After yesterday’s afternoon Joy Division pilgrimage, we went back to a very foggy Macclesfield (pictured) that same evening to go and see Star Wars IX: The Rise of Skywalker.
It was fine. The screening was held in an independent cinema installed in an old church / town hall which had amazing picture quality but muddy sound. The plot of the film itself was a bit weak, suffering from that all too common ailment of blockbuster impatience — bad writing with bad editing to match — which relies too heavily on audience dreamwork to patch up plot lacuna. It makes for a thrill ride quickly forgotten, much like the second installation of this latest trilogy (and 75% of action-adventure movies these days since the rise of Michael Bay.)
I’m not here to pick apart plot holes though. This isn’t a review of any kind. I just found the film resonating — despite itself — with a lot of recent thoughts.
So many bad Cultural Studies essays have been written about the original Star Wars trilogy aping on Oedipus Rex. Orphaned boy goes out seeking vengeance for the death of his parents but in the process almost kills his father and nearly fucks his sister. It’s not really that close to Sophocles’ character at all but it does have many heavy doses of classicist hubris.
The new trilogy, though, echoes Sophocles’ plays a bit closely and in interesting ways. Kylo Ren’s rebellion against his family in the first film, culminating in him murdering his father, seems to correlate somehow with Rey’s orphaned upbringing and her adventure being driven by her search for her true self. Together they are Oedipus split.
In film #2, Rey finds Luke Skywalker, the original Oedipus, isolated on a planet somewhere and learns about Jedi stuff from him. Rey is devoted to him but he’s weighed down by the fateful line his life has taken and struggles to overcome his resentment towards it. In the end, Rey not only learns from him but helps him to let go of his past. At peace, he dies, or becomes one with the force, or whatever, and she heads off to get back to doing her own thing. It is Oedipus at Colonus in space.
The final film, then, quickly and blatantly becomes Antigone. Rey, set free of the burdens of her own past and her duties towards her elders, affirms her displacement but also retains a dogged sense of loyalty despite this. Just as Antigone stays loyal to her brother’s corpse despite being sentenced to death for the principle, Rey nurtures a loyalty to Kylo Ren, the last Skywalker, despite his persistent attempts to kill her.
Rey’s loyalty simmers and grows because she increasingly sees in Ren his family lineage — his mother, Leia, and his uncle, Luke — the two “masters” who have trained her in the ways of the Jedi and the force — and, as a result, realises that some bonds are worth more than life, fate and the rule of law. Family — or a sense of collective belonging at least — remains central to her life and the driving force of the Resistance as a whole but gone are the shackles of a patriarchal tradition and duty. She follows love and desire wherever they lead her, even if that is into the jaws of what she fears most, navigating their complexities as and when they cross her path.
(And they cross her path on countless occasions. The set piece of Rey and Kylo fighting on the wreck of the Death Star amidst a violent ocean was a highlight due to its very strong symbolic-of-the-unconscious vibes, but it ultimately felt like the setting was underused. A rare attempt at subtly, perhaps, that didn’t really work out.)
This is affirmed most explicitly when it’s revealed that her family are the worst of them all — it is revealed she is a Palpatine, grand-daughter (somehow) of the Emperor who has pulled the strings throughout the entire Star Wars saga. She struggles with the knowledge of her own bloodline and experiences the same horror when faced with the truth that Luke did, but she is far more assured of her own place in the universe than her mentor when he learned of his father’s true identity. There is no question of her giving into a familial fate. She moves adeptly around others’ expectations of her to find a third way.
Here, she affirms her displacement. “Some things are stronger than blood,” someone tells her — something I couldn’t help but scribble down in my notebook with surprisingly clarity in the pitch dark of the cinema (pictured).
This could refer to any sort of sentimentality but, thankfully, it turns out that what is stronger than blood is her own will to power.
Of course this is all demonstrated with little subtlety or grace. In the final scene, after burying Luke and Leia’s lightsabers on Tatooine, she reveals her own lightsaber, built herself, has a yellow “blade” — the third colour of the primary trinity, relative to the blue and red lightsabers that have defined the saga’s colour code of good and evil — but what I found most touching was that the final dialogue of the film had Rey — who has so far been known as “just Rey” — affirming a new identity, introducing herself to a passerby as Rey Skywalker.
After all that I’ve been writing about lately, around the anxieties of post-adoption experience and its impact on subjectivity, I couldn’t help but do a little air punch at this affirmation of a name that is not her own by birth. To choose a name is still a surreal taboo for many in society, even now. It was nice to see.
For all its faults — and the saga has had so many — it was nice to see it end with its own Antigone. Through all the melodrama and clunky set pieces, it ended with a popular-modernist affirmation of what I think is the best but most difficult position to take regarding family dramas: