Depending on whom you ask, J.J. Abrams’ decision not to direct the whole of the Sequel Trilogy beyond Episode VII changes from franchise fatigue (he was still working on Star Trek: Into Darkness when hired to direct Episode VII) or wanting to spend more time with his family.
In an interview with the Washington Post, Abrams’ childhood friend, Greg Grunberg (Snap Wexley), suggests Abrams regretted leaving after reading Rian Johnson’s script for Episode VIII. Abrams thought Johnson’s script so good he wished he wrote it.
“I never hear him express regret like that,” Grunberg says. The following month (January 2016), Abrams’ response to the Washington Post interview was something akin to describing Grunberg as someone who’d say anything if you gave him the time of day. But he confirmed his enthusiasm for Episode VIII and wished for another opportunity to work with the cast of Awakens again.
Following the departure of Colin Trevorrow from the production of Episode IX, Abrams clarified that he wasn’t supposed to return to the trilogy in his original capacity as writer and director. In his own words, he didn’t want to direct Episode VIII and IX because he wanted focus on personal projects.
But when push came to shove, and Trevorrow split, Kathleen Kennedy insisted he take on the film. Before the invitation, Abrams says he was working up to said projects and almost rejected the offer, likely realizing the timetable that was being asked of him was far more strenuous than what he pulled off with Lawrence Kasdan or with the aid of others like Harrison Ford and Ava DuVernay.
“The whole thing was a crazy leap of faith. And there was an actual moment when I nearly said, ‘No, I’m not going to do this.’”
In a 2018 interview with French magazine Geek Le Mag, a translated quote from Daisy Ridley stated she believed that, like Lucas, Abrams had written drafts for Episodes VIII and IX. But with the agreement that directors were free to do their own thing, they weren’t used.
Ridley’s interview agitated a part of the disenchanted fanbase because it sounded like something akin to structure got cast aside for a second time (the first time being with George Lucas). It left many to wonder what his story was like. Was there internal consistency for the story and characters, or were they looking at the same circumstances but from one director?
Without Kennedy, Bob Iger, or Allan Horn signing off on a director’s pitches or scripts (as they decide what gets approved and what doesn’t), Abrams’ drafts was a fanciful idea best not dwelt upon. In his own words, Abrams doesn’t so much corroborate Ridley’s account as he admits he had “some gut instincts” (ideas) about where the story would go after Awakens.
But Johnson’s script doing its own thing meant whatever he and his new co-writer came up with would have to react to what Jedi did and didn’t do. With Lawrence Kasdan officially retired from the business of writing Star Wars stories, Abrams approached Academy Award winning screenwriter Chris Terrio (Argo, Dawn of Justice, Justice League), who also joined the project in September 2017.
So, how were the two going to wrangle the tonal and narrative mess the trilogy had become thanks to their non-planning? If we’re being honest, they couldn’t. The journey that started with Awakens was invalidated by its sequel and a proceeding film would only worsen that.
Abrams could do nothing except try to make the broken pieces work. He had no interest in undoing Episode VIII, arguing that Jedi did nothing to derail the story they conceived with Episode VII. Abrams believed Skywalker required a film like Jedi to act as “a pendulum swing in one direction in order to swing in the other.” A sentiment his longtime collaborators and editors, Mary Jo Markey and Maryann Brandon, disagreed with.
Episode IX’s May 2019 release date got pushed back to mid-December 2019, with no room to argue for further extension. The film needed to be complete in less time than Awakens. Two years and three months. Regardless of any ideas he or Kasdan might’ve come up with during Episode VII to act as its aftermath, Jedi was the story he and Terrio were sticking with.
Too Many Threads, Too Little Film
Because Trevorrow was so involved in the production of Episode IX until 2017, he and Derek Connolly (his co-writer) got a story credit for Skywalker. Trevorrow even states that Abrams and Terrio embraced some of his ideas. But if you believe Terrio, neither he nor Abrams used any material from Trevorrow’s script once the writing process for their version of the final movie began.
Terrio stated they weren’t comfortable working with material that likely ran counter to their interpretations and thus opted to start the writing process from scratch. If there were any similarities, neither man was lifting from Trevorrow’s script intentionally. “We didn’t have a bad relationship with Colin’s material. We just didn’t start with it. It’s not a juicy story of intrigue or anything.”
Not unlike Trevorrow’s scripts, Skywalker underwent multiple rewrites. They were throwing ideas together and discarding them when they didn’t work or met approval. In Phil Szostak’s The Art of The Rise of Skywalker, Terrio describes the writing process like a tide, with a new version of the script being written every morning.
“I’ve never rewritten a film as much as this one. […]But we just keep going at it and going at it, loosely thinking that it’s not good enough. It’s never good enough.”
Abrams and Terrio overcompensate for the lack of forward momentum and through-lines that Jedi left the story without. They also try to reconcile with over-accelerated domination of the First Order and the death of the trilogy’s big bad (the reason things happened in the story at all), Snoke, and the glut of new characters introduced into the trilogy before its central cast (Ridley, Isaac, Boyega, Driver, Serkis, Hamill, Fisher) was fully developed.
It not only has to wrap up the “Rey Needs an Identity” storyline Jedi foisted onto her, but it also tries to readdress the abduction of children by the First Order. It adds problems with the inexplicable return of Palpatine and the Sith, which radically alters the nature of the First Order as neo-fascists imitating the Old Guard, and kowtows to wishes for unearned redemption arc.
