Strip me to the bone, flay the skin and tissue so that what's underneath can see the light of day or catch moon rays. Maybe it will glisten and blind, but then again it could be something matter-of-factly plain like someone's third or fourth "uh-huh" at a dinner table, and really there should be absolutely nothing wrong with that. In fact, I hunger for plainness, for days so ordinary and lethargic I'd have to ask "What now?" And people would be dumbfounded because I've gone slack-jawed and mute. Little do they know I've always been mute; I've just been pretending this whole time that I could speak this language which could have been barks and neighs and growls and croaks for all I care. I haven't been following at all.
At 36 with hypertension and a baby on the way, I feel I’m too old to be filled with rage; and yet, for the past 2 weeks, I’ve spent inordinate amounts of time on Twitter wrestling with paid trolls in virtual mud fights where I’ve used every curse and swear word to try to hurt my opponents, all the while knowing fighting with fake accounts with zero followers is the same as punching a brick wall with bare fists.
Practically all my tweets have been about the injustice of having the spawn of a dictator and the most brazen plunderer of all time be my country’s next president. I’ve stopped using Facebook because its twisted algorithm promotes fake news for cheap engagement. These days, they call this type of online behavior “toxic.” Well, to me, it’s the only rational emotion and reaction in response to the Marcoses returning to power.
I’m too old for this, I would tell myself during the brief moments when my head clears up and I can let out a sigh. What can I realistically do? I’m safely sequestered here in the peaceful province of Angono, taking care of my wife whose belly is ballooning every day, and I’m waist-deep in work from sun up ’til sun down in my little personal office at home. No protest marches for me; and I haven’t really participated in one since college. I joked to my wife that she might see me on TV getting sprayed by a fire hose and hit in the head with a truncheon. She said I should probably stop tweeting because Marcos’ men might break into our house and put me in a body bag.
It’s all hyperbole, of course. Aside from one or two tweets criticizing the state of things that have gone a bit viral, I’m nobody on Twitter. Besides, Marcos Jr. doesn’t have the balls.
I haven’t been this enraged in a long time; not even when Duterte caused ABS-CBN to shut down due to trumped-up charges of tax evasion, and freedom of expression and the respect usually accorded to journalists for reporting well-researched facts seemed to die with the network; not even during the gross mishandling of the pandemic by Duterte’s administration. Every day, he would do something morally inexcusable or say something that flies in the face of basic decency expected from a publicly elected official–but I’m far more infuriated now even compared to those days.
So what is it that ticks me off so bad?
I think it’s pride. A slight to pride hurts but even more so when you understand it never needed to happen in the first place. Not in a world where we are all rational, anyway.
The Philippines was given a simple choice in these elections: vote for someone who has a flawless track record of public service or someone whose family stole billions of dollars from the central bank, and murdered and tortured citizens calling for a return to a working democracy, and who himself owes hundreds of billions of pesos in estate taxes to the government. The answer couldn’t have been easier. Even a child wouldn’t make the same mistake if somebody put down the choices on paper and asked the kid to select who’s better, A or B. Filipinos, apparently living in another dimension where logic and reason are nonexistent concepts, inexplicably, overwhelmingly chose the latter.
This, I think, makes my blood boil. This willful self-debasement of a nation where I belong in. The kind that makes you seriously question how deep this pit of shame goes, and how we can even move on from here.
Admittedly, this has probably hit me harder as an alumnus of UP, widely known as a bastion of scholarly dissent, and more so having closely studied social phenomena such as authoritarianism and fascism as a student of sociology. In UP, Marcos is not an obscure hero in urban legends and tall tales, but a traumatic fragment of memory–a clear warning of what Philippine society can descend into again if people stop speaking out against everyday institutionalized injustices, and checks on government power are made to disappear.
And so, to me, the Marcoses returning to Malacanang despite their unforgivable crimes against the Filipino people, is a deeply personal issue. Sometimes, I feel like it’s the culmination of all education my parents paid for with blood and sweat. Maybe the only real, universal lesson to pick up after all is said and done: I know what goodness is and I believe in it because I know what wickedness is. Evil is Marcos. Marcos is evil.
To watch people I know turn their backs from the truth–even after they are presented with an overwhelming barrage of facts–is almost like witnessing the last rays of hope for this nation get engulfed by the darkest of clouds.
If we are unable to make the simplest of distinctions between what’s good for us and what’s bad for us, then what hope is there for the future?
More importantly, for the present, what degree of respect do we even reserve to ourselves?
Pride is drawing a line. On one side of that line lie tolerance, forgiveness, and understanding. On the other side, there’s only outrage. Self-respect is only possible because we are able to draw this line.
