It is December, and that means three things: It’s the 5th anniversary of The Force Awakens, the 3rd anniversary of The Last Jedi, and the 1st anniversary of The Rise of Skywalker. I had initially planned on getting this article published months ago, but several things got in the way. So yeah, let’s close out one of the worst years in ages, looking back on a polarizing subject like the Star Wars sequel trilogy and try to come to terms with what it became. (Because that’s a good idea, right?) How did we get to this point? Was it hubris of filmmakers who assumed Star Wars was too big to fail? Had the franchise run its course after four decades? Or was it the fandom that tore itself apart through differing views on identity politics? I’m not sure I can untangle all of this in an article, but I have to get my thoughts out there. With my friend Ian’s help, let’s dig into the past eight years of the struggle to craft a new chapter in the story set, “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…”
Episode I: Initial Success
In 2012 George Lucas sold Lucasfilm and its intellectual properties for billions of dollars and stock options to The Walt Disney Corporation. Immediately the company announced the release of a Star Wars sequel trilogy and multiple spin-off films. This lead to J.J. Abrams being hired to helm the first of these sequels, followed by Rian Johnson with Episode VIII, and Colin Trevorrow in charge of capping it off with Episode IX. Kathleen Kennedy was given the keys to the kingdom with Lucas’ blessing, and the three key cast members (Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, and Harrison Ford) were all set to return. Christmas of 2015, we were treated to Star Wars: The Force Awakens and either one of two things to a Star Wars fan.
1.) A friendly reminder of what Star Wars was once upon a time.
2.) A rehash of Star Wars: A New Hope, which added nothing new except Abrams’ signature ‘Mystery Box’ nonsense.
I walked out of the theatre, enjoying it immensely. In fact, when I made my top 10 list in 2015, The Force Awakens snagged the #10 spot. We saw a return to practical FX, the old gang was there, and it got me stoked to see what Luke Skywalker had been up to all these years! Of course, as hard as I tried to turn off my critical thinking, it kept leaking in and raining on my parade. In the end, I saw TFA as vanilla bean ice cream. It was a palette cleanser that did its job, but it was nutritionally empty. And it pretended to be classier, adding the word ‘bean’ to its name.
Then we were treated to Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. This showed what fans of the Expanded Universe had known for ages. Star Wars wasn’t just Jedi Knights and the Force at all times. We got back to the wars of Star Wars. The look of the film was great, and it was a fun interquel.
Episode II: Cracks in the Veneer
With any sort of large media shift, there are going to be hiccups and pains. Right after TFA’s release, we heard George Lucas compare selling Star Wars to Disney to selling his children to white slavers. Oof, not exactly the most tactful thing to do. With that came the ripple of behind the scenes drama. Tony Gilroy was hired to reshape parts of Rogue One to the point where he was given a couple million for his troubles. Josh Trank exited his planned Boba Fett spin-off film after his issues on Fant4stic. Phil Lord and Chris Miller were fired midway through filming their Han Solo spin-off film. And finally, Trevorrow quit Episode IX due to the typical ‘creative differences.’
“What the Hell is going on at Lucasfilm?” I thought to myself. On December 16, 2017, I walked out of Star Wars: The Last Jedi with a few questions. I had high hopes as Rian Johnson was a filmmaker I held in great esteem. I really enjoyed all three of his previous films, and the trailers for TLJ were fantastic. In the end, the film had made some choices I wasn’t sure I agreed with and had me wondering if it was a good idea.
Then an Internet firestorm of name-calling and finger-pointing kicked up. People in both camps (the pro and anti-Last Jedi) got down and dirty. If you hated TLJ, you were a misogynist who was part of toxic fandom. If you loved TLJ, you were an SJW who had no idea what Star Wars was about. Oh, how I missed the days when people bitched about the prequels on message boards. The schism kept getting wider between these two factions who fought for the title of who were the ‘real’ Star Wars fans. How the Hell did we get here?
