So the Star Wars saga has finally come to an end of 42 years. Of course, we thought that Star Wars had ended twice before, in 1983 and 2005 respectively. So is The Rise of Skywalker really the end of the Star Wars saga? Most likely not. But it still marks the end of a significant chapter and is very likely the last time we will see the protagonists of the original trilogy on screen.
Spoilers for The Rise of Skywalker and Star Wars in general.
Now the original Star Wars trilogy are my favourite movies of all time and have been, ever since I first watched them as a kid. They remained my favourites when teachers at school berated me for liking “that violent and proto-fascist American trash”. They remained my favourites through university when my fellow students would roll their eyes at my choice of favourite and would then name whatever movies they thought would make them look enlightened and cultured (My Left Foot is the one I remember clearly, because the person who called it their favourite was so clearly trying to impress the professor). They remained my favourites when some elderly neighbour or relative asks me why I can’t watch “normal movies” like everybody else (apparently, some of the highest grossing movies of all time are not normal).
The original movies do have their share of flaws. There are scenes that go on way too long and others, which are glossed over too quickly. There is a notable lack of racial diversity in the cast – not uncommon for movies in the 1970s/80s – and there is an even more notable lack of women not named Leia, which was uncommon even in the 1970s and 1980s. However, with Star Wars the whole is somehow greater than the sum of its parts and even forty years on, the original trilogy is the rare case of an almost perfect spectacle.
As for the prequel trilogy, I don’t hate them as much as some others do, but I don’t love them either. There are things to like about the prequels. The visuals are gorgeous, they flesh out the Star Wars universe and its politics in a way the original trilogy didn’t, they turn R2-D2 into a much more important character than he originally was (R2 is the only one who knows what’s going on) and the prequels made me like Obi-Wan, a character I didn’t particularly like in the original trilogy. To me, Obi-Wan as played by Alec Guinness was the grumpy grandfather from the 1980 version of Little Lord Fauntleroy (which is a Christmas classic in Germany) being grumpy some more and never softening like in Little Lord Fauntleroy, but basically lying to Luke and everybody else. Of course, Yoda lies as well, but we forgive Yoda, because he is cute.
But in general, where the original trilogy was magic, the prequels are just movies and not all that great ones at that. They are also hampered by the fact that pretty much everybody already had their own mental vision of the events depicted in the prequels and the prequels naturally didn’t match any of our visions. The fact that they end on a real downer (whereas the original and sequel trilogy save the downer ending for the middle installment) doesn’t help either. The prequels also change the dynamic of the whole saga. Back when the prequels first came out, I wrote on an earlier version of this blog that while for our generation, the revelation that Darth Vader was Luke’s father was the big shock, for those who’s come after us and would watch the movies in chronological rather then production order, Anakin falling for the dark side would be the big shock, whereas Darth Vader being Luke’s Dad would be something viewers knew all along. And indeed, there is something of a debate whether to show the Star Wars trilogy in chronological or production order to people watching them for the first time, because the decision effects very much how you’ll view the films. Never mind that if you watch the movies in chronological order, you’ll start of with the weakest movies bar Solo (while production order starts out with one of the strongest) and will also get a double whammy of downers with Rogue One following Revenge of the Sith.
As for the sequel trilogy, my feelings are mixed. As movies and entertainment, they are much better than the prequel trilogy, though not quite up to the standards of the originals. But when Disney bought Lucasfilm and the sequel trilogy was first announced, my initial reaction was, “That story has been told. We don’t need any sequels, let alone sequels not written/overseen by the original creator George Lucas.”
I eventually came around and watched the sequel trilogy (and Rogue One) and largely enjoyed them with a few caveats. Viewed purely on their own, the sequels work. They’re highly enjoyable movies with fine actors playing likeable and diverse characters (and characters we love to hate), engaging action and great visuals, telling a suitably epic story. However, when viewed in the context of the whole Star Wars saga, they also undermine the original trilogy and make the victory at the end of Return of the Jedi seem hollow. Because by the end of Return of the Jedi, I at least thought that this universe would be all right, that the rebels would rebuild a democratic system and rebuild it better than before and that the various characters we’d become attached to would live long and largely happy lives. Okay, so I was a kid when I first watched the movie and naive, but Return of the Jedi still ends on a hopeful note.