And anybody’s pride can be hurt. We all have different thresholds when we think enough is enough. We rarely even talk of pride and self-respect in our day-to-day dealings with local government to secure an ID, to file requests and such, even if we expect corruption to be part of the normal processes. Sure–corruption is a fact of public office and it’s endemic in virtually all forms of state bureaucracies. Granted, we’ve all paid our share of “lagay” and “pangkape” and these concepts are already inextricable parts of everyday life no matter how much we rail against them. But what the Marcoses did and are still–shockingly–doing are on a completely different level.
Words fail to describe the magnitude of $5 – $10 billion of plundered wealth.
Here’s an excerpt from a book about the Marcoses’ ill-gotten wealth I’ve been reading with information based on documents found on the plane bearing Marcos’ possessions when he and his family fled to Hawaii, as well as those found in Malacanang in the aftermath of EDSA People Power:
“Until Marcos came along, the top ‘kleptocrats’ were Latin American dictators like Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic, Juan Peron of Argentina, Fulgencio Batista of Cuba, Marcos Perez Jimenez of Venezuela and Miguel Aleman of Mexico. The reported fortunes of the five caudillos between 1952 and 1961 was between $1.8 to $2.6 billion, which is still much lower than the $5 to $10 billion that just one dictator in Asia, Marcos, was alleged to have amassed.” – ‘The Philippines Under Marcos’ by Belinda A. Aquino (no relation to Corazon Aquino)
So if these astronomical figures denoting unlimited pillaging and looting of their own money over a span of 20 years can’t make Filipinos draw their line of pride–then how and where do we draw it? Can it even be drawn at all?
We shouldn’t even be talking about Marcos Jr.’s 203 billion pesos in taxes owed and if that can get him disqualified or cancel the validity of his victory because nobody should be able to get past the brazen criminal acts of his parents.
No logical conversation should even take place until after we’ve all agreed that our pride as a people has been insulted forever. Trampled to the ground by this family of thieves and murderers.
So this is where my fountain of rage draws from: an abyss of hopelessness.
This is it. This is the blog entry where I finally say, “I’m at that point in my life where I find bliss in tending to plants.”
It feels very prophetic.
A long time ago when I started blogging, I predicted that someday, if I should continue blogging to my old age, I’d stop writing about love, about angst, philosophy, anger, and frustration and just describe a regular day watering shrubs or flowers, digging loam and putting in fertilizers and such.
This is it. This is that day. Though I technically don’t have a garden yet. Just a few pots. Mulberry, palm, aglaonema, a money tree, a snake plant, a young pine tree. Watering doesn’t even take ten minutes. Swinging the hose. Accidentally getting everything wet and finding satisfaction in the mess.
But within those 10 minutes, I could profess, there’s joy and inner peace.
I also now understand that old people do this not because this is the only thing they can do considering their bodily limitations, but it’s because this is a much-needed retreat from the decades of mental, physical, and emotional battery of the rat race or the day-to-day survival schemes of youth. It’s medicinal, albeit in a desperate kind of way, as you somehow try to cure yourself or wash out whatever amount of crud covering your self is possible to scrub out in the time available to you. “Stress” is kind of a hacky, modern clinical way to describe that thick sludge. Boxes it lackadaisically as if setting bounds to it has ever worked. If stress had a ghost that haunted the corners of your waking mind and built and crowded the forbidding backgrounds of your dreams at night, then that might be it.
Thankfully, when you’re watering plants, your mind is blank.
You’re just in that moment, watching the glinting stream of water or the thin, shining glass-like droplets freely escape from the mouth of the hose–like children emerging from a tube slide with their hands raised and their milk teeth bared–and splash or splat with gusto against the muddy soil. And some leaves fall off. That’s ok. There are no rules. Some tremble as if rejoicing. If they catch the sun you could almost hear them sing. Nothing escapes and nothing penetrates this silent zone of nothing. Of not thinking and doing. Because this is not doing. Doing is when somebody tells you to do something and you feel like nothing inside you gets accomplished anyway. This is the opposite of that. This is nothing. A void of joyful meaninglessness.
It sucks that I’m only supposed to do it in the morning.
Somewhere Really Good
A woman, maybe not even,
pretending, trying to get there
in a hurry.
Now that I think about it–
it’s a classic story.
Puts on some makeup
slithers into a narrow hole
of a dress, and starts dancing,
beckoning. We just assume
they learn it
somewhere really good
because they pick up
so easy and it’s always
what we want.
A lone lamp post
fends off the darkness
on a street corner.
The light scorches,
the wings of roaches
in the mouth of a sewer.
