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Introduction, Star Wars and the hauntology
Like so many, I have a soft spot for Star Wars. It painted my childhood with colour; some of my fondest memories of my dad, of getting lost in the endless stories of my imagination, are inextricably linked to Star Wars. Specifically, ironically, to the prequels. The process of growing up and watching those films with an evermore critical eye was absolutely formative for me and I suspect many others. I watched as the films turned from sites of potential, imagination and the inherent limitless notions of space into incompetent, flawed to the point of comedic catastrophes, devoid of any characters or plot. A fantasy adventure became a profiteering expedition, and in its transformation its soul was lost, in the same way as it was lost for many in the transformation from the ‘originals’ to the prequels. That transitional loss, in many respects a positive experience for me, was a formative signifier of my coming of age, so to speak. I retain a soft spot for Star Wars, but it is one that brings more frustration, borderline pain, than the joy it gave a younger me.
Pair this with what is perhaps the most widespread criticism of the film industry at the moment: that all we get are remakes and sequels, nothing original. This criticism is often verbalised, but rarely understood. Star Wars is one of the greatest perpetrators of this imaginable, infused with nostalgia like little else. The original trilogy was forged in homage to fantasy sci-fi TV series like Flash Gordon, in and of itself a pledge to the past. The original series is a child, like the one who watched Star Wars innocently, unaware that they are paving out memories that will haunt the future for decades; many good, many bad, all pledged to a future they are unaware will exist until they get there. The prequels are an attempt to summon again the perfect storm of A New Hope, delving further into its own canonical past, and by all worthwhile accounts fall flat on their face. The sequels are a hyperspace jump into the franchise's own history like never before thanks to Disney's acquisition of Lucasarts. Essays could, and should, be written on the rest of Disney’s films in the franchise, but for the argument’s sake I shall merely posit that The Force Awakens is a close rework of A New Hope, Rogue One collapses in an attempted gritty reference montage, and The Last Jedi’s attempts to do something, anything different, to mixed success, nonetheless created for the trilogy a vacuum. Whilst critically-speaking the new trilogy films might have been failures, in business terms as well as contributions to a project of continuity, they are roaring successes.
And so The Rise of Skywalker. The title; the re-awakening of an old surname and reference, rising not in a singular trajectory but in repetition, like a tide. It is in this moment, now perhaps more than ever, that we have become nostalgic for nostalgia itself, replicating replicas so far removed from real experiences or time as it plays out. Mark Fisher, most notably, encapsulates this in his conception of hauntology; our culture is so divorced from the possibility of the new that we became ghosts from the present living in the past. The cultural mode is entrapment, in a loop, the same tracks with no possibility of something new in the stereo. Nostalgia, the longing for home, where our home is no longer definable in temporal terms. His most potent example, stemming from his roots in music criticism, is to simply posit that if we were to send a tune from today back to the 90s, the people of the 90s would not raise an eyebrow. Sure it's not identical, but it hasn't changed fundamentally. Now imagine sending a tune from the 70s back to the 50s, or from the 80s back to the 60s. The earlier period would be shocked, baffled, outraged, enamoured with this futurism. This is all not even to mention the endless replication of genres; disco influences can be heard everywhere. We have, culturally, lost our future. We are spectres locked looking backwards into the past. Why? The reason is simple. Triggering flickers of nostalgia is compelling to people; we might all lament the constant remakes and references, but they draw us in all the same, with our attention and our money. It is sickly sweet and brings in the money. But it also reflects the crisis our culture is in; we are materially losing our future, and by culturally casting back we can forget our impending fate, instead of fighting back.
The Rise of Skywalker is the best example of the nostalgia mode of cultural output imaginable. After the perceived wrongs of The Last Jedi, JJ. Abrams looked in the only direction available to him for inspiration: backwards.
Retcon, Repetition, and Ramping-up
So let us unpack this trash compactor (get it? It’s a reference) at least a touch. What Abrams needs to do, in his eyes and the eyes of Disney executives, is to erase the horrible mistakes of the absolute wildcard that was The Last Jedi, and do a safe story that ticks all the right boxes whilst upping the stakes so everyone knows this film is both good and suitably an end of this trilogy - of course, the end is really nowhere to be seen. This is the strategy of cultural production following the nostalgia mode.
