Star Wars: 5 Questions That Need to Be Addressed in The Rise of Skywalker
As our previous roundtables on Star Wars: The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi have indicated, we are divided over the success and worth of Episodes VII and VIII. All three of us enjoyed The Force Awakens, although to varying degrees, Anton having the most significant reservations. Anton was also the most negative towards The Last Jedi, while Aren had initially mixed feelings, and Anders wrote a rousing defence of Rian Johnson’s engagement with the Original and Prequel Trilogies in that film. With The Rise of Skywalker due out in December and a new trailer out this week, we thought it was worthwhile to recap some of the issues that need to be resolved, or at the very least addressed, in the last film of the Disney Trilogy, which is being presented as the conclusion to the nine-film Skywalker saga.
All the Star Wars films have involved complex productions shaped by the existing and possible capabilities of visual effects technologies. Likewise, the artistic design, narratives, and dialogue have often changing in the messy process of bringing initial conceptions and story ideas to completion on-screen. As studies such as Michael Kaminski’s The Secret History of Star Wars (2008) reveal, this was very much true even for the Original Trilogy, despite the myths about their production that fans and Lucas himself have perpetuated.
Even this being the case, the Disney films, in our view, show the seams of their production more than previous films in the series. For instance, the films’ titles themselves point to the uneven mapping out of the Disney Trilogy. The Force Awakens should have been The Force Reawakens (even if that doesn’t sound as good) since the existing title suggests a beginning point that seems in conflict with its position as the seventh film in a saga. Likewise, The Last Jedi is too ultimate a title for the middle film of a trilogy. And now we have The Rise of Skywalker, which is a hopeful sounding title that also gestures beyond the horizon; this again seems odd for the final film in a nine-film saga. The incoherence is especially evident if we compare these three titles to the clear narrative progression that all six Lucas titles together denote. The new titles also point to the challenges writer-director-producer J.J. Abrams faces in bringing all the different threads, surprises, red herrings, and mystery box plotting to a satisfying conclusion
As we’ve mentioned during our roundtable episodes on The Last Jedi, a fundamental part of the issue with the new films is a miscalculation about when to chronologically begin the Disney Trilogy in relation to the previous films. As they exist, they take place 30 years after Return of the Jedi, creating a sizable gap in time between the trilogies. The ending of the Original Trilogy and the beginning of the Disney Trilogy display striking dissonance. Although there is an 18 year gap between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope, visually and thematically the latter picks up where the former ends off. There is no such connection between the end of Return of the Jedi, which boasts one of the most earned and warming on-screen celebrations in cinematic history, to the opening crawl of The Force Awakens, which suggests a galaxy gone to hell, and our heroes scattered and missing.
Most importantly, as we’ll discuss below, The Force Awakens lacks satisfying explanations for many of the important big changes to the galaxy and characters. Furthermore, the structure of The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, especially with their approach to Luke Skywalker’s disappearance and return, suggest the second and third acts of a story that we never saw the beginning of. So in many ways, there should’ve been a film before The Force Awakens that shows us the fall of Ben Solo and exile of Luke Skywalker, along with the rise of the First Order, since almost all the issues in the new films stem from this one miscalculation.
Of course, we are not going to get that film. All we can hope is that the concluding chapter in this new trilogy addresses the issues created by the storytelling in the previous two films. In order to start a dialogue about anticipation for The Rise of Skywalker, we’ve broken down five questions that the film needs to address. We don’t suggest ways that we’d resolve these issues (we’re not interested in The Rise of Skywalker conforming to our Star Wars fanfiction). But we do lay out aspects of the films that we hope will be clarified when the end credits roll on December 20.
1. Is the First Order an all-powerful galactic force or a bunch of foolish kids playing dress-up as Imperials?
Admittedly, real-life Fascism often combines deadly serious evil alongside buffoonery. Hitler was a powerful monster, but as filmmakers from Chaplin to Tarantino have shown, his personality and mannerisms can be easily ridiculed. Likewise, the Original Trilogy, particularly The Empire Strikes Back, liked to poke fun at the Imperials. The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi have problems playing it both ways though.
