*Spoilers for The Rise of Skywalker
I’ve said before that I’d rather have a movie that takes risks and sticks to a bold vision than one that plays it safe and is dull. When I say bold vision, that doesn’t mean the movie has to be big or flashy. Avengers: Endgame is a big, flashy film, but doesn’t have as bold a vision as, say, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread, which is a much quieter film but sticks to its guns and has fascinating ideas.
But after seeing the wild trio of WWII satire comedy Jojo Rabbit, the final movie of the newest Star Wars trilogy, and Cats, I have been forced to ask myself if I really, really do prefer boldness.
You’re probably here for a review of The Rise of Skywalker, and you’ve probably already seen it and have a lot of thoughts.
I like Star Wars, but would not call myself an invested fan. I enjoyed The Force Awakens, primarily for the promising new characters, and I really liked The Last Jedi, because it tried to move the franchise away from nostalgia and tired patterns towards a new future. It challenges Star Wars fans to imagine a more inclusive Star Wars, and it made the franchise less escapist.
Unsurprisingly, it’s now one of the most divisive films in recent history. Not that director Rian Johnson couldn’t have gone about his radical reimaginings with more grace towards the original fanbase, but I can never forgive The Rise of Skywalker for doing him dirty and almost entirely retconning everything he tried to do. There are ways director JJ Abrams could have tried to unite the fanbase without erasing or ignoring everything Johnson introduced. The way it was handled reeks of desperation and cowardice.
I usually see movies knowing most of the spoilers, but I didn’t for Rise of Skywalker, so there ended up being three moments I involuntarily threw up my hands and sighed.
- Rey is a Palpatine- I’ve never been punched in the face, and I don’t know if Rian Johnson has either, but now we both know how it would feel.
- Han and Ben/Kylo moment- I know Harrison Ford hasn’t cared about Star Wars for a while now, but after seeing this, I question if he’s ever had any genuine enthusiasm for anything in his entire life.
- When Rey and Ben kiss- Writer/director Joss Whedon once said, “Don’t give people what they want, give them what they need.” This choice gives people neither of these things, which in a fandom as divided as Star Wars, with a movie as fanservice-y as this, is actually quite an accomplishment, I guess.
There is a distinct lack of identity to ROS, despite the film trying to namecheck and cameo every part of the Star Wars legacy. It shows, more than anything, that Star Wars has to change. It can’t continue like this, and it’s going to take a very strong creative force (not a Dollar Tree-Spielberg) to move the franchise into new territory. Not everyone will like it, but that’s what bold vision takes.
One of the worst parts of ROS is the hastily completed redemption arc of Ben Solo. We all knew it was coming, but that doesn’t excuse that there is absolutely no attention paid to the fact that he’s been, in effect, a fascist. In a world with a rising number of actual fascists, extreme alt-righters, and incels (these three things are not all the same, but there is a heavy overlap), Kylo Ren being one of them can’t be treated lightly.
So if Star Wars isn’t going to teach you how to redeem a fascist, then Taika Waititi will.
How to Redeem a Fascist: Jojo Rabbit vs Rise of Skywalker
Jojo Rabbit is a dark comedy about WWII and Hitler that tears apart the ideology of the Nazis. With the rise of neo-nazism today, a movie that is both critical of nazism but also has compassion for those who have been taken in by it is critical.
The film tells the story of a 10-year old boy (a fantastic Roman Griffin Davis) living in Nazi Germany near the end of WWII who is one of Hitler Youth and discovers Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) a Jewish girl his mother (Scarlett Johansson) is hiding in their house. His interactions with Elsa challenge all that he’s been told about the Jews and the war, and he comes to terms with the lies he’s believed.
The film is able to show how those with hateful ideology prey on vulnerable young people by promising things that all people universally want- to be loved, accepted, and made to feel important and powerful in a world where so much is out of our control. By emphasizing throughout just how young Jojo is, the audience is reminded just how vulnerable and easily persuaded children are, which helps us root for Jojo’s redemption, even as he says and does terrible things. It reminds us to be compassionate for the scared child within all of us.
