With the release of Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker, the Star Wars Sequel Trilogy and the entire nine-film Skywalker Saga has come to an end. The film has had its share of controversy, scorn and praise from all parties. Despite what trolls hoped for, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is an actual hit film. Now as to its quality, that is another story. Personally, I truly enjoyed the film but am honest enough to admit the latest Star Wars film is riddled with plot holes and faults. Still it did enough to entertain me and others and provided closure to the Star Wars Sequel Trilogy. Looking at the three films in this trilogy it is fair to opine that on the whole, the trilogy was badly flawed and can be considered to be the weakest of the three Star Wars trilogies. And that is due to many reasons, especially one: it is clear that Lucasfilm and its owners Disney did not have a clear plan for the sequel trilogy and it hobbled the films overall.
Looking at the past three films (standalone films aside), it was difficult to tell what was the main story. The only consistent arc that flowed logically was Rey and Kylo Ren’s personal journeys in their understanding of the Force. Not surprisingly, this storyline is what received the most praise. Everything else, not so much.
Look at Finn’s story in the films. He had a brilliant setup, the world of Star Wars told from the POV of a normal Stormtrooper, and how he comes to believe in a greater cause than his lot in life. As well as his story was set up in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, it stagnated in the followup, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, where he became a bumbling comic relief shuffled off to a pointless side quest. Then in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, his story arc had a radical course correction as we are tantalized with him developing Force sensitivity, which hinted at his potential future as a Jedi.
Even more jarring was figuring out who was the main bad guy in these films. Kylo Ren’s story was fine and flowed smoothly as he struggled with his conflicting emotions. But he was set up to be the main villain according to The Last Jedi. In that film, he killed the supposed main boss, Supreme Leader Snoke, and took his title. Meanwhile, Snoke was dispatched too early and the filmmakers were left scrambling to find another villain for the final film. This is why director J.J. Abrams and others hastily resurrected the long-dead Emperor Palpatine. As great as it was to see him cackling and oozing evil on the screen again, his reappearance into Star Wars lore was sloppily handled. If he had been hinted at in earlier films, his revival would have made more sense and not come off as a desperate plot ploy.
Then there are the other supporting characters who were treated as disposable plot beats. Take poor Rose Tico, first introduced as an annoying and self-righteous wannabe crusader in The Last Jedi, which led to toxic online backlash from misogynistic and racist trolls attacking the actress. In The Rise of Skywalker, her role was noticeably reduced to that of a glorified extra and any hints of a romance with Finn alluded to in the previous film were gone.
Aside from Rose, the most contentious character introduced in The Last Jedi was Admiral Holdo played by a badly miscast Laura Dern. This supposedly brilliant military leader did not exude any kind of gravitas as a leader, which infuriated many viewers and emboldened Internet trolls. But hey, at least she had a cool death scene where she used her ship to take out the ginormous uber star destroyer.
Then there was Hux, the First Order leader who instead of inspiring dread and fear like Grand Moff Tarkin became an ineffective joke in The Last Jedi. His character was so mangled that he was mercifully killed off in The Rise of Skywalker after he nonsensically was revealed to be a spy working against the First Order.
The fault for the way they and other characters turned out has to be with the scripts, which reeked of being written on the fly. Another important reason for the disjointed feel of the sequel trilogy was the contrasting visions of the directors of the films, J.J. Abrams and Rian Johnson.
Although both men are talented directors who brought good ideas to Star Wars, their viewpoint clashed wildly. With The Force Awakens, Abrams was clearly doing an homage to the original films, especially Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.
A valid criticism of The Force Awakens was that it was too similar to A New Hope: both films opened on a desert planet where good guys and bad guys sought a droid that held vital information. The heroes run into an older mentor type who gets killed and the films end with a space battle to blow up a superweapon planet. Be that as it may, The Force Awakens was a fun film that served as a soft reboot and reintroduction to the world of Star Wars for a new generation. It also set up many plot threads that Abrams left for future directors to follow up.
