The Dark Side of the Force: Star Wars, Junk, Capitalism (and Hope)

WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD

Blogging about Star Wars is somewhat of a tradition of mine; my previous blog was called “may-theforcebewithyou,” and I reviewed both The Force Awakens (2015) and Rogue One (2016) when they came out (I was on a blogging hiatus when The Last Jedi hit theatres). So, it only seems fitting that I say something about The Rise of Skywalker (henceforth Rise), the final (?) installment of the now 9-part Star Wars saga.

I grew up watching Star Wars, so my love for the saga is rooted in family, my childhood fondness for endearing droids, “the force,” never losing hope, etc., all the classic tropes for which the saga is known. And we like what is familiar and dear to us; the enduring power of Star Wars proves as much. Yet there were moments during the long-awaited Rise when I felt that the film’s evocation of the past, the familiar, and the nostalgic no longer hit the mark. None of the #throwbacks in Rise—Lando, Luke’s X-Wing, least of all Palpatine—really made me feel nostalgic. By dredging up the iconography of its past to define (or salvage) the present, Rise simultaneously advocates for a culture of reuse while flaunting conspicuous waste.

It might seem strange to apply a recycling metaphor to the Star Wars franchise, but let’s face it—the movies have always been about trash. I mean, literal junk. In Episode 4, the genesis of Star Wars, R2-D2 comes to Luke via the Jawas, who sell mechanical scraps. The Millenium Falcon is “a piece of junk.” Of course, there’s also the iconic trash compactor scene. But junk is valuable in the saga. The Falcon is precious. You can fix a broken ship using spare parts, janky as they are, and it’s often in the junkiest/jankiest places that you strike gold: Ochi’s ship on Rise, for example, is where Rey and co. find clues that help them get to where they need to go.

But when franchises like Star Wars start to rely on recycling past content, nostalgia begins to feel like a gimmick. Suddenly, the independent-scavenger mentality of finding value in scraps is replaced by the sameness of conveyer-belt manufacturing. Rise depends so heavily on its predecessors that it no longer feels “new.” Yes, the film introduced a number of new characters, the most memorable of which is Jannah, but in its darkest moments, Rise feels disposable.

What does Rise lose by resuscitating Palpatine and killing off all the main villains (I am not counting Kylo Ren as a villain here) of the first two sequels? It shows us that General Hux and Snoke (or at least, the idea of Snoke having a more interesting backstory) never mattered. Instead, there was a bigger villain lurking in the background and masterminding everything all this time. And frankly, the bigger villain is not Palpatine himself, but (and this is where I go off the rails a little bit) the Star Wars capitalist machine. When Palpatine faces Rey towards the end of the movie, he is almost hanging from a mechanical contraption that looks comically staged. Visually, it looks as if some twisted puppeteering is at work, and indeed it is: just as Snoke was Palpatine’s puppet, Palpatine is the Star Wars franchise’s puppet, dropped into the final film to tie together the saga’s strings. The fact that Palpatine’s dialogue very much resembles his lines from Revenge heightens his puppet-ness; he’s like a doll that repeats trademark lines when you push it. When he said “unnatural” and “do it,” I didn’t know whether to put my head in my hands or to laugh. (J.J. Abrams wrote/”rehashed” the dialogue for that scene, by the way; more on my beef with him later).

The irony of Rise is that the film, despite its “recycling” tactics, exposes the privilege (and wastefulness) of capitalist consumerism; you can afford to throw things away or be careless because you know you’ll be able to buy something similar later or even get it back. In some ways, modern technology has made us less afraid of losing things. But it’s also made us wasteful—wasteful of material objects and of ideas. Like, you can say that Rey’s parents were “nobody” in Episode 8 and then backtrack to say that she’s actually Palpatine’s granddaughter in Episode 9. Or, you can wipe C-3PO’s memory and then back it up later safely. It’s like accidentally deleting a photo and then finding it again in a file called “recently deleted” (I’ve done this). It’s like submitting a final draft of a paper via Google Docs and then going back to edit the document even after the deadline (I have not done this). Capitalism makes us apathetic.

