Review and Analysis – Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

I haven’t written about movies in over a year and a half, so please bear with me. I just couldn’t let a Star Wars movie pass without making an attempt. This first review section will be spoiler-free, while the second section will be spoiler-filled and have ample warning before you get to it.
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is a mess. It’s also highly enjoyable. It is satisfying. It is disappointing. It is lazy, pandering, and focus-grouped. It is emotional, heartfelt, and genuine. It honors the legacy and themes of the entire saga. It misunderstands what Star Wars is about. It is silly and dumb. It is a thought-provoking discussion-starter. It is unpredictable. It is so predictable. It wastes characters. It gives characters the opportunity to shine. It answers many questions. It wastes many opportunities. It is the safest Star Wars ever. It is the craziest Star Wars ever.
The best description of The Rise of Skywalker is one I’ve seen making the rounds quite a bit. It is “a lot.” I truly did enjoy it but I can’t honestly say it’s very good. One of the benefits to it simply being “a lot,” jam packed with plot and answers and action and humor and moments to cheer, is that there’s something for almost everyone to like. Conversely, there’s something to bother almost everyone. I feel like The Rise of Skywalker, and perhaps the sequel trilogy as a whole when people look back on it, will end up being a Rorschach test for how people feel about Star Wars and how they approach storytelling generally and the revival of beloved franchises specifically.
On the whole, though, I enjoyed The Rise of Skywalker. It has humor and heart, it serves as a broadly satisfying close on the story of the Skywalkers, and it is generally fun. It has some of the best performances of this sequel trilogy, particularly from Daisy Ridley as Rey and Adam Driver as Kylo Ren, while Anthony Daniels gets to shine as the inexhaustible C-3PO. JJ Abrams and company manage to do a good job crafting a final role for Leia from Carrie Fisher’s deleted scenes from The Force Awakens, and it would have felt wrong for her not to be there. There are moments in the film that made me cheer, made my heart swell, and brought tears to my eyes (an admittedly easy feat).
But I wouldn’t call The Rise of Skywalker a particularly great movie. The script from Abrams and Chris Terrio is riddled with coincidences, plot holes, unexplained important events, and occasionally flat dialogue. Rose has been relegated to a criminally minor supporting role, but even Poe and Finn (who had great arcs in The Last Jedi) are mostly misused. There are new characters like Naomi Ackie’s Jannah and Keri Russell’s Zorii Bliss who are nice additions but aren’t given much of a chance to make an impact in a script that is too stuffed to let things breathe. So much of the movie is devoted to action/plot or to the Rey/Kylo/Palpatine triangle that there’s hardly room for anything else.
The Rise of Skywalker has about 50% too much plot. It’s too obsessed with answering questions that didn’t need answering, and with throwing bones to fans who didn’t like The Last Jedi. It’s never openly antagonistic to Rian Johnson’s vastly superior film, but there’s enough of a course correction there to please fans who felt burned by the previous movie. It feels like it was constructed by committee who sent out surveys to fans on what they’d want to see from the final chapter and wrote the script based on the statistics of the responses. The result isn’t bad, per se, it’s just lazy and pandering, not to mention often extremely predictable.
My ultimate conclusion is that JJ Abrams is a great trailer director. What I mean by that is that he knows how to engage an audience from the start, and he has far less interest in the story as a whole or its conclusion. (And this is coming from someone who deeply loves Super 8.) The sequel trilogy suffers from not having a plan from the start, with Abrams doing his thing (like he did on Lost) getting the ball rolling and letting other people sort things out from there. It really illustrates the limits of “mystery box” storytelling, and I hope Lucasfilm finds a new method going forward. The trilogy was redeemed in my eyes by Rian Johnson’s middle chapter, and from that perspective The Rise of Skywalker is an enjoyable but only serviceable finale.
I’m sure my thoughts and feelings about this Episode 9 will change over time. I wasn’t particularly a fan of The Force Awakens when it first came out, and some things about it still bother me, but it’s grown on me over the last few years, largely due to the strength of the characters it created. I went into The Rise of Skywalker with lower expectations than I usually would for a Star Wars film, and came away generally pleased and entertained. My childhood wasn’t ruined, the sequel trilogy wasn’t ruined for me, and I’m eager for more Star Wars in the weeks, months, and years ahead. It’s still a mess, with some objectively bad mistakes and missteps as well as some things that just didn’t work for me personally, but I’m looking forward to watching it again. The last four years have brought us five Star Wars movies, ranging from spectacular to just fine, and if this is the way this period ends I’m ok with that.
***Spoilers Below***
So Rey is a Palpatine. It was one of the popular theories, and one that seemed more and more likely to me once it was announced that Palpatine would return for TROS. (Even if I originally assumed she was Luke’s daughter after TFA.) Generally, I’m ok with her being a Palpatine even if it wasn’t what I would have preferred. I liked the idea from TLJ that she really was a nobody, and the idea that you don’t have to come from some famous background to be a hero or be important. On the other hand, there’s something to be said for the more broad idea that you’re not defined by your background, and your name or your parents are not responsible for your legacy. Rey is able to set aside her shameful family name and her evil grandfather and choose a family and a name that has more meaning to her. Star Wars has always been about the families you create being more important than those you’re born with, so in that sense it fits thematically.
Rey’s struggle throughout the trilogy has been about identity. First she defined herself solely by the parents she was waiting for and the longing she had for a family that wanted her. She learned to stop waiting for that family and went looking for “someone to show me my place” in TLJ. But she eventually learned that she alone was enough, and she didn’t need to be defined by a family she had waited for that would never come back. In ROTS she learns she’s a Palpatine and that her parents abandoned her for her own safety, which is kind of a cop out from TLJ’s claim that they sold her for drinking money, but both have enough truth to work with the “certain point of view” theme that is a constant through Star Wars. And I could totally see how choosing the Skywalker name could feel like a step backwards for many people, but I look at it as coming full circle for her, not waiting for someone to bring her meaning, and no longer feeling like she has to stand alone, she chooses to take the name of those who meant so much to her, to keep what they fought for alive in a way that is stronger than blood.
