Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker is a film that’s, if you’ll pardon the pun, at war with itself. It has next to no central identity defining its existence. Instead, what we have is a desperate attempt to try and bridge the fan division agitated by the Release of Episode VIII: The Last Jedi (2017). It’s a self-conscious attempt to apologise to Rian Johnson’s critics, while also attempting to charm his admirers. The final result is a remarkably clumsy production that manages to ruffle the feathers of both camps. In an ironic twist of fate, director J.J Abrams has managed to finally unite all corners of Star Wars fandom. Problem is, he’s united them against his own movie.
The promotional material for this feature was nothing short of astonishing, that I cannot deny. What we were sold during the trailers leading up to this release was a heart-wrenching farewell, in which four decades of storytelling wrapped itself up in a neat little bow. In a year in which Avengers: End Game (2019) managed to deliver one of the most spectacular send offs to a franchise that both wrapped things up and prepared itself for its own future, it wasn’t difficult to envision a version of Star Wars which did the same with the Skywalker Saga. Yet all the jaw dropping moments from the trailer, including Rey turning to the dark side as well as CP30 saying farewell to his friends, amounted to feature that flipflopped between plot twists in a bid to be both revolutionary and safe all at the same time.
Chewie dies! Except it’s revealed he’s alive in the following scene. Rey becomes a Sith! But only in a dream sequence that has nothing to do with the film’s final. Palpatine lives! However the explanation for how he climbed out of an exploding reactor in deep space is anyone’s guess. Kylo is supreme leader after slaying his master! But he’s also blindly following orders from Palpatine for most of the film. Oh, and that CP30 farewell? Lasts a couple of scenes before his memory is returned to him and he’s completely fine. Each and every one of these scenes flirts with the idea of trying something new, yet it wimps out at the last second, handwaving away any potential shift in the plot before it has time to take the story anywhere.
In actual fact, this movie can be seen as a natural knee jerk reaction to any radical attempt to change the direction of a given story. After all, this is the sequel to The Last Jedi, a film that quite aggressively attempted to tear down the established order in favour of building something entirely new. Everything about this film screams of a creative team apologetically trying to rebuild everything to look exactly how it did before Johnson took a wrecking ball to the project. Every now and then, as they rebuild their pre-Last Jedi temple, Abrams and writer Chris Terrio imply they might re-fashion a couple of doors in a different fashion, before panicking at the last second and making it as it stood the last time around.
The introduction of Palpatine feeds into this theme of apologetic flipflopping laced through Rise of Skywalker. On the one hand, his presence is to try and undo the death of Snoke last around. The introduction of the new Supreme Leader in The Force Awakens (2015) intrigued fans a lot more than the likes of Rian Johnson assumed when making his follow up episode. Speculation as to whether or not he was a key player from the Empire’s past became a frequent point of discussion when discussing the mystery of this antagonist. When he was written off as a disposable baddy in favour of shifting the focus onto Kylo, however, the reaction wasn’t pleasant. The moment of Snoke’s death is considered the final nail in the coffin for a sizeable chunk of Star Wars fans. It severed the sequel trilogies connection from the wider Saga’s legacy, attempting to move the story into alien territory for its final outing. Bringing Palpatine back into the mix retroactively stitches this departure back together again. “Of course Snoke has ties with the Skywalker Saga” declares the creative team, “he’s a Palpatine puppet!”.
Palpatine’s restoration is an attempt to not displease the fans who didn’t care for Snoke as a pre-existing character (don’t worry, he’s only a puppet), whilst also trying to impress those fans who wanted him to be connected to the previous two trilogies (but he’s Palpatine’s puppet!). As is the case with most attempts to please both factions, the finished products only serves to agitate everyone. It doesn’t work, and not because it’s a terrible idea in and of itself (in some respects, it’s actually quite a clever way to make him both a returning and new character) but because it’s thrown in at the 11th hour in a series that’s had absolutely no intention of bringing Palpatine back. This was a decision made by Abrams and Terrio when they came aboard following Colin Trevorrow’s sacking from the project back in 2018. There’s no foreshadowing, no build up, and no logic to suddenly make Palpatine the big bad. Episode VII made Snoke the overarching villain, Episode VIII transitioned that status to Kylo, then Episode IX has it suddenly be Palpatine. His inclusion is an attempt to appease fans, giving him next to no purpose other than retrofitting the Snoke decision that turned out to be a complete waste of time, what with them not doing anything with the whole Supreme Kylo story arc.
All of this hints at a bigger problem, however, one which stems beyond the scope of this film alone. Though this is a complete mess of a product that commits an overly apologetic u-turn at the moment when it’s supposed to be delivering a dramatic final, it’s a problem caused by a trilogy that had no defining plan when it entered production back in 2012.
