(UN)POPULAR CULTURE

The home of writer & author A. J. BLACK

Until this weekend, Star Wars: Episode IX was in serious danger of having its thunder well and truly stolen by the twin pop-culture giants on the immediate horizon – Avengers: Endgame and Game of Thrones’ final season.

As if sensing a disturbance in the Force, Disney—who bear in mind own Marvel so control two of the biggest cultural entertainment events of 2019—released to much fanfare, including an entire live-streamed celebration event, the long-awaited trailer to a film we now know will be subtitled The Rise of Skywalker. The trailer naturally didn’t give all that much away – Rey doing a neat Jedi flip over a tie fighter, a desert barge fight channeling major Return of the Jedi vibes, what looks like a crashed Death Star on a watery world, and a very gleeful old Lando Calrissian back behind the wheel of the Millennium Falcon. Enough to stoke some fan theories for the next few months and keep the wheels of speculation moving.

There was, however, one final part of the trailer which seems to have confirmed a suspicion on many fans minds. Namely that returning director JJ Abrams is steering the Skywalker saga back into safe, familiar territory for the climactic beat.

As the title is revealed at the end of the trailer, a cackling laugh echoes ominously with the foreboding music. One name immediately leaps out – Emperor Palpatine, the Dark Lord of the Sith who turns poor Anakin Skywalker to the Dark Side of the Force across the Prequel Trilogy as he destroys the Galactic Republic, only to push his luck too far in Return of the Jedi and be dumped into the raging heart of the second Death Star by Anakin’s tragic incarnation Darth Vader, after he tries to destroy his son Luke when he refuses to break bad. No one since 1983 has presumed that Palpatine is anything but dead as Republican Senate.

Unless you take a look at the tie-in fiction universe for the Star Wars franchise, much of which has since been struck from canon by Disney since they acquired the franchise in 2012. The Dark Empire series between 1991 and 1992, by Tom Veitch, set six years after Return of the Jedi, posits that Palpatine could be resurrected in a number of clone bodies, which he uses as part of a plot to once again take control of the galaxy. Given Abrams subsequently confirmedthat Palpatine would appear in The Rise of Skywalker, some are speculating that the Emperor may somehow have lingered via cloning technology. An adaptation of Dark Empire is unlikely but clone Palpatine is, at this stage, entirely possible.

While speculation about what the trailer may mean is of course enjoyable (for those invested, at least), the more interesting discussion to be had revolves around quite what Palpatine’s appearance, the title, and other aspects of the trailer mean for how the central Star Wars saga will conclude.

Let’s not beat around the bush: Rian Johnson’s middle part of the sequel trilogy, The Last Jedi, was divisive. It could well be the most divisive picture in mainstream popular culture since The Matrix trilogy, perhaps even beyond that. Most critics enjoyed it, aware Johnson is a very different stylistic filmmaker to Abrams and any middle part of a trilogy is going to be necessarily darker and trickier than those before or after it (unless you’re Attack of the Clones), but it split fans firmly down the middle. Whether due to the treatment of Luke Skywalker, the de-mythologising of the Jedi and the Force, the off-hand removal of Snoke, or the utter debacle that was the treatment online of co-star Kelly Marie Tran, the Star Wars fandom did not acquit itself with any kind of grace in how it dealt with the fact The Last Jedi was not the film most people expected.

While The Last Jedi did excellent box office, we have subsequently seen a lukewarm critical reception and the (relative) commercial disappointment of the misjudged Solo: A Star Wars Story, which came out last summer and largely underwhelmed after a troubled production. Subsequently, LucasFilm head honcho Kathleen Kennedy seemed keen to steer away from nostalgia driving future Star Wars projects, putting the breaks on potential Obi-Wan Kenobi and Boba Fett anthology pictures (the latter seems to have drip fed into future Disney+ launch series The Mandalorian), and actively encouraging projects from Johnson and Game of Thrones chieftains David Benioff & DB Weiss which will reputedly deliver trilogies in a different corner of a galaxy far far away, possibly even in alternate times – Benioff & Weiss’ project is rumoured to be set in the Old Republic era, thousands of years before the Skywalker saga.

This seems at odds, nonetheless, with where Abrams appears to be taking The Rise of Skywalker – back into the warm embrace of familiarity.

The Last Jedi was, by any stretch of the imagination, a bit of a right turn from Abrams’ sequel trilogy kick starter The Force Awakens. While Abrams’ barnstorming adventure story buffeted accusations of being a remake of A New Hope (it has clear similarities but this was an unfair claim), it broke Star Wars fandom free from a decade of disappointment since the Prequel Trilogy and in 2015 breathed incredible new life into a franchise nobody ever imagined continuing.

The Force Awakens also very clearly saw Abrams, and co-writer Lawrence Kasdan, teasing trilogy-long narrative threads that continued to mythologise the Skywalker family in relation to the Force and the Jedi; Rey’s mysterious parentage, Kylo Ren’s youthful Jedi training, Luke’s curious disappearance, the enigma of just who Snoke might be, and the lingering shadow of Vader behind the rise of the First Order and the resurgent dominance of fascist control in the galaxy. The Force Awakens was a bell-weather for the incumbent Trump era in which the villains look like they might win after all.