I appreciated the return to Tattooine as a fan, but it doesn’t make a lot of sense as a final resting place for the lightsabers from Rey’s perspective. Leia has no connection to the Lars homestead, but whatever. It’s symbolic more for the story than for the literal actions of the character. What I don’t understand is people claiming online that the scene means Rey is going to now live there? That doesn’t seem implied or stated by the scene at all. I guess it comes from the title of the track on the soundtrack, “A New Home,” but I think believing Rey is actually going to live there seems like a misreading of the character even in a movie as messy as TROS. I kind of hope that she took the kyber crystals from the two sabers and is using them in her new, yellow saber, though.
Then there’s Ben Solo. I haven’t been a fan of Kylo Ren at all. I thought he made for an interesting villain, but I wasn’t eager to see his redemption and I certainly didn’t ship him and Rey. But I very much enjoyed his arc in TROS, and especially Adam Driver’s performance. I appreciate that he was able to be redeemed as Ben Solo without an unrealistically happy ending after participating in the murder of billions with Starkiller Base. I don’t think I would have been able to buy that, though had he survived and gone into hiding to do atone in secret I could have accepted that too. There’s definitely some nice parallels to Anakin with Ben having the power to bring Rey back from death, and his sacrifice was a fitting end to the Skywalker line, a line of Jedi who came into being to balance out Palpatine’s rise and which ended with Palpatine’s fall. I can get on board with that. The scene with his memory of his father was an emotional, but predictable, surprise, and I especially love that his mother was the one to turn him and Rey back from the darkness. Driver really sold the transformation, and his wordless performance as Ben for the rest of the film was truly special.
I’ve admitted to not being a Reylo shipper, and I’m happy to admit that shipping has never been a particularly passionate thing to me in fandoms generally. I enjoy the anticipation of possible relationships, and I definitely have couples I ship, but I’m rarely too upset when things don’t work out. But I also recognize that as a man there is probably something significant I’m missing in Reylo, so I’m trying to do my part to listen to why some people are so upset. I know many women identify with Rey and were thrilled to have a character they could see themselves in in Star Wars. So I can see how it feels like a betrayal that the relationship between Rey and Ben ends in tragedy because it feels like the powers that be are saying to women that they simply can’t have it all. They can be heroes but they have to be alone. I don’t personally read the story that way, but I can definitely see how it would feel like that kind of statement and I have no interest in dismissing that pain or that interpretation. I believe and I hope that Rey goes on to a full and happy life with her friends Finn and Poe and Rose and the droids, finds love and happiness and family and gets to continue being a hero to the galaxy. I don’t think the film contradicts that vision, it just doesn’t take the opportunity to show that a woman can have it all, which is understandably like a betrayal to many.
Speaking of Finn and Poe, what a wasted opportunity for the two of them. There are racial implications to Poe’s backstory as a drug smuggler that I don’t feel qualified to address and which I admit didn’t occur to me until they were pointed out. After all of his growth in TLJ, he basically became Han Solo this time around. Finn had one great scene with Jannah about leaving the First Order, but that was most of his story, too. Apparently his secret for Rey is that he’s Force sensitive? I don’t have an issue with it, but it didn’t add anything to the film and felt kind of tacked on. Really, the biggest missed opportunity was for Finn and Poe to become a couple, which would have worked so well in the film’s finale, but I have no doubt the powers that be weren’t ready to go that bold. LGBTQ+ representation is extremely important, and it’s no small deal that TROS has the first onscreen same sex kiss for Star Wars. But how awesome would have been for Finn and Poe to kiss upon their reunion? That could have been Finn’s secret.
I don’t really know what to say about Palpatine being the puppet master this whole time. It seems like it was the easy decision for the production team to make to please fans and find a way to wrap up the trilogy where they clearly didn’t have a plan. I don’t particularly care that Snoke was grown in a vat, but I don’t have a problem with it either. I can accept Palpatine surviving the end of Return of the Jedi even if it’s inherently silly. It’s just… fine. The Palpatine stuff was the least interesting aspect of the film for me, and this is from someone who loves Palpatine in all of the Lucas films. He’s a fascinating character in the prequels and in ROTJ, but here he was just kind of cartoonish. He’s probably the only villain that would have felt big enough and provide enough of a threat to work with Rey and Ben’s story, so it’s fine from that standpoint, it just wasn’t super interesting to me.
I was kind of overwhelmed by the Jedi voices encouraging Rey, so I’ll have to pay closer attention on the next viewing, but I love that they brought in more than just the obvious ones from the films. Nice to hear Ahsoka and Kanan! As far as other cameos, it was nice to see the Ghost from Rebels and Wedge return in the finale (though right after Wedge lost his adopted son, Snap), and I’ll be curious to watch people dissect the footage as time goes on to see what other hidden gems are scattered among the fleet. I loved the “They’re not a navy, they’re just… people” line so much, and it was one of the most Star Wars lines in the film. The idea that “Rebellions are built on Hope” is one I cling to desperately, and I loved the idea in this film that villains win by making people feel alone.
There’s a lot of healthy debate going on about how much TROS was intended to undo TLJ, but a lot of that comes from having lived the fan backlash the last two years. It would be impossible for the experience of watching the movie not to be colored by everything that has happened. But for the most part I read a lot of the “corrections” as growth and development rather than antipathy towards TLJ. Things like Luke preventing Rey from destroying the lightsaber feel like Luke acknowledging his failures, something that feels very in tune with his character growth in TLJ and Yoda’s lesson for him. I choose not to buy into the theory that JJ and Rian hate each other and there’s some kind of war between them. That’s just silly to me, even if they have very different styles of filmmaking and storytelling.
In all, I’m curious to see how and if my feelings about The Rise of Skywalker change with time and repeat viewings. I know I won’t become more accepting of things like the sidelining of Rose or the flattening of Poe and Finn. But things like the overstuffed plot and the Palpatine stuff that I’m neutral on now could go either way. Could I go back in time I would have given this trilogy to a single director, or at least found someone with a singular vision for the sequels. I don’t begrudge anyone being disappointed or hurt, but for now I’m choosing to be positive. It doesn’t undo the things I found most meaningful in The Last Jedi, particularly Luke’s story. It gives Leia a loving ending and Carrie a beautiful sendoff. It leaves the door open for more adventures while putting a reasonably satisfying cap on the Skywalker Saga. And Rogue One still exists. I can be happy with this messy, pandering film for now, and maybe one day I’ll grow to love it.

