Monday, February 24, 2020

The Skywalker Saga IV

There was a moment, the third time I saw the Rise of Skywalker. The Dark Side Jedi and the Light Side Jedi were standing on the wreckage of the second Death Star on Endor fighting with lightsabers. And a little voice in my head says "This is not a Star Wars movie any more."

This is, of course, absurd. The film -- the whole sequel trilogy -- is very much like a Star Wars movie. If anything, too much like one.

A list of references and call backs to the original trilogy would be longer than the actual movie.In Episode IV we saw Luke practicing his lightsaber: trying to hit something called a remote; wearing a helmet with a blast shield which obscures his vision. It is made pretty clear that the helmet and the remote are things which Ben found on the Millennium Falcon and re-purposed for Jedi Training. The radio version says explicitly that Han used the remote for target practice. Certainly, Ben didn't bring them with him from Tatooine. In Episode IX, we see Rey running through a Jedi training programme, wearing that exact same helmet; being zapped in the leg by the exact same remote. (Jedi Knights are clearly related to English P.E teachers, not averse to using little zaps and stings to make sure you are doing your best. Luke even raps Rey's knuckles in the Last Jedi.) Luke and Leia are wearing the same helmets in the flashback to her training. This is not very logical; but it works artistically. It draws a mental line from the rec room on the Millennium Falcon to the Resistance Base on Ajan Kloss.

When Rey crashes her stolen TIE Fighter on Ahch-To, Luke kindly lends her his old X-Wing; which is referred to as Red One. It has been underwater for the past decade. Luke levitates it out of the sea, just like Yoda did on Dagobah, with the same serene expression on his face. (There is no rust in the Star Wars universe.) Rey flies off wearing Luke's helmet from A New Hope, which in turn looked a lot like Anakin's helmet from Phantom Menace.

The trilogy is held together by recurrent themes and leitmotifs, just as surely as John Williams score is.



During the first half of the movie, our heroes visit Kijimi, a cyberpunk planet where Poe Dameron used to hang out. He meets up with a lady called, and if there's any giggling there'll be trouble, Zorii Bliss. During a pause in the action, they have a chat. They are sitting on the edge of a building. They don't say all that much. They were evidently lovers at one time. Poe wants Zorii to join the Resistance; and Zorri wants Poe to come away and be a scoundrel with her. In the end she gives him a stolen First Order Plot Device which will unlock the next level for him. But the tone of it -- just two characters having quite a long conversation -- is different from anything we have seen before.

It happens again on Endor. This time it is Finn who has made friends with Jannah, who turns out to be one of a group of Stormtroopers who deserted from the First Order when they were ordered to open fire on civilians. It is insinuated that the Force made this happen; and that it was the Force which made Finn run away from the First Order in Episode VII.

Perhaps that is what the title meant. Perhaps the Force had "awakened" in the sense that it was moving goodies all over the galaxy to stop working for the bad guys. Perhaps that's the underlying theme of the trilogy: Poe in the first movie; the boy with the mop in the second; thousands and thousands of ships in this one. A terrible piece of editing means that we hear Finn telling Rey that he has something very important to tell her; but we never find out what he was going to say. The easy answer is "Rey, I love you, but we literally have only sixteen hours to save the universe." But the more interesting suggestion is "I, like you, have Force powers. Will you teach me?"

Jannah and Zorrii are fairly marginal characters. They don't turn the wheels of the plot any more than Admiral Ackbar or Wedge Antilles did. And yet they get to talk, at length. They come across far more as characters than Rose Tico, who had a much more important role in Last Jedi.

The Prequels happen in a world where nobles and queens perform arias. The Trilogy is a world of comic strip heroes who shout cliches with exclamation marks on the end. Bu the Sequels take place in a world of human beings -- or at any rate, believable movie characters -- who have a past and a future and an off stage existence.

It has been said that the Trilogy is constructed like a silent movie. You could easily look at the pictures and infer: "Luke hesitates. He wants to go with Ben but also feels responsible to his uncle" without actually hearing the words. The Prequels would, of course, be greatly improved if you couldn't hear any of the dialogue. Rise of Skywalker moves directly away from this: quite pointedly so in the opening scenes where everyone keeps talking at once. The speech bubbles have been replaced by dialogue. The comic book characters have morphed into people.


George Lucas originally planned to make a series of twelve Star Wars movies. And they were going to be set over hundreds of years; but they would all have been focused on the Skywalker Clan.

That makes a certain amount of sense, given that part of the original premise (back when the project was still called The Star Wars) was that Luke was from the Starkiller family, one of twelve different Jedi Clans. Lucas may not have known the identity of Darth Vader while working on the first film; but he always envisaged a generational story. The Skywalkers were always going to be very important people.

Some people find the whole idea of a story about a clan or a family distinctly problematic. The idea that heroes become heroes because of their heritage smacks of royalty, nobility and privilege. You could even draw racial conclusions from the idea that you are a goodie because your daddy was a goodie and your daddy is a goodie because his father was... That is why the boy-with-the-mop scene was so radical in the Last Jedi.

Then Lucas changed his mind, and started to talk in terms of a trilogy of trilogies; three films about Anakin Skywalker; three films about Luke Skywalker; and three films about the next generation of Skywalkers. The dashing young heroes from one trilogy could become the ageing mentors of the next.