So, retcon. The best way to ensure that we’re going back to form is to repeat the past prior to the alleged derailing, apparently not in mere reminiscences but in literal, beat-for-beat plot repetitions. Look how well it worked for The Force Awakens patching over the prequels. Abrams drags Palpatine out from the grave to serve the purposes of his plot and, far more importantly, for nostalgia, making absolutely zero attempts to explain his presence or reincarnation: there is no more brazen example of centring the generation of nostalgia over creating a good film. The attempts to create something different in The Last Jedi were disrupted by The Rise of Skywalker in the most dramatic ways possible. The notion that Rey’s parents were just random people was one of the few satisfying elements of the trilogy; not everyone in Star Wars needs to be part of this bizarre, galactic, incestuous lineage. Abrams said, verbatim, ‘fuck it’, and made Rey Palpatine’s granddaughter. Sure! Not only is the thought of a demonic, melted Palpatine making sith love deeply unsettling to my core, it also goes to demonstrate how The Rise of Skywalker was desperate to bring everything ‘back to form’ after The Last Jedi. Despite clearly wanting Snoke to be the main trilogy villain in Episode VII, after Rian Johnson killed him off in Episode VIII, JJ now wants to make it clear that he never wanted Snoke to be the main villain anyway, by putting other Snoke clones in a fish tank in the first five minutes of TROS. Rose? Well JJ clearly didn’t like her, because this main character from the previous film is barely a footnote in this one. Everyone’s favourite comic relief fascist (yup) Hux turns comedy spy in a thrilling twist, to be killed off instantly to really entrench just how evil New Bad General Guy is.
We are, of course, replicating The Return of the Jedi throughout this film. In particular the ending: Lando in the Millenium Falcon, Palpatine opening his boudoir blinds to a space battle, saying ‘strike me down’ to a young Jedi he’s trying to seduce to the dark side. The only thing that’s new is his camp red robe! We love a dress reveal. But to further exemplify the references to The Return of the Jedi and the return to form? Well, Ewoks! Space chess! Lando! The Millenium Falcon! The Death Star! Sith Lightning! Even the things we deem necessary of the franchise demonstrate this; could a Star Wars film ever not have a super-death-cannon, lightsabers, or the force? What actually is Star Wars, in substantial terms, other than a series of references to itself? By deleting the present trilogy and replacing it with the far past, we are reasserting that compelling nostalgia.
Star Wars always has a main trio in its trilogies; in the sequels, our main three are consolidated despite little-to-no characterisation, let alone consistent development, over the trilogy. Dialogue between Finn, Poe, and Rey demonstrates how uncomfortable JJ is with just having characters communicate like real people - maybe Lucas’ legacy isn’t dead after all. Instead, they do that bizarrely over enthused, clumsy exposition and posturing rather than creating actual art and emotion via dialogue. Poe and Rey don’t get on, which is initially weird but then this is the first time they’ve actually interacted in the trilogy. Which is great, for protagonists to engage on screen firstly in the finale. Rey, although often misogynistically hated for being a supposed ‘Mary Sue’, is nonetheless not a particularly compelling main character, lacking an arc and constantly going off on her own, demonstrating a recklessness that is particularly frustrating for the character we are meant to root for. They all need love interests to give them the illusion of depth: the Disney Execs were clearly not going to have any meaningful LGBT+ representation, such as via the obvious route of Poe and Finn. Instead, they have a two second kiss between two women. Meanwhile for our protagonists, two new characters are introduced, although barely, to make sure someone partners up with everyone in the film. Rose, who kisses Finn at the end of the last film, is disregarded for Jannah, and Poe makes unwarrented advances on the further new character Zorii Bliss. There is something to question about sidelining one woman of colour for another, and introducing an additional woman who is not even romanticised but solely sexualised whilst never showing her face or speaking more than a few lines to serve the (I can’t question using the term in this context enough) ‘plot’. No one should believe Disney’s socially progressive guise for second, especially when they can’t even maintain it consistently on screen. And finally we get the Rey-Kylo kiss, a gross Disney shoe-in even JJ objected to. Call me an ultra-leftist, but generally it takes more than swelling music to excuse kissing a guy who at the opening of the film was slaughtering innocent civilians. He is depicted to be a fascist. Kissing fascists is bad. God, how did we get here, Star Wars?
