For whatever reason, Star Wars has become the most chaotic fandom in recent years. Online, fans blast each other’s opinions on the new movies by Disney (and even the old ones) as professional critics analyze each movie with such intense scrutiny, you’d think they’re talking about some obscure art house French film that could decide the future of cinema.
It was in this murky, bubbling, steaming cauldron of poisonous fan feeling that the latest and final instalment of the Skywalker saga, Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker (TROS) plopped into when it finally dropped in theaters. As a big Star Wars fan myself, and to be completely honest, an active combatant in this mostly silly battle of opinions online, I feel it’s important for me to give my two cents on how this story that I’ve been watching since I was a kid wrapped up–perhaps the last we’ll hear of the Skywalkers and their morally confused family for a long time, if the decision makers behind the scenes are to be believed.
Here’s my spoiler-free review of TROS, as well as a retrospective of Star Wars films.
Feelings Don’t Lie: Mos Eisly Cantina Cheers
My fiancée, Erika, and I attended an early exclusive screening of TROS arranged by members of some of the most prominent Star Wars fan groups in the Philippines, namely the Philippine Lightsaber Guild, FightSaber Philippines, Star Wars Philippines, and 501st Legion Philippine Garrison. I love Star Wars but when it comes to geeking out over the Jedi and Sith universe, I tip my hat to these extraordinary fans. At the screening, we were met by Jedi ushers who wielded their colorful lightsabers to get everyone in line. Some were wearing masks, and one cool fellow actually had a Kowakian monkey-lizard (that adorably annoying creature owned by Jabba the Hutt) perched on his shoulder. Erika and I frankly felt a little intimidated and underdressed for the occasion amongst this crowd plucked out of the Mos Eisley cantina. Yes, I was wearing my Return of the Jedi (ROTJ) Luke Skywalker T-shirt–which I proudly drew and designed myself–but at the end of the day, it was just a T-shirt and sadly unimaginative compared to what these fans were sporting.
Given the kind of crowd at this screening, I was really curious about how they would react to the movie. Will they boo? Will they groan? Will they throw their popcorn or their Kowakian monkey-lizard at the screen if they felt like they were watching trash compactor material? I was expecting the worst knowing that TROS was taking a beating online, with many Twitter users hurling their most savage takes on it as they compared it to The Last Jedi (TLJ) by director Rian Johnson–a movie, which while acclaimed by critics, divided many Star Wars fans and has evolved into a lightning rod of bitter fan debate. And if these people are the most devoted fans here in the country, the ones who have spent the most time and hard-earned money to show their love for this franchise, then it would be logical to assume that they would have the strongest reactions to the final chapter, whether good or bad.
And then it was time.
“A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…”
The crowd cheered and clapped as “Star Wars” appeared onscreen and the iconic yellow text began to crawl into deep space adorned by stars one final time…
TROS lasted around two hours and ten or fifteen minutes, but it was over in a flash. I walked into that cinema with Erika waiting for the moment when I’ll be disappointed, bracing myself at every scene, almost certain that this would be the deal breaker that everyone has been talking about… and to my great surprise–that moment never came. Weirdly enough, the opposite happened. When the lights came on, Erika and I both had watery eyes as we laughingly looked at each other’s face.
What’s even more surprising was that we weren’t alone. The Mos Eisly cantina of a crowd we were with were clapping, cheering, and raising their lightsabers as the credits rolled. Everyone was visibly emotional, but not in a negative way. They were happy and sad that the story a lot of them grew up with had come to a close.
So what was it? What was the reason why instead of an angry mob of fans throwing their cloaks and muppets at the screen, we got a roomful of people who obviously had a great time watching a movie?
I think a lot of it has to do with going into a Star Wars screening in the right frame of mind. To illustrate, it’s best to describe our story.
Perhaps it helped that 2 weeks ago, I rewatched the original trilogy and the prequels with Erika to prepare us for TROS. She has never completely seen these movies before and as I rewatched iconic scenes with her, I felt like I began to see these movies with fresh eyes. She was so stunned to know that Darth Vader was Luke’s father all along in the original trilogy (she has amazingly missed all the references floating about in general pop culture), and so heartbroken when Anakin finally turned to the dark side in the prequels–so heartbroken, in fact, that she needed to take a break to catch her breath because it was too much (it’s usually mocked now but Anakin killing the younglings was really dark for family-friendly sci-fi). She loved all the movies with no exception, and somehow, that childlike wonder rubbed off on me, and I forgot how these movies are now fodder for ridicule and cheap bully points on social media these days.
As I immersed myself in this universe once more, I remembered myself when I was a kid, seeing all these for the first time. I didn’t care about George Lucas, why he’s a big deal, what he did and didn’t change, what he wrote and didn’t write. When I wasn’t aware how Jar Jar Binks could be a bad character when he was clearly a hero, albeit the goofy kind that I was familiar with in many Sunday morning cartoons. I remembered seeing C3PO and R2D2 cross that empty desert for the first time, two strange droids embarking on an epic adventure; and this wonderful feeling of being a happy kid with my imagination going haywire over all these fantastic things was rekindled.