Jojo is redeemed by the end of the film by realizing what he’s been taught is wrong, and then, with the help of others, finding love, identity, and community outside of this ideology. The people who help him don’t ever condone or excuse his bad actions, but they don’t give up on him. Most importantly, they offer Jojo alternatives. In our age of calling people out on social media and “canceling” people, it is very easy to say someone is doing something bad, but there’s very little offering of something better. That’s where the hope is in Jojo Rabbit.
Meanwhile, in Star Wars, Ben Solo is a mass murderer and a father-killer who says he’s drawn to the light side every few scenes, but only changes when he’s healed by Rey, to whom he already has a force-connection with. Then he has a quick exchange with his dead-dad, and then he helps out Rey and then dies.
Now there is no explicit outlining of the First Order’s ideology, but from context, visual cues, and the history of Star Wars, it’s clear they are supposed to be like the Nazis.* That makes Ben Solo, a young man who was taken in by Snoke/the First Order, fit to compare to Jojo.
When Ben goes to the light side, he doesn’t have to reckon with his ideologies and past (besides being forgiven by dead dad.) There’s no conscious uncoupling with the systems that were approving and supporting his vile behavior. There is no real alternative he joins with, except Rey. Because in the Star Wars universe you can just switch to the “light side,” Ben never has to unlearn all of his behaviors and hateful thoughts like Jojo does. And Ben dies heroically, which, ironically enough, is a key component of fascism, the cult of death. When it comes to Ben vs Jojo, this lyric from Hamilton sums it up well- “dying is easy, young man, living is harder.” Jojo has to live with the continued consequences of having been a part of an evil institution. Ben does not.
Even worse is that Rise of Skywalker implies Emporer Palpatine created Snoke to manipulate Ben, because then it’s like Ben was somehow mind-controlled and manipulated into becoming a neo-nazi, which makes it easier to excuse his behavior and it reduces the systematic and structural ways youths are pulled into ur-fascism to one individual bad apple.
Jojo Rabbit never does this, instead showing the systemic and structural ways youths are pulled into ur-fascism/nazism while also not negating personal responsibility and choice. These complex choices make Jojo Rabbit a bold movie that doesn’t run from controversy or relevant commentary. But it isn’t controversial because it’s trying to be provocative or just rile people up. It’s for good reason. And it’s an overall excellent film.
And then there’s Cats.
There’s been a lot of great memes about Cats. Reviews for the film have basically become a genre within themselves. It’s a movie so inexplicable that it makes it hard to talk about, and you’ve probably already decided whether you’re going to see it or not.
But while making a movie of the musical “Cats” was probably a fundamentally bad idea, this film is bold through the level of seriousness and commitment everyone, from the actors to the director, takes with this movie. It’s ridiculous and nonsensical and contains the eternal sin of somehow being able to make beautiful-human Idris Elba look like a naked mole-rat, but once you surrender to it, at least it tried. Honestly, I’d rather have something like this, with its breathless enthusiasm and wild disregard for things like “decency” and “respectability” than something that feels soulless and engineered. It’s unhinged, but isn’t it kinda beautiful that it can all bring us together in utter dismay?
There’s this great story about Harold Prince, a legendary theater producer, who met with Andrew Lloyd Webber about his musical “Cats” and was insistent that there must be some kind of deeper analogy and theme behind the story (sounds like a man after my own heart) but simply could not figure out what they must be. He said to Webber, “‘I don’t understand. Is this about English politics? (Are) those cats Queen Victoria, Gladstone, and Disraeli?’ He looked at me like I’d lost my mind, and after the longest pause said, ‘Hal, this is just about cats.’”
Sometimes, you have to surrender and realize that this is just about Cats.
*Video essayist Lindsay Ellis has an excellent video on this subject of Star Wars, the First Order, and Fascism: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XAVeyXwy3BE