Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker: Why the Backlash?

I saw the ultimate chapter of the original Star Wars last night. Viscerally, it brought back the sights, sounds, smells, and topoi–sites for conversation and debate in “rhetoric speak”–of my preteen world. It was a world in which we kids would ride our bikes in the neighborhood, fending off swarms of gnats at dusk.

My house was in a close suburb of Albuquerque, also close to an outpost of the Navajo reservation where my dad worked as a public-health-service dentist. (I have written about the open hand of colonialism elsewhere.) There was a crow whose habit was to silently enter our home every time the front door opened. Well, not every time.

In the dusk, my “boyfriend” Joe and I would sit on the stucco wall of my house’s front garden (some tomato plants barely hanging on for the slugs) and celebrate and debate the first Star Wars. We imagined the engineering that it would take to suspend a landspeeder on air and use it as our own personal taxi. No more school bus!

Like so many others of our age, we went around saying, “These are not the droids you’re looking for,” and throwing “Why, you stuck-up scruffy-looking nerf herder!” at potential bullies. (It did not stop them.) When engaged in mock combat, we proclaimed, “Now, young Skywalker, you will die.”

“Do, or do not. There is no ‘try,'” our parents said when asking us to clean our rooms. This was a violation of a serious Jedi code: Parents are not cool. It is gross when they steal our language.

Joe’s mom was the Avon lady. Aside from “Skin So Soft” (a.k.a. insect repellent), she carried a range of obnoxious perfumes. Joe once brought me one in a bottle that was shaped like a sheep.

Again, it was dusk. It was always dusk, in the time of Star Wars.

That first kiss, just a peck, was sweet. But not as sweet as that horrible perfume.

The Star Wars of 1977 was a love bomb in my life. Sure, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi were also awesome, but nothing can compete with a first love (especially those offensive “prequels”). Even though the later sequels have been incredible, nothing could rival that first immersion in a universe far, far away–far away from what we now know as the privations and pressures of neoliberal capitalism.

Like many Star Wars fans, I was marking time through The Force Awakens, a yawn fest, although the crashing of the horse race of the rich and the liberation of whatever species counted for horses there was pretty awesome. I had high hopes for The Last Jedi. Thank the Force for a powerful female character who is not a princess incapable of doing anything but stand around and plead for help. And hey–BB8, that roly-poly buddy.

What can one say about The Last Jedi? We who have aged alongside the timeline of the saga empathize with depressed Luke. He is just worn out. He must literally pass the torch and Rey is the only other human there. (Why couldn’t a Wookie be a Jedi, anyway?) (Cute Porgs. Don’t eat them.) So finally we had a Jedi who was a woman.

The Last Jedi and now The Rise of Skywalker have been pelted with rotten tomatoes by critics across the political and popular culture spectrum. So we went to the movie last night with less than high hopes, given the pre-release reviews trashing the film.

But suddenly there I was again: on that stucco wall, waving away gnats, waiting for Joe, waiting to ride bikes around the neighborhood with my friends. What (in the film) sent me back was the Death Star. In the film, that vestige of imperial power is a ruin in the spectacular turbulent ocean on a moon-planet.

I whispered to my partner: “That’s the death star.” Then, on the screen, Rey says, “That’s the death star.” So there. The point is, though, that it was THE DEATH STAR (cue the nostalgia and retrospective cheers), and Rey must scale it again, skimming impossibly high and frigid waves, to find a map to the center of the Empire. This is a satisfying moment in the hero’s journey, made more so (for me) by that hero’s being a woman.

So many scenes, from Rey’s piloting of Luke’s resurrected X-Wing fighter (the one that dropped the bomb that annihilated THE DEATH STAR when I was 13), to her exiting of that same craft to greet a ‘droid and receive a hero’s welcome, to her return to Luke’s adopted family’s deserted homestead, to standing, with BB8, silhouetted by Tatooine’s two suns–all intentionally echo the Star Wars of 1977.

There’s an ancient ship–The Millennium Falcon!–piloted by an unlikely set of goofy characters. There is a powerful new center of the Empire. The resurrected cyborg Emperor Palpatine reveals that he is Rey’s grandfather, just as Darth Vader (Anakin Skywalker) was Luke’s father. Like Luke, Rey must confront the darkness in herself and recover the strength of a powerful positive force.

On another note: Wasn’t 1977 the year I was made to read Romeo and Juliet in middle school? Didn’t we get all titillated by all that talk of hands and lips and other things touching? Didn’t we swoon at the fate of the star-crossed lovers?

