Now, there is no reason or way to lay blame for this clash of styles, since Abrams devotees can fairly claim that Johnson started the revisionary process, and the Johnsonians can reply that box office totals and critical acclaim justify the later director’s choices. But the distinction between the two approaches points up the degree to which Episode VIII must have deviated from Abrams’ original intentions in rebooting the franchise in Episode VII, and the dilemma it created for Abrams with The Rise of Skywalker: whether to suppress his own nostalgic, reverential style to match Johnson’s iconoclastic approach, or whether to largely disown Episode VIII.
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Let us begin by conceding that there was no possibility that this film could succeed in its goal, because it was attempting something never done before in the history of cinema: concluding not just a trilogy, but a trilogy of trilogies, and closing out the most prominent franchise in entertainment history. No single film could effectively resolve the myriad subplots and themes presented in the previous eight films of the Star Wars saga. Add to that the untimely death of legendary actress Carrie Fisher, who was slated to anchor this film, and hence the need for a hasty recalibration of the narrative. Add to that the departure of original director Colin Trevorrow in the scripting stage, leaving J. J. Abrams with a mere two years to conceptualize and execute the film. Add to that a divided, volatile, and often myopic fandom, and one increasingly prone to bite the hand that feeds it. Factor all that in, and the odds of the ninth and final Star Wars saga film delivering on its expectations were so slim that even the redoubtable C-3P0 could not hope to calculate them.
Keeping these factors in mind as we consider this film allows us to be a little more fair-minded than we might otherwise be to this case of (riffing on one of director Abrams’ earlier franchise revivals) “Cinema: Impossible.” But even with an equanimous attitude, it must be acknowledged that Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker is a deeply ambivalent experience, a movie both delightfully rich and markedly flawed, and one filled with moments of exultation and frustration. Two weeks after its release, critical response has ranged from the worshipful to the dismissive: the typical kneejerk reactions of an overwrought fan base. The film clearly requires and deserves a more thoughtful mindset to properly evaluate it. A pox on the house of any fan who thinks they can judge it in one sitting, or in one breath.
Credit must firstly be given to Abrams simply for bringing forth a film that is not wholly feckless and that does not dissolve our willing suspension of disbelief; and yet The Rise of Skywalker has some obvious defects, both avoidable and unavoidable. Both the film’s strengths and its weaknesses proceed from its regard, positive and negative, for the earlier films in the series. Abrams’ close study of the prequel and original trilogies has allowed him to reinvoke a multitude of abiding themes, from conspiracy and cloning to family lineage and personal identity. Echoes of and allusions to Episodes I to VII1 in The Rise of Skywalker abound and will doubtless preoccupy its more mindful fans for decades to come. On the other hand, Abrams seems to have had it in mind to reorient if not repudiate the style and plot directions of Episode VIII – The Last Jedi (encouraged perhaps by Lucasfilm executives spooked by the conservative backlash against what was a highly innovative and diverse take on the Star Wars mythos). In the end, it appears that Abrams may have consciously or unconsciously resented the subversive approach of Episode VIII director Rian Johnson to the various Star Wars conventions that Abrams had stubbornly maintained in Episode VII, and was bound and determined to conclude the saga on a traditional note.
Now, there is no reason or way to lay blame for this clash of styles, since Abrams devotees can fairly claim that Johnson started the revisionary process, and the Johnsonians can reply that box office totals and critical acclaim justify the later director’s choices. But the distinction between the two approaches points up the degree to which Episode VIII must have deviated from Abrams’ original intentions in rebooting the franchise in Episode VII, and the dilemma it created for Abrams with The Rise of Skywalker: whether to suppress his own nostalgic, reverential style to match Johnson’s iconoclastic approach, or whether to largely disown Episode VIII. Evidently Abrams chose the latter course, and the results are plain to see. In The Rise of Skywalker, Abrams has conceived of a rarity in the Star Wars canon: a film that does not require (much) knowledge of the previous chapter to follow. Indeed, it is almost possible to watch and enjoy Episode IX without having seen Episode VIII. The Rise of Skywalker, as near as I can tell, acknowledges only four major elements of the previous episode: the sacrificial death of Luke Skywalker; the assassination of Supreme Leader Snoke and the political ascent of Kylo Ren; that General Leia is secretly a Jedi; and the existence of Rose Tico, a character who in Episode IX is disappointingly marginalized (a sociopolitical term I use deliberately, given that a reactionary fan campaign may be at least partly responsible for her being sidelined). But resuming a familiar course created another pressing problem for Abrams: the need to provide his own complicating middle chapter, and then to resolve it in a final act; in essence to produce two films in one.
