May the Fourth be with you! Before I dive into this review of the recent Star Wars trilogy, I want to make sure the reader understands that this is not meant to be simply a whinny review; something from one of those guys who need to pick a part every small detail of a movie or TV show to show how smart they are and how much the world is terrible for not being as smart as them. All my criticisms stem from my passion for storytelling, my love for epic adventures, and the meaningful impact a good story can have on a culture.
That having been said, I want to give an honest assessment of this entire trilogy. It’s important to be reminded that this was a trilogy–an entire story told in three consecutive movies. To create a trilogy requires a lot of discipline and frankly planning. I said in an article I wrote about The Walking Dead recently that the key to a strong plot begins with its ending resolution–what you want to have happen before the end, and what you want your audience to know by that end, as well as where you want your characters to be. Without that, the entire story, however short or epic, falls apart.
It’s because of the delicacy that is required to make a trilogy that it can easily fail. There are so many parts that need to move in conjunction that even if you make an excellent final movie, if the things that happened in previous films simply don’t work, the third film is not going to work. It’s not to say it’s impossible to pull off a third and final chapter of a trilogy that fixed all the damage caused by former movies, but that is a mountain to climb and to my knowledge, has never been done in cinema history.
The fact of the matter is that the success of the third and climactic end depends on the success of former movies. This doesn’t mean the first two films need to be blow-away movies, but they need to have established enough foundation work for the final delivery, just like in MMA. The key to good striking is not so much in the hands, but in the setup for the strikes–the footwork and the core of the body twisting into the shot. In a word, the power comes in stages; first the feet, then the core, and then the final delivery through the arms and into the fists. If this sequence is not followed, your strikes are delivered off-balance, powerless and simply phony, no matter how flashy they might look.
That’s essentially what has happened to the latest Star Wars movie, The Rise of Skywalker. It was, in comparison to its predecessors, the best in the trilogy, but the problem is that it’s the final act of the trilogy, and as we’ve already pointed out, if by the third and final act, you haven’t established the groundwork to deliver the knock-out blow, it doesn’t matter how good it is, it simply doesn’t work. Now why is that? I’d like to go through some of those reasons that I saw that ultimately make the efforts of The Rise of Skywalker futile.
Character development is one of the most crucial elements of a story. A lot of writers will tell you that plot is the central element to storytelling; others will say characters, others say lore and more. The reality is they are all equally important–each of these attributes or gears must be turning for the whole thing to work. They work in sync, not one over the other. There are times when the plot has to carry the story, times when the characters have to, and visa versa.
Character development is one of the crucial elements that simply was not established by Rise of Skywalker. Make no mistake, Abrams set up this element in The Force Awakens. While the plot was basically a rehash of A New Hope, let’s look past that problem, and focus on what Abrams may have been trying to do. Perhaps the point of The Force Awakens was not so much to create a strong, original plot as it was to introduce our characters. Now if you’re planning on further installments to a movie series or TV series, that’s not entirely bad. In fact, I think that if you plan on making an original fantasy epic, it’s a good idea to focus your first season or movie, or novel on the central characters.
The reason is simply because the characters draw in your audience. I don’t believe the story is going to do that, the characters are. One thing is certain, if you start your story by giving a long, drawn-out lecture about the whole story and the world’s background, you will bore the audience/reader. What audiences connect with instantly is not the story, it’s the characters, and that’s why it’s crucial that they are the first thing we come into meaningful contact with. If you get people hooked on a character, that hook will carry them into the world, to see this character’s struggle in it.
They Need to be Flawed
But that key word struggle is important here, because while we are introduced to our characters in The Force Awakens, what kind of struggle is going on with them? Let’s make our point by looking at our main protagonist, Rey. We know that Rey is an orphaned child, who expects her parents at any moment, but at the same time, where do we see the wear and tear on her for how long she’s waited? She doesn’t seem to have even a dent in her mind about her parents coming back, especially given they seem to have left her in a troubled state.
