Spoilers for the Star Wars franchise but, if you have not yet seen the films, I suspect you were not intending to.
The Rise of Skywalker was, at best, too little too late and, more likely, a rather dispiriting end to a depressing set of sequels. The so-called prequel trilogy was a mess, full of doomed ideas and questionable characters, but at least there was a story being told, and one which more-or-less made sense in the context of the original trilogy, magical micro-organisms notwithstanding.
Most people wanting to dissect the films have probably done so by this point, and amongst the enraged rants, there have also been some interesting points about how neither of the latter trilogies realized the potential established by the first, in that instead of seeing the tragic downfall of a Jedi master, his redemption for the sake of his son, and the rebuilding of peaceful galactic civilization, we have been left with what amounts to fan-fiction. With all the shallow, inconsistent characterization and ludicrous villainy on show, it is hard to disagree. Tragically, we shall not have another and so, like Game of Thrones and the X-Men films, some of the greatest acting talent of our time has been wasted on projects which may be great money-spinners but are poor films/television.
Whether the rumours are true – that Abrams and Johnson were at loggerheads over how to end the story and that is what led to the indecisive, disjointed nature of the last three films – does not really excuse some truly diabolical creative decisions. (That said, whether these were decisions by the writers, producers, executives, or anyone else, I would not care to speculate.)
First of all, the cast is excellent, and clearly trying to do its best to stop everything collapsing like an over-ambitious trifle left unattended in a bouncy castle, so what follows is definitely a character assassination, and not an actor assassination.
Let us not beat around the bush: Rey is a terrible character, largely because she is caught in a terrible story. The Palpatine twist is about the only interesting thing to happen to her, and her reaction is about the only believable piece of character development in her script. Daisy Ridley does a heroic job trying to get us to give a monkey’s, but as Harrison Ford said on the set of the original trilogy, ‘George! You can type this shit, but you sure can’t say it!’
Other people have dissected all the things wrong with episodes VII – IX, from the aforementioned script and story to the ways in which they contradict the canon, not only within the three films themselves but also outside them. Others have defended the films on the basis that they are just a bit of fun and supposed to be for children anyway. This seems to assume that children’s entertainment is, by default, terrible. Having grown up with The Animals of Farthing Wood and Peter Pan and the Pirates and the like, I find this notion mystifying.
Star Wars has always struck me as light family entertainment, rather than being aimed specifically at children, and the flaws in ALL the films do not prevent them from being fun, but the sequel trilogy’s inability to commit to a story instead of set-pieces and its preoccupation with over-rehearsed spectacle have given the world a sad state of affairs. The prequel trilogy was a bad story; the sequel trilogy was barely a story at all.
Indeed, even more than an example of fan-fiction with a Hollywood budget, the sequel trilogy has the air of children smashing plastic toys together and making up the rules as they go along. The result can, indeed, be entertaining, but for all the wrong reasons. It becomes camp and farcical. What lightsabre fights there were were underwhelming, and the climax marks the third time in a row that the insanely powerful mastermind Darth Sidious (gloriously hammed up by Ian McDiarmid) could have won just by turning off his zappy-fingers. And then this happened:
Unable to withstand Darth Sidious with a single lightsabre, Rey uses the Force to *awkward coughing* and pull out… a second lightsabre!!!!!!!!!1111111one
Needless to say, her decision to cross the streams really payed dividends. Darth Sidious forgot to click his fingers to the off position and blasted himself to smithereens, which of course meant all the scenery had to start crumbling (probably because he had chewed up so much of it in the meantime). I laughed so hard I thought the people in the seats next to me were about to move away. It was pure bathos.
Using devices as bookends and character flaws as framing devices are tried and tested narrative tools, but this is not what we saw in the sequels: we saw lazy re-treading, contrived dialogue, and broken narrative promises, from the queer-baiting (and token redress) to the complete lack of resolution of any of the themes.
Perhaps this is inevitable as the film industry changes how it approaches the medium in order to generate as much revenue as possible. Star Wars was never great story-telling with any lofty ideas and solid world-building, but it was a story, and a fun one. Not only that, but there was some truly excellent choreography which made use of the visual gimmicks.
The sequels neither subverted nor re-invented the formula, and whatever financial success they might enjoy, they serve as a cautionary tale: a reminder that to write beyond the end of one story, one must have a new story to tell, for episodes VII – IX may be many things, but a story they are not.
Sifting through the Wreckage
That is, at its core, what has upset so many people, I believe. It is expressed in many different ways but, fundamentally, the sequel trilogy does not tell a story, except perhaps one of mismanagement and cynical greed.
An example of a film that does tell a good Star Wars story, which toys with subversion and re-invention and does it well, is Rogue One which, in my opinion, is the best Star Wars film of all. In it, Force-users are frightening, rare, and their actions affect the balance of power, but the galaxy still depends upon the work and sacrifice of ordinary men, women, and fish-people.
If the creative forces of Rogue One had been behind the sequel trilogy, we could have expected a nuanced reflection on whether or not the Jedi were truly needed, and whether or not they should reinvent themselves, something something ludonarrative something something inevitable something something destiny. We could have seen Kylo’s journey as an avatar of the Dark Side instead of a hormonal teenager, and the many versions of Rey’s past could have been juggled with sensitivity and aplomb. But there we are. As it is, we shall have to make do with Rogue One and, for the true connoisseur, Darths & Droids and Backstroke of the West.
It is a shame we will not see a sequel for Episode VI, now, but at least we have these pretty sets, and a gallery of merchandizing ideas, even if they will, sadly, never be realized as cinema.