This article includes spoilers for all 3 films in the latest Star Wars trilogy. Also maybe Episodes 1-6, so just read this if you have seen all 9 mainline Star Wars movies. Cool? Cool.
The Force Awakens
There was a lot of apprehension about Star Wars in the years leading up to The Force Awakens. By most accounts, there had not been a good star wars movie in 30 years, and the recent sale of the Star Wars brand to Disney created a combination of excitement and concern of what that would mean for the series. On the one hand, Lucas was clearly not making the types of films most people wanted from Star Wars, so people were happy to see someone, anyone else get a shot at it. On the other hand, we had no idea what Disney would do with the license. We hoped they would do better things with it, but there was always the chance the franchise could sink lower.
In a way, all The Force Awakens had to do was prove to audiences that a good Star Wars movie was still possible. They didn’t need to hit a home run, they just needed to get on base. By that measure I think The Force Awakens was a massive success. Yes, it was very similar to A New Hope, and yes it leaned relatively hard into nostalgia, but it was a good movie that laid out tons of new characters, worlds, and storylines at the same time. It created the foundation for the last two films to build on, and I think it did that really well.
And that foundation set up by The Force Awakens was really solid. Rey is a great heroic lead, BB-8 is a revelation, Poe and Finn are both fun and fascinating, Maz is mysterious, Hux is a fun bad guy, Kylo Ren is the complex villain I wanted, Snoke is Emperor-esque…the list goes on and on. Abrams also did a good job of including Han, Leia, and Luke in ways that did not take the attention off of the new series leads.
Yes, this film leaned on nostalgia, but moments like Han telling Chewie, “we’re home” when re-entering the Falcon played very well, and are cinematic moments that I won’t soon forget. Yes, Starkiller Base is a clear stand-in for the Death Star, and it’s something I’d complain about if the rest of the story didn’t hit home for me, but it did, so I forgive it.
J.J. Abrams and team had one job when making The Force Awakens: bring back Star Wars in a way that appeases old and new fans, and above all else proves that Star Wars can be great again. I think they pulled it off wonderfully, and the critics and fans generally agreed. The faults in the movie bugged some people more than others, but I don’t remember finding many people who hated the film (assholes who didn’t like a female lead or a black stormtrooper aside).
The Last Jedi
That unified enthusiasm didn’t last long, huh? The Last Jedi came out in December 2017 and ever since then we have been living in a bifurcated Star Wars fan base. And this has not been a friendly disagreement, but rather a toxic hellstew of “conversation.”
But this isn’t about what the rest of the world thinks, it’s about what I think, so let’s leave that behind.
I fucking love The Last Jedi. It was my 10th favorite movie of the decade and I think I’ve enjoyed it more each time I’ve watched it since. I think that much like The Force Awakens had a very clear benchmark it needed to hit, The Last Jedi had to show that Star Wars could do things new and interesting again. By that measure I think the film was a massive success. The fact it’s also the most beautiful Star Wars movie by a long shot, is the funniest film in the series, and has emotional climaxes that hit me harder than anything else in the 9 film saga were just icing on top.
Luke’s now famous line “this isn’t going to go the way you think” holds true for more than Rey’s story, it’s true for effectively everyone’s tale in this chapter. Luke is not who Rey or we the audience think he will be. Rey is not from the royal family she and we think (more on this later, of course). Holdo is not the ignorant leader Poe believes she is. Rose and Finn’s elaborate plans to get New Order intel does not go at all how they expect.
In large part, this is a story about failure as well. Many of these storylines do not go according to plan because the characters fail, sometimes miserably, at achieving their goals. It’s a movie that has our heroes fail because of very human things: pride and ignorance lead to failure after failure in this film, and it’s damn relatable.
This is also the story where we get the pay off for who Rey’s parents are. This has been a question since very early in The Force Awakens, and there were tons of fan theories about who they were. In a crushing moment, Kylo bluntly tells Rey her parents were “no one.” They were, in fact, nobodies from a far off planet no one cared about. She had no birth right to be important in this tale, but she was. Here’s a clip from Binge Mode Star Wars on this:
It fully subverts the expectations of Rey being a Skywalker, a Kenobi, a Palpatine, a Snoke, some bold-faced impactful Star Wars name. And crucially, taps into an absolutely essential elemental fantasy idea that anyone can be special. And as core as that is to the fantasy story experience, not every story actually has the courage to make that choice. Anyone can make a difference, it doesn’t matter who you were born, it matters who you become. And Rey being no one, and becoming someone, is not a slight on the Skywalker name or the Skywalker saga, it is a reminder that anyone can go from farmer to savior.
I adored this plot choice and it tied so much of what The Last Jedi was all about together. The past is important, but not perfect. Learn from the past, but look forward. What you do today is more important than what you did long ago or what family you come from.
And did I mention how god damned gorgeous this movie is?
Yeah, it’s a looker.
The Rise of Skywalker
The internet seems to think you either need to be on Team J.J. or Team Johnson, so many people knew how they were “supposed” to feel about this movie going into it. As someone who truly adored what both writer/directors had done with the last two movies, I was totally on board to enjoy this film. Sadly, while I don’t think this movie falls into prequel territory, I would not say I enjoyed this movie.
I walked out of The Force Awakens saying “oh my god, Star Wars is awesome again!”
I walked out of The Last Jedi saying “Star Wars can still surprise us and add so much depth to characters we know and love!”
I walked out of The Rise of Skywalker saying “well, I guess that’s how it ends.”
I didn’t hate it, I just didn’t feel moved by it. I felt as though the events on screen were whizzing by me and I wished that I felt something, but nothing really landed.
