Early in the movie Nightmare on Elm Street III: Dream Warriors (1987), there’s a moment that I think about weirdly often. Freddy Krueger, the hideously scarred bogeyman of Middle America, has been killing teenagers in their dreams, as he does, and, equally inevitably, a Very Special Girl has arisen to stop his attacks. She finds herself sent to a mental institution alongside several other teenagers who have seen Freddy in their dreams. We are introduced to the head doctor, who then ushers in his assistant. It is Nancy, the heroine of the first film, looking exactly the same as when we last saw her, but for a shock of white hair. The scene moves me, I think, because the Final Girl of the slasher film is a kind of heroic archetype, someone who, by the end of the movie, has saved her life by transcending life, becoming a sheer elemental force of raw survival to counter the villain’s elemental destructiveness. When she appears in a sequel, it is not to have a life. We do not think of an archetype going to school, getting a degree; we do not think of them doing anything but winning, at great cost. We do not think of them having to decide what to do after they’ve won.
The Star Wars sequel trilogy – The Force Awakens (2015), The Last Jedi (2017), and now The Rise of Skywalker – is affecting to me in exactly this way. Critical consensus surrounding the films has, after bouncing around a bit, settled on “soulless corporate dreck,” and it’s not like I can’t see everything about the movies that makes them read this way to people: the predictable story beats, the sometimes heavy-handed humour, the shameless recycling and reshuffling of settings and story elements and typescenes and character archetypes from the original Star Wars trilogy. But their derivative flavour is one with the strange melancholy aftertaste they leave. Many viewers have pointed to the ways that The Force Awakens unfolds like a scenefor-scene remake of the original Star Wars, and it does. Once again a young person must escape a desert planet; once again an antihero figure must be brought firmly over to the side of right; once again a planet-size, planet-destroying base must get blown up. Once again. For if that story is to happen again in precisely that order, all the hardwon victories of Return of the Jedi must be negated. A sense of futility thus overhangs the proceedings, and attaches in retrospect to the childish (and, for millions of us, childhood) joys of the first Star Wars. There is something perverse about the film’s willingness to undo the first trilogy’s triumphs, and to refuse to give us the drawn-out, emotional reunions that it must sprint past (Princess Leia doesn’t even give Chewbacca a hug!) in its doomed attempt to seem as joyously zippy as Star Wars once did. The characters in these films were always stick figures; and stick figures are not supposed to find everything, lose everything, and find it again.
The Last Jedi, directed by Rian Johnson (the other two films are both by JJ Abrams), attempted to scramble the values of the franchise. It did this by giving somewhat better roles than usual to characters of colour and white women – an unqualified good – and by portraying as a bad thing the male heroes’ instinct to take risks and make self-sacrificing gestures. This latter quality led the film into deep incoherence, since adventure films will feature both of these things by necessity. The contradiction becomes quite funny near the end, when the pilot Rose Tico, seeing hotheaded Finn make a suicide run against a giant laser cannon that is about to destroy the heroes’ secret lair, jumps into her ship and knocks him off course, after which the good guys’ medics somehow have time to hustle her off the field, while she makes a speech to Finn about how resistance isn’t about destroying what you hate: it’s about saving what you love. In other words, she makes a grand self-sacrificial gesture about not doing grand self-sacrificial gestures. Nobody in the film points this out. The film is half-ruined not because it’s political (everything’s political, even bottlecaps) but because its politics are both preached to the point of relentlessness and inadequately thought through. The low quality of Last Jedi’s skeptics (many of whom are explicit racists) has blinded many people to its real flaws; from the opening exchange between a resistance pilot and General Hux, you can sense the skeleton of a better film inside it. And yet, with all that can be said against it, The Last Jedi has a strange power, taking the most blandly incorruptible of heroes and turning him into a failed recluse who looks like Slavoj Zizek. Whatever was supposed to happen to Luke Skywalker, it wasn’t this.
If The Force Awakens is this series’ fast, action-packed opener and The Last Jedi its dark, dissonant Empire Strikes Back, The Rise of Skywalker must perforce imitate Return of the Jedi, with its overdetermined feeling, its resemblance to someone marching half-wittedly toward a preordained triumph. It fails in this endeavour by being a somewhat better film than Return of the Jedi. We are looking here not at the JJ Abrams who did “Lost” and the awful Star Trek reboots, but at someone closer to the JJ Abrams who gave us “Fringe,” one of the finest TV shows of its era. Rise of Skywalker is overstuffed and ridiculous and more determined to play the hits than a classic-rock band on its eightieth last-ever reunion tour, but Abrams brings to it the infectious joy of a man who really loves his job, and a good hack songwriter’s invention to the way he recombines old plot elements. As in any great space opera, the locales are cool to think about – there is a Sith planet and a moon where the waves jut like mountains.
It is still a Star Wars movie. Everyone speaks in thesis statements. Galaxies hang in the balance while characters do side quests, mug for the camera, or achieve therapeutic breakthroughs via lightsaber fights. Nobody notices that droids are the most oppressed minority in film history. The script takes several big risks and then immediately undoes them. A distinction is observed between the importance of primary characters’ deaths and those of secondary ones that seems fascist but is more simply, and charitably, read as the structural analogue of the egocentricity of the children these movies are made for.
But the melancholy aftertaste is still there, and gives the film a gravitas it hardly earns. Again and again, characters speak some variation on the line “If we don’t do ___, it will all have been in vain.” But by the time the final planet has been blown up, the final speech made, the final death-scene-that-turns-out-to-be-a-near-death-scene enacted, what you feel most of all is the visible weariness of the first trilogy’s actors – Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, and Billy Dee Williams all make appearances, as does the late Carrie Fischer – and their desperate, hopeless good nature, giving the cycle of history one last good shove. It all was in vain – that’s the barely-repressed truth of these films. The way this Sisyphean mood coexists with the expected, and genuine, thrills of a blockbuster children’s film makes for an odd filmic texture, one that I’m not sure is the same as artistic quality, but that I cannot put out of mind, either.