When you look at J.J. Abrams’s work as a director—his career on television between Felicity, Alias, and Lost is a different matter—the most noticeable through line is his eagerness to simply play around in another creator’s sandbox, to repackage nostalgia without ruffling too many feathers. His entries in the Mission: Impossible and Star Trek franchises aren’t considered high marks, but they’re fun, accessible pieces of entertainment; the filmmaking equivalent of getting straight Bs on a report card. (And yes, even though Super 8 is technically Abrams’s sole directorial outing with an original conceit, it owes as much to the iconography of Steven Spielberg as Stranger Things does to John Carpenter, Stephen King, and also Spielberg.) Abrams might not be your favorite filmmaker, but he was a sensible choice to usher in a new Star Wars trilogy under the Disney corporate umbrella.
The prevailing sentiment among The Force Awakens detractors was that his film was mostly a retread of A New Hope—none other than George Lucas reportedly lamented the movie’s lack of originality. But The Force Awakens doesn’t deserve such a broad takedown. The familiarity was a feature, not a bug—a sign that this trilogy wanted to evoke the spirit of the original films instead of Lucas’s prequels concerned with midi-chlorians and the Trade Federation. Plus, Abrams threw in some wrinkles. Our new characters included a Stormtrooper with a conscience and, in the angsty Kylo Ren, a villain whose ambition to live up to Darth Vader’s iconic presence mostly registered as pathetic rather than frightening. Indeed, The Force Awakens largely played it safe; there was a new Death Star—er, sorry, Starkiller Base, and everything. But Abrams laid the foundation for its sequels to navigate new and meaningful directions in a galaxy far, far away.
That’s what Rian Johnson ran with in The Last Jedi, the most groundbreaking entry in the saga since The Empire Strikes Back. There are enough Last Jedi takes on the internet to feed an entire continent, so let’s just cover the basics: With Rey’s parents being nobody of import, the film established that Force-abled heroes didn’t have to come from a historic lineage; it acknowledged, in a somewhat meta way, that the only way to embrace the future is to let the past die; it reckoned with the complicated legacy of the Jedi through Luke Skywalker’s own failures and insecurities; oh, and Supreme Leader Snoke was unimportant sashimi. The vocal minority of Star Wars fans who hated The Last Jedi seemed to think Johnson’s message was anti–Star Wars; really, he was interrogating the franchise’s legacy so that something he loved wouldn’t get stuck repeating familiar beats. And when fans complain that the new trilogy is either way too similar to the original films or antithetical to the Star Wars ethos, nobody wins.
Not even major Hollywood franchises can please everyone, yet that’s what Abrams and Co. aimed to do with The Rise of Skywalker. It didn’t work. By now, you’ll have seen the, uh, mixed reception to Rise of Skywalker; perhaps you already saw the film yourself. (The internet is so spoiler-averse these days that a detailed description of Chewbacca’s fur might warrant a few angry tweets, so if you really don’t want to know anything about Rise of Skywalker, please stop reading and take a peaceful walk outside.) What we have in Rise of Skywalker is a film equally committed to pandering and Last Jedi retconning—the latter of which makes the plot of the film nearly incomprehensible. The movie, unfortunately, lacks the imagination and spirit of the franchise’s greatest entries.
The compelling moral ambiguity The Last Jedi established is thrown away for another classic, pared-down confrontation between Jedi and Sith, led by a character who was tossed dramatically into an air shaft by Darth Vader in Return of the Jedi. It’s hard to believe this trilogy always envisioned Snoke as something Emperor Palpatine vaguely (and literally?) put together in a Sith lab (??), but Abrams is committed to the idea that Palpy is the Skywalker saga’s ultimate evil, even if the notion of this Sith lord still haunting the franchise strains credulity. But while Palpatine’s reemergence is mostly in service of the plot—the same can’t be said for the brief and unfortunately empty reprisal of Lando Calrissian—there are other areas where Rise of Skywalker feels like it’s trying to tell Last Jedi trolls that their protestations were heard.
Kelly Marie Tran’s Rose, a new character introduced in The Last Jedi as a Resistance fighter and potential love interest for Finn, is sidelined for most of the film—the most blatant shelving of a Star Wars character since Jar Jar Binks in Attack of the Clones. (Not that less Jar Jar screen time was a problem back then.) It’s not a great look, especially when you consider the actress was the target of harassment and racist comments on social media. Beyond that, any misgivings that Luke previously had about the Jedi, their philosophy, and their fatal hubris has apparently fallen away—it’s like becoming a Force ghost gave him a strange bout of amnesia.
