I knew enough about it that I could name most major cast members of the original series and The Next Generation, I knew major catchphrases and the major species in that galaxy.
In short - I was the perfect audience for the 2009 Star Trek film, headed up by J.J. Abrams. I knew just enough to be excited to see Scottie, to cheer for Leonard Nimoy’s cameo, and to be delighted by the catch-phrases and while I didn’t catch all the fan service- I did enjoy the bits I saw and felt. I came out of the theater feeling like “This was a great way to make these characters accessible to non-hardcore Trekkies!”. I didn’t love it - I mean, it wasn’t going to enter my personal Canon of geek scripture - but it was a fun, enjoyable film.
A dear friend of mine is kind of my plugin to Trekkie-dom. He had grown up loving the series and everything it stood for - exploration in a utopian, post-scarcity society, where ethics could be examined based on interesting new worlds and encounters.
He was not particularly pleased by the film. I remember him telling me “It felt more like Star Wars than Star Trek” - which was, in my eyes, a huge compliment - but for him, it felt like the story had been watered down to make it more accessible. To him- it didn’t feel like “Star Trek”, it felt like just a fun big blockbuster action flick that happened to have phasers.
I did not understand his point of view then.
I do now.
In my initial response to The Last Jedi, I talked about things I liked and didn’t - and ultimately came to the conclusion that the film, while perhaps flawed in some ways, had a very clear thesis with powerful character arcs. In the years since then, The Last Jedi has become probably my favorite of the entire saga.
Why the turnaround? It’s because Rian Johnson understands something that is the very very core of what makes Star Wars different from any other franchise on the market today.
Star Wars, at its best, is inherently mythological in nature. It is not mindless popcorn action movie in space - it is a mythos that deals with deep philosophical and spiritual truths - and the characters in it are not mere tropes - they’re archetypes drawn from the collective subconscious.
Flawed as the prequels are (and they are plenty flawed) - the scope of the story was still inherently mythological - a tale of queens and knights and an evil sorcerer who tempts a hero toward the darkness... Grand battles that span the entire galaxy, with tales of bravery and sacrifice and inside it all, heroes proving themselves against all odds.
Again, the prequels are plenty flawed - but most Star Wars fans agree that at least the worldbuilding and scope of these stories still veered toward the grandiose, toward the spiritual edge. Prime examples of these moments include Qui-Gon’s meditation during his duel with Darth Maul, or Anakin and Padme’s forbidden love story (a la Lancelot and Guinevere, albeit with much cringier dialogue). It is probably best represented by the duel between Anakin and Obi-Wan in Episode III, which deals with deep philosophical and spiritual conflict between ambition and humility. Yes, it’s flashy and we’re in space, but the meat of the story - the actual characters - the things below the surface - are all inherently mythological in nature.
The Last Jedi understood this. Rian Johnson understood this. Luke Skywalker’s arc was in terms of a mortal man dealing with the weight of becoming myth - and with a beautiful twist, he ultimately relinquished his own life to become just that. Rey journeyed through the story convinced that she could not be part of such an important story - that she had to find someone to take the role of hero, only to discover that she’d have to do it herself. These lessons are inherently Star Warsian. They are deep, they are important, they are spiritual, or philosophical - they’re excellent storytelling and the core of what makes me love this universe.
The Rise of Skywalker did none of these things.
The Rise of Skywalker was, in my opinion, a fun, action-packed blockbuster movie that watered down what was important to the Star Wars universe and turned it into something generic, something based on tropes and fanservice, and ultimately, failed to deliver a satisfying ending to the stories that have been pivotal in shaping my own spirituality and philosophies.
I’m not going to go piece by piece and explain what I didn’t like. There are some great video essayists and analysts out there that have already done that. (I’m particularly in accord with the thoughts of Jenny Nicholson, who explains her critiques and possible suggestions of what could have gone better this in video).
On the red carpet premiere of Rise of Skywalker, J.J. Abrams was nervous. Watch this interview, you can see it for yourself.
