A Galaxy of Missed Opportunities: Some Thoughts on the Star Wars Sequel Trilogy

 

Spoilers for The Rise of Skywalker to follow. You have been warned.

With the release of The Rise of Skywalker the Star Wars “Sequel Trilogy” has finally been brought to a close. Suffice it to say, not everyone was pleased. These three movies have engendered a lot of controversy. My thoughts on them are mixed but mostly positive. I’m no “Sequel hater.” I love The Force Awakens. In fact, it’s one of my favorite films in the entire saga. Despite a few storytelling flaws, Episode VII is a fun thrill ride and a love letter to Star Wars. I enjoyed The Last Jedi when I initially saw it in theaters, but I like it less and less with every subsequent reviewing. Episode VIII has some interesting ideas and some awesome set piece action but also contains some themes that are anathema to the very philosophy that underlies the Star Wars mythos. Now that I’ve seen The Rise of Skywalker twice in theaters, I think I am ready to talk about some aspects of this trilogy that I would have rather been handled differently. Don’t get me wrong; I really enjoyed TROS. Emotional impact and fun-factor are the things that matter most to me in a Star Wars movie and Episode IX scores very high on both counts. I really enjoyed this trilogy overall. At the same time, I feel that, if handled properly with a unified vision from the very beginning, the Sequel Trilogy could have been so much grander.

Disney and Lucasfilm have been marketing The Rise of Skywalker as the end of the “Skywalker Saga,” as if it wraps up a story that has been told over the course of nine movies. I feel that this marketing is misleading. The true ending of the Skywalker Saga is clearly Return of the Jedi. Episodes I-VI tell a complete story in two acts. Act 1 (the Prequels) is the story of Anakin Skywalker and his fall. Act 2 (the Original Trilogy) is the story of Luke Skywalker’s adventures and Anakin’s eventual redemption. In the act of sacrificing himself to save his son, Anakin’s story arc is completed as he fulfills the prophecy first hinted at in The Phantom Menace: He destroys the Sith in the person of Emperor Palpatine/Darth Sidious. This is why the Sequel Trilogy has always felt tacked on. In my opinion, Episodes VII-IX are not and have never been a continuation of the story that ended with ROTJ. They are a new story set in the same universe with some of the same characters overlapping. They are not really part of Anakin and Luke’s story. They are Rey and Kylo Ren’s story.

If you ask me, what Disney and Lucasfilm should have done is made Rey’s story another six-episode epic divided into two trilogies. Episodes VII-IX would tell the story of Rey confronting Kylo Ren and the First Order while also coming to terms with her family heritage and her destiny as the last Jedi. In episodes X-XII we could have seen the story of Rey rebuilding the Jedi Order (or perhaps founding an entirely new community of Force users). Her apprentices could have become important characters in their own right and take center stage (much as Luke does in the Original Trilogy). The ultimate quest of Rey and company in this second trilogy would be to defeat the true source of evil in the galaxy (be that a revived Emperor Palpatine or some other more powerful manifestation of the dark side – but more on that later). The saga of Rey and her students could have truly been a new era of Star Wars standing in parallel to the saga of Anakin and Luke. Ultimately, Disney and Lucasfilm chose to tell Rey’s story in a piecemeal fashion and tack it on to the story of the Skywalkers.

I have heard some criticism to the effect that Rey’s story is told is at the expense of Anakin and Luke’s accomplishments in Episodes I-VI. According to this point of view, Emperor Palpatine’s inexplicable return from the dead in TROS diminishes Anakin’s sacrifice in ROTJ because he failed to destroy the Sith. In addition, Luke ultimately failed to establish a new Jedi Order. As the story now stands, it is Rey who is responsible for the total defeat of Darth Sidious and the rebirth of the Jedi. I definitely understand these criticisms and feel that they are valid. In fact, I think these issues could have been easily avoided by the writers at Lucasfilm with a little more forethought.