Kylo Ren, and this is somehow not a joke, reassembles the old, smashed-up helmet he wore for most of The Force Awakens. And Rey’s parentage is once again brought to the fore after Abrams initially teased this mystery in The Force Awakens, and The Last Jedi appeared to close the book on it. (Though, in Abrams’s defense, this seems less like a rebuke to Johnson’s film and more something he always planned to do with the character.) With all the things Rise of Skywalker wants to undo from The Last Jedi, you’d assume the movie’s backlash made it a commercial flop on the level of Dark Phoenix—in fact, it’s actually the 13th-highest grossing movie of all time. Retconning The Last Jedi isn’t just a waste of time in the last leg of a trilogy, it creates a ridiculous precedent: One of the biggest entertainment companies on the planet will listen to anybody’s demands if they’re loud and brash enough.
Rise of Skywalker could have been a good Star Wars movie were it not so concerned with unnecessarily relitigating The Last Jedi and, sadly, if Carrie Fisher were still alive and the film didn’t have to repurpose unused Force Awakens footage of the actress. (It brings me no pleasure to report Leia’s scenes feel noticeably stilted on account of Abrams’s having to work around her old dialogue.) Instead of heeding The Last Jedi’s message of killing the past, Rise of Skywalker is actively trying to revive it—in a literal sense with Palpatine, and in bringing back the basic delineations of the Jedi-Sith conflict. Whether you liked The Last Jedi or not, Rise of Skywalker makes it clear that the Star Wars franchise is at war with itself on account of competing visions for how the Skywalker saga should be concluded.
Based on this franchise infighting, which made its way into the Rise of Skywalker press tour, it seems Disney didn’t insist on the same kind of oversight on Star Wars that helped turn the Marvel Cinematic Universe into a cultural behemoth. Led by Kevin Feige, the MCU worked out its early kinks—Ed Norton’s Hulk was canned; it was accepted, after two stand-alones, that Thor needed to actually be fun—and became a well-oiled, crowd-pleasing multibillion dollar machine in which all the films agree on the vibe of the fictional universe. Star Wars, meanwhile, seemed to have made things up as they went along, letting individual artists plan each installment—it’s important here to remember Colin Trevorrow was initially going to write and direct Episode IX, before everyone at Lucasfilm apparently saw The Book of Henry—without a full consideration of the bigger picture. In the end, all three films seemed to be at odds with one another, which leads to a bigger question: What was the actual point of this trilogy?
Obviously, the goal was to make money—and make no mistake, Rise of Skywalker is going to dominate its opening weekend box office even if it falls short on meteoric expectations. And for all its flaws, it’s a fun movie with some exemplary set pieces and sumptuous visuals: It’s Star Wars! But it becomes tempting to look back at this trilogy and think of the what-ifs. What if J.J. Abrams just had the keys to the whole trilogy and got to complete his safe, familiar, and yet cohesive vision? (This move wouldn’t have my vote, but at least it’d be consistent.) What if another filmmaker took over for Trevorrow and followed Johnson’s lead to take the franchise in a different direction? What if, before the trilogy was launched, everyone agreed to certain plot lines, like deciding who Rey’s parents were, before things got out of hand? What if Star Wars was still Star Wars, but—I can’t believe I’m saying this—actually had some Marvel-like synergy?
The existence of this new trilogy was inevitable once Disney acquired Lucasfilm, and I think it’s safe to assume a lot of fans were cautiously optimistic that we wouldn’t get a retread of Lucas’s less-celebrated prequels. To an extent, maybe we craved the familiar comfort of the Luke-Leia-Han trilogy. But the tragic irony is that the new trilogy eating its own tail could trigger a prequel renaissance—outside of the dank memes. Jar Jar Binks was objectively terrible and Anakin Skywalker’s love story was hilariously contrived, but at least Lucas was adhering to his own vision. (And why not roll with it? He made the whole thing!)
Lucas’s strange, undeniably flawed prequels might not reach the highs of his original trilogy, but it clearly wasn’t created with any committee-approved mandate to appease the widest possible audience. Any consolations made by Lucas were comparably minimal, like pretending Jar Jar never existed after near-universal disdain. In trying to win over everyone—including Last Jedi detractors—The Rise of Skywalker and its diminishing, redundant returns aren’t likely to please anyone hoping for a coherent ending to the Skywalker saga. If there is an underlying legacy to the new Star Wars trilogy, perhaps it’s that pursuing provocative, original ideas while maintaining some semblance of IP-driven oversight is as important as finding balance in the Force.