Both Last Jedi and Rise of Skywalker were love-hate movies for me. For all the media commentary I have seen with people comparing the films as such opposites from each other, from my critique they both had very similar strengths and weaknesses.
+ Awesome Visuals, Beautiful Sets and Dogfights, Great Characters
– Lack of Cohesive Plot, Story Arc, and World-Building
Attacking the weaknesses first, it is good to remember my most beloved fiction is epic fantasy like J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and Brandon Sanderson’s Cosmere novels. We could probably throw in Harry Potter there too. All are sagas in which the authors build a massive, cohesive world. The stories they tell are a natural evolution of that world. Tolkien stands out for going the extra mile and writing 3,000 years of history and several languages for his own people, then using those languages to build things like cohesive place names. From beginning to end, everything fits together, and the story builds until it seems to encompass the whole universe, from the smallest detail up. Which is awesome, and not just for history-loving nerds like me.
Briefly aside, Star Wars has the exact issue Game of Thrones had in Seasons 7 and 8. Notably, these are the seasons George R Martin had not yet written books for and only had general outlines. The quality went from massive narrative, that seemed to follow genuine historical-ish patterns, with beautiful plot and character arcs, to slapdash action just to fulfill checkboxes.
Some people might argue it is just ending massive narratives that is hard. But I disagree, endings have been mastered since Shakespeare’s day, and Tolkien, Sanderson, and all have done pretty good jobs. I won’t say it is easy, but Disney has the cash to hire serious professionals, that shouldn’t be the problem.
So let’s look at Star Wars in detail. Firstly, Last Jedi is a dissatisfying plot because the Resistance runs away, people die, run away some more, more people die, oh look, all the extras are dead, but the main characters are fine, time to call it good. All because the First Order (conveniently) destroyed all the all-powerful X-Wings to prevent them fighting back.
Then we get to Rise of Skywalker and conveniently, the Resistance has X-Wings and a whole new crew of extras again. The First Order is royally screwed if they have to face the A-Team and X-Wings, so we need a whole new group of bad guys. *Poof* the Final Order is here! Don’t worry, they are just as doomed.
I’m glad they brought back Palpatine (he makes a far better bad-guy than Kylo Ren) but you can’t just wave a magic wand and have ‘the galaxy’s largest and most powerful fleet’ just appear with not a whisper beforehand. And then just as mysteriously, suddenly every good-guy ship in the universe appears to fight them. If it were so easy as just sending Lando Calrissian to rally them, maybe they should have done that last film?
Too much inventing of new tricks and new galactic forces to serve some plot need, is a problem here. Force healing is a major plot element here, and they do a decent job of introducing it before hand. If Rise of Skywalker were a brand-new film with no predecessors, I would have bought it, it seems reasonable enough magic. But if force healing were as easy as it looks here, I reckon you would have seen it used multiple times, or at least mentioned once, over the course of the previous eight films.
Contrast this to Rogue One where you really feel the desperation of a small group of Rebels up against an immense galactic empire. They need some Force-guided luck to help them, but no sudden, new magical power and new galactic fleets. Real heroes, not superheroes.
I want to see people work and suffer for uncertain victories.
But the A-Team here in Rise of Skywalker just so obviously has the universe bend whatever laws it wants, as many time as needed, to get them a nearly painless victory, that I don’t feel like much was gained or sacrificed. No surprises occur.
That said, I did love the characters, particularly the Finn-Poe duo. I really loved the beautiful space battles (that opening scene and music with Kylo Ren acquiring a Wayfinder and heading to Exegol was fantastic). There was some excellent light-comedy (the scene where Rey uses her mind tricks on some Stormtroopers and goes the extra step of having them ‘feel glad to see us’ was hilarious).
Rise of Skywalker did use one thing properly – the ability of Ren and Rey to connect, talk, and even share objects across distance. From being a weird dream-esque trick, it ended up being used by them in their great Sith battle to good effect. Excellent example of building a small feature into a critical part of the climax. Notably it started in a previous film and was much simpler (just two people paired) not *poof* entire new space fleets. More like that was needed.
Overall, I am reminded of a lesson from the writing podcast Writing Excuses where they repeat the wisdom that an author gets one, and only one, ‘freebie’ that is, only one major suspension of disbelief. I would personally have voted for the return of Palpatine from the dead as the one ‘freebie’ that they use for this film. But not his return AND a massive new evil fleet AND magically-repaired Resistance group AND crazy new force powers AND magical Resistance allied fleet AND riding horses on spaceships AND conveniently lined-up evil ships which can neither maneuver or have shields. Also certainly more as well. It was just too much preposterousness.
Last Jedi was better on re-watching than on first seeing, as I expect the Rise of Skywalker will be too. Given time to accept all the preposterousness, the details and background are just so rich, that there is plenty to appreciate a second time around that was rushed past the first time around. The trilogy should hopefully mature with plot largely ignored, and still be fun to watch in decades to come.
Some simple recommendations to improve the film:
- Have Palpatine take over the existing First Order. It’s more than mighty enough, especially with his crazy amounts of Sith lightning, without needing to throw in a whole new empire to give the A-Team a trouble.
- Potentially having the aid against Palpatine being the First Order itself – this latest trilogy series has really overdone having all the soldiers and leaders of the First Order being mindless exterminators, most probably they are mostly just normal people with families too, who find a Sith too much to bear.
- No planet killers. Demonstrate that even smaller scale weapons (‘only city killing size’) wielded by large empires are just as terrifying.
- Don’t magically give the Resistance a bunch of new X-wings without explanation. Show them only having a small new squadron they scrapped up some cash for, not dozens of super-fighters. Make them feel more desperate.
- Have introduced other potential allies and powers in Episode 7 or 8 so that their arrival isn’t quite so mysterious. Show those allies also have to struggle a bit before they can come in aid.
- Have Rey die and stay dead. It would have been poetic for both the Sith and Jedi to end at the same time. Her great mystery of her parents was solved, she could die complete. Ben/Kylo would survive to form a new force order (called ‘Skywalker’) that’s more gray, both Dark and Light. He’d also be more in a position to lead the remnants of the First Order into a more peaceful Republic.
- Overall: Disney, plan your entire series in advance, and really think about how the entire arc makes sense, not just about how many new cute toys and amusement park rides it can generate.