I paid zero attention to the production process of the film when things got going (it’s part of what took this final article so long), but looking back at the numerous interviews come and gone, the material websites like StarWarsLeaks was keeping tabs on, the rewrites and reshoots are visible in the film, particularly in the editing of the final product.
Maryann Brandon, the editor for Skywalker (and editor of Awakens), reinforces the notion that the compressed timetable troubled the editing process. A tighter schedule may have resulted in Abrams spending less time in the editing room with her despite Kennedy’s demand that he had to focus more on that area. With Abrams largely absent from the press circuit, Brandon and Terrio are the primary voices from the production doing their best to justify what the film wasn’t doing or didn’t do well.
The hasty nature of the film has led fans to latch onto the meme #ReleaseTheJJCut as DCEU fans did with the hastily greenlit Justice League movie (#ReleaseTheSynderCut), which is now actually getting a $20 Million director’s cut from Zack Snyder.
The sentiment surrounding Skywalker is that it suffered a similar fate to Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four, or Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3. (And my thoughts on the former is, no matter how meddled with, the script was bad from the jump.) And there’s enough ambivalence or discontent from the production to at least suggest the creative process was not a harmonious one.
This is something fans felt was given further credence to by Dominic Monaghan (Beaumont Kin) hoping for a “director’s cut” on account of scenes featuring himself, Kelly Marie Tran (Rose Tico), and Billie Lourd (Kaydel Ko) being cut from the climax of the film.
Coming back to Greg Grunberg, he states that the Skywalker film that released is Abrams’ final cut and no one else’s. Abrams, disinterested in antagonizing his audience, understands if you have issues with it and focused on congratulating his cast and crew on their work.
Episode IX’s title, The Rise of Skywalker, is one that, unlike the previous eight films, tells you nothing about the narrative as per the wishes of Kennedy. It’s meant to be a “provocative” title that could “mean anything”. It’s the perfect title for the ending of a trilogy without a solid identity or theme.
I originally intended to ignore the last film but I started writing out my feelings about the trilogy as it was ending. I wanted to get it all off my chest and for this article series, I went to see Skywalker in January. I had fun. The movie was terrible but I had fun watching it (where I just got a headache watching Jedi), mostly because I stopped expecting anything resembling a quality product.
On a purely aesthetic level, Skywalker communicates story better visually at the same time it overburdens the screen with excess. Sweeping vista shots and frantic pacing keep most action sequences (barring its climax) legible and energetic where they were flailing in Jedi. Abrams hits his mark and misses it, but otherwise does a better job of visual storytelling than he and Terrio do with their dialog that isn’t achingly self-explanatory.
From a design standpoint, the film’s tone and design (which should’ve been consistent throughout the trilogy) is very much that of Awakens. Scrapped concept art, character designs, and even abandoned environment ideas (the Sunken Death Star, the pyramid on Exagol and caped Stormtrooper designs on Kijimi) from the first film make their way into Skywalker. If I hadn’t read The Art of The Force Awakens as much as I did, I would’ve never picked up on that.
A Wayward Cast
Regarding the characters, Abrams and Terrio write them as though they “learned the lessons” of their repetitious or regressive arcs of Jedi. The characters are Frankenstein monsters the pair try to stitch into cohesive wholes (Rey, Poe, and Luke for example), or (in Finn and Rose’s case) their previous characterization is ignored altogether (and for the better).
Hux’s role as the mole feeding the Resistance information on the First Order’s plans feels like an obvious reaction to the Snidely Whiplashing of the character. But it’s an altogether meager attempt to repair the damage done to a figure who is no longer perceived as a threat, but a buffoon. A smarter idea might’ve been having Hux attempt to usurp Kylo Ren, but meh.
He’s beyond the kind salvaging a third and final film can pull off. So that he’s discarded in death like he doesn’t matter (to the disappointment of Domhnall Gleeson) and replaced by a hollow of his earlier characterization (Richard E. Grant’s General Pryde) is fitting. But it also just reinforces that there should’ve been one director and writer handling these movies (i.e., not Johnson).
On top of not meeting Kennedy’s criteria, the earlier scripts for Episode IX under Trevorrow were focused on a sullen Leia Organa who either lost all hope in her son’s redemption or was the opposite (I can’t remember). Carrie Fisher’s death in late December 2016 forced the production to decrease Leia’s role. Under Abrams and Terrio, Kennedy felt they had to keep Leia in the film, when the simplest solution (and the best one) may have been to exclude her from the story.
Whatever footage Fisher (might’ve) filmed for Episode IX before her death was deemed unusable. Instead, Skywalker would use unseen footage from Awakens to substitute for Fisher’s absence. The documentary, The Skywalker Legacy, shows the actors on-set filming the scene they would merge the old footage with.
The story beat that made Leia more Jedi-esque, something that was altogether not present in Awakens, was expanded to set up her death towards the end of the film. The executives talk a lot about wanting to honor the idea of Leia becoming a Jedi. The flashback sequence, meant to be the film’s original opening, features Fisher’s daughter (Lourd) acting as her stand-in with an awkwardly frozen visage of a young Fisher super imposed over her face. (The interaction between Lourd and Fisher’s stand-in makes me wish Kaydel had been Leia’s child instead of Kylo Ren.)
Lovely as the moment was on a visual level, the way Leia was handled in the film made the idea better left as a concept (and one that was tackled with better results in the Expanded Universe’s muddled book franchise). The whole situation with was jarringly uncanny and uncomfortable for me. In some takes I thought Leia was on par with Rogue One’s recreation of her young self.
