Analysis

The Star Wars sequel trilogy needed a roadmap

The Rise of Skywalker could have been so much better if only there had been a plan

The Star Wars sequel trilogy has long lacked a consistent vision, and it paid the price in the end. Lucasfilm's decision to produce this trilogy by letting different writers and directors with their own unique approaches tackle each installment, with not nearly enough long-term planning, nearly ruins the final film, The Rise of Skywalker. Virtually every one of the movie's significant problems can be traced back to this relay-race approach to the story.

J.J. Abrams' film The Force Awakens opened the door to tons of new narrative possibilities, and also asked direct questions that needed answers, leaving fans wondering about everything from how Luke Skywalker would react to Rey holding out his lightsaber to the identity of Rey's parents. But Abrams didn't return for the follow-up, The Last Jedi, instead passing the story off to writer-director Rian Johnson, and it seems Johnson was just as in the dark as fans were about where things might go next.

Indeed, Johnson has explained that when he was approached for The Last Jedi, there was "no mapped story presented beyond" The Force Awakens, and it sounds like he was essentially given a blank slate. The result was plenty of bold narrative choices, including the reveal that Rey's parents were actually nobody of significance. Johnson also wouldn't return for the third installment, for which the baton was passed back to Abrams. With The Rise of Skywalker, Abrams makes numerous confusing decisions that leave fans frustrated.

Although Johnson chose to kill off Supreme Leader Snoke in The Last Jedi, Abrams quickly swaps in a resurrected Emperor Palpatine, basically resetting the status quo. After Kylo Ren destroyed his helmet in The Last Jedi, it's repaired in The Rise of Skywalker for no clear reason. After Luke Skywalker sacrificed his life to inspire hope across the galaxy, this inspiration is scarcely felt. Rose Tico, after becoming a major player in The Last Jedi, is bafflingly sidelined and has virtually nothing to do for the entire movie. One reference to having respect for a lightsaber almost plays like a shot at Johnson himself.

And yes, the mystery of Rey's parents is substantially revised so that they're actually hugely significant, as Rey is revealed to be the granddaughter of Emperor Palpatine. Reneging a story decision that already felt so right requires quite a bit of justification, and The Rise of Skywalker doesn't provide it. This plot line wasn't broke, so why did Abrams try to fix it?

But the retcons and reversals aren't as bad as the fact that The Rise of Skywalker is just so busy introducing an absurd amount of plot that it has no choice but to rush through it all. As a result, key scenes that should have profound effect instead fall flat. Look no further than the slapdash opening, in which we're given almost no time to adjust to the fact that Palpatine, a character we spent 36 years thinking died in Return of the Jedi, is suddenly back. But the movie doesn't have time to adequately explain why. We're hardly able to register this absolutely massive, game-changing twist before the film moves on.

Issues like these could have easily been avoided had the trilogy's endgame been agreed upon from the get-go. Strangely, during the promotion of The Rise of Skywalker, Abrams said Palpatine's return was discussed during the making of The Force Awakens. If that was the plan, it sure sounds like Johnson never got the memo. Abrams also said when he returned to direct the final episode that he realized The Last Jedi didn't "derail" anything he had in mind for the story's end. But what kind of an approach to a trilogy is that? Shouldn't the second movie actively help put the pieces in the right place for the finale?

To be fair, there's plenty of precedent for a lack of planning in Star Wars. The original trilogy was helmed by three different directors and isn't without its retcons and reversals, from A New Hope describing Luke's father as dead when we later learn he's alive and is Darth Vader, to Leia being revealed as Luke's sister in Return of the Jedi after they kissed in the last movie. But how did the sequels — which were always going to be a trilogy — find themselves falling into the same traps on a much larger scale?

The Rise of Skywalker is not a catastrophe. It's messy, yes, but it's still a fun and effective finale, which is a relief. But let's hope that as Lucasfilm takes a hiatus and regroups for Star Wars' next chapter on the big screen, it understands the danger of embarking on a project like this without a roadmap. After all, as Yoda taught us, the greatest teacher, failure is.

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