14 Star Wars Book Reviews, including Last Shot, Bloodline, Lost Stars, and the first two in the Aftermath trilogy


A year and a half ago, I decided that I was going to attempt to read all of the Star Wars books that fall under the newly defined canon. When Disney bought Lucasfilm, they wisely decided to abandoned the Expanded Universe of books and stories in order to give themselves a clean slate for their new films. I read dozens and dozens and dozens of EU books when I was a kid, and I loved how they either continued the story of the original trilogy, expanded on aspects of the universe we’d only glimpsed before, or introduced entirely new characters and locations to follow along their own path. But I eventually ran out of steam as I got older, and couldn’t keep up with the multitude of books in many different time periods that expanded more quickly than I could read them. But Disney placed all of the old books under the “Legends” label, and started from scratch with a new canon and a Lucasfilm Story Team to oversee continuity, and I realized the time was ripe for me to jump back in. I originally wanted to read them all in release order, but after a few books I decided to balance things out a little better to give myself some variety, and also to free myself up to jump ahead for tie-in books for new movies. I’m now working on my 15th Star Wars book over the last 18 months (I have read other things too), so I thought I’d take some time and review what I’ve written. There’s a lot of variety here in terms of writing style, tone, and time periods in which these stories are set. Some of them I absolutely loved, while others were more disappointing or simply not my type of book. Hopefully this can provide a little guidance to those who might want to jump into the new Star Wars books, or to those who have read some and are considering others. These are listed in the order I read them, so certain books that go together, like the Aftermath series, are not listed together. Once you’ve checked out my reviews, drop me a comment to let me know what you’ve thought of the new Star Wars canon books, which are your favorites, and any that I haven’t read yet that you’d recommend!