Mark Hamill under Abrams gives a more Luke Skywalker performance than not (Ridley states Hamill was relieved to be “Luke of Old again”), but it’s within the jarring context that the things he did in Jedi still happened. Abrams and Terrio put Luke back in a ‘proactive’ role through reference. They re-center the nomadic journey he undertook after Ren and his Knights killed his students, making him part of the hunt for Rambaldi’s Waypoint.
The Lightsaber gag is funny, but it’s like, “whatever” at this point. All it does is remind the audience how simple it would’ve been just to maintain Luke’s characterization and not throw his and Rey’s story under the bus for a simpleton narrative.
Each of these films was meant to be a “send-off” for the original cast (and I wonder now if that really meant killing them one film at a time). There’s something incredibly depressing about that notion, considering how bungled Leia and Luke ended up. How little meaning Han Solo’s death held with nothing to carry it forward as a consequence with the weight it was given in Awakens. You can’t destroy the legacies of these characters in the way many people feel this trilogy did. But LucasFilm had one shot to do this right with the older cast, and they just missed the mark.
A Muddied Story
As the more ‘recent’ story, Abrams and Terrio do more to honor the narrative of Jedi than Johnson didn’t with the story of Awakens. A lot of the upended elements from Awakens that make it into the film feel diluted, remolded to fit Episode VIII and IX’s context. Most get little to no breathing room, just stand there menacingly, or are just callbacks like Rey scaling the Death Star ruins or Rey sliding down sand dunes on Tatooine.
There’s clear want to return to that simplicity and excited energy Abrams, Arndt, and Kasdan struck gold with Episode VII, but we’re beyond the point where the graces of an audience jerked around are won over by the artifice and merits of a fun adventure alone.
Wrapped around the doldrums of a re-branded “Rebels vs. Empire” thematic that wasn’t promised in the stalemate the Resistance and the First Order ended in circa Awakens, Skywalker has nothing with a sense of newness to bolster the mimicry of Return of the Jedi like Episode VII did in its mirroring of A New Hope.
There’s no sense of risk or stakes in Skywalker watching the manufactured beleagueredness of the Resistance hiding on a forest planet from the First Order, and lamenting the fact that the galaxy is unwilling to rally around them ah-la Jedi’s subversion of the Here-Comes-the-Calvary trope. And their chosen antagonist makes the resolution a bore to watch.
“Is the galaxy worth saving if no one answered the call?” Isn’t the compelling question Rick Carter thinks it is. Not if the galaxy in question remains inert in the background of the heroes duking it out with the bad guys. And blowing up an entire planet (again!) without a point of sympathy kinda kills that idea. Independence Day did a better job of with its ‘rally the troops’ scene even if it was wrapped in American Exceptionalism.
The strongest story element Awakens had going for it was the one it didn’t completely dodge, but also never committed fully to: The First Order and its enslavement of children to build an army to destroy the New Republic through their Stormtrooper program. Abrams and Terrio seemed to realize this and attempted to build the story around legacies lost and remade. Problem is, the film focuses on the worst characters (Rey and Kylo Ren) to anchor that theme.
Reading through The Art of The Rise of Skywalker, without the excluded context of what this film and its creators rested its foundation on, you’d be hard-pressed to find anything particularly damning or incapable of being fashioned into a passable film that wasn’t predicated by Jedi. But interesting ideas don’t necessitate good execution as this trilogy has demonstrated.
In a two-page spread covering the character design of Lando Calrissian, Terrio states:
“The first people the First Order targeted were leaders of the old Rebellion; they went for their kids, […]which begins to make much more sense when you look at the wider context of their machinations — the long-game plan.”
And it’s within that nugget that the Sequel Trilogy had the strongest throughline to carry all three films to their conclusion. The destruction of the future by the remnant of a bigoted, xenophobic guard who could not stand to see reform and change, and went to drastic measures to prevent it.
There was so much these writers could’ve done with a story about how children are radicalized, cut off from their families and cultures, and inundated with wrongheaded thinking. They could’ve used that as a rallying point for the Original Trilogy’s heroes.
Lando Calrissian’s exclusion from the conversation as a necessary or even crucial legacy character isn’t by accident. The “We love Lando Calrissian” sentiment is often performative, and one used as a shield whenever discussing the franchise’s racism and tendency to tokenize or kill what few Black characters it has to its name. “Star Wars can’t be racist because Lando” is the practiced refrain.
Lando’s insertion this late into the trilogy, as his presence didn’t matter in the previous two films, feels like an afterthought and one only made because Carrie Fisher died. Like Keri Russell’s Zorii Bliss, he has no actual use to the story until the climax of the film.
I wasn’t sure why he was in the film until I read the visual dictionary for Skywalker. There’s a passage that explains the First Order kidnapped his daughter. He and Luke went off in search of her before just giving up the hunt. But Lando’s missing daughter matters little within the context of Skywalker’s attempt at a generational story because she’s never brought up.
Lando’s missing daughter doesn’t matter because she’s not the Son of Han Solo and not the last-minute granddaughter of Sheev Palpatine. She’s an obstacle in what Rejwan, Kennedy, and Abrams claim is a saga that “has always been a story about Skywalkers and Palpatines”.
And so, within that context, Billy Dee Williams’ presence within the film means nothing beyond the franchise’s already exacerbated monument to tokenism. The generational story means nothing but highlights a consistent denial to offer anything of substance to Black characters in this universe.
