The Rise of Skywalker Ends the Great Star Wars Saga With Schizophrenic Confusion
You can’t please everyone. In a nutshell, this defines all Star Wars films made after the first trilogy. The prequels were announced a little over 20 years ago to much hype and excitement. As huge Star Wars fans, my friend and I joked that Episode I could just be two hours of George Lucas’ hairy ass onscreen and we would all be happy. We were all so hungry for more Star Wars that news of the prequels sent our fanboy anticipation into overdrive. We all know what happened, of course. Jar Jar Binks, Midichlorians, and an altogether bad story effectively doused cold water on an entire fandom’s collective excitement for the franchise.
Actor Jake Lloyd, who played the young Anakin Skywalker, said that his life was a “living hell” after the Phantom Menace, as his peers constantly taunted and bullied him for his role. Ahmed Best, who played Jar Jar Binks, received death threats and was driven to the point of considering suicide. Even Academy Award winner Natalie Portman has gone on record to say that the Star Wars prequels nearly killed her career, as no director wanted to work with her after the trilogy.
Imagine the excitement of a disappointed fandom, then, when Lucas sold Lucasfilm and the entire Star Wars property to Disney for $4.05 billion in 2012. More stories set in the Star Wars universe without the creator of Jar Jar? Yes, please. A new trilogy set after Return of the Jedi? Gimme, gimme.
Except The Force Awakens didn’t quite capture the magic of the originals although it certainly tried. J.J. Abrams rehashed story beats from Episodes I and IV using new characters to make Star Wars feel familiar yet new at the same time. It was exciting but some fans complained that it was just a rehash of old films, with Starkiller Base simply a fancier Death Star and the First Order identical to the old Empire. Critics were not wrong.
Then came The Last Jedi. Disney brought on Looper director Rian Johnson, an extremely talented filmmaker, to bring his vision to Star Wars. The result was arguably the most divisive film in all of Star Wars’ storied history as Johnson effectively undid every single plot point that Abrams had set up in The Force Awakens. Film critics loved it, as Johnson subverted Star Wars storytelling into something completely new. “Let the past die,” Kylo Ren would tell Rey, but also winking at the audience to let go of everything they knew and loved about Star Wars and embrace his bold new direction.
Except many didn’t. If some fans disliked The Force Awakens for its familiarity, others hated the Last Jedi for its dismissal of the familiar. And just as the first trilogy effectively ruined the lives of some actors who were part of it, many of the cast of the new trilogy were victimized, as well. Kelly Marie Tran, who plays rebel Rose Tico, was bullied relentlessly to the point where she left social media. Daisy Ridley, who plays Rey, quit social media, as well, saying that fans could be vicious and mean. In fact, Lucas himself explained that he sold Star Wars because it was no longer fun and that people just kept telling him how terrible he was.
It is impossible to please everyone, and yet that’s what The Rise of Skywalker tries to do.
The Pretty Bad
In over 40 years and now the ninth film in the Skywalker saga, it’s become clearer and clearer that Star Wars has the most toxic fandom among all geeky franchises. No other fandom has attacked the creators and actors who’ve been part of the story they love with as much ferocity and viciousness as Star Wars fans. It isn’t going to get better with The Rise of Skywalker.
Put simply, Episode IX is a pretty bad film. It rushes to undo every subversive thing about The Last Jedi in the first 10 minutes. It’s a frenetic, disjointed montage that jumps from one scene to another that it’s jarring. The traditional opening scrawl immediately inserts Emperor Palpatine back into the story, as though Kylo Ren simply wasn’t a good enough villain to sustain the last arc of a nine-film saga. But Kylo Ren is actually a more nuanced villain than Darth Vader in many ways, his depth unfortunately undermined by not necessarily unfair comparisons to an entitled millennial. Although Palpatine is a nice nod to fans, he’s just one more checkbox in a list that seems tailor-made to appease fans who hated The Last Jedi.
I am one of those fans. Although I felt The Last Jedi was a technically impressive film, the way Johnson’s narrative abandoned the story threads laid out by The Force Awakens invalidated the first film, making it superfluous. Now Abrams has retaken the reins for The Rise of Skywalker, he effectively retcons everything that Johnson did and ironically undoes The Last Jedi the same way The Last Jedi undid The Force Awakens. As someone who hated Johnson’s subversive narrative, this was supposed to make me happy.
So why didn’t it?
One reason The Last Jedi was such a disappointment to me was because it felt like it wasted the excitement built over from the subplots of The Force Awakens. Waiting two years for Rey’s parentage, a major plot thread in Episode VII, only to be told it didn’t matter, or having the dramatic moment of Rey handing over the saber to Luke reduced to a punchline—all of it wiped away so much of what was important about The Force Awakens that it felt dismissive of what viewers cared about.
The Rise of Skywalker heads in the opposite direction so hard and so fast that you’ll get whiplash. It tries to cater to the lowest common denominator and, as a result, ends up being almost patronizing. But the problem isn’t simply with the fact Abrams undoes The Last Jedi but in the fact that it’s so poorly written and badly paced that it eschews good filmmaking for the sake of course correction.
