The dead won’t shut up: on Star Wars, The Rise of Skywalker

The movie theater showing Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker began by screening 35 minutes of trailers.  At first I thought this was because they had us trapped.  Then, once I saw The Rise of Skywalker, I realized it was a kind of preemptive consolation prize.

Yes, there will be spoilers aplenty in this post.  If you really want to see the thing and don’t want to have details revealed, please stop reading and come visit afterwards when you need a hug.

SPOILER SPACE

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(Really, you’d do better to just watch the Pitch Meeting riff on the movie than to actually see the thing itself:)

Otherwise…

SW:TRS tries mightily to be uninteresting and forgettable.  It races between scenes at crazed speeds, flinging up lovely backdrops and designs for a second or two only to drop them for the next bit of bland argument.  Characters, vehicles, architecture, shots, dialogue, story beats, and literal, actual furniture pop up from the preceding nine+ films.  These gestures only stroke the audience’s nostalgia.  They are not there to make a deeper or new impression.  Rise of Skywalker is as memorable as basic fanfiction – i.e., depending on the audience’s interest in the franchise.  Its enormous budget vanishes from view with each quick cut hurtling towards the credits.

It is a movie preoccupied with time above all.  Yes, much of the cardboard dialogue is feel-good puffery about having friends, being strong, doing the right thing, gosh the empire or whatever it’s called this time is mean, but the real topic under consideration is the past.  “The dead speak!” is the film’s opening line in its traditional title crawl, and that’s really what Rise of Skywalker is about.

Literally, the dead speak in that we have an actor’s posthumous scenes.  Rise of Skywalker is a ghost show within the franchise’s fictional universe.  Leftover footage from previous movies embodies Carrie Fisher, and fairly awkwardly those clips are crammed into place.  Leia then dies but somehow persists.  Han Solo also appears from beyond the grave to harangue Kylo Ren/Ben.  A major moment in his character arc is Kylo Ren reclaiming the name Ben, which is itself a tribute to the older character Obi-Wan Kenobi.  An even older character literally comes back to life: the emperor Palpatine, killed in Return of the Jedi, now somehow propped up by “dark science” and one enormous, tube-festooned crane.  Said emperor wants to bring back the empire and the resistance gets to resist it.  A shattered Death Star (version 2.0, I think) looms over a raging sea.

Stacks of other but so far unkilled characters and creatures appear from the long Star Wars franchise, pre-The Force Awakens (2015). Lando Calrissian pops up to help one quest and the final battle.  The planet Endor is revisited, and the horrific little Ewoks have a cameo.  Chewbacca gets the medal he was denied at the end of the first Star Wars movie.  A New Hope‘s opening set is the setting of the movie’s conclusion, complete with the abandoned moisture farm, Jawas, lots of sand, and a sandcrawler.  That scene then reprises the first film’s famous dual sunset, which was itself reprised in Revenge of the Sith (2005). Rise of Skywalker doesn’t just fail to let go of the past; it obsesses over the franchise’s history.  It is really the old emperor’s movie, with his celebration of “the work of generations”:

This fierce, loving, and backward gaze into the past is one way that the film is essentially conservative.

Skywalker looks further back still, beyond Star Wars: A New Hope, to a technological world we last experienced around WWII.  I first wrote about this strange embrace of a dieselpunk milieu when I reviewed Rogue One (2016), and Skywalker does the same worldbuilding thing.  It’s not a world where networked computing exists.  There are very few screens beyond a couple of radar and radio receivers.  Data and information only exist in analog forms, or in 1940s-seeming radio broadcasts.  Radio is the only hint of wireless tech we so.  Otherwise, the film is filled with cables, plugs, cords, goggles, wheels, hydraulics, iron, and more cables.  Yet no communication satellites or drones.

There is no media capture in the entire film: no handheld cameras (except one old school surveillance cam shot out, I think), no audio recording.  Not only is there no citizen journalism or everyday media sharing, there’s no sign of news media. Major plot points turn on getting access to scarce physical records – a sort of map, a text – that nobody has bothered scanning, copying, or publishing.  In fact, there’s barely any glimpse of print, beyond a handful of ancient-looking books.  It’s almost a preliterate world.  People only know about events if a participant tells someone else about it.  At the very least this is a culture predicated on a foundational absence of the digital world.  That it achieves spaceflight suggests something like alternate history, akin to Cronenberg’s Existenz (1999), which imaged a digital world based not on dead silicon, but on living biology. Skywalker‘s sustained vision of a pre-internet, pre-digital world speaks once more to its focus on the past, to a careful conservativism.

This vision of a past-saturated future is also one of a culture keenly interested in bloodlines.  The film’s ultimate struggle for the universe is between two genealogies, Skywalker and Palpatine.

OK boomer.

While these aren’t quite royal houses, a gag about spice running might coax the science fiction literate viewer into thinking they’d stumbled onto another Dune film.*  Instead, we see two dimensions of this family battle: personal struggles within the minds of Rey and Ren, alongside a conflict to either rebuild a galactic empire or… set up something else, which isn’t ever articulated.  The key point is remaking civilization along either Skywalker or Palpatine lines.

