Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

I was thinking about the climax of this movie, mostly reminiscing about how hard it was for me to contain my laughter at old shriveled-up Palpatine hooked up to the mainframe or whatever's going on there, but I was also thinking about how many recent franchise films end with these inevitable battles between good personified and evil personified where the battle is carried out through these transfers of light and energy (the last Harry Potter, Wonder Woman, probably some others I've forgotten about). It strikes me that heroes in the '80s action film template were defined by their physicality—Sly, Arnold, JCVD are all built to be heroes—whereas now they're primarily defined by their spirit, a kind of inner spiritual drive to goodness or heroism.

I suppose one could read this as progress (though Marvel is still requiring Kumail Nanjiani to become a beefcake, even though they have the capability to CG Chris Evans into a shrimp), but on another level it signals a larger move away from the realm of the physical, the real, which proves problematic upon further examination. Every conflict, both internal and external, in Rise of Skywalker is waged on the level of the spirit. Both Rey and Kylo are torn between the light and the dark side because of their very nature as human beings, their genetic makeup. The blue lightsabers gives them the power to stand up against Palpatine not because of their technological power as weapons but because of the Skywalker spirit with which they are imbued. When the galaxy rises up against the First Order, it is enough that a bunch of people just decide to stand up for good, but where are they receiving the arms necessary to successfully fight back against the galaxy's ruling power? They just show up and win by virtue of the spirit of the good outnumbering the spirit of the evil. When Palpatine dies, the whole of Exegol just collapses, as if it was being held up by his spirit.

I joked with some friends after that this movie is pro-democracy, in the NED sense, but it really does make the same move of making us think about resistance in only the most superficial ways, never questioning how resistances are built, structured, from what ideological grounding they arise. In this film, good and evil are matters of attitude, not matters of ideology. The good care about their friends, cry for them when they die, cheer when they inevitably come back, carry out their duties with passion and joy, keep their energies up with humor. The bad sulk, rage, backstab, give in to their worst instincts. The message is simple: as long as you carry yourself with the right attitude, you will always be on the side of the good.

I think about how deeply the prequels rejected that idea, and how well they rooted themselves in the stuff of real politics. In the prequels, you are always made aware of the power dynamics at play in every interaction, of the formal expectations of the interaction based on those dynamics, and especially of the moments when those conventions are broken (as in Qui-Gon's treatment of Padme before he knows it's her, or Anakin's bold pursuit of Padme).

Here, it feels as though we're watching children play with their Star Wars toys—all that exists are the emotional roles which these characters are meant to fill, without any attention given to their functional role in the film's fictional universe. Poe is supposedly second-in-command to Leia, Finn's role in the Resistance is not really made clear, but they'll be having a meeting and Finn can just show up, start talking to Poe, and then they can all decide to go on a mission together. Who are all these soldiers standing around them, and what are they doing there? Why is Poe going on a highly dangerous mission in which his particular skillset isn't even all that necessary? How does power even function in the Resistance?

We're not meant to think about political roles, or about politics in general, either in this film or in the world outside the film, because then we'd have to question the whole structure of things, and that wouldn't be good. Instead, we are told that as long as we have a correct inner politics, as long as we treat others well in life and hold ourselves with dignity, don't give in to anger or hatred or any of the other ugly emotions, then we can stand for good and overpower the bad. When they go low, we go high.

Not coincidentally, the only part of this movie I was really into it was the first five minutes with Adam Driver just silently hulking around these weird CG spaces like he's a Nosferatu for the digital age—he brings a physicality to his performance that is sorely missing from the rest of the film, and for all the discourse around him for the last month, it reminded me he's a really talented dude.

EDIT: I wanted to clarify some things I wrote here because I realized the distinction I intended to draw between this film/this trilogy and the prequels isn't quite clear. The Lucas films also concern themselves with the Force as a matter of the spirit, but there is a greater attention paid to the ways in which this spiritual realm is manifested in a physical realm, and how it comes in contact with a physical reality. Similarly, for Lucas attitude is key in differentiating the Dark Side from the Force, in a way that feels very indebted to Buddhism, but here attitude is all that differentiates them, and in a way that feels pretty sloppy. Anakin turns to the Dark Side because his mother dies, whereas for Kylo it's the opposite—which could be an interesting inversion but it's not really explained how her death helps him to do away with the emotional centering of self that drives the philosophy of the Dark Side, and instead it's just used as an easy sentimental beat. There are more examples I could work with, but long story short, my issue with this film is its lack of physical dimension, not just the new age-y Force stuff which has always been a part of the series.