The Skywalker Saga and Why the Latest Trilogy Kicks Ass

*Major Spoiler Alerts*

2 days later and I’m still thinking about the Rise of Skywalker (2019) screening. (Yes, I’m late to the game. It’s hard to get out to the cinema when you have a small infant.) I’m not going to sit here and tell you that there AREN’T any flaws. Every work has areas where it can improve. Yes, there are pacing issues, and character development isn’t as nuanced as it could be. But really, I think *some* of these complaints are a bit out of place for a movie that is trying to encapsulate an epic narrative within 2-2.5 hours. (More on my thoughts of the Epic and Star Wars here.)

This might be an unpopular opinion, but I think The Rise of Skywalker is brilliant in its subtly. All along, the story that the last three movies have been trying to tell us is that of Leia’s. Leia is the most important Skywalker. She is the Last of the Jedi.

Let’s go back to episode VII (The Force Awakens, 2015), where Luke doesn’t appear on screen until the very final moments of the movie; and, when he does appear, he has no lines. Yes, the story is all about anticipating his arrival. But, at the climatic moment, his entrance on to the screen achieves nothing.

This continues in episode VIII (The Last Jedi, 2018) as Luke is reluctant to return to the story. And even when he does, he manages to do it without leaving his hermitage, through astral projection only. Meanwhile, we have Leia throughout the three movies as the head of the rebellion. She’s The General, leader of the Resistance. While Luke is passive and inert, Leia acts.

And remember the moment in The Last Jedi where Leia survives by using the Force. (Who didn’t hold their breath and breathe with her?). It was there all along, The Last Jedi isn’t Luke. Even after he’s gone, there’s another trained Jedi in the rebellion.

While Leia’s training isn’t mentioned until the final installment, this story, Leia’s story, is hinted at all the way back in episode V (The Empire Strikes Back, 1980) when Luke abandons his training (launching him toward a path to the Dark Side) and Obi-Wan states that “all hope is lost”. Yoda replies that “no, there is another.” The word “hope” of course evokes the title of the episode IV (A New Hope, 1977), which, I would argue, is also about Leia’s journey more than Luke. She brought hope to the Resistance, more than Luke does. This idea is enhanced by the final words of Rogue One (2016), when Leia responds to the question “what is it?” (i.e the data package just handed to her) with “hope”.

The Rise of Skywalker fulfills the potential of Yoda’s cryptic words. It’s not only that Leia is another Skywalker, Luke’s twin, and has the potential to bring back the balance. It’s that she does, on her own merits (i.e not through her relationship to a patriarchal figure). She organizes a resistance with a movement and message so powerful that no single man can hope to take her place. (The exchange between Poe and Finn on Kef Bir and then again at the rebel base really drives this home.)

So while there have been a number of criticisms launched at the new trilogy complaining that we’re still stuck on “the Skywalker story” with all the events of the universe boiling down to a family feud, I’d argue that there is so much more depth to this simplified narrative. The Skywalker Saga (which is what I will be henceforth referring to it as for the rest of my days) is not just about balance, the Force, and a decades long war against the tyrannies of government. It’s also about one woman’s strength; a woman who had the mind and heart to keep a resistance together for decades, even after her entire family (brother, son, and partner) walks out on her.

What a brilliant message to end the series on.

A New Year. The Same Cycle. (Reflecting on the Epic and the Star Wars Franchise)

The year was 2015. Obama was President. Same sex marriage was – finally – legalized in U.S. And Star Wars: A Force Awakens released in theaters.

Although the film was generally positively received, there was a thread of criticism that underscored the new production; the repeated mantra that A Force Awakens was basically a rip-off of A New Hope. It was repetitive. Derivative. The same story told again and again.

Despite it’s long history (going all the way back to the great sagas of the Illiad/Odyssey, The New and Old Testaments, Ramayana/Mahabharat, etc, etc, etc), the Epic today is often derided for being unimaginative. It’s too repetitive; derivative; or – gasp – formulaic! However, as I argue in The Shape of Fantasy being repetitive isn’t a bad thing. As Patricia Waugh discusses for metafiction:

There has be some level of familiarity. In metafiction it is precisely the fulfilment as well as the non-fulfilment of generic expectations that provides both familiarity and the starting point for innovation.

Patricia Waugh, Metafiction, 64, original emphasis

Roland Barthes likewise stipulates that the pleasures of the text come from expectations, which, for the Epic tradition, means a familiar narrative:

The pleasure of the text is not the pleasure of the corporeal striptease or of narrative suspense. […] the entire excitation takes refuge in the hope of seeing. (Barthes 10, original emphasis).

Roland Barthes, The Pleasures of the Text, 10, original emphasis

Thus, I argue that the latest Star Wars trilogy does an incredible job of delivering a familiar story in a new way. Is the plot line similar to the original? Of course it is. But it is also recognizably different, with a distinct ending, perhaps one that may alter the course of the universe enough that evil won’t rise up again (or at least, not too soon).

More importantly, these criticisms that Star Wars is repetitive misses the point. Brian Merchant (Motherboard) argues that “science fiction is supposed to be about exploring the unexplored, not rehasing the well-trod.” I disagree wholeheartedly. Science Fiction, like any literature, is about exploring the human condition.

There was another important event in 2015 in America that eventually had global significance. Donald Trump, on the campaign trail, trademarked his “Make American Great Again” slogan.

And, whether coincidental or not, A Force Awakens reinforces the idea that even when you overthrow a tyrannical fascist government, another one will rise up to take its place. We are doomed to repeat the cycle – and have narratives that repeat themselves – until we are able to break away from this cycle of oppression.

As the latest Star Wars trilogy draws to a close, the same criticism has been launched at the final installment: it’s repetitive. Redundant. Flat.

To which I would like to loudly reply, “Don’t you all understand the point of the Epic?? That’s how it works!”

Any attempt to break the formula is only going to result in audience dissatisfaction. As we’ve seen with the end of A Game of Thrones, the televised adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s unfinished novels, it is impossible to solve a good versus evil story-line without some hint of a messianic figure. A sacrifice is necessary to restore the balance. That’s the Epic. That’s how it works. You can play around with the formula, and toss red herrings to distract the audience from identifying the final messianic Hero, but, at the end of the day, the restoration of balance requires a Messianic character. And, more importantly, the bigger the unbalance, the more special the hero has to be. Not just any sacrifice will do (as evidenced by the number of soldiers that meet an unhappy fate at the front lines of the final battle). No, balance to the universe can only be restored by someone special. Maybe someone who has special powers or abilities, or perhaps are special due to bloodline (parentage is especially important in this patriarchal narrative structure).

So while I agree with the criticism that franchise did a great disservice to any hint of non-heteronormative or miscegenetic relationships, I disagree that the plot is a disappointment. The plot follows exactly the pattern of the Heroic Epic that I outline in The Shape of Fantasy, a pattern that includes repetitions and cycles.

Why? Why is the epic repetitive, but incredibly necessary? Because – as historical and current events have shown us – this story will continue to resonant in our society so long as evil exists in the world. Melodramatic? Maybe. But I feel entirely suitable for the state of the world today. So long as there are groups of people that oppress another, there will be stories about rising up and defeating it.