Tag Archives: Daisy Ridley

Dark Side or Just Radicalization — “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker”

“Not a coincidence it’s always men and boys committing mass shootings. The pattern is connected to ideas of toxic masculinity in our culture.”

– Anita Sarkeesian

“I was literally watching the chat room as the site posted my address and the conversation moved to places that threatened my personal safety. I made the decision to leave, and law enforcement said it was reasonable. I basically just left the house. I have no idea where I’ll be living this week or even next month.”

– Brianna Wu

“Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” does one thing much better than the capstones to the original and prequel trilogies. The dark side of the force typically lurks around the edges of the trilogies as a sort of bogey-man. It’s ill-defined within the movies. Some of the TV series and novels are very good, but the further you go into them, the more inconsistent that definition becomes.

Evil is evil and must be fought, the original trilogy argues. The prequel trilogy made a more profound argument about how evil transforms events and redefines systems to pose itself as good. Unfortunately, it’s also a chore to watch.

How exactly does “The Rise of Skywalker” succeed where so many other attempts have failed? Let’s start with the original trilogy’s capstone, “Return of the Jedi”.

Even as a kid, it struck me as self-important that Luke Skywalker felt Darth Vader could be saved. Luke had no intention of turning Vader good before he discovered that the villain was his father. Until then, it was important that Vader was beaten. The lives of others were on the line. Yet when Luke discovered the truth, it was suddenly crucial that Vader could be saved.

No, it wasn’t. It was crucial that Vader was stopped. There’s not even a good strategic reason for Luke to abandon the assault on the shield generator that his friends are risking their lives to attack. He doesn’t even distract the Emperor, who’s still issuing commands at leisure as Luke and Vader go toe to toe.

Over the years, authors like Timothy Zahn have added reasons to the non-canon extended universe, such as Luke interrupting a form of the Emperor’s battle meditation that coordinated the Imperial fleet. This is never actually mentioned in “Return of the Jedi”. All we’re told in the movie is that it’s super important for Luke to save his dad, the more important mission that he actually signed onto be damned.

That’s fine cause it’s Luke, we trust him, we want to see his hero’s journey resolved, and it gives us three battles at once to cut between – ratcheting up the tension on each. We’re rewarded at moviegoers, so we don’t mind that it’s an extremely emotional goal for someone who insists they’re not prioritizing their actions out of emotion.

“Revenge of the Sith” plays similarly as the capstone to the prequel trilogy – up to a point. At least Obi-Wan Kenobi has the good sense to cut his apprentice down once it becomes obvious Anakin Skywalker can’t be saved. Obi-Wan prioritizes protecting others over his own emotions. If only he’d then made sure that Anakin was really dead, or had brought the body with him when he left, he could’ve saved the galaxy a lot of grief.

Both finales to their respective trilogies deal with whether someone who’s become a murderer can be saved. In “Revenge of the Sith”, the answer is nope, but at least we can protect some of the people in his way. In “Return of the Jedi” the answer is supposedly, but it risks a lot of other people in the process and is quietly self-serving.

That brings us to “The Rise of Skywalker”. If there’s one thing the new trilogy has legitimized, it’s the importance of whether someone can be turned back. It’s hinged the central relationship of all three movies on the notion of whether a radicalized young man can be reclaimed. And you know what? This film simply makes a much better – and less emotional argument – about why it’s important.

Each of the trilogies has leaned its themes heavily upon a great performance that’s run through them – Harrison Ford’s Han Solo in the original helps communicate the unpredictability of the story and the maturation of people who become willing to sacrifice themselves for something greater. Ewan McGregor’s Obi-Wan gives us a steady and measured presence of someone trying to elicit truth in a story about a galaxy’s political turn toward fascism.

The sequel trilogy has a number of great performances – Daisy Ridley’s Rey is underappreciated, in part because she’s a woman leading “Star Wars” movies, and in part because we inaccurately view optimistic performances as less complex. Oscar Isaac’s Poe does a tremendous amount in quick bursts of action, but changes to be whatever that movie’s screenwriter needs him to be a bit too much. Carrie Fisher’s General Leia and Laura Dern’s Vice Admiral Holdo have also stood out in previous trilogy movies.

The great performance that the trilogy thematically leans on is Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren. The story of a radicalized man who rages at the world, embraces a hate-based ideology that worships dead fascists, and plays at emperor is especially relevant today. In the real world, we can see someone playing at emperor is just as dangerous as being one when they have the same tools. We see young men radicalized to rage at the world by harming others, from white supremacists to misogynists who pick up guns. Kylo Ren is introduced in the first scenes of “The Rise of Skywalker” as he causes a massacre. This is someone who’s lost.

