I watched Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker and was thoroughly underwhelmed like most people, but not just because of its desperate attempt to pretend there was a plan all along when it’s obvious that these three films didn’t know where they were going. I was particularly disappointed when I noticed that I didn’t feel any suspense during the lightsaber battles. The new Star Wars trilogy doesn’t seem to understand how to end a lightsaber duel the way the original trilogy did. Let’s compare the three main duels from each because I feel like they symbolize what’s wrong with the new films.
Each time Rey pulls out a lightsaber in The Rise of Skywalker, I know she’s going to be just fine. In fact, I know that everyone involved is going to be fine because of how her first lightsaber duel ended. She managed to beat a trained Sith Lord with no training of her own. She’s just naturally gifted, so there’s no concern that she’ll get hurt after this.
Compare this to the first time Luke Skywalker faces Darth Vader in The Empire Strikes Back. Vader is holding back at the start, but he switches tactics over the course of the battle to try to get Luke to reveal his dark side.
There’s an attempt at this kind of subtlety in The Force Awakens when Kylo offers to train Rey, and she takes her first stab at using the Force in battle. But the sequels failed to make good on this promise of hidden meaning between these characters. They shoehorned in a relationship in The Rise of Skywalker, but it’s just an afterthought. Luke, on the other hand, suffers both body and soul when Vader cuts off his hand and then reveals their true relationship. Vader outmatches him because Luke isn’t fully trained on how to use the Force. This makes it suspenseful whenever he goes up against Vader. The only thing keeping Luke alive is Vader’s attachment to him and the Emperor’s wish to keep Luke as another Sith, but neither of those reasons would be strong enough to keep Vader from killing Luke if he really wanted to. Kylo has no such reason or relationship to keep him from unleashing his full abilities against Rey when they first battle. Vader sought out Luke to get him to join him, but Kylo only goes up against Rey because she has something he wants. Unless he has a lot less training than he lets on, he should have had no trouble against one so inexperienced as her, even with his injury. Yet she comes out unscathed.
Old Friends Fight
The Force Awakens tried to have major consequences in its lightsaber fights by having Finn get cut on his shoulder and back, and Rey giving Kylo Ren a big cut on his face. But as far as I can tell, Finn never suffered any permanent damage after he awakened from a short coma, and Kylo didn’t lose an eye or get anything but a scar. In other words, the damage done was superficial. The Last Jedi brought this idea of superficial lightsaber damage to a whole new level by having Kylo slash Luke Skywalker through the chest without even giving him a scratch. That’s because it was just a Force projection of Luke.
This fight is analogous to the one in the original Star Wars film. The first time we see a proper lightsaber duel, it’s between two old friends: Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader. There’s so much going on between them in this scene, the clashes of their lightsabers only serve to shine a spotlight on the inherent drama. Vader is physically intimidating and clearly the better warrior. This makes us fear for Obi-Wan’s safety the whole way through their fight. And when Vader cuts him in half, he instantly dies. Someone either dies or loses a limb in every one of the old lightsaber duels, highlighting how dangerous these weapons are.
Finding Redemption in the Emperor’s Throne Room
Kylo Ren fights Rey one last time in The Rise of Skywalker in the wreckage of the second Death Star, beginning in the Emperor’s throne room. It’s more of the same we’ve come to expect from lightsaber battles. The two hit their lightsabers together over and over while waves crash over them and nothing much happens. With her last ounce of life, Leia uses the Force to distract her son Kylo long enough for Rey to stab him in the chest. Rey then immediately heals him and leaves. Kylo has a nice moment of redemption with a vision of his dead father Han Solo encouraging him to throw away his lightsaber and turn away from the dark side of the Force. This is my favorite lightsaber battle of the new trilogy because it has actual consequences, and it means something more than just the physical fight itself. It leads Kylo to have a change of heart and revert back to Ben Solo when he comes face to face with his own mortality.
Return of the Jedi’s lightsaber duel also takes place in the Emperor’s throne room aboard the second Death Star, and it, too, ends with the villain having a change of heart. Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader trade blows while the Emperor watches in glee. Luke is hesitant to continue the fight until Vader threatens Leia. Luke’s protective nature goes into overdrive, turning him into a one-man wrecking machine. At the end of the duel, he gains the upper hand by cutting off Vader’s hand. After defeating but not killing Vader, Luke throws away his lightsaber and rejects the Emperor’s temptation to embrace the dark side of the Force. And Vader saves Luke by killing the Emperor, completing his redemption story and reconciling himself with his son.
Snoke and Mirrors
The original trilogy used lightsabers sparingly. When a character pulled one out, you could usually count on someone or something getting cut or killed by it. The new trilogy doesn’t have that sense of danger. Luke and Obi-Wan look small and vulnerable when they go up against Vader, but Rey is equal to Kylo Ren and beats him in their first lightsaber encounter and every other one, so he’s not much of a threat. Plus, Luke’s injury is symbolic of his potential to descend into the dark side of the Force. Rey never gets injured in any of her lightsaber battles, so in the end there is no deeper meaning to what she’s gone through on her journey to becoming a Jedi.
I know, I haven’t discussed the time when Kylo sliced Supreme Leader Snoke in half. That’s because that moment, while surprising, completely destroyed Snoke’s character. It was pointless to consider him of any importance after he was killed so easily. It didn’t make the lightsaber look deadly, it made Snoke look weak. The Last Jedi thought that it was a good idea to start a lightsaber battle by killing the main villain with one. Sure, it’s unexpected and a complete subversion of what the original trilogy did, but that doesn’t make it more meaningful or interesting. It’s just shock for shock’s sake, putting the end at the beginning.
The original trilogy is all about the hero’s journey, finding love in dark times, fighting one’s destiny, and other big topics. The new trilogy lacks a central theme, although it comes close with Kylo’s redemption showing that no one’s ever too far gone to turn back to the good. Other than that, it’s all Snoke and mirrors.
This is the Deja Reviewer bidding you farewell until we meet again.
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