In an interview with Awards Daily, Terrio was asked if splitting Skywalker into two parts, done with multiple blockbusters after the success of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, was ever considered by LucasFilm. Terrio calls the idea his “dream”, and uses the number of characters in the film as a solid justification for a split. But he states George Lucas always saw the trilogy as nine films, not ten. His response makes it clear the idea wasn’t even a discussion within LucasFilm.
Skywalker contains multiple stories crammed into a tiny space, vying for resolution a two-hour movie can’t offer. Characters don’t figure into the central plot because story elements got chopped out of the script, or it reduced their screentime to nil. The back end of the trilogy has shown little interest in its characters vs. its slapdash plot, of which there is little merit.
They weren’t particularly concerned about how overburdened the final film would end up being. Skywalker, as two films or just one, can’t tell a story of any clarity. Experiencing the film in real-time is a chore, and I wish it wasn’t.
The Answer to Everything Is Palpatine
The Genesis of Snoke occurs around the same period that the Jedi Killer (Kylo Ren) was a barely realized identity. Fairly close to Awakens’ principal photography. In a concept piece by James Clyne, the Jedi Killer (looking more Vader than not) bows to an enlarged image of Boris Karloff (from 1932’s The Mummy) manipulated to look like a classic Star Wars hologram in a room modeled after an old Ralph McQuarrie piece.
Senior sculptor Ivan Manzella, who appeared responsible for the character’s design, states that Abrams wanted Snoke’s character to invoke the look of a monster from a Hammer Film Production. Ghoulish, but nothing like Darth Sidious (aka, “old and decrepit”).
Manzella romanticizes Snoke, speculating that Snoke could’ve been “very handsome” at some point in his youth, but his ‘beauty’ (as it were) rotted away the older and more entrenched in the Dark Side he became. There’s barely anything in The Art of The Force Awakens for Snoke. The most notable bit about him is that Abrams originally wanted Snoke to be a female antagonist (which would’ve been cool). The speculation behind design process endeared me to the character as a new antagonist.
When Awakens introduced the likes of Snoke, Palpatine wasn’t a thought in the film’s narrative and certainly not on my radar. The film sets him and the First Order apart from the Sith and the Empire as individual identities that repeat the same negative patterns.
After Finn, Snoke was one of the biggest unknowns of the new trilogy. I wanted to know what made Snoke formidable. Awakens does enough with him that he’s similar in his construction to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ Shredder.
He manipulated the youth, but not quite to the ignorance of an older generation, and relied on their nostalgia of an era they weren’t raised in to build an army. He’s theatrical menace, his introduction showing us what motivates Kylo Ren. Han, Luke, and Leia know about Snoke but little else explored about that aspect of the story.
In the external material released to promote Awakens and Jedi, they make an explicit decision to not align Snoke and his followers with the Sith, but they’re Dark Side users regardless. For me, that was fairly refreshing and there was a chance for the Sequel Trilogy to build a new faction to pit against the Jedi.
And if you go by the Expanded Universe, the Sith and Palpatine didn’t have a monopoly on the Dark Side anyway. Snoke was influential enough to make the son Han and Leia choose the Dark Side of his own volition. What was Snoke’s thesis statement behind his indulgence in its power, and what made the death of the Jedi important beyond your basic Queen Beryl motives?
So the interim of Awakens and Jedi saw the fanbase doing what it usually did: Theorize. They speculated amongst each other about what species Snoke was, with some Star Wars fans taking it personally that anyone was even interested in finding out who Snoke was. The “not a Sith” bit went ignored by most (because none of that was communicated in the film) and the prevailing theory was that Snoke was Darth Plagueis as opposed to an original character with his own agenda.
Andy Serkis recorded his motion-capture performance at his studio, The Imaginarium. He also filmed on set with the other the actors (Domhnall Gleeson and Adam Driver). Discussion with Abrams informed much of Serkis’ performance as Snoke. Serkis was given no information on his character and didn’t know what he would look like before things began to finalize.
Listening to Serkis try to figure out what kind’ve character Snoke could be is a frustrating exercise in reading articles. Most of his suppositions sound interesting enough to form a story. But, like the rest of the cast, Snoke was spaghetti waiting for the next director to come and throw him at the wall again.
Following the release of Jedi, Serkis revealed that he shopped or pitched backstories for Snoke with both Abrams and Johnson. Supposedly both directors liked whatever he pitched, but instead of implementing those ideas in the film they held him to silence about it. Serkis speculated they’d use the ideas in a “prequel or whatever” if they ever decided to bring him back.
The main takeaway from Serkis’ commentary is that Abrams and Johnson were more preoccupied with mystery and how they could surprise the audience instead of making him a proactive character in the story. That’s more than disappointing.
Jedi does the same thing to Snoke it does to Phasma and Hux. Twist him into a parody instead of credible threat in the narrative. Snoke spends most of his time ranting and raving, with the most notable Snoke rant being his hyper-focus on the fact that Kylo Ren got “beat by a girl”. Not an inexperienced Force user or Lightsaber wielder, but “a girl” and things continue to go downhill for the character.
Snoke’s biggest contribution in the plot is being the excuse for the Forced bond between Ren and Rey, and then he’s killed in service of elevating Ren even further in narrative importance. Awakens set Snoke up as a formidable threat and Johnson and the Story Group chuck him in the trash.
Johnson argues that any attempt to develop Snoke’s character would be detrimental to the film. “If suddenly I had paused one of the scenes to give a 30 second monologue about who he was, it would have kind of stopped the scene in its tracks, I realized.”
