Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker and the Brutal Circularity of History
It was probably inevitable that Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker was going to be divisive. It is, after all, the culmination of a decades-long saga and the conclusion to one of the most enduring and influential fantastic narratives of the 20th and 21st Centuries. What’s more, it is also the end product of an at-times contentious creative process, made all the more so by the changes that marked this particular entry, from the departure of Colin Trevorrow to the switching of directors from Rian Johnson to JJ Abrams between The Last Jedi and The Rise of Skywalker. The result was a perfect storm for the sort of critical divide that characterizes so many aspects of our culture.
And so it has proved to be. At the time of this writing, the film has attained a bare 57% on Rotten Tomatoes, the lowest of any film in the main saga other than Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. In particular, several critics have taken issue with the return of Emperor Palpatine, suggesting that his return undoes, or at the very least subverts, the meaningfulness of Palpatine’s destruction in Return of the Jedi, particularly as this bears upon Anakin’s destiny as the chosen one who brings balance to the Force. Writing in The Ringer, Ben Lindbergh suggests that The Rise of Skywalker, even if unintentionally, “lessens the significance of the first six films,” going on to ask “what good did he [Anakin] do?” Furthermore, as both Lindbergh and Eliana Dockterman of Time (as well as sundry others) point out, the return of Palpatine suggests that evil is never really defeated. In this reading, startlingly common among the internet commentariat, these new films are fundamentally cynical, proposing that there can never be a final victory over darkness.
And yet I argue that this line of criticism somewhat misses the point or, to put it more precisely, misses the true complexity of what this film, and the new trilogy, is doing. Whereas the earlier two trilogies, in true epic fashion, suggested in their conclusion that the evil of the Sith had been forever banished from the Galaxy, The Rise of Skywalker is radical precisely because it suggests that the epic hero — whether that be Anakin, Luke, or Rey — does not and possibly cannot bring about that sort of end of history. In fact, the greatest acts of heroism might be just tiny moments of victory in the midst of what that great modern myth-maker J.R.R. Tolkien once referred to as “the long defeat.” History, then, does not end in a salvific “happily ever after,” there is no final moment of redemption, and the epic hero might in fact be ensnared in a form of perpetual circularity, taking part in a battle that does not end but must instead be fought again and again and again.
It’s easy to understand why critics should find this proposition so alienating and upsetting. After all, the epic hero’s ability to redeem the world has been and remains one of the most fundamental myths undergirding the collective consciousness of western culture. This has ranged from the figure of Christ in Christian apocalyptic thought to modern speculative fiction and film. The examples are legion: Frodo and the Fellowship set out (and succeed, to a degree) in vanquishing the evil of Sauron from Middle-earth in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings; the Avengers set out to destroy the genocidal Thanos and succeed in doing so (again, at great personal cost) in the Marvel Cinematic Universe; and, of course, Anakin Skywalker and his son Luke each have their own epic journeys, though it is the former who actually brings about the end of the Empire and the Sith by hurling the Emperor into the reactor shaft of the Death Star.
Or so we thought. Yet, from the beginning of this new trilogy of Star Wars films, it’s been clear that evil has not been vanquished but, at least as first explained in The Force Awakens, it has emerged again in the form of the First Order, the militant Knights of Ren, and the shadowy Supreme Leader Snoke. As Gerry Canavan pointed out in a piece at the time, the characters from the original trilogy that continue into The Force Awakens — Luke, Leia, and Han — labor under a sense of “the inexorable logic of history, grinding us all to dust.” For a generation of filmgoers and critics that were raised to love the original films and their very optimistic take on the conflict between good and evil, to learn that the battle is never really over is a bit of a bitter pill to swallow, a pill made all the more bitter by the deaths of these three characters in each installment of the new series.
This “grinding logic of history” is even more in evidence in The Rise of Skywalker, in which it is not just that the characters are enmeshed in the gears of history; they’re enmeshed in a circular pattern of violence that seems doomed to never end. Evil has not just taken on a new form; it is literally the same form that it was before. That’s what’s so disconcerting about the return of Palpatine. We’d been led, by both the films themselves and by our deeply-entrenched way of understanding the logic of epic, that he truly was defeated. There was a brutal sort of finality to his death in Return of the Jedi, since it seems that it would be pretty difficult to come back from being thrown into a ship’s reactor (to say nothing of the explosion of the Death Star). However, if the ending of Return of the Jedi allowed us to believe that the presumed rebirth of both the Republic and the Jedi was the beginning of a new period of peace and tranquility, in the process allowing us to indulge in the collective fantasy that the world really can be redeemed, that there can be an end to history heralded by a messiah, The Rise of Skywalker forces us to confront the ugly reality that none of that is true. Even the most iconic of epic heroes are subject to the relentless turning of fortune’s wheel.
All of this is exacerbated by the fact that Rey is actually Palpatine’s granddaughter. There’s been quite a lot of digital ink spilled about this particular plot twist. Some have suggested that is Abrams’ attempt to undo everything that was accomplished in The Last Jedi, in which Kylo told Rey that her parents were nobodies who sold her into slavery for drinking money. More sinisterly, as Devan Coggan argues, this revelation about Rey’s bloodline also means that now the revolutionary idea that the Force could be found in anyone has been thrown aside in favor of the existing paradigm that isolates it in the hands of a few. However, not only does this argument ignore the reason that most people go to see Star Wars in the first place; it also ignores the fact that, as a friend of mine recently pointed out to me, Rey actively and decisively renounces this lineage in favor of the one that has more personal and emotional meaning for her. When she proclaims at the end of the film that she is a Skywalker, she’s making a choice to honor the family that means more to her rather than simply the one that she happened to be born into.
