Years from now, as film geeks look back on what I guess we’re referring to as the just-ended “Star Wars sequel trilogy,” I can only imagine they’ll stare in wonder and ask themselves how Disney, of all companies, managed to botch a sure thing quite so thoroughly. How did this company, which also plays host to the carefully shepherded Marvel Cinematic Universe, decide to treat one of the world’s most valuable pieces of IP—freaking Star Wars—like a story that could just be made up on the fly? How on Earth did we end up with Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker, a film so desperate to tie disconnected threads together that it often feels like it’s being frantically edited live, as you watch it?
In the end, there’s only one real answer. As much as some fans would like to lump the faults of this trilogy onto the likes of J.J. Abrams or Rian Johnson, the directors were only men attempting to follow their (vastly conflicting) visions for the franchise. The downfall of Star Wars rests with producers at Disney who somehow convinced themselves (and us) that a blockbuster trilogy didn’t need the presence of any kind of overarching narrative architect to ensure at least a modicum of tonal or philosophical consistency. It was an act of pure hubris—a supremely corporate, unearned sense of confidence that IP and branding mattered far more than a carefully planned story. In the end, “trilogy” isn’t even the right word, because it implies the existence of three films that fit together in a planned, form-fitting way, as three chapters of a single story. These films? They aren’t a trilogy. They’re more like direct rebukes of each other. It does make one pine for the narrative purity of Rogue One, does it not?
With that said, let’s go back and examine each entry in this non-trilogy to note the remarkable way that each zealously tossed away whatever source material it had been handed.
The Force Awakens
The least divisive of the modern Star Wars entries, The Force Awakens was criticized at the time of its release for J.J. Abrams’ slavish emulation of A New Hope, but as was the case with The Phantom Menace in 1999, most fans were just thrilled to be receiving new Star Wars material at all, especially with the return of original cast members. The presence of Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher helped to turn aside much of the criticism, including the feature-length tease of a dialogue-less Luke Skywalker, but at the same time the film does display the casual disregard for its source material that would also ultimately typify The Last Jedi and Rise of Skywalker. Except Abrams’ indifference was aimed at Return of the Jedi. Let’s simplify things and switch to bullet points.
— To start, Abrams had no interest in telling a story that existed in a post-ROTJ landscape. We are 30 years advanced from the destruction of the second Death Star and the “death” of the Emperor, supposedly in the glory days of the New Republic that the characters of episodes 4, 5 and 6 fought and died to achieve. But Abrams has no interest in showing us anything related to that New Republic, so he purposely keeps it at arm’s length, and then unceremoniously (and impractically) wipes out the entire galaxy-wide government in a single blast from his new Death Star analogue, Starkiller Base. He does this to recreate the “Resistance” as the underdog Rebel Alliance, having no apparent interest in telling a story with our heroes in a place of power, responding to a threat from within, or even from outside the galaxy. Instead, everything must be returned to the status quo we began with in A New Hope, which results in the narrative diminishment of the end of Return of the Jedi in particular.
— Needing to return the Star Wars universe to that A New Hope state, Abrams needs an Emperor analogue to serve as his Big Bad for the series, which arrives in the form of “Supreme Leader Snoke.” Like Palpatine (who is never mentioned or referenced in any way in the first two films of the series), he’s some kind of shadowy dark side master with a star pupil, Kylo Ren, wearing a literal Vader helmet. He is clearly intended to fill the role of the Emperor in this new trilogy.
— Rey is introduced as the plucky heroine of the series, lifted from obscurity on a desert world that, wouldn’t you know it, looks exactly like Luke Skywalker’s genesis point on Tatooine. The mystery of Rey’s missing parents is established, with the implication that there will be a grand reveal of a Very Important Answer at a later date.
— Where Abrams does choose to innovate on some level is in the story of Luke, his failed Jedi academy and his fallen student Kylo Ren. He hints here at a few wider universe morsels that fans assume will play a role in future films in the series, such as the “Knights of Ren,” Kylo’s cadre of force-sensitive trainees or elite troops.
