SPOILERS for Star Wars – Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker. ALL OF THE SPOILERS.
I really enjoyed The Rise of Skywalker. In fact, I loved it. However, I know that the Star Wars fanbase won’t like it because not all of their questions were answered, and because it won’t make sense with the continuity and backstory laid out in various tie-in materials that only the most hardcore fans care about. It also doesn’t give logical explanations for certain things that I’ll mention below the cut because SPOILERS.
But you know what? I think that’s completely acceptable because Star Wars doesn’t need to make sense to be an effectively told story. Why? Because Star Wars is a modern mythos.
Okay, we’ll get into the spoilers after the cut, and just so I don’t spoil anyone before the cut with images, here’s Baby Yoda:
Anyway, I want to talk about why Star Wars has stayed culturally relevant for the past 40 years. It’s not because of any internal logic or strict adherence to continuity. Only a vocal minority of Star Wars fans care about those qualities and judge the stories by them. No, Star Wars has stayed relevant because it taps into both universal storytelling strengths and cultural anxieties, which is what all good myths do.
I’ve written before on this blog about how the MCU is a modern mythological cycle, and while that’s true, Star Wars is THE modern mythological cycle. It’s got everything: good guys, bad guys, the eternal dread of watching your loved one get seduced into joining a cult, humor, philosophy, and old men who refuse to let go of power. It also has an ever-expanding universe that contains so many different species and cultures.
Why else is Star Wars still relevant and popular? For the same reason some fanboys hate it so much now: it has embraced the evolution of blockbuster storytelling by including more diverse casts and actually letting a female main character wield a lightsaber in the foreground.
You will never understand how much Rey wielding a blue lightsaber means to me. I first saw the original Star Wars trilogy in early 1997, when I was seven years old. I loved the story so much, and I wanted nothing more than to become a Jedi and wield a blue lightsaber. However, seven-year-old Mary Grace realized there was just one problem with that fantasy: only boys got lightsabers. I tried to imagine being a boy so I could imagine wielding a lightsaber, and when that didn’t work, I just decided that in my head, girls could wield lightsabers.
We did get a couple of female Jedi in the prequels, but they were only in the background. Why? Because George Lucas could only imagine female leads who were blaster-wielding love interests. It never occurred to him that we could stand on our own, rise above the rest, and bring balance to the Force. Yes, I’m grateful to George Lucas for creating Star Wars, but I believe that the best Star Wars storytelling has come from people who are not him. Great examples of this include the current trilogy, The Mandalorian, and E.K. Johnston’s YA Novel, Queen’s Shadow, which is all about Padme and her handmaidens being awesome.
Okay, rant about why women should wield lightsabers over.
Here are two things from The Rise of Skywalker that probably don’t make sense from a nitpicky continuity/internal logic standpoint, but make sense from emotional, thematic, and character-based standpoints:
The Return of Emperor Palpatine
This is a narrative choice that people are always going to have issues with because Palpatine wasn’t alluded to in the two previous films. That happened because J.J. Abrams and Rian Johnson didn’t have an ending planned for the trilogy, since they’re just having fun playing in the Star Wars sandbox. However, even if Palpatine’s return is logically random, it makes sense when you consider this franchise’s mythic stature and how myths confront and play with the fears and anxieties of the culture that created it.
Right now, American society is dealing with old men who refuse to relinquish the large amounts of power they hold. You see this with Donald Trump, who violated the U.S. Constitution and refuses to comply with impeachment investigations. You also see it with Senators Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham, who refuse to give Trump an impartial impeachment trial in the Senate.
Of course, it’s not limited to politicians. The Koch Brothers, for example, love to throw their money around to obstruct and ruin public transportation so more people will spend time in their cars. America has a major problem with old men pulling strings to increase their own power while disenfranchising everyone else, and Palpatine’s return appropriately reflects that aspect of American society.
Now, I’m not saying The Rise of Skywalker is an allegory for this problem, but Palpatine’s return is thematically applicable to and representative of this problem. People often talk about allegory vs. applicability when they talk about J.R.R. Tolkien, but I believe applicability is the reason that myths work so well. You see, allegory is fixed and intentional, like how Aslan will always represent Jesus in The Chronicles of Narnia. Applicability, however, means that aspects of certain stories can be applied to certain topics or issues, but don’t concretely represent those things. Myths work because they grow and change over the years, and they represent different issues for different people. The Odyssey, for example, represent different things for us than it did for its original Ancient Greek audience, but the story still resonates for us. The same is true for Star Wars: no matter how we change, we find something of value in it. Even in the prequels.
Palpatine’s return makes sense on thematic and emotional levels because it speaks to the issue of these immoral and immensely powerful old men who just WILL. NOT. GO. AWAY. The characters cannot escape him, just like we can’t escape Trump, McConnell, Graham, the Koch Brothers, or any other their peers. No one can escape the damage Palpatine or his real-life counterparts cause, which is why I’m fine with his appearance here.
Rey is Palpatine’s Granddaughter
In some ways, this twist is slightly out of left field, but I disagree with the idea that this completely breaks the moral from The Last Jedi, that Rey has her power only because of her good spirit, not because of any lineage. I say it complicates it, rather than destroying the moral. This happens because of conflicting creative visions: J.J. Abrams seems to want Rey to have a grand lineage, while Rian Johnson wanted her to be an ordinary person. I say that this reveal cements Rey as both ordinary and extraordinary.
Yes, her Force powers may have to do with her Palpatine lineage, but she wasn’t raised to be a Palpatine. Unlike Kylo Ren, she had no knowledge of her heritage and wasn’t raised to fulfill any important expectations. Her parents chose to live as ordinary people, and when they left her on Jakku, Rey raised herself as an obscure scavenger who stripped an old Star Destroyer wreck for parts (which is how she became a knowledgeable mechanic). Her bloodline may be extraordinary, but she grew up as an ordinary but goodhearted person. When she finds out about her lineage, she actively doesn’t want it.
That leads me to a major theme in this film: names, bloodlines, and identity. In this film, Rey takes the last name Skywalker at the end to show appreciate for the people who helped her come of age, rather than accepting the evil name she was born to have. On the other hand Kylo Ren waves between being Supreme Leader Kylo Ren and Ben Solo, son of Han and Leia. The journeys Rey and Kylo Ren take in this film are about navigating between your bloodline and your chosen identity. Rey ultimately severs her ties with her Palpatine heritage, while Kylo Ren learns to embrace his Skywalker and Solo heritage.
The thing about this trilogy is that the arc overall isn’t very cohesive (and that has to do with having two different directors, Carrie Fisher dying, probably some studio oversight and meddling from Disney), but each piece of the trilogy is its own separate story. Each one makes sense on its own, but they don’t entirely gel together. However, this is my favorite of the three Star Wars trilogies because it has the best writing, directing, acting, etc., and because we’ve gotten away from the concept of having only one woman in each film.
Does this trilogy have flaws? Yes. Is it still compelling, interesting, and fun? Yes. So let’s all just relax and watch it again.