On the one hand this is a handy narrative conceit and an accessible way to organize character arcs.  Instead of the medieval image of a devil perched on one’s left shoulder while an angel crouches on the right, we see characters arguing with Force-driven visions of  Skywalkers and Palpatines.  And it’s only partially a biological scheme.  The movie’s final scene sees Rey will herself into the Skywalker line and out of her Palpatine DNA.

(Actually, this might be a kind of marriage claim.  The film gives Kylo Ren a redemption arc.  He gradually turns away from the Palpatine dark side, rejects his Sith name in favor of his birth monicker (Ben Solo), and gives his life to save Rey.  She responds by kissing him and resolving three movies’ and millions of fans’ worth of romantic tension.  He dies, but no other character replaces him in Rey’s heart.  With the movie’s last line, does she take his last name along marriage lines, perhaps as a half-imaginary fulfillment of longing?  Yes, Kylo/Ben’s last name is Solo, but the film is clearly far more invested in Leia than Han.  The movie’s gynocentrism (note the final scene is a conversation between two women, just about passing the Bechdel test) also suggests it’s open to matrilineal lines of descent.)

On the other hand, this is a very aristocratic vision.  As Jeanette Ng argues, it breaks from the democratic potential of the previous two movies, which showed Rey as someone *not* possessed by a special capital-D Destiny or bloodline.  This was profoundly open and empowering.  No bloody mitochlorians were needed.  Anybody could tap into the Force.  Instead, J.J. Abrams yanks that away in favor of genealogy.

One way he does this is by inventing ways to link Rey to gender essentialism.  She alone has a healing touch (remember that health care is typically gendered female).  She’s the only character who connects with children, setting up a maternal vibe.  Rey also connects with a small, cute robot.  Yes, she also violates traditional gender norms by fighting, getting dirty, etc., but it’s interesting how the film takes time to paint her in that gender essentialist hue.  It sets her up for a more premodern role.

Perhaps it’s counter to expectations for me to call this a pro-aristocracy film, but at no point do we see even a hint of any other politics.  No galactic assembly from the prequel trilogy resurrects itself.  There are no political parties, no other factions.  Remember the emperor dismissing the Senate in the first film, or how the republic was pushed into imperium in the prequels?  All of that is gone now.  There isn’t even a militarized Star Trek-style federation.  There are no local politics on planets.  Heck, there isn’t even “an international system of currency”:

There are only some personal plots without much behind them, like the two generals trying to backstab each other.

As I mentioned earlier, there isn’t any news media.  Instead the entire vast complexity of an interstellar polity considering its future is forced into the narrow box of Skywalker versus Palpatine.  If most of the film’s technology is from the early 20th century, its politics are from the seventh.  No wonder the climactic battle begins with a cavalry charge.  Calling the movie conservative is almost too kind, as Rise of Skywalker is actually reactionary to a breathtaking extent.

Yet perhaps Rise of Skywalker manages to pull back from a truly conservative vision.  In terms of representation it marks progress over the earlier films with greater roles for women and nonwhite people, plus a same-sex kiss in the celebration scene (but what happened to Rose?) (and see Tim Burke’s criticism). But this world’s social dimension is largely emptied out.  There isn’t a culture to conserve. Visually, we see few people on the screen for most of the run time.  The Sith cult (?) is faceless animation.  A festival is quickly passed through.  Instead Abrams prefers to show us small confrontations between handfuls of characters in isolation.  When Rey and Kylo Ren first duel nobody witnesses the event save Finn, who’s pulled away.  The climactic throne room battle is a series of single combats.  The epilogue is a quiet scene with Rey alone, only pausing to speak briefly to a passerby. This visual constriction echoes the political emptiness I mentioned earlier.  When a swarm of rescue ships appears to save the doomed rebel fleet (another callback to A New Hope), we have no idea who they represent or where they came from, besides a cheesy “friends.”  They are “[t]he Rebel fleet from nowhere,” as Phil Owen and Ross Lincoln put it.  Nowhere is where the movie ends up, a no-place without populations, politics, or society.

That is because the film’s obsessive focus on the past won’t let it imagine an unfolding present, much less a future.  It can’t let a world emerge.  It can only position older characters and their surroundings and make them work through a thin, aristocratic plot.  When at least it steps away from most of the old, there’s very little left.  Our heroes’ triumph doesn’t mean anything besides Rey’s claiming of a name.  She buries lightsabers and hence the Jedi order.  The resistance has nothing to do, having, well, resisted.  We might wonder about what Finn meant to tell Rey or where Jannah (the other ex-Stormtrooper) came from, but those slender plot threads just hang suspended in a void.  The film just stops, exhausted. Rise of Skywalker has conserved so much, so deeply, and looked so hard at the franchise past that there’s no possibility of moving forward.  That might be the final triumph of its conservative vision.

*The original Dune novel as well as the five sequels are also keenly interested in bloodlines.  The opening plot is about a centuries-long breeding program.  A key conceit involves people somehow accessing their ancestors.  For Herbert this is part of his deliberate vision of a world made conservative by certain technological and cultural choices.

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2 Responses to The dead won’t shut up: on Star Wars, The Rise of Skywalker

  1. Matthew Henry says:

    Hey, you live in DC, go to any of the IMAX theaters at the Smithsonian’s, no trailers! Best thing about living in DC 🙂

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