I had a good chat with Year 11 during lunchtime last week where we discussed our thoughts on the latest – and last – film in the Star Wars story. These films have been around my whole life. The first one came out when I was three years old. I can remember going up to London to watch The Return of the Jedi in Leicester Square in 1983 for my younger brother’s birthday treat. The multiplex there had the full surround sound experience which had not yet reached our local cinema, and the experience of hearing the speeder bikes zooming past from behind me in my seat blew my mind! Anyone who has been into my office will know that my collection of Star Wars Lego has pride of place on a special shelf. So it was with some anticipation that I went with my family to watch Episode IX over the Christmas break. And I have some thoughts about it. This might seem an odd topic for a Headteacher’s Blog, but bear with me – it is relevant!
Before we go any further, this blog will be FULL OF SPOILERS. I am writing it assuming you have seen The Rise of Skywalker and you know what happens and what is revealed – or that you don’t care. If you haven’t seen it and you’ve avoided spoilers so far, come back and read this when you’ve seen the film.
Last chance…spoilers below…
Right, let’s begin.
Firstly, I enjoyed The Rise of Skywalker. I thought the action scenes were amazing, and I liked the adventure. The lightsabre duel in the wreckage of the Death Star in the same location as Luke and Vader’s duel in Return of the Jedi was brilliant. Flying Stormtroopers? Loved it. Leia’s death? Perfectly judged. There were a few plot holes, for sure, but the whole thing rattled along like a good old sci-fi adventure film should. But I did feel let down by one thing (and here’s the major spoiler, last chance to bail out of this blog now!): the revelation that Rey is the granddaughter of Emperor Palpatine.
Here’s why I have a bad feeling about this.
I understand that The Last Jedi wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I loved it. It managed to do that incredible thing of doing something completely unexpected within a franchise where everyone thought they knew the rules. Back in the original trilogy, The Empire Strikes Back did exactly the same thing. That completely iconic, legendary moment in Cloud City where Darth Vader reveals to Luke Skywalker: “I am your father.” It’s been imitated, parodied, copied and quoted so often since that it’s sometimes difficult to remember what a complete rug-pulling surprise that revelation was at the time. It was so significant that George Lucas eventually devoted three prequel films to showing how young Anakin Skywalker came to be the evil, masked Sith Lord who had also fathered the Jedi twins, Luke and Leia.
This was the moment that defined the films for many people. It has entered folklore. And when the new, Force-sensitive character of Rey was introduced in The Force Awakens, with mysterious unidentified parents who had disappeared, it was natural that many assumed that she was descended from some Jedi parentage too. It made sense. It played into the established mythology of Star Wars. How brave, then, how brilliant, how unexpected was the revelation in The Last Jedi that she wasn’t, actually, related to anyone special at all.
In the climactic scene in the ruins of Snoke’s throne room, Kylo Ren asks Rey “do you want to know the truth about your parents? Or have you always known?” In a brilliant performance from both Adam Driver and Daisy Ridley, Rey replies: “they were nobody.” Kylo Ren confirms: “they were filthy junk traders. Sold you off for drinking money…you have no place in this story. You come from nothing. You’re nothing.”
Every time I watch this scene I get the same shiver as when Darth Vader reveals he’s Luke’s father. It’s such an amazing twist: you don’t have to be related to anyone special to be a powerful Jedi. Because, by the end of the film, despite coming from nothing, Rey is single-handedly rescuing the resistance from the stronghold on Crait by lifting an entire rockfall with the Force. She’s nobody – but she’s incredible.
Of course, this is how the Jedi are supposed to be. Anakin Skywalker broke the Jedi code by marrying Padme and fathering children. Jedi weren’t supposed to marry. Therefore Luke and Leia were the exceptions in inheriting their abilities from a parent – every other Jedi was just “discovered”, like Rey, with Force abilities coming “from nothing.” The director of The Last Jedi, Rian Johnson, underlines this point in the very final scene of the film.
In this scene, a group of children on Canto Bight have been re-enacting Luke Skywalker’s last stand in the Battle of Crait. They are literally no-one: no parents, working as slaves in the stables of the oppressive casino-city. In the final scene, one boy steps out of the stable to sweep the floor. In a brilliant moment, he uses the Force to move the broom from its resting place into his hand. He is no-one, but he can use the Force – just like Rey. As the camera sets him against the starry sky, the broom becomes a lightsabre and this unknown, not-special, not-Skywalker child becomes the symbol of hope, the future of the resistance and the Jedi. It’s the perfect ending and the perfect message: you don’t have to be anyone special to be a hero.
Given how much I loved this aspect of The Last Jedi, I was pretty frustrated when Kylo Ren – yes, the same Kylo Ren who told Rey her parents were filthy junk traders – does a complete one-eighty in The Rise of Skywalker and tells her that actually, her parents (presumably just one of them?) were the children of Emperor Palpatine and he’s known this all along and, presumably, was just kidding in the previous film. Emperor Palpatine, who was never seen in the company of a woman, who trusted nobody, who lived a secret double life as a Sith Lord…who did he have this child with? And when? And why has it never been mentioned or even hinted at across eight other films?
It’s as though it was impossible for Rey to have such powerful Force abilities unless she was descended from someone “important.” But, as I’ve previously argued, I don’t think Yoda’s parents were anyone special, nor Obi-Wan Kenobi’s. Nor Qui-Gon Jinn’s, or Mace Windu’s, or anyone really except Luke, Leia, and Leia’s son Ben Solo/Kylo Ren. It’s as though all the work done by The Last Jedi to establish that strength is who you are, not where you’re from, is just ripped up and discarded in favour of “you can only be powerful if you’re descended from a powerful family.”
So, whilst I enjoyed The Rise of Skywalker, I was a lot happier with the message of the Star Wars universe from The Last Jedi: you don’t have to be anyone special to be special. It doesn’t matter who your parents, or your grandparents, are. It doesn’t matter if you’re born a princess or a junk trader, a stable boy or a farmer: what’s inside you makes you special. Finding that thing that makes you special, nurturing it, training it, and being honest with yourself about your strengths and your weaknesses – these are the things that will lead you to be the most powerful version of you that you can be.
This is the philosophy that guides me as a teacher, and as a school leader: every single one of us is special. It doesn’t matter what your family background is, where you come from, or your previous history. We all have the capacity to do incredible things, and to change the world around us. We just need to believe in ourselves, and have the right teacher to guide us.
May the Force be with you. Always.