Warning: Spoilers for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker follow.
Before making the original Star Wars, George Lucas spent years working on Apocalypse Now, a film about the tragedy of America’s war in Vietnam. You don’t have to look too closely to see that, in its own way, Star Wars is also about the folly of American empire.
More specifically, it’s about the internal conflict between our aspirations to empire and our self-image as a righteous rebellion. And how that conflict plays out within us and between us.
They say you get religion either when you’re very young, or when you’ve fallen from grace. I got my Jedi religion early. I was 5, 8, and 11 when Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of The Jedi were released in theaters.
Beyond instructing us in the ways of the Force, the stories in the Old Testament Star Wars trilogy told us that America’s move toward empire had irreparably damaged our fathers, who had become “more machine than man.” Luke’s journey showed us that it was possible to redeem such a legacy, and in so doing, redeem ourselves and the future of our world.
What these films didn’t tell us was that an empire doesn’t call itself an empire (neither does The Dark Side call itself The Dark Side), and a rebellion is rarely a singular spectacular act, but a daily practice that often looks more like Yoda’s life on Dagobah.
My son was 9, 11, and 13 when The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi, and The Rise of Skywalker arrived. He had already seen The Legend of Korra and read the Harry Potter books featuring Hermione Granger. At bedtime, we had read the Ivy & Bean books and the Ramona Quimby series. In other words, the idea of a female protagonist was not alien to him.
Daisy Ridley, who plays Rey, was born in 1992 to a world already shaped by Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia. A time when equal rights — including the right to bodily autonomy and self-assertion — were finally an accepted ideal, if not yet a reality.
Unlike Star Wars, which had arrived years after the official end of the conflict it was ostensibly about, The Force Awakens arrived in the middle of an active conflict within the United States, one that is ongoing.
In October of 2016, Carrie Fisher warned us, “Donald Trump is a classless thug trying to scare us into voting for him — an entitled, elitist, racist, misogynist — dangerous, unkind, and without empathy.” Her words were not accompanied by an image of Emperor Palpatine in the Death Star, but a picture of a World Dryer brand hand-drying machine in a public bathroom, upon which someone had used a sharpie to write, “Push button for short speech by Donald Trump.”
When The Last Jedi arrived in 2017, these words appeared in the opening crawl:
“Only General Leia Organa’s band of RESISTANCE fighters stands against the rising tyranny.”
As the word RESISTANCE appeared on the screen, I heard people cheer.
The ongoing conflict between Earth’s resistance and the present regime has revealed, among other things, how the ecological collapse of our planet is connected to moments when the rights of women and children are violated by men who are nominally powerful and personally weak. The beauty of the Star Wars universe has always been how fluidly these connections between the social and the personal are shown cinematically.
Throughout the saga, rebels and resistance fighters are seen in jungles, deserts, tundras, and other wild places. These heroes rely on animals, intuition, and above all, relationships that aren’t based on coercion or cloning.
The Resistance is led by women at every level—unlike the United States, which has yet to elect a female head of state. I’m not aware of any moment when a woman in the Empire gives an order to a man — not until a scene late in The Rise of Skywalker in which a female First Order general issues the command to destroy an entire planet.
By choice, I knew nothing about The Rise of Skywalker when I entered the theater. As the opening crawl began, my head involuntarily snapped back when I saw Emperor Palpatine’s name. I did not expect his sudden inclusion. I would be further disappointed when Rey was revealed to be the granddaughter of Palpatine.
Now, instead of Rey being a “nobody,” her entire story is reduced to one of blood inheritance. For me, this subverted one of the greatest aspects of the trilogy and of Rey as a character.
This choice harkens back to the prequels with their introduction of midichlorians as a biological explanation for Force-sensitivity, which threw the spiritual message of the original trilogy (that the Force is available to anyone) completely under the bus for no reason. I liked Rey precisely because she embodied the rejection of that idea (and of the prequels) and a return to the original message of Star Wars.
Imagine how powerful it would’ve been for the Emperor to call Rey a nobody, and for her to reply, “I am all of the Jedi!”
Oddly, the defeat of the Emperor and the First Order left me feeling that the ending was, as Darth Vader once said, “All too easy.” Of course, the unresolved battle with the self-appointed emperor in our White House might have something to do with my feelings of unease. I probably don’t need to remind you that calling people “nobody” is one of his favorite insults.
While I did like the poetic justice of the Emperor’s own lightning bolts getting reflected back on him, I think the trilogy offers us more applicable lessons about what it will take to win in the end. Perhaps the most salient lesson comes from Yoda.
In The Last Jedi, as the tree that held the sacred Jedi texts burns, Luke feels as if his life has amounted to less than nothing. Owing to his sense of failure, he believes he has nothing to offer Rey. “I can’t be what she needs me to be,” he says. Yoda reminds him:
“Pass on what you have learned. Strength. Mastery. But weakness, folly, failure also. Yes, failure most of all. The greatest teacher failure is.”
This theme is further explored in The Rise of Skywalker, where every hero is revealed to have had a past they are ashamed of. The difference between those who find redemption and those who don’t comes down to a choice between denial and acceptance. Perhaps the same is true for America.
Apart from opioids, meth, cocaine, alcohol, and coffee, if Americans are addicted to anything, we are addicted to success. We’ve long believed that success is not only a sign of God’s favor, it somehow masks all sin — for us as individuals and as a nation. Is it any coincidence that the 45th male president of the United States bills himself as someone who has known nothing but success? Or that his male supporters can buy a cologne called Success by Trump?
I don’t know about you, but I’m ready to live in nation that’s wiser about the true nature of success and failure. A nation that sees and acknowledges its own failures. A nation capable of atonement, of truth and reconciliation. Where people are less prone to addiction or violence because we can grapple with our own failures.
Carrie Fisher was an addict. She spoke about it openly. So was my father. He did not. And while I’ve escaped drugs and alcohol, there’s little question that subtler forms of addiction have been a driving force in my life.
Beyond Yoda’s advice, the trilogy does offer us some words of wisdom to see us through these dark times.
Leia, daughter of Darth Vader, tells us: “Never be afraid of who you are.”
And Rose reminded us, “That’s how we’re gonna win. Not by fighting what we hate, but by saving what we love.”
That’s how Rey wins. It’s how Luke won. It is central to choosing light over darkness and resisting in all the ways that we do, day by day, in our little huts, light glowing from our windows through the rain.