Episode IX, The Rise of Skywalker, is the last film in the Skywalker saga and for that we can all be thankful. The galactic Hatfield vs. McCoy force-feud is done. If I sound exhausted with it all, it’s because I am. I’m an OG Star Wars fan and saw the original A New Hope when I was six, and Han shot first. What was enthralling is now just mostly tiring. With The Rise of Skywalker we may see the death of Star Wars. Unless we rebel.
The original trilogy holds up well. The storytelling is tight, the characters are engaging, the world is built. The prequels told a planned and interesting story via terrible direction and some odd starting choices. A tedious trade dispute really set the whole rise of the Sith in motion? That makes it harder for anyone in our galaxy to care about anything that happened a long time ago in that other one, but ok, let’s go with it. They hand-waved away how Anakin was born. Jar Jar. But they did give us the podrace, Darth Maul and the amazing aerial battle above Coruscant in Revenge of the Sith, though. The “Duel of the Fates” is a great piece of music. So they’re not all bad.
Rise of Skywalker isn’t an awful film. It’s visually spectacular just like the two trilogy films that preceded it. The imagery of the ruined second Death Star husk is haunting. The acting is good. The score is amazing. Its main arcs are interesting and it ends well enough. But it’s a storytelling mess, as are the two films that preceded it, and the trilogy as a whole harms the original trilogy. It didn’t have to be, but it is. Because Disney and J.J. Abrams approached the end of the Skywalker saga with no plan.
Neither of ROS’ two main storylines were set up at all. Audiences had been given no clue in the previous films that ol’ Sheev Palpatine would return, or that Rey is his granddaughter. The lack of setup betrays the fact that J.J. Abrams went into the final three films with no plan and did not really understand Star Wars well enough to be given the reins. Disney did not force him to plan (see what I did there?). So he apparently approached the ultimate Star Wars trilogy the same way he has approached just about everything else in his career: with no respect for the material. He builds lots of intriguing ideas and stray reveals that end up in dissatisfying spaghetti piles. That’s what he did with Lost. It’s what he has done with the rebooted Star Trek and the Cloverfield series. He sets up great potential driven by complex and compelling characters and creative ideas, strings audiences along, and then pulls the rug out from under everything, leaving a huge mess.
Abrams may be a Star Wars fanboy but his trilogy disrespects the original content and the multi-generational Star Wars audience. For instance, bringing Palpatine back, so abruptly with no foreshadowing, is handled out-of-the-blue and it renders Darth Vader’s arc much less consequential. He didn’t really start anything on his own, he didn’t really stop anything in Return of the Jedi, he just delayed things a bit. Sure, he saved Luke. But Luke doesn’t matter that much either if the final trilogy stands. Luke failed to re-establish the Jedi Order. He didn’t stop the rise of Kylo Ren. The New Republic doesn’t last. The First Order spun up anyway wearing the vestiges of the old Empire like a skin suit. The last trilogy plays like a distorted mirror image of the original trilogy, but not in a good way. As for Vader, one of cinema’s most compelling villains ever dies pointlessly before the story’s third act. Really?
The Rise of Lazy Film-making
Episodes VII-IX are also deeply lazy films. The Force Awakens is just a rehashed New Hope. The Last Jedi makes little sense and needlessly undermines everything TFA set in motion (revealing the total lack of a plan for this trilogy). Rise of Skywalker spends too much of its energy undoing TLJ’s damage and not enough on setting its own story up. How did they not see the problems TLJ was creating when they were making that film? Did Rian Johnson make TLJ in a closet and spring it on Disney at the last minute? Of course not. They had story meetings and script readings and approvals all along the way. Yet they still got so much wrong. Why did they put Palpatine’s terrifying re-emergence broadcast in Fortnite, a video game that has nothing to do with Star Wars? Why did they allow TLJ to depict Luke they way it does? Because they had no plan.
The final trilogy is choppy and messy and the story bleeds out around the edges and onto the original trilogy. The First Order is just the Empire warmed over, and its rise means the original rebellion and its princess failed. That could be a compelling story, but it’s not told as one. And one more thing: Abrams could have provided the ultimate fanservice and created a deeply compelling scene in TFA just by bringing Luke, Leia and Han together on screen one time, for one conversation. But he never did, and now no one ever can.
All of this puts us in an odd position. Objectively, the final trilogy are better films than the prequel trilogy. They’re far more watchable mainly because the acting is so much better. But taken as a whole, they are a lot worse for Star Wars than the prequels and they weaken the entire saga. The prequels at least did the job of getting the story going and set up the galaxy for A New Hope. They very clumsily depicted Palpatine’s devious rise, Anakin’s dark turn, and the sprigs that became the rebellion. They got Luke and Leia to their starting points. They gave us the young Ben and some great lightsaber duels. They gave us Christopher Lee as a Sith. Swashbuckling Yoda. Mace bloody Windu and his purple lightsaber. They’re bad but serviceable and not as harmful to the franchise as the final trilogy.
What do we get from the final trilogy? A mess, because they had no plan.
Where do we go from here?
The original trilogy remains the heart of the series. The animated series (and one movie), Clone Wars and Rebels, actually make the prequels better. Clone Wars bridges a lot and even foreshadows how the Jedi force ghosts will help Rey defeat Palpatine in Rise of Skywalker. Clone Wars is coming back for a seventh season to wrap up the war, giving it the opportunity to add more useful lore for The Mandalorian and other future Star Wars media. The animated series provide detail and stories The Mandalorian is now using to knit the whole galaxy together. And unlike the final film trilogy, they don’t fatally undermine the original trilogy. Watch at least the Darth Maul episodes if you haven’t. He’s interesting and he does interesting things mostly off the Skywalker-Palpatine saga.
But we still have to deal with J.J. Abrams’ mess of a final trilogy. So here’s my modest proposal: Retcon out the entire final trilogy. Get rid of ‘em. Make them Star Wars Legends, not Star Wars canon. They’re banished from the main storyline, just like the material Disney banished when it bought Star Wars. Han Solo’s “It’s all true” line in TFA gets flipped. None of the final trilogy is “true.” It’s legend and doesn’t matter.
Star Wars visual continuity, then, is the prequels, the animated material, the original trilogy, Rogue One, Solo, and The Mandalorian. The Mandalorian, set about five years after Return of the Jedi, is now free to tell a story that may — or may not! — include the warmed-over First Order Empire, Rey, Poe, Snoke, Kylo Ren, Finn, etc. Maybe the New Republic stands, maybe it falls. Maybe Luke restores the Jedi, or maybe he succumbs to the dark side. Or both. We don’t know yet! The comic books and novels don’t have to spend their time backfilling to explain what should have been included in the final trilogy, but wasn’t because Abrams and Rian Johnson failed in their jobs. Give all the Star Wars things to Jon Favreau and Dave Filoni and let them take it forward. Based on their work on the animated series and The Mandalorian, they get the Star Wars universe better than anyone else who is likely to get the job. So give it all to them.
Otherwise, we live in a world in which bad Star Wars films outnumber the good ones, and the original trilogy falls apart thanks to the unplanned and lazy final trilogy. I don’t want to live in that world. If the rebels/resistance can blow up three Death Stars, we can rebel against the Mouse Empire and banish three movies.
Bryan Preston is the author of Hubble’s Revelations: The Amazing Time Machine and Its Most Important Discoveries. He’s a writer, producer, veteran, author, and Texan.