I wanted to approach this essay with at least something redemptive to say about this feature. I hate speaking negatively about anyone’s movies, particularly if that movie belongs to a franchise that I adore. Real people worked on Rise of Skywalker, all of who worked tirelessly to bring this to life. For those people to see their work getting dragged through the mud can’t be a pleasant experience. I’m absolutely certain J.J Abrams and Chris Terrio will never see any of the words I’ve written about their work, but that doesn’t mean I want to bad mouth them just for the heck of it. And while I have very little to say about the film that’s positive, I think it’s fair to say that they are not solely to blame for the disaster of this production.
To consider the position they found themselves in, we need to take a look at the state of Lucasfilm at the time in which this went into production. The Last Jedi had just initiated a civil war amongst Star Wars fans, bringing out the utmost worse in fan culture. While the internet was tearing itself apart screaming over whether it was a masterpiece or insult to the Skywalker Saga, spin-off feature Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018) was taking a kicking at the box office. Disney’s vision of turning Star Wars into a multi-movie empire resembling their highly successful Marvel Studios branch was quickly turning into a failed dream.
Lucasfilm was in crisis, so much so, the decision to pull all upcoming cinematic releases so they could return to the drawing board quickly became a reality. In the midst of all the chaos, director Colin Trevorrow, who was originally hired to wrap up the saga, found himself booted from the project. With no direction, no confidence, and no concrete ideas on the table, the conclusion to the highly anticipate sequel trilogy had no ending. Whoever would be hired to take over from where Trevorrow left off would have to both come up with an ending to a story that had no vision, all while satisfy a studio in a state of calamity. They’d be a train driver with no rails, a pilot with no wings, a general with no battalion.
J.J Abrams may well have been the most logical replacement, what with him having already directed a successful opener to the sequel trilogy, yet the fact he’d never had an ending in mind when originally coming aboard the project in 2015 meant he was just as ill-suited as any other potential hire. He was given an impossible job. Wrap up both a trilogy as well as an entire saga, then do what you can to get all the fans singing from the same hymn sheet. He was expected to juggle a heap load of plates without being given any time to learn the art of plate spinning. The same goes for Chris Terrio. Though Terrio has a bad track record with writing for tentpole blockbuster franchises, it’s hard to pin the blame solely on him for this. He had just as difficult a job as Abrams, being asked to come up with a story that had way too much expectation to deliver upon.
Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker is a lesson in storytelling. It is proof that if you want to construct a trilogy that tells a coherent story which simultaneously functions to wrap up a decades old franchise, you can’t just wing it and hope for the best. When The Force Awakens hit theatres four-years ago, we were sold the promise of a grand masterplan. Mysteries were raised, characters were thrust into new predicaments, and members of the old guard prepared to pass the torch on to a new generation of fresh faced heroes. While the Force Awakens built a promise, The Last Jedi intended to pull the rug from beneath our feat. It told us to forget what we thought we knew, and expect an impossible outcome. For some, this was a deal breaker. For others, it was the promise of something more exciting. Rise of Skywalker reveals a terrible truth about both its predecessors; neither belonged to anything resembling a vision. They were stories with no answers. Attempts to entertain, but never to pay off. While I still love the Last Jedi in isolation for reasons I’ve already discussed in my previous review, the fact it belongs to a larger story that improvises itself into a corner makes all of this feel like a colossal waste of time.
Though it’s certainly possible to create a satisfactory trilogy by improvising – as was the case with the original Star Wars trilogy – this is a gamble that rarely fosters great results. For all the animosity aimed toward this film, perhaps the one thing Disney can take away from this is not to promise audiences something they’re unsure they can deliver. If they want to make a trilogy, great, but perhaps plan ahead next time. Likewise, if they want to create a series of standalone films that do their own thing, that’s also great, but perhaps next time, try not to frame those individual movies as part of a bigger story if no overarching plan exists. Just have them do their own thing and wrap them up on their own accord. That way, the studio won’t wind up in a position where they’re dashing about the place trying to tidy up a calamity of their own creation.
Rise of Skywalker is a letdown, one that tries helplessly to fix a problem that could have only been fixed prior to 2015. This is not the fault of J.J Abrams, nor is it the fault of Chris Terrio. It’s a project with more scope than vision. It’s extremely likely the franchise will survive this failure, yet at the time of its release, it’s all too easy to see this as a catastrophe with no outcome. All we can do now is return to our homes, pop on Disney Plus, and remind ourselves that there’s still hope in projects such as The Mandalorian, which is currently delivering some of the best Star Wars content we’ve had in years. This franchise will very likely flourish on the silver screen again someday. Perhaps for the time being, however, it’s fruitful fate may life on the small screen.