Well at least this trilogy is better made than the prequels.
At this point, Disney has made five Star Wars films to the six which Lucas helmed- though, depending on your criteria, the Lucas count could be dropped to five via taking a smaller role for episode V. Semantics aside, we’re now about 50-50 in terms of Star Wars films made by Lucas and made by Disney. With to total number of Stat Wars films hitting 11 with Rise of Skywalker, it is safe to say that Star Wars kind of sucks.
Of the 11 films, there have only been two whose quality is without question. Star Wars, aka A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back are the two best of the entire franchise without a doubt. Return of the Jedi is a very fine film, though lagging behind the first two. After that, the franchise has not brought a lot to the table. Disney’s oversight of the franchise has seen it return to prominence with The Force Awakens, a film that sits squarely in the “fine” range, and has also seen it fall to one of its lowest points with the wombo combo of The Last Jedi and Solo, both of which run the gamut from frustrating to just being ok. Rouge One also trends in that direction, though it is more palatable than its successors. And no amount of memes or revisionist history can save the prequels form being rubbish. For being one of the most lucrative entertainment properties in the entire world, this is a franchise which hasn’t truly been able to deliver on the big screen since 1980.
Which brings us to the closing chapter of the Skywalker story- at least until Disney finds a way to drag it out for another trilogy. After the collective groan and talks of oversaturation brought about by Last Jedi, Disney gave J.J. Abrams another fat check to come to the rescue of the franchise. He brought it back to silver screen prominence once, and they were banking on him being able to do it again. This time he was bringing along a cast of writers which included the guy who wrote BvS and Justice League– a lovely sign. Abrams’ solution as to how to solve the conundrum left by Last Jedi seems to have been to ignore that it even exists in the first place. It is just as easy to see Rise of Skywalker as a sequel to Force Awakens as it is to Last Jedi. While that may seem logical considering how divisive its predecessor was, narratively, that leaves a lot of holes to navigate, which the film does not do very well.
Because there has been no cohesive forethought or development for these characters through three films, several arcs feel incomplete, if a character was fortunate enough to have an arc I the first place. Finn and Poe, though having larger roles in this film, are still noticeable secondary in this film. Having ended the previous film on a shockingly high note, Rey has to be brought back down before she can rise back up again…again…….again. Kylo Ren suffers from this condensing of character more than anyone. He went from being by far the most interesting character in the entire new trilogy to having his entire character arc hit a 1000 ft unbreakable wall and come to a complete and unsatisfying stop. There have been moments over the course of this trilogy where he could have become one of the best characters in the entire franchise, but no one seemed to committed to, or eve able to figure out how to get him and his ideals to fit in the relatively black and white world of Star Wars. Instead, his complex character arc is wrapped up in about five minutes, as he says about five more words throughout the film and takes a back seat to Rey.
Ooh look, Anakin and Obi Wan fought in fire, while Kylo Ren and Rey fight in water. It’s like poetry, it rhymes.
His statement in the actual climax and end of Last Jedi before the unnecessary salt planet detour serves as assort of thesis statement for the entire film: It’s time to let old things die. The scene between he and Rey following the death of Snoke is the absolute highlight of Last Jedi in how it not only characterizes Kylo Ren as something completely new and different for the franchise, but for Rey as well. Both she and Ren agree that her parents were nobodies and that she came from nothing to be where she was at that time, and in a world dominated by birthrights, names, and bloodlines, the idea that the main hero could be a nobody from nowhere was the shining idea from the previous film. Ren wanting do away with the Sith and Jedi to create something new was a bold influx of nuance for a story filled dominated by binary relationships. Sure the delivery of the message was muddled and poorly executed, but the heart of it was still there, and still functioned as an interesting new trajectory for the franchise.
Rise of Skywalker throws all that in the garbage with one word, or, more appropriately, one name: Palpatine. The entire presence of the emperor in this film is stupid, contrived, kills crucial characterization and shines the brightest of possible lights on this films, and the entire franchises flaws.
Remember earlier, when I said that Rey coming from nowhere was great for the franchise, and one of the few things that Last Jedi got right? Yeah, that’s been retconned. Apparently she is actually Palapatine’s granddaughter…surprise! This is a soap-opera-quality retcon, and it makes Rey’s character unnecessarily convoluted. Her character was refreshingly simple- especially when compared to Luke. She was trying to find her role and her meaning within the galaxy as a Jedi, as a member of the Resistance and as a leader that others turn to in crisis despite having to the entire time wrangle with her own sense of self and identity. Luke’s characterization was about a significant obstacle that he needed to overcome, while Rey’s was more about self-discovery, and defining who she wanted to be; Luke was a product of destiny, while Rey was more a product of choice. Oh, never mind, we’re just going to redo Luke’s story from two films, shrink it down to one and drop it around Rey’s neck like a millstone.
The return of the emperor also brought with it a league of narrative issues, chief of which is that face that he had an entire, utterly massive, universal-scale, planet-busting fleet of star destroyers, all seemingly fully manned, which he waved his magic wand to create out of the ice. Surprise!
This is akin to Starkiller base, and is something of an Abrams special at this point: the galaxy ending super weapon which appears to have originated out of thin air by someone who made a wish after gathering up all seven dragon balls. At no point, did anyone in the galaxy notice that a fleet of unimaginable size was being constructed in the proverbial desert of the galaxy. The Death Star equally came out of nowhere in A New Hope, but that was after we had already learned of the massive power and reach of the Empire. Do we need to go over the significance of the first freaking shot again? For Abrams, when it comes to delivering the emotional response he wants, the ends justify the means. It does not matter how many logical issues arise, or the fact that the slightest amount of thought into the scenarios caused them to completely fall apart- as long as he is able to dredge up some semblance of the emotion that people felt when watching the originals, it doesn’t matter how stupid the method is.
More importantly than the ramifications and issues brought about by his literal presence in the film, is the significance of what Palpatine represents for the franchise as a whole. Star Wars is a franchise plagued by arrested development. It has been unable to grow or change in the nearly half century since the release of the original film. It has achieved a culturally deific status in which any changes or alterations are sacrilege, and will not be accepted. All Star Wars films must have the same elements, all trilogies must have the same plot structure, all characters have to have the same development; everything has to fit in a preexisting mold.
It is a franchise that can’t innovate or expand beyond the scope of the original films, which is partially why those remain by far the best in the entire franchise. Those films had an essential core of great characters and story telling, and ll the fluff around it was just that: fluff. All the spaceships, light sabers, force powers, creatures; all of that was set dressing for a killer story and terrific, and memorable characters. Every Star Wars film after the originals has inverted that relationship. The essence of each of the eight films which have come since 1999 have had their essences defined by all the fluff. The center of those films have been Jedi, Sith, light sabers, space ships, storm troopers and all the other garbage which we have come to expect from a Star Wars film. In a way, these films have themselves become fan service: they exist to drive fans to the theater, to see all the familiar sights, hear all the same sounds, and to experience all of the same emotions over and over and over again.
Shoving Palpatine back into the franchise is an act of surrender; it is a signal of creative bankruptcy, and that this is a franchise which can never escape the shadow it created for itself. It is why six of the other films in the franchise have still been tethered to the original trilogy, it is why when Disney decided to make two non-trilogy films, they made one about a McGuffin from the original trilogy, and another a back story for one its main characters. Financially, Rise of Skywalker is doing fine, but still earned less in the opening weekend than both Force Awakens and Last Jedi– trailing the latter by over $40 million, the former by $70 million- and made half as much as Disney’s other big franchise from this year, Marvel and Endgame. It’s time for Star Wars to grow up. It’s time for some fresh blood to enter the mix, and take this franchise in a direction it has never been in before on the big screen. It’s time for Disney to allow Star Wars to innovate, to provoke, to create, and to take risks. It’s time for this franchise to leave the past in the past, to leave the original trilogy behind, and to move into the future with confidence and conviction. In other words, it’s time to let old things die.