The sequels on the other hand tell us that the New Republic never really worked out (and is unceremoniously destroyed in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it scene in The Force Awakens). Worse, our heroes – the characters we spent three movies rooting for – turned out to be failures at pretty much everything. Han and Leia’s relationship, one of science fiction’s greatest love stories, didn’t work out, they split up and turned out to be inept parents, too, who lost their kid to the Dark Side. And Luke Skywalker turned out to be a complete and utter failure as a Jedi and a total jerk besides, who tried to kill his own nephew, driving him to the Dark Side, and then spent twenty years or so hiding away on a rock in the middle of nowhere, never washing his hair. Oh yes, and he also likely died a virgin, still unhappily in love with his sister. In fact, when I first watched The Last Jedi with my Mom, her reaction to grumpy old Luke was, “What an arsehole!” Honestly, these are awful fates for some of our favourite characters. They lived miserable lives and died miserable deaths – with the possible exception of Leia, who was always the most competent one. Even the Expanded/Legends Universe gave these characters more of a shot at happiness.
Considering that all of the original cast except for those actors like Peter Cushing and Alec Guinness who had already been old when the first movie came out were still alive when The Force Awakens was made, I understand the decision to set the movie approx. thirty years after the originals and use the original cast. But from a narrative point of view, The Force Awakens would have worked better, if it had been set one hundred rather than thirty years after Return of the Jedi and Kylo Ren would have been Darth Vader’s great-great-grandson rather than grandson. For example, Simon R. Green deliberately set his second Deathstalker trilogy about two hundred years after the first, starring distant maybe descendants of the original characters, to avoid undermining a series which a) was always more clear-eyed about how revolutions really work out than Star Wars ever was, and b) killed off most of the characters we really cared about in the final book of the original series anyway.
The prequel trilogy shows us how democracies die and slip into tyranny. The original trilogy shows us how tyranny can be beaten and democracy can be restored. And the sequel trilogy essentially shows us that no matter how often you beat tyranny, it will always come back and any victory you win will always be hollow. Oh yes, and the galaxy at large just doesn’t care, as long as they get their pensions/free washing machines*/a culturally homogenic state/a sense of safety, no matter how hollow. Which, honestly, is more of a downer message than Revenge of the Sith and Rogue One taken together.
It is also a message that is very fitting for our times. Because let’s face it, Star Wars has always been immensely political, even if the usual suspects try to view it as just wholesome apolitical fun in outer space. This great article by Tom Kreider in the New York Times points out that the original Star Wars trilogy, particularly the movie now known as A New Hope, were very much a product of the 1970s. For starters, Star Wars shares a lot of DNA and visual aesthetics with the dystopian science fiction movies of the early 1970s, Soylent Green, Silent Running, Rollerball, Logan’s Run, Z.P.G. and of course George Lucas’ own THX 1138. All of those movies and others of their ilk were about an individual rising up against an unjust tyrannical system, only that in Star Wars that rebellion succeeded better than in the dystopian downers of the early 1970s. Though you can also see the progression of how the science fiction movies of the 1970s became progressively more optimistic as the decade went on. Logan’s Run, which came out a year before Star Wars, is more optimistic than such early 1970s downers like Soylent Green or Z.P.G (and Z.P.G. doesn’t even make any sense whatsoever).
Furthermore, as Tom Kreider points out, Star Wars is influenced by frustrations about the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal and how the America as a beacon of freedom and democracy that George Lucas had been promised as a kid growing up in the 1950s had turned out to be nothing but a lie. In fact, this sheer anger of a kid growing up in a desert town in the middle of nowhere, railing at the fact that the country he lives in has been sold to him as the best possible of all systems and yet has so much that’s wrong with it and that he’d change it and make things better, if only he’d manage to get out of that damn desert town first, permeates the original Star Wars trilogy and is so strong that it radiated out to another kid living in the middle of nowhere, though not in the desert, because she didn’t even have anything as exciting as a desert, a kid who also saw that the wonderful and perfectly democratic country she lived in, the best of all possible systems, had its share of flaws and that she could make it better, if only she could get out of that damned small town that wasn’t even a desert first.
