The Rise of Skywalker is a bad film.
Objectively, sans the endless conveyor belt of baggage that is the Star Wars licence, it is a poorly constructed, poorly written, poorly executed theme-park-ride of an experience. It is also the climactic chapter of one of western cinema’s most storied, and profitable, franchises.
How did this happen? How did a film over 40 years in the making come in so hot and messy, and try so hard to undo the previous 6 years of stories, development and characters, including the original vision of its own director? How did this incoherent narrative emerge from a company behind one of the most meticulously planned blockbuster franchises in cinema history?
Of course we’ll never know, but from the very start of the Sequel Trilogy experiment film goers were told to expect a new series of mainline Star Wars films from three different directors: three unique takes on a universe that had previously been (cinematically at least) under the absolute control of its singular creator. First up was JJ “Safe Hands” Abrams, fresh from his successful Star Trek reboot, followed by seasoned newcomer Rian Johnson with his string of indie hits, with absolute beginner Colin Treverrow set to round things off, having been thrust into the spotlight thanks to the successful marketing campaign of his entirely average Jurassic Park follow-up.
The first film, The Force Awakens was rapturously received. It succeeded in peddling a weaponised nostalgia for the original films and in 2 hours and 18 minutes undid the disastrous legacy of the three Prequel films. Over time however, opinions began to cool, its flaws slowly rising into the public consciousness from the depths of that exploited nostalgia. It was a remake. A soft remake, but a remake of the original Star Wars the same. The plot beats were the same, the new characters fit the broad archetypes explored in the original and the whole thing wrapped up neatly like a movie with no expectations of a sequel.
But that immediate response was seemingly the point of the exercise. Fans gathered on social media to sing Abrams’ praises, engage in the joyful retelling of audience reactions and react to plot points over and over again. It was a film that pleased everyone, young or old, megafan or casual cinema-goer unwittingly sucked into the hype. Star Wars was back!
Then came The Last Jedi.
To talk about the reaction to the second film of the Sequel Trilogy requires examining the state of cultural discourse in 2018, which owed much to a ferocious backlash against an independent video game in the summer of 2014. GamerGate, as the movement became known, enveloped far too many horrible twists and turns to go into any great detail but suffice to say the level of aggression and ownership over certain cultural norms paved the way for the emergence of the so-called Alt Right, and the domination of many online social spaces by screaming white cis men. This sense of ownership over certain spaces overran those tasked with their moderation, and what followed were campaigns of discrimination, harassment and bullying culminating in death threats, the regular releasing of personal information and the running off of any who disagreed with the precepts of the white male majority. Although not solely responsible for the rise of extreme right-wing normalisation, it certainly helped hone the methods through which these ideologies spread.
The Last Jedi was a good film. A great film even, perhaps one of only two in the entire franchise to be described as such (after The Empire Strikes Back). It took the broadly drawn characters from The Force Awakens and gave them actual arcs; hotshot pilot Poe must learn responsibility and consequence to become a true leader, Finn is taught the true meaning of rebellion and the slippery greyness of good versus evil. The idea of perspective, how things are different “from a certain point of view” is further explored by Rey who experiences the worst case of ‘never meet your hero’ put to film. Even the villain is shown as having arc beyond the typical tortured-baddy bit. All this is set in a narrative that feels like a direct rebuke to its prequel’s reliance on the safeness of nostalgia. “Destroy the past” extols Ren. “The best teacher, failure is” says Yoda. The characters here are vulnerable, they try and they fail and they lose. By the end of its runtime all the heroes’ plans have failed but they themselves have grown. They have flourished into the best versions of themselves even as their situation became untenable. But the message of the story is one of hope, and resistance against actual oppression rather than the vagueness of The Other.