The Last Jedi
One can understand, from an artistic standpoint, why Disney execs thought Rian Johnson would likely produce a well-received Star Wars movie. Critics and fans both enjoyed the timeline-bending delights of Looper, after all. Here would be a Star Wars entry directed by a visionary young talent; a name that would pull in the cinema geeks, while the Star Wars IP would bring in the rank and file. It’s a perfect match!
One thing that apparently no one at Disney asked: “Hey Rian, did you like anything in J.J. Abrams’ The Force Awakens?” Because if someone had asked that, one can only imagine Johnson would have replied “I sure didn’t, and I’m not gonna use any of it, thanks.” Without any kind of overarching creative presence, however, Johnson was apparently given free rein to dispose of as many of Abrams’ contributions as he wished, which he set about doing gleefully, in pursuit of telling a very different kind of Star Wars story—one about letting go of the past, letting go of narrative expectations and realizing one’s own shortcomings. And at the same time, Johnson also wiped the narrative slate clean. Back to bullet points.
— If there’s a uniting theme here, it’s Johnson’s vision saying “We don’t need ____” from Abrams’ vision. Johnson looks at Snoke, says “We don’t need this guy,” and kills him off unexpectedly. He seems to do this for the benefit of Kylo Ren as a character, finding him more interesting and conflicted than the generic portrait of arch-villainy that is Snoke, and sees the death of Snoke as an opportunity for Ren to ascend to become the actual Big Bad of the sequel trilogy. Rather than simply being a conflicted servant of evil, Kylo Ren will choose to ascend to a higher plane of evil, just as he chose to embrace the Dark Side in murdering his father. The choice sets up Kylo Ren to become the truly imposing and mature figure in Episode IX that his petulance and childishness never really allowed him to be in Episode VII, and in symbolism of this, he destroys his Vader-esque helmet. Presumably, Johnson figures that the director of Episode IX will follow through on this character growth. He is wrong.
— Johnson chooses to pay off the mystery of Rey’s parentage with something that is a genuinely surprising reveal, but is not at all what fans expected—her parents were “nobodies,” just irresponsible drunks who sold off their child, rather than secret heroes or scions of ancient kings. It sends a strong narrative message: Lineage and bloodlines aren’t what make heroes. It’s their actions that help them rise above. Likewise, the choice implies that the Force can present itself within anyone, rather than just the children of notable families. This theme is reinforced by the presence of that sweeping little urchin at the end of the film, sowing the seeds of a universe where anyone might be born Force sensitive, where anyone could become a great hero or villain.
— As for other narrative tidbits he was passed by Abrams, such as the references to “The Knights of Ren,” Johnson simply chooses to ignore them completely. Those words never show up in any form within The Last Jedi, with the writer-director instead choosing to focus on new characters of his own creation, such as mechanic Rose Tico and her relationship with Finn.
— As the film comes to a close, Johnson leaves the Resistance in tatters, at its lowest point, seemingly consisting of a few dozen people.
The Rise of Skywalker
One wonders how this film might have differed if it was actually shepherded from the get-go by Jurassic World’s Colin Treverrow, as was the original plan for the trilogy, but after The Book of Henry … well, that wasn’t going to happen. J.J. Abrams, meanwhile, arrives back on the scene after The Last Jedi like a parent who left their kid alone for the weekend in the family mansion in an ’80s party movie, returning home to find the house completely trashed and possibly on fire. He is now tasked with creating the satisfying endcap to a “trilogy” that so far consists of two films that don’t have anything to do with one another.
His solution: Go back to his Force Awakens playbook by actively ignoring all the contributions made by Rian Johnson in The Last Jedi. Where Johnson’s film functioned like a rebuke of Force Awakens, Abrams will make his second film as a rebuke of The Last Jedi. And all the fans will pay the price, because Abrams is about to cram an entire trilogy’s worth of plot points and goofy revelations into one feature film. Back to bullet points.
