Running on Empty: Blame Last Jedi for Rise of Skywalker’s flaws

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***Spoilers: Do NOT continue reading if you have not seen all three films in the latest Star Wars movie trilogy.***

Disney really blew it with the Star Wars franchise. When the House of Mouse bought Marvel Comics, I was excited to see what they would do with such an exciting catalogue of characters. Marvel had struggled to bring their stories to the big screen – or even stay financially afloat – for decades, so the resources and stability Disney brought to the deal were a perfect match for Stan Lee’s creative genius. The marriage only expanded the success and momentum of Marvel’s self-driven production, Iron Man.

But when they bought the Star Wars franchise, I was concerned.

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Here was an already wildly successful universe that had proven to be a nearly unlimited cash cow. Yes, the prequels were despicable (only mildly salvaged by the final installment), but Lucas’ mistakes were well-known. Surely Disney wouldn’t repeat them. On the other hand, what could they offer such a well-developed cinematic universe? To put it simply, the temptation to change something – anything (too much, really) – is often too great for such an ambitious company to resist.

Turns out, I should’ve heeded my pessimism.

The trilogy started out promising enough. The Force Awakens was panned for sticking to the Star Wars formula – a new/final hope is introduced on an out-of-the-way desert planet, a dark and brooding villain debuted in the template of Darth Vader, an aging mentor and beloved character is killed by said villain, and the latest incarnation of the Death Star was revealed.

I get it. We’ve seen this story before. But after the mess that was the prequels and doubts about how a new company would steward the franchise, Disney was in a corner. They had to make a quintessential Star Wars movie to restore faith in the franchise. It didn’t matter if nothing new happened. Disney had to make a movie that felt like Star Wars. In that context, JJ Abrams’ first installment was a success.

And then Disney handed the keys to Rian Johnson.

The disastrous film that was The Last Jedi did more damage to the Star Wars universe than all three of the prequels combined. Its mistakes are well-documented, but their full, toxic reach remained unrealized until The Rise of Skywalker hit screens. Only now do we see the scope of Johnson’s corrosive touch.

Let’s take a look.

From the beginning, it was obvious that Rey was destined to be a Skywalker. The expanded universe of books written after Return of the Jedi introduced the Jedi twins – Han and Leia’s son and daughter combo – and the inevitable storyline that started with Rey being abandoned on a desert planet like Luke on Tattoine seemed to write itself. Somewhere out there, there was another. It had to be Kylo Ren.

But Johnson apparently despised the obvious, so he tried to derail the parentage of Rey Should-of-been-Skywalker and claim that her parents were nobodies. This lie destroyed any chance that Han and Leia could be her parents, or even Luke and his expanded universe partner, Mara Jade. After all, no one could mistake any of the big three for nobodies, even if they “chose” to be nobodies, as Kylo Ren reveals to Rey in The Rise of Skywalker.

But that left Abrams and Disney with a problem. How do you tie up the trilogy with a Skywalker as the hero when the only living Skywalker is the nearly irredeemable villain?

Apparently, Rey becomes a Skywalker by…choice?

You see, that final scene in The Rise of Skywalker when the Skywalker force ghosts appear to Rey as she names herself ‘Rey Skywalker’ is supposed to demonstrate her deep familial connection to her beloved mentors, Luke and Leia. The only problem?

We never got to see that connection develop.

Because Johnson chose to make Luke a self-centered, bitter old man (a depiction completely out of character for the Luke we’ve known for 40 years) in The Last Jedi, Rey never got to grow close to the Jedi Master that was supposed to be her Obi Wan. The consequences of that wasted on-screen time really sank in when Leia, the Jedi that was supposed to complete her training (as Yoda did for Luke), was suddenly unavailable for the final film due to Carrie Fisher’s untimely and tragic death.

The result? Rey had no one to bond with on-screen in a way that makes that final scene in The Rise of Skywalker a satisfying and emotional payoff for audiences. Instead, we’re left asking ourselves, “Really? A few minutes of on-screen time together led to this?”

Bogus.

And then there’s the awkward relationship between Rey and Kylo Ren, and the insufficient relationship between Rey and Finn.

From the beginning, it was clear Kylo and Rey were meant to be family – most likely brother and sister – with Rey being the unlucky winner of a life lived in solitude to protect her from the dark side and Kylo (Ben) the son who went off script without the steadying presence of a sister he never knew existed. Their early connection seemed built on all the myths and tropes we’ve come to believe about twin siblings.

And then, again, Johnson happened.