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An open letter of thanks to the artists who helped me over the last year to process my son’s death

To the artists who have helped me so much in the last year following my son’s death,

I’ve written a lot of fan mail over the years, lavishing praise on actors, directors, and musicians and occasionally begging for an autograph. But over the past year I’ve had a more pressing reason to write to a variety of artists. One year ago today, our son Luke died, and my amazing and inspirational wife gave birth to him two days later. I’ve written about Luke a couple of times, both as a form of release or to relate a special experience, but this letter is for something different altogether. It’s to thank the artists who helped me through this journey with their art. Some of this art is new, some of it is older. Some of it helped generally in ways that are probably very common those who have lost a loved one, while some of it helped me specifically when others might have passed it by.

My wife and I received help, love, and support from so many people in our lives, and I hope they all know how much they have meant to us. Our parents, family, and friends have visited, our church and pastors have prayed with and for us, our extended communities both local and online have reached out, and our support group (the MISS Foundation) has been exactly what we needed. No thank you letter could ever express how much debt we owe to and gratitude we have for those many, wonderful people in our lives, even as our journey continues with the birth of Luke’s little brother in three months.

But this is a pop culture blog and this is a thank you of a different sort. This is for those who have carried me along without even knowing it. This is for the love and support you showed me through your art. So thank you. I can only hope that this open letter somehow finds some of you so you can know the impact your works have had. And perhaps other people like me will find their own healing through the arts, and share their own healing, so we can all feel the power that art can have on the soul.

To Lin-Manuel Miranda

I’m sure you hear from people all the time who were inspired in a variety of ways by Hamilton. We gave our son, Luke, the middle name of Alexander, and while I can’t honestly say that he was directly named after either the founding father or the version of Hamilton you wrote and played onstage, I’d be lying if I said that your play was not on my mind when the name occurred to me. I even imagined singing to him “Lucas Alexander Smith. Your name is Lucas Alexander Smith. And there are a million things you haven’t done, but just you wait, just you wait.” Instead, the line that kept popping up in my mind as I watched my wife sleep while we waited for the induction meds to take effect so she could give birth to our stillborn son was “We are going through the unimaginable.” Along with lines from Beauty and the Beast and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, it was a recurring, unintentional phrase that played over and over in my head, and it helped capture the shock we were both dealing with. Our son, Luke, had challenges we knew he would be facing, including heart irregularities, a cleft lip and palate, and a genetic microdeletion, but we were prepared to face those challenges head on with strength and love, and we were ready to give everything to him. And in dealing with those challenges we faced a lot of fears, including the fear that we might lose him. But we still never could have imagined what it would actually be like to be told he was gone. Oddly, despite having listened to Hamilton countless times (though we have yet to see it onstage), my brain didn’t even register the opening lyrics of “It’s Quiet Uptown” until days or weeks later. “There are moments that the words don’t reach, there is suffering too terrible to name, you hold your child as tight as you can and push away the unimaginable.” It’s a line I can no longer hear or think about without vividly remembering holding Luke’s body as tightly as I could, giving him all of the love, hugs, and kisses that I could in the short time we could hold him before he was taken away. I knew firsthand how “It feels easier to just swim down” into my grief.

But “It’s Quiet Uptown” is as much a song of healing as it is of grief. The Hamiltons learn to live with the unimaginable, and we have, too. It’s a constant, ongoing struggle, but like Alexander we pray, we talk to our son, and we’ve learned to appreciate the quiet moments together. My wife and I have found a new strength in ourselves and in each other, and the “grace too powerful to name” has touched us both. And as we’re now expecting our second little boy, due in June, I am once again able to listen to Hamilton with the same joy that it first brought me, but now with a greater appreciation for the story of Alexander and Eliza. Thank you for “It’s Quiet Uptown,” which helped me put words to a grief and a feeling I was unable to articulate on my own, and which helped remind me that healing, connection, and forgiveness are equally part of the story.

