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SPOILER WARNING: The following article contains spoilers for Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker. If you have not yet seen the film, proceed at your own risk!
In the making of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, writer/director J.J. Abrams had tremendous latitude to do what he does best. The filmmaker is well known for his “Mystery Box” driven storytelling method, and the seventh episode in the Skywalker Saga was fertile ground given that it was both picking up 30 years after the previous chapter in the canon, and also launching an entirely new trilogy. Abrams’ instincts led him to craft heroes with cryptic backstories, shadowy figures pulling the strings, and literal puzzles about the franchise’s legacy characters.
And then he left. During the press tour for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, J.J. Abrams made it very clear that he didn’t want to stay on and personally guide the direction of the upcoming sequels, instead opting to let other filmmakers continue telling the story using his blockbuster as essentially a prompt. This is what led to Rian Johnson being hired to make what became Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and Colin Trevorrow initially being brought on to make Star Wars: Episode IX.
But then, following the death of Carrie Fisher, circumstances changed. Decisions were made, and after Trevorrow stepped away, J.J. Abrams returned and directed the film we all now know as Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker. It was exciting news at the time, particularly because of the popularity of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, but now in retrospect there is a new way to look at it: as a big mistake.
While it’s easy to comprehend the logic that Lucasfilm employed in hiring J.J. Abrams to make Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker, that option should have been taken off the table as soon as the writer/director made the call not to come back for Star Wars: Episode VIII. The most significant issue the new blockbuster possesses is that it proves Abrams was too attached to his personal conclusions for the mysteries established in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. His attempts to steer the project towards those conclusions, particularly after the multiple game-changers in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, prove to be an act of self-sabotage that ultimately sink the whole thing and destroy any kind of synchronicity in the entirety of the Sequel Trilogy.
The key in all of this, of course, was Abrams’ call not to take on the responsibility of actively steering the new generation of Star Wars. While the filmmaker certainly did meet with Rian Johnson and had discussions about the film that became Star Wars: The Last Jedi during its development, he made a specific choice not to be the one calling the shots on the project and continuing the story and the character arcs that he started. It was his choice to abdicate his command, which makes all of the revisionist work in Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker so immensely frustrating.
Say what you will about the moves made by Rian Johnson in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, but the reality is that he honored the prompt that is Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Sure, he takes the set-ups and utilizes them in unexpected and surprising ways, but at no point does he betray either the logic or plot developments established in the previous film (something that cannot be said for Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker). It was never Johnson’s job to do precisely what J.J. Abrams had in mind when he was filling his Mystery Box, but instead to take what had been put into canon and use it all to craft his own take.
After all, why would Johnson, a smart, creative filmmaker, sign on to make the movie if he was just executing someone else’s vision? If Abrams wanted to see things play out exactly as he had initially planned, he could signed on to make Star Wars: Episode VIII himself… but he didn’t. As a result, The Last Jedi director made his moves to counter expectations by establishing Rey as a nobody from nowhere, disconnecting Luke Skywalker from the Force, having Kylo Ren assassinate Supreme Leader Snoke, and more.
To paraphrase Luke Skywalker, things don’t go as you’d think, but at the end of the day Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Star Wars: The Last Jedi do sync up. The same, however, cannot be said for what J.J. Abrams decided to do with Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker.
In the making of Episode IX, Abrams should have essentially done exactly what Rian Johnson did and used the developments in Star Wars: The Last Jedi to feed events of the next story. Clearly, though, that was something he was incapable of doing because of his attachments to his ideas in the making of Star Wars: The Force Awakens – even those that Johnson specifically avoided. Rather than getting creative an exploring the new territory offered by Johnson’s prompt, Abrams insisted on making Rey part of a legacy bloodline (namely the Palpatines) and having Kylo Ren remain as a secondary evil (not to mention ignore key developments like the Finn/Rose relationship and the democratization of the Force in the universe).
The result is a film that feels like fan fiction that doesn’t at all fit into the flow created by Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
The simple solution that would have prevented this? Hiring any director other than J.J. Abrams to make Star Wars: Episode IX. No filmmaker in Hollywood carried the baggage that Abrams did into the making of Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker, having not had the chance to execute his own take on the trilogy’s middle chapter. That baggage is what kills the film. Once the Force Awakens director decided not to make the sequel to his 2015 hit it should have been decided by Lucasfilm that the follow-ups would be developed by different filmmakers (much like the Original Trilogy). Instead, the franchise couldn’t kill the past – ironically a theme in The Last Jedi – and the result is a disappointing mess.