Then Lucas changed his mind, and said that the original trilogy told the whole saga of the redemption of Darth Vader. And once you have bought into the Joseph Campbell refit which occurred between episode four and five then I think he was right. The unmasking of the father is a very beautiful thing. Once Luke and Anakin were reconciled the story was over. It was a nice joke to say that the first film was the fourth episode, but there was no need for episodes one, two and three to exist.

Then Lucas changed his mind, kind of. Star Wars was a six part story after all. His three prequels didn't change the central premise; but they rehearsed the established back-story on the screen. We learned more about the Republic and the Emperor and the Jedi and the Clone Wars and how Vader fell into darkness. But that only made Return of the Jedi more definitively the end of the story. Six parts, two trilogies, all the extended universe novels you could eat, but no more movies.

Then Lucas changed his mind and authorized Walt Disney to create three further installments of the Saga, with minimal input from him. The story which started with Phantom Menace would end in the Rise of Skywalker; but that is only one story in the universe. We already have two floating chapters, the very good Rogue One and the really not at all bad Solo; but other movies will follow. Possibly a new trilogy or a new trilogy of trilogies.

"Where will it all end?" asked Threepio in the 1977 Making of Star Wars TV documentary. "Perhaps, Artoo" he replied "It will never end."

So the sacred Trilogy is now only one third of a nine part saga; and that nine part saga is only one element in a saga that that includes cartoon shows, comic books, novels and a theme park. And that saga is only one small thread in the history of the Galaxy. It is one tale; a big one, certainly, one that takes forty years to play out and ends in the most apocalyptic of apocalyptic wars. But it is not all that is happening.

The epilogue tells us very clearly where the Sequels stand in relation to the Prequels. The final seconds of Rise of Skywalker take us back to the beginning. If we really believed that Star Wars was a nine part story beginning with Phantom menace, then Rey would have gone back to Threed and laid a flower on the grave of Amidala; or else she would have gone back to Tatooine and found the slave hovel where Anakin was born. But we all know that Star Wars really begins in the Lars moisture farm; with Aunt Beru calling out "Luke! Luke!" The final scene doffs a cap, not to the multi-part saga, but to our Trilogy.

Rey buries Luke's lightsaber on Tatooine. She buries Leia's as well, in a place she never visited and which had no particular significance for her. (She did go to Tatooine briefly to rescue Han from Jabba.) I will lay you to rest in the place your grandpa lived for a while, and where your brother was fostered. Well, okay. Leia's childhood home exploded a long time ago.

Going back to Tatooine means going back to the where the films started...and crucially, conceptually, to the image of two suns. Twin suns. Luke looking to the horizon; Rey walking off into the sunset.

Rey takes on the name Skywalker. After Luke, and I suppose Leia; identifying them as her parents. Anakin was lost when he took on the name Vader; I suppose Rey taking on the name Skywalker somehow reverses his fall. And although Rey buries the lightsabers, she now has one of her own. Making your own lightsaber is the mark of completing Jedi training. Rey is totally a Jedi, and so...

...and so what? The idea that the Jedi would end and be replaced by something different has been overwritten. The hints of a Jedi Reformation, in which everything comes down to your personal relationship with the Force, seems to have gone away as well. There has to be a Jedi Order with Jedi Books and Jedi Temples. Is Rey going to start the whole thing up again? Will she avoid the mistakes that Luke made; or will one of her students fall to the Dark Side? Does Palpatine have other living descendants?

Cinema audiences are more savvy then they used to be. Cinema audiences grew up with Star Wars. Cinema audiences read Wikipedia. When the prequels came out, serious movie critics found the idea that Episode One came out after Episode Four so esoteric as to be almost impenetrable. But everyone understands that Rogue One takes place "just before Star Wars" and Solo takes place "after episode III but before episode IV" and that even the theme park has a place in the official chronology. Not that weird an idea, truthfully. If you were making a Wild West visitor attraction, then "which state are we meant to be in?" and "what year is this?" would be perfectly good questions. 

Do you know what I would like?

I would like Disney to decide that Rise of Skywalker is the terminal point in the Star Wars saga. New films and cartoons can take place anywhere within the I - IX timeline; but nothing canonical will take place outside it. The Star Wars universe will get thicker: we will see more and more of the Old Republic, the Rebellion Era and the Resistance. But it will never get longer. We will never see the New Republic. We will never see Rey's students fall to the Dark Side. We will never see the return of the return of the Sith.

That is what I would like.

I'm Andrew. I like God, Doctor Who, Star Wars, Wagner, folk-music and Spider-Man, not necessarily in that order. I have no political opinions of any kind.

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Eric Spratling said...

I'd be fine with, one day, eventually setting a movie in the Star Wars world something like a hundred years in its future. Start a new story with the ending of Rey & co's saga being a vague background element. I often wished this had been the sequel trilogy's approach to the original trilogy.

Mike Taylor said...

You can call it corny all you like, but when I read "Rey takes on the name Skywalker. After Luke, and I suppose Leia; identifying them as her parents. Anakin was lost when he took on the name Vader; I suppose Rey taking on the name Skywalker somehow reverses his fall" I, felt all the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. It's very deep waters that these films navigate; that they do so in the guise of pulp fun is greatly to their credit.