*This article contains spoilers.*
The epic finale to the 40-year saga entered the cinematic stratosphere on the 19th December 2019- arguably the most anticipated film of 2019 after Avengers: Endgame - and landed with a dismaying thud. Episode IX follows Rey and the Resistance searching for the long-thought-dead Emperor Palpatine to stop him before he succeeds in forming a new Empire, meanwhile Rey and Kylo Ren struggle with their force connection. Viewed by critics as a missed opportunity, and with the Star Wars fandom left as divided as it was after 2017’s The Last Jedi; I am here to break down the reasons why The Rise of Skywalker failed.
While there are many issues with the film, the foremost and easiest to break down are the gaping problems with theme, character and plot. Rey became the face of the sequel trilogy in 2015 with the release of The Force Awakens, and was widely hailed as a feminist heroine to look up to: a female character with the same power as everyone else, played with emotional nuance by Daisy Ridley. This continued in the 2017 sequel, but hit a wall in Skywalker with a series of what I can only describe as sexist decisions: the first linking Rey’s force abilities to a patriarchal bloodline in order to ‘explain’ why she was powerful; a question not asked of Luke Skywalker by fans in 1977. It was alienating in the cinema to watch a hero I’d grown to love be so reductively rewritten- especially following Jedi, a film leaning heavily into the female gaze. In this film Rey is a shell of her former self: visually she has regressed back to childhood with her hair tied up and wearing a pure-white outfit, her trauma from abandonment seemingly no longer worth diving into, left with an unfinished arc. The trilogy builds up Rey’s need for belonging, and even in Skywalker it is shown that she wants a family through how she looks at the children on Pasaana. With her connection to Kylo Ren through the force, it seems no writer could mess this up: it’s an obvious choice to have them end the film together- and for a time, they do. Until they kill him off and she ends up alone. Rey is not allowed to have a happy ending because men such as JJ Abrams and Chris Terrio simply don’t know how to write a satisfying arc for their female characters. Leaving Rey with half her soul dead, and me sat in the audience listening to the triumphant music and wondering why I feel so sad.
"It was alienating in the cinema to watch a hero I’d grown to love be so reductively rewritten"
The writing of the diverse cast also hit a speedbump in this film, and I saw many POC fans upset by the treatment of characters such as Poe and Rose. Poe, played by Oscar Isaac, has had a canonical backstory since 2015 comic Shattered Empire- in which his parents were Resistance war heroes- except in Skywalker this is revised to include Poe previously having been part of a ‘spice’ running gang. While these two circumstances can exist together, it’s questionable to write one of the only Latino characters of the whole franchise into having a drug-dealing past: especially when Isaac himself is open about how he changed his surname to avoid being pigeonholed into specific roles, saying in an interview with Adam B. Vary, “How many gang member roles am I going to be sent?” It’s just another example of the oversight of the story group, and another reason to be left feeling uncomfortable in your cinema seat.
Rose, played by Kelly Marie Tran, falls into the category of receiving both sexist and racist hate. Speaking to Anne Cohen in 2017, Tran was vocal about how important it was for “larger franchises to take the lead...then other people won’t be as afraid,” in ensuring more diverse casting. A small, vocal and hateful minority of the fan community sent her misogynistic and racist threats online to the point where she deleted her social media accounts shortly after Jedi. Many other members of the fandom were horrified, and were even more devastated in 2019 to see that Rose had been practically written out of Skywalker: apparently the story team were kowtowing to the hate groups and suddenly she had less screen time than BB-8 and Babu Frik. I find it just another reason why the film was a failure. It bowed down to a subsection of the fandom that didn’t deserve acknowledgement and limited the representation for WOC at a pivotal point in Hollywood’s history.