Perhaps that rewatch helped. While I was prepared for a bad experience in the cinema, I also believe I had more actual context when I saw TROS; I actually refreshed my memory of the entire Skywalker arc and didn’t just read a bunch of angry tweets before going to see the movie.
In a word–feelings don’t lie. Whatever we’ve heard from others about the movie, Erika and I and those other fans in our screening unarguably had an excellent time watching a Star Wars film. And it bears emphasizing: TROS actually felt very much like a Star Wars movie in the mold of the earlier chapters. It ended the Skywalker saga in a powerfully emotional note and, in that way, provided a fitting end to one of the grandest stories of our childhood.
The Rise of Skywalker and the Unenviable Task of Making Sense of the Sequels
It’s been noted by a lot of critics and Star Wars fans on Twitter and Reddit that your reaction to TROS will depend largely on how you felt about TLJ; the argument being, TLJ was such a departure thematically from Star Wars that if you felt good about that departure, then you would dislike or hate TROS, which appears to swing to the other direction, in many cases, obviously “undoing” plot threads that were started in TLJ.
But while that may be true for others, it doesn’t apply to me because I’ve been generally critical of the sequels, both TLJ and The Force Awakens (TFA), which was directed by JJ Abrams who also helmed TROS. My personal laundry list of gripes includes: the sequels copying many elements from previous movies (TFA), changing or outright disregarding the arcs of major legacy characters (TLJ), and an overarching narrative that seemed to go nowhere (TFA and TLJ).
What’s great about TROS is it somehow pulls the unruly strings together, not just the sequels’, but the original trilogy’s and the prequels’, too, as it barrells through the final chapter. It must be noted that JJ Abrams planted seeds in TFA that heavily hinted at the ties of the sequels to the main Skywalker saga: namely, Rey’s mysterious parentage and Kylo Ren’s motives as they relate to the Sith. These were depicted in different ways, such as Rey touching Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber and remembering flashes of her past, and Kylo looking at Darth Vader’s charred helmet and talking to it like a deranged man.
A common frustration by critics of TLJ was that these narrative threads went unexplored or altogether discarded by the movie. Rey was revealed to have no ties to any known Jedi family and Kylo seemed to have suddenly gotten over the past. These and other unexpected departures from TFA’s storylines seemed to leave the final film with the unenviable task of herding the narrative toward a cohesive ending that somehow addresses all questions. Heck–with Snoke, the big bad, gone, was the denouement simply a battle to take down Kylo and his cartoonish general, Hux? Or if the true villains behind the war all along were the capitalists who profited from it, was Rey expected to end the galactic conflict by leading a revolution against capitalism (which, of course, her character wasn’t formally briefed about).
Even if an alternate Episode IX directed by Rian Johnson managed to answer these questions, it’s unlikely that version would connect at all to previous Star Wars trilogies. And the more I read about how disjointed the creative process for TFA and TLJ was, the more I believe that when Rian Johnson made TLJ, he decided to take it down a path where everyone must leave behind their feelings for most of the elements of the previous trilogies. It was a bold move and not a small number of people were impressed with it, but it clearly meant that expectations set in TFA didn’t matter and that the familiar Star Wars fans knew was completely gone.
The extreme fan backlash, the blockbuster flop that was Solo: A Star Wars Story, and the overall negative sentiment about the franchise following TLJ were apparently enough to convince Disney that it’s still too early to ignore the main Star Wars arc: the arc of the Skywalker family. But as the narrative threads lay in a total mess after the second act of the sequel trilogy, the last movie had to do something to course-correct while somehow also connecting both movies to the main story where it was initially hinted that they were linked to. It was almost an impossible mission, but shockingly, TROS did just that.
A lot of TROS critics sneer at how the movie dug up old elements and characters (most notably, Palpatine) in what many are calling attempts at “fan service.” It must be noted, however, that these elements only feel like they were made up at the last-minute because TLJ steered the sequels’ narrative to a direction where its predecessors didn’t matter. Had TLJ followed the original plot instead of breaking from the rest, the final movie wouldn’t be perceived as such a rough landing for the franchise.
As it is, TROS, against all odds, managed to make sense out of the diverging tracks of TFA and TLJ. It brought meaning to Rey’s troubled flashbacks, provided a plausible reason for how the son of the two of the greatest heroes of the Rebellion, Leia Organa and Han Solo, became a mass-murdering Sith, and reframed the galactic conflict in the original dichotomy between mysterious good and evil forces, instead of war profiteering and slavery. And while TLJ deconstructed legacy characters to create conflict, TROS wrote fitting prologues to make sure these beloved characters lived a life of meaning and purpose. The choices were obviously controversial, but I feel they generally worked to craft a very fun, touching story that satisfyingly felt like Star Wars, and not some other kind of dejected space sci-fi.