She’s waiting patiently for them to come back, and seems to be a healthy, functioning young woman. I don’t know of many kids who go through that and grow up without a dishonest bone in their body. Often they are very troubled, and struggle with rules, growing up with no real parents. Couple that with an environment of survival, you get a kid growing up who will bypass any moral obligation for the sole purpose of their own survival. On that alone, Rey’s already not very relatable to the audience. The only thing that we see of her character introduction was that she can take care of herself, which would make sense. But she maintains a strong sense of justice that seems off given her environment.
Remember, where she’s growing up, she’s forced to survive. That’s going to take a toll on you; there is going to be psychological damage of some kind. I would think she might be inclined at least to have dabbled in some criminal activity. This is what puts me off about her character in the beginning–she’s an anomaly that doesn’t work. It’s one thing to be a special kind of force-sensitive person, it’s a completely different thing to be a bastion of honest scavenger work when you were abandoned as a child, and you have no parental figure for the twenty-plus years you’ve had to live by yourself.
Rey’s Disjointed Connection to the Main Plot
Rey ends up becoming a ‘ride along’ to a bigger plot at work, finding herself in the right place at the right time to help BB-8 with Fin get to the “Resistance” that we hear of. There’s nothing really wrong with this, as it’s a cool plot twist to have the main character suddenly find themselves in a place that sparks their major roll in a plot. But the problem again is that Rey is thrust into a conflict that she previously had no interest in, which makes her actual interest in the conflict kind of senseless.
Why does Rey care about BB-8? You might say that it’s just the good-will nature. Well again, aside from what we explained a moment ago, that you’re more likely to find a scavenger who’s only interested in staying alive, and therefore not interested in getting on the wrong side of the First Order, Rey’s waiting for her parents to come back. Getting in the middle of the First Order’s business is going to be extremely counter-intuitive for that to happen. The movie attempts to solve this by giving Rey a sudden interest in the Resistance’ success against the First Order, which does’t come completely out of left field, but again, by this point, what have we been given to think Rey would care about that, and especially more than she cares about her parents coming back?
The reality is that while ultimately Rey’s story is connected to Kylo Ren’s pursuit of the rebels, the attempt to push Rey into that plot is simply lazy. She has an unexplained favor towards the Resistance that then leads her to abandon what she was clearly invested in in the beginning; something that as far as she knows, has nothing to do with the rebels and their fight. This puts two paralleling stories side by side, but never intertwine, save by some mysterious interest of Rey that is never really explained.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t put Rey in a position to care about the First Order’s desire for BB-8, but you need to actually do that. If you ask me, I’d make Rey a scav, as the others are, but not really an honest one either, because there’s no reason for her to be an honest scav. There’s actually reason for her to be a dishonest, and contemptible one. If your only memory of your parents is that they abandoned you, I think by twenty-plus years, you’re going to have some not-so-nice thoughts about parents and authority in general. Have Fin offer Rey money on behalf of the rebels–bribe her help, as Luke does with Han Solo. Why does Han care about the Empire’s conflict with the rebels? He doesn’t. But he is a smuggler, and so money speaks. It’s that simple.
The Mary Sue Problem
I think there is good reason to suggest that Abrams didn’t expect even the Force Awakens to turn out as it did. I’ve read about how he was literally changing plot elements in the middle of production, which is not good. Now given his reputation for good storytelling, I don’t think this was necessarily his fault, or a fluke on his part. I suspect a lot of this was having to work with Kathleen Kennedy, the woman in charge of the entire trilogy’s direction. Maybe Abrams wanted to do something like I described with Rey above, but couldn’t because the woke nature of Kennedy’s “The Force is Female” motto meant that Rey was not going to be a little scoundrel. No, our main character is an angel, untainted by the sins of the galaxy. Girls are awesome, guys are stupid. The idea that Rey is a criminal, and her only involvement in this is with criminal interest is unheard of.