Seeing Lando, Han, Luke, the X-Wing, Palpatine, and more in Rise didn’t always make me feel nostalgic; I felt exhausted. Don’t get me wrong; I think attention to history is vital, and I have boundless appreciation for the detail-oriented references in Rise. Show me a trick once, and it’s magic; but use it over and over, and it becomes a gimmick. As my former professor Sianne Ngai argues in her book Theory of the Gimmick, “gimmicks strike us as both working too little (e.g., as labor-saving “tricks”) but also as working too hard (overstrained efforts at getting our attention).” It’s a lot of effort to bring back a cast of old characters for Rise, but it’s also lazy. So many of the major turning points in this film occur because someone from the past makes it happen: Lando brings a massive fleet of rebels to fight the imperial fleet, Han’s memory-ghost has a moment with Ben, Luke stops Rey from chucking her lightsaber into the fire, Palpatine becomes the sequels’ new/old villain, etc. The rehashed lines from previous films, reused tropes, and revived characters feel like labor-saving devices that piece Rise together. This method of reusing and recycling does not promote sustainability; instead, it feels like regression. By having Rey be a Palpatine or a Skywalker, the film doesn’t allow the saga or its new characters to go anywhere new. We are stuck in the lineage of the past, forever lightspeed skipping between different allusions. Perhaps that’s just the fate of a film like Rise, which is tasked with the difficult job of bringing the whole saga to a close (for now). But I do think that Episodes 7-9 have given us the opportunity to see a different side of the galaxy in ways that are more nuanced and contemporary. I love that we get to see behind the mask of stormtroopers. I love that our understanding of the “force” changes with every movie, such as through the force bonding in The Last Jedi. I love that the protagonist is a strong, independent, and complex woman, played by the amazing Daisy Ridley. Episode 9 had the potential, maybe, to be a more daring movie.

But Star Wars is no longer just a movie. It’s a phenomenon. It’s a franchise. It’s Disney. It’s hierarchies of power. It’s a capitalist product that needs audience appeal to succeed (related: Scorsese recently wrote a controversial op-ed about Marvel’s capitalist tendencies). How do you watch a film and get lost in it when you know so much about its production and real-world context? It was difficult for me to watch Han Solo appear in the final movie while knowing that Harrison Ford probably did not want to be there. And it was weird to watch Carrie Fischer’s scenes knowing that Abrams had to build part of the plot around her leftover dialogue from previous movies. It’s also super upsetting to know that Abrams pulled nepotism cards to cast his pals in this film, at the expense of characters like Rose who got brutally sidelined, treated as disposable. Sadly, Palpatine puts it best: there’s something “unnatural” about Rise. The moments I loved most were the ones that felt the most human and original: like Finn (one of my favorite characters) slowly but surely realizing he is force-sensitive. Or Ben slamming his cheek on the Sith tomb and saying “ow.” Now would also be a good time to mention that I have a massive crush on Adam Driver, who brings such tenderness and humanity to Kylo Ren/Ben Solo. Which brings me to the #Reylo kiss, a big and controversial audience-appeal moment in the film. Some might loathe it. But Driver and Ridley are utterly convincing, and the sexual tension that has been building up between them since Episode 7 grows with every scene. At the end of the day, they are fighting the same enemy—Palpatine, the villain of the past who tries to feed off their dyad power, who symbolizes the ghost that haunts any film that follows successful predecessors.

Rise is many things; the end (for now) of a 9-episode saga, a gimmick, a love story, fan service, a box office hit, etc. Despite its flaws (and my harsh-ish review), it is also entertaining, moving, beautifully filmed, and supported by an incredible cast that gave the film the humanity it needed. I laughed, cried, and gasped. What I loved about Star Wars is still what I love about Star Wars—its soundtrack, its optimism, its empathy. It’s been incredible to grow up with the saga and see the characters of the original trilogy mature across different movies. Rise is flawed, but why shouldn’t it be? Perhaps, at the end of this review, I should also embrace the light/dark tension that characterizes every Star Wars movie. After all, what makes Rise problematic is also what makes it an apt representation of the complicated, ever-changing, imperfect world that we live in—one that wants to hold on to the past even as it lightspeeds into the future, one that is often exploitative but also admirably just, one that is effortlessly cynical but also boundlessly hopeful. Rise does a beautiful job of showing (yes, even through its #throwback cameos) that we do not have to be alone… that the force can bring people together, even in the darkest of times. So, on that note… may the force be with you.

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