Just as importantly, we must recognize the profound weight that this genetic legacy puts on Rey. In this film, she comes to shoulder the burden of not only her legacy as the granddaughter of the most evil being in the Galaxy, but also of all the Jedi who’ve come before. Either way, whether she chooses to strike down her grandfather and thus become the vehicle through which the Sith return to the world, or whether she chooses to take up the mantle of the Jedi, either way she will never be entirely in charge of her own destiny. While, admittedly, being inhabited by the spirits of such noble and heroic figures as Obi-Wan, Qui-Gon, Yoda, and other seems far more appealing than being inhabited by the spirits of some of the most monstrous beings in history, the fact remains that, as the last Jedi, she must still shoulder the burdens of the past and the future. Even victory isn’t completely unstained.
For of course it’s worth pointing out that, in the end, Rey is successful in bringing an end to Palpatine, but her victory is not without its own sort of sacrifice. In a mirror of Return of the Jedi, Kylo Ren gives up his life and becomes one with the Force, in doing so bringing a bittersweet ending not just to his own morally ambivalent epic hero’s journey but also the entire Skywalker bloodline. Once again, in the Star Wars universe, it is necessary for a Skywalker to give up his life in order to atone for his sins and for the suffering and death that he has caused.
However, we know now that there is every possibility that Palpatine will once more return or, even if he doesn’t, that there might yet be another who intrudes on the peace of the Galaxy and the new Jedi. (In fact, anyone who has read any of the books and comics recognizes that this is so). The entire new trilogy, with The Rise of Skywalker as its culmination, has rendered this possibility all the more acutely probable. The First Order is decimated, but so is the Resistance and the New Republic, so who really knows what new powers, for good or ill, will step into the vacuum left at the end of this new saga?
Indeed, there is embedded in film’s final image a note — subtle, to be sure — of the circularity of history. As the film ends, Rey now stands on the very threshold of a brighter future, silhouetted against the moons of Tatooine in almost exactly the same way that Luke was in A New Hope. However, if the film has taught us anything, it’s that the future is anything but stable. It might just be that Rey is condemned to pursue the same path as her predecessors, that she might in fact fall prey to the same world-weary cynicism that almost undid Luke and sent him into voluntary exile.
In many ways, the mirroring that occurs between The Rise of Skywalker and earlier films in the Skywalker Saga is a perfect vehicle for the anxieties and concerns of our time. We live in a world, after all, in which Nazism — not just fascism, but actual Nazism — is one the rise again. What better way to force an encounter with the demons of our past and our inability to fully exorcise them than to conjure up the ultimate evil character in the Star Wars mythology? To rephrase Lindbergh’s question somewhat: what good were the sacrifices of all of those who served in World War II if their own descendants were going to embrace the very evil ideology that so many gave their lives to eradicate? What was the point of defeating the Nazis if the very president of the United States would go on national television and announce to the public that there were very fine people among the Neo-Nazi protesters in Charlottesville?
Nor is Star Wars emerging in a popular culture vacuum. Everywhere one looks there is a profound sense that the established conventions of epic heroism no longer contain the explanatory power that they once had; our saviors aren’t saviors anymore. Even a myth that is as central to the paradigm as the Trojan War has come under increasing strain, as can be seen in the Netflix/BBC coproduction Troy: Fall of a City, which goes to great lengths to point out the futility and ultimate folly of epic heroism. And, even when the epic hero does succeed against all the odds in defeating evil, very often he is killed in the process, as happens with Iron Man in Avengers: End Game. The epic — and its hero — confronts the unpleasant reality that the world that we live in remains in a constant state of crisis. There will always be a new villain to defeat, a new existential crisis to avert.
The burdens and failures of the epic hero can also be expanded to the Star Wars franchise as a whole. It seems inevitable that a film that had so much on its shoulders would end up dividing the fandom as sharply as it ever has. Just as each of the characters must contend with the legacy of their pasts — Rey with her newfound knowledge of her family, Kylo with his genocidal actions–so must the film contend with the accreted layers of the other entries of the series. As Richard Newby puts it memorably in The Hollywood Reporter, “Star Wars cannot escape the past. It’s indebted to it. It’s baked right into the core from the very beginning, ‘a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.” The negative reaction of so many critics to this film is an expression, at least in part, of a discomfort with the burdens of history, of our collective inability to move beyond our past.
Is The Rise of Skywalker a perfect film? Is the reintroduction of Palpatine into this universe rather abrupt and somewhat out of the blue? The answers to those are no and yes. However, these facts shouldn’t blind us to the fact that this film, as all of the great modern myths do, both reflect and explain the world to us in ways that we find alternately alienating and comforting. It is, therefore, a mistake to fall into the trap of waving away the criticisms of this film under the guise of saying that they are, at bottom, movies meant for children (a comment both insulting and reductive to the legions of adult fans and scholars who have invested a great deal in this film franchise). Instead, I think it is more productive to view it as either space opera or, to tilt the frame just slightly, as epic. Doing so allows for a richer and more nuanced understanding of the cultural work that it’s doing and the way that it seriously engages with the pressing issues of our own time: of the nature of history, the burdens of the epic hero and, yes, sometimes the futility of even the most noble acts of heroism.
And, as with all good epics, there is much light to balance the darkness. I disagree with the legions of critics that have proclaimed that this film is fundamentally cynical, both narratively and commercially. Instead, The Rise of Skywalker, and this new sequence as a whole, proclaims that the most ethical one can do is to continue the fight, even in the knowledge that it won’t be permanent, that you’ll have to take up the burden and again and again, as will your descendants. This film forces us to stand suspended in the balance between perpetual conflict and perpetual defeat, and in the maintaining of that balance lies its greatest, and most troubling, brilliance.