I very much believe that a large part of Star Wars‘ success is due to this dynamic – that it is a story that spoke to everybody who ever lived in a small town that did not understand them and dared to question a system that teachers and parents said was as good as things were going to get. This is also why attempts to link Star Wars to the Reagan/Thatcher/Kohl era always make me so furious, because those folks where the fucking Empire and Star Wars was not about them, but about how to get rid of them and everything they stood for (though at the time I viewed Helmut Kohl as the hapless Old Republic that didn’t know what happened to it as the Empire took over. I no longer view him that way. He was the fucking Empire along). It’s also why I once wrote a furious letter to the German public broadcasters telling them to stop referring to Ronald Reagan’s SDI program, pushed – as I later learned – by a coalition of rightwing SF writers including Heinlein, as the “Star Wars program”, because George Lucas, the person who actually created Star Wars, was vehemently opposed to that usage and viewed it as copyright infringement, which they’d bloody know, if they’d actually show the movies on TV. They never responded, BTW. Nonetheless, if you grew up in the 1980s, Star Wars was a promise that came true in the real world. For throughout the second half of the 1980s, tyrannies tumbled, first the really awful ones in Uganda, the Phillippines, Haiti and then the whole bloody Iron Curtain came down, too. And the Reagans, Thtachers and Kohls of the world would be next and indeed, Reagan and Thatcher were soon out of office, though bloody Helmut Kohl would hang on for another decade. Democracy won, we won and we didn’t even have spaceships or lightsabers.
Of course, it didn’t work out that way. It quickly turned out that the transition to democracy was far from smooth and that getting rid of political oppression in Eastern Europe and elsewhere also liberated a couple of ugly old ghosts we’d rather have kept buried. The US and anybody they could bully into joining in went to war against Iraq in 1991 and would periodically do so again well into the new millennium. The Balkan exploded into violence and two and a half years after the fall of the Wall, a home for refugees was burning in Rostock-Lichtenhagen, set alight by Neonazis who were cheered on by the general population. It was the first notable act (though I’ve since learned that there were several earlier racist attacks and murders, which were swept under the carpet at the time) in what would soon turn into an orgy of far right violence, concentrated in but not limited to East Germany. Meanwhile, nominally leftwing governments dismantled social security systems all over Europe and beyond. And then came the September 11, 2001 and the so-called war on terror started, complete with increased surveillance for “our own safety”.
The prequel trilogy exploded into this climate. Just as the original trilogy was a child of the Vietnam/Watergate era, the prequels were a child of the Bush era with its war on terror and escalating state surveillance, even though The Phantom Menace actually predated both the election of George W. Bush and September 11, 2001. The prequels show how a series of relatively small events (after all, the prequel trilogy infamously begins with a trade dispute) can cause a democratic system to slide into a dictatorship, pushed forwards by hard choices and bad decisions made by people with good intentions. Watching the prequel trilogy is watching a tragedy slowly unfold. And indeed, if things had gone only slightly differently, the rise of the Empire might still have been averted until about halfway through Revenge of the Sith. The intense dislike of and distrust for George W. Bush has been somewhat forgotten, because Donald Trump turned out to be so much more awful, but the prequel trilogy very much captures the fears and preoccupations of the Bush era and is as much a work of its time as the original trilogy.
The sequel trilogy, meanwhile, dropped into a world of resurgent far right nationalism, where many of the very countries who ousted undemocratic regimes in the 1980s voted in even worse dictators and large swathes of the population don’t even care, because their pensions are safe and they feel that something is being done about crime and besides, the latest strongman ruler only targets immigrants, LGBTQ people, leftwingers and malcontents anyway. Once more, Star Wars proved itself to be rather prescient, for even though The Force Awakens came out at the tail-end of the Obama era, about half a year before the Brexit referendum and eleven months before the election of Donald Trump, the sequel trilogy is very much a product of the Trump/Brexit/Putin/Bolsonaro/Duterte/Orban/Erdogan/AfD era, where even established democracies are suddenly under threat again by a resurgent far right. It’s no accident that the most recognisable villain of the sequel trilogy is a young, somewhat whiny white man who idolises his war criminal grandfather, is etsranged from his progressive parents and longs for some kind of golden age that never existed. Nor is it an accident that some of the most unpleasant villains in the entire sequel trilogy are wealthy capitalists who sell weapons to both sides and get rich on the profits and don’t give a flying fart about democracy, because it only hinders their business. Nor is it an accident that the Resistance’s call for aid at the end of The Last Jedi goes unanswered (except by some urchins living in the stables of Canto Bite). The people of the galaxy no longer even care that they are living in a dictatorship, because crime is down, pensions are safe and Snoke is probably handing out free washing machines to the right kind of people. The sequel trilogy shows us that even if you think that you laid the old ghosts (literally, since the main villain of the sequel trilogy is the resurrected main villain of the previous two trilogies) to rest for good, they’ll always come back and don’t even hope that your family/friends/neighbours will support you, because they most likely won’t.