But whilst Abrams needed to get things on track, we also need an upping of the stakes, because it’s the last film; how will everyone know they’re supposed to feel like something has happened as a result of these last 5 years of Star Wars films? So we have the Final Order instead of the First Order, and every Star Destroyer can now blow up planets, far exceeding the slow rate of planetary destruction of the original Death Stars. The space battle itself is a hot mess. Finn correctly guesses the navigation centre is in one particular ship (why didn’t they just give the navigational information directly to each ship?). We don’t even know who is piloting Palpatine’s fleet, given he’s been hiding on this impossible-to-find planet for decades. Finn and Jannah ride horses on top of the Star Destroyers, which fortunately for them decide to not just rise out of the atmosphere or tilt slightly and tip them off. Lightspeed? Pfft that’s for the past, now we have lightspeed skipping for a scene! It’s faster and more dangerous, we’re told, because everything needs to be the same, but more.
Nostalgia, loss and TROS
The first words of the film, besides the eulogic Lucasfilm logo, are 'THE DEAD SPEAK!', and they do indeed - more than the living. A ghost of the past will always win over any attempt at the future at this point in our cultural collapse; no one is more invested in Snoke than in Palpatine. The old is tired and recycled with such ambivalent carelessness that it loses all meaning, and yet the new only feels uninspired and hollow. The past, ever spoken of, alluded to and referenced is both damaged and unearthed by ripping it into our present, and yet mythologised into prominence by doing so. It is a contradiction, that widespread criticism of film’s repetition and yet our seduction by it, that we can feel it in our bones as soon as we recognise nostalgia for the hollow promise that it is.
‘What we have lost… is the possibility of loss’. The best metaphor for this is in the final minutes of the film itself. Jakku, the not-Tatooine desert planet of The Force Awakens, has a prominent Star Destroyer wreckage in the sand, on which Rey is scavenging at the beginning of the trilogy. At the end of The Rise of Skywalker, another Star Destroyer falls and crashes next to the old one, in a montage signifying the defeat of the Empire - no wait, the First, or Final, Order - across the galaxy. In a moment, again intended to inspire hope, we see that the graves of Star Destroyers, of battles and films of the past, are in cycle. This reference to 2015, itself one from 1977, is being foreshadowed to be repeated, the next link in a cycle of remnants that lead to nowhere. Despite these two ships being dead and partially buried, they are monuments of perpetuity, in that galaxy and ours.
Another scene unintentionally shines light on our crisis of memory. This is C3PO’s forced removal of ‘his’ memory, that by juxtaposition reinforces our own real life predicament of loss. In order to break C3PO’s programming and reveal the translation of the Sith language on the knife to find the location of the space-triangle map to find Palpatine (this is the actual plot), who is hiding on the planet of the eternal Sith life, the gang accept on C3PO’s behalf that his entire memory must be deleted. A convenient plot point to create some sense of pathos to the story, undoubtedly. But I’m intrigued by its symbolic power in terms of the nostalgia mode. Mark Fisher questions whether ‘we all suffer from a form of… anterograde amnesia’ whereby new memories cannot be created but we retain the old. Here, the memory troubles of C3PO and ourselves are in contrasting parallel to one another. He is unable to remember the past, stuck only to create new memories. We are stuck in the past, unable to create new memories. His years spent with the far more compelling characters of the original trilogy were forced out to be replaced by the new trio: even before his memory was wiped, he pays tribute not to his memories but to the ‘friends’ in front of him, who he will awaken to see and forge new memories of immediately. Our memories are solely of the originals, however overblown they might be: we will not remember Rey’s story in decades to come, Jin Urso (remember her?) from Rogue One, or Jannah, or Klaude (I’m not shitting you, this slug is legitimately a character in one of the biggest series ever made). Instead we will hyperfixate on a romanticised past. And unlike C3P0, who’s tear-jerkingly emotional (forced) sacrifice was only mentioned thereafter in the film as a source of comedy, our predicament of encapsulation into a long gone past at the expense of a cancelled future is no laughing matter. Admittedly, none of the jokes in this film were funny either.