The lie about Rey’s parentage made the Jedi twin storyline an impossibility, which made the connection between Kylo Ren and Rey unexplainable, a connection Abrams ultimately had to explain by introducing the idea of a ‘dyad’ (two randomly connected force users) and an uncomfortable romantic entanglement that led to that ‘WTH?’ kiss between Rey and Ben (Kylo) before he dies at the end of Rise.

Huh?

What about Finn???

Aren’t we supposed to believe that Finn and Rey have some sort of simmering romance ala Han and Leia? Yeah, that didn’t really work out either, mainly because the second film in the trilogy – the one where all those wonderful character and relationship developments are supposed to happen on screen – fumbled the ball again. Remember Han and Leia spending so many emotionally charged moments together in Empire Strikes Back? Or Leia’s tragic scream when Han is encased in carbonite at the end?

Nope. None of that for Rey and Finn. Just some awkward, misguided storylines that moved Rey and Finn’s relationship forward not one single bit, a mistake Abrams could not fully correct in the third film without sacrificing the now necessary romantic pull between Rey and Ben.

Ugh. This is getting exhausting. The mistakes seem endless. Johnson was clearly so focused on breaking rules and destroying fan expectations that he failed to lay the proper groundwork for the final film.

But none of those mistakes compare to the biggest one of all – the decision to kill Supreme Leader Snoke in one dismissive scene in The Last Jedi.

Snoke could easily have been developed into the trilogy’s big bad, sinister and powerful, mysterious and inevitable, just like the Emperor in the original trilogy or Sauron in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. But Rian wanted to break the mold and ditch Snoke early on, leaving Kylo Ren as the remaining villain in the film A Darth Vader without a master.

Okay. It could’ve worked. Unexpected, which is usually good, and exciting that we might finally get to see what would happen if Darth Vader’s plan of “kill the Emperor so I/we can rule instead” actually came to fruition.

Turns out, a bad movie is what happens.

If Kylo Ren is the trilogy’s lone villain, the possibility of redemption is hard to swallow. So, of course, Abrams needed a new big bad for the final film. Enter the technology-assisted remains of the original big bad himself, Emperor Palpatine.

From the outset, Palpatine felt like an afterthought, a course correction to try and salvage the final film. He was less-than-impactful to the plot (honestly, just the report of the massive planet-killing fleet would’ve been enough to drive the movie), utterly unable to do much except hang there in mid-air and shoot some lightning from his hands. Big deal. Been there, saw that.

But perhaps most disappointing…he was unoriginal.

When the Emperor was introduced and developed in the original trilogy, he was something new. A shriveled, sinister old man that could wipe the floor with both a Jedi Knight and a Sith Lord from the comfort of his throne?

Creepy.

But after 30-40 years of pop culture references, the Emperor is a known quantity. There’s almost nothing that can be added to a near-perfect villain. But then again, what was Abrams supposed to do?

Johnson should’ve spent the second film further developing the big bad – Snoke – and hinted at revelations and mysteries surrounding his origin. By the time the third film came along, Snoke should’ve been a well-constructed, fearsome villain capable of convincing us he could and would kill every living man, woman, and child that resisted him in the universe.

Instead, the great Snoke was felled by a single saber swing from his apprentice. And when he died, he took all hope of a successful trilogy with him. Suddenly, Abrams was left with no true villain in the third film and no time to develop a new one.

The only option left to him was to bring an already developed and established villain from cinematic history out of retirement. For all its flaws, the decision to bring back the Emperor was the only one that made sense.

Once again, Johnson derailed the franchise.

Really, the impact of Rian Johnson’s nonsensical contribution to the Star Wars universe will be felt forever. Fan distrust in the franchise afterwards led to the commercial failure of Solo, a fine film that could’ve led to other character-driven stories. And the decisions made by Johnson – a director seemingly disinterested in the larger story he was supposed to be developing – put Abrams in an inescapable predicament with the final movie.

The result was a lackluster film in The Rise of Skywalker that had to spend most of it’s time patching and correcting the mistakes of its predecessor.

And now, Disney is taking a break from the franchise, still clutching to the ridiculous notion that a fanbase that waited 30+ years for more Star Wars movies is suffering from ‘Star Wars fatigue.’

Please.

We’re not tired of Star Wars movies. We’re tired of bad Star Wars movies. The sooner Disney accepts that, the sooner we can finally get the Star Wars movies we deserve, if not the ones we waited for.

Johnson – and Kathleen Kennedy, the Disney executive that failed to care for the world she was entrusted with – has stolen those movies from us. Never again will we get to see Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Princess Leia together on the big screen, light sabers and blasters in hand.

And I will never forgive Johnson for that.

 

 

 

 

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