The Rise of Skywalker’s story problem
(Spoilers throughout, so be warned).
Toward the beginning of Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker, a bunch of Resistance fighters learn that Emperor Palpatine survived falling into a bottomless pit three movies earlier. The camera pans around the group, and a rebel played by three-time hobbit Dominic Monaghan offers a few possible explanations for Palpatine’s return — “Dark science. Cloning. Secrets only the Sith knew.” Even Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) uses the artful term “somehow” to describe Palpatine’s improbable resurrection.
Evidently director J. J. Abrams doesn’t really want to answer such pesky questions of narrative coherence. Rather, he moves on. Immediately after the rebels touch on this logical conundrum, they forget about it and board a spaceship to pursue not one quest, but four.
Two years ago, I pointed out The Last Jedi had a snark problem — writer and director Rian Johnson seemed keen on hiding his film’s narrative flaws by making fun of the series’ tropes, part of a wider trend in storytelling where writers deflect responsibility rather than embrace the hokeyness of their respective genres.
In this sequel, the finale to a so-called “trilogy of trilogies,” Abrams does much of the same thing (“cloning!”) — while also contributing a problem of his own.
The Rise of Skywalker is the SparkNotes of a script read out loud by circus performers jumping from one moving train to another. It’s dark, you can’t really tell what’s going on, but everything’s moving fast, people are running around and pretending to shoot things, and after two hours of jerking from one ‘scene’ to the next, the music swells and the credits list all the special effects technicians.
The whole experience is kind of fun in the moment, but if you try to think about it, the elements don’t quite fit together. To make matters worse, even the director has — to cover his tracks — overtly begged you not to think about what just happened. And rather than rise above the snark his predecessor directed toward The Force Awakens, Abrams throws in a few barbs himself.
If The Last Jedi had a snark problem, The Rise of Skywalker has a story problem, a cavalier attitude toward storytelling that renders the movie into a series of cheap workarounds that discount the intelligence of the audience and bely Abrams’ indifference to his own work.
Allow me to explain.
Speeding past plot holes
As many reviewers have observed, the majority of TRoS’s runtime is organized along a series of quests to retrieve various objects. Each MacGuffin (Alfred Hitchcock’s word for such thingamabobs) gets the rebels one step closer to finding Palpatine’s secret Sith planet, Exegol. Succinctly, this is how the quests unfold:
1. First, our heroes travel to alien-Burning-Man to find a Sith dagger, where Chewbacca appears to die but is actually only kidnapped (more on that in a minute).
2. The heroes can’t read the runes on the dagger without going to another planet, Kajimi, where a little alien dude hacks into C-3PO and unlocks him from his manufacturer’s block against dark magic (always a nice feature).
3. On Kajimi, Zorii Bliss (Keri Russell) gives the crew a coin which allows them onto a Star Destroyer to rescue Chewbacca.
4. The Sith runes, now readable, leads the protagonists to an unseen moon of Endor, which in turn leads them to the ruins of the second Death Star — which finally brings them to the “wayfinder,” a magic pyramid with the coordinates to Exegol.
Confused? Most adventure blockbusters involve a fight over a MacGuffin (the Ark of the Covenant, the Tesseract, the Declaration of Independence), which changes hands between the heroes and villains a few times before losing its narrative usefulness and being rolled into a warehouse. At least the typical MacGuffin in the Indiana Jones movies involves a single object, a lot easier for viewers to keep track.
By juggling so many MacGuffins, TRoS’s plot is a frenzy of action with scant substance. The MacGuffin device is played far too many times to be effective (four), a problem exacerbated by the story’s reliance on red-herring death sequences, which keeps the characters moving so much the viewer rarely has time to absorb what’s happening and find fault in the flimsy narrative.
(Granted, Abrams’s TFA also moved quickly and never contextualized much of the film’s broader events, but audiences tend to be more willing to forgive the withholding of information at a story’s beginning rather than during the conclusion.)
The Law of Diminishing Resurrections
Much of TRoS’s runtime amounts to scenes involving the assumption of a character’s death and then backtracking to reveal said character’s ‘miraculous’ survival. Let me count the ways:
1. First, Chewbacca’s ship seems to explode, and within thirty seconds we learn he’s still alive, while Rey is still upset, thinking her force lightning killed the wookie.
2. Next, we think C-3PO will die, (or at least lose his memory again). But he doesn’t, and a few scenes later, he gets his memory back.