To Alan MenkenTim Rice, and Emma Watson

2017’s live-action version of Beauty and the Beast was released a week before our son’s original due date, and the weekend before his scheduled induction. We didn’t know if he would come early and we would be unable to see it, but Luke managed to wait and allowed us to see the film in the theater that Saturday. It was the last movie we got to see with our son. Luke loved music, and would kick whenever the choir at our church would sing or during a song would start during a musical on stage. His love of music is one of the few things we got to know about him before he died, and so the memory of our last movie together being a musical is particularly special. But in the days we spent in the hospital after his death and before his birth, one particular refrain from Beauty and the Beast echoed in my head, much as lines from Hamilton did. In the new song “Days in the Sun,” Belle listens to the enchanted objects in the Beast’s castle sing in hope and longing of the day when they’ll be human again and can feel the sun on their faces, and replies in song, “How in the midst of all this sorrow can so much hope and love endure?” I heard that line over and over again in the sleepless nights in the hospital, but while Belle sang it marveling at the positive outlook of those around her despite their cursed situation, to me it felt more like a question of myself. How could I keep hope and love alive in spite of my overwhelming sorrow? It seemed impossible, but that line evolved for me into a reminder of the importance of hope and love in the midst of sorrow, and it has allowed the film as a whole to hold an even more special place in my heart because it was a moment of love and hope in our lives and our time with Luke. It wasn’t until later that I fully appreciated that the line is actually sung to a different tune, that of “How Does a Moment Last Forever,” a song that’s all about how holding onto the love we have allows stories and moments to live on even after those we love have left us. It’s a struggle for Belle throughout the story, but Maurice’s words as he sings to himself early in the film hold the key, and embody the ways in which I try to keep Luke’s memory alive. “How does a moment last forever? How can a story never die? It is love we must hold onto, never easy, but we try. Sometimes our happiness is captured, somehow a time and place stand still. Love lives on inside our hearts, and always will.” Thank you for giving us a film that provided one final special memory with our son, as well as a song and a story that helped me remember that love can be found in even the most sorrowful of places and the love we hold onto is our way of keeping Luke’s story alive.

To Joss Whedon

I’m sure you get tired of people telling you how much “The Body” meant to them. My wife and I are longtime fans of your various works, and regularly watch and love all of your shows. Given the number of times we’ve watched Buffy, it shouldn’t have been any surprise to me that “The Body” would be on my mind through those long days and nights in the hospital, but I was still struck by how much truth you captured in that heartbreaking and iconic episode. Beyond the fact that I kept hearing Tara’s voice in my head saying “It’s always sudden,” there were so many moments from the episode that in many ways prepared me to deal with death for the first time, if only in such a way that things that might otherwise have caught me off guard instead felt strangely familiar. The bizarre relationship with food, and the way getting something to eat or drink seems like the thing to do to “help” when simultaneously you feel like you’ll never want to eat again. There’s the obsession with things like clothes that don’t really matter, the unexpected outbursts of anger or confusion, and ridiculous things like paperwork, all while the spectre of a dead body hangs over everything. Of course, our son was and is more than a dead body. But while plenty of stories deal with death, loss, and grief, “The Body” deals with the parts of death in America that so rarely are discussed. And while the episode is not a guide, it prepared me for so many of those details and oddities that get lost in the larger picture of the death of a loved one. I had never fully understood the brilliance of the episode before a year ago. Thank you for your beautiful, brutal, and honest look at the ways we respond to death, and thank you for all of your art through the years that has inspired and entertained so many.

To Sir David Attenborough and the crew of BBC’s Planet Earth series

My wife and I are huge fans of the Planet Earth series, and my wife even worked with a BBC crew here in Tucson during filming of the Harris’s Hawks sequence in the “Deserts” episode of Planet Earth 2. She has an animal science degree and a love of animals, having worked in wildlife rehab and at a zoo. Many women pick a show they can watch during middle-of-the-night feedings before their child is born, and my wife planned on bingeing the various BBC nature shows hosted by Sir Attenborough. We already had the various DVDs and Blu-Rays stacked up and ready by the television and ready to go. When we got home from the hospital without our son, we found ourselves with far more time on our hands than we had ever planned for. We had family come to visit, originally planned to see Luke and help us out in the first weeks of caring for him, but the most oppressive moments were those where we sat alone in our quiet house. I was home from work, using the vacation time I had saved up for Luke’s birth, and while we had the time to catch up on all sorts of things we had wanted or needed to do we didn’t have the energy or enthusiasm for them. So without anything else to do, I popped inPlanet Earth, knowing full well that it might be a huge mistake and could reinforce what we were missing. Instead, it brought us an immeasurable amount of comfort. The beautiful images of nature were calming, as was Sir Attenborough’s soothing voice. The many stories of plants and animals across our planet dealing with the harsh realities of life and death helped to give us some perspective, and my wife’s physical recovery and our emotional recoveries went much smoother because of it. The BBC’s nature documentaries are always engaging, educational, and simply gorgeous to look at, but they now have a special place in our hearts for helping us through such a rough time in our lives. I don’t know how we would have gotten through those first weeks without them. And now we have Blue Planet 2 for my wife to watch with Luke’s little brother in a few months!