It’s that mindset that leads one into the devastating plot killer of the Mary Sue: the character with no flaws, and the only thing that makes their lives miserable are the people and world around them. And isn’t that exactly what happens with Rey? Ask yourself in the first two movies, when has Rey ever needed to struggle and fight, and doubt and fail to get to a dynamic point in the story? She is abandoned on a desert world, with virtually no education, and forced to labor for survival at probably a very young age, and yet still manages to be an honest, justice-sensitive person. No scars whatsoever.
What did she have to do to get Luke’s lightsaber? Nothing. What had to happen to escape the clutches of the First Order? Nothing. What kind of training did she have to undergo to become “The Last Jedi” or even a Jedi padowan? Nothing. How often has she fought her nemesis, Kylo Ren and in defeat had to learn hard lessons? None. She only loses to Kylo in the last movie and even then, only briefly until he is distracted by the voice of his mother. Once again, she lucks herself out of a bad spot. How did she know how to fly the Falcon arguably better than Han Solo with no former experience in flying? None. Heck, how did she even know how to swim as we see her do in The Last Jedi? She grew up on a desert world!
From A Fracture to a Broken Bone
When we put all of this together and sum it up, what do we learn about Rey? Nothing. We learn almost nothing about her. Honestly ask yourself by The Rise of Skywalker, what do you know about Rey? What connection do you have with her that makes you empathetic to her struggle? When I think about this, it’s essentially nothing. She’s a faceless main protagonist, with no real character, no real flaws, and the greatest obstacles to her goals (which are in themselves somewhat foggy) are other people. Rey hence becomes a victim, not a person who endures growing pains. In other words, she’s not human, which is what you need for the audience to care. That’s why simply making a movie with animals who behave like animals will never work. They always humanize the animals in some degree, because that’s who we are, and what we relate to.
All this leads up to the final act, where we see Abrams do his best to fix the damage caused by this flaw at a fundamental and key element to storytelling. I admire his attempts, and on that alone, I give him much props. Unfortunately, the damage had been done so severely, that it would really take a revamp of The Last Jedi to really fix it. Because while the Force Awakens had its problems, it wasn’t a complete failure. It had a fracture, and the Last Jedi broke the fracture. When you’ve gone beyond a fracture to a broken bone, you need to reset the bone, and it needs a lot of time to heal. Abrams didn’t have that kind of time–he had one movie and a two-and-a-half-hour run-time to do it, which simply wasn’t enough. Not an epic like this.
When we finally see Rey struggle, when we see actual heartbreak and shock and horror, by this time, we’re so far into this thing that it’s just strange and awkward; it doesn’t work. I feel like Jeb Bush in his failed 2016 presidential campaign, where his momentum was so dead, that he literally had to ask an audience at a rally, “Please clap”. It’s like that, where Abrams is saying, “Please care”. If you’ve reached that point, it’s simply not enough–it didn’t work.
As I said, there are many wheels or gears that need to turn to make a compelling story, two of which we’ve mentioned: the character development and the plot itself, which is what we are going to focus on for this next half. For me to go into every detail of my problems of the main plot of the trilogy would take too much time. Instead, let’s try to focus on the overall problems that lead to the weak plot of this new trilogy.
It is a weak plot, and it’s weak because, as I mentioned already, The Force Awakens is essentially a rehash of A New Hope. The major differences is you have a female Luke Skywalker, a whinny Darth Vader, Han Solo split into a rogue Stormtrooper and a rebel pilot, and a super Death Star. Now that is, of course, a cruel simplification of the entire concept of the plot, and that honestly isn’t the major problem with the plot of the trilogy.