His argument is not only flawed, it’s illustrative of his apathy towards the story he was meant to follow through on, and demonstrates why Jedi turned out to be such a mess of tell-and-not-show.
It stands to reason when one introduces a new antagonist into a story you intend to do something with them. But this logic trusts that an author or screenwriter follows storytelling rules that keep a plot or story from going off the rails. This is absent in Jedi.
Somehow, Palpatine Has Returned!
December 1991, Tom Veitch and Cam Kennedy wrote and illustrated an Expanded Universe comic book series called Dark Empire, Dark Empire II, and Empire’s End for Dark Horse Comics. Written and published from 1991 to 1995, the series centered on the return of Darth Sidious in the body of a clone. As a franchise that conjured up a clone of Luke who put an extra U in his name for distinction, Dark Empire is as dumb as Star Wars can get. And it was published with the blessing of George Lucas who oversaw the Expanded Universe.
As a concept Dark Empire rather shows the limits of imagination in the people working for or with LucasFilm, and just how often cloning and “Palpatine’s Back!” plots coincide with that lack of creativity. No matter how redundant Naoko Takeuchi’s formula got after a while, she could come up with a variety of antagonists to challenge her heroes as Sailor Moon crawled to its logical endpoint (the end of the series).
But LucasFilm? If they can’t think of a villain they’ll just bring the one they killed back from the dead (Darth Maul and Palpatine). With Palpatine, they’re really trying frame him as so omniscient that he planned everything in advance like Xanatos from Gargoyles. It’s the lowest bar a writer can reach for when trying to make a villain look formidable or competent. It’s lazy, with or without George Lucas’s blessing to back it up.
The decision to throw Snoke out the airlock left the Sequel Trilogy without an antagonist (Big Bad) to pit against the heroes. It left the threadbare story flapping in the wind, minimizing the relative ‘newness’ a character like Snoke could’ve offered but Kylo Ren lacked by design. It’s a great example of self-sabotage.
The reason for Palpatine’s return for Skywalker differs depending on who you ask. When interviewed, Trevorrow states Abrams came up with the idea to resurrect Palpatine. His draft scripts contained no crucial element of Palpatine beyond a cameo moment. Trevorrow instead tried to commit to making Kylo Ren the big bad.
According to Terrio, it was the wishes of Kennedy and Rejwan to bring Palpatine back into the fold to sell the idea that this trilogy was ‘always about Kylo Ren and Rey’ as they retold the same story from the previous films. It was probably both. Actor Ian McDiarmid was contacted late 2017 and accepted the chance to reprise the role of Palpatine a third time to the delight of pretty much everyone involved in the production of Skywalker.
Kennedy states that it was always their intention to bring Palpatine back, that Palpatine was always in their “blueprint”. You’d be hard-pressed to convince anyone of that with the way Awakens, Jedi, and Skywalker do nothing to foreshadow or set up his return and contradict each other.
And no, cue similarities in John Williams soundtracks (which sound like everything he’s ever composed in his career), Rey’s accent, and her ‘lunge moves’ at the climax of Awakens are not foreshadowing (you geeks). John Williams was in the dark like everyone else about Rey’s bloodline, going as far as to argue the plot twist in Jedi wasn’t legitimate.
So, Palpatine means the Sith are back at the narrative’s forefront and were responsible for everything in this trilogy. Snoke is reduced nothing more than a clone Palpatine was using because reasons. It’s lack of narrative and internal consistency aside, Palpatine is a passive antagonist who, on his own, isn’t all that interesting.
That’s why Darth Vader existed. Without that element, Palpatine spends most of his screentime as an inert thing and does nothing but try to goad Rey into killing him. Killing him means he can hijack her body, but when she does this, nothing of the sort happens.
Reportedly, the Story Group wasn’t thrilled about Palpatine’s resurrection, but it was something they brought on themselves when they chose not to commit to Snoke. And there’s something to be said about how uninspired the choice to bring Palpatine back was when you have to rely on a Fortnite event to announce his speech referenced in the opening crawl of Skywalker. Oscar Isaac’s performance as he utters the line, “Somehow, Palpatine has returned,” is a fairly comical attempt at gravitas if I ever saw it.
We Got the Band Together but They’re Not Great
Since the start of the Sequel Trilogy, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, and Daisy Ridley were advertised together as a heroic trio (FinnPoeRey) or duo (Finnrey, Finnpoe). There was an established desire in the audience to see these characters together working as a team.
During the D23 celebration last year, Boyega, Isaac, and Ridley were excited to finally to work together as a team in Skywalker. According to Boyega and Ridley, Abrams chose to make part of the film’s focus the relationship between the three characters.
However, in a later interview with Hypebeast, Boyega doubted that he and co-stars could pull off what Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, and Harrison Ford had three films to immortalize as a lasting dynamic with a solid center point like Luke Skywalker’s journey to offset it.
Awakens was unavoidably unique in the sense that Poe’s late addition to the story meant he wouldn’t be included in any dynamic Finn and Rey would build together as a team. The narrative sticks to the conceit of building their relationship the most, almost to the detriment of getting to know the world with a clearer context.
Rushing a trilogy into production means the later films carry the burden of executing things the first didn’t. And when you hire a director who’s only interest is in the villain, everything else suffers. Jedi had three years to develop a script to bring Finn, Poe, and Rey together. Dividing them where developing a dynamic mattered the most, damaged any future attempt to make them partners.
