*This article contains huge spoilers, so if you somehow stumble on this without having seen The Rise of Skywalker, it would probably be in your best interest to steer clear.*
Star Wars opinions: it seems like everyone has one on the Internet these days. Disney sucks. Rian’s fault. JJ’s fault. The inundation of reviews has made it almost impossible to determine whether I even think the trilogy are good movies. It’s all swirling around up there, ready to be synthesized. There is only one possible solution to it all… one more hot take to throw into the fire. Head deeper into the Disney content vortex, in hopes I can sail the ship out the other side with some conclusion.
The only way this can be achievable is if I scale things back and determine what actually matters in a Star Wars film. The biggest problem I’ve had in analyzing these films is that the passion I have for the franchise consumes me (much like the passion Anakin had for Padme consumed him… see, here I go). Once the characters were established for this trilogy, I started to build the vision in my head. Then the plot starts to steer off the course I plotted, and I got upset the Star Wars world I built wasn’t realized.
Thinking about what could have been will get me nowhere. Instead, I need to look back at what started this passion and understand what made those first three movies great to a young nerd. I boiled down the original trilogy to three core elements that carried them into the pop culture pantheon: character development, world building, and story. When scrutinizing the new trilogy on these terms, I think I finally might find clarity.
Ah, what a motley crew that greets us in the beginning stages of A New Hope. We immediately receive the groundwork for an epic space opera that’s on a direct beeline for immortality. Darth Vader epitomizes villainy perfectly. Luke is a boy about to embark on the journey of a lifetime, certainly an idea that a young imaginative mind can embrace. Then surround that main character (aka yourself) with the coolest best friends ever. It’s hard not to immediately get lost in that world.
Going forward, they search for love, friendship, and salvation in one another. All of these are achieved for the most part in a group dynamic. That togetherness provokes a familial element that reaches into our inner desires. Watching the bonds of family and friends conquer intergalactic adversity gives us hope that our personal networks we build can achieve the same.
Here we find my first flaw in the trilogy, and the blame for this one lies mostly with The Last Jedi, the film that produced the most inner strife for myself. The Force Awakens regenerates new great characters in Rey, Finn, and Poe, and the film ends placing them all in interesting attack positions on the chessboard. The Last Jedi takes those pieces and with a giant swipe sends them to the dark corners of the galaxy.
These three characters share almost zero screen time in the film until the final moments. Poe and Rey actually meet for the first time at the end of The Last Jedi. Finn spends the movie on a do-nothing mission with a pawn on the character chessboard. Two and half hours dribble by, and the opportunity to build that group rapport is squandered.
Writer and director Rian Johnson took a similar risk that The Empire Strikes Back managed to pull off. By isolating the major players, the characters embark on inner discovery that shapes them for the rest of the series. However, Johnson failed to recognize his positioning within the entire Star War series. Seven films came before him and a whole universe has already been established by the introduction of his chapter in the saga. More works needs done to chip away at the old guard of the first six films and create a new group dynamic that the audience wants to invest in.
J.J. Abrams, the creative point for the new trilogy, tried to right this mistake in his direction of The Rise of Skywalker. While Abrams has taken flak for contradicting The Last Jedi and making Johnson’s contributions to the saga obsolete, the decision to have Rey, Finn, and Poe share the screen for a huge chunk of the film was a needed fix. Watching the new crew sleuth around the Star Destroyer harked back to the adventurous and amusing nature that made you want to root for the OGs.
The chemistry was simmering between the three, but because of the separation caused by The Last Jedi it never reached a full boil. There just wasn’t enough experience shared between them to fully commit to them being lovable successors to their Resistance elders. Part of that is due to the group never encountering meaningful conflict (more on that when I get to the story discussion). Watching the characters work together to overcome their misfortune is what truly bounds the audience to them. As we enter into the final chapter without that redemption arc in place, the trilogy feels more like a cute Meetup session between a pilot, fighter, and Jedi than a family’s journey reaching its satisfying end.
