.” Rian Johnson’s stroke of inspiration in The Last Jedi was to sneak some genuine food for thought into this relatively restrictive frame. While the bad guys chased down the good guys and laser blasts flew, we saw the usual notions of heroism and destiny turned on their heads. From the moment Luke blithely chucked his legendary lightsaber over his shoulder, our expectations were thwarted. We saw storied legends turn to cowards and were asked to examine the difference between a hero and a leader. We were asked to consider the notion and worth of sacrifice. We saw ugliness beneath opulence. We saw three different versions of the same event and were asked to choose which one we believed. In what was perhaps the boldest answer to the many mystery box questions left over from The Force Awakens and yet one that dovetailed neatly with the central thesis of the movie, Johnson told us that Rey (the wonderful Daisy Ridley) was descended from absolutely no one of any consequence. Whenever the movie was meant to go right, it turned left, and unusually for this crowd-pleaser of a saga, a lot of folks got pissed off.
Angry Star Wars fans are nothing new as they’ve been skulking around the Internet ever since a certain Mr. Lucas thought that a bumbling orange floppy-eared amphibian was what his audience truly craved. How many “raped my childhood” posts and comments were we forced to sift through while navigating the primitive interwebs circa 2000 A.D.? But even through the uneven experience that was the prequel trilogy the love for the universe itself remained undimmed, largely because of the reassurance that the images of Luke, Han and Leia as they were first presented were preserved in cinematic amber, to be revisited whenever you had a spare two hours and a Blu-ray copy handy. Luke Skywalker in particular was the unflappable hero, last seen beaming alongside his comrades by an Endor celebration bonfire, his mission accomplished, the future a galaxy of possibility. Surely then, when he returned to the fray as teased by the final shot of The Force Awakens, we would see him again donning that mantle and slicing apart First Order Star Destroyers and other Chuck Norris-esque feats while those same angry fans now wet themselves in orgiastic ecstasy. You know, much the same reaction as accompanied the reveal of Darth Vader hacking down hapless Rebels left and right in the closing scene of Rogue One.
And it would have been an incredibly boring movie.
A downtrodden Luke was a huge surprise, and incredibly necessary, because otherwise, what is his story? Where does he go? What does he do? Grab the lightsaber and jump aboard the Millennium Falcon five seconds later so the remainder of the movie’s run time is stormtroopers getting sliced up? There is a pretty good reason why these movies aren’t made by knuckling under to fanservice. And why WhinyFanBoi68 doesn’t have a first-look deal at Disney, despite the many volumes of self-penned Luke/Mara Jade sex scenes on his hard drive.
As exciting as it is to live in an era where social media allows us to interact with the creators of our favorite art, the drawback comes when those same creators mistakenly interpret the shouted (and usually profane) demands of a fervent minority as the opinion of the many. They will even find themselves feeling like they have to defend their creative choices vocally – feeding the trolls, in effect – instead of letting the work stand for itself. Driven by these same trolls (and lazy media writers who give them megaphones by boosting their bleats to drive clicks), the public narrative on Star Wars now says that the poor reception of The Last Jedi led to an underwhelming response to Solo: A Star Wars Story and now The Rise of Skywalker will undo much of what was established by The Last Jedi in order to calm everybody down and make sure everyone has a rollicking good time at the conclusion of this saga. Never mind that J.J. Abrams himself said he loved the script for The Last Jedi so much that he wished he was directing it, or that Solo still made a metric tonne of money despite its key fault (outside of the fact that you can’t really recast Harrison Ford’s most iconic role) that it was looking backward rather than forward. The movie gods have decided, and there will be no take-backsies. Apparently.
The most surprising thing to me among the litany of Last Jedi bitching was the note that one would think would resonate most among Star Wars fans: that the Force wasn’t the exclusive property of one noble family. That the revelation of Rey as the daughter of drunken (and deceased) junk dealers, and the anonymous kid on Canto Bight Forcing a broom into his hands before staring up hopefully into the night sky, hinted at a galaxy where anyone could be the hero, regardless of bloodline. When we were young, who wasn’t that kid pretending that a hockey stick or a pool skimmer or any lousy stick you could find was a blue-bladed lightsaber ready to scare off those bullies who chased you home? Who didn’t dream that we could find within us the same courage that led Luke to confront the Emperor, to confront our own demons, whatever they were? Rian Johnson was one of those kids. Making Rey a nobody, making her someone who found it within herself to be a hero no matter where she came from, was a powerful message for him to send – a tribute, in essence, to all the dreamers out there. The idea that it might be retconned in The Rise of Skywalker to make her someone famous all along is like telling all those kids and kids at heart that it doesn’t matter how hard you try, you’ll never get anywhere unless you’re born a Kardashian.
Or a Trump.
It’ll be unfortunate if that is the direction Abrams et al choose to push the story, in the hopes of soothing the commenterati desperate for predictable, straightforward answers to complete their wiki pages. If Rey has to be a Skywalker to fulfill the promise of the title, wouldn’t it be more interesting if it’s a name she chooses for herself, rather than it being an inevitable cosmic birthright? If the First Order’s (and the undead Emperor’s, apparently, I’m really not wild about that revelation) obsession with destroying Skywalker leads instead to the rise of millions of self-proclaimed Skywalkers across the galaxy – a sort of I am Spartacus moment to the strains of John Williams’ Force Theme? “No one’s ever really gone,” says the voice of Luke in the trailer. Maybe that line doesn’t have to be so bloody literal. Maybe this is the resolution of the conflict that is Kylo Ren: even though he wants to continue the legacy of his grandfather, no one else does. Maybe the lasting victory of the light side over the dark is in what people remember and most want to take with them.
I’m not saying I necessarily want that to be the answer. But the line between a lasting experience and something that is merely a diversion is the ability to surprise and to go deeper than what is happening on the surface, and based on the trailer I’m really not sure which is in store. In many ways, Rian Johnson achieved the former with The Last Jedi simply given how many people are still talking about his movie, even if it is with disdain. Once The Rise of Skywalker has come and gone, will we still be talking about it years afterward, or will it be merely a pretty good movie that leaves not a trace of aftertaste or thirst for interpretation? An epic conclusion or a series of boxes ticked to avoid a rash of hot takes?
I know which one I’d prefer.