If we didn’t get it in middle school, we surely get it in The Rise of Skywalker. Rey’s dark-side foil Kylo Ren, a.k.a. Ben Solo, is propelled by love to spare Rey and follow her into the final confrontation with Palpatine. Importantly, it is Rey who vanquishes the Emperor, turning his own lightning power against him with two crossed light-sabers. (Hers and Leia’s? That’s a powerful feminist duo.)

It takes everything Rey has to win, and she slumps to the ground, dead. Ren/Solo, taking the part of Romeo, pulls her dead body to him and uses his own power to bring life to her once again. Finally, finally (omg), they kiss, and then Ren/Solo expires from his own exhaustion. Along with the dead Princess Leia’s, his spirt and body evaporate into The Force. He has given his life for Rey. But breaking with Shakespeare’s script, Rey gets to live and fight another day.

That’s about it when it comes to romance in this movie. In the realm of the resistance, Rey operates without a romantic interest–like Sarah Connor in the Terminator and Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road. These women are seriously bad-ass. Perhaps it is Rey’s failure to comport with a Disney script that explains the critical backlash against this film.

Otherwise, from where I sit, it is difficult to explain widespread editorial disdain for the movie. It has earned 58% on Rotten Tomatoes. Roger Ebert gives it a 2.5 out of 4. Forbes’ review calls it the “worst Star Wars movie ever.” Among other charges, this reviewer accuses the film of shying away from its predecessor’s “darker real-world implications.” It says that there is “no real character work” in the film.

Most seriously, this reviewer chastises old-school fans, “a generation that grew up loving Star Wars and then allowed two Palpatine-ish leaders (George W. Bush and Trump) to come into power.”

“Fan bait” is the only reason the movie exists, an episode of a fantasy “aimed at nostalgic adults yearning for a time when they believed they were the most important generation.”

We should question the pleasures of nostalgia. And the review gets at one possible reason for negative fan reaction: Young people. Young people are to blame for crumpling this film in their sticky hands and throwing it through my window. Damn kids. Stay off of my lawn, er, my wall.

Young people do not occupy the same historical, political, or economic moment that we (mostly white) teens in suburbia did. We had no idea about the coming ravages of neoliberalism that would make it so that my daughter, a millennial, lives in a world marked by intense privatization and austerity. Her time is also witness to the violence of heterosexist, homophobic, transphobic, ableist, masculine white supremacy.

She also lives in a world, thankfully, that has expanded human recognition of differences of gender, gender identity, gender expression, race, ethnicity, nation, religion, sex, sexual orientation, and ability. In that context, the film’s nods to homosocial and homosexual relationships (the don’t-blink-you’ll-miss-it kiss between two women in a celebrating crowd) are profoundly inadequate.

The Forbes review is correct in another way. The post-race vision of the Star Wars saga cannot possibly ring true even in a mythic way to people coming of age right now.

Perhaps I should question my own enjoyment of nostalgia. I would feel bad about it–except that we now are able to identify with a hero who is a woman, one who is uninterested in anything or anyone aside from conquering the Empire, one who is in some ways feminine but in all ways fierce. Feminist anti-imperialism: I can’t fault the film for that.

Moreover, I believe that the Forbes review, like many others, is sexist in its argument that the film fails to develop its characters. Rey is as at least as fully fleshed-out as Luke ever was (which, frankly, is not saying much). The problem is that Rey is a woman who cannot, by many men, be recognized as a full person in the hero role. There is time spent on “real character work”–it’s just that the character is not recognized by some audiences as real. (Are any of these reviewers trashing the film women?)

Beyond the dismissal of Rey as a real hero, the language of “fan bait,” “pandering,” and “fan service” I’ve seen across the Internet seems obliquely misogynistic, as if the film were a prostitute servicing an audience incapable of finding release elsewhere. The film is being slut-shamed.

I never believed that I belonged to the most important generation. In raising a kid of the millennium, I recognized fully the shortcomings of my upbringing, the relative ease with which I moved through the world, the seemingly natural conglomeration of social groups.

I am not nostalgic for that time of unquestioned privilege. It seems to me that many reviews of The Rise of Skywalker are largely cynical; they won’t let the film get away with an earnestness that is ostensibly belonging to a different time.

But I am nostalgic. What I am nostalgic for is a theme echoed in the films’ refrain from the beginning. It is also present in the writings of the Italian revolutionary Antonio Gramsci. It is a precondition for any act of political resistance.

What I am nostalgic for is the crushing and ruination of the Death Star. What I am nostalgic for is hope.

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