As a result, The Rise of Skywalker is, if not the longest Star Wars film, certainly the densest and fastest-moving, since director Abrams and co-writer Chris Terrio2 are essentially condensing two chapters into one sitting. Nearly every scene in the film is slightly too short, with the “beats” coming too frequently and too quick, which is a rather painful flaw in a movie that constitutes a fond farewell (there is even something of a joke about this in the script’s reference to a new mode of interstellar travel called “lightspeed skipping”). As a consequence of its frenetic pace, there has probably never been a blockbuster film more in a need of a three-hour director’s cut than The Rise of Skywalker, and fans will doubtless spend some time contemplating whether it would have been wiser to delay the film for another six months to reconceive it, or add a paradigm-breaking fourth film to the sequel series. In any case, the first act of The Rise of Skywalker is too packed with expository material to savor, and while Abrams is able to coax banner performances from Daisy Ridley as Rey and Ian McDiarmid as Emperor Palpatine (below), he is also determined to “wedge” in (pun intended) many new characters (such as Naomi Ackie’s Jannah, Keri Russell’s Zorii Bliss, Richard E. Grant’s General Pryde, and the inexplicable presence of Dominic Monaghan), as well as some familiars (namely Billy Dee Williams’ Lando Calrissian and Domhnall Gleeson’s General Hux), all of whom end up being underserved by the movie’s headlong pace. The subsequent acts are significantly better, and the film’s climax nearly pays its bill; but the relentless rush to close the deal leaves one in doubt as to what was actually bought and sold. The outcome, as mentioned, is a poignant but somewhat perfunctory valediction.
What is needed to redeem and clarify the experience is an overview of the film that unpacks its condensed symbolic meanings and implications in relation to the saga as a whole, and which illuminates Abrams’ good-but-occasionally-obscure intentions (this of all films cannot be judged in isolation, or on its brisk delivery). This critical task is best dispatched by an archetypal mode of interpretation that respects the mythic structure and aspirations of the Star Wars canon, and that can properly discern not just the recurrence of ancient and traditional narratives and ideas in the space-fantasy saga, but the patterns within the saga itself, and the influence on it of other pop culture properties. It is to this work that the main of this analysis is devoted, which will require, if not a fully in-depth scholarly analysis, at least occasional recourse to scholarly sources.
As the first line of the text-crawl – “The Dead Speak!” – announces, the film’s central theme is the mythic principle of resurrection and of connecting with one’s elders and ancestors (two main characters, Rey and Palpatine, undergo literal resurrections in the story, while at least six others – Ben and Han Solo, Lando, Chewbacca, C-3P0, and Zori Bliss – experience figurative restorations. The film even involves a metafictional revival through the presence on-screen of the late Carrie Fisher). As we shall discover, with regard to this theme, The Rise of Skywalker, like Episode VII (as I pointed out in my review of the earlier film), taps into the oldest cogent mythology in the world, the ancient Sumerian tradition, although it does not become apparent in this case until the third act. The hellish opening scene sees the new Supreme Leader of the First Order, Kylo Ren, violently plundering the stronghold of his late grandfather Darth Vader on the planet Mustafar (last seen in Episode III and Rogue One), though Abrams’ hurried cinematography fails to clearly signal that this storied setting is the location. But Mustafar’s volcanic backdrop not only recalls Vader’s memorable turn to evil, highlighting the question of Ren’s and Rey’s own moral arcs; it also inaugurates a consistent symbolic pattern of negation and void in the film, evinced through desert, ocean, frozen, and benighted environments; imagery of lightning, storm, fire, and furnace; and references to unspeakable languages and secrets, and suppressed or lost memory: motifs that signify an archetypal descent to the cosmic roots of elemental destruction or fertile renewal.3 What Kylo Ren is seeking and finds on Mustafar, we discover, is Vader’s Sith “wayfinder,” a hyperspace compass pointing to the planet Exegol, the secret lair of Emperor Palpatine, whose recent return threatens Kylo Ren’s rule. This initial bone of contention (or “MacGuffin,” in the shorthand of film criticism) not only parallels and develops the similar device of the map to Luke Skywalker in Episode VII, but slyly alludes, again, to the main character’s moral compasses. When Ren reaches Exegol, he encounters the reanimated Emperor Palpatine, who apparently does possess (as he implied in Episode III) the power to generate life, though in his palsied, tyrannical hands it amounts to the perpetual recurrence of the undead. Revealing to the youth that Supreme Leader Snoke and Ren’s own psychic communions with Vader in Episodes VII and VIII were actually his eldritch contrivances, Palpatine (un)naturally offers Ren an alliance and a Sith apprenticeship: in return for delivering Rey, whose parentage he insists is (contra Episode VIII) both unusual and important, Ren may command the massive secret armada of star-destroyers that constitutes Palpatine’s endgame, which rises up from beneath a frozen ocean to give the film an appropriately apocalyptic tone.