In The Rise of Skywalker, of course, the people of the galaxy still come to the aid of the Resistance in the end, rallied by Lando Calrissian (who – let’s not forget – was a backstabbing villain when first introduced), the Resistance triumphs, though pretty much all of its leaders, who actually knew what they were doing, are dead and I can’t really see Poe Dameron as president of the New New Republic, the chief villain has an eleventh hour conversion and sacrifices his life for good (actually handled better in the case of Kylo Ren, probably because Adam Driver is one hell of an actor) and the First Order is destroyed. There also is one Jedi left who can re-establish the Jedi order for the third time. Our heroes hug and celebrate and we’re basically at the same point where we were at the end of Return of the Jedi, which again is no accident, because the sequel trilogy closely mirrors the structure of the original trilogy, much more closely than the prequels did.
There is just one difference. At the end of Return of the Jedi, I at least thought that things would be okay now. It wouldn’t always be smooth sailing, the occasional Thrawn and other Imperial leftover would pop up, but democracy had been restored and our heroes would be happy. Meanwhile, the end of The Rise of Skywalker is very much what the romance community calls a Happy For Now (and not even all that happy, considering no one except for two elderly lesbians gets a romantic happy ending and Rey ends the movie alone on Tatooine) rather than the Happily Ever After we thought we got at the ending of Return of the Jedi.
As a matter of fact, the complete lack of any kind of romantic resolution is one of the things that annoys me about The Rise of Skywalker. Because throughout the sequel trilogy there were sparks flying in all directions and between various characters. Rey/Kylo, Rey/Finn, Rose/Finn, Poe/Finn, Poe/Rey, Rey/Poe/Finn, Rose/Poe/Finn, Poe/Zorri, Finn/Jannah, Poe/Billie Lourd’s character and even Kylo/Hux (yes, they supposedly hate each other, but we know how that often goes) all wouldn’t have been unlikely romantic possibilities. And unlike the original trilogy, the sequel trilogy actually has sufficient characters of any gender to allow for more than the love triangle of the original. But of all the many romantic possibilities teased throughout the three movies, we get absolutely nothing except for some longing looks. Rey continues the tradition of Jedi standing alone at the end of Star Wars trilogies (because that worked so well the last two times – not), while Poe and Finn neither end up with each other nor with someone else. Of course, Rey and Kylo/Ben wouldn’t have been a sustainable pairing, because reformed or not, Kylo/Ben still is a war criminal responsible for death on a massive scale. Not to mention that I would feel very worried about any kid these two might ever have had, because that poor kid would have grown up with their universe’s equivalents of Hitler and Stalin as great-grandparents, which would have knocked even the most mentally stable person (and none of the male Skywalkers have ever been mentally stable) off balance. So yes, Rey/Kylo was never going to happen, but something else could have happened. But as it is, the only person who ends the movie in a happy relationship is Amanda Lawrence’s no-longer-young rebel commander, who gets to kiss her girlfriend/wife in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it scene that has been touted as the first LGBTQ scene in a Star Wars movie (I guess everybody missed Obi-Wan, even though it’s strongly implied that his character is not straight) and eventually turns out to be something that might have been revolutionary back in Return of the Jedi in 1983, but feels just disappointing now.
ETA: I’m not the only one who noticed how disappointing the lack of any romantic outcome in the sequel trilogy was. Indeed, Marissa Martinelli points out in Slade that love is dead in the Star Wars universe, because none of the romances introduced, no matter how vaguely, ever end in anything other than tragedy.