The First Order is the butt of endless jokes, such as Poe’s goading of General Hux “over the phone” during the assault on the Dreadnought at the beginning of The Last Jedi, but we are also supposed to fear their rise as an existential threat to the galaxy. Most of the First Order players seem to be way too young and inexperienced. General Hux, the most prominent high-ranking commander, seems absurdly youthful for his leadership position. The First Order’s relationship to the Galactic Empire is never explained, which makes them seem like a bunch of copycat fanboys, which is likely a part of the point, but it makes the approach incoherent.
We didn’t see the rise of the First Order, so it’s also difficult to believe their top-dog position against the beleaguered Resistance, populated with venerated heroes. A related problem is that we never see the established New Republic, and the relation of the semi-official Resistance to that Republic is highly unclear. It’s far too apparent that Abrams and company were trying to duplicate and update the pattern of the Galactic Empire versus the Rebel Alliance. The evil empire vs. small resistance dynamic becomes even more pointed and important in The Last Jedi, since that film’s politics require that the new heroes be on the side of the marginalized and oppressed. Of course, this was basically the case in the Original Trilogy (although the Jedi are a relic of an older power). The problem now is that we don’t understand or believe the changes that have occurred to the galaxy to reestablish the previous political dynamic.
2. Was Supreme Leader Snoke the real deal?
As it stands, Supreme Leader Snoke is the most obvious weak point in the new movies. Without explanation, we are shown an all-powerful, force-using wannabe Emperor, who is fairly easily dispatched halfway through the second movie. What are we to make of this? Were we ever supposed to fear him? Is he a cypher for Darth Sidious, who we know trades in holograms and deceptions? There’s pleasure to mystery, sure, but Snoke seems severely underwritten, which is unfortunate when his existence is so central to Ben Solo’s fall to the Dark Side and the narrative of the Disney Trilogy.
3. What is the truth about Rey’s parentage?
The new title, The Rise of Skywalker, once again raises the spectre of Rey’s parentage. The first film seemed to be setting up a repeat of A New Hope, with our nobody hero actually being a somebody, like every hero myth ever. Johnson then used that set up as part of his subversion of traditional heroic storytelling, rejecting the special parentage of Rey and making her out to be a nobody. But will that turn out to be just another bait? Is Rey a Skywalker? Or could Ben Solo, Leia’s daughter, be the titular Skywalker? He shares the Skywalker blood through his mother, but naming conventions in the galaxy are also unclear. Will Kylo turn to the Light Side? Or, as the ending of The Last Jedi suggests, is the name and mantle of Skywalker going to extend into a mythic attribute would-be heroes, like the little stable boy, could adopt? In any case, as it stands, the new films, with their constant drive towards greater mystery, have generated little confidence in the viewer that the matter is settled. We’ll see if that’s truly the case.
4. Who made the map to Luke Skywalker?
The map to Luke Skywalker is a great MacGuffin for The Force Awakens, but, like many of Hitchcock’s own, if you think about it too much it falls apart. This becomes more of an issue in The Last Jedi, when the map and Luke the hermit become not just givens meant to guide the narrative but actual matters to engage and explore. A MacGuffin is by definition a convention, a place-holder, if you will, for the quest object every adventure needs. But Abrams’ idea becomes messy when the very details need to make sense. So, if Luke did go into hiding in order to let the Jedi die off, why would he leave a map to himself? It doesn’t seem to conform with his character as presented in The Last Jedi.
5. How will Leia’s story arc come to conclusion, with Han and Luke both dead and Carrie Fisher’s tragic passing?
Although the filmmakers could never have anticipated Carrie Fisher’s sad death, one wonders how Leia’s story arc will come to a satisfying conclusion. One fear is that an over reliance on digital manipulation will be used to try to solve the problem. They even had a good moment in The Last Jedi to kill off Leia, when we all thought she was dead in space, but they instead used that as a surprise survival reaffirming her Force powers. The problem for the character is what will she get to do in the new film? So far we have a pattern in the Disney Trilogy of focusing on one of the old trio in each film. Han got The Force Awakens, and his death was used to further Kylo’s embrace of the Dark Side. Luke got The Last Jedi, and his death was used as a symbolic sacrifice. What will Leia get to do, particularly since the pattern would suggest her movie will feature her death? Will she get a special death saving the galaxy? It’s worth pointing out that they’ve written the trilogy so that in the final film we only get one of the main trio standing. Anton has complained about this before, that the filmmakers have oddly constructed narratives that avoid having the original crew together. But this was clearly a case where fans just wanted to see the band get back together, if you will. So, what are they to do with Leia alone?