Healing the Dark Side in RISE OF SKYWALKER

“Wars not make one great.”

– Yoda

That a movie series called Star Wars should lean so heavily on violence as a problem-solving tool shouldn’t, on the surface, be that surprising. But ever since George Lucas established the black and white morality of his galaxy far away, he’s been trying to subvert it. He didn’t always succeed (or when he succeeded the movies weren’t all that good), but right from the first sequel, using the quote above, Lucas was pushing against the martial universe he had created. 

In context of the entire saga, Yoda’s quote is clearly hard-won wisdom; Lucas didn’t accidentally have the tiny green guy be the general in charge of the whole clone army in Attack of the Clones. He wanted to show us a righteous use of violence, controlled by a trusted character, and let us know that even this was wrong. That movie stinks, but the ending, with waves of clone troopers marching while a version of the Imperial March plays, really sums up what Lucas was trying to do with these Prequel films.

One of the reasons why the martial nature of Star Wars has triumphed for 40 years is because, as Truffaut said, there’s no such thing as an anti-war movie. War is too cinematic, and even the most painful and disturbing presentations of it on film are… kind of glorifying. I’ll never forget my first time seeing Saving Private Ryan at a mall movie theater in Poughkeepsie, New York. As my friends and I walked out into the parking lot we came to quick agreement: we needed to go play paintball, asap. And so we got into a car and drove to the paintball course and shot at each other for a few hours.

The problem too often, not just with Star Wars but with all movies trying to get across an anti-violence message, is that an effort is made to show how horrible war/violence is, but never is there an effort to show an alternative. Our movie heroes are reluctant to be violent, but once they get pulled into conflict they are excellent at it. Even if our heroes won’t kill the bad guy, the bad guy will almost always get himself into a position where he is killed anyway – call it the Batman Begins rule, where Batman honors his vow to never kill by simply not saving Ra’s al Ghul. Or look at the end of Rise of Skywalker, where the Emperor kills himself by refusing to stop shooting his lightning, even as Rey deflects it. Too often the limited imagination of movies sees violence as the only solution to violence.

That this is where Rise of Skywalker goes is all the more disappointing because it has in itself the seeds for a truly radical reimagining of how these kinds of movies work. There’s another way Rise of Skywalker could have ended, and you wouldn’t need to change a frame of the film to get there. Everything is already in place. 

In The Last Jedi Luke Skywalker scoffs at the idea that the Force is mostly used to lift stones… but that’s honestly what we usually see in these movies. The Force is usually a fairly blunt weapon in these films – it’s used to throw things and people around. There are a few instances of the old Jedi Mind Trick, and we get lots of people talking about how they feel something in the Force, but those moments of feeling are usually just expositionary. There are small examples here and there – The Clone Wars and Rogue One do interesting things with the Force/Force sensitivity – but generally speaking the Force is a big old two-by-four Jedi use to smack people around.

It’s worth noting, by the way, that The Last Jedi has some of the most innovative uses of the Force up until its release. Luke’s big Force projection is one thing, but I have long been in love with the often-derided “Mary Poppins” moment when Leia flies back to the ship. Leia gliding effortlessly towards a thing rather than strain to pull it towards her is, I think, an example of using the Force as something other than a blunt object. 

Anyway, Rise of Skywalker brings in the idea of Force healing (technically The Mandalorian got there first, and Force healing existed in the now-deleted Expanded Universe Star Wars media, but just work with me here) – using the Force to literally close wounds. Rey uses it once to heal a worm monster, which is a great scene because it allows our heroes to get out of a jam without resorting to violence. She uses it again after a moment of intense violence – when she stabs Kylo Ren through the guts. 

What’s really interesting about this use of Force healing, though, isn’t just that it fixes Kylo Ren’s body – it seems to fix Ben Solo’s heart. As soon as he recovers, Kylo Ren has a quick chat with his dad’s ghost and immediately changes sides (and clothes). The movie doesn’t make this fully explicit, but it seems impossible to watch the scene and not come away with the belief that Rey’s touch healed more than physical wounds. 

Let me get this critique out of the way: as depicted in Rise of Skywalker, Force healing is too powerful. It seems to cost Rey absolutely nothing, energy-wise, to lay hands on things or people and heal them. It may kill Kylo Ren at the end of the movie, but I’ll be honest and say I’m not entirely sure what’s going on in that scene. The ease with which Rey uses Force healing reminds me of the magic blood in Star Trek Into Darkness, another JJ Abrams movie. In that one Khan’s blood is somehow the cure for death, which really blows up the entire Star Trek universe – everybody is immortal now! 

But besides that the new power offers the opportunity for a new solution to conflict: healing. That’s the real answer to violent conflict, and I don’t think that’s a hippy dippy statement. We live in a world where the violently defeated Nazis and Southern Confederates are still having their causes championed. No amount of bombing or number of bullets was able to solve the underlying issues that led people to these ideologies and iconographies. And as much as the idea of punching Nazis has become current, all that punching will not actually solve the larger problem. 

The problem has been delineated in Star Wars before. “Fear leads to anger,” Yoda said. “Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” Deep beneath all of our conflicts is fear – fear of not getting what we need, fear of losing what we have, fear of not being enough – and to cope with that fear we engage in a lot of other terrible behaviors, including violence both physical and emotional.

When Rey healed Kylo Ren she healed the fear inside him that led him down the path to the Dark Side. She didn’t change him by beating him (although she did) or by thwarting his plans  – she changed him by healing him. The broken piece that made Ben Solo become Kylo Ren had been set right. 

This is obviously a fantastical oversimplification of a real world problem – we can’t just lay hands on our enemies and fix their hearts – but this is a fantastical movie about space wizards. The metaphor tracks, and that’s what’s really important. Rey has learned a new way to deal with her enemies, a way that doesn’t require her to hit or slice or blast anyone. A way that finally fulfills Yoda’s admonishment that wars are not what make one great. 

But what if Rise of Skywalker had taken this one step further? What if, rather than deflecting the Emperor’s Force lightning (which, frankly, isn’t even cinematically interesting) Rey had followed the rule of threes and healed… her grandfather? What if the big ending of the nine film Star Wars saga (I won’t call it the Skywalker Saga, since it all came down to two Palpatines fighting) was not killing the big bad guy but fixing him? After all, we know killing this dude may not have much of an effect – but healing him, making him whole, that could actually end all the bullshit that’s been plaguing the galaxy for seven decades. She could have destroyed Darth Sidious by bringing back Sheev Palpatine.

That, I think, would have been the kind of redemption that the Jedi needed. 

While the main Star Wars saga is over, Star Wars will continue on. The introduction of Force healing in two concurrent properties feels… important, like Lucasfilm is really trying to do something with these stories. I truly think that the people behind Star Wars believe these stories matter, and they’re trying to tell stories that will express positive spiritual principles – I know that George Lucas definitely was. So Force healing in both The Mandalorian and Rise of Skywalker probably isn’t some kind of a fluke. Maybe after 40 years of shooting, exploding and lightsaber dueling Star Wars is ready to start exploring what can truly defeat the Dark Side: healing.