I included this bell hooks quote in my review for “The Force Awakens”, because I discussed what it meant to see a Latino as a major character and hero in that film. I’d been trained by my peers and the culture around me to stuff the Latino side of myself down as a child, to suppress it and play at being only white. It was a violence I was trained to internalize, to gut myself of something valuable so that I could always yearn for a social approval that would never come. The quote’s one of her more famous ones because it resonates through so much of our culture:

“The first act of violence that patriarchy demands of males is not violence toward women. Instead patriarchy demands of all males that they engage in acts of psychic self-mutilation, that they kill off the emotional parts of themselves. If an individual is not successful in emotionally crippling himself, he can count on patriarchal men to enact rituals of power that will assault his self-esteem.”

The effects of this in Kylo Ren’s entire worldview are obvious. To see an alternative, we need to see a community that rejects and functions without it.

The biggest part of what makes this film work so well is the relationship shared between heroes Rey, Finn, and Poe. This is extended to characters like Leia, a Carrie Fisher who’s (awkwardly at first) inserted posthumously into the film through outtakes from the prior two movies. It also extends to an underutilized Rose Tico and a number of very brief cameos (like suddenly Dominic Monaghan for some reason). More than the other sequel films, the droids are brought in for emotional moments here. C-3PO gets a surprisingly moving scene that actor Anthony Daniels pulls off beautifully.

Rey, Finn, Poe, and their community can lean on each other and rely on each other. That relationship was separated in “The Last Jedi”. It needed to be in order to make that film work, but the heart of the “The Rise of Skywalker” is seeing the three come back together. That relationship and healthy interdependence is a crucial and necessary contrast to the sense of isolation the film argues against.

As the film repeats, they win if you think you’re alone. I’ve worked extensively with people who have received online threats. The goal of their stalkers and harassers is always singular: isolate them. Make them think there’s no one to rely on. Hatred operates through isolation. It disempowers through isolation. It can’t be fought anymore when the people fighting it each think they’re alone in doing so.

What bell hooks refers to as “the first act of violence” seeks to instill this isolation in young men. As Vanessa Tottle wrote eloquently on this site after the Isla Vista gun massacre, someone who’s isolated can also be turned into a weapon. They can be made to blame others for that isolation and lash out at them as a way of imagining they’re fighting back against it. They can be turned against the people who do care about them, the community that could help them overcome that isolation. They repeat a violence internally against themselves as a way of legitimizing that they should one day enact that violence against others. Then they teach others to internalize that violence, to lash out as a result, and to propagate the cycle.

The new trilogy understands this, and it gives its consequences an immediacy and importance the original trilogy never had. The original trilogy served as a tremendous hero’s journey, perhaps the most iconic example of it in cinematic history. That’s important. They were just more successful films than allegories sometimes.

The prequel trilogy may have its failures, but it broadly laid out and warned us of the steps of a democracy’s erosion – its importance is often dismissed because its quality and focus were so wildly inconsistent. The prequel trilogy forms an underrated allegory; just not very successful films.

The sequel trilogy that ends with “The Rise of Skywalker” is more specific than either, and feels more immediate than both because of it. It finally shows us the danger of the dark side in one person, and it feels more real because of it. It makes it matter beyond a generalized sense of good vs. evil that’s fairly useless and inapplicable in the real world. It shows us radicalization. It shows us the difficulty of trying to undo it in a person. It balances the story not on the fate of the galaxy, but on the demons of a character. It succeeds in one of the few places “Return of the Jedi” failed.

Make no mistake. These are Rey’s movies. The focus on diversity and its importance is as broadly featured as it was in “The Force Awakens”, although the near-exclusion of Kelly Marie Tran’s Rose Tico is a glaring problem. The value of resistance is less specific but still frames the conversations and actions of the story in the way “The Last Jedi” does.

This is Rey’s story; it’s just that her story in this installment includes whether or not someone who’s violently radicalized can be recovered from it. It’s difficult to say whether this centers her story on a man, or whether this is being consistent in her approach to building a community. (There are one or two choices that play her into tropes I wish the film could have avoided.) She’s certainly willing to kill Kylo Ren, and she also sees other options available. This continues the tradition of two men who fronted previous trilogies: Obi-Wan and Luke. This trilogy simply gives us much better and more relevant reasons for why. It de-mythologizes the dark side. For all its power and magic, what it really boils down to is radicalization, and that can be fought.

