The Rise of Skywalker’s Critical Flaw: What Happens When You Mistake a Motif for a Theme

Well that sucked.

[Spoilers follow, but come on—who hasn’t seen this movie by now?]

So right about a year ago, I speculated on how The Rise of Skywalker would end based on the themes established in The Last Jedi. Something like Rey becoming her own person and Kylo Ren coming to peace with his light and dark sides. That’s sort of what happened, but anyone could have guessed that based on how all Star Wars movies usually go.

I’ve been trying to write this blog post for a while now – specifically, for about a year – but every time I did, it just turned into a bitch-fest about how much I hated the movie, and then I lost interest and stopped writing. I mean this movie’s already been torn to shreds by basically everybody, AND it’s now almost a year old, so why waste my time piling on?

But after ten months of reflection, I finally feel like I do have something to add to the conversation; specifically, what happens when you mistake a motif for a theme (…spoiler: The Rise of Skywalker happens).

Instead of going on and on, here’s the short version of my (year old) hot takes: the movie sucked hard…harder than the best blow job you’ve ever given or received; even though my love for Lost will never die, I have to admit the reality that JJ Abrams is a bad director and shitty screenwriter; before the new trilogy I was apathetic at best toward the Star Wars universe due to its lack of complexity and vision; now I actively dislike Star Wars due to how much Disney has stripped away anything that made it interesting and conceded to the franchise’s worst fans so they could milk the cash cow for all it’s worth–

As I was writing the above, I had an epiphany.

A few months ago I watched the movie Cats with my kids to see what was so horrible about it. A lot of people have even cited it as the worst movie they’ve ever seen, so I wanted to see this train wreck for myself. Yeah it was bad, but I already dislike musicals (no shade to theater kids, it’s just not my thing) and expected the movie to be bad, so it met my expectations. It wasn’t the worst movie I’d ever seen. Then I got to wondering—what is the worst movie I’ve ever seen?

So I started asking people what they thought was the worst movie they’d ever seen. My husband said for him it was Smurfs: The Lost Village, which he had to sit through with our kids. And that’s why I don’t take the kids to the movies. My best friend said it was mother!, the one with Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem where a mob of people eats a baby. I’ve never seen the whole movie (only read about it and seen clips), but I get the hate.

But I had a hard time pinning down what my least favorite movie of all time was. Everybody’s got their own standards for what’s good and bad art. I rate my dislike for a piece of art not on how objectively bad it is, but how far it fell below my expectations and insulted me on a personal level. For instance, The Room is frequently cited as the worst movie ever made, but also nobody expected it to be good. If I expect something to be bad, and then it’s bad, I’m usually apathetic toward it. For me, there has to be a component of rage—of violation—to my hatred to make something really bad in my eyes. It has to be personal.

For example, I can easily tell you the worst book I’ve ever read is The Power by Naomi Alderman (my favorite, for some context, is Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov). It’s not objectively the worst book I’ve ever read compared to, say, your average bodice-ripper romance novel (no shade!). But as a book that was supposed to be high-brow and even won some literary awards, it fell WAY below my expectations on every level—bad writing, shallow characters, non-existent story, misogynist heart hidden in faux-feminist sheen, an entirely gratuitous and EXTREMELY DETAILED rape scene…etc. Even thinking about that horrible book now makes me angry—oh how I could go on and on about how much I fucking hate that book—but that rant is for another day.

And it’s in trying to finish this stupid blog post that’s made me realize something: The Rise of Skywalker is the worst movie I’ve ever seen.

Objectively, of course, it’s not the worst movie ever made—the visuals are top-notch as they are in all Star Wars movies, and the acting is decent. Frankly I feel bad for all the actors, who did the best they could with shitty material. But in my opinion, it’s the most artistically bankrupt piece of massive, polished shit I’ve ever seen put to screen, and that’s what makes it the worst.

And now we circle back to motifs and themes.

First, let me define the difference between motifs and themes. In storytelling, a motif is a set of images, ideas, or other features that intentionally repeat throughout a story. A theme is what the motif means. For instance, the color red might be a motif throughout a movie, but it could also represent the theme of the corrupting influence of violence if it’s highlighted in scenes where people make a choice to indulge in violent behavior…or it could represent passion, or danger, etc., depending on the context.

I had high hopes after The Last Jedi that the Star Wars franchise was finally going to go somewhere different. Specifically: the themes of Good vs Evil would explore finding a balance between the two (via Kylo Ren realizing he can be both light and dark at the same time); that Family would embrace the end of bloodline legacies determining a person’s worth (via Rey accepting that her parents were nobodies but becoming a badass Jedi anyway); and that Duty would explore the needs of the one versus the needs of the many (via some difficult choices for the heroes to either take a selfish path or do what’s best for the Republic…this is also a popular theme in the Star Trek universe, BTW).

Instead, The Rise of Skywalker essentially had no themes except “Star Wars,” like a kid’s birthday party. In other words, The Rise of Skywalker had the usual motifs of a Star Wars movie, but with no depth behind them that would constitute real themes.

This problem arose because the movie’s central purpose wasn’t to provide a satisfying end to a nine-movie saga…apparently Disney hadn’t even thought that far ahead when they started producing these new BILLION-DOLLAR movies (…WTF??). The movie was about undoing all the forward thematic progress that happened in The Last Jedi and circling back to old-school Star Wars—the motif-only kid’s birthday party version—telling the same stories with the same characters and same big space battles, all to maximize profit at the expense of any artistic integrity.

And for that, I hate The Rise of Skywalker for what it represents more than what it actually is. Taken completely on its own, it’s a mediocre sci-fi/fantasy mashup with a crappy script but massive production values and cool CGI. Taken into context with everything that came before and after in the Star Wars universe as well as the real world, it represents everything that’s wrong with the movie industry: the maximize-profits-at-all-costs attitudes, the big movies sucking all the resources away from smaller movies, the kowtowing to asshole fans whining about how feminism and diversity are ruining their childhoods, and the sameness of all these giant movies that, not un-coincidentally, now all fall under the Disney brand. I stand with Scorsese on this one.

It’s like going to the nursing home to visit your grandma—which isn’t super fun, but you love your grandma so you go—and then saying goodbye to her at the end. In terms of mechanics it’s just a regular farewell—a hug, a kiss, a wave on the way out the door. But she’s in hospice, dying, and you know this is the last time you’ll ever see her alive.

The Rise of Skywalker is that last goodbye.


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