In which the author discusses spoilers. Plan accordingly.
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker wraps up a forty-year journey through the central core of the Star Wars mythology. While the mythos itself remains a rich source of more storytelling, we have to assume, for now, that the central themes are laid out, canonized, and done.
There is an interesting theory I read some weeks ago that advanced the idea that the ancient Greeks, to some extent, did not actually believe the stories of their gods as a matter of faith. Instead, the stories had become so ingrained into their culture that they became part of the symbolic storytelling of their own vernacular. It was easy to write more plays about the foibles of the gods because the underlying shared knowledge was already in place. Any playwright did not need to reestablish that Zeus was a philanderer because that was already known in the audience. In the case of The Frogs, seeing Dionysus out of character as a massive jerk brings its own humor. See also, Star Trek’s Children of Tamar.
[EDIT: In a previous version of this article, I totally blew it on the ancient references. Please note that I did actually study this stuff. All my apologies to everyone who knew that I was way off base.]
Though English as language does not rely heavily on symbolism and implied knowledge, our act of storytelling still does. As such, we approach The Rise of Skywalker with only three questions that need to be answered:
1 — Why is Kylo important?
2 — Why is Rey important?
3 — How well did the final product, the movie itself, achieve the goals it set out for itself?
Seek analysis of all the other elements elsewhere. There is plenty to be found, I promise you.
Rewind your memory to the summer of 1977. This thing hits the screen that pretty much looks like any other middling-quality space opera, and you will recall there were plenty of them at the time. But this one was different. Before it was given the subtitle of A New Hope, it was just this story of a kid realizing that he part of something larger and more mysterious than he ever imagined.
George Lucas was fairly forthcoming, you recall, that his influences at the time came strongly from the Japanese movie tradition in the ’60s and ’70s. Insert here references to all the scholarly work done comparing Lucas’s Star Wars to Kurosawa, et al. The point I am going to bring forward is that the influences he drew on were themselves influenced by the Japanese Kabuki traditions. The story itself is very formalized. The audience has a very strong set expectation of how the tale will develop. The nuance comes in presentation choices. To tell this fairly standard Hero’s Journey, Young Man Coming Of Age tale in space is the nuance that hooked us, the viewers.
But, dig back into the traditions and influences and what you will find is a foundational story of Good and Evil. Our hero, under the guidance of some elder, and with the assistance of a benevolent sidekick, must confront the conflict within themself, and choose a path. That’s pretty standard stuff and see any one of a thousand Hero’s Journey stories and structures for more.
So, we ask our first question about The Rise of Skywalker.
Why is Kylo important?
Here is a hot take for you: The whole Star Wars mythos is about failure.
Over the whole chronology of the nine main movies, and most of the canon offshoots, we see how the Republic fails to maintain peace and order. Then the Empire fails to impose its will effectively. And lastly, the First Order succumbs to infighting and petty jealousies.
Annikin fails to tame his temper. Luke fails to believe in himself. And finally, Kylo fails to forgive the failings all around him.
Each of these men that advance the story, and yes the women too, are born of Good and for their own reasons choose Evil. Yes, even Luke, though his is more about denial than the actual pursuit of ambition. By the time we get to Kylo, the whole surrounding environment is in chaos. The power represented by the Republic and the Empire has all dissipated into a mess of individuals and groups pursuing their own agendas mostly because there is nothing larger for them to believe in. The Jedi Order fell to its own arrogance. The Republic fell to its naivety. The Empire fell to its own lack of internal structure. Kylo, seeking his way in the world, is tempted by Evil, and the weakness in Luke confirms for him that Evil is the only way to establish his personal safety.
Because it is drawn from Kabuki, Kylo’s moment of transformation in The Rise of Skywalker is treated with a sledgehammer touch. Rey wounds him with the same move he used to kill his father. She shows him compassion, and heals him, which starts him on the path to thinking that he could have done the same thing when he had the chance. Rey flounces off and Kylo has a moment with the memory of his father.
Kylo is important because it is at this moment of transformation that Han, the scoundrel, smuggler, murderer, jilted lover, scruffy-looking nerfherder, the man profoundly disappointed by all the moments of failure in his life, reminds Kylo that Ben has hope and love. Han reminds Ben that forgiveness is an integral part of being an adult, and forgiveness must begin with himself.
