I have a fondness for seeing worlds torn apart.
Fictional worlds, that is.
I’m not talking about post-apocalyptic fiction, though I enjoy the genre and have even written in it. I’m talking in the broader sense, when a fictional world is built on assumptions that the reader or viewer comes to accept, and then those assumptions get questioned, and one way or another it becomes clear they cannot hold.
When I saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens, I loved it for affirming a science fantasy world that I’d loved since elementary school. But when I saw Star Wars: The Last Jedi, I loved it for questioning that world, for showing characters I loved as flawed, for giving us the sense that the Jedi, in their way, were as problematic as the Sith, or at the least, problematic enough that a something had to give, to change.
When Luke Skywalker said the Jedi had to end, he seemed to have a point. And at the very end of the movie, when we saw an unnamed young stable sweeper using the force, without training and without any apparent danger, I saw what seemed to be the first hints of a new world, a new way of looking at the force and its place in the world, and what it was for and who it belonged to.
After all, we’ve been hearing for ages about the need to bring balance to the force. Perhaps balance meant moving beyond the rigid dichotomy of Sith and Jedi, of black and white, of starkly clear-cut good and evil.
So I settled in to Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker with hopes that I was about to see this universe that had for so long been a part of my life undergo a fundamental, mythic transformation.
Perhaps I should have known better.
But for much of the movie, it seemed the story was heading just that way. Time and again, Rey found third options, alternate solutions, instead of going with the standard attack or retreat, fight or flight responses I’d come to expect. She got creative, thought outside the teachings of the first eight movies, and even, in the end, figured out that the force could be used for healing, not just for inflicting damage and teleporting small objects and convincing the occasional stormtrooper that you’re not worth bothering with. (I’ve long thought that magical healers and magical warriors must have, at the core, the same basic magic.)
And then there were Rey and Kylo, both closer to the middle than the edges of their respective orders, so close they could fight back to back, surely poised to set that fundamental change in motion.
But in the end, the final battle is literally a battle between all the Sith that ever existed and all the Jedi that ever existed. If the Jedi fought defensively, and with love rather than hate, in the end it was still their greater power that won the day.
A friend who writes tie-in novels for another fictional universe once told me that he had the freedom to do whatever he wanted, so long as he put everything back where it started by the last page.
I felt like this is what happened in The Rise of Skywalker, which is in retrospect unsurprising for a franchise with many more stories to tell.
I enjoyed the movie, which may not be clear from all I’ve said about it so far. At times I enjoyed it a lot. There are bits that I’m squeeeeeing about in various forums, even now. The importance of chosen family. The fact that the force can heal. Jedi master Leia Organa. Flying stormtroopers. C3POs sacrifice. A certain Wookiee, receiving his medal at last.
The importance of remembering we’re not alone, no matter what fear tries to tell us.
Yet in the final moments of The Rise of Skywalker, that unknown stablehand is forgotten. Rey buries Luke and Leia’s lightsabers, letting me think, for just a moment more, that maybe everything was going to change after all. Then Rey pulls out her own lightsaber, consciously chooses Team Skywalker over Team Palpatine, and the status quo—a dichotomous world with two choices and two sides, is affirmed.
The universe I’ve long loved was still there, intact.
Unchanging and unchanged.