Content Warning: I’m on My Rise of Skywalker Kick Again
Watching The Mandalorian has made me revisit some of my thoughts and feelings about Star Wars, and maybe come up with a more succinct and less wide ranging critique of why I really didn’t like The Rise of Skywalker.
I haven’t wanted to fight this fight when it comes up, because people I like and respect enjoyed The Rise of Skywalker, and I never want to come across as “I’m a better Star Wars fan,” so I can only frame this by saying what speaks to me about Star Wars, and why The Rise of Skywalker didn’t fit into that framework. I still love all my Star Wars friends that were happy with the movie.
A Question of Scale
The Mandalorian always reminds me of the “scope” issue with Star Wars. I think where The Mandalorian often works when some of the movies haven’t, is that the scope is constrained. We primarily just need to see that something is important to this character’s story, not why this character’s story is important to the whole galaxy. That’s a lot of stress to put on a character.
Begin at the Beginning, Sort of
While I don’t get the same feeling from them as the original trilogy, I also think that people had expectations for the Prequels that would never be met. George made some bad decisions (coded racism right off the bat), and didn’t leverage some of his actors to do their best when it came to their emotional impact, but when you look at the structure of the movie, especially if you remember that George never considered any Expanded Universe material to be canon, they fit thematically with the original trilogy (don’t do the math on anyone’s ages, though).
Many people, myself included, have mentioned that George didn’t have a plan for the original trilogy, and it still turned out to have a great deal of resonance. That said, people often say this while still nit-picking aspects of the story that evolved over time, like Luke and Leia’s relationship to one another.
George had an idea for an overall story where a character would leave a simple life on a backwater planet, would encounter the big bad galactic tyranny, would pick up some friends, learn something about himself, recruit unlikely allies, and then topple the big bad galactic tyranny. The original scripts were almost all too unwieldy to tell this whole story in one movie, and George didn’t know if he would get any more to make, so he gave Luke the shadow of the arc he originally foresaw.
Having more material than you can film in one movie doesn’t mean having enough material for three movies, however, so while Luke didn’t get to topple the galactic level evil entirely in the first movie, and he didn’t get to recruit the unlikely allies, that doesn’t make for two more movies, so that means we had to learn more about Luke’s family, make a few more new friends, and maybe resolve some story arcs that other popular characters had running in the background. That wasn’t part of the original plan, but it all happened in the original framework.
So, while I defended Lucasfilm for not having a plan for all three movies at the start, I do think they should have had a general framework for the progression of the series. Why do we start at X, and what does it look like when we get to Y. Turning the entire experience into an improvised plotting session where directors handed the story back and forth right before the next movie gets made, feels like a huge mistake.
The Quick and Easy Path
I will also freely admit that I was reluctant to blame leadership at Lucasfilm, because I didn’t like the massive amounts of misogyny that went into squarely targeting Kathleen Kennedy over every decision made. I don’t think she’s immune to making bad decisions, but I also think decisions aren’t made in a vacuum, and we also know that Disney presented her with some fairly tight schedules and expectations on how much Star Wars content they wanted and when, so there may be plenty of blame to spread around.
Now, getting back to the prequels, the original trilogy, and a framework.
The theme of the original trilogy is that even a small group of people, in the right, can keep working together to topple a huge, monumental evil, and that the monumental evil often has a specific face attached to it. Fighting the monolith all at once is nearly impossible, but surviving setbacks and celebrating small victories is important, recruiting unlikely allies is important, and realizing what the actual driving force behind the monolith is can be important for the final rectification of the root cause.
The Rebels weren’t right because they eventually got more of the galaxy to agree with them. They were doing what was right because of their own moral compass. They didn’t win because they overpowered the Empire. They won because they found the cracks in the system and exploited them.
So how does all of this relate to the prequel trilogy? The prequel trilogy is ALL ABOUT how numbers don’t ensure you are on the right side of things. The Republic isn’t right. The Jedi Council isn’t right. The government is corrupt and ripe for coopting by someone that understands that corruption and doesn’t make excuses about the existence of that corruption.
Now, at this point, you may say that since Palpatine was in the first two trilogies, why doesn’t it make sense that he’s in the third? That feels like closure, right? Well, not really. Let’s look at a zoomed-out view of things.
- Prequel Trilogy–Palpatine exploits existing corruption and complacency to take over the galaxy
- Original Trilogy–Palpatine’s arrogance and complacency allow him to be defeated
- Sequel Trilogy–Profit?
Also, before we get too far, I’m going to point out that there are many thematic elements in Star Wars, and this zoomed out view is just one way of viewing the various mythological elements that form the tropes used to build the universe. But I think this may be one of the biggest ones on my mind.
What is the thesis statement that ties the sequel trilogy into the above summaries? We have a fallen Jedi related to the main characters, a galactic government irrelevant to the heroes or villains of the piece, a mysterious ruler that we know nothing about, and the destruction of the irrelevant government by the villains, as well as a lack of Jedi on the heroes side, beyond one brand new character. We also have someone from the villainous side that leaves because of the atrocities of what he sees there.
Now, at this point, we don’t really know what the thesis statement about the trilogy will be, but we have some emerging story points:
- The Jedi weren’t refounded
- There are disillusioned people on the villainous side
- The villainous fallen Jedi is conflicted
- The potential new Jedi came out of nowhere
- The government that replaced the Empire doesn’t figure into the axis of Light versus Dark
We also have a situation where the ending of the first movie is a cliffhanger that the original filmmaker will not be involved with resolving.
So we don’t have an idea of the framework yet, from one movie. We don’t have a trilogy thesis, yet. But what do we get from the next movie as our bullet points?
- The New Hope isn’t related to any of the Old Hopes
- The figurehead of the new villains isn’t ultimately that important
- There is a galactic elite that profits from constant war, and isn’t adversely affected by it
- The fallen Jedi doesn’t just want to follow past patterns, but wants to be known for being himself
- The Old Hopes aren’t going to save the day
Again, there are people I completely respect for whom this movie didn’t work, but zoomed out, I think it’s hard to argue that the middle point in the trilogy started to develop a new thesis statement for this trilogy.
- Corruption goes deeper than the First Order
- Striving against old behaviors to see why they do or do not have meaning
- Numbers do not equate to moral superiority
What I find interesting in this, at this point in the trilogy, is that while the first movie was often said to be a restatement of “classic” Star Wars, and a love letter to the original trilogy, the themes that are developing actually feel like a call back to the prequel trilogy. Not in a manner that is conflicting, but in a manner that is additive. You can call back to the elements of the original trilogy with the themes of the prequel trilogy. This is starting to feel like it’s saying something about Star Wars.
The Dead Speak
Now, we get to The Rise of Skywalker. What I find interesting, and ultimately unsatisfying, is that certain plot elements that happen feel like they should be important, but really don’t play into what the “bullet points” that make up the thesis statement of the movie. Poe has a love interest and a criminal background. Finn is force sensitive and finds other people like himself that have already broken away from the First Order. Leia becomes Rey’s mentor figure. Leia has a deeper Jedi backstory than we previously knew. Kylo Ren ends up working for Palpatine, but then turning against him. But those are details. What are the narrative beats?
- The Real Evil is the Same Evil we have always known, and he embodies Star Wars evil wholly
- One of the Old Hopes can rally enough numbers to significantly challenge the villains, off screen, because morality equals numbers if you convince enough people
- The way to defeat the embodiment of all evil is to become the embodiment of everything that good has always done, for all time
- If you strive to go down your own path, be careful what you wish for, because you might be locked into the pattern of someone else’s redemption story
I’m not saying you could not have made a thematically resonant point that the same evils recur over time, and you must be vigilant to stop them. I’m not saying you can’t make a story that tells you that there is validity in the traditions of the past if you rediscover their relevance. I am saying that the first two movies seem to be moving in a direction, and the third movie seems to be moving in a different direction.
It feels very much like what this movie is trying to say is that every heroic story is one story, the details don’t matter, because the pattern will play out the same way. That is a statement you can make, and it might even feel more relevant if you only look at the original trilogy and the sequel trilogy, but it doesn’t work with the prequel trilogy. In that way, The Rise of Skywalker feels like it is trying hard to rewrite Star Wars history to remove the relevance of the prequels.
I think the degree to which that works for you may depend, in part, on how much you enjoy the prequels, but I will also say that this is further complicated by the fact that the prequel trilogy isn’t just about the literal prequel trilogies any longer, but also the Clone Wars series, and all of the definitions we received from the prequels that added depth to what we saw in the original trilogy.
If you want to see one of the biggest examples of trying to redefine Star Wars without the prequel trilogy, just look at how Palpatine is framed as “All of the Sith.” There is no reconciliation of how the Knights of Ren work within the framework of the Rule of Two. There is no explanation of Sith cultists living on Exegal. The Rise of Skywalker really feels like a movie written only considering the original trilogy as canon. “Sith” means supernatural evil, with no further definition or rules associated with it.
What do I wish we would have seen in The Rise of Skywalker? Always in motion, the future (past) is, but with the bullet points from the first two movies, I would have love to have seen the following addressed:
- I think Kylo Ren’s redemption and return to being Ben should have come from him realizing that in rejecting the past, he was repeating the pattern that Anakin already walked
- I think we should have seen Rey try to ignore some of the Jedi teachings, only to realize that there was a contextual reason for why some of the rules exist, even if they don’t always apply
- I think we really should have seen Finn being able to convert a sizable number of conscripted Stormtroopers over to the Resistance side
- I think we should have seen more of the direct interference from the corporations and old houses in the galaxy, perhaps with them asserting more control over the First Order and showing some of the First Order true believers that they are just a means to an end
- I think Rose should have figured into how the story wrapped up, with the founding of a new government with more safeguards against corruption, with Rose being the protege to Leia, politically
I’m not rewriting this whole plot, just pointing out where I think some of the story beats introduced in the first two movies needed to play out. Although, I think if you really wanted an embodiment of evil to fight in the movie, have the corporations/old houses clone Palpatine as a puppet, when their Snoke project failed. Make it clear that THE CORRUPTION was the villain.
That would have given us this pattern for the trilogies:
- Palpatine uses the corruption to take over
- Palpatine’s hubris allows him to be overthrown
- The corruption Palpatine used now uses Palpatine’s playbook to become the puppet masters
This makes a statement that everything that was wrong with the Old Republic didn’t die with Palpatine. That it was older than Palpatine and had a malignancy of its own. It also kind of serves as a promise, that the same evil doesn’t keep coming back without context, but some evil does have to be fought multiple times, and that surface level wins require more work in order to make them meaningful.
It may be that 2019 was already weighing on me before 2020 kicked into full swing, but it wasn’t particularly uplifting that The Rise of Skywalker stated the following:
- It’s not that you have to be vigilant against the darkness, it’s that the exact same villain will always exist, and can’t be permanently defeated
- The only way you know that you are on the right side is if you have as many people agreeing with you as the other side has
- The only way to live is to follow the same patterns we have seen in the past, even if those patterns allow for the same villains and conflicts to come up time after time
The original trilogy resonated in the late 70s and early 80s because we were told that the real heroes didn’t care if you had huge, monolithic Imperial powers standing up against you. You rage against the dying of the light even if the whole government is telling you that everything is normal. You find strength in diversity and understanding, and you hang tight.
The prequel trilogy resonated in the late 90s and early 2000s, because we had seen a pattern of political leaders starting wars to distract people from domestic concerns, and using warfare as an excuse to expand the power of government.
Going into 2020 at the end of 2019, seeing a government removing the rights of immigrants and locking them in cages, seeing a government advocating police being able to kill political enemies with impunity and murder the marginalized, seeing a government remove the hard fought, and still tenuous rights of LGBTQ+ people because they aren’t what the people in power consider “the norm . . . that’s not an environment where I wanted a movie telling me that if you just say and do the same things you have always done, mysterious allies will come out of nowhere to help you win. That’s not the environment where I want to see someone who has passed through their own darkness have to sacrifice themselves so that the one person who gets to carry on the tradition can survive on her own.
I wanted something that said when you realize the problem is systemic, you can address the system.