To use another quote from the film to refer to it, Rey says ‘I see through the cracks in your mask. You’re haunted’. We understand Star Wars, as a key part of cinematic canon, and film as a cornerstone of our culture, as a signifier of our decay, cracking to reveal the ghost beneath; ironic that her example is a mask, itself and its wearer Kylo Ren a parallel to Darth Vader that fails to live up to original despite new-found gloss. This franchise is not about making good films. The films are bad. Even the originals are fun, charming films that are lucky in their ability to be salvaged (A New Hope barely made it out alive), not cinematic masterpieces. From The Return of The Jedi onwards, not a single good Star Wars film has been made, just a variety of ‘fine’ to ‘terrible’. The Rise of Skywalker literally had multiple shots out of focus. And yet we herald them as a golden standard, as a point of rich culture and cinematic genius. What culture is that? What standard do they offer? When we pick at the edges, vital strokes of our culture tear away and reveal that we are haunted. I am tempted by my childhood, and in the face of the new films, to think more softly of the prequels. The time of a singular rich old man's terrible vision now seems almost sweet compared to the factory production of the corporate current. Whilst the original trilogy is famously trying to parallel World War Two, even the prequels offer some critique of Bush's War on Terror. I'll also give The Last Jedi some credit; it had some semblance of a politic, beginning to unpack how the supposed 'good guys' of the Jedi order might not actually be so great, and might just be a weird space cult. But in JJ Abrams' The Force Awakens and The Rise of Skywalker, there is a sheer absence of explicit politic, instead just a wormhole to our past.
But to only say Star Wars is haunted would be to miss the salient point that Star Wars is also haunting. The trailers for this film tell it all. Quite literally; the reveal of Palpatine’s return, which should have evoked gasps in the cinema, was all but confirmed by the trailers and addressed in the opening title crawl of the film. For some reason the message he broadcast that none of us heard in the actual film was broadcast in the game Fortnite instead. No one was shocked, therefore, by his return. The ‘real world’ of social media, speculation, talk shows and trailers, are as much a part of the film as the film itself at this point. Notions of cultural output as a distinct category is well on its way to collapse; the spheres are falling into one another. Talking of the possibilities beyond the actual film, I do want to briefly touch on the original script for Episode IX, leaked in recent weeks. Here, I am less interested in what is different about the script rather than what remained the same. The proposed title itself, 'Duel of the Fates', is a reference to The Phantom Menace’s soundtrack, a callback to what is popularly viewed as the best dimension of that film. Coruscant also features heavily in the proposal. Nostalgia exists even for the prequels it seems, although perhaps was cut for the risk of prequel association. We still have lightsaber fights, space battles, a First Order that acts like the Empire and a New Republic that acts like the Resistance. Palpatine still exists, just as a hologram but nonetheless resurrected for the camera. Even in this version, we are still haunted. Kylo Ren is haunted by Luke’s ghost, who says 'This is where the dark side leads; an empty tomb'. Ren replies 'Where did your path lead?'. Here it is, laid out in full; a spectral figure from the past, haunting someone pursuing an empty tomb, a past and present afflicting each other.
To reword this problem we have of loss in the words of the trailer: ‘no one's ever really gone’. Perhaps in the context of Star Wars this was meant to inspire hope, to evoke a restoration of the characters and emotions of our childhoods. But when living in an ever reasserting capitalist structure, with a culture doing everything possible to keep the crisis on life support, this takes on a darker meaning. It is not a promise of better, but a threat. Luke dies, his ghost returns. Chewbacca is blown up on the only ship on-screen, and yet we are told he survived safe and sound in a conveniently identical ship moments later. Palpatine, ‘the phantom emperor’ of the title crawl, died 7 films ago, exploding inside a death Star which was itself pulverised into oblivion, and yet survives. The threat is here: capitalism is dead, and yet is kept alive by ever increasing plot holes, tricks of lighting and camerawork, and the pain of the working classes. It is dead, and yet we cannot lose it.
Perhaps in conclusion, the best person to talk about to illustrate our loss of loss, our state of memory and nostalgia, is the late Fisher: not Mark, but Carrie. Dying in the real world, even then she can’t escape the submission of her form to Disney. Leia is a Jedi master and has a lightsaber now, because that’s what the script needed her to be. Even through death we shall not part, for the capitalist contracts do not care for such petty barriers as ‘living’ or ‘dead’ if they own your image, your form. As capitalism is resuscitated from crisis over and over again, a system rotten from the start decayed beyond belief, the class that Hollywood upholds refuses the possibility of death: Do not give in to loss, do not let go, do not let Carrie get away if her image can scrape another sliver of profit. Do not, under any circumstances, let capitalism die. Again in the first trailer’s final words (before Palpatine’s absurd cackle): ‘no one’s ever really gone’. As revolutionaries in the face of this the answer we must fight for is, perhaps counterintuitively, death. The response to this undead world, this loss of an ability to even conceive of an alternative to capitalism, is Wilderson’s challenge to imagine its end, in order to better engage with our life. The death of the old, of what is dead, of capitalism, and the facilitation and creation of a future restored. Long live that revolution.