The film’s protagonists begin to be reintroduced as the scene shifts to the Millennium Falcon’s arrival at the Sinta Glacier Colony, where Finn, Poe Dameron, and Chewbacca rendezvous with Boolio, a Resistance informant, who reveals the existence of a mole in the First Order and passes along his secret message. The meeting thus not only recalls the plot device of the secret Death Star plans that began the Star Wars mythos in Episode IV in 1977, but the infamous Bothan spies of Episode VI, whose story The Rise of Skywalker repeatedly echoes. Concluding the meeting, Poe extricates the Falcon from pursuing TIE fighters through the aforementioned “lightspeed skipping,” which reminds us that not all deviations of natural law are unnatural per se; that in the service of survival, some (like resurrection) might more properly be called miracles. Our main protagonist Rey is finally foregrounded as we see her Jedi training proceed under the tutelage of General Leia, and we observe her struggling to connect through the Force with the Jedi knights who came before her (“Be with me,” she chants, then ironically intones; “they’re not with me”). Notably, this sequence occurs on Ajan Kloss, a jungle planet whose lushness contrasts the symbolic principle of female fertility that Rey and Leia (below) represent with the masculine sterility and death-principle represented by Kylo Ren and Palpatine on the barren Exegol (both Rey and Leia are, as I suggested in my review of Episode VII, aspects of the Jungian anima or feminine archetype). While these scenes with Leia are slightly awkward, being composed of outtakes from Episode VII, they function adequately to convey that Rey is progressively plagued by frightening visions about her background and is reluctant to take up the lightsaber of her former master Luke Skywalker (a necessary Jedi rite of passage), because her powers seemingly include a considerable capacity for destruction (evinced here through accidental damage she inflicts to the droid BB-8). When the Resistance learns of Palpatine’s return, however, Rey displays her heroic potential by revealing that the Jedi texts she rescued from Ahch-To in Episode VIII record Luke’s search for the wayfinder and Exegol, and that he found a clue to their locations on the desert planet Pasaana. Once Leia dispatches Rey to Pasaana, promising to arrange a local contact there, Finn, Poe, Chewbacca, and the droids insist on accompanying her, indicating her indispensability to the living community of the Resistance. In a contrasting scene set amongst the First Order, however, Kylo Ren’s masked helmet (which he shattered in Episode VIII) is reconstructed by an ape-like metalsmith and juxtaposed with the brandished severed head of the now-executed spy Boolio: an opposition that not only alludes to the psychological process of “getting one’s head together” and the open question of galactic leadership (“head of state”), but announces that the time for choosing sides in open battle, an apocalyptic dialectic, is near.
The theme of connecting to family heritage is emphasized as the heroes arrive at Pasaana and discover that the desert planet is celebrating the “Aki-Aki Festival of the Ancestors”4 (which for the student of mythology recalls the ancient Sumerian Akitu festival, a new year’s celebration of renewed fertility (see Bidmead 2004), which again hints again at the archetypal path that Rey is on. As Rey watches the Pasaanan children learning the stories of their people, the scene recalls the importance of childhood formation and experience in the Star Wars mythos (and particularly recalls Yoda’s nurturing of, and Anikan’s massacre of, younglings in the prequel trilogy). When one child shares her family name with Rey, who cannot answer in kind, it highlights Rey’s lack of family bonds and self-knowledge; but when the child nevertheless gives Rey a native necklace, it symbolizes the principle of organic and social interconnection that she has the potential to represent. Later, facing arrest as intruders, the heroes are saved by their local contact, the legendary Rebel fighter Lando Calrissian, whose presence and scenes seem to have been added to the script to compensate for the scarcity of General Leia (to whom Lando therefore repeatedly refers). Having lived in secrecy on Pasaana ever since he and Luke Skywalker found there a clue to the Sith wayfinder, in the form of the ship of a Jedi-hunter named Ochi, Lando is able to direct them to it. The journey, however, requires them to elude a First Order ambush via a landspeeder chase that recalls not only the pod-race sequence from Episode I but, with its colorful signal-flares and remarkable cinematography, owes something to the canyon chase of Mad Max: Fury Road (2015).