My biggest feeling coming out of this film was that wow, they really leaned into nostalgia on this one. The fan service was strong, as unlike The Last Jedi, which gave our new characters a chance to really take over, this movie was more like “let’s give you Lando, more Chewie, more R2-D2, how about the same bad guy in all the other movies even though he has not been set up at all and just is kinda…here?” This felt too much like a greatest hits record, not something new.
I also thought this movie tried to do way too much. The first hour of this movie feels like it’s constantly moving a mile per minute and you only half understand what’s going on, and you definitely don’t have time to “live” in any of these spaces. There’s just so much exposition done at the start of this movie that it really seems like this would have been better served in two movies rather than one (more on this below). A prime example of this are the Knights of Ren, who are created in this opening and look menacing, but ultimately don’t do anything interesting in the film besides look cool.
I didn’t like how new characters from The Last Jedi were basically cast aside (namely Rose) so we could go back to the same arrangements we had before. Not to mention that The Resistance was down to about 40 people in a cave who no one would come to help at the end of The Last Jedi, but at the opening of this movie they seem…totally fine again. Why? What happened?
Oh, and Rey’s lineage? Strike everything great I said about making her a nobody-to-somebody story from the last movie, she has royal blood and was always going to be special. This was a punch in the face, as far as I was concerned, and was the equivalent of someone in Return of the Jedi telling Luke that Darth Vader actually wasn’t his father. Either (a) Abrams undid that plot point from The Last Jedi or (b) this was the plan all along, but either way I like the series as a whole less because of this decision.
This all pains me because there are pieces here that I could see turning into a truly amazing moviegoing experience for me. The ending scene where Rey chooses the name Skywalker despite not technically being one is something that works for me in theory, but the execution didn’t hit home. Also the moment when Kylo Ren pulls himself out from the hole he fell down and uses his last bit of power to bring Rey back to life. This was set up earlier in the movie and the moment is objectively a great moment of sacrifice and redemption, but subjectively I didn’t care about what I was seeing.
What hurts me the most about this ending to the series is that everything is cranked to 11 here. There is a desire in this film to do everything bigger than we’ve ever seen before. You’ve seen a few star destroyers at once, sure, but have you seen 10,000 star destroyers at once? You’ve seen one planet destroying laser at a time, but what about if we strapped one of those to all 10,000 of those star destroyers? You liked a little nostalgia, so how about unending heaps on nostalgia?
It didn’t have to be this way. The Last Jedi was a big, epic movie, but the dramatic elements of it’s story were smaller and more complex. By killing Snoke, effectively the Darth Sideous of this trilogy, Johnson left the conflict between Rey and Ren in a place that was more interesting to me than “the bad guy is the actual embodiment of evil” thing that Sideous does. I like me some Darth Sideous, but I think there are more stories to tell than this same guy keeps coming back to do the same thing.
But that’s not the ending that Abrams wanted to tell, and he went bigger and more explosive. I think that’s fine, and obviously many people will like this decision, but for me it was not what I was looking for and it felt shoehorned in. In the next section I’ll get into why I think this was the case.
I really think this movie would have been a lot better if there was going to be an Episode 10 in 2021 and everything could breathe a bit more. If these story elements had some more room to breathe, I think I would have enjoyed this story a lot more. Like I said, the elements of something I’d love are here, but they felt like someone was like “okay, I only have a few minutes to tell you this story, so let’s go fast.”
How the Sausage Got Made
My understanding of the way this trilogy was produced is that there was no overarching story from the start and each writer was able to do basically whatever they wanted with the story. So when Episode 7 came out, there was not a plan for Episode 8, and Episode 9 was not mapped out until after Episode 8 was complete. I’m sure producers and studio folks made sure some things stayed within certain bounds, but based on everything I’ve read, it seems like J.J. and Johnson had a shocking amount of autonomy over the stories they told.
In retrospect, I think that was a major creative mistake by Disney. It feels like Episode 7 laid a foundation, Episode 8 built on that foundation and developed the characters, but it didn’t set up Episode 9 in a way that J.J. felt he could finish things up how he wanted. Did Abrams and Johnson have different visions for what they wanted the series to be? Maybe…probably. So if that was the case, why hire both of them to do films in the series? And if you wanted them both, why let them go in different directions and not build towards an agreed upon destination?
I’ll also note here that Colin Trevorrow was originally slated to take on Episode 9 before getting replaced by Abrams. I was always anxious about this choice because I really did not enjoy Jurassic World, but one wonders if he and Johnson were more on the same page and he would have used the pieces given to him more than Abrams did. We will never know for sure.
I know many will blame Rian Johnson for “ruining Star Wars”. I don’t think those saying this believe Johnson to be a terrible filmmaker, and I suspect many of them will cite Looper, Brick, and this year’s excellent Knives Out as wonderful films, but I think that the real culprit is the studio navigating all of this. I really think they should have had a singular creative force behind this whole trilogy. While Lucas didn’t direct Empire or Return of the Jedi, he wrote all of the first 6 episodes and though the quality varies wildly, the vision is consistent throughout; that is unquestionably Lucas’s story.
I don’t know why Disney chose to separate the duties for this trilogy to different people. Maybe they could not get one person they liked enough so they split it among their favorite options. Maybe they didn’t think any one person could pull it off so they spread out the responsibilities to hedge their bets. The result I think is more of a studio who says “we have this license and we want to use it” rather than a creative person saying “I have an amazing vision for a third Star Wars trilogy.”
And again, I thought the first two parts of this new trilogy were amazing pieces of art that brought be incredible joy. It’s just that when we got to the end, no one was ready to take it over the finish line. If you’ll permit me one more sports (volleyball) metaphor, Johnson set the ball up for Abrams to spike it, it just wasn’t on the side of the count Abrams wanted.