3. Finally, Zorii Bliss seems to die when the First Order blows up her planet, but later we find out she survives, too.
The process of apparent death and miraculous survival happens so many times that when a character actually dies — Leia, since Carrie Fisher passed away before they filmed this movie — it doesn’t really feel like a big deal.
This lack of stakes cheapens the sequence in which Rey restores Kylo’s wounds and brings him from the brink of death, since the threat of death was never credible. It’s “plot armor” (where main characters survive improbably for the sake of continuing the story) without the plot — since, outside of Rey and Kylo, hardly any of the other characters actually make decisions, and thus are unimportant to the narrative.
Imagine how much more emotionally involving the movie would have felt had Chewy died, and C-3PO, and Zorii, and Leia — one-by-one, the Resistance growing bleaker — and all of a sudden, Rey kills Kylo — before miraculously bringing him back to life.
Such a revised storyline might have allowed Kylo’s second apparent death (falling down a pit, as well as his third and final death giving his life for Rey) feel like something approaching drama.
Petty rebuttals and the need for narrative consistency
Just as Johnson’s film made fun of TFA, TRoS jabs at TLJ in ways that pull the viewer out of the film:
1. Rather than Rey’s parents being ‘nobodies,’ this time they’re revealed as Palpatines.
2. Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), a main character in TLJ, has two lines in TRoS. She wasn’t particularly written well in the previous movie, but rather than cut Rose for narrative streamlining, which might have made sense, Abrams went so far as to effectively replace her with a new character, Jannah (Naomi Ackie), who doesn’t have much to do in this film, either.
3. Luke says, in a direct barb at Johnson’s decision to have the jedi toss his lightsaber, that “lightsabers should be respected.”
While Abrams has been diplomatic toward Rian Johnson and TLJ in interviews, TRoS’s narrative decisions perpetuate the series’s motif of petty rebuttals toward the previous directorial vision.
Johnson’s subversions in TLJ might have gone over well had he been commissioned to make a standalone film or his own series. But his film was the second of a planned trilogy, and it dismantled the mysteries Abrams had set up in The Force Awakens, leaving Abrams with very few of his original threads to draw from. It’s a problem evocative of the debate between outlining versus ‘pantsing.’
To outline or not to outline
On the spectrum of attitudes toward the writing process, two ideological extremes persist—authors who outline and those who don’t. The latter are known as writers who “fly by the seat of their pants” (i.e., ‘pantsers’).
Stephen King is a prominent example of someone who likes making things up as he goes. This is probably why many of his works start from interesting premises and produce unexpected twists along the way, but often lack satisfying endings (The Stand’s apocalyptic 1,152 pages lead up to a laughably short climax before hundreds of pages of falling action).
Then there are the writers who plan stories relatively meticulously, J. K. Rowling among them. (The reference to Harry Potter villain Grindelwald in The Sorcerer’s Stone is a good example of foreshadowing well in advance of the character’s appearance, while her convoluted film The Crimes of Grindelwald shows the price that can come with such overwriting).
However, often the best narratives emerge from somewhere in between. It’s advisable to know where you’re going, but having sudden bursts of inspiration throughout the process can help nudge a story into a less predictable trajectory. Lucas didn’t determine Darth Vader was Luke’s father until he worked on the second film. That idea made for one of the greatest plot twists in cinema history.
When you have a multipart work to be written by multiple creators, some collaboration and consistency would help stories build toward satisfying endings. With TLJ undermining the expectations set up by TFA so much that Abrams decided to attack TLJ, it’s clear something went wrong. Building on the narrative threads of preceding films (something that Avengers: Endgame did really well) would have produced a more coherent storyline than one where the succeeding director always ripped up the last guy’s notes, a temptation to which both Johnson and Abrams indulged.
Lessons from Exegol
The Rise of Skywalker employed so much hand-waving around plot holes to actively suggest its creators didn’t care about its narrative quality, so the audience need not care, either.
That’s a sad state of affairs. Humans write stories to engage audiences while crafting lenses for perceiving the world. If storytellers don’t believe in their own work, they should revise it, rather than trying to trick the audience into believing the storytelling is effective.
Moreover, we are left with an important lesson: untold resources, amazing special effects, and strong acting can’t save narratives if the principal writers are fighting over the fundamental direction of the story.
In such a case, the feud overshadows the narrative and becomes the only story worthy of observation.