The biggest problem with the Star Wars sequels

Spoiler Warning: There will be spoilers for all three films in the Star Wars sequel trilogy, including The Rise of Skywalker.

As I’ve covered already here on the blog, reviews for the final part of the Star Wars sequel trilogy – The Rise of Skywalkerare mixed. What this unfortunately means, at least in the short-term, is that the divisiveness in the fanbase and in online fan communities, as well as a lot of vile anti-Disney hate, will continue. The best opportunity to bring fans back together was wasted with The Rise of Skywalker, which inexplicably brings back Emperor Palpatine, throwing up issues not just for this trilogy, but for the original films too.

I don’t want to get into all of that right now, as I’ll save my opinions on The Rise of Skywalker itself for when I get around to a full review. This article intends to address the production side of the Star Wars sequel trilogy, and the clear issues that have been present.

Poster for The Force Awakens (2015)

Despite what George Lucas subsequently claimed, 1977’s Star Wars was a one-off film. It wasn’t “Episode IV” when it was released, it was a standalone story – albeit one that was careful to leave the door cracked slightly open to allow for the possibility of a sequel. The fact that the original trilogy wasn’t a planned story is noticeable – not least in the haphazard approach to the family ties between Vader, Luke, and Leia. A New Hope (as we’ll have to call it to avoid confusion) is a self-contained story with a beginning, middle, and end. If there had only ever been one Star Wars film, it would still be a complete story. The two sequels follow on from A New Hope, but are a second self-contained story; a duology, if you will.

In 1977 that made perfect sense – there was no guarantee that A New Hope would be a success, so dedicating extra time and money to writing sequels before the original was even a proven earner would have been wasteful. Not to mention that if the story had been written as part one of three, ending without wrapping up its story, and then for production reasons parts two and three were never made, A New Hope would be even more of a failure that if it were a standalone film that flopped. In short, in 1977 it wasn’t anyone’s intention to make a trilogy of films, and the fact that The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi were able to be made at all was purely on the back of the success of A New Hope and the story it told.

Fast-forward to 2012, when Disney bought Lucasfilm – and with it, the rights to the Star Wars franchise. The intention, as stated by Disney at the time and many, many times subsequently, was to make a new trilogy of films. Not one new film with the possibility to make others, but a trilogy of three films to serve as a sequel to the originals.

It’s apparent from the ending of The Force Awakens that it wasn’t ever intended to be a one-shot story. As Rey finally travels to Ahch-To and meets Luke, she extends her hand and offers him his father’s lightsaber. And then the film ends with the two of them standing on the cliffside – as close to a “cliffhanger” as it’s possible to get without one of them literally hanging from that cliff! This moment set up a sequel, the second part of the planned trilogy.

Disney and Lucasfilm went about writing this trilogy in the worst possible way. They brought in three different writers and directors – later reduced to two when Colin Trevorrow left the project that ultimately became The Rise of Skywalker – and each was essentially given free rein to tell whatever story they wanted, regardless of how well it worked as one part of a larger overall story. JJ Abrams and Rian Johnson simply didn’t work together on their stories – that’s “stories” in the plural, where it should have been two parts of one single story.

The use of different directors for each film is not, in itself, an issue. Even the original trilogy had three different directors. Television series do this all the time, and as long as the story is good there can even be a benefit to having different directors, as each brings their own style and insight. In Game of Thrones, for example, some directors became renowned for their battles, and others for quieter, character-driven stories. Splitting up the directing duties worked well in countless other franchises, so why not in Star Wars too?

Promo poster for 2017’s The Last Jedi

The fundamental problem is that there was no story for the directors to work from – or if there was, they were allowed to ignore it entirely.

Between 2012, when the Lucasfilm deal was announced, and the release of the film that ultimately became The Force Awakens, there needed to be one writer – or a team of writers – planning out in excruciating detail what the story of the trilogy would be. They needed to consider which characters were coming back – obviously Han, Luke, and Leia were, but who else? Then they needed to consider what was happening in the galaxy – we all assumed the Empire had died with Palpatine, but what happened next?

A lot of Disney sequels (the direct-to-video kind) have the same basic problem: how do you tell an interesting and engaging story after “happily ever after” – without completely undoing the happy ending? This is the problem Star Wars was facing: the Emperor was dead, the Death Stars destroyed, and as of the end of Return of the Jedi it looked like we were on course for a Rebel victory. So, if the Rebels did win and managed to restore democratic government to the galaxy, and both of the Sith Lords (Vader and Palpatine) had died, where was the threat, drama, and tension going to come from in order to drive the new trilogy of films?

This was the fundamental question. What came after the happy ending? And then how could that be spun out into a three-film story arc that would be as dramatic, as tense, and as exciting as the originals?

The answer came from JJ Abrams as he set to work on The Force Awakens – after the Empire fell, the First Order rose from its ashes, and was trying to overthrow the New Republic. They had legions of Stormtroopers, they had a planet-killing superweapon, and they had a mysterious Dark Side user as their Supreme Leader, who had a helmet-wearing Dark Side apprentice. A little derivative, perhaps, but not bad. After the disappointment of the prequels a decade prior (see my last article for my thoughts on that series) a return to what made Star Wars great seemed like a solid idea. It was, at the very least, a plausible and perfectly reasonable way to approach the new trilogy.