The moment of transformation is when Kylo, now pretty much reverted to Ben, realizes he is talking to his memory, “But you’re just a memory,” he says. Han replies, “Yes, but I am your memory.” “Dad, I…” and he pauses not knowing how to say it, how to forgive himself, Han, Luke, everyone that has betrayed him. Han, of course, “I know.”
But, there is still this thing about Rey.
Why is Rey important?
I’m going to step out of character analysis here for a moment and heap praise on Daisy Ridley. Ridley has shown herself to be one of the sweetest, kindest, funniest, most self-aware, lest self-important women in the Star Wars world. That she has so effectively played this pissed off girl is a testament to her abilities.
Rey enters the story as a cipher. She has no past that we know of. She seems to be no more important to the world than the scavenger that she is. Of course, Anakin and Luke were also introduced in this way.
Rey, as noted above, is pissed off and seething with anger. She has been abandoned, betrayed, and left with nothing. Compare for a moment her demeanor with that of Jyn Erso who had similar life events as a child. Anger, betrayal, and internalized rage define these two women. Jyn has a moment where she can do something about it and, again, while she contributes to a larger success, ends up sacrificing herself for the cause.
Rey is stuck. Without any sort of outlet, by the time we meet her, the internalized rage is a permanent part of who she is. Even by the time we get to her development in The Rise of Skywalker, it is clear that she cannot overcome the darkness that Luke and Leia have warned her about.
Leia, in particular, we come to learn was all the more concerned about Rey’s future because of her inner knowledge. The notion of Rey’s parentage became a part of her story with very conflicting hints. At first, she is everything, then she is nothing, and when we finally learn who she is, the moment is almost a letdown.
But that does not detract from her importance. Of all the major protagonists in the Star Wars mythos, she is the one who is truly born of Evil. She comes by her rage and darkness naturally. It is, in the manner of this storytelling in her blood. Her parents are nonfactors in her development and the story makes that clear by keeping them out of our view for nearly the whole narrative.
Between the Anakin-Palpatine generation and the Ben-Rey generation, is the middle generation that is mostly useless in stopping what is coming. Generation X, anyone?
Rey is important because it is in her moment of transformation that she realizes that Evil personified is part of her physical definition. While the others in the story were born of Good and chose Evil, she is the one who was born of Evil and made the conscious choice to follow Good. It is only because she understood, internally, intrinsically, the language of Evil that she was able to overcome it and triumph on her own terms. Ben’s sacrifice on her behalf was not lost on her. The transformation for her comes in two parts. The first of which is defeating Palpatine and choosing not to sit on the throne. The second is allowing herself to love Ben in one last moment. Despite the Evil within her, she chooses the Good.
And that is a lot to consider for a two-and-a-half-hour movie that wraps up forty years of mythology. And we remain with one question left to answer.
How well did the final product, the movie itself, achieve the goals it set out for itself?
In the endless stream of How To… articles available here, once in a while I will come across one that really sticks with me. In this case, the author broke down the elements of an effective movie review. The main point was to avoid the obvious “Did you like it?” The more important question is to understand what the filmmaker's intent was, and then analyze how well that intent was executed.
With that in mind, god bless the keepers of the canon at (now) Disney. It is no secret that the story got away from Lucas and the rest of his team right away. Some were sanctioned and considered part of the story, everything else was, well, everything else. And last year when they had to reset the official canon in order to rectify several consistency errors, well, it was a mess. The Death of Chewbacca, anyone?
The Rise of Skywalker is not meant to be a nuanced examination of human frailty in the course of combined struggle. It is meant to tie together the larger themes that were laid out in that summer of 1977. What does it mean to choose Good or Evil? What does it mean to be true to your friends? Nature or Nurture? Free Will or Destiny? No single movie, no collection of three three-act trilogies will ever be able to answer those questions.
So we are left with a final product that knew it could not bring light into the darkness of the universe. It had its own choices to make about what was important, what could be included as fan service, what pieces of the canon needed to be strengthened, and what elements needed to be cut. As this story arc comes to a close, how well can the filmmakers keep the environment vibrant enough for additional exploration, and yet resolved enough to allow for the main thread to rest.
Of course, there are loose threads still. The realities of modern movie production, script editing, and basic talent availability (Carrie Effing Fisher, may she reign forever in glitter) demand compromises to the vision. We as the audience are required to keep that in mind. This is not a documentary we are watching. It is not the presentation of some historical event. It is light and shadow on a silverized screen meant to make us think. So, go think.
And May the Force Be With You.