In The Rise of Skywalker, it is revealed that Rey is the granddaughter of Emperor Palpatine himself. In my opinion, you could still have Rey be a Palpatine and struggle with the implications of her heritage without literally bringing the Emperor back to life. You could, for example, have Rey be haunted throughout the trilogy by the Force ghost of Palpatine, who repeatedly taunts her with the ugly fact of her ancestry and tries to tempt her to the dark side. This idea has the potential for a lot of fascinating character development for Rey. One of the central themes throughout the Star Wars saga is the problem of “the sins of the father”: do the identity and past deeds of your family determine your own destiny? The answer that Star Wars has always given is a resounding “NO.” We are free to make our own choices regardless of the decisions our ancestors made. In this way, Rey’s story could have paralleled that of Luke, who also had to learn the dark truth about his own family. Palpatine’s Force ghost could also be influencing Ben Solo (aka Kylo Ren) using the voice of Vader, urging him to further embrace the dark side, overthrow Snoke, and seize the mantle of Supreme Leader for himself. It is interesting to note that although Rey and Kylo are both the grandchildren of the last two Lords of the Sith, it is the choices they make in response to this terrible knowledge that ultimately define them. All of these ideas have to potential for fascinating storytelling across a trilogy of movies and the Emperor need not appear bodily at all.

I don’t see Luke’s failure to rebuild the Jedi Order as much of a problem. Luke’s destiny was to redeem his father and thus help to bring about the destruction of the Sith. He succeeds in this mission in ROTJ. I can easily see the mission of rebuilding the Order (or perhaps creating something new to replace it) as the task of someone else. Perhaps it could be the task of Luke’s apprentice? Someone like Rey? In The Last Jedi Luke rightly points out that the legacy of the Jedi Order is a legacy of failure. A close examination of the Prequel Trilogy bears out the truth of this unsettling statement. Blinded by their own hubris, the Jedi Council completely fails to grasp that Chancellor Palpatine is a Sith Lord and allows him to slowly subvert the democratic Republic and transform it into the despotic Empire. The Jedi are seemingly immobilized by stagnant doctrine and systemic legalism that renders them completely out of touch with the needs of the ordinary citizens of the galaxy whom they are sworn to serve. In this way, the Jedi Council eerily resembles the Pharisees and the Sanhedrin as presented in the Gospels: spiritually blinded and unwittingly callous. In the case of the Jedi Order however, their failure was not the sin of envy, but the sin of neglect.

The sequel trilogy should have explored the origins of the Jedi and the Sith. The diad of Rey and Kylo could have been paralleled by the diad of the planets of Ahch-To (birthplace of the Jedi) and Exegul (secret bastion of the Sith). It would have been preferable if this trilogy had seen the final end of both the Jedi and the Sith and the birth of something new. In my opinion, the Jedi were totally incapable of defeating the Sith as long as they stuck to their doctrine of achieving “balance” in the Force. The Jedi couldn’t seem to realize that there is no balance that can be achieved between good and evil. Evil must be totally destroyed and uprooted at its source if peace and harmony are to be achieved in the universe. Anything less is to compromise with evil. The Jedi compromised with evil by allowing Palpatine to distort their mission, transforming them from protectors of the innocent into enforcers of a corrupt central government in the prosecution of an unjust war (the Clone Wars). This is why I believe the new Jedi Order founded by Luke ultimately fails. Instead of learning from the mistakes of the past and creating something new, Luke creates a Jedi Order along the same lines as the old one and it suffers the same fate: betrayal from within and annihilation by the acolytes of the Sith. Rey should have moved beyond the Jedi and established an entirely new order of Force users. This new order could have devoted itself to achieving something the Jedi never could: The triumph of light over darkness.

With all of this being said, I want to stress that I still enjoyed The Rise of Skywalker as an entertaining and emotional thrill ride. For all its flaws, and for all the themes left unexplored, TROS is still a satisfying end to Rey and Kylo’s story. I teared up when Ben Solo makes peace with his past via the memory of his father and chooses to return to the light. His self-sacrifice to save Rey was a wonderful parallel with the sacrifice of Anakin in ROTJ. I can’t deny that I was moved when Rey returns to Luke’s childhood home on Tatooine, lays Luke & Leia to rest by burying their lightsabers, and is adopted into the Skywalker family as the twin suns set over the desert. It’s a fine ending to this era of Star Wars but I still can’t help feeling that this era could have been so much better.

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