The problem was that the next director, Johnson, obviously was not interested in doing that. Instead he had a mindset of doing a deconstruction of Star Wars. Luke Skywalker, set up as a long-lost would-be savior in The Force Awakens, turned out to be a bitter old man without any hope. His final moments disappointed fans who were itching for him to decimate the First Order.
Rey, who was to be the next generation of Jedi, had a mysterious past and was seeking to learn about her parents. Was she related to anyone in the Original Trilogy? Why was she so powerful with the Force? Johnson obviously did not care with the casual dismissive announcement that she came from a family of nobodies. Something that had to be retconned later.
Supreme Leader Snoke was introduced as a trilogy’s final threat was unexpectedly killed by Ren. Meanwhile, Ren was hinted at in the film of having a redemptive arc but instead turned his back on Rey and embraced the dark side of the Force. Both films are clear evidence that there wasn’t a coherent vision with the trilogy.
Unanswered Questions & Vague Background Materials
As maligned as the Prequel Trilogy was, in its defense, at least they had a consistent vision: the fall of the Republic and the Jedi Order and the rise of Darth Vader and the Galactic Empire. What exactly was the point of the Sequel Trilogy? It largely undid the progress made by the heroes in the Original Trilogy by having another evil government come into existence (without explanations) and becoming a major threat to the galaxy.
Why was the First Order allowed to rise from the ashes of the Empire? Was the Republic that incompetent? We have little idea about the political situation in the galaxy. Was the Resistance part of the Republic? If they were, why did the Resistance have such meager resources?
Also, how did Palpatine come back from the dead? All we got was vague musings about dark science and clone tanks. Another head scratcher was what was the deal with Snoke? Was he some kind of meat puppet of the Emperor? As with many other unanswered questions we’ll have to speculate and refer to tie-in materials.
Many would argue much of this background information could be found in the ancillary tie-in materials. Doing so requires extra time and money, something not everyone has. What was shown onscreen was too vague and it is unrealistic to expect the average viewer to hunt down books, comics, etc. to get the full picture. One thing I have learned is to largely ignore such materials because filmmakers do not rely on them and what is read can be casually designated to be non-canon. This was something Star Wars fans bitterly learned when the wealth of stories in the Star Wars Expanded Universe (EU) was re-labeled as “Legends”. But this alienated legions of fans that devoted time and effort to the EU and were attached to it. In a sense de-canonizing the EU sent a message that the fans wasted their time and should discard everything they learned in the EU and instead pay attention to the new canon material. The problem with the new materials is that they were barely alluded to in the films and it has been pointed out there have been inconsistencies.
In hindsight, the films should have been structured differently to have the First Order, Snoke and the Emperor as a looming threat from the outskirts of the galaxy. Our heroes should have been wrangling with an obtuse and blind Republic that refused to acknowledge to coming storm, which would lead to a Resistance that set out to confront the First Order. This would have added some poignancy to their cause and better explain the background in the galaxy.
Another issue with The Last Jedi was with how it ended. The film felt like the final word on the Star Wars story and these characters. This was reinforced with its final moments that took us away from our heroes and focused instead on an unnamed slave boy who supposedly was to represent a future hope for the Resistance. Only that never came to be.
It can be argued that the film could be its own standalone film based on its structure and its sense of finality. Johnson’s film may have been better received if it was an actual standalone or spinoff film with new characters like Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Instead it was allowed to be part of the Sequel Trilogy.
Although The Last Jedi has its merits, more attention should have been spent on the script. It seemed as if Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy was so focused on the mishaps of Solo: A Star Wars Story that she nor any of Lucasfilm’s top executives did not take the time to fully review Johnson’s script. Apparently, the director was given carte blanche to go rogue with what the story he wanted to tell. Ordinarily this would be fine but his result clashed so badly with Abrams’ film.
This further proves the argument that there wasn’t a defined idea for where the films should go. Compare this to Marvel Studios’ Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). That film franchise was firmly guided by Kevin Feige who had a clear goal of where the films should wind up. Even though the MCU films were very different from one another, they led to the events of Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame. It’s no wonder the MCU films have eclipsed Star Wars in popularity.
