The great wasted opportunities of the Rise of Skywalker with some spoilers and musings about the life we live in and the nature of stories

I was going to let this go, but I had some followup discussion about my comment about how Finn and the other characters in Rise of Skywalker were wasted, and I needed to get some more thoughts out.

Star Wars story structure has a long history of parallel forks – more than one plotline whose tines interlock. This, I hope you’ll agree, heightens the sense of tension and creates the illusion of a more coherent world. These storylines are independent and sometimes stray, but they connect at key points to bring the characters together emotionally and create meaningful bonds. In the Star Wars mainline trilogies, these storylines have traditionally been: 1) Jedi mysticism, a sense of wonder about and inclusion in the unknown forces and powers that guide the universe. This is the lure of power. 2) the galactic government / Empire / Republic, the background of the structure of how the people in the galaxy fight for what they think is power over other (mostly) humans in the absence of the direct line to power that The Force represents, and 3) the regular people just trying to make a living by trying to ignore the power struggles of the various elites. In the original Trilogy, these storylines are clearly represented by Luke, Leia, and Han, and the interesting parts are where they overlap (Han joins the rebellion after all, Luke and Leia are opposite sides of the same hereditary thirst for power, etc…).

This structure is largely blown apart in the recent Trilogy, but mostly unintentionally, through sloppy storytelling. Let’s look at how this could have gone.

Finn is introduced in a very strong way. He’s a First Order trooper raised in a life of faithful service to the government with a moment of clarity that he’s actually the bad guy. So he defects, and this story… really goes nowhere at all. Finn would have had a much more interesting arc if his realizing he could break away from the First Order could be the seed of an actual rebellion in the First Order. We don’t get any insight into the rank and file of the stormtroopers in the movies, and this could have been a great entry point into that. Are they evil? Are they brainwashed? Are they religious zealots? Are they acting out of fear? Do they think they’re doing the right thing? On the face of it, they’re the legit government, but this story also crosses over to the lines of the regular people. They’re pawns, but they can have some power. Here’s your allegory about the influence of individual actions on collective waves of accomplishment. All it takes is the right spark to trigger a movement.

Poe… I’m not really sure what to do about Poe. The character as written in the trilogy is fairly bland and uninteresting, but I actually liked what they started to do with him in Rise of Skywalker the best out of the three. Exploring his checkered past with the criminal underbelly could have had some crossover with his escape from that world and a similar liberating element to bring others out into legitimate enterprises. I need to think about this one some more.

I don’t have a whole lot to say about Rose except that she’s criminally underutilized in this movie. She could very easily have been worked into all of these plot threads as an actual character with agency. She probably deserves her own movie.

And then there’s Rey. Quite frankly, bringing Palpatine back as the big bad pulling the strings behind the curtain is some bullshit right there. But they could have turned into the wind and pulled an interesting story out of this. I’ve already talked about how it was totally in line with the rest of Star Wars that her parents were nobody and that was fine. It didn’t need to be Palpatine per se, and it didn’t need to be about her lineage – it could have been about the overall influence of the formerly living Sith. Given that light Jedi have a sufficient connection to the Force that they can attain some life after death, it’s not entirely unreasonable for the Sith to be able to do this too. In the Star Wars movies, this has never been straight up resurrection. I would have even been okay with the spirit of Palpatine as part of the Sith collective if it hadn’t been “literally Palpatine’s body and legacy”. Imagine if you will that the crux of this conflict was not “we have to find a thing to find a thing to find the Sith who are trying to conquer the galaxy again and kill Palpatine fucking again” but instead – we need to understand this ability for the dead to keep interfering in the affairs of the living, and in order to stop the Sith from doing it, we also have to cut off the Jedi. We wipe the slate clean. No more Sith coming back from the dead, but also no more Force ghosts of dead Jedi. They could have used this to make a point about the way we hold onto the things we have great memories of in history, and have trouble letting go. We could have made a formal goodbye, and had a proper sacrifice that felt real, with deep emotional consequences. Our heroes get to save the day again, but they also get to pass the baton.

Star Wars is a big part of our modern mythology. The end of this story could have been a powerful fable about enjoying what we’ve done before, honoring it, and letting it go to let something take its place and bloom with a renewed sense of energy. Star Wars has always been about hope, but it’s also been about wanting to know what happens next. I want to want to know what happens next.

Things about The Rise of Skywalker with some spoilers and musings about the life we live in and the nature of stories

I still haven’t fully processed all of my opinions about Rise of Skywalker yet. I disliked a bunch of things about it. I think they made a lot of bad, predictable, and safe choices and were feeling really burned by The Last Jedi but took away entirely the wrong lessons. Despite that, I still had fun in the theater, and I was able to sit back and enjoy the absurdity without deeply caring about it, but the longer I’ve thought with it and looked back on it, the less I’ve liked it. These thoughts aren’t entirely gelled yet, but I guess that’s not any worse than the movie.

This comparison was made to Endgame. Rise of Skywalker’s last minute save is particularly even more egregious, because not only is it forced, but Leia has been asking for the rest of the galaxy to join this fight for two whole movies, and it takes Lando to convince people to show up.

I think it’s interesting that almost all of my issues with The Last Jedi were in the execution, not the core premises, and the things that Rise of Skywalker “fixed” were almost entirely core premises.

Remarkably, I still think Rian Johnson is a great filmmaker and I respect his conviction, despite the train wreck that The Last Jedi was, and even though he’s doubled down on some of his bad choices. I don’t disagree with the intent behind them, I just think he doesn’t have a vision for how to portray those particular choices that meshes with my opinion of what makes a good movie. The Holdo maneuver scene was breathtaking. And yet also hamfisted, telegraphed a mile away, and completely out of place with everything we know about how space travel works in this universe. Not one of Holdo’s character choices makes sense in a Star Wars movie.

I think it was a mistake to make this a trilogy. They could have easily made Rise of Skywalker be two films and taken some extra time to clean up the structure. A lot of elements of it are forced into place and are only there to “wrap things up” at the expense of the story. But even thinking that, at the end of it all, I’m still relieved that the trilogy is over, because the entire thing is a mess and has been a gigantic waste of all of our time. Now that it’s finished, we can all stop talking about it as the elephant in the room, and I hope pick up the space for more interesting stories instead of the mainline. I think that strong mainline is an illusion, covered up by the fact that deviations from it have sucked, not that they were bad because they were deviations. I think deviating from “classic Star Wars” is a narrative choice that they make because people get upset when they deviate badly from it. But that’s because when they have done so, it’s largely been in bad ways. That’s different from all deviations being bad, and I think they’re confusing the two.

This deleted scene could have been used as the root of an actual fifth column within the First Order, and been an actual plot line that helped them win the war instead of just the stupid single Hux spy gag. Or they could have faked it out with that, killed Hux and thought they’d eliminated the spy, only to find that there was a whole organization of them. Maybe this would even have tied into the troopers that had escaped. But it’s never even hinted at.

And that’s the crux of it. I could go on with details about mistakes I think they made, but it amounts to the same thing: Finn’s entire character is wasted, the same way every character in this entire trilogy is wasted. No one has any connection to the larger story in any meaningful way, it’s just some things that happen. We shouldn’t be having this discussion – Star Wars movies should be the best of the entertainment we have. Their stories should be coherent. Their plots should matter, even if that import is only to the characters in the universe itself. We should care about what happens because the characters care. The characters should have meaningful and self-consistent motivations. We shouldn’t walk out of the theater muttering to ourselves about things that made no sense. Great entertainment still exists. Star Wars deserves better than this, and we deserve better than this.