WARNING: THIS COLUMN EXCERPT CONTAINS DETAILED SPOILERS.
Full disclosure: Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker is a bad film – which is to say that it is, in general, poorly written and poorly edited. A lot of good work has been completed by a lot of people for this highly anticipated final chapter of a 42-year-long saga – including actors, costume design, set design, and visual effects – but, unfortunately, all of those outstanding contributions are thoroughly undermined by myopic writing and direction. In an effort to leave every thread tied, this film contorts itself into nonsensical shapes for the sole purpose of fan-service. The problem is that only one type of fan is actually served. Anyone hoping for an ending that does not centre on misogyny is left out in a Hoth-like cold. But, I guess this is Star Wars, and it was ever thus.
Applying a feminist lens to Star Wars has always been a complicated business. As a franchise, in its entirety, it has always been sexist and racist to varying degrees but, perhaps more than most other iconic film properties, it had the potential to do better. Apart from being science fiction, in which all things are supposed to be possible, it literally began with a story that centred around the actions of Princess Leia Organa – back in 1977, when such a driven female protagonist was especially rare in cinema. This has always been Star Wars’ biggest problem. It provides glimpses of hope; of the intention to do things differently, and in a more inclusive way; of the prospect of embracing all the potential that comes with an epic, long-running tale of science fiction. And then, it snatches it all away, and plunges us right back into sexism and racism again.
That plunge is the sum total of what constitutes Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker.
A sense of hope was created by Rian Johnson’s Episode VIII – The Last Jedi. That movie introduced wonderful new women characters who were integral to the plot – like Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), and Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) – and it developed the central character of Rey (Daisy Ridley) in such a way that it pushed the whole franchise beyond the bounds of the Skywalker family – cementing the idea that she was born with no known parental connection to the Force. She is repeatedly told, through various means, that she is not the child of any noted figure of the historical conflict. She is simply a child who can use the Force, who became involved in the Resistance.
That is of the greatest importance, in terms of representation. JJ Abrams gave us Rey in Episode VII – The Force Awakens, but he made her parentage purposefully vague, and spent the whole movie having the men around her comment on how surprised they are that she can do things. Rian Johnson took that character, and surrounded her with moments that gifted Star Wars fans with the idea that anyone can grow up to be a Jedi, including women. With its central story arc of a woman finding her way and herself, and its final frames of a random young stable hand moving a broom with his mind, The Last Jedi allowed for a woman hero who has a complex inner life for her own reasons – not reasons that are defined by others, and certainly not reasons that are defined by the male characters with whom she is constantly surrounded. With The Rise of Skywalker, JJ Abrams snatches all of that away, and makes a liar of Rian Johnson. Instead of building on Johnson’s brilliant work, Abrams slams the Star Wars franchise into reverse, and ‘light-speed skips’ right back to the early 1980s.
We are lulled into a false sense of security by the opening crawl, which centres on General Leia Organa, just as the opening crawl of A New Hope centred on her younger self. This is as it should be. This was, after all, intended to be Leia’s movie – after The Force Awakens centred on Han Solo, and The Last Jedi was all about Luke. But, as we know, LucasFilm took so long to properly focus on their best asset – Carrie Fisher – that she literally died waiting.
So, this opening crawl tells us that a broadcast has been heard throughout the galaxy, and is believed to come from Emperor Palpatine – the villain of the original Star Wars trilogy, thought to be long dead. The opening crawl also tells us that General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) has her Resistance forces trying to find the source of it, and that her estranged son Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is also trying to track the Emperor down because the Emperor constitutes a threat to his newly won power. As soon as the crawl fades into the distance, though, the film flies off its rails. It begins, with lots of short shots of Kylo Ren’s quest to find Palpatine. He’s engaged in a lightsaber fight in a forest, he’s piloting his ship across the galaxy to various locations, and he’s growling at General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) and General Pryde (Richard E Grant) over his ship’s communications system.
Meanwhile, Rey is floating cross-legged and peaceful in a forest, surrounded by floating rocks, chanting “Be with me,” to long-dead past Jedis. She is with General Leia Organa in a Jedi training camp, of sorts, and she runs an obstacle course as part of her learning. Her fellow Resistance fighters – Finn (John Boyega) and Poe (Oscar Isaac) are out in the Millenium Falcon, confronting the First Order in their Destroyer ships and barely escaping with their lives. Rey is torn between helping them out in the galaxy and completing her training – and Leia counsels her. Notably, Rey refers to Leia as her Jedi Master – which is, frankly, one of the only things the movie gets right.