The real problem is, how did we get here? Remember, we last left the Star Wars universe with peace restored, and balance brought to the Force in Return of the Jedi. That was almost forty ago. Why aren’t we walking into a scenario like that in The Force Awakens? Now again, that was nearly four decades ago, and one can argue that that’s a lot of time for a lot of things to happen. After all, the climax of WWI and the escalation to WWII only took roughly twenty years. That’s a fair point, but then again, I’m not asking for us to pick up right where we left off, but throw me a bone here–show me something that tells me why we’re in a complete 180 from the Return of the Jedi.
The First Order
I’ve written more on this in an old article here, but if I can speak again (and hopefully more briefly) on this point, how did the First Order manage to amass such an arsenal in that amount of time? They have a planet that blows up other planets, after all. Something like that surely takes more than thirty years to do, and even with that, the resources it takes to do that are unfathomable. Now I’m not asking that we make a movie that follows the minutest details of reality, but I am asking that we be given some context for why the First Order exists.
We last left the Star Wars universe with victory, and now, without any explanation at all, we’re thrust into a world where the First Order has made them “rebels” again. There is no attempt anywhere in the three movies to explain why this is. Hence, what we end up with is a bland rehash of underdog rebels climbing an uphill battle because we need that to be the case. Well as I said in the Walking Dead article, if you put your mind to it, you can make an original plot without following the basic guidelines of underdogs.
Christopher Nolan did this in The Dark Knight. In Batman Begins, Bruce had an uphill battle to restore order and law to Gotham. But in the Dark Knight, if Nolan just began with crime still rampant, it would undermine everything from the last movie. How then do you make a movie where the good guys start on top? Nolan pulled it off. Heck, I think George Lucas pulled it off with the prequels! Say what you want about the prequels, what I loved about them was how we see the conspiracy of the Sith to rise from a position of no power, to destroying the Republic hold over the galaxy.
That’s what this new trilogy does in essence to the former movies–it undermines what we saw in them. Even the character development from the older generation is betrayed. Han Solo, who went from a smuggler to a hero became a smuggler again. Luke rose above his odds to become a great Jedi, refusing to give into the Dark Side, going through impossible lengths to save his father, to now willing to kill a boy who was barely even a padowan in a moment, ultimately cowering and wasting away in nihilism on an island somewhere. The Republic that was established by the end of the Return of the Jedi seemed completely nonexistent as well.
On top of this, we are teased with “The Knights of Ren” which finally appear in the third movie, but are nowhere to be found in The Last Jedi, and we have no idea who the First Order is or what they want. They just exist for the sake of antagonists, which makes for forgettable, one-dimensional bad-guys that aren’t interesting. Believe it or not, memorable antagonists make for memorable movies. It’s not to say you always need to have a complex bad guy, but if you’re going to have the “final boss” part, you need your final boss to be someone who is menacing, and who is more than just trying to blow things up.
That’s why Thanos worked, and that’s why Heath Ledger’s Joker worked. These were antagonists who pushed our heroes into places that forced them to change. Do we have that happen in the new Star Wars trilogy? No. No where can I think has the antagonist pushed our heroes to a point of no return, forced them to make a decision that revealed something about them, except perhaps Rey’s first lightsaber fight with Kylo. But again, Rey magically beats Kylo without any prior training in lightsaber combat. She just ‘can’ beat him, she never has to earn it. If you ask me, Rey should have lost that fight, and lost badly. If anything, she should have been the one to get slashed across the face.
But instead Kylo gets beat, and as a result, his menacing nature (which wasn’t much to begin with) has all but gone. And that streak of losing to Rey only continues in The Last Jedi and The Rise of Skywalker. There was only one moment in the entire trilogy that I felt as though Rey was in over her head, and that she had no way out but to lose, and that was when she came face to face with Snoke. Remember, she has still had no formal training with a lightsaber at this point. There was no way she could beat him. Her only hope was to get Kylo on her side and he would help her escape. Instead, Kylo manages to ambush Snoke and kill him in a breath. Just like that, the menace of Snoke that Abrams had prepared for us was just vaporized, without any struggle for Rey. Once again, she escapes a great and perilous battle by a stroke of fortune.