The Kinda Good
That said, there are still some things to love about The Rise of Skywalker. Abrams turns up the magic of the Force to 11, effectively wiping any memories of midichlorians away. If Rey seemed powerful in the first two films, Abrams gives her even more abilities beyond anything we’ve ever seen. Rey is the most powerful force user we’ve ever seen on screen, something that will come in handy when up against the mysteriously resurrected Palpatine.
We pay a visit to the Sith homeworld of Exogal, where Palpatine has been plotting his return. He reveals himself to a furious Kylo Ren, taunting him—and indeed the audience—with the revelation that it was him pulling the strings from behind the scenes since The Force Awakens. Kylo Ren, now Supreme Leader after unceremoniously killing Snoke in the previous film, seeks him out with the intention of killing him and ensuring that he alone remains in control of his destiny.
The primary recurring theme in the Skywalker saga is destiny, from Anakin Skywalker being destined to bring balance to the Force, to Luke Skywalker being a new hope for the galaxy, and now to Kylo Ren aka Ben Skywalker, who believes he can finish what his grandfather was unable to. That destiny is complicated by Rey, an even more powerful Force user of unknown parentage, who appears to have a destiny of her own to fulfill. Fans who were let down by The Last Jedi’s dismissal of Rey’s lineage will find that Abrams has an answer for them. Whether or not it will be satisfactory is another matter altogether.
The Rise of Skywalker tries to please and appease all the angry fans while trying not to offend any new ones, taking as few risks as possible and covering it up with spectacle. To be fair, the spectacle is impressive, with new Force abilities twisting the laws of physics even more than ever and more ships and star destroyers than you can shake a lightsaber at.
And to be completely fair, once Abrams gets done cleaning up the mess Johnson made of his story from The Force Awakens, Episode IX actually manages to have a semblance of a story. The mysterious connection between Kylo Ren and Rey plays a huge part in determining the fate of the galaxy. With the film being the final chapter in the whole saga that’s taken 42 years to tell, it’s understandably loaded with so many things that it raises more questions than it answers.
If this was the conclusion Abrams had planned from the beginning, then Johnson’s interference needlessly complicated things. But Abrams needn’t have obviated everything Johnson had done, either. It’s clear that The Rise of Skywalker is the result of not having a clear plan about where to take the story. If there’s anything that can be said about Lucas, it’s that he had the story in his head all figured out before he even made the first Star Wars film. It’s the reason the whole saga began with Episode IV: A New Hope. Lucas figured if he only had the budget to do one film, he wanted it to be that chapter in the saga.
In what seems like an apology, Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy recently said that writing the new films was hard because there was no source material. Unlike other properties, she said Star Wars didn’t have books or stories to base from. She conveniently neglects the fact that there were numerous books written after Return of the Jedi that continued the story of Star Wars called the Expanded Universe. One of the first mandates of Disney when they acquired Lucasfilm was to junk the Expanded Universe, which disappointed many fans but was also the right decision in order to move the franchise forward.
It wouldn’t have been good to adapt the Expanded Universe, but for Kennedy to say that there was no source material only revealed that she and the rest of Disney are headless chickens who had absolutely no plan about where the franchise was headed. And it showed. Johnson and Abrams’ creative tug-of-war across three films gives the closing trilogy schizophrenia that confuses fans.
The Really Good
Because more than most other properties, Star Wars is about its fans. From the production of the prequels to the final moments of Episode IX, Star Wars has been all about trying to recapture the magic of the original trilogy for fans. Abrams tries to do this by bringing in as much fan service as possible, from Lando Calrissian to Wedge Antilles, Luke Skywalker’s X-Wing to Leia’s role as general of the resistance.
It’s a tall order to bring all of it to a close and there was simply no way Abrams would pull it off. There simply wasn’t a film after the first trilogy that satisfied everyone, and the Rise of Skywalker wasn’t going to break that tradition. What it does do, however, is finally close the chapter on the Skywalkers, readying the world for other tales set in the Star Wars universe such as The Mandalorian, which streams on Disney+.
Carrie Fisher is given an emotional sendoff, Abrams revealing that they shot enough footage of her before she passed away to give Leia a substantial arc in the final chapter. There are some truly emotional moments in The Rise of Skywalker, and there’s an overwhelming feeling of catharsis to know that we can all finally move on from this. Whether or not the ending satisfies anyone, it’s a courageous decision to finally say goodbye to the Skywalkers.
For that, Disney and George Lucas deserve our thanks. Regardless of however fans take the new trilogy, the only thing we must all feel is gratitude. Star Wars inspired and will continue to inspire generations of fans. Folks will debate endlessly over the finer points in direction and storytelling, but when all is said and done, the Skywalkers have become part of all our families and our stories. The Skywalkers, like the Force, will be with us, always.