The plot itself is deeply formulaic. Rey and her team must find one of two Sith Wayfinders in order to navigate to the location of Emperor Palpatine. It is very important that they succeed, because it turns out that Palpatine has secretly been rebuilding the Sith, complete with a massive fleet of Destroyers that are armed with the same planet-killing weapons as the Death Star once was. So, they go on a lengthy quest to find the necessary item, and then head for the big confrontation with the villain. So far, so Star Wars – but the problem lies in what happens during this journey.
There’s Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams), who pops up when Rey, Finn, Poe, C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), and BB8 land on a planet to find the Sith Wayfinder. He is a welcome sight, because he is the one legendary character from the original trilogy that fans had hoped to see in Episodes VII and VIII, but who had never yet reappeared. Yes, his younger self was included in Solo: A Star Wars Story (played by Donald Glover), but audiences were hankering for the return of the original actor, just as Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, and Carrie Fisher had been involved. But, in The Rise of Skywalker, Lando Calrissian is reduced to being a Non-Player Character in a video game.
He literally pops up just to give them a clue about the location of the Wayfinder. His return is not afforded the significance of being organic within the story – it is simply a glaring piece of fan-service; a tick-box checking exercise; as if JJ Abrams and co-writer Chris Terrio were working through a list of things that must be included. To do this to such an iconic Star Wars character – not to mention one of the few black characters in the film – is a considerable disservice. This disservice is compounded by the fact that his dialogue here indicates that he had been travelling with Luke Skywalker before the events that led to the Jedi’s self-exile and The Force Awakens. This is almost insulting – to have this deeply missed character basically say, “Well, I was here all along – you just didn’t see me.” Sadly, this is not the only instance of this lazy, retro-fitting plot device in The Rise of Skywalker.
Lando appears briefly three more times after that – once in a ‘team meeting’ scene, once during the final confrontation, and once during the celebration at the end. When he returns for the end battle, we suddenly remember that he was sent away on an errand – albeit an important one. He reappears in the Millenium Falcon, alongside Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), having gone out into the galaxy to drum up support for the Resistance. While it is a triumphant return at the head of a massive, ad- hoc fleet, it still feels like he is used for convenience in contrast to the reverence with which Luke, Han, Leia, Yoda, and now Palpatine have been treated.
There’s Finn, who was a character of such huge importance in both The Force Awakens, and The Last Jedi. Here, he is reduced to playing second-fiddle to Rey and Poe. Finn basically spends most of the movie running after Rey, trying to tell her something very important. He has little impact on the plot, other than to add intrigue. What is he so desperate to tell her? Why can’t he bring himself to do it – even in a moment when it seems they are facing certain death? This kind of disingenuous teasing on the part of the writers leads us to wonder whether he is about to declare his undying love for her – until the final act of the film, when it becomes clear that he is trying to tell her he is ‘Force Sensitive.’ Does that mean Finn gets to have romance with the other character with whom he has incredible chemistry? Of course not, because that other character is a man and – as much fan-service as exists in this film, Disney still won’t go so far as to feature a loving homosexual relationship.
If this film were to allow things to develop organically within the narrative, Poe and Finn would be able to express their romantic love for one another. But it doesn’t. Instead, Poe becomes General when Leia dies, and he tells Finn that “he can’t lead without him,” promoting him by his side. At the same time, Poe has suddenly come across an old lover – a woman named Zorii Bliss (Keri Russell). There has been no indication of past relationships for Poe in previous movies – only his intense chemistry with Finn. But here, Poe’s head is turned by his ex-girlfriend, while Finn spends time with Jannah (Naomi Ackie) – another former Stormtrooper, whose story resonates with him deeply. He is also followed around by Rose Tico, with whom he developed a strong bond in The Last Jedi, who is clearly in love with him. Rose is entirely marginalised in this chapter, though – despite being one of the best and most vital parts of that previous film.
But, what’s the problem with this? People love who they love, and maybe Poe is bi-sexual? The problem with this is that, in the final act of The Last Jedi, Rose saved Finn’s life, declared her love and kissed him – and Finn’s response was muted, to say the least. The implication there was that his heart already belonged to someone else. It could have been Rey, or it could have been Poe – the vagueness of the thing was part of the tease. Much of the Star Wars fandom was very vocal about their support for a Poe-Finn relationship and, more importantly, such a progression felt organic, and appropriate for their characters and the way they interacted. So, for a film that works so hard to contort itself into inorganic shapes for the express purpose of fulfilling the wishes of fans, the abrupt clarity brought to the relationship between Finn and Poe is noticeable in its harshness. The fact that we are offered the most fleeting glimpse of two white women, clearly in a relationship, sharing a loving kiss during the end celebration only draws attention to the fact that Finn and Poe have not been allowed romantic love with each other. In short, the brief shot of the kiss between these women feels like a consolation prize for those hoping that The Rise Of Skywalker would build on the inclusivity of The Last Jedi.