With Snoke the only thing left of a memorable antagonist just wiped off the map with ease, we’re left with Kylo Ren, an antagonist who pouts when he doesn’t get his way, and has already lost several times to Rey–he is hardly in control. Obviously he’s different in The Rise of Skywalker, but that’s the big problem here, is the massive inconsistency that is The Last Jedi with the other two films.
The Last Jedi
What’s the difference between the first, the third movie and the second one? Ryan Johnson, that’s what. Just as I was writing this, I saw an article that said that Ryan Johnson apparently didn’t really know much at all about what was going on at this point in the Star Wars saga. That would explain the major disturbance in the Force that is The Last Jedi, arguably one of the worst movies ever made, and I mean that when I say it. Why do I say that? It’s not just because of the messy construction of the plot, the Mary Sue that is Rey, and the considerable inconsistency of its flow from the last movie. It’s also due to the fact that it is the middle of the installment of a trilogy–the medium between the beginning and the end, and it therefore plays a crucial role in the trilogy, and its failure took the other two with it.
The first movie and the third movie need to be connected; as I said, the end is the beginning, and the beginning gets you to the end. If there’s a massive swampy mess in the middle, getting to that end is a headache. The Last Jedi is that swamp, filled with murky water, dense fog that, when you pass through, may end up setting you off in a direction you never intended to go. It really is this movie that struck the nail in the coffin. Each movie plays an important role, and in this case, the second movie has to pick up on the character development of the first movie.
I remember reading about all the fan theories about Rey’s origin, and Abrams was clearly setting us up for discovering that. In fact, going back to the point about characters being the audience’s introduction to the movie, it was Rey’s origins and those alone that made me want to see the next film. I was looking forward to, more than anything, finding out who she is, and if she really was a Palpatine. It would appear with The Rise of Skywalker, this was Abrams’ intention all along, and Ryan Johnson gave it the middle finger. All that anticipation was destroyed, the characters of the former trilogy were betrayed (except Leia because, you know, she’s a woman and wamen rule).
I remember going back to The Force Awakens after reading and watching hours of theory videos and it made perfect sense; not to mention it was an excellent plot twist. Luke, by the end of The Force Awakens clearly recognizes Rey. You don’t give that look of heartbreak and even fear to a stranger–he knew who she was, and that was never followed through with Johnson. It was thrown away in symbolic fashion as Luke tosses the lightsaber over his shoulder. That moment was Johnson pretending to honor what Abrams started and then saying, “Just kidding! We’re doing something different now!”
Two Movies in One
Because of this enormous failure, and the subsequent destruction of the mainstream Star Wars saga, Abrams found himself in a huge uphill battle to fix what had been wrecked by Johnson. This meant Abrams had to try and essentially make two movies in one, gasping for room to put in key plot elements to make it work.
In spite of the valiant effort, that unfortunately makes you have to rush scenes, which doesn’t allow the audience to really experience crucial moments because everything is happening so fast. He found himself having to make a sequel to the first movie as well as making a final movie, by having to make the huge reveal of Rey’s past later than it should have been revealed, and stuff some concept of her training in the third movie, but could only really be in the beginning, never explored again because Luke, the one who was supposed to train her, was dead (thanks again, Johnson).
Conflict with even friends was introduced, which is important, but once again, as quick as Rey and Po had a fight, they were friends again a minute later, which simply reveals how fast Abrams had to try and stuff key character development in the movie that should have been happening in the last movie.
The Knights of Ren that were touted in the first movie, again presupposed to be menacing antagonists, have not a single line of dialogue telling us more about them, and Kylo kills them in one scene, all by himself. As fast as they come, they’re gone. Once again, Abrams has to do this because it was completely set aside in The Last Jedi. This was an element that could have been explored, and in fact, instead of the dumb plot we had in the Last Jedi, we could have had one focused on hunting down the Knights of Ren.