To Jed WhedonMaurissa TancharoenJeffrey Bell, and Henry Simmons

My wife and I have been fans of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. since the beginning. I used to write recaps on this site, but moves to later timeslots and just a general lack of time eventually brought that to an end. Luke died and was born right before the final story arc of season 4, which found our heroes trapped in “the framework,” an alternate reality like the Matrix, where most of the main characters were living different lives due to one change from their past. It was a fun storyline, allowing the actors to play variations of the characters we’d come to love, but the story that really hit us was that of Mack. In the show’s real world, Mack had lost his daughter, Hope, four days after she was born, years before he joined the team. Inside the framework Hope was still alive, and he never knew any reality other than the one in which he’d watch his daughter growing up. He ends up joining the resistance against the forces of HYDRA within the framework, but he never fully accepts that the reality he believes is true is actually a fabrication, and he refuses to return to the real world. Even once he comes to realize the framework is a lie, he still would rather live in a fake world than live in a real world without Hope. It was an emotional storyline, wonderfully written and acted by Henry Simmons, but it wasn’t until my wife pointed out how much she could relate to Mack’s feelings that it really dawned on me what I was watching. Suddenly I realized I knew exactly how he felt, and I would have happily accepted a fantasy world if it meant I could have had Luke back and watched him grow up into a happy kid. I’m sure if someone had offered us a framework we would have hooked ourselves up to it without hesitation. But Mack’s story was cathartic, too, because he eventually was left with no choice but to head back to the real world and face the truth that Hope is gone. But in doing so he rediscovered his feelings for Elena (Yo-Yo), and in doing so he found that he still had the capacity to love and to have hope for the future, even while morning the loss of his Hope. It was both imminently relatable to us and our feelings about Luke, but also was a reminder that there still are things to live for beyond the fantasies we create for ourselves. And now, here we are, expecting our second child in a few months. So thank you to the entire SHIELD team for both an amazing show and for telling the story we needed to hear at just the right time.

To James Gunn

I (intermittently) write about movies. They’re one of my passions. I spent much of my wife’s pregnancy with Luke viewing being a father through the prism of movies. I enjoyed every movie we got to see with him while my she was pregnant, both at home and in the theater. I wondered what the last movie would be that we’d watch before his birth (for a while we did a marathon of movies from the year we were born), and what the first movie would be that we’d watch with him after his birth. I imagined when we might first go to the movie theater as a family, probably to a Disney or Pixar film. And as I said above, we hoped he wouldn’t be born before we could see Beauty and the Beast in the theater. Once Luke died, there was little that was as unappealing as going to the movies. But we’re big fans of the MCU, and the first Guardians of the Galaxy in particular, so it was with an enormous amount of trepidation that we bought our tickets for Vol. 2, our first movie after months of grieving. But your movie ended up being a personal milestone for me, despite the mild panic attack I had as the lights dimmed and the trailers began. It showed me not only that it was ok to laugh again, but that I was actually capable of laughter. It showed me that I could survive a story about fathers and sons, about love and loss. It even had an adorable baby Groot that brought me joy when I feared it would cause me pain. By constantly making the unexpected choice, and by willfully disregarding expectations at every turn, your movie helped to remind me that I’m not beholden to anyone else’s idea of how I should act or who I should be. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2was a huge first step for me along my path of grief and recovery, as silly as that may sound. It showed me that I could love movies again, and for that it will always have a special place in my heart. Thank you for giving my passion back to me.