A hero is defined by two things: the danger she fights, and how she enables a community to protect itself. In both ways, Rey’s the best hero the franchise has given us. Men could do with understanding the part about community much better than we do. While it’s not perfect, I’m thankful that this film and trilogy exists. The radicalization of young men isn’t a theme we see covered widely in film, especially in event movies. When it is covered, it’s often approached with sensationalism – in ways that make the character an anti-hero, or pretend toward a neutrality that aids, shields, and excuses violence.

I love the original “Star Wars” trilogy, but it doesn’t speak to the things that are important to me. It doesn’t address the things that have impacted my life, the things that I’ve fought against in others or faced in myself. The sequel trilogy does. Does that make it better? I don’t know, but I do feel very comfortable watching them side by side.

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The Power of Myth, The First Act of Violence — “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”

by Gabriel Valdez

“The demon that you can swallow gives you its power, and the greater life’s pain, the greater life’s reply.”

– Joseph Campbell, “The Power of Myth”

“The first act of violence that patriarchy demands of males is not violence toward women. Instead patriarchy demands of all males that they engage in acts of psychic self-mutilation, that they kill off the emotional parts of themselves. If an individual is not successful in emotionally crippling himself, he can count on patriarchal men to enact rituals of power that will assault his self-esteem.”

– bell hooks

These are not mutually exclusive ideas. They share words like “power” and ideas like spiritual pain. Campbell would seem to say you should swallow your pain. Hooks would seem to say the pain itself is unneeded.

Yet reverse these concepts and consider them in steps.

I grew up learning to be a man. I psychically self-mutilated myself. I look upon that demon in me now. What is it? An enemy, or just an entity? Do I reject its very existence, or acknowledge the pieces of itself it buried deep inside my spirit? Do I refuse to acknowledge this part of me, or do I greet the demon when he looms and sit down with him?

It is not the only demon that I know.

My descent is half-Mexican, half-European white. I was born in 1983. My heroes in movies were white men like Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tom Cruise. If a Hispanic was in a film, he would be the villain. He would be evil, untrustworthy, and bested in the end. If there was a Hispanic woman, she would be a reward for the white hero.

When I stepped outside the door of my house, our media, our politicians, our world, and especially the children who were my classmates reinforced the pride I had in half of my ancestry. The other half? They reinforced the shame I should feel at being Mexican.

These demons are twins, and I wrestle with their shadows still. They each play off the other. Sometimes they win, sometimes I can sit down with them and be a friend. If I can calmly understand more of their nature, I can understand and change more of my own.

In this wrestling, I can open whole parts of myself to those I love, and yet I still protect so fiercely my innermost natures, my most closely-held beliefs. I once protected them from the self-mutilation that was asked of me, and that’s a difficult survival mechanism to break. I protected them from the criticism of half of who I am. It is hard to learn when to stop protecting, or even that I am, so I can sometimes exist too externally in my closest relationships. There’s a guarded cross-section of myself, right over my heart, where it’s difficult to allow vulnerability. I can resent this guarded nature in myself, but at the same time struggle with why the world can’t communicate better with it.

So: What the hell am I going on about?

General Leia has sent her best starfighter to search for Luke Skywalker. That’s what the opening scroll to “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” informs us.

Note that Leia is recognized for the role she played most often in the original trilogy now – a general in a war room, not a princess in a metal bikini.

Her best starfighter is Poe Dameron, played by Oscar Isaac. He’s not done up to look white, as he has been in some of his films. There’s no effort to mask his Guatemalan-Cuban ancestry.

You see, some viewers would sooner see giant slugs with sex slaves on-screen before they’d allow a Hispanic or Black or a woman hero to save the galaxy.

And that’s when we meet Finn, played by John Boyega. As a storm trooper, the First Order makes Finn kill indiscriminately. They demand his violence on behalf of the militarized dictatorship that’s succeeded the Empire. When he displays feelings like hesitance, regret, and empathy, he is sent for “re-programming.”

Finally, and most importantly, we meet Rey, played by Daisy Ridley. She’s a scavenger in a desert wasteland, a woman who stays put in a hopeless existence because she still has hope her family might one day return for her.

How these characters come together, I’ll leave for you to discover. The space battles are wonderful, the visual effects are grand and colorful, the droids and aliens full of life and personality. Yet “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” is far more interested in its conversations and the sweeping vistas of its lonely planets. It feels the crucial emotions of the relationships its characters share. It builds a living archaeology of the original trilogy all around them. It makes the myths we saw as children seem as myth to them.