But this repudiation of typical Star Wars tradition proved divisive. Critics loved the film and it remains 92% Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. But those fans who wanted another trip down memory lane, lightsabres, blood-lines, space battles and all, were appalled. This was not the Star Wars they had been promised. Where were the triumphant victories? Where were the stories of star-cross’d lovers? That a director had sought to do something new with the franchise was too much for many. Although there are legitimate issues with the film, it is oddly paced and the central hub-plot of the world’s slowest gettaway is well-intentioned but lacking in narrative drive, the commentary turned away from these genuine flaws to focus on hyperbolic claims of betrayal and change.
It didn’t take long for the discussion to turn toxic. Kelly Marie Tran, the Asian-American actor behind the character of Rose, was forced off instagram after daring to defend her role and prominence in the film. The increased importance of female characters was lambasted, with plot contrivances and new additions to the quote-unquote lore being disproportionately placed on their shoulders. The conversation veered from genuine criticism to chickenshit harassment stemming from a perceived challenge to the ownership of the franchise by the white cis male crowd. Campaigns to boycott the film were launched, a group of basement dwellers released an All Male cut that exised all women (yes, really) and when the film’s opening weekend figures came back lower than its predecessor cheers of victory arose from the most toxic regions of the fanbase.
The joy of a resurgent Star Wars became a distant memory. Like GamerGate before it, the conversation was overtaken by a viral strain of privilege scared by a non-existent threat to a single demographic’s dominance of ‘a thing’. Video games, comics, Star Wars films…the defining characteristic of pop-culture discourse in 2019 is one of gatekeeping and harassment, and we weren’t even done with the trilogy.
Colin Treverrow was an unknown quantity when drafted in to write and direct the final piece of the Skywalker puzzle. He’d written and directed one of the largest grossing blockbusters of all time in Jurassic World, but the film itself was an entirely average action romp that surprised everyone with its gangbuster take. Before his AAA debut, Treverrow was a determinedly indie filmmaker, his only previous creation of note a low-budget time travel flick based on a meme. But Disney were willing to take that bet. Several low-budget and/or indie directors had been drafted in to create entries in this reborn Star Wars including Gareth Edwards for Rogue One and the partnership of Lord and Miller for Solo.
However, as illustrated by the latter, Disney were also making full use of their veto. Lord and Miller were famously taken off Solo several months into filming, and before Edwards was on board, troubled prodigy Josh Trank was given then denied the directing role for Rogue One. But Treverrow was set to direct not just a mainline Star War but the finale of a saga stretching back to 1977. Expectations were impossibly high.
Then Treverrow was fired.
Rumours persist of personality clashes between the director and series producer Kathleen Kennedy, as well as a disappointing first draft, but no official reason for his removal at so late a stage was ever given. As reports go rather than giving Treverrow another script pass he was removed immediately and old Safe Hands Abrams was quickly drafted in to take on the project (similar to the replacement of the chaotic Lord and Miller with Ron “Cinema’s Phil Collins” Howard).
Rather than continue Treverrow’s work and his script, worked on by the former director with Last Jedi helm Rian Johnson, Abrams started anew. As disappointing as it reportedly was, so late was the scripts removal that a remnant remains a centre-piece of the Galaxy’s Edge theme park in Orlando. A full-scale replica of the TIE Echelon, a ship created and designed for Treverrow’s script (that does not appear in Abram’s Episode IX) dominates a section of the park.
Abrams was therefore tasked with wrapping up 40 years of storytelling and capping off a multi-billion dollar trilogy with far less pre-production time than he’d been given for The Force Awakens. He also had the unenviable task of following up a highly divisive second entry that had not only split the fanbase but put into question what a mainline Star Wars film could and should be. Although a talented director, Abrams’ skills as a screenwriter had always needed assistance from a dedicated scribe, and with an unlimited budget and the chance of a lifetime one might imagine he had the pick of the crop when it came to hiring a partner to craft the final act of a story told across the ages…
Enter Chris Terrio. The guy behind Batman Vs Superman: Dawn of Justice.
Next time: why am I still angry about this stupid space film god