Since the release of the ninth installment of the Star Wars franchise, fans have been rather upset with many of the choices made by director J. J. Abrams. From how character arcs ended to a rather polarizing kiss, The Rise of Skywalker is contentious, to say the least. But in the discussion of all of its shortcomings, there is a component that has gone overlooked: its use of body horror.
While The Rise of Skywalker is by no means a horror movie, elements of the genre are utilized in scenes on the Sith planet, Exegol. These moments speak to the broader horrific implications around the Sith, who believe in doing whatever is necessary to achieve power and domination of the galaxy. That also includes the control of other bodies and the removal of bodily autonomy as a way of enforcing that control. Importantly, when I am discussing this topic, I will only be looking at the nine Star Wars films and not into the extended universe.
Body horror is a subgenre of horror that, unsurprisingly, deals with the body. It is centered on the destruction of the human form through usually disgusting and unnatural ways. It is a subgenre that calls attention to the malleability of human flesh, how delicate it is, and how it can change. This doesn’t always result in death; it can also result in monstrous forms that retain some humanity. Prominent examples of body horror include John Carpenter’s The Thing, David Cronenberg’s The Fly, and Ridley Scott’s Alien.
The Sith have always had a penchant for body horror, as seen in characters such as Darth Vader and Emperor Snoke. Vader himself is a walking cybernetic nightmare, a gravely injured human body fitted with mechanical parts to elongate his life and ensure his ability to continue terrorizing the galaxy. His helmet and black suit hide both the body horror and his humanity, though his loud breathing indicates something is amiss. When his face is finally revealed, it is pale, scarred, and covered with a special respiratory device. Vader is a prime example of the Sith warping the human body into something strange and monstrous while still preserving some semblance of personhood.
This continues in The Rise of Skywalker as we are showed Exegol, where these body horrors are being committed. While previous Star Wars films have hinted at and briefly shown instances of such body horror, this film confronts it head-on. Cloned bodies of Snoke float in large cylinders. Hooded, faceless beings wander throughout this demented laboratory as if waiting for the next demented experiment. It is almost reminiscent of Stuart Gordon’s 1985 film ReAnimator, where a mad scientist performs increasingly demented experiments of living organisms.
Not only is the visual of multiple Snokes unnerving — he was supposedly killed in The Last Jedi — but continues to indirectly address the horrors of cloning. While cloning may at first not seem to be classified as body horror, it is perhaps one of the most violating forms of such. Cloning, as seen throughout Star Wars, takes the human body and replicates it seemingly forever to serve a devious purpose, such as the Clone Army from the second Star Wars film, Attack of the Clones. The outcome of cloning Snoke is never shown, but the implications of such an act infiltrate the mind. Palpatine even snarls, “I made Snoke.” Was Snoke always a clone, a puppet of Palpatine? Or was his death merely taken advantage of? Knowing the Sith, it is most likely the former.
Then there is Palpatine himself, something that was once human but has been warped due to the effects of the Dark Side. While he orchestrates the domination of the galaxy, he is connected to whirring machines that seem to be prolonging his life. To put it simply, he’s old. He’s seen in every trilogy in various forms of decay, but he has always been there as a dark and commandeering force. Now, while still the master of it all, his body is rendered practically immobile. As the leader of the Sith, he has sacrificed his human form in the name of “progress.” He is an uncanny creature, something that resembles a human in flesh but upon further inspection is something else entirely.
Palpatine’s radical bodily shift is shown at the film’s end as he descends upon a sprawling throne room on a strange and massive mechanical arm. This scene seems to draw direct influence from the Alien franchise, both in the strange, ancient technology and the massive dark arena setting that is surrounded by countless statues and indecipherable carvings. It creates a feeling of dread; something almost incomprehensible is coming and it wants to destroy the human body.
The mechanical arm, which serves as an extension of Palpatine himself, further exemplifies the lengths he and the Sith have gone to in the name of evil. He has chosen to relinquish control over his own body and replace that with mechanical and chemical means of survival. While there is an aspect of choice in such a decision, he no longer has control over his own body. There is something terrifying about a person purposefully making such a choice in the name of some greater power. It is not unlike the transformation seen in David Cronenberg’s The Fly. While it is a science experiment gone wrong, it is done by Jeff Goldblum’s character in the name of science.
Despite its issues with narrative and character-building, it is impressive how The Rise of Skywalker chooses to lean into the world of body horror in the final installment of the trilogy. Star Wars has often skirted the boundary of discussing the implications of bodily autonomy and transforming the human (or alien) body, especially as it pertains to the Dark Side and cloning. So it is refreshing to see it more directly addressed, especially under the control of Disney. Through the reemergence of Palpatine, Abrams was able to dip his toes into the world of horror and paint a disturbing and unnerving picture of the power of the Sith.