If Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker had gotten great reviews, thrilled most fans of the franchise, or broken box office records, we probably wouldn’t be hearing rumors about how it could have turned out. It didn’t do those things, and thus the disaffected Star Wars fan base has seen its scabs ripped off by tantalizing, unconfirmed accounts of what the movie might have looked like in different hands. Earlier this month, an unsubstantiated report from a Redditor at r/saltierthancrait, which cited an anonymous on-set source, detailed the differences between the final film and an alleged original cut by director J.J. Abrams. The Abrams cut, which was supposedly a lot longer than the eventual theatrical release—consistent with separate, credible reports about material left on the cutting room floor—conveniently would have addressed many of the subreddit’s common complaints about the movie. The report put the onus on Disney for insisting on “more fan service, less controversy,” twisting the knife in an open emotional wound.
One might have thought that the visions of alternate Episode IXs would end there, but no, there is another. On Monday, a post surfaced at r/StarWarsLeaks, the subreddit where a breakdown of the script for the real The Rise of Skywalker appeared months before the movie’s release (complete with leaked screenshots of the final confrontation between a red-robed Palpatine and the “Force dyad” duo of Rey and Ben). The post, which included a “Wild rumor” tag, notified the community of a YouTube video posted on Monday by filmmaker Robert Meyer Burnett, who claimed to have obtained a copy of an early draft of the screenplay for Episode IX by original writer/director Colin Trevorrow and cowriter Derek Connolly. Burnett, who may have sacrificed some Bothans to bring us this scoop, revealed some of the supposed screenplay’s main plot points, which were collated by Reddit user Lollifroll. Trevorrow and Connolly were reportedly replaced because Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy was unhappy with their drafts, so the leak allegedly presented a picture of the direction Disney decided not go, inviting comparisons with The Rise of Skywalker’s story.
In other words, I’m about to break down a Reddit recap of a YouTube summary of an early draft of a screenplay that may or may not exist (although The A.V. Club’s Britt Hayes reported that she confirmed its veracity with a second source). The internet is a weird and wondrous place.
Keep in mind that the draft is allegedly dated December 16, 2016, 11 days before the death of Carrie Fisher. It would have had to change as a result of her passing, and it likely would have evolved in other respects between December 2016 and September 2017, when Abrams replaced Trevorrow (following a failed attempt at a touch-up by another writer, Jack Thorne). And before you get too invested in the movie that might have been, remember that Trevorrow is the man who made The Book of Henry, and Connolly cowrote Monster Trucks. Their records aren’t flawless, and if we could summon this alternate Episode IX from the dead, we might end up with a monkey’s paw monstrosity that would make The Rise of Skywalker look like The Empire Strikes Back.
Acknowledging all of those caveats—and the overarching concern that this could be a hoax, in which case we’re critiquing fan fiction—here’s what we can say. If The Rise of Skywalker dissatisfied you for the same big-picture reasons that it let down a lot of its audience—its rigid recycling of the past, the way its plot put it at odds with The Last Jedi, its reluctance to allow moral ambiguity or a reimagining of the Force—then you’ll probably find a lot to like about Trevorrow’s purported plan. There’s no way to know whether that blueprint would have led to a satisfying film, but the broad strokes make it sound as if the rejected rough draft would have avoided some of The Rise of Skywalker’s major missteps.
In an interview late last month, Abrams collaborator Chris Terrio, who cowrote the screenplay for The Rise of Skywalker after Trevorrow’s exit, said that he and Abrams had started their script from scratch, and that any commonalities with Trevorrow’s discarded script would have occurred by coincidence. That comment accords with Burnett’s leaks, which have only a few plot points in common with the Episode IX we know.
Trevorrow’s title for the final film in the Skywalker saga was Duel of the Fates, seemingly a reference both to the John Williams classic that accompanies the lightsaber battle at the end of The Phantom Menace and to the conflict between Kylo Ren and Rey, whom the movie would have placed on a climactic collision course.
Duel of the Fates’ opening crawl describes a scenario that doesn’t sound so different from the state of affairs at the start of The Rise of Skywalker:
The iron grip of the FIRST ORDER has spread to the farthest reaches of the galaxy. Only a few scattered planets remain unoccupied. Traitorous acts are punishable by death.
Determined to suffocate a growing unrest, Supreme Leader KYLO REN has silenced all communication between neighboring systems.
Led by GENERAL LEIA ORGANA, the Resistance has planned a secret mission to prevent their annihilation and forge a path to freedom ...
From there, though, the two diverge dramatically. Here are the highlights: Palpatine doesn’t return from the dead. Rey really is a nobody, in terms of her family tree: She isn’t descended from famous parents or grandparents. The big battle takes place on Coruscant, capital of the Old Republic and Empire, which the First Order has occupied. The Resistance defeats the First Order, Leia lives, and Rey outduels Kylo, who dies unredeemed.
Now for some specifics. According to Burnett, Duel of the Fates would have started with a Resistance raid on the industrial planet of Kuat, where the Old Republic and Empire constructed their warships. Although the raiders—including Rey, Rose, Finn, Poe, and BB-8—fail to sabotage the shipyards, they commandeer a Star Destroyer and escape. Meanwhile, Kylo is on Mustafar, searching for a Sith relic, as he does (very briefly) at the beginning of The Rise of Skywalker. The relic is a Sith holocron, not a wayfinder, and it contains a recording of Palpatine, who left his last wishes for Darth Vader in holographic form. In the event that Luke killed Palpatine, Vader was to take Luke to learn from Tor Valum, Palpatine’s ancient teacher.
