Film & TV

Is Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker a Culmination or the End of Cinema?

Daisy Ridley in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (Lucasfilm)
How The Force went from fantasy to chronic consumerism and the passing of Anna Karina.

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker fulfills the prophecy of Jean-Luc Godard’s 2014 Goodbye to Language. The fealty of moviegoing fans (including their indoctrinated offspring) has not only been sustained, it has grown. But this is not because the Star Wars films are so excellent that they inspire an intergalactic coming-together of diverse groups (descended from the Mos Eisley Cantina). Quite the opposite; the annual production of Star Wars films since Disney purchased the franchise from originator George Lucas in 2012 merely proves chronic consumerism.

The inclination — or addiction — that Star Wars represents was what Godard, creator of the most singularly thrilling and intellectually stimulating movies, always feared: the movie-watching habit being indulged without reflection or feeling. As cinema’s reigning, film-loving, left-leaning skeptic, Godard expressed his lament knowingly, while moving into his late, politically transcendent, spiritual phase (Nouvelle Vague, JLG by JLG, Forever Mozart, In Praise of Love).

Fanboys who don’t know Godard’s work feel free to greet each new Star Wars episode as a chapter in their commercialized lives, not knowing what they’re missing. And the media perpetuate this ignorant enthusiasm, supporting Disney’s politically correct replacement of male Luke Skywalker with female Jedi warrior Rey (petulant Daisy Ridley) as if it meant cultural and social progress.

Fact is, as Rey fights with the Resistance against the First Order, it all stems from Boomer George Lucas’s shame-faced response to Pauline Kael’s astute observation in 1977: “Is it because the picture is synthesized from the mythology of old serials and comic books that it didn’t occur to anybody that she [Princess Leia] could get The Force?” Lucas and Disney have been making up that for lapse at light speed. Rey’s ascension to the central role in Star Wars (replete with the late Carrie Fisher’s zombie-like yet domineering Leia and Laura Dern’s stern Vice Admiral Holdo) proves that everyone now feels The Force and its contagion: non-binary marketing.

But this worldwide trivial pursuit doesn’t disprove Godard’s suspicion that Hollywood insensitivity and greed would offend probity and stifle popular imagination. What once was called capitalism now hides behind perpetual adolescence — the lowered aesthetics of serials and comic books, everything that Zack Snyder’s richly imaginative myth-movies represent. Imagine what visionary power ZSnyder would have brought to this junk.

Godard’s rescue mission for cinema’s moral and aesthetic past in this year’s The Image Book  has been swamped by a futuristic sci-fi fantasy that has trickily persuaded Boomers as well as Millennials to replace belief — the civic and spiritual foundations once sustained by good culture — with topsy-turvy abstraction. Rey’s confrontation with her heritage, prompted by Kylo Ren (perpetually pouting adolescent Adam Driver) urging her to join the dark side, is a simplistic means of annihilating conventional morality. “Accept who you are,” Rey is taunted by her evil, red-eyed doppelganger. This is Disney’s way of accepting evil as a human convention.

Director J. J. Abrams shows no interest in cinema’s sacred essence or the supernal quality of image and movement. He goes through plot as a series of action routines — like a TV director, never deepening the characterizations beyond how they might play in terms of popular politics. Abrams’s bland compositions and quick editing prevent any moment from having meaning. This even goes against the MTV generation’s former ability to read into or feel an image, a scene, or a sequence.

Viewers relate to Rey and Kylo merely as playground proxies, not as figures who struggle with a moral conflict greater than what a lightsaber can resolve. They’re responding to John Williams’s familiar music theme, nostalgic for its evocation of fatuously dramatized, juvenile dilemma. The Rise of Skywalker culminates the insensitivity created by a series of war movies without pain or consequence (just shallow allegiances). In this eighth sequel since the original film’s release, generations are encouraged to enjoy armchair experience without the pressure of responsibility.

After watching adult film bloggers file into the screening as if paying obeisance, it became obvious that simply concluding that Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is a bad movie would not be enough.

When legions dutifully read the up-tilted, receding perspective of the backward scroll that sets the scene, they’re hit with a second subtitle: “The Dead Speaks.” This week, which saw the passing of Godard’s great muse Anna Karina (whom he idolized in every human aspect), The Rise of Skywalker also says goodbye to articulate cinema in every human aspect. Through J. J. Abrams’s visually inert busyness, it heralds the death of cinematic communication, if not narrative coherence. No amount of social-media squabbling can repair the damage done to poorly served viewers who know nothing about Shakespeare’s Plantagenets, Wagner’s Ring, the Pentateuch, or Godard’s Anna Karina films.

Armond White, a film critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.

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