Episode III: Limping Across The Finish Line
Through all of this fans were hit with horrible news on December 27, 2016. Carrie Fisher had passed away at the mere age of 60. Word came out that she had finished principal photography on The Last Jedi, but what of Episode IX? The rumors swirled as Trevorrow had apparently turned in his first draft of Episode IX days before the tragic news. He begged Kennedy and Johnson to tweak The Last Jedi for him not to get boxed entirely into a corner by not having any of the three old school players anchor his film. The fact that doing a page one rewrite meant more time was needed as the May 2019 release might not be feasible. His pleas fell on deaf ears, and so Trevorrow decided it was in his best interest to return to the Jurassic World franchise. I can’t say I blame the guy as all of this makes it look like he was being sandbagged at every turn.
Who could be asked to pick up these pieces and take the helm of a ship that was already leaving port? Rumor has it that Kennedy wanted Johnson, but he didn’t feel up for it. In the end, Abrams was brought back, and the film got delayed to December 2019. But where was this story to go? Johnson had set fire to Abrams’ Mystery Box and scattered the ashes to the wind. Rey’s parentage was now inconsequential. The new big bad of the story Snoke was left in pieces. Finally, character dynamics and personalities were ignored or wholly changed. What was left?
When the time came for Episode IX advertising (now officially titled The Rise of Skywalker) to kick into gear, one word was used to sell this film: NOSTALGIA. While the previous films had dipped their toes into this pool, TRoS was diving in full force. Trailers used footage from the eight previous films to sell this as “The Saga Comes to an End.” I was immediately skeptical and of course, seeing the ‘repurposed’ shots of Carrie Fisher was a little worrisome. One could say, “I have a bad feeling about this.”
Walking out of The Rise of Skywalker after the first screening, I wasn’t angry. No, I was disappointed. And that, in my opinion, is a far worse fate for the grand finale. We are now left to wonder how everything could’ve turned out with more time and a different creative crew. These are my thoughts, but I now have someone else’s opinions to add to the equation.
Ian has been a great friend of mine for now over a decade. We met in college bonding in tech theatre thanks to our mutual love for a lot of pop culture, we’ve stayed close ever since. So here are a few memorable quotes from Ian during our watch.
Just before we pressed play, “You know it’s bad when I have a sense of dread instead of joy.”
As the open crawl started, “The dead have already spoken. Don’t Obi-Wan and Yoda count?”
On Palpatine’s return to the series, “I hope Ian McDiarmid got paid (Jeremy Irons) castle money for this.”
Seeing Kylo Ren cutting his way through the guards, “We have the man-child killing crab people.”
The fact that Kylo pulled the necklace from Rey. “Okay, so he can teleport matter now. How is that possible?”
Seeing Chewbacca’ die’, “At least in the books, he had a moon drop on him.”
The introduction of D-0, “And they’ve found the Pixar lamp.”
So yeah, he wasn’t all that thrilled with this finale. I asked a few questions to clarify where his opinions come from and gather another fan’s thoughts on the current climate of Star Wars.
What was your opinion on Star Wars pre-Disney?
IAN: As someone who grew up with Star Wars being a large part of my childhood—I was born less than a year before Return of the Jedi, my brother and parents liked it, we had the action figures, tie-in books, we still have the bedsheets—Star Wars was also excellent. When the special editions came out, it wasn’t until middle school that I started reading the expanded universe novels and truly fell back in love with them. Even when the prequel trilogy came out—which did gradually get better, I could still see that there was hope for more material, not just movies. I was okay with that.
What was your initial reaction to Disney acquiring Star Wars?
IAN: Disney buying out Lucasfilm did give me pause for a bit, as I had seen what they did—or failed to do—with another significant part of my childhood, The Muppets. But I figured if anyone could get Harrison Ford to reprise the role of Han Solo, it would be Uncle Walt and his bottomless wallet.
Did you like the people that were picked (i.e., Kennedy, Abrams, Johnson) to spearhead the sequel trilogy when they were initially announced?