Except this was how JJ Abrams approached The Force Awakens; it wasn’t how Disney and Lucasfilm were approaching the whole trilogy. Rian Johnson came along and decided that Star Wars needed to go in a bold new direction. Instead of Rey being related to Luke Skywalker or Obi-Wan Kenobi, she was nobody, related to no one. Instead of Kylo Ren being on a path to redemption like his grandfather, he chose to commit to the Dark Side and claim for himself total power. And instead of Snoke being as manipulative and cunning as Emperor Palpatine, he was cut down by his apprentice before he could achieve his goals. Bold. New. Different. And a great way for the franchise to go to stay relevant and exciting.

BB-8 on a promo poster for The Rise of Skywalker (2019)

Both concepts – JJ Abrams’ idea of retelling the “greatest hits” of Star Wars, and Rian Johnson’s idea to shake up the franchise and take it to wholly new thematic places – have merit. But they’re about as far apart as it’s possible to be.

What that means is that Disney and Lucasfilm needed to pick one style or the other. Before The Force Awakens was fully in production, Rian Johnson had been approached to make The Last Jedi and will have, at the very least, submitted some kind of story outline or discussed the basic premise and concept he had in mind. There was still time, even in mid-2014, to change direction and go down the Rian Johnson route if Disney and Lucasfilm wanted to do so. But if they were happy with the JJ Abrams approach, and wanted the sequels to essentially re-tell the original trilogy, then they needed to commit to that approach instead.

Trying to do both has resulted in the sequel trilogy being a mess. It hasn’t had any direction to its story, and at a fundamental level it hasn’t even known what kind of story it was supposed to be telling. That is a significant problem that has hampered it, and one that was entirely avoidable if basic film production and storytelling rules had been followed.

This has been made worse and more noticeable by JJ Abrams returning for the final film in the series. If someone else – literally anyone else – had made their version of The Rise of Skywalker, perhaps the trilogy would have felt like a bit of a mixed bag; a collection of three distinct films. But because JJ Abrams came back and was allowed to essentially ignore the plot of The Last Jedi – even overwriting large parts of it – the resulting trilogy has a very weird feel where two films take one approach, but the middle part is completely different. And whatever one’s opinions on The Last Jedi may have been when it was released, the overall trilogy is not served by having films overwrite one another.

When there are a total of three films to tell a story, with a total runtime of seven hours, give or take, there just isn’t time for one film to retcon and overwrite its predecessor. The tonal shift is incredibly jarring too, as the trilogy goes from “remember the greatest hits of Star Wars?” to “I bet you didn’t see that coming!” – and then back again. A consistent tone is just as important as a consistent story – perhaps even more so. And as it’s clear that the two writers and directors had such contradictory visions for where to take the franchise, a decision had to be made as to which one to go with.

The first promotional poster for 2019’s The Rise of Skywalker

The fact that no such decision was made, and production on the films was allowed to proceed in this manner ultimately rests with the executives at Disney, who will have had the final say on such things. I guess I just don’t understand how people who have worked in this industry – very successfully – for decades would have failed to realise that they had a problem on their hands. Organising the trilogy along these lines should simply have never happened. I don’t think it’s fair to blame either JJ Abrams or Rian Johnson – because both The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi are great films as standalone pieces. In fact I think as time goes by, The Last Jedi in particular will be held up as a great example of sci-fi filmmaking and of the Star Wars franchise in general. But you can’t blame storytellers for telling the stories that they wanted, especially when they had almost unlimited resources thrown their way. The guidance and the control over their stories had to come from someone higher up, and it was unfortunately absent.

If there had been a story treatment written for the trilogy, then each director would have been constrained by that. Perhaps someone like Rian Johnson might’ve decided not to jump on board if he had to tell a JJ Abrams-style story, and vice versa.

But I’d have liked to see it go even further. The most successful film trilogy of recent years, Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, was produced and shot back-to-back. One team was in control for the entire production, and the films were then released over a three-year period. There’s absolutely no reason why Star Wars couldn’t have emulated this successful formula. By appointing someone to be in overall creative control, there would have still been the option to have three different directors and different scriptwriters for each film, but the production would have been smoother.

Shooting the films back-to-back would have also meant that Carrie Fisher’s death in 2016 wouldn’t have been an issue for The Rise of Skywalker to have to get around. This is purely hindsight, because no one would have predicted that she would have passed away before the trilogy was complete, but it has nevertheless been a production issue. With the death of Han Solo in The Force Awakens and the death of Luke Skywalker in The Last Jedi, Fisher’s Princess/General Leia was the last remaining of the original core characters. And unfortunately the scant footage that was left on the cutting room floor from the first two films was nowhere near enough to sculpt the kind of major role destined for her in The Rise of Skywalker – leading to some clumsy scenes in that film. Again though, this isn’t a reason why shooting all three films at once should have happened, it’s instead a positive consequence of doing so because of what happened out here in the real world.