The chase ends with the heroes sinking in quicksand, an obvious symbol of unconscious descent, and they soon find themselves in subterranean caves in which they discover the remains of Ochi and another MacGuffin, a Sith dagger inscribed with the location of the wayfinder; which they could determine if only they could override C-3P0’s programming against translating the secret Sith runes. Attempting to re-ascend, the group is blocked by a fearsome, wounded sand-serpent, which they are able to pass only because Rey heals it through a new Jedi power of healing, a Force-energy transfer.5 These scenes further develop the opposition of a female life-principle (zoë or eros) with a male death-principle (or thanatos) in the film, as both the dagger and the serpent are life-threatening phallic symbols (with the serpent also being an apocalyptic reference to the dragon of Revelation 12), while the dagger also sharply contrasts with the necklace as a symbol of severance that threatens the potential for connection that the native gift connotes. Emerging to find Ochi’s ship and an opportunity for escape, however, the heroes realize they are being hunted by Kylo’s henchmen, the Knights of Ren: Chewbacca is captured aboard a First Order shuttle, and the dagger and the Millennium Falcon are taken. Remarkably, however, Rey is able to arrest the shuttle’s takeoff with shocking display of Force-power; but when her hold on it morphs into an uncontrolled burst of Force-lightning that destroys the ship, Rey believes she has killed Chewie, and begins to further doubt her benevolence and to obsess about her lineage.
Hoping to override C-3P0’s translation program, the group travels to the benighted snow planet Kijimi, where Poe must dredge up long-suppressed memories of being a spice-runner to reconnect with his old accomplice Zorri Bliss, who can further their efforts. The fact that Zorri is, beneath her mask, a beautiful female to whom Poe is attracted further underlines the theme of fertility, as does the underground droid-smith to which she leads them: the playful, monkey-like Babu Frick (above) neatly contrasts with Ren’s simian metalsmith, both embodying the positive and negative aspects of the Greek archetype of the Cabiri, the mischievous dwarf-like sons of the divine smith Hephaestus (who were associated with various ancient Greek fertility cults). Babu Frick reveals that only by wiping C-3P0’s memory can they override the translation block, read the dagger, and then learn the wayfinder’s location; an abnegation to which the droid nobly consents. Thus (as in The Wizard of Oz) it is the seemingly cold, secretly heartful “Tin Man” who, of all characters, reminds us that self-sacrifice is the mythic key to preservation and renewal of life. Similarly, while Poe is unable to convince Zorii Bliss to join their cause, she nevertheless donates to them her coveted First Order captain’s medallion, which will grant them passage to Kylo Ren’s nearby star-destroyer on which Rey now senses Chewie, apparently alive, is being held: a scene that again associates self-sacrifice with renewed life. Meanwhile, contrastingly, Supreme Leader Kylo Ren is himself planetside to search for the heroes and offer the children of Kijimi the choice of conscription or death, in what is an obvious reference to the biblical massacre of the innocents. The sequence culminates when the group boards the star-destroyer and Rey is drawn away from Chewie’s rescue to Kylo Ren’s reliquary, in which she finds Darth Vader’s helmet and recovers the Sith dagger: in the mystic lightsaber duel that follows, Vader’s helmet is now shattered, foreshadowing Ren’s turn away from Vader’s legacy, but it is also revealed that Rey is the granddaughter of Emperor Palpatine, the daughter of his previously unknown son, who in an act of self-sacrifice concealed his offspring at the expense of his own life: a secret that nevertheless ties her to the dreaded Palpatine bloodline and thus confirms her worst fear.6 In a subtle allusion to the Persephone-Hades courtship myth7 that archetypally structures their relationship in Episode VIII, a basket of red pomegranate-like berries, symbolic of the mythic marriage of life and death, is spilled at Ren’s feet on Kijimi during their metaphysical combat. The duel is a draw; the rescue of Chewbacca fails, and Finn and Poe are captured, but they are freed by the First Order mole, who is revealed to be General Hux. But Hux is appropriately killed by General Pryde after revealing that he (Hux) was motivated not by self-sacrifice but by resentment of Kylo Ren. The heroes narrowly manage to escape in the newly liberated Millennium Falcon in a scene that features a recurrent Star Wars chaoskampf motif, sudden atmospheric decompression (see Episode III).