Perhaps more importantly, TROS ended the Skywalker saga in a heartwarming, and one could say more “respectful” fashion in terms of the past, that it has successfully ensured that all Star Wars movies going forwards may not mention the name “Skywalker” ever again, and it would be perfectly all right. Instead of forcefully, insensitively wrenching the story away from the past in order to set itself apart as TLJ did, TROS gently buried the past, put some flowers on the ground, and said a little prayer for it, and then walked off into the possibilities of the future.
Star Wars is a Story of Hope
I began this review describing how rewatching the previous trilogies with my fiancée, Erika, gave me a better lens by which to experience these iconic movies. All of these movies were new to her, and that helped me let go of a lot of weight that was on my shoulders as a lifelong fan. This is not a call to be simple-minded viewers. But it’s important to note that while we can never be the innocent, perhaps easy-to-please children we once were when we first saw these films, it also doesn’t hurt to be aware that we are now going into cinemas weighed down by adulthood and all its stark realities.
Many of us don’t even refer to Star Wars as a mere “story” anymore, but a “franchise”–a sad, corporate venture, not a tale about unbelievable things in a faraway corner of the universe. A lot of us don’t sit back in the cinema anymore to suspend disbelief for a few magical hours–we head into it to dissect the film like a corpse: why it doesn’t fit the established and known universe, why it proves Disney is a giant creativity-sucking company, why the movie is so wrong based on “canon,” and even wrong in terms of today’s morals.
Basically, in many ways, we’ve forgotten how to enjoy Star Wars. And I would argue this is one of the reasons why there’s such a backlash right now over the “return-to-innocence” form of TROS.
I have always said that the reason I particularly disliked TLJ (after two screenings, mind you, that’s how much I love Star Wars that it takes time to convince myself about how I truly feel about a movie), was how it essentially destroyed Luke Skywalker’s character–a sentiment many fans share. From the hero who saved his almost irredeemable father and the galaxy, who defeated the Emperor against all odds and temptations of the Dark Side, Luke was reduced to a guilty, fearful person hiding in a distant island in Rian Johnson’s movie.
At first, I thought it was just that, but having seen TROS, I finally truly understand why TLJ was not my cup of tea—because it was such a cynical movie. A movie without hope.
By making the characters—as diehard fans of this instalment put it online—“realistic,” TLJ tried to pull the mythology from the magical corner of innocence from where it originally blossomed, and uncaringly threw it into the drab, adult corner of experiences, which is, frankly, what we’re accustomed to every day outside the movies.
Suddenly, Luke’s triumphs over the Sith and himself were voided—he’s just an old man willingly whiling away his days in an unknown outcrop surrounded by the sea as the world crumbled before him. After hints that she was connected to the Skywalkers in TFA, suddenly, Rey was just somebody in the crowd who happened to have really strong Jedi powers. And, as mentioned, there’s no big bad. Snoke was a sham that wasn’t even worth five minutes fighting; he’s a bad idea crumpled and thrown into the trash bin. And the most heart-crushing point—the past didn’t matter. Legends didn’t matter. As the movie said, “Let the past die. Kill it if you have to.”
But this is a shockingly cynical view of life. In my opinion, there’s a reason why we watch Star Wars movies aside from sheer “escapism.” It’s to believe in dreams. It’s to get in touch with that inner child we’ve lost along the way, who was told by our parents that we could be something special. That we WERE special. In a word—that we were the Chosen One.
In the real world, we’re not. We’re just another face in a grey cubicle in an office with hundreds of grey cubicles all being worked by people who have mostly stopped believing in fantasies and myths. People who’ve drawn a line separating “childish” things from responsible, grownup things.
In truth, I think some of us don’t like Rey being connected to the Skywalkers and welcomed the fact that she’s not connected to the legends at all because that’s also how we feel about ourselves. We have become so cynical and tired of heroes, that watching movies about the Chosen One is now a cheesy, nonsensical exercise in mush that’s only good for children. We’re ashamed of it. In some ways, we’re even guilty that we once believed in this fantasy, this lie because our everyday life experiences as adults have told us otherwise. This cynicism permeates every facet of our being such that whenever we hear of the classic prophesied hero, we dismiss it as “childish”—in current lingo, “fan service.”
Sure, it’s a valid view of life. And I myself like those kinds of movies that remind you of real life, that check your optimism, and bring you back down to the mundane. But this is Star Wars—this is NOT that kind of movie and it shouldn’t be.
From the very first movie, George Lucas has been weaving a fairy tale about hope. A bedtime story about good over evil. These movies have been trying to speak with the child in you who wants to believe in the fantastic and the impossible. And to snuff out that fantasy and bury it in a mountainous pile of canon detail and “rules,” and, worse, to start turning it into cynical science fiction, the kind we get by the dozen each year, is simply not right.
It’s been said that the greatest stories are those we’ve heard countless times in the fashion of legends because those are the stories that tell us about our unchanging, core wishes and aspirations as human beings. An insignificant character faces insurmountable odds on a great journey, and learns along the way about their strengths and weaknesses, and that they are the One—the one to end injustice once and for all. It’s an ancient narrative as old as people themselves. It’s simple, naive.
It’s also true. As our watery eyes after seeing TROS’ epic last battle attested to.