As for the future prospects of the universe, by now it is very obvious to me that the Star Wars universe is a terrible place, regardless of which regime is in charge. It was a terrible place during the Old Republic, it became even more terrible during the Empire, it did not markedly improve during the New Republic (as seen in The Mandalorian) and got even worse with the First Order in charge. Except for Coruscant, Naboo, Bespin and Alderaan (and Naboo isn’t perfect, Bespin gets taken over by the Empire and we see next to nothing of Alderaan before it’s blown up), pretty much all planets we see are shitholes beset by crime and corruption (and Bespin is likely beset by crime and corruption, too, considering who runs it) where the locals live a hardscrabble existence. A few non-human worlds like Endor or Kashykk seem to be doing all right with functioning social and political systems, only to be steamrollered by the Empire. Of course, it was always pretty obvious that the Star Wars universe was a horrible place, but during the original trilogy, we were allowed to think that it was better once and will be better again. The prequels, the sequels and the various additional media pretty much destroyed that illusion. The Star Wars universe is a crappy place, always was and always will be. And the Resistance victory at the end of The Rise of Skywalker won’t magically make things better. Rey, Finn and Poe will fail just as Han, Luke and Leia did before them. And in five or ten or twenty years, some new autocratic regime with a fetish for Nazi imagery, headed by a shrivelled hooded leader (maybe even another clone of Palpatine) and his masked and black clad righthand man (or woman) will rear its ugly head and the whole story will begin anew again. And again. And again.
Much as I enjoyed them viewed on their own, the sequel trilogy has turned the Star Wars universe into a depressing place. The Last Jedi at least seemed to hint at a way out of this eternal cycle of republic arises out of tyranny, only to fall to tyranny again, while the Jedi rise, fail and are exterminated, only to rise again. The Last Jedi gave us a glimpse of a shadowy society of villainous capitalists who don’t care about the endless battle between the dark and the light side, as long as they keep fighting and buying weapons. The Last Jedi gave us a maintenance tech heroine and Force users coming out of nowhere instead of from lengthy intertwined Jedi bloodlines (though the overwhelming majority of the Jedi we saw in the prequels probably came from nowhere as well). The Last Jedi even hinted at an end to the endless dark side/light side dichotomy of the Force, when it seems for a moment as if Rey and Kylo, having just killed Snoke and his guards, are about to leave all that crap behind them and movie beyond light and dark side, Jedi and Sith, to build something new. Only then, Kylo decides that he’d rather rule the galaxy and Rey dumps him. And then The Rise of Skywalker pretty much undoes everything The Last Jedi has built up and goes for a far more conventional conclusion. The Jedi Order Rey will rebuild – because you know that she eventually will – will be just as flawed as the first and second versions and will probably fail just as easily.
Now unlike many Star Wars fans, I never particularly liked the Jedi Order as it was. Yes, lightsabers and Force powers are cool. But taking young kids from their parents and then berating them for daring to miss their parents? Telling padawans that they must renounce all feelings, that they don’t have a right to be angry, that they cannot form attachments romantic or otherwise, that they shouldn’t help their friends, even if their friends are being tortured? Sorry, but that’s pretty much the opposite of cool. Never mind that the Jedi are raging hypocrites who constantly break their own rules. Also – and I’m stunned by how many people missed this – the movies themselves have always been highly critical of the Jedi. The point of the entire prequel trilogy is that the old ways of the Jedi don’t work and in fact ushered in the Empire with their utter incompetence (coincidentally, neither does the way of the Mandalorians, even though they at least are not directly responsible for the rise of the Empire). Yes, I had hoped that Luke would do better and jettison a lot of the more overt Jedi idiocies and keep the ideas that were actually good, but in the end he failed just as Yoda, Mace Windu, Obi-Wan and the others had failed before him. Luke saying in The Last Jedi that it is time for the Jedi to finally end, because they just don’t work, are probably the wisest words he has ever spoken. Just as Yoda’s Jedi Master heart-to-heart with Luke, wherein he tells Luke that “We are what they grow beyond” are probably the truest words Yoda has ever spoken.
So while I had hoped that Luke would do better than his predecessors, in the end I wasn’t that shocked that he didn’t and turned into an unwashed hermit on an island, whose inhabitants at best tolerate him. But then I was never that invested in Luke anyway. I liked him, sure, but he was never my favourite or even second or third favourite Star Wars character. Though for a bunch of fanboys (using the gendered term deliberately here) who grew up wanting to be Jedi and completely missed that the Jedi way doesn’t work, Luke turning out to be a complete failure as a Jedi feels like a massive betrayal, a rape of their childhood power fantasies (presumably after the prequels raped them first). That’s not to say that there are no issues with The Last Jedi – I have some myself. But the alleged issues most people complain about really aren’t issues and they certainly don’t justify the sheer amount of toxicity and abuse hurled at the movie, the people who worked on it and those who actually liked it.
