“The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” – Karl Marx
“The dead speak!” – Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker
It’s simple enough to claim that Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker fails as a sequel to The Last Jedi in forgoing any attempt to follow up on its predecessor’s direction. It’s even easier to attribute its flaws to the trilogy’s lack of a coherent vision: for whatever one might say about the prequels, they know exactly what they’re doing, while The Rise of Skywalker appears to have seen each of its preceding entries exactly one time. Neither of these points are wrong, but they’re also obvious, and could’ve been predicted from the moment The Last Jedi released. Rather, the film has a more fundamental issue: it’s caught in a tension between moving forward, fully inaugurating the Disney era of Star Wars, and slavishly devoting itself to the past, bringing up memories of past entries for fans wherever possible.
This binary trap screams from every moment and scene in the film. Leia is constantly shuffled on- and off-screen(with notably poor compositing) as the movie sees fit. Her inclusion or lack thereof is based on where footage is available for her, of course, yet the unsubtle promotion of Poe as the next general betrays any consistent attempt to linger on the last surviving member of the original trio; as a result, Poe’s eventual leadership is unearned, while Leia’s presence is unfelt. This is done no better with Luke. While force ghosts aren’t new, the presence of both his and Han’s in the film is suspicious, and though his role in the plot is to encourage Rey, he performs so many actions that you have to ask: why is he even dead? The baton is passed to the new protagonist, as it has been in the previous two films to varying degrees, yet the movie is never confident in letting her fully grasp it herself.
This tension is, in fact, so obvious, that’s it’s abundantly present in the final scene of the film. Having overcome the idea that she must follow her bloodline, Rey refuses to call herself a Palpatine when asked what her family name is. While this scene has potential, it kneecaps itself; set at Luke’s family home on Tatooine, Rey specifically names herself Rey Skywalker before turning off to look at the double sun just as Luke did some 42 years ago. The film wishes to escape the orbit of tradition and destiny, yet at the same time, it’s compelled to reflect on every last moment in the franchise, going so far as to retcon Rey’s parentage in order to tie her into the broader plot movements that have been going on since the prequels. It’s a wonder that they didn’t shove in Anakin’s force ghost as well.
My first Star Wars films were most likely from the original trilogy, but as a kid born in 1999, the prequels were a far more consistent presence in my childhood. I loved the adventures of Luke, but the films we saw in theaters were the prequels, and our toys and games were mostly based on them as well. I was still far from an age where the lesser parts of that trilogy were apparent; Jar Jar was just a funny character. When Anakin’s tragedy culminated, I was only six years old. To me, Darth Vader has always been the melodramatic teenager that so many revile.
Of course, even though I experienced it differently from many older fans, Star Wars meant a lot to me as a kid. My dad was a huge fan, and as a result, we watched it often. I spent hours in lightsaber duels with my brother and friends, and I couldn’t count how much time I put into LEGO Star Wars or the absolutely, astoundingly bad The New Droid Army on my GBA. I probably spent more time with the toys and media surrounding the prequels than I did with anything else not named Pokémon or Yu-Gi-Oh. For many my age, and especially me as a young black kid, the hope was of someday getting my hands on a plastic purple lightsaber, the one Mace Windu used in his coolest moments. I would’ve traded a thousand Lando toys for just one of those, which never appeared at the stores. Ultimately, while I never received one, I found more than enough joy in the red, green, and blue ones I actually had.
The tension in The Rise of Skywalker does not derive merely from its two different directors, though that certainly plays a role. Rather, it’s a structural problem and has to do with the intentions of the sequel trilogy as a whole. First and foremost, the films were made for profit, of course, but more than that, they marked Disney’s takeover of the franchise and their new vision for it. While this vision has become muddied, it’s not so hard to see what it was at the start: a trilogy of films to follow in the style of the prequels and originals, alongside a set of ‘Star Wars stories.’ Rogue One and Solo are the only of these actually made, with the Obi-Wan film repurposed into a series and the Boba Fett story outright canceled, but the initial plan of releasing all of these paints a clear picture of the ‘new vision’.
Essentially, Disney intended to do everything Lucasfilm under Lucas didn’t. Lucasfilm rarely put out Star Wars movies—none since 2005—and centered the prequels even after their release in works like The Clone Wars. Disney, on the other hand, wanted to resituate the original trilogy as the main marking point—seen in the fact that all four ‘Star Wars stories’ were connected to it—and they intended to put out movies as quickly as possible.
Ultimately, this general direction for the franchise led the sequel trilogy to root itself too strongly in the originals, rather than carving out its own path. The Force Awakens may aim to serve as A New Hope for this generation, yet that’s difficult to do when it also expects you to capture every reference to the earlier film. Without a doubt, poor management on Disney’s part led to this, and more skilled leadership could’ve prevented the worst of it. Yet, it’s difficult to imagine a world where they wouldn’t want a set of films that are molded for a new world while simultaneously rooted in nostalgia towards the old. And that was never going to be a resolvable tension.
When Star Wars grows nostalgic, it’s not for those like me, at least not primarily. Tatooine may show up again, but certainly not Naboo or Coruscant. Jar Jar will never get another mention. Mace Windu and his purple lightsaber won’t reappear. And while the sequel trilogy borrows much of its structure from the original, with The Force Awakens standing out as the clearest example of that, none of the political content in the prequels is carried over, something sorely missed in a trilogy whose political situation is, frankly, half-baked under the most generous framing.
It’s not as if I feel slighted for this. The prequels are divisive, even in my own head, and they’re hardly as important as the original trilogy. Mace Windu isn’t essential to the films, and throwing a purple lightsaber in there would’ve been no more than pandering. Yet, I can’t help but feel as if all the nostalgia-pandering falls flat because it’s calling back to a time when the prequels didn’t exist. The pod-racers, Senate, and clone troopers are just as much a part of me as Darth Vader telling Luke that he’s his father. Obi-Wan’s anguished pleas for Anakin to return at Revenge of the Sith’s conclusion mean more than his later death in A New Hope. When you get down to it, I’m not the one being pandered to with these new films. So how am I supposed to react when I watch them?
Disney has caught itself in a bind with these movies, one I’m sure it’s recognized with The Rise of Skywalker’s disappointing—though still massive—box office numbers. Few are satisfied when the line between innovation and recreation is so thoroughly straddled, and all the pandering of the film seems to have missed even those more primed for it than I.
But perhaps the real issue here was a reliance on nostalgia in the first place for a franchise of its scale? Everyone’s experiences with Star Wars are different, yet, at least insofar as the trilogy tried to do anything, it aimed at a specific audience with a specific history, believing their interests to be universal enough that it would work for everyone. Those who yearned to see a purple lightsaber were never going to be satisfied. But because of that, maybe Disney should’ve aimed at something genuinely new in the first place.
The Marx quote I led this article off with was written just as the long-hoped-for European revolutions failed, typified by the revolutionaries’ futile attempts to bolster themselves through a connection to past greats. As Star Wars continues to revive its fallen heroes and villains, settings and journeys, it’s stuck in this very trap. But Marx offers a way out, and declares that the revolutionary may succeed when he learns the new language of revolution “without recalling the old and when he forgets his native tongue.” Only by abandoning the stale language set out in 1977 can the franchise move forward. Until then, the dead will keep speaking.