Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

Toward the end of The Force Awakens there is one particular beat that has always stuck in my mind: after the death of Han Solo during the climactic battle, the heroes return to the Resistance base and are greeted by a throng of soldiers, including General Leia Organa.

Chewbacca and Rey both walk down the ship's ramp, and the former simply strolls past Leia. They share no words, no moment of recognition for the loss of Han; Chewie's closest friend for the past six or so decades, and Leia's former husband, father of her child. They simply pass, like complete strangers, utterly alienated from one another.

Instead, as Leia ignores her now-oldest friend in their moment of devastating shared grief, she walks to Rey and they share a moment. They embrace. Leia and Rey. Two people who not only have never met, but don't even know what each other looked like prior to that point. Who shared nothing common in their lives. Who, quite simply, had no relationship to speak of.
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There is another moment, this one at the end of Rise of Skywalker, when Rey takes the lightsabers of Luke and Leia and buries them in the Lars homestead on Tatooine. Shortly thereafter, in a moment of manufactured catharsis, she declares herself "Rey Skywalker" as the spirits of Luke and Leia watch on.

Leia's lightsaber, buried in the Lars homestead. A place she never went to, that she has no connection with. On a planet where her only memories are that of the imprisonment of her husband and her own experience being forced into sexual servitude to a sadistic gangster. Why would Rey, a woman who in the very same scene declares Leia to be her chosen family, "honor" this evidently adoptive mother figure by laying her sword to rest in such a place?

Further, why would Rey even take on the Skywalker name at all? Her relationship with Luke was strained at best. A tense, almost perverse student-teacher dynamic built on bitterness and conflict more than anything. And Leia? It's hard to discern what their relationship meant at all amidst the gawky, one-sided, non-conversations they have over the course of Rise. The closest she got to a real familial bond with anyone from the original trilogy was Han Solo, though even that's a stretch.

But did she take the last name Solo? No. No she did not.
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These moments, I feel, are emblematic of Abrams' approach to Star Wars on the whole.

His understanding of a character like Rey is fundamentally compromised: is she a fully formed person with her own history? Her own internal life? Her own relationships? Or is she simply an audience surrogate? One who possesses all of the prejudices and interests and inclinations of the particular subset of viewers these films were designed to appeal to?

Leia doesn't stroll past Chewbacca to comfort Rey because that is something Leia would do, or even a gesture Rey would desire or accept. She does it because Rey, in that moment, is a stand-in for the audience. The character we were told she was throughout the film ceases to exist in that moment, Rey as an individual does not matter. The audience, in the mind of the film, just lost Han Solo; their aspirational scoundrel, the icon of their childhood, their personal hero. And so Rey simply becomes a vessel for the audience. The film's narrative text is washed aside completely, and the moment is forcefully seized by the suffocating metatext of Star Wars as a multi-billion dollar media property.

Rey doesn't bury that saber on Tatooine because it honors Leia as we have come to know her over the course of five (six? seven?) films. Nor does she do it to honor Luke, who famously hated this place and the stagnation it represented in his life. Rey buries those sabers on Tatooine because the audience, the fans specifically, have this vivid, powerful sentimental relationship with the place. It is a scene that boasts four characters: Rey, Leia, Luke and the old Tattooinian woman. However, the scene is not for any of them. It doesn't stem from any of their relationships, desires or experiences. It exists in pure spite of them.

This film's moments crumble, one after another, when placed under this kind of scrutiny. There are good characters, and even some great story ideas, buried deep down in there. But they aren't the ones guiding this ship. They are all, inevitably, warped and bent out of their once-proper shapes to fit the laundry list of expected, cathartic payoffs the audience is assumed to want and demand.

This foundational alienation from storytelling itself, from the soul that makes a great (or even good) film sing, is the core tragedy that sinks The Rise of Skywalker and it's fellow bookend of the sequel trilogy. Because if your characters aren't leading you on your path forward, then what are you even doing? What choices are the right ones moment to moment? What function do the actual scenes and the interactions within them actually serve if your ultimate objectives are fixed goalposts that would exist regardless of who any of these characters are as individual "people"?

The result is filmmaking that, while passionate and driven in so many respects, is unmoored from any internal sense of purpose. It has no idea why it even exists. And it works very hard, putting so much effort into filling that empty void in its heart. There is so much happening in every moment of this thing, and yet it's hard to think of a film of this scale where so little truly happens. But none of that noise can really disguise the emptiness that so unmistakably isolates this film from the original visions that spawned it.
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Rey's arc in The Force Awakens is her struggle to "leave Jakku," if you will. This old, worn, familiar place that is her comfort, but also her doom if she can never move on. It is framed as an almost moralistic warning: get stuck in the past, the familiar, and you sacrifice the rich wealth of possibilities the future has in store for you. Get stuck in the only world you know and you will ultimately wither away, the life you led only a dim echo of the one you might have led.

As I sat through the finale of Rise of Skywalker, watching Emperor Sheev Palpatine implore the film's young hero to strike him down in anger so she may save her friends, who fight a desperate and losing battle just out of focus in the stars above, the irony of the trilogy ending in this almost comedically redundant fashion crashed over me like a wave. Of course, Force Awakens never had the spirit to break free of the boundaries that confined it. But there was something almost fascinatingly perverse about reaching the end only to find it taking this specific shape. A movie so terrified of its own potential for greatness that it defiantly slams the door in the face of its nominal thesis. A film so petrified by its own endless possibilities that it would rather tear its heart from its body, leaving a hole in its place, than be led by its own unique calling, divorced from the cloying wants of a rabid, hyper-sensitive fan base.

Seven and a half hours later, we're still here. In the desert. Waiting for our parents, our sense of purpose and meaning, to return.

Three films later, we never really left Jakku.

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