Nowhere in the films before The Rise of Skywalker was it teased that the Empire and Palpatine would return. Nor that Finn was Force sensitive; despite very vague allusions in The Force Awakens, this aspect was MIA in The Last Jedi. If there was a clear vision we would not have seen the going back and forth with Rey’s parentage or seen Luke toss away his lightsaber only to berate Rey for doing the same a film later.
Further enforcing the fact that Lucasfilm lacked a coherent master plan is the turmoil with the original director for the third film, Colin Trevorrow. His script has supposedly leaked online and it reveals that his vision for the film lacked the Emperor, included a daring plan where Finn and Poe Dameron steal a star destroyer to raid Coruscant and activate a Jedi beacon to rally allies to their lost cause, and more importantly, Kylo Ren would have been the main villain in a plot that would have resolved the long-running Jedi/Sith feud. It is well known that Trevorrow clashed with Kennedy over the story and his objection to Luke Skywalker dying in The Last Jedi because he wanted to use the character.
Would this film, supposedly titled Duel of the Fates, have been better received than The Rise of Skywalker? We’ll never know. Either way, the headaches with the film point to Kennedy’s faulty tenure as head of Lucasfilm.
This is the Way Ahead
Kathleen Kennedy may be a talented producer and most of the films in her tenure were profitable but her time at Lucasfilm has been marred with challenges. Directors and writers have come and gone, the most infamous example was when directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller were fired from Solo weeks before they completed shooting. Most recently, after much fanfare, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, the team behind Game of Thrones, walked away from doing their own Star Wars films. This revolving door at Lucasfilm has become a problem and it is obvious the studio needs a Kevin Feige type to lead with a stronger vision.
Fortunately, there are people that can provide this, but it will take time, but more than in a bit. Thankfully, the Star Wars films will take a bit of a break. Instead of one film a year, the next one is due in 2022, which brings the release schedule back to the way it used to be under George Lucas’ time.
In the meantime, we will still get our Star Wars fix. Not with ancillary materials that can be de-canonized at a moment’s notice, but with live-action shows streaming on Disney+. The Mandalorian is a smash hit and is more widely beloved than the recent films thanks to its characters and scripts which ooze of its space western aspects. The new season will be out later this year and coming up on the streaming service are a new season of Star Wars: The Clone Wars, a show based on Obi-Wan Kenobi, starring Ewan McGregor, and one featuring Cassian Andor, the enigmatic anti-hero from Rogue One.
One thing that made The Mandalorian such a hit is that it had nothing to do with the Skywalkers and the people in their circle. It takes place in the same universe, but it did what the Star Trek shows did before and featured brand-new characters and settings. The Star Wars universe is vast and imaginative, the books, comics and games have taken advantage of this. The Mandalorian’s creators understood this, and also took advantage, now the films should follow suit.
If the latest rumors are to be believed this may happen. If the rumblings pan out, the next films will take place in a different time period, the High Republic era, which is 400 years before the events of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.
True Visionaries Needed
In order for these projects to succeed, they need topnotch behind-the-scenes people to fulfill their visions. The Mandalorian is an excellent showcase for directors, writers and producers as seen with the efforts from executive producer Jon Favreau, an excellent candidate to be the Star Wars version of Feige, Dave Filoni, Deborah Chow, and Taika Waititi.
Or here is a radical thought: how about bringing back George Lucas? He does not have to run Lucasfilm or even a new trilogy but entice him to get more involved, maybe direct a TV episode or two, even a standalone film. While his original treatment for the Sequel Trilogy was way out there (taking place in a universe of the disliked midichlorians), it may have merit and deserves to see the light of day at some point. Doing this will win back some fans and help give the new Star Wars projects a seal of approval if its creator gets involved somehow.
For now, it is best for the Star Wars films to take a breather and the filmmakers need time to properly plan them out. Doing so will keep demand alive for the property; people will miss it before we know it. But a proper rest gives the Star Wars crews the greatest chance to put out the best possible films.