The characters of the STAR WARS sequel trilogy are generally good. Kylo Ren is an interesting turn on the villain role, a fanboy needled by what legacy he wants to live up to. Rey’s set up as a stranded Skywalker-fangirl scavenger also was interesting, as was how THE LAST JEDI jettisoned the idea of her importance in the narrative needing to be tied to ancestry. Finn has the fascinating backstory of being a child soldier turned rebel, and both he and Poe transcend how underwritten they are through their sharp comic timing and natural chemistry with the rest of the cast. If these characters were in a trilogy set centuries after the original STAR WARS films, perhaps they could have thrived, perhaps the would-be optimism of their arcs could shine. Instead, they’re in a film where living characters are ghoulishly ‘performed’ by sadly deceased actors, and where resolutely dead characters are necromantically played again by living actors.
But they’re in films set a few short decades after the original films. They’re in a hopelessly nihilistic, spiritually draining trilogy that undoes the ending of those films, plunging the galaxy back into turmoil invalidating the actions and sacrifices of its main characters. It twists those main characters, shoving Han Solo back into a smuggler role, Leia Organa into a thankless leadership role mostly uncoupled from her Jedi promise, and Luke Skywalker into a friend-abandoning failure that would draw a weapon on his nephew. In the most bizarre of its necromantic acts, it just flat-out brings the villain of the preceding films back. What is there for this film to do but redux RETURN OF THE JEDI in the ways where that’s still possible, as THE FORCE AWAKENS did to the original STAR WARS film? It leaves a baffling question of what the point of this whole endavour was – obviously there are real-world answers for that, but on story terms the whole thing feels weightless, useless in how it undoes the films it constantly draws from, only to more or less repeat them.
THE LAST JEDI had the wherewithal to try something new – while the specifics of how it progressed Luke’s character were clunky contortions, they were a new direction apart from settling him into the Jedi mentor role. The ways that film jettisoned some of the more typical STAR WARS aspects were interesting, which made it all the more disappointing when the last act of the film walked it all back with a litany of disappointing fakeouts and returns to normalcy (books not really burnt, binaries flattened back out into good versus evil, the story set-up once again reduced back to the same rebels versus empire shtick we literally had back since 1977). The greatest inspiration of THE RISE OF SKYWALKER – besides RETURN OF THE JEDI, of course – seems to be that last act of THE LAST JEDI. It’s absurd how many times a character ‘dies’ in this film, only to be returned to life (one way or another) not long after. And it’s not just lives either. Memories, allies, all sorts of things are constantly subject to fakeouts that build up a kind of shield around the film’s story, teaching the audience to not invest in it.
It’s so frustrating because the main characters work. Abrams wisely sets the trio of good guys together for much of the film. Their banter together is fun; the characters genuinely work well together, albeit on yet another unimaginative desert world (for all of SOLO’s faults, at least it thought up some new settings, and a Han Solo prequel being more inventive than the third film of a new trilogy is plainly embarrassing). But these characters are all situated in a setting inescapably tied to films it has such a bizarre relationship with. The original films ended with an evil empire defeated. Sequels to such a series could go in all sorts of directions, with new challenges and set-ups. To nix all that to return things to the same dynamic creates so many headaches the films try to ignore (how little a new army, ships, or weaponry mean when the audience still has no clarity on the current political set-up of the galaxy). How exactly is one to invest in this trilogy, when the very nature of it encourage not investing in it, since another trilogy could just as easily walk it all back? How can a redux of the ending of RETURN OF THE JEDI be celebrated, when it’s built on undoing the ending of RETURN OF THE JEDI in the first place? Seeing legacy characters fighting essentially the same war decades on is so depressing and dampening of enthusiasm, and seeing the new characters stifled into this repeated setup is so frustrating in how it smothers their chances to be interesting and new.
The most scattered embodiment of this approach is how the film walks back elements of THE LAST JEDI itself. There’s a spiritual successor to Obi-Wan’s infamous ‘what I said was true…from a certain point of view’ in how the film undoes one of the few interesting developments of THE LAST JEDI that that film itself didn’t walk back on its own terms. It’s ridicolous to assert any sort of unifying theme on this series of films made in such different circumstances, by such different people over the years, but perhaps the one most unified in terms of their fiction and real-world developments is legacy. Luke joined up in a struggle and story bigger than himself – indeed, the construct of the series, and the eventual renaming of ‘EPISODE IV – A NEW HOPE’ was to approximate the experience of catching serials that seemed to stretch out far into the past before a kid began engaging with them. Rey and Kylo reckon with these legacy characters, framed as titans before them. Abrams reckons with the films populated with those characters. He suggests one has determination of their legacy and nature in this film, but everything about the film itself seems contrary to that, in what it repeats from preceding films, and what it contorts and undoes. Characters may be from one ancestry or another, but what’s the point in all that when they’re all configured in the same repeat roles anyway.
The most ghoulish configured role is that of the late Carrie Fisher’s character. Her scenes are painful in how obvious they are wordy reworkings of vagaries from deleted scenes of the earlier sequel films. Rey will opine at length on a subject, to be met with something like ‘…nothing’s impossible’. It’s awkward, and the strings are always so clearly visible. Leia is also mistreated in the import the film gives to Tattooine. Tattooine, the place Leia was enslaved as a perversion by Jabba the Hutt, the planet Luke yearned to leave…THE LAST JEDI tried to frame a redux of the famous twin suns scene from the first STAR WARS film as a triumphant, optimistic, hopeful thing. It was ghoulish in the recontextualisation of the representation of Luke’s call to adventure he wistfully looked to as some sort of empty STAR WARS iconography, meaningful because, well, it’s famous iconography from STAR WARS. For an old man in that scene to look upon a representation of liberation, a life starting, it was depressing the same way all the other regressions of this sequel trilogy were. The way the entire trilogy here ends is very much in that fashion. How else could it end? It’s not even sound and fury signifying nothing, because the hopeless redux of the original stories darkly suggests neither will this prove an ending. Whether we ever actually see Rey and Finn in films again and see how their legacies and journeys could be undercut in the service of doing the same song and dance with new characters or not, the whole set-up of these films casts an uneasy hopelessness over their adventures. If they succeed, so what? ‘They’ succeeded last time too. This film is so keen to please, and some of its humour even works quite well (not all is relegated to bathos, thankfully). But its base concept damns it. It is a relief these exercises in nihilism are now over. One and a half deleted scenes, and a missing-in-action Matt Smith.