The most interesting line in his interview, at least to me, is that his objective in making the film was to make sure “you don’t like any of the characters less than you did before”. (EDIT: I have hunted high and low through the internet for this quote - I am unable to locate it. I either hallucinated it or it’s buried in the hordes of articles and interviews surrounding the release of the film. I will continue my search and will update this article if/when I find it. In the meantime, this quote is apocryphal)
He was right to be nervous - his film was ambitious and had a massive, almost impossible task to undertake. He knew it - and I think he could feel his own uncertainty about whether or not he pulled it off.
I harbor no ill will towards the man. I believe he was firmly trying to do the best he could do in a situation with quite a few obstructions - Carrie Fisher’s untimely passing, a script that had gone through multiple rewrites - and coming off a sequel that was written by somebody who had different philosophies and visions of what the sequel trilogy was going to be.
I feel for J.J. - it was a tall order.
It came up short, and unfortunately, for me - the explicitly stated goal of “don’t like any characters less than you did before” was exactly what I came away with.
Retroactively changing things we already know/accept about a character is one surefire way to make audience members like them less. It’s innate - we can’t identify with them as strongly because they are suddenly not the person we thought they were. It creates inconsistency - which breaks investment in the story.
Rey got a new background in the film. Poe got a new background in the film. Leia got a new background in the film. Heck, even Palpatine got a new background in the film.
At least with Star Trek, the multiverse theory was explicitly written into the story so that characters could change from what we knew in the past with a good, story-based reason. Rise of Skywalker has no such vehicle to help us stomach the sudden changes to the heroes and characters we had grown to love.
(this picture is my favorite shot of the whole film)
It wasn’t all bad, of course. I think the rest of the internet and I are in accord with how delightful the actors are - particularly Adam Driver’s turn from Kylo Ren to Ben Solo. I think there are
plenty of good sound bites and quips from the cast that are memorable and enjoyable.
As I said before - it was a fun action movie. The hero wins because they are the hero and for no other reason. There’s pandering to critics of The Last Jedi in the form of lampshaded references to “The Holdo Maneuver” and sidelining of Rose Tico (who was one of the most delightful additions to the Star Wars universe, in my perspective). The new villain returns with no real explanation - because hey, it’s a mindless action flick and we can do whatever we want to.
Mystery Boxes that have been loaded and enticing us since the beginning of this sequel trilogy, like the Knights of Ren, for instance - get hastily and arbitrarily shown and then dealt with.
It’s an action movie. There’s plenty it does right, by the standard of sci-fi action movies. I’d rate Rise of Skywalker right up there with Star Trek (2009) and Serenity.
But it doesn’t feel like Star Wars. It has moments where it does - but by and large...
My son has an action figure of Rey. He’s two now. When I first got it for him, I thought of how exciting it was to have a hero from nowhere - an emblem that destiny can choose anyone to be a beacon of light to stand up to powerful darkness. Rey is a cool symbol of coming from nowhere- of having power and hope despite all the reasons in the galaxy not to - and about finding your place in the universe without relying on other people to be the true hero of the story.
Now, that character is Rey Palpatine-turned-Skywalker - a hero who needed to adopt the name of a different one because the writers of Episode IX didn’t have faith that she could be an interesting or important person on her own.
Seems a shame, to me. A waste of potential.
I don’t like that character as much as I did, and I am left feeling like Star Wars is, after all these years of me claiming otherwise, just a series of movies. They’re fun and entertaining, but I don’t know that they matter as much as I once hoped and thought they did.
There’s a reason it’s taken me months to write this reflection
There’s a reason it’s taken me months to write this reflection - I apologize that it’s pretty un-timely - not synced up with the release of the film, or even of the release on the film in general. It’s not a comfortable realization to see exactly why I consider it such a failure. Especially because I don’t think it’s a total or complete failure - there’s so much good in it- but it’s the wrong flavor - the wrong type- the wrong genre, even.
It’s no longer mythology, it’s now just entertainment - and it proves my years of explaining the spiritual and philosophical depth of the franchise somewhat hollow- at least for this particular entry into the series.
As Jenny Nicholson says in her critique - the worst thing a movie can do is make you feel stupid for being excited about it in the first place.
That’s kind of where I’m at.