Almost none of these threads were paid off in The Last Jedi, or at least not in the way most fans expected. Rey was told she was nobody special and that her parents were never coming back; Kylo (or Ben Solo) could have been any tortured kid rather than the grandson of Vader; Snoke ends up getting almost zero explanation before being unceremoniously sliced in half; and rather than heading off to explore the secrets of Jedi history, Luke has instead retreated to a cave to mope his way out of existence, only to die before he could even have any reunion with Leia – though thanks to Carrie Fisher’s tragic premature death in 2016 this was probably unlikely anyway. Johnson’s deliberate retort to Star Wars existing in a crooked, divisive and partisan age was to try and restore hope that *all of us* were special, equal and could make a positive difference. We don’t need to have a magical destiny to save the world from the allegorical Trump figures, all we need is to come together and believe in ourselves. Behind the apparent doom and gloom of the narrative, it was an empowering message.

Yet from a storytelling perspective, when placed against The Force Awakens, it didn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense.

Abrams and Kasdan explicitly suggest that Rey’s parentage matters and that she was important, hence why she was left behind on Jakku as a child around the same time Ben Solo was losing his shit after falling in with the Knights of Ren – indeed many automatically assumed she was probably Luke’s daughter and she would end up a cousin of Kylo Ren, continuing the familial balance of light and dark since the beginning of the saga. When Rey touches Luke’s lightsaber in Awakens, she has a vision which includes hearing the voices of both Obi-Wan (especially recorded for the film by Ewan McGregor) and Palpatine, suggesting a duality inherent in her character and a destiny linked to either the Jedi or the Sith. Everything at this stage is pointing toward a heroes journey for Rey in which the mystery of her past, and where she comes from, will inform her destiny as the saviour of the galaxy from the Dark Side of the Force.

The Last Jedi works hard to invert that, to suggest that Rey’s broadest destiny within the construct of this trilogy is to perhaps help Kylo find a sense of redemption for his troubled childhood and subsequent misdeeds. She may either be the titular ‘last’ Jedi, or that role was filled by the departed Luke, who left behind a world where a cosmic attuning to a mystical ‘chi’ is not what people need to defeat the darkness within ourselves, which is what the Skywalker saga has really always been about – the internal war between whether to forge the path of a hero or villain, and the symbolic duality of ‘man’, which George Lucas ripped right out of Joseph Campbell and brewed up with the classical fantasy archetypes of the hero, princess, wizard etc…

None of this Rian Johnson seemed interested in and The Last Jedi will almost certainly go down as one of the more challenging and fascinating Star Wars movies when all is said and done precisely because it refuses to play in Lucas’ space fantasy paradigm. It would be easy to say that Abrams fits that paradigm more neatly due to his historical influences, but in reality Johnson is of a similar age and was born and raised with the same reverence for Spielbergian wonder – they have just chosen to express it over the years in different ways. As Abrams was directing Lost, Johnson was helming Breaking Bad (one of them, it has to be said, being one of the greatest episodes of television of all time…). While Abrams was penning Super 8, Johnson was cracking the occasionally impenetrable modern noir Brick. They were always going to tackle the legendary behemoth that is Star Wars differently and we are better off in a world where The Last Jedi exists than otherwise.

The truth is, however, and it’s a truth plenty of people won’t admit to themselves… but The Last Jedi took the wind out of the trilogy’s soaring sails a bit.

Fans are likely going to lap up The Rise of Skywalker in a similar manner to The Force Awakens because one thing Abrams does understand, and is more comfortable with than Johnson, is spectacle, scale and how key anticipation is to the modern cultural experience. For many film fans, the build up to key points of popular culture are groan worthy excesses, and this can be understood. Online discourse is often a vacuum of morose anathema, yet there is something enticing in the prospect of eagerly anticipating a piece of ‘event’ cinema or television which fans broadly have spent years digesting and dissecting. 2019 is a year, as it turns out, of endings. Game of Thrones, Avengers: Endgame and latterly The Rise of Skywalker, but the excitement for the latter has been minimal in comparison to the former duo.

This is without a doubt going to change as both of those events pass and, crucially, we begin to anticipate a climactic end to the Skywalker saga in which Abrams delivers a Star Wars film which taps into all of the narrative themes and story ideas that The Force Awakens promised, and feel more attuned to the spirit of the franchise. While concerns that Abrams may canonically ‘retcon’ certain aspects of The Last Jedi to fit more in line with Awakens are understandable (and Johnson doesn’t actually mind), anyone who saw how carefully Abrams rebooted the Star Trek franchise when it came to the respect of established canon should appreciate he is unlikely to trample over Johnson’s film with abandon – indeed the small screen Star Trek: Discovery is far more egregiously playing fast and loose with canon in that franchise than Abrams ever did, but that’s another article to come…

Ultimately, The Rise of Skywalker on the initial evidence appears to be playing to the gallery. Rey probably is important. Kylo probably will be redeemed. Palpatine probably has been the grand architect behind Snoke and the First Order. Abrams probably is planning to narratively tie together all nine films in some kind of loose unifying saga, while tricking us with a double meaning about the name Skywalker – as there are some neat theories flying around about how ‘Skywalker’ will be the new name of the Jedi, or those who embody those powers and mindsets. If The Force Awakens was our A New Hope, and The Last Jedi wasn’t quite Empire, then Skywalker will probably be our Return of the Jedi, but for good this time. The evil forever vanquished. The villain defeated. The balance restored. Hope in a time where, allegorically, we need it most against the fascists and the corrupt in power.

To me, that’s ok. The Rise of Skywalker may not be the most original piece of cinema in history but neither was The Force Awakens, and there is an unbridled joy about the sense of nostalgic familiarity with that film you would be hard pressed to find elsewhere. If JJ Abrams is looking back to move Star Wars toward an end point, before the launch of a new era, it strikes me that we may be missing the chance to truly embrace a finale over forty years in the making that could remind us why we love Star Wars so much. Familiarity does not always have to breed contempt. 

Sometimes it can be just what we need.

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