Whatever else is happening this week, nothing comes close to the importance of the release of “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” in theaters.
You may be getting married this week. Maybe you are adopting your first child. Maybe you started a new business selling knockoff Baby Yoda toys, responding to the market vacuum left by Disney’s lack of foresight to get those things on shelves before the holidays.
All of it is nothing — bantha poodoo — compared to the importance of the final episode of the Great American Space Fantasy set in a galaxy far, far away. This is the most exciting and best thing in the known universe. (Obviously still gonna need you to touch base with me about those knockoff Baby Yodas though if that one’s you. My DMs are open.)
People say I’m prone to hyperbole, but maybe that’s because I was raised on “Star Wars.” I owe so much of my thought processes and paradigms to this series. “Star Wars” is about as “extra” as a film series can be. Just grab any handful of notes from John Williams’ frenetic and obsessive musical score — any handful of notes absolutely anywhere in these eight films — and try not to call it hyperbolic.
The point I was getting at, before I got distracted talking about my own tendencies toward hyperbole, was that “Star Wars” is the best thing to ever happen. Not only that, though: I have a hunch that these films contain a map our own galaxy desperately needs. Not a map to the missing Luke Skywalker, hidden inside a plucky BB unit, but a map to show what healing and reconciliation looks like in a world post-Harvey Weinstein/Bill Cosby/Me Too revelations.
That took a turn. I know.
And before I explain, I want to acknowledge that I am a white, straight, cis male who believes that “Star Wars” is, among other things, fun. And to conflate something fun with a serious discussion about painful realities is, well, as a certain gungan I know would put it, “wude.”
That said, I really think this series has something meaningful to say on the subject. As far as I’m concerned, the series is American scripture on the complex subject of redemption and repentance.
Just as rebellions are built on hope, cultures are built on stories. Mythologies. Religion and community. And to me, “Star Wars” is all those things. And like all those things, “Star Wars” is flawed in many respects. The fan community alone can be as toxic as, well, any religious community can be. Passion and dogma (mixed in with your everyday human grossness) even forced one “Star Wars” actor to delete her social media presence in 2018.
The films themselves are far from perfect (except for “The Last Jedi” and “The Empire Strikes Back,” both of which are very close to perfect). Like the Millennium Falcon itself, the “Star Wars” movies are hunks of junk that despite being rough around the edges in some parts turn out to be exactly what you need. They deserve our love even as they fail to live up to their own potential.
The “Star Wars” filmmakers, too, are flawed. George Lucas is sometimes dishonest about the product and process of his genius (like all religious founders before him). He has, let’s say, a bit of an ego, like all of us, and it infects what he has put into the world. (Most egregiously, perhaps, is his claim that Darth Vader was always planned to be Luke Skywalker’s father, a claim which falls apart from myriad evidence from the time the original films were being made.)
J.J. Abrams has been, at times, reckless, too. He is passionate, clearly, possessing numerous gifts as a cinematic storyteller which he puts into the series he clearly loves, but his approach has been somewhat elitist at times. “The Force Awakens” starts with someone saying, “This will begin to make things right,” which I interpreted as a metatextual dig at the prequels, the widely debated “Star Wars” episodes that came immediately prior. The “Star Wars” universe that J.J. lives in is, to some extent, exclusive and dogmatic.
And of course Disney, the company that now owns and continues the “Star Wars” movies, is a kind of Empire in its own right.
None of them are purely evil or purely good. None of us are. Only a Sith deals in absolutes.
And that brings us back to the great message that “Star Wars” has to offer on the subject of redemption: Simply put, it’s the idea that even the most villainous and selfish among us are capable of being redeemed, and that even the best among us are capable of turning to the Dark Side. Light and Shadow are not diametrically opposed teams, but realities within all of us.
The “Skywalker Saga,” as Disney has branded the eight (soon-to-be nine) episodes, presents viewers with tragedy that spans decades and multiple generations. It makes us face the fact that a kind and pure child can grow into a person who slaughters young children. That a creature like Yoda can possess both unparalleled wisdom and be totally blind to rising threats under his own nose. That a selfish smuggler can turn around and help his friend blow up the Death Star. That the most evil villain in the galaxy can sacrifice himself in an act of true repentance.
And now, this week, so much is riding on J.J. Abrams’ final installment, because this is what all of this has been leading to. The redemption theme of “Star Wars” will wrap up, one way or another, through the character of Ben Solo, whose shadow self is known as Kylo Ren, and whose conflict between light and darkness has driven both of the last two episodes in the story.
Ben Solo is maybe my favorite “Star Wars” character. Like Darth Vader before him, he has committed murderous acts and acted selfishly. But unlike Darth Vader, a middle-aged man who turned to the Dark Side ages ago, Ben/Kylo still, as of now, has the rest of his life ahead of him. When Vader turned to the Light, becoming Anakin Skywalker again, he was old, and had already lived a life of evil. If Kylo Ren can turn back to the Light now, “Star Wars” could have a truly happy ending.
I want, so badly, for Ben Solo to turn back to the Light and — although this is a subject for another time — ride off into the binary sunset with Rey, their relationship having transformed from enemies to allies to lovers. (I mean what else can I hope for after that trailer where Ben walks out in the rain toward Rey, looking like the Byronic hero snack he always was?)
But “Reylo” hopes and dreams aside, at the very least, I want Ben Solo to be redeemed and — this is important to me — not to die as part of his redemption. What a bold and important idea it would be for the self-sacrifice of Vader to turn out to be only the middle chapter in this story, that the actual ending of the “Star Wars” saga is that after decades of tragedy, the next generation can have the peace that their parents never could.
That’s what I want to happen. I’m trying to prepare to be disappointed. But if redemption is in fact in the cards for this episode, I will be so grateful. It will feel like a gift.
My generation is right to demand accountability of those in power. This good impulse has sometimes, lately, involved “canceling” those who hurt and abuse others. I hope this necessary but reactionary approach can lead toward a form of healing that is ultimately more peaceful and reconciliatory. We are starving for more stories of people messing up — in a big way — and working through their sins toward a true repentance.
Without those stories, I don’t think we can even comprehend a world where real repentance is even possible.
We don’t currently live in that world, really. Harvey Weinstein isn’t paying or reconciling for his alleged manifold abuse. Our criminal justice system locks people away but rarely creates opportunities for true justice to be born.
But if Darth Vader can repent and turn to the Light, we should demand nothing less from the real-life villains in our world, and we should have the imagination to see them as capable of redemption in the first place. We should be able to hold space for Ben Solo’s anguished face as well as his violent outbursts. We should see and feel empathy for his guilt for killing his father and we should not pretend it is acceptable to kill your father.
It’s a special kind of anguish to sit down and watch a film that I already have such high hopes and expectations for. But in the end, I know that even if I think the resolution J.J. gives the final episode is a complete mess, I’ll be able to forgive.
If there’s one thing “Star Wars” has taught me about forgiveness, it’s that we all need it.