While Finn spends time with Jannah, we learn that she was once also a Stormtrooper. She tells him how his story inspired her whole Stormtrooper regiment to stage a mutiny and escape when they were ordered to slaughter civilians. Jannah is a great character, and is the only black woman in this film to have more than a line or two while appearing as herself (Lupita Nyong’o stars as the CGI character Maz Kanata). She is resourceful, driven, and capable, and leads her group of ex-Stormtroopers in protecting their home and resisting the First Order. She and Finn discuss their respective pasts at length, delving into the trauma of having been stolen from their families as children, stripped of their identities, and forced to become Stormtroopers through indoctrination. They lament the fact that this is the story of most Stormtroopers and then, in the final, nonsensical act, they work together to slaughter lots of Stormtroopers.
This is another part of the story that doesn’t make sense. Rey’s arc has her coming to the conclusion that love and peace trumps violence. We see her face down a large serpent that would kill her, but because it is wounded, she heals it with Life Force and kindness and it leaves her and her friends be. She heals Kylo Ren and he abandons the Dark Side and his urge to murder her. The whole thrust of her story at this point is that Jedi and the Resistance should be better than the genocidal First Order. The conversations between Finn and Jannah echo this sentiment. Then, soon enough, they’re all celebrating after killing hundreds of thousands of people – many of whom were only in their bad-guy uniforms under duress.
Great as the character of Jannah is (nonsensical plot aside), JJ Abrams and Chris Terrio force her into the same narrow slot as Rey, which is to be a woman who gains all her power from a man. Jannah was emboldened by Finn’s story, while Rey finally finds out who her parents really were in what is undoubtedly the biggest, most misogynist gut punch this film franchise has ever delivered.
We are told that Rey is not the child of unknown parents, but is actually the grandchild of Emperor Palpatine. She is not a complex character in her own right, but instead got her power from a man. In fact, she is literally told, “Your power comes from him.” The sense of betrayal this engenders cannot be overstated. We were gifted a bona fide heroine, only for her to be taken away. We were offered a vision of a progressive film franchise that would be open to the idea of a woman simply having her own life, and her own destiny, and it was obliterated under a patriarchal hammer blow – reminding us that actually, everything stems from men. We can’t have power, or capability, or ambition unless it is given to us by men; unless men consent to us having it; unless it receives the patriarchal seal of approval.
This is the difference between the male lens and the feminist lens. The Last Jedi demonstrated that Rian Johnson understood the influence of the male gaze, and he worked to subvert that in very effective, interesting ways. That was successful, because the film ended with a message of such inclusivity that the more bigoted sections of fandom railed against the idea of people having power without it first being created and held by men. It is no coincidence that The Last Jedi promoted the idea that Rey is just Rey and is also powerful, and that The Last Jedi is also thought of as being among the most “divisive” of Star Wars movies. Fandom was indeed divided between those that appreciated ‘Just Rey’, and those that did not. The Rise of Skywalker most assuredly serves the latter group, and not the former.
The Rise of Skywalker sits firmly in the centre of the male lens. Men are at the very heart of this film, even though its lead is a woman. Her power comes from men, and men are trying to tell her how to use it. Kylo Ren continues his campaign to influence her and turn her to the Dark Side, so she can rule by his side. Emperor Palpatine wants to turn her to the Dark Side so she can rule in his place. Luke Skywalker turns up as a ghost to try and influence her to stay with the Light and connect more fully with the Force. It is only the woman she listens to – General Leia Organa – who tells Rey to listen to herself, and trust herself to know who she really is outside of all that male toxicity.
It is possible to look at all of that and wonder if, possibly, the point Abrams is attempting to make is that in the face of unending Patriarchy, women have to fight incredibly hard to be themselves, rather than acquiesce to male demands. That would be an interesting and incredibly generous take. It is also a take roundly contradicted by the fact that JJ Abrams ends the film with Rey travelling to Tatooine, to visit the childhood home of Luke Skywalker. Here, she moves through his abandoned home, buries Luke and Leia’s lightsabers, tells an old woman that her name is Skywalker, and stands against the sunset with BB8 at her side. The intention here is to bring the story full circle – to bring the Jedi back to the very beginning. But all this achieves is to fully disempower Rey as a woman, and a Jedi. She might have just literally buried the past, but here she now is, living in it.
Tatooine was never enough for Luke – that was the point of A New Hope. He was a whiny teenage farm boy, and he was dissatisfied with his life there. He wanted more than anything to head off into the stars, and become a pilot. He wanted more than Tatooine. He was ambitious, and he worked to achieve that ambition, despite the protestations of his adoptive family. In his older years, Luke also wanted nothing to do with Rey. While Han Solo and Leia Organa both took her under their respective wings, Luke consistently rejected her, until he had no other choice – and even then he abandoned her training almost immediately so that she had to simply head out on her own.
It was then Leia that spent time with her, and trained her properly – despite never having had the opportunity to wield a lightsaber in a movie herself. But, instead of Rey heading out to find her own story, and forge her own path in the knowledge of Luke’s rejection of her, Rey goes to Tatooine, and identifies herself as a Skywalker. Not an Organa. Not a Solo. Not even, simply and most appropriately, as ‘Just Rey’. Leia had far more influence on Rey’s development as a Jedi, but Leia had nothing to do with Tatooine. She and Luke were siblings separated at birth. The Rise of Skywalker has Rey enslave herself to the memory of one of the men that treated her badly, then, which is entirely in keeping with the gross misogyny of this chapter.
Luke is not the only man to treat Rey badly. She is also locked in an abusive relationship with Kylo Ren – complete with all the classic signs and red flags. When she doesn’t give him what he wants, he erupts in violence. He tells her that she will acquiesce to his demands in the end. He gaslights her with his knowledge of her childhood trauma. He tries to manipulate events around her, so she has no choice but to give in to him. This continues throughout the movie, and is an extension of his mind-rape of her in The Force Awakens, and their Force-connection in The Last Jedi. He wants to turn her to the Dark Side, and she wants to turn him to the Light. They spend a lot of time in lightsaber fights, and she even wins one of them.
But then, she saves him from his mortal wound with her ability to give Life Force. She tells him that she prefers Ben Solo to Kylo Ren – echoing the ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ nature of abusive men. And suddenly, this mass-murdering, genocidal maniac is redeemed. Just like that. He is healed, Leia dies, and the ghost of Han Solo tells him that Kylo Ren is dead. Ben Solo and Rey then eventually use their Force connection to beat Emperor Palpatine and save the day. She dies, he saves her with Life Force, they kiss, he smiles, then dies and disappears – Jedi-style.
Apart from the fact that it doesn’t make any sense (why did she not disappear when she died?), this is the single-most socially dangerous message of this male gaze film – that violent, abusive men are just sad and misguided, and can be made better by the love, patience and understanding of a woman. If women would just be nice to the men that are literally trying to kill them, then those men would see the error of their ways and be nice in return. They can be redeemed. As well as demonstrating the age-old cinematic trope of ‘The Betterment Of Men Being The Purpose Of Women,’ this kind of logic is beyond disgusting and, when practiced in the real world, actually costs lives.
When a film franchise reaches the level of pop culture saturation that Star Wars has over the past 42 years, it has an undeniable obligation to be socially conscious. Unfortunately, the series has mostly employed filmmakers who work only from the white male gaze – and the result is egregious misogyny and racism. The trouble with The Rise of Skywalker, specifically, is that it came hot on the heels of The Last Jedi, which remains the most feminist and inclusive Star Wars film of all time – despite its own numerous flaws.
A final word on the notion of Leia Organa’s lightsaber: This is, like the treatment of Lando Calrissian, lazy retro-fitting within the narrative. Elements of fandom have long been vocal about the injustices endured by the iconic character of Leia Organa at the hands of LucasFilm and, in later years, Disney. She is literally the twin of Luke Skywalker, but doesn’t ever get to use the Force beyond ‘sensing’ what is happening. Luke got to be the pro-active warrior seeing the most action, while Leia had to bide her time with a blaster, like everyone else. She is a great leader, and kickstarted the whole thing in A New Hope, but as soon as Luke and Han arrive, she is increasingly relegated to issuing orders from base camp throughout the franchise, unless she is rescuing them from their escapades.
But now, JJ Abrams would like us to know that yes, Leia did have a lightsaber. You just never got to see her use it. For 42 years, your impression of your beloved Star Wars hero was wrong. This is the worst possible tribute to a character that many hold close to their heart – to wait until she is dead to essentially re-shape her entire arc. Moreover, it doesn’t even make sense within the narrative of the franchise.
The whole thing has been about Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber – it has been held and passed around like a Holy Grail from The Force Awakens, through The Last Jedi. Then suddenly, during a crisis of confidence, Rey comes across Leia’s lightsaber, just as Abrams and Terrio want Star Wars fans to feel better about the studio’s treatment of Leia? It’s a last-minute add-on; a feeble attempt to rectify what has long been wrong. It is offensive, and indicative of the way in which male gaze filmmakers will go out of their way to appease likeminded fans, while everyone else gets afterthoughts and insufficient, late-game crumbs…
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