Star Wars, The Rise Of Skywalker, Rose Tico and giving into the backlash

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The Rise Of Skywalker has found itself facing criticism for the way it follows on from its predecessor – but with some justification.

Spoilers lie ahead for Star Wars: The Last Jedi and Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker

Hope. The prevailing theme of the Star Wars movies is built upon that most powerful yet fragile of ideals.

From the idealised, sometimes desperate hope in an unproven hero, to the glue that holds together an entire rebellion, hope is the saga’s true equivalent to the Force: it flows through each film, binding actions and characters together, sometimes giving them the strength and belief to succeed where failure and destruction seem certain.

Without doubt, the most resonant moment in the celebrated original trilogy isn’t a Death Star exploding or a lightsaber duel; it’s a teenager gazing wistfully into a sunset. Long before he became Luke Skywalker, hero of the Rebellion, audiences connected with the character because, gazing into that sunset, he represented a universal yearning that we all share: a desire to transcend our inherently ordinary nature and experience the extraordinary. Or to put it more simply, to hope.

When Disney and Lucasfilm, under the new stewardship of Kathleen Kennedy, released The Force Awakens in 2015 followed by Rogue One in 2016, it seemed that the two companies wanted to move away from the remote, unlovable characters of the prequels and re-establish the relatability that the Star Wars universe seemed to have lost. After all, what use is a powerful theme such as hope if you aren’t truly rooting for the characters doing the hoping?

To that end, a conscious decision was made to develop characters that were representative of a world that was more than a generation removed from Luke’s first look beyond that dusty horizon. The world had changed. With consideration given to a contemporary focus on gender, race, disability and to a lesser degree, sexuality, the saga’s characters would reflect that change.

Introduced in Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi, Rose Tico seemed like a successful alliance of these ideals. Far from the distanced politicians and emotionless Jedi of the prequel trilogy, she was warm and eminently human. Her status as a ‘lowly’ mechanic with the Resistance further progressed the development of the ‘everyman’ archetype that the series had successfully introduced in Rogue One, establishing characters like Jynn Erso and Andor Cassian, who didn’t possess a hallowed family name or mystic powers. Rose, like Luke gazing out at that sunset, was just an ordinary person, like you or me (apologies for excluding those of you out there reading this who can move spaceships with your mind).

Throughout the course of The Last Jedi, like us all, Rose failed in her endeavours, in her case, coming up short on the mission to save the Resistance from being tracked through hyperspace. Also, she actively and physically discouraged Finn from a balls-to-the-wall act of swashbuckling dare-devilry, an act not in keeping with the grand, sweeping heroics of the Skywalker clan, but understandably human and led by relatable human emotions.

Rose was a fighter, a struggler, not possessing the luxury of a grand destiny. She was expendable, and that made both the character, and her interactions with other characters, interesting, not to mention relatable, especially for those familiar with failure (hello, my old friend), but also for Asian-American women and mechanics everywhere, all of whom had never enjoyed the opportunity to cheer on somebody who represented them in a Star Wars movie before.

Sadly, in a trilogy finale that seemed satisfied to reject most of the opportunities afforded by Rian Johnson’s Last Jedi iconoclasm, The Rise of Skywalker also suffered from needing to service a great deal of narrative threads and numerous character arcs. As such, the expendable nature of Rose’s character proved to be her defining trait when it came to Episode IX with Kelly Marie Tran relegated to what can charitably be described as a background role throughout the film’s proceedings.

At first glance, it would be easy to dismiss Tran’s diminished role as being left on the cutting room floor. Even the most cursory of glances into the production of this film will reveal that much like its predecessor, A New Hope, this was a film that didn’t really find itself until the edit (and arguably not even then, with its stilted pacing and a few under-served characters). As such, as we’ve seen before with this type of reshoot-laden blockbuster, sometimes characters can largely (or often completely) disappear in the post-production sequence (Matthew Fox in World War Z springs to mind as one such notable reshoot victim).

However, in the case of Star Wars’ Rose Tico, it is looking more and more like this is not the case. Although The Rise of Skywalker co-screenwriter, Chris Terrio seemed to claim in an interview with Awards Daily that Rose’s character had shot several scenes to be digitally woven into scenes with Carrie Fisher’s General Leia Organa, but the team were unable to achieve the desired result in post-production. “One of the reasons Rose has a few less scenes than we would like her to have has to do with the difficulty of using Carrie Fisher’s footage in the way we wanted to… as the process evolved, a few scenes we’d written with Rose and Leia turned out not to meet the standards of photorealism that we’d hoped for. Those scenes unfortunately fell out of the film.”

The internet quickly cried foul and presumably, mere minutes before a petition launched for the ‘Rose Cut’ to be released, Terrio spoke to Vulture, walking back his comments and clarifying that in fact, those scenes had never actually been shot.

His statement to Vulture read“I badly misspoke if in an earlier statement I implied that any cut scenes between Rose and Leia were the fault of our VFX team and the wizards at ILM,” Terrio said. “In that earlier interview, I was referring to a specific scene in which Leia’s emotional state in Episode VII did not seem to match the scene we wrote for use in Episode IX, and so it was cut at the script stage before the VFX work was done. If we had chosen to use the scene, ILM would have made it look perfect. They always do. ILM performed actual miracles at every stage of the creative process in Episode IX. I remain in awe of their work.”

