Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker promises to answer all fan hopes and desires, but who exactly is this fan service for? WARNING: Spoilers below.
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker
J.J. Abrams (director and screenplay writer), Dan Mindel (cinematographer), Maryann Brandon and Stefan Grube (editors), Chris Terrio (screenplay writer)
Disney / Lucasfilm
December 20, 2019
Let’s talk about fan service.
When it comes to the (very) loaded term, in recent years you’re most likely to have heard it in relation to conversations around superhero or Star Wars movies. Of course, these huge vaulted franchises are also fueling a near monopoly of corporate madness with multiple billion dollar movies, and setting a worrying precedent of being afraid to push boundaries or craft original stories.
Since The Last Jedi, there has been plenty of discourse around Disney trying to harness a wider audience by “forcing diversity” (read that as “having a couple of characters of color”), which is often positioned as decision that wrongfully panders to some kind of baying mob, when in reality that “mob” wants nothing more than… better representation. Well, after seeing Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, I have some thoughts about fan service, and who exactly gets pandered to in the billion dollar blockbuster wars.
Ostensibly the ninth film in a four-decade-old saga, The Rise of Skywalker follows on from the events of Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi—only it doesn’t really, but we’ll come back to that. Beginning with a massive narrative jolt that feels like a reset for the current trilogy, the story spirals from there as our cast of characters come to terms with the new status quo, which centers on the much publicized return of Ian McDiarmid’s Emperor Palpatine.
With the Emperor randomly resurrected, Kylo Ren is on a mission to find Rey, and Rey is on a mission to find the Resistance’s newly returned foe. It’s an opening that feels miles away from the hopeful end of Johnson’s second entry into the new trilogy, which opened up the galaxy and the potential for those who could use the Force. This departure seems entirely purposeful, as the most generous reading of The Rise of Skywalker is that it barely notices The Last Jedi, whereas a more cynical viewer might assume that J.J. Abrams’ newest entry into the Star Wars franchise actively tries to retcon as much of the previous film as possible.
In case you’ve been lucky enough to be off the internet for the last two years, there has been a lot of online controversy over The Last Jedi, which a small contingent of fans felt was too progressive—for centering powerful women and some people of color—and too disrespectful to Star Wars lore for the radical reveal that Rey was “a nobody” rather than a legacy character’s offspring.
Watching The Rise of Skywalker, it sadly feels like Disney and Abrams listened too closely to those complaints and decided to pander directly to the lowest common denominator of racist trolls and bad faith arguments. While it’s important to mention that those weren’t the only people who complained about the film, The Rise of Skywalker does nothing to rectify the legitimate issues some fans brought up in regards to the story and character developments in The Last Jedi. (Such as the downplaying of Finn’s role in The Last Jedi, for example.)
That’s not to say that The Rise of Skywalker doesn’t have some powerful moments—it definitely includes some that will likely fuel the discourse fires and content mines for months to come. It’s just that there are so many “moments” in this film—seeing as the creative team are trying to explain away a whole prior movie while also introducing new concepts—that most of the big ones don’t land. It’s a film that’s full of retcons, big character beats, and huge plot points that often don’t stand up under the tiniest bit of scrutiny. Even if you enjoy The Rise of Skywalker, as you watch it you’ll likely find some logical, narrative, and/or thematic bumps when you dig a little deeper.
So, back to our original thesis, The Rise of Skywalker is filled with fan service, the return of beloved characters and terrible but known foes, and a messy but more simple plot that once again becomes recognizable in the cyclical world of Star Wars. It’s understandable that Disney and Abrams might have wanted to deliver on those points, but there are other confusing choices made, like the eradication of much of what The Last Jedi established. This includes erasing the democratization of the Force, as well as obviously sidelining Rose Tico, a main character in The Last Jedi whose actor, Kelly Marie Tran, was hounded off the internet by racist trolls. These choices definitely don’t make sense narratively or logically for the film, so it feels like Disney made these changes for the sake of pleasing certain fans. And if that’s the case, then what kind of fans are they pandering to?
Definitely not those who wanted better queer representation, or more women (and specifically women of color) in the Star Wars universe. Though we do get the brilliant Naomi Ackie as Jannah, she’s far from a central character, which is nothing short of a travesty as she’s one of the best parts of The Rise of Skywalker. Rose Tico goes from central figure in The Last Jedi to background actor in The Rise of Skywalker, as she barely features in the film and has hardly any lines. Keri Russell’s Zorri Bliss is magnetic but features in under a tenth of the film’s runtime. As for Rey, the lead of the sequel trilogy, well…she’s definitely more powerful than ever, but her arc is one that goes from independence and self-determination to being almost entirely defined by multiple men—mostly bad, but some good—by the end of the movie.
This doesn’t mean that you will hate the movie. There’s a high chance you’ll get swept up in the massive space drama, the epic battles, and the sweeping emotional moments. Maybe this is the Star Wars movie that you’ve been waiting for; it certainly has its fun moments, tear jerking scenes, and even some interesting resolutions for some characters. But at the same time, The Rise of Skywalker feels rushed, confused, and at times insulting. If Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi was Star Wars at its most risky and experimental, then The Rise of Skywalker is the series at its safest and most concerned with what fans want—and that feels like a lackluster ending for a franchise that has been pushing boundaries for 40 years.