Thinking About Christmas
A kid tears
knowing 9 out of 10
are not it.
An old man
it isn’t there.
What would I do if I caught your eye?
I’d think too much of nothing you’d ever think.
There’d be a pause when people would shrink.
Of course, I’d look away just as quickly
because I’d never want to see you peek,
not a second fleetingly.
And I’d make a great show of walking,
whistling a tune in my head and prancing.
You’ll go about your business, as you should,
because you won’t give a hoot
even if you could.
Teetering between now and tomorrow,
wanting to do nothing,
nothing worth wanting.
Then you appear in the center
of a busy square
all the scrambling about, flying emails,
and one-hour something lunches,
plans to get fit, tangled cords
and someone’s dry, thin hair strands
on the floor.
You’re spinning them,
they’re tied to you
And I’m hopping about
from rock to rock
around this asteroid belt of
I remember my college Physics
professor who told me
the moon is forever
trying to fall but failing.
so it ends up
always being back
where it used to be,
each time more consumed
by a maddening
to be one.
Fuming to corrupt.
Oh, God will rue the day
the moon drops
because that will be the night
I just stop
of a good pay,
a good life
for the greatest
Last night it rained like it hasn’t rained
in a long time. Innumerable long wet needles that stretched
into spears pierced the ground
almost sideways thrown by the heavens–
maniacally–as if somebody up there was aching to punish
someone down here.
I looked down from the balcony as if expecting to see
something. Something new, something wild,
something different but there wasn’t any,
there hasn’t been any since we shut ourselves in.
But there was the storm, at least. It reminded me
drowned in the deep well
of memories, floating half-seen, glinting in the dark.
I may have left it there or someone did,
someone’s always responsible for something
that should be accounted for when you least expect it
And it peeks and it glints when it rains.
Last night the cold let itself in
because it didn’t need any permission from us.
Lord and master, it strode across the room and sat
cross-legged in the only serviceable chair, waited
to be served and revered and we did whatever it wanted us to do,
I shivered and shrivelled as it filled the four corners,
hinting at something dark that we should prepare for,
like it was ever really possible to get ready for the future.
It was a joke, really. When anything could happen
like rains we don’t deserve or ask for,
people we could have really gone without or live for,
hell I could have maybe not known half the things I knew
and I would be more dumb and purer and true but,
it was time to close the windows and sleep, listening.
In Taiwan we rode one of their old trains that felt like they chugged
even though they didn’t. The trip was long and shared
by people who acted their best as if they didn’t care
about us although I had this nagging suspicion
that they really didn’t. And that’s sad.
And as it pulled away from the main cities where dreams
were weaved in shiny glass buildings, I
saw life cropped by the train’s windows replaced
by old shops of strange brands that reminded me of home
and allowed me to forget it at the same time. Old.
Just old. Oldness that waves goodbye.
Like it knew me. I almost winked at it. Blew it a kiss.
But soon the train reached its destination
and up to now I’d still like to utter the name of that station
if I could remember it but I don’t want to, not
exactly; I want it relegated to that room in my head
where half-remembered things form a thick ghostly smoke
of mundaneness that some nights turns into free,
wondrous dreams. So we stepped outside that train that chugged
and looked around us in this platform in the middle of nowhere,
this platform so old. Just old. Oldness that gives you
an unwelcome hug. And I just died. I mean
what killed me was that this was the end of the railway
and yet people looked as if this was exactly the plan.
The golden light falls upon concrete
like silk in air or angels’ hair painfully
trapped in a simulation of forever.
I think of faces–sweaty, round faces–gleaming,
and I miss them so much even though I have been nothing
but a rock on a roadside peeking from a cloud
of dust. How could one love this much
and be so helpless? We turn their smiles
over and over in our heads as if we can squeeze out
their juice and sustain us, as we trudge along
this desert in a rickety chair. And the golden
light descends a microsecond still, steals
the day away and whispers to the trees to shed
their leaves and break their bark and snap
their branches as the ground gets buried in an unbearable
heap of decay. We lay there watching the new flowers.
But we’re not part of it. We have been secluded
from this renewal because realizations by
their very nature are always too late
and our luck is running out.