Before considering the ramifications of that statement, let’s try to bear in mind what a truly colossal task The Rise of Skywalker was. Ending a trilogy. Ending a saga. Choosing to weave the dissonant threads of The Last Jedi back into a traditional narrative whilst all the time Avengers: Endgame’s remarkable success at juggling similar difficulties loomed perhaps too largely for comfort in the rear view mirror. It’s an unenviable task for anybody, and Terrio has publicly broken cover to admit already that he thinks Episode IX should really have been two films in the style of the final chapters of the Harry Potter, Hunger Games and to some extent, the Avengers sagas respectively.

That however may have been too sharp a departure from Lucas’ original vision for Disney to stomach and for better or for worse we got an extremely fast-paced final film which didn’t always give scenes, moments and crucially, goodbyes, the time to breathe that they were due.

Clearly, cuts had to be made and for the most part Abrams and Terrio with the presumed agreement of Kathleen Kennedy chose to largely exorcise much of Johnson’s prior film. Fair enough, right? After all, something has to give. The Rise of Skywalker was clearly compromised from the outset and as such, concessions had to be made.

For this writer at least, it’s the choice and style of those concessions that leave a bad taste in the mouth.

Let’s talk about the choice of those omissions.

The concept of hyperdrive-skipping made it into The Rise of Skywalker, one of many ideas introduced in The Last Jedi and I’d argue that it improved the film. Hyperdrive-skipping has refreshed the rules of engagement in the Star Wars universe and as such, funnelled Abrams and Terrio into creating a fun chase sequence, the likes of which we hadn’t seen before in the myriad previous chase scenes in the Star Wars saga. This is a great example of how the creativity of The Last Jedi (which is far from a flawless film itself,) can be transmuted into fresh storytelling possibilities for an ageing formula.

But what of Rose? The idea of an ‘everyman’ character has been discussed above, but Rose’s character also introduced a far more interesting concept than simply livening up a space pursuit: in The Last Jedi, her character’s liberation of the fathier beasts on Canto Blight, the casino planet, revealed a character whose understanding of the galaxy’s conflict went beyond the simple binary opposites of light side and dark side, Resistance and First Order, resurrected so slavishly by Abrams in 2015’s The Force Awakens.

Rose understood the banal nature of evil: you don’t necessarily need to wear a flowing cape or don a fiendish mask to spread evil throughout the galaxy (although we hear it certainly helps). Rose’s understanding of this nuanced perspective on morality then influenced Finn to consider that the same X-wing starfighters that were blowing up TIE-fighters were being sold to the Resistance by the same double-dealing arms dealers selling those TIE-fighters.

This development, sparked by Rose offered a paradigm shift for the Star Wars saga: a chance to develop some of the moral ambiguity introduced in the occasionally morally murky Rogue One, telling morally and tonally shaded stories that dare I say it, could offer commentary on the real world, on the corruption of power and the everyday corporate evil of the international arms trade. This is as avenue that Star Wars has largely ignored barring the broadest of strokes, despite Lucas’ insistence that A New Hope was an allegory for Vietnam (it wasn’t). The near-total absence of Rose Tico in Epsiode IX closed the door to such storytelling possibilities and we returned to a simplistic battle between goodies and baddies. Yes, that is a technical term.

There’s worse too. As it seems clear from Terrio’s interview, the creative powers-that-be knew that with the cul-de-sac of a narrative partnership with the character of Leia, that would leave Rose with almost nothing to do. From that point, it seems that nothing was done to course-correct this trajectory, leaving Kelly Marie Tran’s character on the very periphery of the story.

Even her reason for staying behind when the the main band leave for (yet another) desert planet of Pasaana is spurious at best. Something about studying the technical specs of the new Star Destroyer fleet which may or may not have paid off in the form of the navigation tower that had be destroyed in the film’s finale. But even that knowledge (did it even come from Rose?) shows no form of process or learning, no challenge or obstacle that would at the very least give Rose a modicum of a narrative arc in this film. Even just a few more lines may have sated some of the critics but bafflingly, the character of Beaumont Kin, played by Dominic Monaghan, is airdropped into this final film, taking up lines throughout the movie that could have formed the skeleton of a character arc for Rose Tico.

Of course, the only point of comparison within the Star Wars saga offers bleak comfort. The cartoonish CGI companion from The Phantom Menace, Jar-Jar Binks was a reviled figure and thus, the character’s screen time was almost completely eviscerated in the following two films. Ahmed Best, who performed the character has talked in the years hence about how the vitriolic response from some quarters of Star Wars fandom left him feeling suicidal.

Likewise, the response to the character of Rose in The Last Jedi was so personal and hurtful that Kelly Marie Tran was forced to leave social media, finding herself unable to endure the abuse. As such, we’re left with a situation where it looks like a vocal minority of online trolls have succeeded in forcing Lucasfilm, desperate for a universally beloved Star Wars film after the damaging acrimony of The Last Jedi, into acquiescing to their demands.

Perhaps this isn’t the case. Perhaps Abrams and Terrio simply thought Rose was a weak character. That is their right as storytellers, and accomplished ones at that. Perhaps they simply didn’t like the character as she was the most narratively-consuming element of the previous film, a predecessor that had left them with too many narrative circles to square already.

Ultimately, the reasons for their choices are less important than the choice itself and how it will be perceived. For a trilogy that started out with such clearly progressive ideals, the banishment of Rose Tico looks and smells like Lucasfilm giving ground to an angry quarter of the Star Wars universe, making a woman (and a woman of colour at that) effectively disappear because it displeased its fanbase (who by and large, one would guess belong to a wholly different demographic).

With that battle ceded, it’s easy to worry that the same tactic will become more popular and be used against other creators and actors. It’s a move borne out of fear, and the creators of the Star Wars films, all involved with this decision-making process should know better than anybody in the galaxy which path that takes you down.

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