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“Let the past die. Kill it, if you have to.”
What Star Wars: The Last Jedi’s Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) said with conviction, it seems that filmmaker J.J. Abrams heard ironically, as indicated by the first trailer for The Rise of Skywalker — a movie that seems to continue this new trilogy’s blessing (and curse) of weaving its new characters and worlds through and around the original trilogy’s old ones.
And look — yeah, this is kind of bagging on a movie before it comes out, based on a few minutes of a trailer. It’s premature for sure. At the same time, bringing back the Emperor — and Kylo Ren’s mask, and the Death Star from Return of the Jedi — are ideas that invite a level of scrutiny in light of how (whether you like it or not) Rian Johnson’s Last Jedi invested so much story on the importance of forging new narratives over rehashing or reshaping parts of past ones.
Kylo Ren is arguably Star Wars’ most emotionally complex and vulnerable villain to ever wield a lightsaber or the Dark Side. The Force Awakens introduced him as someone living in the shadow of his grandfather Darth Vader, a shadow that Ren wants to both worship and surpass. His chrome mask is homage to Vader; it’s almost like cosplay. Ren smashing it in the Last Jedi is such a bold physical manifestation of that film’s themes of breaking from the past to create your own future. It’s such a satisfying narrative choice — we’ve never seen a villain in this saga make that kind of gesture before. It’s exciting to see such newness, and experience it with a character as dynamic as this one. To glimpse Ren seemingly putting his old mask back together in The Rise of Skywalker suggests what fans of Last Jedi have feared — that Abrams is ret-conning certain narrative threads of that movie for his trilogy’s final chapter. That he’s undoing some of the emotional groundwork Johnson laid to flesh out these characters as unique despite being the offspring (literally and figuratively) of ones we’ve known for more than 40 years.
Vader needed his mask to live. Ren’s mask got in the way of his life. It was decoration, theatrics, a barrier between who he thinks he wants to be and what he knows he has to become. Take the mask away, and you’re left with a boy who killed his father, Han Solo, in order to prove to the master he would later kill how far he will go to find himself — even if that means burning the past to light the way to his dark future.
Bringing back Ren’s mask is less problematic that the trailer’s final moments hinting the return of Palpatine. Since Abrams admitted at Star Wars Celebration that Ian McDiarmid was on-set, it’s safe to assume the character will have a decent amount of screen time.
We are two movies into this new trilogy and we’re still exploring the lives of past characters at the cost of deepening those of new ones. Two movies in, and all we know about Poe (Oscar Isaac) is that he is a really good pilot who has lots of heart and quips. Finn’s (John Boyega) also quippy. And a good guy. What more vital story is there to tell about Palpatine that warrants the cost of taking narrative real estate away from these two? Or Rey (Daisy Ridley)?
Palpatine died in Return of the Jedi, in a satisfying way to both Luke (Mark Hamill) and Vader’s (James Earl Jones) arc. Bringing him back from the dead threatens to undo that and undermine Luke’s choices and Vader’s redemption. While the franchise is known for callbacks to previous movies in the forms of beats or dialogue (think “I’ve got a bad feeling about this …”), it’s another thing entirely to resurrect dead characters as significant as Palpatine.
Abrams is scary-good with casting and character and executing big stakes. As Film Critic Hulk recently tweeted, this often means the filmmaker is “tripped up in trying to satisfy the audience and it messes up the themes, meaning-making, and resonance.” Hearing the Emperor’s laugh at the end of that trailer may be nothing — just another, as Hulk points out, “vague, confusing allusion” in Abrams’ history full of them.
We have time to find out if that nothing turns out to be really something. But it’s enough to make one worry about Star Wars’ future being unable to let go of its past. If you can’t kill it, like Kylo Ren suggests, at least don’t be a slave to it at the expense of killing the potential of new stories. Especially if it means denying valuable narrative screen time to new, interesting characters to service a guy is 90 percent maniacal laugh and shooting Force-lighting from his fingers.
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker opens Dec. 20.
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