This kind of production would have been more expensive initially, because the cost of producing all three films would have to be paid up-front. But it does offer advantages. Firstly, some costs would be lower – due to not having the expense of setting up production three times. Secondly, and most importantly from an audience point of view, the story and scripts could be adjusted if necessary. If something didn’t seem to be working or making sense it could be cut or reworked, to the ultimate benefit of the story of all three films.

Theatrical release poster for The Rise of Skywalker (2019)

Whether that option was ever seriously considered, or whether it was always the case that the three films would be produced wholly separately isn’t known. But I think that the way the sequel trilogy turned out is a great argument for producing all films in a planned series at once. In that sense, its ultimate purpose may be to serve as a warning of how not to approach filmmaking in future.

At the end of the day, the two competing visions at the core of the Star Wars sequels – JJ Abrams’ idea to re-tell Star Wars “greatest hits”, and Rian Johnson’s approach, trying to take the franchise to new and unexpected places – have merit, and each could have been spun out into a creditable series of films. Both concepts actually produced decent standalone pieces of cinema. But they completely failed to gel together and produce a cohesive story.

When film historians look back on the sequels, they will say that they managed to avoid many of the missteps that plagued the prequels, and that they are a much more watchable and enjoyable set of films as a result. What the sequel trilogy is not, however, is a single narrative. And it lacks many of the basic points that a story should have to reach the heights that the franchise aims for.

How are Rey, Finn, and Poe significantly different by the end of The Rise of Skywalker than they were at the beginning of The Force Awakens? Rey has learned the truth of her parents – after a deliberate false start. Finn… quit the First Order. But he did that in The Force Awakens and as a character hasn’t changed any since. Poe is still Poe… he’s a good pilot and a leadership figure. But none of them learned major lessons, suffered significant defeats, or appear to have grown. And from the original characters, Han was murdered by his son, and Luke and Leia both died performing the same Force power. Han had actually wholly regressed as a character by The Force Awakens, abandoning his family and the cause he’d fought for to return to being a smuggler. Leia was fundamentally no different than the last time we’d seen her, taking a leadership role in the new rebellion. Luke is the only one of the three to have had significant character development – all of which happened off-screen. He tried to raise a new generation of Jedi, and fell into a deep depression when he failed.

I know some fans were upset by Luke’s depiction in The Last Jedi, and I’d like to address that one day in a standalone piece as there’s too much to cover here.

But back to the characters – Kylo Ren is the only one of the new characters who goes through any significant arc. And even this is blighted by the different approaches from the different writers/directors. In The Last Jedi, after killing his father in the previous film he then turns on his master, Snoke, and kills him too, claiming the mantle of Supreme Leader for himself. He had made a commitment to the Dark Side and seemed beyond redemption, only to be redeemed anyway in the next film.

The sequel trilogy hasn’t really known whose story it was telling. The prequels were Anakin’s story. The originals were Luke’s story. And the sequels can be viewed as both Rey’s story and Kylo’s, but also as Palpatine’s thanks to his inclusion in The Rise of Skywalker and the revelation that he’s been manipulating everything and everyone from the beginning. For me this deus ex machina fails completely as any kind of passable story point. But given that it’s in there, it changes the whole nature of the trilogy, and of the “Skywalker Saga” as a whole. It should have almost certainly been titled the “Palpatine Saga” given his role in the story.

The only way to have avoided these pitfalls would have been an entirely different approach beginning immediately after Disney bought Lucasfilm in 2012. By the time they’d decided to essentially tell three independent stories and string them together, the damage was done and it’s taken till now for the extent of it to be realised. JJ Abrams, given his “mystery box” style of crafting stories was always the wrong choice to helm this series. He was the wrong choice to tell the first part of a story because he offered a barebones setup with no forward plan, and he was the wrong choice to bring in to conclude it for the same reason. Rian Johnson, for all the criticism that came his way, made a brilliant film. But The Last Jedi only really works as a standalone piece, bookended as it now is by two JJ Abrams films.

Ultimately, responsibility lies with the senior executives who chose this approach. And while it might be tempting to say that Rian Johnson derailed the trilogy by taking the middle film in such a different direction, if there had been someone in overall creative control, that either wouldn’t have happened, or it would have happened in such a way that the final film could have followed on from its conclusion and still felt natural. As things stand today, the trilogy is a mess. It’s a mess in terms of story, and in terms of tone, and unfortunately it’s in a position similar to The Hobbit from the last decade – in that it’s considered mediocre at best, and not really a worthy successor to a franchise as iconic as Star Wars.

The Mandalorian – despite how I personally felt about it – has been received far better. As was Rogue One. So there is still life in the franchise thanks to these other projects, and as we move forward there will be the Obi-Wan Kenobi series and at least one new series of films which I hope will be more successful. Unlike with the prequels I’m happy to rewatch the sequels because, as I keep saying, they do make for great standalone films. But as a series, and as one single, cohesive story, they didn’t hit the mark.

The Star Wars franchise is the copyright of Disney and Lucasfilm. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.