To Brad BirdDamon Lindelof, and Jeff Jensen

I’ve written a lot about Tomorrowland. (I’ve also annoyed writer Jeff Jensen on Twitter enough that I’m shocked he hasn’t blocked me.) It’s one of my all-time favorite movies, and it’s one of those rare works of art that feels like it was made specifically for me. It’s message of weary yet determined optimism, resonated with me more strongly than almost any work of fiction I’ve ever encountered. But after Luke died, optimism was in short supply, and I wondered if I would ever have that feeling again. It was a long while before I was able to watch Tomorrowland again, despite having a digital copy downloaded on my phone at all times so I can carry it around with me, like I do with my Tomorrowland pin. I feared not only an adverse reaction to it, but also that it would simply have lost the connection that made it special to me. Casey’s crucial, defiant question, “Don’t we, like, make our own destiny and stuff?” might now ring hollow as I’ve experienced firsthand that not everything can be controlled. I needn’t have worried, though. Tomorrowland still touches the special place in my heart that no other movie has, no matter how broken my heart might be. In a large part it’s because Tomorrowland’s brand of optimism is colored by an acknowledgment of the state of the world, to show that optimism is easy when everything is bring and sunny, but it’s much harder when there is seemingly no light to be found. It’s in those moments of darkness that we’re called to be the light we want to see in the world, no matter how much easier it might seem to just give in. I still believe that in every moment there is the possibility of a better future, and I’m still and optimist. So thank you for making Tomorrowland, a movie can still remind me to feed the right wolf.

(As a side note, before Luke was born I pledged to myself that every month after he was born I would give a donation in his honor to a charity or group who are fighting to make the world the sort of place in which we wanted him to grow up. Despite Luke’s death, I carried on with that plan, though now in his memory, and it has helped me to focus on the light in the world, about the thousands of optimists out there feeding the right wolf.)

To Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina

I was really worried about Coco. I’d been looking forward to the film, as I do with all Pixar releases, for years, but after Luke died I wasn’t sure how well I’d be able to handle a story so focused on death. I fully expected it to be uplifting, as almost all Pixar films are, but the theme and the setting could have been massive triggers for me. Instead, Coco was supremely comforting in ways I had not anticipated. Coco’s version of the afterlife, inspired by the beautiful Mexican culture and beliefs that are always nearby here close to the border in Arizona, was not a sad, frightening specter to haunt my dreams, but was surprisingly full of life. The skeletal forms of Miguel’s departed family are not tormented souls but are instead very much the people they were when they were alive, with the same love and concerns that they carried in life. Coco’s afterlife was vibrant and welcoming to Miguel, even if it was bizarre. But what sticks with me the most today is the importance of memory. We have so very few memories of Luke, and I have even fewer than my wife, who had the privilege and pain of carrying him for nine months. But I remember his love of music (another theme from Coco), and the way he would kick and dance during songs at church or in the theater. I remember the joy of watching him at the ultrasound appointments, even as we came to realize some of the challenges he was facing. And I remember holding his body in my arms and looking at his beautiful face, even as I knew his spirit had moved on to a better place. I remember Luke, and through that memory he lives on, much as Coco’s memory of her father keeps his spirit alive in the afterlife. But there is another side to “Remember Me,” the Oscar-winning song from the film. There’s the hope that Luke’s spirit will remember me despite how little time we had together, and that he will be waiting for me when I reach the other side, much as Miguel’s family waits and watches, taking joy in the lives of those still living. Coco reminds us that death is not the end, and that those who have died are not truly gone but instead they share in our lives as though they were right beside us, listening to us sing. That thought and feeling helps me to keep Luke’s memory in my heart, and I thank you for giving me Coco as a reminder.

To Rian Johnson and Mark Hamill

As much as I worried about Coco, I positively dreaded Star Wars: The Last Jedi, despite my excitement for the next film in the saga. The prospect of hearing my son’s name spoken over and over onscreen, and watching the continuing story of the character (or at least one of) that he was named after, made me a bit of a nervous wreck. I’m already on record as loving The Last Jedi, and I even wrote a separate piece from my review that went into my feelings on how the film used Luke Skywalker so magnificently. But in the months since its release, I’m continually struck by how well The Last Jedi captures my current feelings about our Luke. Both Lukes met an ending that no one expected or even wanted. But those endings were not really the end of their stories, because just as our Luke lives through us and our need to tell his story and remember him, Luke Skywalker lives on through the Force and the impact his deeds had on that galaxy far, far away. The impact of a life is not measured in minutes or in victories, but in the way we allow that life to bring meaning to our own. I was inspired enough by Luke Skywalker to (partially) name my son after him, and I am inspired by our Luke to continue to live my life to the fullest and pass on that inspiration to his little brother. And much like Luke Skywalker learns the futility of cutting himself off from the universe, I have learned that I have more to gain and more to contribute by being a part of the world instead of turning away. It’s easy, in grief or in anger, to run or to hide, and sometimes we have to do that for our own protection. But that can and should never be the end of the story. We owe it to each other, to ourselves, and most importantly to the ones we love to step back out again, to risk the pain, and to find a way to make a difference. Stories have all kinds of different endings, and the world doesn’t always oblige us by giving us the one we imagined. But the power of a story doesn’t lie in its perfectly clean and happy ending, but instead in its ability to grow beyond itself and inspire others. It’s one of the metaphors of The Last Jedi, and it’s a truth I’ve found in the story of our own little Luke. The impact our son has had on our lives is so much more vast than the short time we had with him, and through us our Luke will continue to be a force for good on those around us. In that way, much like Luke Skywalker is now one with the Force and inspiring the galaxy, our son lives on in the lives of those he touched. So thank you, Rian and Mark, for giving me a story featuring one of my favorite characters that was exactly what I needed, which helped me to give voice to my own journey.

