And so the saga of the Skywalkers has come to an end….. 42 years of filmmaking culminates in director J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker a pleasing, fun and emotional movie, if admittedly not the freshest round of storytelling to emerge from this galaxy.
Yet looking at this film and retrospectively now at the entire sequel trilogy, it seems almost clear that Disney Studios had no real long term story plan for these films; the goal was to churn out a series of big box office hits built on nostalgia, but without really knowing their product well. That product, George Lucas’ life legacy, is so much more than some “science fiction fluff”, but a revered part of modern cinema history.
Thus the Disney produced sequel films seem now to be merely movies with the Star Wars title attached to it but without an intrinsic understanding of why Star Wars is special. It is not to say that directors J.J. Abrams and Rian Johnson don’t love the Star Wars universe any less (indeed they are probably amongst the biggest fanboys), but in conforming to what was a rushed production schedule from Disney (3 films in 4 years), a lack of a cohesive vision for the movies, and a seeming devotion to capital over art, have created a trilogy with little thematic unity.
The Rise of Skywalker is then a fine enough movie on its own right, but still a rather curious and tonally different film from its two predecessors, especially Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi. Hence while Episode IX is enjoyable and visually pleasing and exotic, its place as a concluding chapter of this trilogy comes off as a bit anticlimactic. Full of nostalgia and familiar imagery, Skywalker has everything in it fans of Star Wars would want, but it conversely does not create anything new. Rather it returns to a familiar strain of storytelling, in what seems to be a direct negation of Rian Johnson’s efforts with The Last Jedi.
The problem with Johnson’s film is then not that it went for something new, but that he also negated Abrams’ work, creating a middle chapter incoherent with what was set up. Now the incoherence continues, with Abrams’ returning for this final film, creating a more comfortable film for many fans, but one that proves once more that there was not a blueprint from the outset.
But who is to blame for this? J.J Abrams and his co-screenwriter Chris Terrio? Rian Johnson for his jarring Episode VIII? Or the whole Disney Company for producing what can essentially be seen as a patchwork trio of films?
Perhaps the answer is all three, as well as the evident peril of making a series without the proper planning for a narrative arc; while George Lucas may certainly be criticized for many things with the Prequels, still there remained a discernible story trajectory, namely the rise of Darth Vader and the fall of the Republic. Though it may seem that a fairly straightforward narrative had been set up in Abrams’ The Force Awakens, the subsequent The Last Jedi proved there was indeed no plan set in stone at all and if there was, Rian Johnson was more than content to discard it.
With one set of ideas in The Force Awakens, another set in The Last Jedi, and now again another round of different ones (albeit more similar to The Force Awakens), what we have in The Rise of Skywalker is a fun, but seriously jumbled ending to a seriously jumbled trilogy. Indeed throughout the three films, there has been a jumble of characters, introduced and dismissed almost as fast as light speed.
Names like Supreme Leader Snoke, Captain Phasma, and Maz Kanata are never given the opportunity to become iconic like some of their counterparts, while the main trio of Rey, Finn, and Poe Dameron are also inconsistently developed; there’s a sense that we could get so much more from these characters (and to Daisy Ridley’s credit, she makes Rey a very likable lead), but the patchwork writing almost prohibits it.
Then there is Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren, who is undoubtedly the most fascinating of the main characters, and yet one who too remains overly mysterious and not well known enough; although the character is assuredly the most fleshed out, once more that ever-present word of patchwork arises, never giving audiences the opportunity to fully know him. Despite a committed performance from Driver, Kylo Ren comes off as a character with unfulfilled narrative potential.
As for the legendary figures of Luke, Leia and Han Solo the contrasting views of Abrams and Johnson create fickle portraits of the three, especially Luke Skywalker; a bitter recluse in one film, to a more traditional (and brief) personification in Episode IX, it is abundantly clear that what to do with the beloved hero was never discussed collaboratively.
Yes, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, had different screenwriters and directors but with George Lucas’ participation and overarching vision as a guide, the Original Trilogy conformed to a plan of action and a consistent tone of character development. Looking at The Rise of Skywalker and the completed Sequel Trilogy, the conformity to a plan of action is glaringly absent, because there probably was no plan of action.
J. J. Abrams was tasked with making a film, Rian Johnson was tasked with making a film, but Disney never shared a larger vision with its directors for making a series, focusing instead on creating big movies to make big bucks; but George Lucas didn’t create Star Wars solely to make big bucks, rather it was to adhere to an artistic vision of filmmaking independence.
Unfortunately, a vision other than monetary gain at the exploitation of nostalgia does not appear to be the main driver of this Sequel Trilogy, and while it would be unfair to say these movies are not good, as part of something bigger their flaws are evident. The films of the two previous trilogies were never really meant to stand alone, and although they can be appreciated independently, their importance lies with their role in a larger picture.
Hence even though The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi, and now The Rise of Skywalker may be rightfully appreciated individually, they do not collectively make a good trilogy, united by a single vision of where the dots are connected. What was established by J.J Abrams in Episode VII (whether it be either nostalgic or unoriginal) was rejected by Rian Johnson’s own vision in Episode VIII, which in turn was rejected by Abrams again with Episode IX. This created a series of films with loosely connecting thematic threads and an ending that while certainly nostalgically satisfying, does not reflect a singular narrative journey.
So is The Rise of Skywalker a suitable finale? To quote Emperor Palpatine from Return of the Jedi, “You will pay the price for your lack of vision!” Despite consistently great special effects, a wondrous musical score from John Williams (his last Star Wars film) and its recognizable sights, sounds and old faces, The Rise of Skywalker proves the Emperor right. But it was not one film that suffered from it, but a trio of them that were never given the proper space to gel as a unit.
In the end, The Rise of Skywalker is entertaining, fun, and even a little emotional, but it is ultimately the final misstep in a misstep of a cinematic trilogy. Time will only tell how the films are to be perceived (the re-appraisal of the Prequels indicate just that), but if there is an immediate lesson to be learned from the Disney era of Star Wars, it must surely be that buying out a beloved franchise requires much more than box office revenue to be considered truly successful.
With the patchwork machine of creativity thrown together by Disney for these films, it may seem that Star Wars has finally reached an inventive low; but in spite of how we view these new films now or down the line, we may at least be satisfied to know that beyond any one film or series, Star Wars lives on as an artistic entity unlike anything seen in this galaxy or the next.