IAN: To be honest, I had little knowledge of the behind the scenes politics of Lucasfilm, so I gave Kathleen Kennedy the benefit of the doubt, especially since she was endorsed by George Lucas. I had seen movies and shows by Abrams before and was not thrilled about seeing Star Wars with lens flare and even more deus ex machina – just look at Star Trek. I had never heard of Rian Johnson before his appointment to direct The Last Jedi, but I gave him the benefit of the doubt—as someone who grew up with Star Wars, I figured there was little anyone can do to screw it up.
Where do you think things went off course?
IAN: Things first started to go off course when they branded all non-film and Clone Wars material non-canon. There were over 25 years of material out there that they could draw upon, and they completely ignored it. They completely dismissed characters that I grew to love simply because they were not in the movies: Mara Jade, Kyle Katarn, Kip Duron, Natashi Daala, Tycho Celchu, HK-47, and Exar Kun to name a few. But the biggest letdown of the erasure of Grand Admiral Thrawn—and I’m not alone in saying that Timothy Zahn’s trilogy will always be what Episodes VII-IX should have always been. With ignoring all the potential material in favor of mining the movies even more, and shoe-horning new characters, so Disney would not have to pay George Lucas, they ended up hampering themselves by becoming even more dependent on old stars, at the expense of creating characters that the audience could actually care about. This was glaringly apparent in Rise of Skywalker when they had to work around Carrie Fisher’s death, despite killing off both Luke and Han, and dragging Billy Dee Williams out of retirement for a bit part. No matter how many ‘memberberries’ you shove down your audience’s throat, it will not cover up bad writing.
Also, “stormpilot”—the romantic pairing of Finn and Poe–never happening because Disney is feckless when it comes to LGBTQ representation because of China.
Should the filmmakers have used more of Lucas’ original ideas?
IAN: Yes, they should have used George Lucas’ treatment. They also stole from the expanded universe but did it poorly—Ben Solo being a “Captain Ersatz” of Jacen Solo, the fleet of planet destroyers in “Rise” being inferior copies of the world devastators from Dark Empire, which did a MUCH better and more logical explanation for the return of Emperor Palpatine. If you have a plan written out by the creator—who is STILL ALIVE—and don’t use it, you’re not just arrogant, you’re lazy.
What would you like to see in the future of Star Wars?
IAN: There is still hope for the future of Star Wars, but only if Disney acknowledges what they did wrong and learns from it. There are literal decades of ideas and mountains of source material that can be mined—novels, comics, video games, and East End Games Star Wars roleplaying game (a series that not only as part of reaffirming my love for the series but was considered the definitive source when it came to explaining all things in the Star Wars universe). They should take a page from J.J.’s playbook and just create a new timeline—maybe one that takes place shortly before the end of Return of the Jedi, where instead of throwing Palpatine down a shaft, Vader beheads him so he’ll stay dead. That couldn’t be a more befitting metaphor for Star Wars under Disney—they need to create stories on their own that honor the past without turning around, pointing at some background character from the original trilogy and saying to the audience, “Hey, remember Dr. Evanzan and Ponda Baba?” Ok, bad example, Rogue One was a good movie.
In general, tell new stories, create new characters that people will care about, and stop trying to recreate the original trilogy’s alchemy.
As I type this article up, I’ve been binge-watching the sequel trilogy. Since The Rise of Skywalker’s release, many unfortunate bits and pieces of information have come out. The worst of it all does have to be John Boyega’s opinion of how the series handled Finn. We had a Stormtrooper who rebelled against the one thing he had been trained to do since birth. He also showed an ability to commune with the Force. There was so much potential here that was barely touched upon. And while the Internet has been adamant that the trilogy needs to be remade, it doesn’t. Hindsight filmmaking (i.e., Seeing a finished film, nitpicking it apart, and reconfiguring it to a ‘potentially’ better story) is what the Internet does, but it’s not useful. All we can do is move forward and hold out hope that passionate storytellers will be given access to the fantastic world George Lucas created all those years ago. People who will want to honor the Man from Modesto’s vision.
“The secret is to not give up hope. It’s very hard not to because if you’re really doing something worthwhile, I think you will be pushed to the brink of hopelessness before you come through the other side.”
– George Lucas