Episode IX: Diamonds and flotsam

I watched Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker, last weekend, and I doubt I will surprise anyone when I say that I didn’t like it. That is not to say that there weren’t bits of it I loved fervently – I think all of the fight scenes between Rey and Kylo were excellently choreographed, and despite myself their relationship was one of my favorite things about the film. But these were moments of gold floating in the flotsam of the Death Star’s trash compactor. Their shine could not escape their setting.

Spoilers, in case it is not evident, for Star Wars Episode IX. You can check out all my posts about the new trilogy here.

No less than seven people were brought back from death within the course of this movie.

I want to start here because this is where the movie started. Kylo fights to find the lost Sith homeworld, still unsure of his commitment to the Dark Side, of his power, despite everything. The crawl at the beginning of the movie offered no new information, and no real context – it was kept entirely for the sake of tradition. We are dropped into the action – Kylo on his quest.

And at the end of his road he finds the Emperor.

The Emperor’s death is canon to the original series. It is possible to bring him back, of course, and his body is never seen, so this particular resurrection is not as egregious as it could be (though it is entirely unnecessary as a method to up the stakes of the film). It was the moment when the film lost me first, though not the last time it lost me, and I should state that now because it’s important to know that as a reviewer and a long-time fan I was unimpressed from the moment he was revealed. If this decision appealed to you, it’s possible that you didn’t catch all of the other resurrections or decided to accept them. And I respect your wish, viewer, to enjoy this episode in what seems to me to be a franchise being choked of life by growing commercialism and fanservice. The Emperor is a great symbol for what this movie does to Star Wars – a zombification propped up by CGI and ill will.

But I digress. We are cataloguing resurrections.

The second resurrection occurs when Rey kills Chewbacca. That is, when she, a Force-sensitive trained Jedi apprentice, identifies the transport Chewbacca is on and attempts to land it, only to have Kylo Ren foil her attempts. In the struggle, the transport explodes. Rey is certain that she has killed Chewie. A possibility for real introspection and character growth appears – and is quickly bypassed in favor of a rescue mission that is nonsensical. It does allow us to see one of the most interesting fights in the film – Rey in Kylo Ren’s quarters, Kylo Ren on the ground in the city where she was meant to be. It is otherwise irredeemable to the plot – Chewbacca does nothing in the film, and neither does the knife Rey retrieves at that time. Hux’s death, while satisfying in some ways, does not further the plot in any fashion. We’re not sure why we’re here, but Chewie’s alive, so that’s something.

The third resurrection is perhaps the most ridiculous one within a long list of ridiculous resurrections.

You can argue that the Emperor had to return, if you want, and that Chewie never really died. But C-3PO’s memory wipe is ultimately a death – one that could have been played poignantly as in Season 3 of The Good Place, when Chidi makes the choice to give up his memories of his love with Eleanor to give the group a fighting chance. C-3PO also makes a choice – though the dialogue makes every effort to undercut that choice and it’s strongly inferred that the group will make it for him whatever he chooses – and the dialogue explicitly states that R2D2 does not keep a significant enough back-up of his memory to restore him to himself. Yet as soon as C-3PO returns to R2’s side, some iteration of his memory is in fact restored. This is not a sacrifice. This is comedy.

We meet our fourth and fifth victims of resurrection in the same series of scenes, two new characters from Poe’s past. One of them is presumably his girlfriend. In a piece of dialogue that is heavy-handed and doesn’t seem consistent with her and Poe’s backstory, Zorii delivers what is meant to be the central theme (if the movie can be said to have a theme) of the film. “They win by convincing you that you are alone.” There’s a powerful sentiment here. Later, we see Zorii’s planet blow up in a demonstration of power from one of the Final Order’s Destroyers. There is no intimation that she may have escaped. Poe believes she is dead, along with the little mechanic who helped them by wiping C-3PO. He uses her words to rally his troops in a last stand.

Of course, she shows up at the end, her mechanic friend in tow. There was never any death to fear here after all.

The sixth resurrection is the only resurrection in the film that actually carried weight for its character and his plot. It is the resurrection of Ben Solo.

Kylo Ren’s arc, while still frenetic, is perhaps the most developed of any of the arcs in the film. He and Rey are the only characters who drive the action of this movie, and so it is fitting that one of the most engaging scenes of the film is between the two of them. In their fight on Endor, Kylo Ren pursues Rey with the hope of subduing her, while she is focused on killing him, striking out in her rage and fear. It is a moment where Rey almost turns to the Dark Side, and that should have been the focus. Instead, this is the moment where Leia dies in a strange, half-hearted attempt to provide some final closure to her character. Leia’s death is anticlimactic, overshadowed by the action around it, and shows no real agency or intent on the General’s part. Instead, she is rendered in those last moments as simply an extension of her son. She wastes her power reaching for him, and it kills her.

But this is not a catalogue of deaths, per se. It is a catalogue of resurrections. This scene could have existed without any intervention from Leia. Rey overpowers Kylo. She strikes him a mortal blow. A lightsaber through the lung, far from help from any of his allies? There is no hope for Kylo Ren. He knows it. You can see it, in those moments, on his face.

And then Rey reaches out and heals him.

It is easy to imagine in this moment that Rey heals Kylo not for him, but for the sake of Leia Organa. For the woman they both love. And in choosing to heal him, Rey says that she no longer considers him a threat. She no longer fears him. She takes a step solidly towards the Light. In her parting words, she tells him, “I did want to take your hand. Ben’s hand.” This is the moment of Ben Solo’s redemption. The moment when he revives. It is beautiful, because it is also the moment where Rey leaves him – and his revival is only possible because she has decided she does not need him. There is a lot that could have been done with this scene, a lot that could have been done with their relationship – a romance that heals worlds, instead of breaking them as Anakin and Padme’s did.

But like every Star Wars movie in existence, this is where things fall apart. Because while Rey and Ben’s romance is the backbone of this movie, the thing that drives so much of it, we cannot have a happily ever after.

In the last resurrection, Rey is brought back to life. She is brought back from her nonsensical sacrifice, her strange, uncertain death. She breathes. She looks in Ben Solo’s eyes, kisses him, at last with the person who she has always known was there.

And he vanishes.

We cannot have a romance, and we cannot have healing. When the movie most needs life instead of death – when Ben Solo could have chosen to face his past instead of dying with it – death comes in and does not even leave us a moment to grieve.

In short, this film was a jumble of odd choices, featuring a plot that was loose, like a net built solely to catch all the shiny flotsam of Abram’s fandom. No moment, no character decision existed for its own sake. Jeannette Ng writes very eloquently on this in her Medium article, Memorabilia without Memory, a Misunderstanding of Hope. In it, she argues that much of the reason the film feels so disorganized is because of the endless call-outs, the fanservice, the flotsam and dross hiding the bones of anything good underneath. Plot should serve character, not the other way around, and certainly appealing to fans with juvenile references should not override the efficacy of plot.

This is not the Star Wars we deserved. This is one man’s attempt to mollify an entire fandom. It takes no chances except ones which are calculated and designed to appease the viewer. It has no internal cohesion. And it leaves us no closer to understanding the themes of good and evil so integral to the original trilogy. It cannot wrestle meaningfully with sacrifice and loss, because no sacrifice in this movie truly has any meaning. This is not a story of a Palpatine, or even a Skywalker.

It’s the story of no one.

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