Going into Skywalker, there’s the acknowledgement that the lack of a relationship between the three meant the final film had no chance of really selling the audience on a lived-in relationship. And the individual dynamics Poe and Rey formed with Finn were weakened after Awakens.
The finale of your trilogy is the worst time to unify your would-be scrappy heroes, perhaps more so when their mission objective only affects one character and not all three. Skywalker tries to do the work of two films, sorting out the initiation and building process that neither Awakens nor Jedi did for the three characters. It’s also trying to use a too-little-too-late time jump to make it feel like these characters have worked together for years.
The film establishes early on Poe and Rey don’t like each other. The lack of chemistry between Isaac and Ridley compared to their respective dynamics with Boyega, sells that. They’re friends of Finn who tolerate each other.
Rey thinks Poe is difficult (because he’s obnoxious), Poe is irked by Rey because she’s not contributing to the Resistance’s cause. On account of Isaac’s subtextual performance, Poe acts like he’s jealous of her ‘relationship’ with Finn — a fact Finn ignores.
Skywalker offers up plenty of opportunity to explore the group’s feelings about her perceived lack of commitment, but that conflict isn’t allowed to develop. Finn certainly isn’t allowed to call Rey out on her obsessions that almost get them killed on more than one occasion.
In most cases, Abrams’s tried-and-true scavenger hunt model can work to the advantage of developing the characters. But because so much of the film is focused on Rey, her feud with Ren, and her past, Rey’s relationship with Finn and Poe gets lost in the muck. The script is constantly creating physical and narrative gaps between the characters. It ends up being represented in the speeder chase. Rey is isolated from Finn and Poe in a scene that doesn’t see anyone except Finn and Poe work together as a unit.
The film is relying on the chemistry between Boyega, Isaac, and Ridley to sell the dynamic. It wants Finn, Poe, and Rey to be the heart of the trilogy (not just this film). It tries to accomplish this through discord and bouts of comedy. But there’s little substance to carry their interactions forward. Finn and Poe might be with Rey on her quest, but they have no impact or stakes in it.
Because Boyega and Isaac have spent the most screen-time together (however marginal), their chemistry is where most of the energy and antics come from within the team. Every minute they’re together makes the film less of a bore. But those same antics highlight that the script doesn’t allow them to be much except jokers.
So the fight that happens towards the end of the film not only feels artificial, it falls flat because the lack of communication that isn’t banter is glaring (again, a carryover from Jedi). Ridley, saddled with a less present Driver, is the outsider of their group. While her chemistry with Boyega remains as present as ever, there’s no genuine relationship between Finn and Rey anymore.
Part of the problem lies within the fact that moments wherein Finn and Rey should interact or work closely together as a team — as seen in The Art of The Rise of Skywalker — got scrapped or never made it past the concept stage.
Rey remains isolated from Finn, less because of story reasons, and more because LucasFilm made it clear that this relationship is not one they ever saw worth investing in. Finn and Rey are no longer essential to each other’s stories, their internal conflicts don’t overlap.
None of the writers have portrayed Rey doing something significant for Finn without an element of self-preservation being involved in her actions. Like with Jedi, Skywalker’s biggest aim is keeping the two separated, and the script tries to substitute Ren into the spaces Finn once occupied while downplaying Finn.
Every moment Finn shows the slightest bit of concern for Rey, she either rebukes him, or the plot has her run off to look for a MacGuffin. One of the more egregious moments in the film is when she Force pushes Finn violently aside on the Sunken Death Star, then ditches him and Jannah (Naomi Ackie) on the derelict with Kylo Ren. That’s the last time the two are in the same scene together before the climax.
So, the same issue with the Sequel Trilogy overall remains. Characters aren’t allowed to pause and communicate, so nothing gets addressed. The film doesn't hold Rey accountable for her actions, and Finn’s relationship with Rey concludes as unequal rather than mutual. It makes moments like Rey throwing herself out of a Star Destroyer towards Finn as she rejects Ren ring hollow.
A while back, the justification for Rey’s behavior is that she was fighting the Dark Side, which meant Finn had to act as her anchor to the Light. If that was the case, Abrams and Terrio’s shortcomings as writers show they can’t get the messaging right. The one moment where Finn and Rey communicate hits with the same artificiality as Finn and Poe’s fight. Finn and Rey’s relationship is not an anchor in this story, so Finn is left looking overly-concerned for a person who doesn’t care about him.
Rey’s relationship with Finn and Poe doesn’t pan out. The story doesn’t use their dynamic to push the story forward, instead Finn and Poe feel like ornaments in a plot focused on justifying the Rey Palpatine twist. While Finn and Poe are partners, Rey doesn’t work or communicate with them.
Finn, Poe, and the Resistance save the galaxy while Rey feels divorced from the main action in a light-show with Palpatine.
Their group hug at the end rings hollow, and I hate that that’s the case. It’s a moment between characters that should’ve been great, rewarding. Instead, I saw actors who won’t work together on this level again. That’s depressing as an audience member who wanted to enjoy seeing them together as these characters, even just for this one film.
The Cancerous Kylo Ren
When you consider the mission statement of the First Order was to counter what they viewed as social collapse and the loss of “order” within the New Republic, Kylo Ren — as a man who embraced this message — was not a character designed to be sympathetic, let alone tragic.
The thesis behind the character was that he believed that his grandfather, Darth Vader, was in the right — that the Galactic Empire’s ends justified their means.