With love and appreciation for all of the artists out there who make a difference in the world and in the lives of those experience your works,

Love and Thanks,

Josh Smith

Let’s talk about Luke, and other spoiler-filled thoughts on Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Our son’s name is Luke. I have a ring I wear at all times with his name on it in his memory after he was stillborn nine months ago. And while there were plenty of Luke’s that could have, and did, inspire our son’s name (including the Biblical Luke as well as Lukes Danes and Kuechly), I’d be lying if I said he wasn’t named after Luke Skywalker. It was such an obvious name choice for me that it was set in my mind long before I ever met my wife, and despite never discussing it my best friend still accurately guessed it before we made the name public. My point in all of this is so that when I say that Luke Skywalker is my favorite character from anything I have ever watched, read, seen, or experienced, you understand the depth of what I mean. I’d pick Luke Skywalker over the countless characters who have meant so much to me, from Atticus Finch to Data, more than Hermione, Neville, and Luna, beyond River Tam or Buffy Summers, past even WALL-E or Casey Newton. Luke Skywalker helped me through some of the most difficult times in my life, through depression and isolation. He taught me about storytelling, sparked my love of movies and fanned the flames of my love of reading. So needless to say I had a lot of fear going into Star Wars: The Last Jedi over how my favorite character and my son’s namesake would be treated and used. Ultimately, directory Rian Johnson made a completely different choice than I would have at every possible turn, and the result was a bold, thrilling, adventure that advanced Star Wars in unexpected ways filled with new depths. But I have many, many thoughts to wrestle out with regards to Luke Skywalker that simply couldn’t be discussed in a spoiler-free review. So read on for a more in-depth SPOILER-FILLED look at not only Luke’s story but other aspects of The Last Jedi worthy of discussion.


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Spoiler-Free Review: Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Star Wars: The Last Jedi is the film that finally allowed me to be at peace with the new trilogy of Star Wars movies. There was a lot that I loved about The Force Awakens two years ago. I thought the new cast of characters were all compelling, particularly Rey and Finn. I enjoyed seeing the old favorites back, I appreciated the way it tried to honor the films that came before, and generally found it to be both a fun ride and an emotional experience. At the same time, there were a number of things in The Force Awakens that did not sit well with me, which ultimately served as distractions from the experience. I felt its tone was inconsistent and its humor occasionally felt forced or like it didn’t fit stylistically within the greater Star Wars saga. It occasionally felt too much like fan fiction (and I don’t mean that as a compliment), and it tried too hard to try to distance itself from the prequels. It also was far too much of a remake of A New Hope, which is not a huge deal for me the way it is for other people but which felt kind of lazy. Most of all, it bothered me that they were continuing the main series of films without George Lucas, and in fact intentionally disregarding any plans he might have had for them. I understand why they did it, but The Force Awakens did not justify these new uncharted waters they were sailing. (On the other hand, I 100% love Rogue One, even if its characters aren’t nearly as strong as those in The Force Awakens.)

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All of the trailers and TV spots for Star Wars: The Force Awakens (with screencaps)


By this point, every glimpse, shot, or tidbit of Star Wars: The Force Awakens we’ve seen thus far has been analyzed, dissected, and picked apart by anyone and everyone in the hopes of finding all of the clues to unlocking the story’s secrets. I’ve talked enough about my concerns about The Force Awakens as well as my feelings about how the film has been treated by the general populace, and I’m not going to go into that any more now. But I thought it’d be fun to take a look back at all of the trailers released for the film thus far with an eye not to solving all of the mysteries but instead looking at the larger picture. What I love most about trailers is the way they can evoke emotions with just a few images, a handful of musical notes, or the slightest bit of context. So let’s take it from the top with the very first trailer for The Force Awakens, which conveyed quite a lot from very little.

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