What ‘The Rise of Skywalker’ gets right about redemption (and wrong about the Force)

Daisy Ridley stars in "Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker." (CNS photo/Disney)Daisy Ridley stars in "Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker." (CNS photo/Disney)

This essay contains spoilers.

I keep thinking about Luke Skywalker’s X-Wing fighter. It has played almost no role in the final “StarWars” trilogy; in fact, when it pops up on radar near the end of the last film, “The Rise of Skywalker,” our heroes don’t even recognize it. It has been trapped in the oceans of Ahch-To so long, no one but Jedi-in-training Rey knew it still existed.

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As soon as I saw it rise from those waters, with Mark Hamill delivering a pitch-perfect imitation of Yoda raising it in“The Empire Strikes Back,” I was immersed once again in that sense of wonder and restless yearning that has always been at the heart of “Star Wars” for me. There is so much waiting for us, the “Star Wars” films promise, if we would just close our eyes and take a step. We will know challenge and darkness, but also a connection with God, sacrifices that mean something and the possibility of real friendship.

 In my experience the separation of priest from everybody else is neither helpful nor based on any kind of truth. 

There is certainly a lot of restlessness in “The Rise of Skywalker,” and also anxiousness and fear. I imagine some of it comes from director J.J. Abrams and his co-writer Chris Terrio. As not only the last chapter in the latest trilogy but the final word in the “Star Wars” saga, “The Rise of Skywalker”was always going to be a tremendous challenge.

In many ways 2017’s “The Last Jedi” had already provided the perfect ending—the spark of hope reignited despite the most dire of circumstances; Luke offering everything to save his friends; and the Force freed from the presbyterate of Jedi and Sith to become a true animating spirit and source of encouragement for all in the universe.

That film also crystallized what has been the sequel trilogy’s unique take on the saga’s central question of mercy and redemption. Where the prior trilogies grappled with whether there is still good in this or that person, the sequels have turned the focus inward. Rather than thinking of others, its characters wonder “Is there any good left in me?” Han looks upon his son and blames himself. Luke commits to a life of perpetual isolation out of fear of his own darkness.

2017’s “The Last Jedi” had already provided the perfect ending—the Force freed from the presbyterate of Jedi and Sith to become a true animating spirit and source of encouragement for all in the universe.

It seemed like “Skywalker” was set up for Kylo Ren, the series’ villain, to face the same question; could he be “seduced by mercy,” as it were, and guided back to the light?

But what we are offered instead is mostly Rey, the hero of the series, suddenly wrestling with this question herself. While some of this is a result of her ongoing connection to Kylo, for the most part the film downloads a whole new set of issues for Rey, particularly the revelation that, in fact, she is not the child of nobodies, as “The Last Jedi” spent so much time laying out, but the granddaughter of the “Star Wars” saga’s universe’s Satan figure, Emperor Palpatine, who has come back from the dead to seduce or kill her.

Rey also struggles with rage she does not know what to do with, scary visions and power that she cannot always control. It is much the same journey of fear and confusion that Luke and Anakin underwent in the prior trilogies, but pressed into just two hours.

I have seen “Skywalker”twice now, and this “Rey Palpatine” idea continues to seem tacked on and sexist. Though Rey of course rejects the Emperor’s path, by making her his granddaughter the creators have redefined her identity in terms of his.

Abrams said he made the move because being related to evil is a lot scarier than being related to nobody. But being related to nobody meant Rey was her own person. Her struggle was to accept herself as valuable and powerful in her own right.

Some will say that her ultimate decision to name herself a Skywalker constitutes a final act of self-definition. But to me it seemed more like she has replaced one external definition with another. The character we have followed for five years now is not Rey Skywalker or Rey Palpatine. She is Rey. The whole point has been that she is of value as herself.

Having said that, I think there is a lot to admire in the film’s desire to continue to wrestle with the question of our own shame and darkness. “Never be afraid of who you are,” Leia tells Rey early on. It is a marked departure from the teachings of the Jedi, for whom emotions are generally viewed as dangerous, to be dealt with at best with caution and at worst with repression.

In “The Rise of Skywalker,” the point is that we do not have to be ashamed of any part of ourselves. Our attractions to others and the power that we have are goods to be understood and accepted. Our very darkest feelings are just that, feelings.

In “The Rise of Skywalker,” the point is that we do not have to be ashamed of any part of ourselves.

And no mistake leaves us outside the possibility of forgiveness. In her darkest moment Rey actually does what Luke had been only tempted to do: stabbing Ben when his defenses are down. And yet that one terrible act does not destroy her forever, as the Jedi and Sith both insisted would happen; but rather her mistake breaks the spell of fear in which she has been trapped. Seeing herself at her darkest draws Rey back to her true, generous self. As Luke reminds her later, our fear is meant to be faced. And when we do we are set free.

There is much more to be said about this film, for better and worse. Ben Solo’s final act, in which he not only heals Rey but resurrects her, is a wonderful and unexpected call back to Palpatine’s original quest to find a way to use the Force to live forever. It turns out that gift could never be his because it requires sacrifice and love.

The notion of Rey having a thousand generations of Jedi living within her likewise captures in such an evocative way our own Catholic idea of the communion of the saints.

The notion of Rey having a thousand generations of Jedi living within her captures our own Catholic idea of the communion of the saints.

At the same time, as a whole, the film seems regressive in its notions of spirituality and authority. Where “The Last Jedi” expanded the Force from tool of the Jedi and Sith to something that everyone has a connection to, the Force is barely mentioned in “Skywalker,” and then almost entirely in the context of a few individuals. When Ghost Han shows up, the storytellers make a point of having Ben insist he can only be a memory, because after all he is not a Jedi, so how else could he be there. It is ridiculous, of course: he is really there. The moment they share is everything for Ben (and so well conceived).

But then at the end of the film, what ghosts does Rey see watching her? Just the Skywalkers, a.k.a. the Jedi. Han, the man who served as a father figure to her in “The Force Awakens,” is nowhere to be seen.

And the thing is, “Skywalker” has the story to build on what “The Last Jedi”(and also “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”) started. Finn clearly has some kind of connection to the Force. And the climax of the film involves the entire universe taking a Luke-at-the-Death-Star-type leap of faith to show up and fight the Emperor’s ridiculously overwhelming forces.

Yet where “The Last Jedi”and “Rogue”worked so hard to connect such acts of hopefulness to the Force, “Skywalker” says nothing. Neither does Finn, about that or anything else. (Spending an entire movie building up the expectation that he has something big to say to Rey and then dropping the story entirely is one of the film’s worst choices, alongside its decision to marginalize “The Last Jedi” central character Rose Tico in favor of a new woman of color with most of the same characteristics, right down to the fact they both ride horse-like creatures.)

 

Rey ends the movie not with her friends, but all alone on Tatooine. It is another clear moment of fan service, and I certainly appreciated the chance to see those two setting suns one more time.

But it made me a little sad, too. The moment sets Rey and her Jedi mentors apart in a way that I am all too familiar with not only from the saga but from my own life in the priesthood. In my experience the separation of priest from everybody else is neither helpful nor based on any kind of truth. Priests are just people; everyone has a connection to the life-giving force of God; and self-cloistering only warps perspective.

Take the time you need, Rey, I thought after seeing the film. Catch your breath and remember where this all began. Maybe spare a thought for Han Solo and your birth parents; they loved you just as much as those Skywalkers did.

Then get back in the Falcon and rejoin your friends. You have got your own story to live. May it be filled with discovery, love and adventure. And may it help us to remember we are all invited to the same.

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