Director J.J. Abrams manages to translate these characters’ inner struggles onto screen while rarely speaking them aloud. A look, a glance, a quick juxtaposition: these are lived-in lives, powered by what spiritual sustenance characters can manage amid fear and loss. These are no longer archetypes bounding about a space western. These are no longer heroes and villains. These are people who stumble across their own story and exist with one foot gently in and one foot squarely out of wanting to take part in it.

As spoiler-free as possible: Later in the film, we are presented with the ultimate moment. One figure is possessed by anger and wrath. The film’s villain, Kylo Ren, is a man who’s carved emotional chunks of himself out so that he can embrace power. He is spiritually unfulfilled, and so rages at the universe around him. He has created a figure of himself, and strives to be closer to this figure, this icon. This draws him further from himself – he is nothing but the external image of who he believes he should be.

The other figure is possessed by loss and disappointment. Rey is a woman who has nothing left, yet is driven by hope, by self-chosen beliefs and convictions. The crushing realities that the universe has made her suffer are experiences that draw her closer to herself. Yet she erases the external. She remains herself. She chooses to be closer to her inner life, no image, no shield, no guarded nature.

Kylo Ren wears a mask, not because he is mutilated visibly like the original trilogy’s Darth Vader. No, he wears it because he is mutilated inside. His pursuit is spiritual self-mutilation. He rages at his demons, making more room in himself for them to reside, multiplying them, mistaking the rage of his own dissatisfaction for power he can turn against others.

Rey is bright-eyed and intelligent, savvy, confident without being cocky. She is introduced wearing a mask. She removes it, and we never see it again. She suffers alongside her demons, accepts them, embraces the calm that arrives from acceptance, the patience she’s practiced through hope, the faith she’s chosen in herself and the convictions she’s embraced – even after that hope’s been dashed.

No “Star Wars” film before this has so succinctly or successfully captured the notions of a dark and light side, of why these things matter as more than simple storytelling devices. “The Force Awakens” makes these things matter.

I’d set “The Force Awakens” as the second-best of the “Star Wars” films behind “The Empire Strikes Back,” if such things must be measured. As a sequel for the original trilogy, it not only succeeds in telling its own story, it also succeeds in having a reason to be told, and in giving the previous films added weight.

Yet “The Force Awakens” is the best “Star Wars” film in one regard. It is the best of these movies off-screen. It is the one that matters. This Christmas, children will take their action figures and Legos and video games or just go outside and grab some sticks. And Rey will save the galaxy by coping with loss. And Finn will save the galaxy by rejecting the spiritual self-mutilation that’s been asked of him. And Poe Dameron will save the galaxy by being friendly and trusting.

They will save the galaxy millions upon millions of times, in millions upon millions of hands. A woman, a black man, and a hispanic man will save it from a man who believes anger is power, while love and sympathy must be carved out of himself to achieve it. And his weaknesses in believing this will be exposed again and again and again.

If play is practice for adulthood, those children will have excellent training. “Star Wars” has always been culturally significant. “The Force Awakens” makes it culturally important.

Children will step out of their door and young women, young blacks, young hispanics all will feel like more than they were before, because now they have heroes in the world’s biggest franchise who represent them fully.

Young men and women of all races may learn that they have fewer demons to face, and better tools to face them. Here’s to children growing up with fewer demons, and being able to accept, face, and understand the ones they still must sustain.

The feature image of Daisy Ridley is from Collider here.

That “Star Wars” Trailer — In Defense of J.J. Abrams

by Gabriel Valdez

It’s a safe announcement trailer, built not to sell a story but rather to shore up a fan base. J.J. Abrams was not a popular choice among fans to direct Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens. The new Star Wars trailer had to show some visual muscle, and it did. If it had relied solely on a mysterious tease, fans would have blown up about what mistakes Abrams had made that Disney was hiding. Millions of voices would have cried out in terror, but they would have never shut the hell up. We needed a safe trailer that nonetheless got our pulses racing and, well, that’s exactly what we got.

Why does so much negativity swirl around Abrams anyway? His Star Trek reboot was viewed as being clever and respectful of the original material among many fans. As someone raised on a steady diet of Next Gen, DS9, and Voyager, it felt playful and loving, featuring some visual moments that I hadn’t realized I’d always wished for from the franchise until I saw them.