While I have some sympathy for fanboy complaints about the fate of Luke, I have none for complaints about Rose and Finn, calling them useless characters. For starters, Rose and Finn are far from useless. Yes, Rose is a maintenance tech and Finn spent much of his time cleaning toilets on Starkiller Base, but maintenance techs and toilet cleaners are vital. Or how far do you think a Star Destroyed would get without functioning toilets? And in fact, one of the things I loved about The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi is how Finn and later Rose use the knowledge gained in their less than glamorous professions to help the Resistance, disable defence systems, etc… Also, the fact that Finn, Rose and Rey are no one special in The Last Jedi, but just ordinary people trying to get by in a crapsack galaxy, actually sends an important message, namely that you don’t have to have a high midichlorian count or be an ace pilot or an intergalactic princess or the secret love child of a powerful Jedi to make a difference. And in fact, in the past fifteen years or so, our major pop culture franchises have been falling over each other to emphasise that it’s not the superpowers/suit/lightsaber/sonic screwdriver that makes the hero, it’s what lies inside the person. This message lies at the heart of pretty much all Marvel movies, occasionally even spelled out in the dialogue, of the better DC movies, of the new Doctor Who, particularly in the early Russell T. Davies seasons, but also in the more recent Jodi Whittaker ones, of Jupiter Ascending, Edge of Tomorrow, the old and new Ghostbusters and the Star Wars sequel trilogy. It’s a great and hopeful message and one that we need to hear and yet it often gets blowback from a certain kind of fan, who need to see themselves as “special” in their fantasies.
The Rise of Skywalker will probably satisfy those fans (if they bother to watch it), because it walks back many of the decisions made in The Last Jedi. Finn is revealed to be Force-sensitive (which he might well be; it’s pretty obvious that the Jedi, even when functioning, missed a lot of Force sensitive kids), Rose is sidelined and pretty much written out, turned into just another person standing around in the Resistance headquarters and Rey no longer comes from nowhere, the daughter of scavengers who abandoned her. Instead, she is revealed to be the granddaughter of Emperor Palpatine himself. Which might actually have been a great twist, if some kind of groundwork had been laid for it, but it literally comes out of nowhere, just like Palpatine-ex-machina himself.
Also, throughout the entire prequel and original trilogy there was never the slightest hint that Palpatine had a wife or romantic partner or that he had any romantic or sexual interests at all. Palpatine in the original trilogy and the prequels was as celibate as the Jedi were supposed to be. Of course, it is possible that Palpatine had a wife or mistress and that he had a child with her, a child who rejected his father and everything he stood for and ran off to become a scavenger on Yakku and had a kid of his own, Rey. In fact, that’s one hell of a story, but maybe we should have seen at least a little of it. Also, why make Rey’s father the son of Palpatine? Surely, Rey’s mother who is played by Jodie Comer, best known as the assassin Villanelle from Killing Eve would make a much better daughter of Palpatine?
But then it’s bleedingly obvious that Palpatine is only in The Rise of Skywalker, because Rian Johnson killed off Snoke (via Kylo Ren remote igniting Rey’s lightsaber) in The Last Jedi. Which is a moment I liked a lot, especially since Darth Vader waited way too long IMO before finally offing Palpatine (unsuccessfully, as it turns out). But with Snoke dead, The Rise of Skywalker was unfortunately missing a Big Bad and so Palpatine was dug up (literally) and brought back. Never mind that this makes very little sense, because a) Palpatine fell down a shaft on a Death Star that subsequently exploded, and b) if Palpatine was in his fifties or sixties during the prequels (based on actor Ian McDiarmid’s age), he must be over hundred by The Rise of Skywalker and has looked like one hundred fifty since halfway through Revenge of the Sith. As for how Palpatine managed to build an enormous fleet of Star Destroyers equipped with miniaturised Death Star lasers (and the adaptation and miniaturisation of Death Star technology throughout the sequel trilogy is one thing that actually makes sense, because people wouldn’t just ignore a weapon like that) without anybody noticing anything, that’s another unanswered question. Especially since a single Star Destroyer has a crew of 37000 people each, not including Stormtroopers. So Palpatine’s fleet is crewed by millions of people. Where did they all come from and why did no one notice millions of people going missing? Or did Palpatine just clone them? After all, he managed to clone thousands of Stormtroopers without anybody noticing anything either.