Learning from the now-amnesiac C-3P0 that the Sith wayfinder can be found in the undersea ruins of the Death Star on the Endor moon (downed in the conclusion of Episode VI), the heroes race there and encounter a small band of First Order orphan-deserters led by the sympathetic Jannah (above), who recalls not only the theme of childhood identity but bonds with the likeminded Finn (and thereby forecloses on the romantic subtext formerly involving Rose Tico). Unwilling to wait for their assistance, however, Rey travels to the ruins alone in a sequence that closely resembles the wave-mounting sea-journey of the heroine of Moana (2016), right down to Rey’s use of an outrigger-like water skimmer. Scavenging (her original occupation in Episode VII) the wayfinder in the shattered throne room (above) of Emperor Palpatine, Rey experiences a vision of herself as a future Empress Palpatine, wielding the venerable Star Wars symbol of overdetermined, phallic masculinity, a double-bladed lightsaber (as featured in the prequel trilogy, particularly Episode I). Through this scene, the nature of Rey’s archetypal journey in The Rise of Skywalker is finally revealed to be based on the world’s oldest fertility-resurrection myth, the ancient Sumerian Descent of Inanna to the Underworld; for not only does this mythic foundation explain why the film cycles through increasingly negative locations and a series of “Russian-doll” MacGuffins, in emulation of the numerous Gates of the Underworld through which Inanna must pass and the treasures she must resign, and why the Knights of Ren pursue Rey as the myth’s galla-demons pursue Inanna, but why Rey’s story begins to culminate in a confrontation with a negative self-image, as Inanna, the Queen of Heaven, confronts her twin sister Ereshkigal, Queen of the Underworld. As Joseph Campbell explains:
Inanna (right) and Ereshkigal, the two sisters, light and dark respectively, together represent, according to the antique manner of symbolization, the one goddess in two aspects; and their confrontation epitomizes the whole sense of the difficult road of trials. The hero, whether god or goddess, man or woman, the figure in a myth or the dreamer of a dream, discovers and assimilates his opposite (his own unsuspected self).… One by one the resistances are broken. He must put aside his pride, his virtue, beauty, and life, and bow or submit to the absolutely intolerable. Then he finds that he and his opposite are not of differing species, but one flesh. The ordeal is a deepening of the problem.…: Can the ego put itself to death? (Campbell, 108-09)
In Rey’s case, the problem might better be parsed; can she confront her grandfather and the reality of her own deathly lineage? Relatedly, set as it is in the room in which Vader bowed but finally turned on the Emperor and thereby recovered (resurrected?) his original identity, the sequence is also significant in psychoanalytic terms, for it amounts to a return to what Freud calls the “primal scene”8: the site of preconceived (because both imagined and prior-to-conception) family trauma that nevertheless overshadows the child’s postnatal life; an interpretation that in orthodox psychoanalysis would point up the Sith master-apprentice relationship, the so-called “rule of two,” as a dynamic of masculine-Oedipal and possibly homosexual abuse. Substantiating her trauma, Rey then encounters in the flesh the pursuing Kylo Ren (below), who destroys the wayfinder, and a true clash of lightsabers ensues, and spills out across the storm-tossed wreckage. Not only does Ren’s sudden appearance provide an opportunity, the secret, for resolving Rey’s trauma, but Rey is saved in the duel when Leia expends her life to commune with and distract her wayward son across the vast interstellar distance between them through the Force, which allows Rey to impale him with his own lightsaber. Moved by Leia’s self-sacrifice, Rey decides to heal and resurrect Ren, further eliding the two motifs. But more startled by the implications of her Sith lineage than her increasingly productive powers, Rey takes his ship and flees.
Journeying to the Jedi hermitage on Ahch-To with the intent of going into exile as her master once did, Rey lands and burns Kylo Ren’s ship, and attempts to throw her lightsaber onto the pyre; but it is intercepted by the Force-spirit of Luke Skywalker in a shot that sharply amends their controversial and much-criticized first encounter in Episode VIII and that reveals their bond, their parallel paths, and how far both characters have come. The moment is the turning point: encouraging Rey to confront her fear and face her forefather Palpatine as he did his in Vader, Luke explains that the spirits of the Jedi reside in her now, and bestowing both his and Leia’s lightsabers upon her, he raises his abandoned X-wing from underwater (in imitation of Yoda’s similar feat in Episode V, and in a faint echo of the rising armada of Palpatine) and tells her to use the wayfinder recovered by Kylo Ren (which he points out is in the burnt wreckage of his ship) to travel to Exegol. Meanwhile, in the Death Star ruins on the Endor moon, in a scene that finally brings Rey and Ren’s storylines into parallel, Kylo experiences a vision of Han Solo; and, lamenting the death of his mother and regretting the murder of his father in Episode VII (from the same wound from which he has just been healed, no less), he casts away his ill-made lightsaber and reclaims his original identity as Ben Solo, and thus resolves his own primal scene. The two scenes of reconciliation, which equate vocational mentorship and biological kinship, spiritual guidance and family memory, reveal how both relations are ultimately subject to a high morality and the processes of growth and redemption, and therefore counterpoint, inversely, both Ben’s and Rey’s relationship to the emperor, which finally begin to dissolve. The equation is more than significant enough to justify Abrams’ bold creative choice of embodying a personal memory on-screen as visibly as a spiritual presence to show how both characters have ultimately succeeded in properly compartmentalizing the tyrannical impulses of their grandfathers. In an additional contrast that points up the productivity of their rediscovered/recovered ethos, while Emperor Palpatine can conjure the willing aid of only one collaborator (General Pryde) for the final struggle, the Resistance has regrouped, Finn and Poe have been promoted to General, C-3P0’s memory has been recovered, and Lando and Chewbacca have mustered a massive makeshift fleet (that which failed to appear in Episode VIII) to counter the Emperor’s armada. When it is revealed through the destruction of Kijimi that each of his battleships has a planet-destroying superlaser, though controlled from a single vessel, the terms of a final apocalyptic battle are set.