Rey, who’s assembled her own lightsaber—a double-bladed hybrid of her staff and Luke’s cracked saber—learns from the ancients, too: The sacred Jedi texts she took from Ahch-To tip her off to a communication system, or “Force beacon,” beneath the former Jedi Temple on Coruscant. The beacon can send a signal to 50 planets, and because it’s based on old tech, the First Order’s blackout can’t stop it. Throughout all of this, Luke’s Force ghost is training Rey (who struggles to come to terms with her not-so-special lineage) and alternating between taunting Kylo and trying to turn him back to the light.
After that, the Resistance splits up. One team, composed of Rose, Finn, R2-D2, and C-3PO, go to Coruscant to try to light the beacon. Another team, featuring Rey, Poe, and Chewbacca, go elsewhere to consult someone on the proper path for Rey. (That part is pretty vague.) Kylo—who rids himself of Vader’s mask and forsakes his former idol, saying, “You allowed love to cloud your judgment”—confronts and trains with Tor Valum, who turns out to be a spindly, Lovecraftian, 7,000-year-old alien. (As part of that training, Kylo duels a vision of Vader, à la Luke on Dagobah.) The first Resistance team succeeds in lighting the beacon, and Leia asks Lando to take control of the forces that respond to the signal. Those forces congregate on Coruscant, setting up a battle in space and on land, while Finn, R2, and 3PO start a citizen’s uprising around First Order HQ. (Rose, who was captured and tortured by the First Order, frees herself somehow.) For some reason, Chewie flies an X-wing in the battle, which would be a tight fit. The good guys win.
As the Resistance squares off with the First Order, Kylo and Rey meet on Mortis, a mystical realm introduced in The Clone Wars that’s closely connected to the origins and true nature of the Force. During their showdown, they extract Force energy from each other. Kylo reveals that he killed Rey’s parents at Snoke’s behest. Rey overpowers him, and although the Force ghosts of Luke, Yoda, and Obi-Wan try to save him, he’s “extinguished.” Oh, and Han Solo appears and talks to Kylo at some point in the film, presumably in a Rise of Skywalker–esque vision.
That’s a lot to take in, and without reading the script, it’s tough to piece it all together. While it’s welcome that Rose isn’t sidelined as she was in The Rise of Skywalker, it’s unclear what role the stolen Star Destroyer plays, and some of the side missions seem like they could be Canto Bight–type distractions. It’s equally unclear what Tor Valum has been up to all this time, or how his presence relates to the Sith Rule of Two or Palpatine’s existing backstory as an apprentice to Darth Plagueis. Nor do we know why Snoke would have told Kylo to kill Rey’s parents if they weren’t VIPs, or to what degree Rey fuses the Force’s light and dark sides into a sustainable, nonbinary balance.
That said, this doesn’t sound like a remake of Return of the Jedi: There’s no (inexplicably living) Palpatine, no Death Star, no new technological superweapon, and no wayward Skywalker saved from the dark side. The focus stays on the conflicts established in the sequel trilogy: Kylo vs. Rey, First Order vs. Resistance. And Rey has humble origins, which would have led to less of a disconnect between The Last Jedi and Duel of the Fates.
Burnett also alludes to dialogue that grapples with the gray areas rather than defaulting to dark vs. light. As Rey supposedly says to Luke, “Balance? The dark suffocates the light, light extinguishes the dark. Over and over and over again. How is that balance in the Force?” Good question! Rey continues to question Luke’s teachings, remarking, “So says my master, and his master before him. A thousand masters, so eager to tell us how to live.” In The Rise of Skywalker, the “thousand generations” of Jedi are what give Rey her power. Here, they’re bonds she must break to bring lasting balance. Along the same lines, Leia allegedly tells Rey, “You’re not like my father or my brother. You’re new. … Your story isn’t written by anyone else.”
That’s potentially exciting stuff—and, perhaps, scary stuff for Disney, if the company was determined not to destabilize the Star Wars status quo. But beyond making money, what’s the point of creating a trilogy that doesn’t say something new? As described, Duel of the Fates wouldn’t have cheapened the original trilogy by resurrecting Palpatine. It would have democratized the series’ portrayal of how heroes arise. It would have raised thought-provoking questions about the Force and refused to supply the same old answers. And it would have explained why the ending of Episode IX would bring about a longer-lasting peace than the ending of Return of the Jedi did. Trevorrow’s hypothetical movie may not have lived up to the rumored screenplay’s promise. But regardless of whether it’s real, the alleged script’s message makes a more convincing case than Disney did for why we needed new movies at all.
It’s somewhat suspicious that this leaked script addresses so many of The Rise of Skywalker’s most divisive decisions. That may be a clue that this is nothing more than wish fulfillment. Then again, it wouldn’t be shocking to learn that Trevorrow wanted to take the trilogy in this direction: In most respects, the story described by Burnett would make for a more logical follow-up to The Last Jedi than The Rise of Skywalker was. If it’s authentic—and if there’s truth to the earlier leak about Abrams’s cut—then it’s possible that Disney made The Rise of Skywalker worse along the way. And if it’s a fabrication, it still reflects something real: the desire of many Star Wars fans for a different finale than the one Disney delivered.