As with any major film, Skywalker attracted its share of production hiccups and was a breeding ground for conspiracy theories both before and after release. As someone who lived through Star Wars Twitter in the chaotic few months after the film, it’s easy to see where people were coming from. Crew members and actors alike have since discussed the disorderly production process; such as Sound Editor Matthew Wood, who said in an interview with the Soundworks podcast that the last ADR recorded for Kylo Ren was produced on the day Adam Driver appeared on Seth Meyers to promote the film. This final session was recorded only five days before director Abrams announced the picture had locked- therefore when considering the lines that Kylo has when wearing the mask, extreme plot changes may have been pushed through only weeks before release. Daisy Ridley also stated that the decision to make Palpatine Rey’s grandfather was constantly being revised on set: with the film's premiere the first time Ridley knew her own character’s background.
The saddest outcome of these production problems is that the final film feels disjointed and convoluted in a way that I couldn’t put my finger on until after I left the cinema. The new approach to blockbuster filmmaking, obsessed with avoiding leaks, means that actors are often not told what they are reacting to on-set; which leads to performances that just feel off. In Skywalker, this results in actors responding to events out of character in the context of the scene. This is made worse by the choppy editing which makes the narrative much harder to follow. The final act is borderline incomprehensible due to the confusing choices made: there are whole lines cut from Ben’s death scene, with actors’ hands, hair and poses shifting even in-between shots of the same moment. But nothing illustrates the lack of thought the writers put into this film more than the ending shot of Rey on Tatooine. The ‘hopeful’ ending of her looking to the binary sunset is egregious, out of place, fan service when considering her canonical worst fear is ending up alone on a desert planet- and where does she end this story? On a production level this scene fails as well: in the aftermath of Skywalker’s release, conspiracy theories flooded online circles, including the suggestion that the final shot was actually recycled from the Pasaana scene earlier in the film. While this was discredited by co-editor Maryann Brandon, it’s not difficult to see why dismayed fans believed the theories- the similarities are uncanny. This sparked questions of what could have been changed about the ending? Could the constantly changing plot be the reason for the awkward editing choices made? To me, it looks as if they filmed one scene, changed the story and had to scramble to make sense of the shots they had already completed. Unfortunately, this situation looks to be the case across the whole film, and with Lucasfilm and Disney’s defensive stance on Skywalker’s performance, it’s unlikely that we’ll ever have answers.
Ultimately it seems that Skywalker is destined to become a blemish on the overall franchise- much in the same way that season eight of Game of Thrones was ridiculed by fans. The endings of media phenomenons such as these is not something to be played around with. It’s an immense responsibility to stick the landing, and Skywalker missed the mark: with all the time in the world for blaster fights and explosions, it failed to realise that the story is about hope. A melancholic ending simply doesn’t work in the context of the Skywalker Saga: is it a hopeful ending to kill off a beloved character in a manner that’s framed as peaceful? What message does that send to the millions of kids watching? What implication does that have for mental health issues and those who can relate to the metaphor of abuse that was Ben Solo?
The final product was, in my opinion, a failure to the fans, the cast and the crew. It was a box office disappointment for Disney: despite making $1.074 billion worldwide, it lost out on potentially hundreds of millions when comparing it to Force and Jedi- which made $2.068 billion and $1.332 billion apiece. Arguably this huge slip from the previous domination at the box office could be due to dissatisfied fans who didn’t want to see it again. Repeat viewings help to drive revenue up, and neither side of the fanbase was satisfied by what they saw. The critics weren’t impressed either. Skywalker has the lowest Rotten Tomatoes score of any live-action Star Wars film and was lambasted by critics such as Matt Patches of Polygon, who called it, “Cowardly tripe. Dreadful in an astonishing way.” All I can take from that is at least I’m not alone.
Maybe I shouldn’t still be thinking so hard about a film that disappointed me a year ago, but I can’t shake the feeling of disappointment whenever I see something Star Wars related- and I just wish that wasn’t the case. This film had the legacy of the franchise on its shoulders and for it to have failed so miserably is genuinely sad. All I can hope for the future is that Lucasfilm learns from their mistakes, and keeps Abrams and Terrio in a galaxy far, far away from the writing room.