Sure, the sequel Into Darkness was a misstep that succeeded in the impossible task of miscasting Benedict Cumberbatch. Abrams first went after Benicio del Toro, however, so his initial instinct was on the nose. Mainly, the whole affair just made me yearn for Dr. McCoy to ditch the bunch of them and adventure through space on his own, healing bodies and sniping egos as he went. Sort of like Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, but with Karl Urban, sharp one-liners instead of heavy breathing, and more phaser fire. “Dammit Jim, I’m a doctor, not a Kay Jewelers spokesmodel.”

Into Darkness made mistakes, but looking at the rest of Abrams’s catalogue…how is this guy so viciously hated? As a TV producer, he’s brought us Felicity, Alias, Lost, and Fringe, each one a show that stands near the top of its genre. The short-lived Almost Human was briefly among the best programs on television and gave us a Karl Urban-Michael Ealy odd couple more rewarding than most relationships on TV. Revolution and Person of Interest aren’t too shabby either.

There’s a reason subsequent espionage programs like Blacklist, Chuck, and even NCIS stole vast swathes of plot from Alias, which deftly translated the Greek tragic form while giving us some of the best fight choreography ever put to television.

Lost was the best show on TV for a few years, inspiring rabid loyalty among fans. Ten years ago, it was THE cultural touchstone. Even though it lost its way a few times, it maintained its mystery without compromising its hard sci-fi values. It lasted seven seasons this way. No show that copied its Twilight Zone-gone-large storytelling lasted more than a handful. Most didn’t make it a season, which makes Abrams the only producer who’s successfully pulled it off.

As for Fringe? Name for me another show that came as close to living up to The X-Files‘ combination of science-fiction and supernatural horror. In terms of Golden Age science-fiction, Fringe even equaled its predecessor in heartbreaking standalone episodes like “Johari Window” and “White Tulip.”

As a director, Abrams changed the direction of the quickly sinking Mission: Impossible franchise, successfully remixed Star Trek before his too-clever-for-its-own-good sequel, and gave us the phenomenal Super 8. The last of these is sometimes criticized as being too much of a riff on Steven Spielberg’s early career, which focused on the intimate story of a broken family juxtaposed against world-changing events. I’ll tell you what: Super 8. Mud. The Devil’s Backbone. Those are the three films since 2000 that have most successfully melded coming-of-age stories into an epic framework. J.J. Abrams, Jeff Nichols, Guillermo Del Toro. That’s pretty good company.

As a film producer, he gave us Cloverfield, among the best found footage films, the severely underrated Rachel McAdams-Harrison Ford comedy Morning Glory, and Brad Bird’s follow-up to Abrams’s own Mission: Impossible entry, Ghost Protocol.

Abrams also changed TV in another important way. It often gets overlooked as a simple inevitability of history, but Felicity, Alias, Lost, and Fringe all shared one thing – women as protagonists, asskickers, and leaders. Keri Russell, Jennifer Garner, Evangeline Lilly, Yunjin Kim, and Anna Torv all led their shows as equals or superiors. TV history was meandering this way already with shows like Ally McBeal and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but Abrams gave the medium a hard shove in the right direction that sped the process up. Without Russell and Garner in particular, television wouldn’t be so brave about running shows led solely by female protagonists.

Abrams has a high floor for quality. His missteps are rare. He can find the personal and quiet moment inside the larger, chaotic scheme of plot. He can back up and find the epic moment that frames us in another world. He can translate classic and mythic forms of storytelling while infusing his work with the style of other directors. Most importantly, he shows inventiveness within the storytelling restrictions of a variety of forms. While not all of his films have put women and minorities front and center, all of his TV shows have. I can’t help but notice his Force Awakens trailer primarily features an African-American man (John Boyega) and a woman (Daisy Ridley).

Is Abrams the best choice? No, but I don’t think David Fincher’s going to do a Star Wars, Ridley Scott turned the offer down in the 90s (and may’ve jumped the shark since), and Guillermo Del Toro turned the offer down a few years back.

I don’t know that Brad Bird would have been better, and I’d rather have him working on Tomorrowland. If you saw the up-and-down Elysium then you know that Neill Blomkamp simply isn’t there as a director yet. Davids Cronenberg and Lynch turned Return of the Jedi down in the 80s and, by the way, have you seen Dune? I mean, I like it better than most, but is this really what you want Star Wars to be?

George Lucas? Empire‘s Irvin Kershner? Jedi‘s Richard Marquand? I might love some of their films, but let’s face it: J.J. Abrams is the best director who’s ever taken the helm on a Star Wars movie. Period.

At least Lucas isn’t doing it again, or we might have this: