If there’s one major takeaway from JJ Abrams’ Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, it’s this: Disney/Lucasfilm did not have a long term plan. At all. They didn’t have the trilogy mapped out, let alone three solid scripts penned and ready before going on floors with The Force Awakens. Of course, we can point to George Lucas and the Original Trilogy. After all, Lucas too didn’t have it all figured out before shooting A New Hope. As crazy as it may sound today, the granddaddy of Star Wars only decided that Darth Vader would be Luke Skywalker’s dad AFTER Empire Strikes Back had begun production. Not to mention, each film in the original trilogy had a different director at the helm and different scriptwriters holding the pen.
The stark difference is, the OT was still George Lucas’ baby. He may have collaborated with different people, but Lucas was still the puppeteer. It’s almost similar to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The MCU wouldn’t be where it is today without the likes of Ryan Coogler, Jon Favreau, the Russo brothers, Taika Waititi and many more talented individuals, but at the end of the day, it’s still Kevin Feige’s playground. Admittedly, it’s a very TV-series like approach. Game of Thrones, for instance, was worked on by 15 directors across 8 seasons. But they call David Benioff and D.B. Weiss “showrunners” for a reason.
All of those franchises and properties have/had a singular creative force steering their respective ships. The new Star Wars trilogy did not. The president of Lucasfilm, Kathleen Kennedy’s idea was to simply allow each director to come in and run with their own ideas before passing the baton to the next guy. Each director would be allowed to work on their own script (like in the case of Rian Johnson) or collaborate with scriptwriters of their choosing (Abrams worked with Lawrence Kasdan & Michael Arndt in The Force Awakens, and Chris Terrio in The Rise of Skywalker).
It’s certainly a risky manoeuvre, but not necessarily one that was guaranteed to be dead on arrival. It still could’ve worked if the directors involved shared a common understanding, if they played on the same team. But the final trilogy of the Skywalker Saga is what happens when one director decides to play ball, while the other goes “f*ck it! I’m a badminton kinda guy.”
While Rian Johnson may have driven a sharp and unholy wedge through the Star Wars fandom with some of his unorthodox ideas in The Last Jedi, he still picked up the story where The Force Awakens left off. He expanded upon ideas that were set up by JJ Abrams himself. Whether we like some of his shocking twists and subversions is a different story altogether. But Johnson still took the story forward without altering what was established before. The same can’t be said about JJ Abrams.
STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI
Nobody expected the mighty Luke Skywalker who helped defeat the Empire and brought Vader back to the light, to fling his lightsaber away. A lot of us imagined a Rocky-style training montage, instead.
The question is, did Luke’s action contradict what JJ Abrams had set up in The Force Awakens?
Remember, it was JJ Abrams who put Luke on an island, not Rian Johnson. In TFA, we learned that Luke had vanished. We weren’t told what exactly drove him to do so (JJ Abrams is known for his mystery box approach to storytelling), but we could gather that something about Kylo Ren and the rise of the First Order made him go into hiding.
Rian Johnson filled in the blanks in The Last Jedi. Luke, because of his hubris, for a split second considered killing his own nephew when he sensed darkness brewing in young Ben Solo. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Ben became Kylo Ren and joined Snoke. Luke, filled with shame and regret, exiled himself to Ahch-To. He blocked out the Force completely and spent his days fishing and drinking milk straight outta alien tits, awaiting his eventual death.
It’s dark and certainly not what a lot of Star Wars fans expected from Luke Skywalker, but it’s still an organic continuation of The Force Awakens.
Rey From Nowhere
The same can be said about Rey’s parentage. I had never felt more disoriented at the movies than when I watched the reveal of Rey’s parents for the first time. A nobody? She didn’t have the mighty Skywalker blood nor was she related to anybody famous. Her parents were assholes who sold her off to slavery for drinking money.
I’m not here to argue its thematic significance or try and convince you why making her a nobody is simply genius. I’ve done that to death. I’m merely suggesting that this too isn’t an unnatural progression of the story.
In The Force Awakens, we learn that Rey has lived her whole life waiting for her parents to return. She looks up to the sky, perhaps wondering if her family is out there in the vastness of the galaxy fighting alongside the resistance army or maybe they’re just futuristic vegans, flying from planet to planet carrying large signs that read “Porgs are not food, they’re friends!” But later, when she visits Maz Kanata’s castle with Han and Finn, Maz tells her, “Dear child, the longing you seek is not behind you — it is ahead.”
