Spoilers for Knives Out and Rise of Skywalker to follow
It might be redundant at this point – some two weeks out from its release – to rehash the litany of issues raised with Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, the final installment in the titular family’s saga and the last chapter of the modern trilogy. For those who loved The Last Jedi and its entertaining, occasionally provocative subversions of fan expectations and franchise tropes, the return of J.J. Abrams to helm the follow-up felt somewhat disappointing – but maybe, at the very least, he could deliver a sequel that satisfied fans of Rian Johnson’s middle chapter, the saga at large, and Abrams’ own The Force Awakens. That’s a big ask; you can’t please everyone, and certainly not every member of such a vast and vocal fan base – particularly one riled up so fervently by The Last Jedi (Russian bots notwithstanding).
Maybe people who disliked or were ambivalent toward Johnson’s film are less disappointed with Abrams’ finale than those who loved or appreciated The Last Jedi. I was definitely a fan of Johnson’s narrative choices and the new characters he introduced, like Rose Tico, who was given a disturbingly small amount of screen time in The Rise of Skywalker. I loved the idea that Rey could be a Jedi despite being a “nobody”; she wasn’t a Skywalker or related to anyone “famous” in-universe, and thus proved – in Johnson’s telling – that anyone has the potential to become a hero. That idea works against gatekeeping in fandom, not unlike gender-swapping the Ghostbusters or introducing a Black and Latino Spider-Man; it upsets the (very white, very male) status quo. Abrams returning for The Rise of Skywalker signified an inevitable return to that status quo. There was little confidence that Abrams, who’d already proven himself too beholden to the franchise’s iconography, could resist the urge to reveal Rey’s parentage. There would be an undoing of what Johnson had done, and it wouldn’t be terribly surprising coming from a filmmaker whose approach is essentially driven by style and recognition over substance.
And honestly, the ramifications are largely inconsequential in the real world. The new Star Wars sucked, but at least the last one was good and we’ll always have that, the world goes on, etc. From a fan perspective, there are some things that sting, though: By aggressively sidelining Kelly Marie Tran’s Rose, Abrams capitulated to the racist and/or misogynist trolls who attacked the actress and drove her off social media. On a thematic level, it was the move of a gatekeeper rudely shutting out the excited young female fan and elbowing her out of the way; it says “you don’t belong”. And then there’s Rey and the agonizingly stupid reveal that she’s the grandchild of Emperor Palpatine, that flaccid old wrinkle-sack of bones. (Maybe even more disturbing: someone fucked that ancient space-Nazi.) Abrams launches a direct attack on Johnson’s narrative with a big, fat obnoxious Well, Actually – it does matter where you come from. See, this silly orphan girl couldn’t just become a Jedi. She had to inherit it, have it handed to her by some old white patriarch. The key difference between Abrams and Johnson’s films, then, is an understanding of the Jedi. For Johnson, a Jedi is a hero and everyone has the potential to be heroic – it does not erase their flaws; in fact, overcoming the binary thinking of good and evil and embracing one’s flaws is crucial to a hero’s journey.
To Abrams, it’s about power, and men understand power very differently: It’s inherited; it’s handed from one man to another without hesitation; it’s a right, not a privilege. They will commit countless atrocities and acts of oppression and subjugation to keep others – the marginalized – from wrestling it away. Take, for instance, Finn: The Rise of Skywalker suggests (and John Boyega and Abrams both confirm) that Finn is Force-sensitive, despite the fact that he is not related to any Sith or Jedi. Rey, on the other hand – the trilogy’s hero, who happens to be a woman – cannot possibly have power unless she inherited it from some crusty old white guy. The man needs no qualification to obtain power, but the woman does. It’s pretty insulting.
Rian Johnson has remained quiet on social media and in interviews regarding The Rise of Skywalker. Of course, we aren’t entitled to his reaction any more than we’re entitled to a getting a satisfying Star Wars sequel (there are much worse things in the world; have you read this thing called “the news”?). Still, it’s almost impossible not to be curious. How would Johnson have concluded Rey’s journey? And what does he think of Abrams’ finale, which asserts that Rey couldn’t possibly come by her power honestly? The answer might be found in Knives Out.
I wouldn’t presume to know what Rian Johnson actually thinks of The Rise of Skywalker, nor would I want to put words or feelings into his mouth. But there is a strong thematic idea at the heart of Knives Out that exists in direct opposition to the messaging in Abrams’ film. In Johnson’s recent whodunit, Ana de Armas plays Marta, a Latina woman who works as a private nurse for Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), a wealthy novelist who mysteriously dies of an apparent suicide on the night of his 85th birthday. Every member of the Thrombey family has benefited from Harlan’s wealth and privilege, and as the plot unravels, we learn many of them had motive to murder him. Ultimately, Detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Crag) reveals that Harlan’s grandson Ransom (Chris Evans) was trying to frame Marta for Harlan’s murder, knowing full well that she stood to inherit the family fortune.
On an extremely superficial level, Marta is sort of like Rey, or even Rose. She’s basically a nobody in comparison to the Thrombey clan; they don’t even know her nationality and repeatedly name different – and incorrect – countries when referencing her origin. (As Monica Castillo pointed out in her op-ed for the New York Times, the characterization of Marta is not without its own flaws.) Though the Thrombeys are dismissive of Marta due to their own prejudices and privileged status, it’s made abundantly clear that she is special. Marta is a kind woman of strong conscience and moral integrity; she’s empathetic and generous to a fault, like when she trusts that Ransom (Kylo Ren, but he was popular in school and has good sweaters) is trying to help her.
On a deeper level, the fundamental message of Knives Out feels like a critique of the thinking that led Abrams and screenwriter Chris Terrio down the Palpatine family tree. Harlan recognizes the power his privilege affords, and decides to give Marta – a woman of little means and no relation – an opportunity. There is a full spectrum of privilege afforded to men – and white men in particular – and unless men acknowledge the controlling stake they have in that power and the responsibility that comes with it, they will continue to have a monopoly on, well, everything. Harlan takes a step that is necessary in achieving gender (and race) parity: he opens the door for someone who doesn’t have access. It’s up to the people in these positions of power (mostly men, mostly white) to help those without. Harlan, seeing the myopic entitlement his wealth has wrought among his would-be heirs, recognizes Marta as a worthy beneficiary of his privilege – someone whose essential goodness makes her qualified for the job (in this case the job is “having money”).
If we applied that thinking to Star Wars, and consider Rey and Marta as similar characters, then The Rise of Skywalker could’ve ended with Rey learning once and for all that her parents were nobody special but she was worthy of wielding great power and performing acts of heroism anyway – wrinkly old Palpatine DNA be damned. Maybe Johnson’s version of the sequel would’ve gone something like that, and maybe Knives Out is a cinematic rebuttal of sorts to The Rise of Skywalker’s assertion that all men (yes, all men) are born with power regardless of status or relation, but women can only be born into it. Even valiant warrior Janna – the film’s other notable woman of color – is (bizarrely and clumsily) implied to be the offspring of another franchise icon (Lando), thus suggesting her heroism is inherited from a prominent male figure.
It seems unlikely that we’ll hear Rian Johnson’s thoughts on The Rise of Skywalker anytime soon (if ever), but Knives Out feels like as good an answer as any to Abrams’ aggressive upending of Rey’s potentially poignant story.