“Kylo Ren idolizes Darth Vader, not Anakin Skywalker. He idolizes what Vader represents and what Vader was trying to do. And the idea that Vader didn’t succeed, if you look at it from Ren’s point of view, he was seduced by the enemy and failed because of that seduction. So the idea is that Ren was to complete the thing that Vader started.” — J.J. Abrams
That is an intentionally unsympathetic position for a character to take. And when examined by audience who watched the previous films and knows he’s wrong, the question on their minds will be what possessed this character to turn against everything his family fought for. It won’t be remotely justifiable, but the question still needs answering.
Of all the characters in Awakens, Ren comes off as the one created with the greatest self-awareness in what he represented. The character is all theatrics and menace easily stripped down to violent tantrums. He lacks the focus of his idol and is insecure about that.
Ren was at his most effective as a character when he was playing the antagonist to Finn and Rey, and when the film focused on his conflict with General Hux, a First Order officer who wasn’t afraid of him and tried to undermine him in front of their superior.
His introduction into the film as a man committed to the creed of the First Order should disabuse most of the idea that he was a victim of any sort. Ren is pathetic, but dangerous.
But our problems begin the moment he removes his helmet. Sympathy for characters like Rey fly out the window with a maskless Ren when folk can argue she wasn’t a victim of his violence because she fought back. Sympathy is absent for Finn when Ren attacks him because the white gaze works to render him irrelevant and dehumanize him.
They cement this sympathetic narrative during the moment between Ren and Han on Starkiller Base with the name “Ben”. In the audio commentary for Awakens, Abrams points out that audiences weren’t convinced by Ren’s turmoil. They deduced he was trying to lure Han into a false sense of security. He tries to argue that Ren is being authentic with Han when he rejects the notion that Snoke is using him.
Leia Organa remains convinced they can ‘save’ their son, but Han is the one who accepted that Ren made choices his wife needs to accept. For Snoke to position Han as the biggest threat to Ren’s place in the First Order rings as odd.
But Ren is culpable enough in his actions that he is willing to manipulate his father to earn Snoke’s favor. He’s willing to murder his father for his own gains. And if you’re going to sell a character completely as a villain, then murder sells the finality of that choice. That one scene punctuates just how undeserving of redemption Ren is.
From that point on, you have to be committed to that characterization. I think Abrams and Kasdan, as the ones to set it up, were. Stripped of the artifice of indecision, Ren exposes himself as petulant and entitled when his rise to power is threatened.
Ren is a man who made trophies out of the ashes out of the people killed in his interrogation chamber. He viewed his grandfather’s love for Luke as something that ruined the order of the galaxy and sent his future spiraling towards disaster. The most interesting thing this trilogy could’ve done was to commit to his villainy.
But Abrams, as a director who’s committed to mirroring all aspects of the Original Trilogy, also believes redeeming the antagonist is a one-size-fits-all aspect that makes Star Wars what it is.
A Legacy character by any other Name
Going into Skywalker, the Story Group (Hidalgo, Dave Feloni, John Knoll, and Kiri Hart) are dead-set on transforming Ren into the trilogy’s de-facto hero, no matter how, in the words of Feloni, “not structurally redeemable” the character in his actions are. According to said Group, part of what makes the Sequel Trilogy a “female-driven story” (ha-ha!) is the subversion of the redeemer in the ‘redemption arc’. From their perspective, redemption is an inherently matriarchal act refuting patriarchal ideas in the relationships of mythical heroes like Hercules and Zuse (where Hera was the antagonist).
In the case of Star Wars, the father trying to save the son (Han/Ren) or vice versa (Luke/Vader) in the absence of a female antagonist, and the Sequel Trilogy’s case, a genuine heroic scion. They viewed Leia’s character suited for the long-suffering mother role because healing, nurturing, or regeneration are all symbolic of the mother figure in myths. Leia’s suffering, as opposed to her ideals, is what made her strong.
Yet, the film where they had the most involvement ( Jedi), does nothing to make Leia and Ren’s relationship crucial. And without set up between Leia and Ren in Jedi going into Episode IX, Leia redeeming her son comes off as badly as everything else in his repetitious arc and lacks narrative weight. Without Fisher as a living participant in Skywalker, Rey is made to fill in Leia’s role as the redeemer, only now farcical romantic affection is driving her actions.
So that’s where we find him in Skywalker. Meeting a resurrected Palpatine for little reason other than to set up his redemption. The insertion of Palpatine quickly reassures the audience who’ve bought into the shtick that all of Ren’s actions have been guided by Palpatine’s voice in his head.
Just like with Awakens and Jedi, he spends the better part of Skywalker being a lecherous, oppressive, and violent creep, seemingly committed to his heinous acts. By the midpoint, he enters conflicted mode. Ren decides to forgive himself after talking, not to the ghost of Han Solo, but his imaginary Han Solo.
The back end of Skywalker’s climax, during the mess of a final battle, sees Ren roll up into Rey’s non-fight with the inert Palpatine like an invasive parasite. It’s no longer her moment, Kylo Ren’s. It’s some of the hastiest put together shit I’ve ever seen. It’s just Driver in a raggedy shirt, with almost zero dialog, fighting the Knights of Ren with a blue Lightsaber.
His appearance highlights just how useless he was to the rest of the movie once the ‘Rey Palpatine’ reveal was made and she stabbed him in the gut like she should’ve done in the last film. Still, seeing him stand next to Rey instead of Finn (the actual heroic co-protagonist), was just another death rattle of the trilogy exhaled.
Kylo Ren as the protagonist undermines the story of Finn and Rey. Prioritizing him stalled Finn and Rey’s progression as lead characters. The first film showed that Ren could coexist alongside both as a villain without conflict, and it wasn’t impossible to buff the character going forward in that mode.