It’s an open-ended line, one that could be interpreted and translated in 750 different ways, including “Stop thinking about your parents. They’re unimportant. Look forward!” And that’s exactly what Rian Johnson did.
Kylo Ren is easily the best character of this new trilogy — even the trilogy’s most passionate haters will tell you as much. When we’re first introduced to him in The Force Awakens, he’s a total badass. He has a cool mask, a terrifying voice to go with and at one point he stops a laser blast mid-air like he’s the Rajinikanth of the Star Wars universe.
But when he removes the mask, we see who he truly is: A conflicted young man and a wannabe tyrant. A Darth Vader fanboy. Rian Johnson simply developed this idea and explores its depths. We see Kylo Ren get pushed around and bullied by Supreme Leader Snoke. When Ren finally smashes his mask, it’s a sign of him becoming his own man. No more will he hide in his grandfather’s shadow. A natural evolution of the character.
In Episode VII, JJ Abrams planted the seeds of what would eventually become the most fascinating relationship in all of Star Wars — Kylo Ren & Rey. Rey first sees things purely through a black and white prism. Kylo Ren is the encapsulation of evil. When the former Ben Solo kills Han, it only solidifies her anger towards him. This seething rage can be seen in the early portions of The Last Jedi as well. When Rey and Ren first connect through Force Skype, Rey shoots him without a moment of hesitation.
But soon, they form a bond. The both of them realise that they’re more or less on the same boat, lonely and afraid. Kylo Ren makes her question everything she believes in by telling her his side of the story. Being the good person that she is, she dashes off to save him, to bring him back to the light.
Nobody expected the Throne Room scene to play out the way it did, with Kylo Ren killing Supreme Leader Snoke and teaming up with Rey to take on the Pictorial Guards. It was at this moment where Kylo Ren was given almost a clean slate to make a choice — light or dark, good or evil. Kylo Ren chose the darkest of darks. He chose to be the new Supreme Leader.
He once again makes this choice during the climactic battle with Luke Skywalker.
Rian Johnson took hard left turns and fu*cked with our expectations, but he did not betray what was set up in The Force Awakens. JJ Abrams on the other hand…
STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER
Early on in The Rise of Skywalker, we see Kylo Ren fixing his mask. But why? If Kylo Ren only wore the mask because he’s a Darth Vader worshipper and he smashed the mask into pieces, signalling that he’s become his own man, then what does welding the mask back mean? That he’s once again hell bent on becoming like his grandfather? That he thinks masks are cool? It’s just JJ Abrams resetting his arc to where it was before The Last Jedi.
The same can be said about the reveal that Rey is Palpatine’s granddaughter, which is also a case of two steps back. At the Academy Screening of The Rise of Skywalker, JJ Abrams had this to say:
“And though I completely understand ‘you’re nobody’ is a devastating thing, to me the more painful, the more shocking thing was the idea that you’re from the worst possible place.”
That’s all well and good, except the ship to establish this had already jumped to hyperspace. Rey discovering who she is/isn’t had already reached an emotional crescendo in The Last Jedi, whether JJ Abrams liked it or not. What Abrams (and screenwriter Chris Terrio) should’ve done is take what was already established in Episode VIII, forward. Instead, what we got was this:
The Force Awakens
Rey is a lost soul in search of her identity – Maz tells her to look forward
The Last Jedi
Rey discovers who she is (a nobody) – she comes to terms with that – she makes the choice to be good anyway, realising that it’s not about a name or a lineage, it’s what you do that defines you.
The Rise of Skywalker
Rey discovers who she is (a Palpatine) – she comes to terms with that – she makes the choice to be good anyway, realising that it’s not about a name or a lineage, it’s what you do that defines you.
Her character goes through the same arc twice.
What becomes blatantly obvious about The Rise of Skywalker is that JJ Abrams desperately wanted to tell the story that he had in his mind while penning The Force Awakens. Whatever it takes. Even if the revelations aren’t going to make sense. Even if it means pushing characters around inorganically or making them say stuff that don’t make sense.
Take the return of Palpatine for instance. Early on in The Rise of Skywalker, the protagonists learn of Palpatine’s return. Weirdly enough, they react almost nonchalantly. Weirder: Leia (RIP Carie Fisher) says something along the lines of, “Yeah, I’ve always known.” Really? You’ve known it all along but for whatever reason decided not to speak about it in The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi?!