It is a testament to the pacing of the movie that you don’t even notice how much of it doesn’t make sense, until the credits have rolled and you sit at home thinking about it all (or arguing about it with friends). But then it is increasingly becoming clear that the main problem with the sequel trilogy is a complete lack of planning. Because the original trilogy and the prequels were – for better or worse – the vision of one person, George Lucas. Whether you like the prequels or not, the prequels and the original trilogy have a consistency that the sequel trilogy lacks. It’s not that George Lucas never changed his mind about how the story should go – by all accounts, he did so quite a lot. But he was still one person overseeing the overall storyline.
The sequel trilogy, on the other hand, seems to have been created very much like a game of round robin. J.J. Abrams delivered a movie, then handed the series over to Rian Johnson, who threw out some characters and several of the plot threads Abrams left dangling (Who are Rey’s parents? Who is Snoke?) and added some characters and dangling plotlines of his own. Then Abrams came back for the third movie, found that Johnson had taken the series in a completely different direction than what Abrams had in mind and had also killed off some key characters and so Abrams attempted to get the story back onto the track Abrams had envisioned. As a result, we get sharp reversals, inconstant characterisation, Admiral Holdo seemingly coming out of nowhere, Rose getting sidelined and Palpatine-ex-machina. That the result works at all suggests that J.J. Abrams is a lot more talented than I ever gave him credit for.
As anybody who has ever tried a round robin writing game can tell you, that’s no way to write a collaborative story. If you want to write a collaborative story, the collaborators first need to hash out at least a rough idea of what will happen in the story, who the important characters are and where they are going. US TV series generally manage this quite well, even though they have multiple writers (whereas European TV series are more likely to have a single writer), because they have a series bible with basic information about the characters and the world as well as someone who calls the shots and keeps the overall storyline in view. Back in the day of the Expanded/Legends Universe, Lucasfilm had an employee whose only job it was to make sure that storylines and characters were consistent over different series and media and that nothing contradicted each other. This employee was hired after a comic and one of the early Expanded Universe novels accidentally gave Han and Leia a different number of children and the respective writers, who weren’t aware of each other, had to scramble to fix this.
So the mind boggles that the new Star Wars movies – always the jewel in the crown in the crown of the franchise – have no one to fulfil that role. It could have been J.J. Abrams or Rian Johnson or Kathleen Kennedy or someone else altogether, but the sequel trilogy needed someone who had an overview of the whole plot and could have given basic directions such as “Don’t kill these characters – we still need them” to the individual writers and directors. Kathleen Kennnedy gets a lot of crap from the perpetually aggrieved fanboy brigade, but she deserves criticism for badly bungling something as basic as overall story continuity.
Talking of which, the perpetually aggrieved fanboys are conspicuously silent on the subject of The Rise of Skywalker. Most of the criticism of the movie I’ve seen is from people who liked The Last Jedi and are disappointed that The Rise of Skywalker ignores or walks back many decisions made in that movie, or from professional critics. But the howling of the aggrieved fanboys which has accompanied the release of every Star Wars movie from Return of the Jedi on is largely absent this time around. Maybe the aggrieved fanboys have finally made good of their promise and just stopped paying attention to Star Wars (though some of them seem to like The Mandalorian). Which makes J.J. Abrams’ and Disney/Lucasfilm’s decision to cater to the demands of the most toxic part of the fanbase all the more puzzling. And they absolutely tried to cater to that part of the fanbase. How else to explain the fanservicy “Rey is the granddaughter of Palpatine” or the sidelining of Rose Tico, a character the toxic fanboys hated, or setting part of the movie on Endor, but barely showing any Ewoks, because some toxic fans still hate the Ewoks thirty-six years later?
Interestingly enough, one group of aggrieved fanboys I have seen weighing in on Star Wars to tell us how much they hate the new movies are indie authors trying to sell books. This phenomenon started at least with the release of The Last Jedi two years ago, if not earlier, namely that indie authors of space opera and military science fiction started to market their books as “like Star Wars, but without all the women, people of colour and political messages we disagree with”. One of the most blatant examples started out as a bogstandard military SF series and then morphed into “a bit like Star Wars, but told from the POV of the Empire with zero introspection or irony”. Now I have no doubt that a lot of indie space opera is in conversation with Star Wars, because most post-1977 space opera is in conversation with Star Wars in general. But “Star Wars sucks these days, so read my books” is a strange marketing ploy, which quickly reappeared once the release of The Rise of Skywalker drew nearer. And so we have an indie author who only a few months before had sworn never again to mention any pop culture brands he hates, because they’re not just for white boys anymore, spending several days berating people for still caring about Star Wars, when they could be reading his Christian space opera.