Say, this is not the real world. It’s a mirage, a computer program like a dozen Hollywood films have shown us because the premise is a tried-and-tested formula for a blockbuster. Let’s say there’s a real world out there that we can’t be aware of because it’s against the rules of the program and we’re unfortunately bound by the rules. What if you were the consciousness of something else entirely, something random and silly, like the consciousness of a broccoli and you were dropped into this body we call a “human being” by some higher intelligence or gods with a sick sense of humor as a sort of joke or maybe an experiment to test how a broccoli would react to stimuli? And all this stuff you’re experiencing is something only a broccoli would think or feel? You just think that this is how a human reacts if, say, they step on a piece of Lego or get left behind by a loved one? You know, how in both cases, the pain is almost unbearable, correct? And in the latter scenario, there’s also that deep, burrowing sensation of loneliness digging deeper and deeper into your chest like it would eventually puncture a hole in it but somehow never quite emerge on the other side? It’s something we can all agree on as a human emotion. I feel it and I assume you feel it, too, because when I see your grim, miserable countenance in such circumstances, it’s quite like my own countenance when I find myself in such situations. But what if all that were actually not “human feelings” but “broccoli feelings?” What if everything hurt so much because broccoli–the real broccoli–out there in the real world, are such soft, vulnerable beings, and it’s hard for them to handle things like stepping on a piece of Lego or losing a loved one? In fact, what if these colors that I see are something that a broccoli would see? And if I were the consciousness of something else, I would see totally different?
Buddhist monks go through a lot of trouble to rid themselves of desire. I managed to do it by simply aging.
A Creature of Certainty
It’s so easy to squash a question out of embarrassment. I shouldn’t have asked that. Shouldn’t have said that. Shouldn’t have done that. Well, what should I have done? I guess do what they expect me to–ride the thing to work and work the thing to get the thing. So I could live. But who’s they? Who’s really making me do the thing? But that’s a hell of a question and I shouldn’t have asked that. I feel so bad asking it. I’m not made for the question because the question is so much bigger than me. A mountain trying to be comprehended by a bug. But it’s not like I don’t know the answer. Of course I know the answer. In fact, the only reason I can continue doing the thing every single day no matter what happens, how my body feels, what my beliefs are, is that I know who’s making me do these things, and more importantly, I know why. I accept them because I know what happens if I don’t. That’s the only certainty I have is I know one hundred percent what will happen if I don’t. I’m a creature of certainty. I’ll sacrifice everything for it–my convictions, my friends, my love. Because I don’t know how to swim and if my feet can’t feel the ground, then I’ll drown. Even if I’m wearing a life vest, I’ll drown for sure.
September 5th, 2019. A crime scene. Somebody was stabbed here. The bloody silhouette of where the body lay is askew, the limbs pointing in all the wrong ways. The poor fella crawled away, slowly, painfully, towards the curb where he somehow suddenly disappeared without a trace. As if the wind carried him to his salvation.
“Any idea who?” I said as I lit up the cigarette.
“Not who. What,” said the young lieutenant. “Convictions.”
“Yes, somebody’s convictions were brutally murdered right in this spot.”
Maybe there’s a secret message hidden by the pattern of the blood spatter, a liquid jigsaw puzzle glinting in the light of the ambulances, police cars, noisy cameras.
Nothing to do during a pandemic but sit in this chair,
looking out the balcony
into a sky, strangely bluer than usual.
A large shadow appears within the clouds
as they billow out, and in the center, the glowing eyes
of a dark green, serpent burn, its gigantic wings emerging now
as it lets out a shrill scream that shatters the windows
of condos and shanties below,
And tightly gripped in the serpent’s sharp claws I could see
a beautiful woman, crying, struggling, begging for help.
She looks at me, out of all the people looking up aghast at her,
she picks me, shouts my name.
How did she know my name?
How could such a being of otherworldly charm
know someone like me?
I don’t matter.
But I guess, as things stand,
it doesn’t matter.
I know she’s my destiny.
And I’ll pull out
an ancient sword from the bowels of the earth
to fight this beast to the death!
It will spit out a jet of fire from its frothing mouth,
scorching the ground, scarring the soil with its infinite evil.
But I will dodge it
like I have dodged so many
and guaranteed heartaches,
and awkward conversations
in lonely elevators
my whole life.
I will charge at this demon, riding my great, white steed
and raise my enchanted sword
to slay the monster, cut off its head, showering the world with its magic blood
curing this cursed sickness,
silencing the endless wheezing and whimpering at night,
healing our souls,
chasing the ghouls
from our minds,
righting the wrongs,
maybe not the thankful dead,
but the economy,
making us forget
and also, for our sake, remember
For there are lessons–a tome’s worth of lessons–to learn
from all this.
And the kingdom will live happily ever after,
our names will live in songs like how it’s supposed to be.
I’ll kiss her forehead and she’ll tell me “Everything will be all right,”
as I take her hand and walk away into the sunset.
God how I’ve missed the sunset.
And I’ll do all that
and more things still
and to every person bold enough to listen I’ll have more to say
as soon as I have
washed my hands
for the nineteenth time
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.