But Johnson’s belief in who the dual protagonists ought to be, who his pet character was, created a no-win scenario where the two got thrown under the bus for a traditionalist Star Wars story where the preferred (white male) character in Ren became its heart instead of Finn and Rey.
Ren got the connection to the original trio instead of Rey. He mattered more to LucasFilm than any half-assed metaphors they slapped onto Rey. The trilogy worked to deny his role as the villain, but heroic Ren is devoid of the substance inherent in Finn. Ren is what Miles Morales was to Phil Lord and Christopher Miller in Into the Spider-Verse.
Maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that the lack of planning and clashing priorities in the Sequel Trilogy allowed that bias to creep in and shift the narrative from “Passing the Torch” to “Redeem the Skywalker Adjacent”.
The (original) Expanded Universe failed to launch its own “Next Generation” franchise with a female lead because of internal conflict from multiple authors and their publishers. And this was with a general plan mapped out for their characters.
How not to Write a Tragic Villian
In the behind-the-scenes documentary for Awakens, Driver and Abrams state that Leia and Han’s obligations to the New Republic resulted in absences because of their work. Driver calls their actions selfish agendas that Ren grows to hate them for. He resents them enough to turn to Snoke who exploits his narrow-mindedness. Ren’s fatal flaw as a character in this regard is that his ‘tragedy’ lacks pathos and empathy for those he wronged.
In Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, the broken relationship in Cere Junda and Trilla Suduri forms one half of the game’s post-Order 66 story. When Trilla’s master, Cere, is captured during an attempt to lead Clone Troopers away from her Padawan, she’s tortured by Inquisitors into giving up the location of Trilla and the other students.
Cere and Trilla are both made prisoners of the Empire, but Trilla is convinced Cere abandoned and betrayed them. She joins the Empire as an Inquisitor and perpetuates the cycle of pain visited on them both. While both are victims of the Empire, the narrative holds them accountable for their actions.
While Cere’s actions were altruistic, she facilitated the capture and deaths of the people she was trying to protect. While Trilla’s anger is justified to a degree, she was determined to exterminate the Jedi with the same fervor as Vader. It’s not until Cere apologizes for leaving her in an impossible position that Trilla asks her master to undo what she helped to destroy as an Inquisitor. Avenge the Jedi.
In comparison, Kylo Ren’s backstory is weak because there is no conflict between son and parent. It contradicts or doesn’t connect with the idolization he carried for Darth Vader in Awakens. For an element that informs so much of his character, that aspect is never elaborated upon in the films proper. Characters are constantly telling the audience there’s still ‘good’ or ‘light’ in him, but Awakens, Jedi, or Skywalker fail to show us how.
Comparing Ren’s ‘hardship’ to Finn, Rey, and Poe, create foils who suffered hardships (the loss of family members), but all made better choices than he did. Their altruistic characterization illustrates just how self-interested Ren’s fall to the darkness was. Still, there was something LucasFilm could have done with the selfishness driving Ren’s backstory.
There was something you could’ve done with the tragedy that Ren intentionally turns his entire family into because his self-victimization goes hand-in-hand with his choice to embrace the ideology of the First Order. But that required an awareness of how the privilege, the whiteness, built into his character played into his actions. Everyone at LucasFilm and Disney showed the audience they lacked the optics for that.
Kennedy argues that Ren, a grown man, represents today’s ‘confused youth’. He’s a representative of “the dark side of society that we can be drawn to, not knowing whose side to be on and not having a clear-cut idea of what’s good or bad.” He instead mirrors countless white men swayed by supremacist ideologue threatened by change or reform happening at a snail’s pace.
The films fail to show us how or when Leia and Han fail their son and Luke’s attempted murder isn’t pathos but exists to frame Ren was blameless in his fall. Charles Soule’s The Rise of Kylo Ren goes one step further and makes Ren’s biggest atrocity, the murder of Luke’s students and the destruction of his Jedi Temple, not Ren’s doing.
The danger of the redemption arc spiel with Star Wars was how it conflated redemption with atonement or forgiveness. Where Xena Warrior Princess centers its hero’s atonement over redemption and couches the latter in her death to save the souls she condemned to suffering in undeath, Star Wars’ messaging veers into fascist apologia without meaning to.
For all of Lucas’ talk that Vader’s actions couldn’t redeem or atone a lifetime of genocide, that’s the message everyone, including the people who worked under him and remain at LucasFilm, took away from all six films. The character became a go-to excuse for shoddily built heel-face turns.
The films never entertained holding Ren accountable for his actions. He was party to system-wide genocide (something Vader didn’t live long enough to achieve), but all that was required for redemption was Rey weepily admitting she wanted to hold his hand, and Ren tossing his red Lightsaber into the ocean.
There are very few characters I can accredit the failure of a story to like Kylo Ren. I truly believe LucasFilm, Johnson and Abrams are all tone deaf enough in their actions that they don’t realize (or don’t care) that their backbreaking excuses created not a tragic villain, but a poorly realized character who got a pass on every fundamental level.
The Sequel Trilogy would be one that hands absolution over to a character in a story that blamed everything or everyone but him for his choices. It’s a natural evolution of the redemption arc in this franchise.
The following is part of a three-part ‘retrospective’ series wherein I discuss the shortcomings and positives of the Sequel Trilogy from the perspective of a Black Woman (the most underrepresented identity in the Star Wars franchise).