Most of the “Don’t bother with Star Wars – read my books instead, because they have lightsabers, exploding spaceships and white dudes having adventures” brigade are pretty awful people, lesser puppies and the like, which is why I’m not going to link to them. But there are some indie authors criticising Star Wars who are not toxic jerks. One of those is Chris Fox, an indie SFF author who runs a YouTube channel with writing and marketing advice. I usually watch his videos and in his latest one, entitled What Authors Can Learn From Star Wars, Fox airs his personal grievances with the new Star Wars movies. Chris Fox considers himself a Star Wars superfan, who watched all the movies, read all the Expanded/Legends Universe books (and Disney declaring them non-canonical clearly affected him and many others fans, who eagerly devoured those books) and played most of the videogames and dreamed of being a Jedi and is now deeply disappointed, because the sequel trilogy, particularly The Last Jedi, didn’t deliver what he expects from a Star Wars movie. At one point, he says that The Last Jedi did not give the fans the emotional resonance they craved and declares that Disney has driven away the Star Wars superfans and that what he considers casual fans aren’t good enough.
I don’t want to pick on Chris Fox, who seems to be a decent guy, but I have to disagree with this. Listening solely to self-proclaimed superfans is never good idea, because those superfans make up only a small part of the audience and catering solely to them will often drive away the regular audience. Never mind that superfans aren’t a monolith. I also consider myself a Star Wars superfan, because those movies have meant a lot to me growing up. However, I clearly don’t crave the same emotional resonance as Chris Fox, because much of The Last Jedi did resonate with me. And indeed, the reason I gave up on the Expanded/Legends Universe after the first six or eight books is because those books didn’t give me what I loved about Star Wars in sufficient quantities. This is also why I rarely read tie-in fiction or outright fanfiction, because it usually fails to capture what I liked about the source material in the first place. So I may be an unusual fan, since I apparently want something different from the source material than many other fans, but I am a fan nonetheless.
The Star Wars sequel trilogy had the almost impossible task of satisfying multiple generations of Star Wars fans, each of whom value something different about the movies. There are fans of the original trilogy, fans who came in via the prequels (and those who watched the prequels as children and teenagers usually like them much more than older fans), fans who came in via the various cartoons, via the Expanded/Legends Universe, via the new Star Wars books or even the new movies. Satisfying all of these very different groups is close to impossible. All in all, the sequel trilogy did probably as well as it could have done. They delivered three entertaining and enjoyable movies full of likeable characters and great adventures in a galaxy far away. They are far from perfect movies, but then what movies are truly perfect?
Also, there is one issue that has plagued Star Wars movies since Return of the Jedi at least and that is far beyond the control of anybody at Lucasfilm. For most of us were children when we discovered Star Wars (whichever reiteration we first discovered), children awed by the scale and sheer sense of wonder inherent in that universe. And then one day, we’re not children anymore, we have seen many other movies and read many other books and probably know where many of the ideas behind Star Wars came from. And the latest Star Wars movie, whether it’s Return of the Jedi, the prequels or the sequels just doesn’t measure up, because we’re no longer five years old and will never be again and the movies will never be as much magic again. Not to mention that we probably have some idea of how the story was supposed to go in our heads and whatever happens on screen will never match that idea.
The prequels and the sequels are not the stories I imagined. But my version of the story is still there, in my head. Just as the Expanded/Legends Universe books and their version of the story will always be there for those to whom they meant something. But even if the story we got is not the one we envisioned, we can still try to enjoy it for what it is. Viewed that way, The Rise of Skywalker is a fun adventure, not as good as its two predecessors, but enjoyable enough.
*The free washing machine is a reference to a woman interviewed at a far right Pegida protest in Dresden. The woman’s main grievance, which caused her to take part in a far right protest, was that the local refugee home had been outfitted with a washing machine, whereas the government never gave her a free washing machine. And so she simply had to become a far right xenophobe and it was all the government’s fault for not handing out free washing machines to the right kind of people.