By Darius Thornton
On December 20th of this year, fans will return to a galaxy far, far away, with the release of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. It is the ninth film of the primary Star Wars saga, the conclusion to the third trilogy and the eleventh film in the franchise overall. Any movie part of such a storied and beloved franchise has a lot riding on it, but Rise of Skywalker is particularly unique in that it must bear the burden of a story that spans more than 40 years. Director J.J Abrams is expected to deliver a definitive conclusion to the “Skywalker Saga”, a set of films featuring some of the most iconic characters in all of cinema and pop culture. It isn’t hyperbole to say that this is slated to be the most important movie in the franchise and one of the most important movies of all time.
The “Skywalker Saga” refers to the eight films of the franchise that revolve around the members of the Skywalker family, who use the mystical Force to engage in titanic battles of good and evil for the fate of the galaxy. Beginning with the much-beloved, “original trilogy,” A New Hope, the Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, these films follow the iconic characters of the farmboy turned hero, Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, the rogue, Han Solo, Chewbacca, C-3PO, R2-D2 and many more, as they and the rebellion fight against the tyranny of Darth Vader, the Emperor, and the evil Galactic Empire. The “prequel trilogy” is set decades before A New Hope, with The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. It chronicles the fall of the Jedi Order and the Galactic Republic, as well as the exploits of Master Yoda, Obi-Wan Kenobi and the transformation of Luke’s father, Anakin, into Darth Vader. This story is already quite expansive, and it doesn’t end there. The “sequel trilogy”, so far composed of, The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, is set 30 years after the Empire’s defeat. A desert scavenger, Rey, and her newfound friend, former trooper, Finn, pilot Poe Dameron, and others fight for the desperate Resistance and search for the heroes of the past in their battle against the First Order. They are lead by Kylo Ren, who just so happens to be the fallen son of Leia and Han Solo, the nephew of Luke Skywalker and the grandson of Darth Vader. Yes, this is essentially the story of one family alternating between saving and ruining everything, throughout the generations, through some slightly familiar circumstances.
With all that context explained, it is safe to say, J.J Abrams has a tall order ahead of him. Rise of Skywalker is said to end the Skywalker Saga, by multiple sources, including Abrams himself, along with screenwriter, Chris Terrio and it is simply been a large part of the marketing. The recent “sizzle reel” which was shown off at Disney’s annual D23 Expo in Anaheim, California, spends its entire first-minute paying tribute to the past, particularly the previous two trilogies. The film is expected to tie together and wrap up the overarching story of not only its own trilogy but the other two as well. Ideas introduced in the past, are expected to be alluded to, expanded upon and tied together with current events, in a satisfying, roundabout way. It shares that honor with perhaps only Avengers: Endgame of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as the definitive conclusion to an interconnected saga. It has to juggle not only its own characters but the major players of the trilogy as well. Based on the casting of actor Mark Hamill, Luke Skywalker is set to return is set to in some capacity, the trailers have teased the return of the franchise’s central antagonist, Emperor Palpatine, and numerous reports have hinted at the return of Anakin Skywalker, in the form of a ghost. Any film that has to juggle, not only all of that but completing the arcs of its own characters, most notably Rey and Kylo Ren who have been on a collision course to a climactic final showdown throughout the trilogy. It must also wrap up the conflict between the Resistance and the First Order, which as been decidedly one-sided throughout two-thirds of the trilogy so far. A movie paying tribute and connecting to the past, resolving its own, galaxy-wide conflict, all the while developing current characters is a cinematic feat only accomplished once, that will perhaps never be duplicated, but it is J.J Abrams’s job to try.
Rise of Skywalker also faces the unique challenge of having three different generations of fans to please. There are fans that have been following Star Wars since the debut of the original trilogy in the late 70s and 80s and grew up on those movies. These fans expect a satisfying ending for the characters they grew to love but two of these characters, Han Solo and Luke Skywalker, have already been killed off in the first two films in the new trilogy. And with the unfortunate passing of Carrie Fisher in 2017, it is likely that by the end of the film, Leia will be joining them, effectively putting an end to the original “golden trio” that has become synonymous with the saga, which is likely to leave a bad taste in the mouths of some. However, there is another generation of fans, primarily from the ‘90s and early ‘200s, that grew up with the prequel films, many of which feel that they deserve the same amount of acknowledgment and honor as the others. The rumors and supposed “leaks” that Hayden Christenson would be returning as Anakin Skywalker, generated significant buzz on the internet, with many being excited by the prospect of seeing him again. It would also make a nice bookend, to have the two Skywalkers appear alongside each other as ghosts. Though, there’s still yet another younger generation of Star Wars, who were first exposed to the movies through the new trilogy. This is where things get a bit messy: paying tribute to the past and old characters is all well and good but if it comes at the expense of the new characters and the story you are trying to tell, it could prove to ruin the film. Abrams can’t simply attempt to cash in on nostalgia, as there are some fans far more invested in the new and the old and some older fans who will see it as nothing more than a cheap trick to win over the audience. Leaning to one side or another could risk alienating a section of the fans, so that perfect balance is what Abrams is no doubt aiming for.
It doesn’t help that the latest entry in the new trilogy and Rise of Skywalker’s predecessor, The Last Jedi was so pulverizing amongst fans that it split them, almost 50/50, into two groups. There were those who absolutely hated it and those who didn’t, with there not being many in the middle ground. Originally the film boasted a 56% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes, though it has since lowered to 44% in just under two years. One of the major points of contention was the film’s insistence om distancing itself from the past, from changing things about how the supernatural Force worked in the films, changing Luke Skywalker from a determined, noble and heroic warrior into a regretful, cranky, tortured old man, hiding away from the galaxy. In addition, it was criticized by some for poor storytelling, with many viewing some of the film’s events, such as Kylo Ren striking down his master, Snoke, as pure shock-value, in an attempt to distance itself from story-beats of the past. It is up to J.J Abrams to salvage the fandom and get them to come together once more, however, some expect Rise of Skywalker to be nothing but “course-correction” for The Last Jedi. This would, once again, anger the significant portion of the fans who did enjoy the movie and doing the opposite who do the same to the other portion. There’s very little grey area there, but it’s all Abrams has to work with.
With so many people, wanting so many different things, it’s easy to feel pulled in a million directions. Before we set our sights on December 20th, let us consider the monumental task J.J Abrams has in front of him. He is directing the most important movie in the Star Wars franchise, trying to appeal to three different generations, wrap up a 40-year saga and trying to put together the two sides of a fractured fanbase. Pleasing everyone is impossible and often times when directors try to, their product is almost devoid of all life, as not to offend anyone whatsoever. And as an epic finale to a galaxy-spanning space opera, it is safe to say that something like that wouldn’t be anywhere near good enough. Help us J.J Abrams, you are our only hope. Pull this rabbit out of your hat, or else a lot of people are going to despise you, rational or not.