Tauntauns, AT-ATs, Cloud City… the original trilogy brought us new concepts that revolutionized science fiction cinema. You fell head first into a universe that captured imagination, but left room for you to build more in your head. For the most part, the new trilogy succeeds at this as well.
Here is where Johnson deserves praise for his bold attempt at branching away from the already established and much loved Star Wars universe, and chartering off into his own territory. The planets he creates are unlike others from the series, but my favorite thing about them is they are functional in understanding how the universe operates. This is one of the complaints I have about the world building additions made in the prequel trilogy. The planets created serve no purpose other than for Lucasfilm to flex their CGI capabilities.
Canto Bight is the best example of using a planet to glimpse into the culture and problems that arise from intergalactic governance. Within the Canto Bight scenes, we see capitalist greed, police over-surveillance, and a fight for animal (species, creature?) rights. These are issues we never contemplated occurring within space, but make incredible sense considering the always present themes of imperialism and rebellion within the entire saga. We also receive snippets of religion (the nuns of Ahch-To) and industry (the mineral mines of Crait), all elements that take a universe and mold it into a society.
Sadly, Abrams seemed unwilling to venture into the darkness of the Star Wars universe and discover his own worlds like Johnson did. He retreated into the comforts of the already existing. The climatic scenes of The Rise of Skywalker involved X-wings, Star Destroyers, and the Millennium Falcon. It all felt repetitive and stale. While perhaps there was a vocal group of Star Wars fans that wanted to stay in their nostalgic bubble, I wanted a new adventure that sparked the joy that started this obsession. While there were many flaws to Johnson’s film, at least his universe made us curious about what else laid inside it.
What film can succeed without a coherent story? The original trilogy’s storyline was simple, easy to identify with, and captivating above all. This new trilogy is none of those three.
It could’ve been. The Force Awakens ends with character arcs that should guide them through the rest of the series. Kylo Ren dealing with his inner conflict between light and darkness. Rey set to embark on her difficult journey of self-realization. Johnson’s duty with The Last Jedi is to take these character arcs and develop deep conflict by the end of the film that the characters must resolve in the final chapter. It’s what makes The Empire Strikes Back the greatest film in the franchise. The characters encounter their limitations and face the dire consequences because of it. You worry not only about how they will come on top, but how they will grow as characters. It’s the perfect bridge between beginning and end. Perhaps Johnson tried doing this, but I feel he failed miserably. The characters are in no greater danger than how they began The Last Jedi. Even worse, our main character Rey has no personal crisis that will propel her forward to her coronation as trilogy hero.
The lack of a cohesion between the visions of Johnson and Abrams derails the story completely off the tracks. Abrams gives every impression in his script for The Rise of Skywalker of feeling pressured to correct Johnson’s mistake, scrambling towards some sort of conflict that can carry his film. Once again, he rests on the ideas of George Lucas with a half ass attempt to write Emperor Palpatine back into the universe. Then gives Rey her personal crossroads by an even lamer decision to bind her and Palpatine by blood. It’s lazy writing that lacks a single drop of creativity. When we reach our ending, I hardly cared. The story had been twisted and mangled to the point where the crux of any good action film, your beloved characters overcoming their struggles and affirming our utopian dream of good always defeating evil, was incapable of any satisfaction.
If you leave the theatre after the last film of your favorite film series devoid of any satisfaction, I guess you have no other choice to label the new trilogy not good. After looking past the gut reactions and embroiled debate between friends, I think I now understand why. It comes down to the lack of a unified vision with how this trilogy was to unfold. There were moments in the three films that had the three great elements of a Star Wars film, but never were they working in sync. Abrams built the bare bones for a good story and Johnson buried those bones so Abrams could never find them again. Johnson built a new captivating universe and Abrams blew it up with a Star Destroyer. In the end, I will view this new trilogy as a story of unrealized potential and an inability to work together. And when you consider that Star Wars is a series dedicated to fulfilling your destiny and the power of fellowship, a trilogy that is drastically missing these elements can only be seen as a dishonor to those original films I hold so dear to my heart.