Rey the Palpatine
Imagine Luke training the grandchild of the man who turned his father to the Dark Side. What that would put Luke through? Imagine Rey struggling with a strange connection to the Dark Side that is later revealed to be that she descends from the Sith Lords–A tendency that she has towards evil that Luke is terrified of, and that she was the reason he left. That would have been such an amazing plot point if it was explored, and that would have made the ending of The Rise of Skywalker that much more impactful.
In fact, going back to the Rise of Skywalker, when Rey fights a projection of her dark side, I felt more sympathetic for that evil Rey than any other moment in the entire trilogy. Try and picture this if you can: Imagine Rey coming to that point at the end, seeing Darth Rey, who gave into the pain and the suffering she went through on Jakku. A Rey who finally gave into her burning hatred for her parents abandoning her. And you see what becomes of that Rey here, who is filled with rage, but then also with tears of sorrow and pain. That would have made that scene much more impactful, and hopefully by now you may see why it is so important that you have a solid first and second movie to make a third and final chapter.
If we had seen Rey battle the Dark Side, truly fight it, it may have meant more in the end when she defeated the Emperor (who should actually have been Snoke). If instead of a Mary Sue no one can relate to, we had a girl who was filled with hate, contempt and fought that and overcame it, it would have been better. Imagine if for a time she did give in, and Kylo was the one who turned to the Light Side because of what he saw her become, and try to save her? Again, at this point, we can only imagine.
An Epic Conclusion That Never Was
It saddens me to know what this could have been, but could not be because of woke “The Force is Female” agendas that don’t care about good storytelling, but only care about the latest trends, and wokeness is the latest cool thing on the market. Sadly, wokeness is its own antithesis, as it only produces terrible movies and TV shows; it is a cancer that infects and destroys everything it touches.
Again, I can’t stress how much, when I watched the final scenes of Rey’s showdown with the Emperor, and the crowd of Sith chanting for her to take the throne as Empress Palpatine, how much I was disappointed at what this could have been. We could have been seeing a Rey who was truly conflicted, truly tempted, you could see her physical appearance deteriorate with all the terrible decisions she made, all the failures she had, and how tempting therefore it was for her to give in and accept those choices as necessary for the greater good, or something along those lines. It would have been a true moment of heartbreak that Kylo would finally have a reason to cry about, and fight for her.
And then to see in the end, when all hope was really lost, something triggers a memory for Rey, perhaps some key moment in the very beginning when we first met her, that made her remember that she was not who her family lineage dictated she was and she fought Snoke in a final showdown, and this time, because she had learned and amassed so much power, we could actually see her defeat him in a proper way–she and Kylo. It could have been, but once again, the wokeness brigade had its day, and destroyed all of that.
It would have been epic, sad and beautiful, and you could relate because you watched and experienced her grief in a trilogy, all leading up to this moment. That’s why when Ironman at the end of Endgame says “And I am Ironman” and snaps his fingers, it was an amazing moment–because the MCU universe had built a character for ten years to come to that moment. But because that didn’t actually happen, I simply cannot believe this climax. It’s plastic and doesn’t work.
I hope you understand that my criticisms, as I said in the beginning of this, are not because I just like to pick apart movies and TV shows. I love to see shows and movies that inspire me, things that I never forget, with characters I could cry over. But it’s rare that I ever get to experience that, and it could have been with this trilogy. The Witcher games and even the new Witcher TV show are the only ones of recent memory that have done this. I love the characters in the show, and it’s my love for the characters that made me binge watch that show one Saturday evening, and I never do that. Memorable characters, and a meaningful plot are the crucial elements that make good storytelling.
This we see God has done in Scripture, with many characters like Abraham, Jonah and David and Peter and Paul. Memorable characters, and a world that they live in that is meaningful, with a story of redemption that is unforgettable. That’s how you make good stories, that’s how you end a great saga.