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Shame, Perhaps; Consequence, Not So Much – How Star Wars Glosses Over Accountability

One of the most controversial topics when it comes to The Rise of Skywalker is how “Bendemption” turned out; more specifically, the fact that he dies. I was disappointed with Ben’s redemptive arc, but here is the thing: I am more unhappy with how the Star Wars franchise deals with redemption in general than I am with this singular film. I have been noticing more and more that there is a serious lack of accountability and responsibility across the franchise as a whole.

For a franchise about the good and evil within all of us, there is a serious lack of material that grapples fully with the consequences of characters’ dark actions. We see this in The Clone Wars and Star Wars Rebels, in the sequels, even in Darth Vader’s original redemption. This is an issue I have with Star Wars that’s been bouncing around in my head for a few months now and I think we need to be discussing it.

So…let’s talk about Vader. In the context of the original trilogy, Vader’s sacrifice works as a redemptive act because the thing that kills him is also the thing that redeems him. In the context of the original trilogy alone, Vader saving Luke is a selfless act—but this is not necessarily true when you add the context of the prequels and even the extended canon.

It is in Revenge of the Sith, in Vader’s corruption, where the context of new information most impacts Vader’s eventual redemption: now, Vader turns to the light and kills Palpatine for the same reason he turned to the dark side in the first place. He joins to save his wife and child, then leaves to save his now-grown children. When you factor this in, it takes away from the idea that Vader renounces the darkness in favor of the light. To be honest, I don’t hate this change in motivation. I like giving Vader’s decision a little more ambiguity. It makes him being a Force ghost feel more like a second chance and less like him getting to do the thing that Obi-Wan and Yoda worked their asses off for because he killed the guy he had spent the past twenty years plotting to kill.

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The Case for Mid-Budget Star Wars

Star Wars is at a crossroads. While The Rise of Skywalker’s worldwide box office will gross over a billion dollars, that’s a far cry from The Force Awakens’ two billion. ROS will end up below every Avengers film, both Jurassic World films, and even its predecessor The Last Jedi. Perhaps most shockingly, the finale to the Skywalker saga could well end up with a lower total gross than DC’s Joker. Uncertain, the future is.

Imagine it’s 2016, and someone says to you an R-rated psychodrama would make more money than Episode IX of Star Wars. How would you react? You’d probably tell them to lay off the death sticks. Yet as I type these words, Joker stands ahead. There is, for sure, a large confluence of factors that led to this upset. Both films are divisive, but controversy boosted Joker while deflating Star Wars. Critical reviews for ROS were tepid at best, while Joker has been nominated for eleven Oscars, including Best Picture. Regardless, it can’t be ignored that Joker has made its production budget of (at most) $70 million back at least fifteen times over. ROS, with a price tag of $275 million, has returned less than four times as much. A billion dollars is nothing to sniff at but as a return-on-investment that’s far from a home run.

2019 was the year the mid-budget film struck back. Joker leads the top of a wide pack, followed by It: Chapter Two, Us, John Wick: Chapter 3, Knives Out, Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood, and many more. Audiences flocked to smaller films and studios saw strong, sometimes enormous, returns on budgetary investments of less than $100 million—while tentpoles like Dumbo, Alita: Battle Angel, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil and X-Men: Dark Phoenix floundered.

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Heisenberg’s Principle for Peace and Justice: Why the Jedi Never Seem Very Good at their Job

The first thing we ever learn about the Jedi is that they were the “guardians of peace and justice in the Old Republic.” Until I read Claudia Gray’s Master & Apprentice, it never occurred to me that this definition contains a contradiction. Peace and justice together are the defining conditions of the ideal polity. It’s an idealistic platitude too familiar to invite closer examination. That’s why it feels so revelatory when Gray shows us that in practice, Jedi often found that peace and justice were tragically at odds.

Master & Apprentice takes place eight years before The Phantom Menace, and reprises much of that film’s premise. Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon are sent to negotiate a deal between a planet’s willful teenage queen and a powerful, malicious corporation. Their lives are threatened by mysterious assassins, and they turn to a slave for aid. That overt similarity between the two stories allows Gray to take a second crack at a thematic question raised tangentially by TPM: is it right for the Jedi to ignore injustice in pursuit of the greater good?

In TPM, Qui-Gon doesn’t find this question very difficult to answer. He frees Anakin to gain a powerful Jedi, not to end the injustice of his slavery. He makes a half-hearted effort to win Shmi’s freedom too, but doesn’t press the issue. The question of freeing any other slaves never even comes up. They didn’t come to Tatooine to free slaves. The people of Naboo are counting on them; they can’t afford to get distracted by every injustice that crosses their path.

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Bringing It All Back Home: Ben Solo, Rey Skywalker, and the End of a Saga

I’ll get this out of the way early: I don’t think The Rise of Skywalker is a very good film. I am not arrogant enough to think that I can change anyone’s mind about a movie, especially a movie leaden with such importance for so many. But I hope that for those who are hurt, dismayed or even just plainly dissatisfied with The Rise of Skywalker, maybe there is still some small comfort to be found, something of value. As undeniably clumsy and compromised as the film is, there are nevertheless some rich ideas either openly at play or buried in the shuffle of a distracted and haphazard plot, ideas that are in conversation with the rest of the Skywalker saga and hearken back to its cinematic ancestry.

The two elements of the film’s climax and denouement that I want to look at are Ben’s sacrifice and Rey’s lineage. I believe these are wedded together inextricably — two families locked in alternating alliance and opposition throughout seventy-odd years of galactic history shifting through social and religious strata to polar extremes, and carrying the hopes and dreams as well as the horrors and crimes of the galaxy on their backs. In The Rise of Skywalker, there is a seismic collision that ultimately comes down to the choices of the characters rather than something predetermined — transforming both families, and indeed, what we thought mattered in Star Wars itself.

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On Space, Time, the Force, and The Rise of Skywalker

The final season of Star Wars Rebels painted a picture of the Force that was much stranger, grander, and more unexpected than many things that had come before in Star Wars storytelling. Its characters even jokingly mentioned how weird things were, but accepted them nonetheless. However, one of the main plot points for the show’s resolution was perhaps a step too far for some fans: the revelation of the World Between Worlds, a realm in the Force that could allow one to travel to and manipulate events across the entirety of space and time. Access to this power would of course have far-reaching consequences for the entire saga, and Emperor Palpatine’s efforts to gain control of it in Star Wars Rebels become unsettling now that we know he’ll soon appear in some form in The Rise of Skywalker.

But does this addition of time travel change Star Wars too much from what it was before? Is the weirdness shown in Rebels too separate from what the Force was originally supposed to be? This might come as a surprise to those who know me as “the astrophysics guy” on this site, but I must confess that I didn’t really see a problem with this new game-changer. And I venture that, at least in part, it might have been my background as a scientist what made me accept it more readily as I thought about the physics of what we’d just witnessed.

We have known the Force transcended the limitations of space and time ever since we saw Obi-Wan feeling the destruction of Alderaan the moment it happened many light-years away. Instant communication of information, however, is a violation of relativity that we see routinely achieved in Star Wars via technology, with no Force required, and I’ve already explained in a previous post how accuracy to our real-world physics could still be respected in such a fictional universe. I won’t talk here about networks of wormholes or similar speculations to attempt a physical explanation of the World Between Worlds. Since on this occasion we deal with the Force, that even the most devoted in-universe scholars do not truly comprehend, I will take a different approach.

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