Arriving on Exegol and transmitting its location to the Resistance, Rey confronts Emperor Palpatine, who demands that she ceremonially kill him so that he can transfer his spirit into her, in what is a perversion (or “demonic parody,” to use Northrop Frye’s term) of Rey’s healing power and the Jedi who apparently dwell in Rey and the rejuvenative power of sacrifice-fertility ritual. Rey refuses, and seems doomed, but while a climactic battle wages above and the Resistance attempts to co-opt the Sith command ship (through a cavalry charge that highlights the venerable Star Wars theme of the organic versus the mechanistic), Ben Solo also arrives in support, but is blocked by the Knights of Ren. Using their impressive Force abilities and connection, however, Rey and Ben communicate telepathically and Rey transfers one of her lightsabers into Ben’s hand so that he can slay his former henchmen (in what is the inverse and continuation of their duels against and alongside each other in Episode VII and VIII). Joining Rey before the Emperor’s throne, it is finally revealed that Rey and Ben constitute a “dyad in the Force,” a joint manifestation of the Force as the principle of “life itself,” and therefore symbolic not only of the fertile conjunction of female and male but of the balanced archetypal pairing of anima and animus that Jung refers to as the syzygy ((Interestingly, for a space-fantasy film structured by the myth of the Sumerian Queen of Heaven, Jung’s term syzygy is derived from ancient astronomy, the word for the alignment of planetary bodies through common gravitation forces.)) (Jung, 11-22); in addition to being an amplification of the bond that existed between Luke and Leia, the concept also corrects the ruthless and coercive “rule of two” that governs the Sith master-apprentice relationship. As the emperor, a figure ultimately representing death itself (as if his Grim Reaper attire left much doubt), is their opposite and apparent nemesis, however, Palpatine is able to begin absorbing their life-essences to bolster himself, and he hurls Ben into a nearby chasm, revisiting on Skywalker’s son the deed that the father once visited on him. But the one principle of death cannot outweigh the many manifestations of life, and as Rey lies at the emperor’s feet, she stares up at the stars and calls upon all the Jedi that came before her (“be with me,” she whispers, repeating her opening lines in the film), and finally receives their power in response. Thus does Rey fully align with her archetype of Inanna as the Sumerian Queen of Heaven (above), and reveal the extent of Abrams’ own fascination with the “sky-goddess” or “celestial maiden” figure, for a strikingly similar scene occurs in the finale of his TV series Alias.9 Rising and wielding dual lightsabers, which are reflective now not of hypermasculinity but gender cooperation (they belonged to Luke and Leia, and the scene is reminiscent of the climax of the thematically similar Wonder Woman ), Rey is able to deflect the emperor’s Force-lightning (as Mace Windu deflected and nearly halted his rise to power in Episode III) back at him, finally disintegrating his body. His defeat brings all of his creations to dust, but it is worth noting that like Luke (below), Rey defeats her enemy entirely through the use of defensive measures, in restoration of the Jedi code, and that the hostilities are mostly skyward, in the battle between the fleets (which includes, in a bit of foreshadowing, Zorii Bliss, who has miraculously survived the destruction of Kijimi).