— With his Emperor analogue having been killed off by Johnson, Abrams exasperatedly throws his hands up in the air and says something to the effect of “screw it, we’re just bringing back Palpatine then.” Never mind the fact that there’s been no mention of, allusion to, or workable explanation for the presence of Emperor Palpatine in the two previous films of the so-called trilogy. Now he’s been “behind everything from the beginning,” which we learn when a character helpfully explains “he’s been behind everything from the beginning.” Snoke, turns out, was merely a pawn, either created by or controlled by Palpatine from behind the scenes. Every impulse ever felt by Kylo Ren? Palpatine. The rise of the First Order? Palpatine. Rain on your wedding day? Palpatine.
— Remember that “bloodline doesn’t matter, worthy people can arise from anywhere?” motif we were making? Yeah, that’s gone, and Rey’s parentage is again a matter of supreme narrative importance. They choose to phrase this in the form of “Rey is Palpatine’s granddaughter,” managing to completely skip over the bizarrity of both “Sheev Palpatine had sex with a human woman” and “Palpatine had a teenager running around somewhere during the events of Return of the Jedi,” knowing that these facts are too bizarre to consider for more than half a moment. What matters to Abrams is that you, the audience know that his will in Force Awakens has NOT been subverted, only delayed.
— Like Stanley Kubrick sprinkling his filmed version of The Shining with Easter eggs aimed directly at his contempt for Stephen King, Abrams populates Rise of Skywalker with various retcons of Johnson’s contributions. Kylo Ren symbolically destroyed his helmet to move beyond that persona? Well, now he’s literally rebuilt the helmet and reaffirmed his attachment to it. Rose Tico is introduced as a new major character who is implied to be in love with Finn? Well, now she’s been demoted to minor background character with about half a dozen lines of total dialog, and that relationship has been put on ice. You wrote out the Knights of Ren? Well, now they’re back, even though there’s no time to do anything with them. The galaxy has grown cold toward the Resistance’s calls for aid? Well, now all it takes to assemble the largest armada in the history of the galaxy is Lando Calrissian cruising around the Core Systems in the Falcon for an afternoon. Everything always seems to come back to “Whatever you can write, I can write the opposite.”
A Star Wars Trilogy Debriefing
The obvious question to be asking this point, as a nation of theatergoers simultaneously walk out of Rise of Skywalker shaking their heads at the dubiousness and contrived nature of it all, is whether episodes 7, 8 and 9 could have been saved, or at least made into a truly coherent whole, by a measure so small as simply having an “architect” in the mold of the MCU’s Kevin Feige overseeing the trilogy from the start. Given that this is Disney, though, it truly is a wonder that the films weren’t handled in that way, when such a clear blueprint existed within the same company for crafting a consistent cinematic universe.
Even just handing the slate of three films to a single director would surely have resulted in a far more harmonious whole, regardless of whether that pick had been Abrams, or Johnson, or pretty much anyone else. With that said, and given the arduousness of making these films on a Disney timeline, it’s easy to see why the company assumed that no one person could pull off three in a row. But lord, in the wake of Rise of Skywalker, don’t you now wish they had tried? Wouldn’t you like to see where J.J. Abrams would have taken a more traditionally paced series after The Force Awakens? Or how Johnson would have presumably launched the series in a totally new direction, if he had an entire trilogy to work with? Any consistent whole would be better than the ping-ponging we instead received, simply because some folks at Disney didn’t think a trilogy needed any detailed planning.
That hubris—the assumption that planning and story simply didn’t matter, and could be worked out one film at a time with no repercussions—is what we’ll ultimately remember about this trio of Star Wars entries in the decades to follow. They could have been the chosen ones. Instead, this three-film, non-trilogy will reside in the pop-cultural consciousness as a muddled, disjointed mess.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident Star Wars geek. You can follow him on Twitter for much more film writing.