It was quite possibly one of the most Herculean tasks to ask of any filmmaker in the last few years; to bring to an end the current Star Wars trilogy while being a final full stop on the entire nine-part Skywalker saga.
It really shouldn’t be a surprise that opinion on the ninth instalment of the Skywalker Saga was mixed to say the least, but then mixed opinion has been to be expected with Star Wars ever since 1999 and The Phantom Menace made its heavily hyped debut in cinemas.
You couldn’t get away from the heavy expectations that many had for the return of the series then, and with a box office gross of $924 million (not including the 3-D re-release), making it at the time the second highest grossing film in history, the somewhat more muted critical reaction and the seemingly more negative feelings of fans didn’t hurt the film, although it is something that still invites debate to this day.
Every subsequent Star Wars entry, or at least does revolving around the Skywalker clan, have been at the subject of much fan controversy, so it stands to reason that the icing on the cake of the series would do the same.
Ever since Disney brought the series back with The Force Awakens, everyone has had an opinion on the merits of each film. Reviews for The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi were hugely positive and their box office performance is testament that the majority of mainstream cinemagoers loved what they saw, even if fans complained that The Force Awakens was a remake of A New Hope (it kind of is, but it’s a film so filled with charm, energy and enthusiasm that I can’t complain, I enjoy it very much) and The Last Jedi was too subversive a film (it is, but Rian Johnson handles the material so well and the film is so engaging that it left me looking forward to seeing what they would do with the follow up since it left the series with a clean slate to do whatever they wanted).
The fan controversy over The Last Jedi was so intense that it’s no surprise that it seemingly left Lucasfilm and Disney somewhat panic stricken over what to do next. In the interim between ‘Episodes’ the series had delivered anthology movies connected to the wider universe, seemingly to try and do for Star Wars what the MCU had done for interconnected on-screen universes.
In terms of other media, Star Wars has always been an expansive universe, with comics books, animated series, video games and tie-in novels, so it makes sense that any revival of the series in an era of the MCU and highly connected on-screen media in movies and television would attempt to do the same with Star Wars as a live action entity.
It goes without saying that when it comes to crafting a shared cinematic universe, Marvel and Kevin Feige cracked and created a secret formula for making such things work on the big screen, but others that have tried to follow in their wake have struggled; Warner Bros. and their DC Comics universe has now seemingly abandoned making their films connected to focus on their stand-alone natures (and if the creative success of Birds of Prey and Shazam are anything to go by, it’s working although it is somewhat of a shame that commercially they achieve lower than expected box office), while attempts by Sony to do something similar with their Spider-Man rights have seen mixed fortunes, and it took until their second attempt via the success of Venom to get there.
Lucasfilm under the watchful eye of Kathleen Kennedy has attempted the same thing and the results have been mixed. Sure enough, Disney has seen a return on their $4 billion purchase of Lucasfilm via the box office results, but the productions of many of their films have been fraught, going from massive reshoots on Rogue One to having to change directors mid-way through production with Solo, to The Rise of Skywalker going from being in development with Colin Trevorrow to changing hands to JJ Abrams.
Regardless of what Lucasfilm have done, it’s been met with ferocious reactions from the fanbase. Rogue One seems to be the one that everyone agrees on and yet, it’s a film that also gets met with some levels of criticism (I for one adore the second half of the film, but the first half is some of the least interesting stuff in the new films), while Solo (which I rather enjoyed) seems to be popular enough that many want a sequel but its lower than expected box office gave many pause for thought, a pause for thought that might take longer than expected now that the Skywalker saga has come to an end.
The future of the series is not so much up in the air but under discussion. The Mandalorian has been a critical success and a major boost for Disney+, and other Star Wars-related television series are under development, not least an Obi-Wan Kenobi series, although even that has fallen into the realm of development problems, while the forthcoming Cassian Andor series has changed showrunners, indicating that change of directions creative hands seem to be the new normal for a franchise that was once under the iron clad hands of George Lucas.
Television does seem to be the way forward for the franchise though, with movie productions going on the backburner; before the onslaught of Last Jedi negativity from fans, a trilogy of films from Rian Johnson was announced but to which there has been no more talk off. In fact, it almost seems as if we’ll get future Benoit Blanc mysteries before we get anymore Rian Johnson-Star Wars films, while potential films from Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and DB Weiss were scrapped when the two writers made a deal with Netflix.
As for The Rise of Skywalker, as it makes it debut on Disney+ and comes in fore more reassessment and re-watching (and a mere five months after its premiere in cinemas), one is left to wonder the future of a franchise that has now become a reoccurring part of our lives when at one point it was something that we didn’t have for years at a time. The film itself is fine; it is neither the misunderstood masterpiece it’s biggest fans would have you believe, nor the disaster its biggest detractors would try to convince it is either.
The film is enjoyable, but it’s also run-of-the-mill, relying on a quest to get the thing for the other thing to make the other thind work, all the while doing shocking things that the film then backtracks on (killing Chewie, wiping C-3PO’s memories), all the while bringing Palpatine back in the space of the opening crawl with little or no build that on first viewing makes you wonder if you had missed another movie in between, which is essentially the problem that The Rise of Skywalker has.
It’s a sequel to JJ Abrams’ version of The Last Jedi, not Rian Johnson’s. Johnson’s film was radical by Star Wars standards, not wanting to toe the line into the usual narratives and wanting to do its own thing while proclaiming that the past should die, all the while promoting a positive message that you can be special just because you are and not due to things like bloodlines. It lets that past die and thus ensured something fresh and new for Episode IX, but instead Abrams and co-writer Chris Terrio go back to the past, bring back Palpatine, make it all about bloodlines and familial twists, stay safe with any storytelling directions and manage the feat of not quite giving this trilogy a satisfying end, let alone the story of the previous eight films that came before it.
The film is enjoyable and is probably one of the best-looking films of the series, but it never feels complete or gives you that feeling of conclusion that it deserves. Sure, it ends, it wraps everything up in a bow, but it never does it as well as it should; there’s something missing, elusive as Obi Wan says in The Phantom Menace.
It brings The Skywalker saga to an end, but in doing so has left the future of Star Wars uncertain yet again. Our last glimpse may be of those twin sunsets, but it never feels cathartic. It leaves one wondering, what next?
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, Star Wars:Episodes I-VIII, Rogue One, Solo and The Mandalorian are now streaming on Disney+.