Unfortunately, Rey’s deflection of Palpatine’s attack back upon him has cost her life, and when Ben Solo crawls from the chasm, he finds her dead. Finally enlightened by the self-sacrifices of his grandfather Anikan Skywalker, his uncle Luke, his parents Han and Leia, and now Rey, however, Ben Solo realizes he must follow suit and resurrect her, in recompense for her earlier revival of him. Putting his hand, appropriately, on her stomach, her womb, the ground of human life (corresponding to where she had earlier visited his own masculine desiccation and then restoration on him), Ben transfers what is left of his Force-energy to her to ensure her return to life. As the two embrace and kiss before he falls dead himself, confirming the long-sublimated love between them, Ben’s final archetype is thus revealed to be Dumuzi, husband of the Sumerian Queen of Heaven, who in The Descent of Inanna to the Underworld is similarly sacrificed to secure the re-ascent of the goddess, the principle and power of rebirth, to the upper world. Indeed, Ben’s resemblance here to Dumuzi is a logical symbolic progression since, as I pointed out in my analysis of Episode VII, Kylo Ren first evinced similarities to Gugalanna, the Great Bull of Heaven of the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, who in the Inanna myth is depicted as the husband of Ereshkigal; in which case his archetypal development into a sacrificial Dumuzi-figure would be the goddess making him her own, and Rey finally achieving her hope of Ben Solo’s moral reformation. The account of this dynamic in the Inanna myth by folklorist Diane Wolkstein perfectly captures its significance in the film as well:
Whatever may have been the specific personal grievances between husband and wife that allow us to identify with the story, the greater issue is already determined: Someone must go to the underworld to replace Inanna. And the husband of Inanna is the perfect substitute, for he is also the King of Sumer. The Sumerians extolled the king who was wise and compassionate as well as powerful. They extolled the king who cared for the weak, the poor, the wronged, the widowed. It was Inanna’s visit to the underworld that opened the Queen of Heaven’s vision to her own vulnerability. If Dumuzi is to be a truly “great” king in the ways extolled by the poets of Sumer, he too must journey to the feared place, to the Great Unknown. (Wolkstein and Kramer, 162)
Thus does Ben Solo, last of the Skywalkers, rise as he falls, and then fades into the Force as Jedi do when they meet their end. And yet in sacrificing his life for hers, it should be noted that Ben Solo also finally achieves the dream of his grandfather Anikan Skywalker as depicted in Episode III, of saving one’s beloved from death, and even fulfills the prime edict issued in the first minutes of Episode I at the very outset of the saga, of being “mindful of the living Force.”
The film concludes with the expected victory celebration, which includes some concise symbolic bookends for the film, the trilogy, and the Star Wars saga as a whole. A medal of bravery is bestowed upon Chewbacca, the positive counterpart to First Order captain’s medallion used to rescue him, perhaps indicating that the most consistent instinct for life and sacrifice, the saga’s organic essence, resides in him.10 Poe and Zorri Bliss also acknowledge but sublimate their attraction, as conventional for a drama’s “second” or “low” pair of lovers. Rey journeys to the Lars homestead on Tatooine, where the Star Wars saga began in Episode IV, and burying Luke’s and Leia’s lightsabers, reveals that she has transformed her trademark staff into a yellow-bladed weapon: the reconciliation of her scavenger past with her heroic future, the fusion of the red blade of a Sith and the green blade of a full-fledged Jedi knight, the emblem of the fate of a family in the prequel and original trilogies, and therefore the token of one who has mastered the mysteries, who has trod the limits, of death and life. Asked by a local who she is as she gazes wistfully into the planet’s binary suns and sees the Force-spirits of Luke and Leia, she can finally give her full name as “Rey Skywalker,” and thus confirm the literal and figurative rise and new life of her bloodline.
Decompressing the symbolic structure of the film as I have above allows us to see in it a dense tapestry of archetypes and allusions that ranges across the rest of the Star Wars saga, a fantastical style of popular entertainment, as well as the perennial patterns of human psychology and a tradition of fertility myth and ritual stretching back to the Bronze Age. Through this critical process, it becomes clear that The Rise of Skywalker is far from the miscellany of “fan service” that some dismissive critics have claimed it to be. Indeed, on this front it is somewhat less than complete, as it fails to answer such basic questions as how Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber was recovered and obtained by Maz Kanata, and who was the Emperor’s son, Rey’s father. On an archetypal level, however, the film is actually a well-constructed narrative culmination and a significant cultural statement. Insofar as the overarching theme of the Star Wars saga is humanity’s struggle against the machine of Fate, which we see it subjugated by in the prequel trilogy and liberated from in the original trilogy, we can now understand the sequel trilogy as concerned with determining the balance between the two, between the bloodlines we can choose or escape from, and the natural processes we cannot. For this purpose, it only makes sense that the final trilogy would continue to focus on the psychodynamics of family while foregrounding, for an era of gender equality, a heroic pair-bond in which the female takes priority, and to structure her story through the myths of the ancient Sumerians, for whom the relation of the numinous and the natural, the problem of mortality and the solution of fertility, were paramount (Jacobsen, 3-63). Indeed, in conjunction with my earlier review, we may observe now that that the archetypal strategy of the sequel trilogy may have been to submit the female hero for masculine consideration by drawing on but also inventing the Gilgamesh myth (among others) in Episode VII, to remind us of the importance of the fertile union itself and the primacy of natural processes in Episode VIII,11 and to re-present the goddess-hero and her power of resurrection as the indispensable epitome of humanity through the myth of Inanna in Episode IX. In addition to elucidating the archetypal symbols and structures in the films, such an interpretation perhaps also explains why objections and criticisms of the sequel trilogy have come from various subcultures who might feel challenged or excluded by its valorization of full masculine and feminine complementarity. But these communities, like all fans of the concluded but seemingly perpetual Star Wars franchise, would do well to remember that with myth we are always in the realm of the symbolic and not the sanction, the metaphoric and not the mandate, and the illuminating but ultimately invitational figurations of fantasy.
