“Star Wars” has always posed a problem for those who want to take science fiction seriously and who wish to harness its capacity for social and political commentary. It is so culturally ubiquitous that no one interested in the relationship of popular culture to politics can afford to ignore it. Yet it so often seems to have little to say.
Lucas himself acknowledged that the original movies were triumphs of speed over thought, of the visual over the cognitive, of what science fiction scholars term the eye over the idea. There were, to be sure, some real-world politics in the background: When he began to plot out the saga in the 1970s, Lucas was thinking about the Vietnam War — and about post-9/11 America in the early 2000s when he fashioned his prequel trilogy. Yet he sketched only the barest outlines of his universe’s political institutions and ideas, leaving the series amenable to wildly divergent readings from left and right.
After Lucas sold the franchise to Disney in 2012, the studio set about producing an all-new trilogy, of which the newly released “Rise of Skywalker” is the finale. In the first of the Disney trilogy, 2015’s “The Force Awakens,” director J.J. Abrams delivered a nostalgia sugar high — but the movie was little more than a retread of 1977’s “A New Hope.” In the second installment of the new trilogy, 2017’s “The Last Jedi,” writer/director Rian Johnson moved the series in a new direction. Johnson ignored the plot arc Abrams established in “The Force Awakens” — and instead critiqued the whole franchise.
Johnson upended the simple “good vs. evil” narrative. “Good guys, bad guys — made-up words,” he has thief and hacker DJ say to Finn, a rebellious stormtrooper now fighting for the Resistance. DJ recasts the wars in “Star Wars” as an endless cycle benefiting only a military-industrial complex and a network of parasitical financiers.
Later, DJ slyly comments on the repeatable Star Wars story structure: The bad guys are on top, and the good guys fight back, then the good guys are on top, and the bad guys strike back. As he puts it, “They blow you up today, you blow them up tomorrow. It’s just business.” The inability of either side to win a decisive victory is an interesting political point — but, as DJ hints, the lack of any story resolution also lets studio executives get a new Star Wars movie in theaters every December.
Abrams is back to direct “The Rise of Skywalker,” and he has barely hidden his disdain for Johnson’s approach. “I don’t think that people go to “Star Wars” to be told ‘This doesn’t matter,’ ” he said, calling his predecessor’s effort “a meta-approach” to the story. Abrams does not do meta. “The Rise of Skywalker” bears the traits of his filmmaking — nothing is said in a normal voice when it could be shouted, nothing is done at a walk when it could be done at a run, and there must be loud explosions at least once every 10 minutes.
Abrams’s style exacerbates the conflict between the eye and the idea in Star Wars. His finale does not introduce much in the way of new political commentary. He does, though, retain the series’ recurrent focus on the parallel struggles among two groups. On one level, he offers an aristocracy of Jedi and Sith who engage in endless conflict; on another level, he shows the struggle fought by ordinary people. The challenge for the masses is to slough off their fear and cynicism, and to exercise some agency in the fight for a just political order.
The paradox, present since the beginning of the saga, is that the forces of darkness are brutal and capricious, but they have the only systematic plan for governing a large and heterogeneous galaxy. The forces of good specialize in set-piece acts of bravery, rallying the people to their side, but time and again, they prove incapable of translating this into a stable political settlement. At the end of “The Rise of Skywalker,” Rey, Poe and the other Resistance fighters seem to have no more specific plans for government than Luke and Leia did in 1983’s “Return of the Jedi” — when it also seemed like the series had wrapped up.
In other words, there are ample opportunities — not to mention material incentives — for the machine to crank up again once audiences catch their breath from the barrage of new Star Wars over the past five years. After all, it’s just business.
Stephen Benedict Dyson is a professor of political science at the University of Connecticut and an occasional contributor to The Monkey Cage. His new book is “Imagining Politics: Interpretations in Political Science and Political Television” (University of Michigan Press, 2019).