Bidmead, Julye. 2004. The Akitu Festival: Religious Continuity and Royal Legitimation in Mesopotamia. Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press.
Campbell, Joseph. (1949) 1972. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Freud, Sigmund. (1886–1899) 1966. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. I: Pre-Psycho-Analytic Publications and Unpublished Drafts. London: Hogarth.
Freud, Sigmund. (1900–1901) 1953. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. V: The Interpretation of Dreams (II) and On Dreams. London: Hogarth.
Frye, Northrop. 1990. Words with Power: Being a Second Study of the Bible and Literature. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
Jacobsen, Thorkild. 1976. The Treasures of Darkness: A History of Mesopotamian Religion. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Jung, C. G. (1951) 1969. Aion: Researches into the Phenomenology of the Self. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Wolkstein, Diane, and Samuel Noah Kramer. 1983. Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth: Her Stories and Hymns from Sumer. New York: Harper and Row.
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Unless otherwise noted, images are screenshots from trailers and promotional material provided by the producers.
- To save space, this review will refer to the earlier Star Wars films by episode number rather than title. As a reminder, the series consists of:
The Prequel Trilogy: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (dir. George Lucas, 1999)
Episode II – Attack of the Clones (dir. George Lucas, 2002)
Episode III – The Revenge of the Sith (dir. George Lucas, 2005)
The Original Trilogy: Episode IV – A New Hope (dir. George Lucas, 1977)
Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (dir. Irvin Kershner, 1980)
Episode VI – The Return of the Jedi (dir. Richard Marquand, 1983)
The Sequel Trilogy: Episode VII – The Force Awakens (dir. J. J. Abrams, 2015)
Episode VIII – The Last Jedi (dir. Rian Johnson, 2017)
Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker (dir. J. J. Abrams, 2019)
The two “Anthology” films released thus far are Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (dir. Gareth Edwards, 2016) and Solo: A Star Wars Story (dir. Ron Howard, 2018). [↩]
- In addition to Abrams and Terrio, members of the so-called “Lucasfilm story group” are doubtless responsible for many of the film’s narrative elements, and apparently creator George Lucas and original director Colin Trevorrow were also consulted during the scripting process. [↩]
- This vast complex of symbolism is most elegantly theorized in chapters 7 and 8 of Northrop Frye’s Words with Power, 229-313. [↩]
- In the script, the festival is said to be celebrated every 42 years, which of course metafictionally commemorates the release of the original Star Wars film, Episode IV, in 1977. [↩]
- Presumably Rey learned this feat either from General Leia or from the Jedi texts that she saved from Ahch-To, which in either case would be symbolically significant. [↩]
- This is, of course, the most eagerly awaited and controversial revelation in the film. While I suggested in my review of Episode VII that depicting Rey as the daughter of Luke Skywalker would have made more archetypal sense (and indeed, the revelation of their unknowing kinship may have been planned before the death of Carrie Fisher, whose character Leia would likely have revealed it), presenting Rey as the granddaughter of Emperor Palpatine was always a distinct possibility for careful viewers and listeners: Rey’s darker impulses are hinted at in Episode VII, and composer John Williams’ theme for Rey uses the same notes (in a different rhythm) as his theme for the Emperor, which is itself quoted in the score of Episode VIII. Insofar as Rey has turned out to be descended from Emperor Palpatine, the overarching point I ventured in my review of Episode VII, that the mythic theme of cousin-conflict seems to undergird the sequel trilogy, is still valid; if Anikan Skywalker was somehow “conceived” by Palpatine, as many viewers maintain, Rey and Ben Solo would still be, relationally if not biologically, second cousins. [↩]
- Significantly (as will be explained shortly) the myth of Persephone and Hades is considered by comparative mythologists to be the Greek analogue and descendant of the Sumerian myth of Inanna and Dumuzi. [↩]
- See Freud 1966, 244 and 1953, 585, and elsewhere. [↩]
- See episode 105 (S05E17) of Alias, “All the Time in the World,” in which the heroine Sydney Bristow stares up at a starry sky as she realizes that she has managed to forestall a nuclear war. [↩]
- This scene also recalls the medal given to the courageous Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz (1939). [↩]
- I hope to provide an in-depth if belated review of Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi along these lines in the coming months. [↩]