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Sequels and The Rise of Skywalker

I’ve been thinking a lot about sequels this year. It’s a side effect of actually having to write one. While it isn’t all that evident in my work, Star Wars is one of my biggest inspirations. As YA author and ‘Deadline City’ podcast co-host Dhonielle Clayton says, the series “refills my creative well”. Sit me in front of the original, the sequels, the prequels, the new sequels, and by the time the credits roll, I’m energised to write. After seeing the 1997 rereleases as a kid, I imagined and plotted my own sequel trilogy, and brought them to life in low-poly glory thanks to Microsoft 3D Movie Maker. As a teenager, I would take the material George Lucas gave us with the prequels, and rework them as writing exercises. Not to say my versions were better, they often weren’t, but I developed my critical eye. So, I thought I’d cap off my year by discussing The Rise of Skywalker through the lens of what I’ve learned about sequels.

This will end well for my mentions.

Now, there’s no way I can discuss the film in this way without spoilers, so if you have yet to see The Rise of Skywalker, please don’t read further. But so that you don’t feel like you’re leaving empty-handed, here’s a spectacular video about editing Star Wars that illustrates how changing and rearranging a story can elevate it.

Now, how do we sequel? To borrow from Bassim El-Wakil and Lucias Malcolm of ‘The Story Toolkit’, good storytelling is all about set-ups and pay-offs. You set something up to then pay it off. When you sequel, you have to look at what the previous story set up, and figure out an exciting way to pay it off. In a great sequel, the plot emerges organically from that pay-off, as it inspires new set-ups that must, in turn, be paid off.

These set-ups aren’t always obvious. Take Toy Story 2 for instance. It has a happy ending. The toynapped Woody not only returns to Andy, but he welcomes abandoned toy Jessie into the fold. As children, we were all devastated by ‘When Somebody Loved Me’, and then elated by Jessie’s second chance at love. Set-up and pay-off. Film over. Audience satisfied. It wasn’t until we viewed Toy Story 3 as adults that we realised the happy ending of the previous film is actually a hollow one, because Andy and his sister are going to grow up, and Jessie is just delaying the inevitable ‘When Somebody Loved Me’ reprise. And we get that reprise in Toy Story 3. It’s for that very reason that sequels are dangerous. They re-frame the stories that come before them. Toy Story 2‘s ending is no longer a happy one.

Pivoting to Star Wars, the sequel trilogy was launched by JJ Abrams, the king of set-ups. He loves himself a ‘mystery box’, a metaphorical box whose secret contents the audience yearns to discover. I am an Abrams fan. While I have never out-right loved one of his films, Alias is one of my favourite-ever TV shows. I was addicted to it during its initial run. Week after week, I was teased with mystery box after mystery box. The show’s answers always led to more questions, and I was excited to see how the series would eventually resolve its overarching mysteries. Shock-horror, it ended with a whimper. For a long time, I blamed the show’s creative decline on Abrams’ departure after the second season to explore other projects. As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to realise that Alias faltered because no mystery box’s actual contents is ever as satisfying as what we think might be in them. And the longer mysteries are teased, the better their resolutions need to be.

The Force Awakens is a film of two very different halves. The first half introduces the new cast, we learn a lot by observing their ordinary (and extraordinary) lives. The film cleverly sidelines Luke Skywalker, so that there’s time for the new cast to endear themselves to us. If Luke was wandering around with his lightsaber, we’d spend the run-time wondering why he wasn’t the one saving the universe, so he’s set up as the film’s MacGuffin (the plot’s necessary object) to be sought out. The film then abandons that particular search in its second half, focused instead on the Third Death Star Starkiller Base. The search for Luke is hastily resolved in the final minutes by a randomly awakening R2-D2, which is a weak pay-off considering the prominence of that search in the opening crawl.

Like an Abrams TV pilot, the film is packed with set-ups it doesn’t resolve. What is going to happen when Rey hands Luke the lightsaber? Come to think of it, why is Luke, famous for helping his pals, in hiding? Why did they say he held himself responsible for Ben Solo’s Dark-Side turn? What happened after Return of the Jedi that led to the First Order’s rise? In fact, what is the First Order? And who is Snoke anyway? Who are the Knights of Ren? They sound cool, when do we get to see more of them? Who is Rey? Why is she so powerful? Why does Kylo respond so intensely when “the girl” is mentioned? Does he know who she is? How long will Finn be in that coma?

Some of these, like the lightsaber cliffhanger, are genuinely laying the path for the sequel. Some of these are the fault of the final cut of the film, which doesn’t adequately set-up the dynamics of the New Republic, the Resistance, and the First Order before (literally) blowing them up. The Hosnian System, and the New Republic it is home to, is destroyed by Starkiller Base. It’s a pay-off without a proper set-up, so it lacks the emotional punch of say, establishing Alderaan as Leia’s home-world before destroying it. And some of these, like “Rey from nowhere’s” true identity, are mystery boxes, designed to tease and inspire fans to theorise.

Fans who grew up with the original trilogy, and the expanded universe that fleshed out its sometimes wafer-thin narrative and character work, expected the sequel trilogy to pay-off every set-up, satisfy every mystery and justify every mention, in a way the originals never did. Rian Johnson, director of The Last Jedi, was more interested in exploring the characters Abrams’ created.

He swiftly dealt with The Force Awakens‘ lingering questions and crafted a story that tested its protagonists. It does this while also honouring all of the Star Wars films that came before it. The Last Jedi makes sense of Luke’s absence, actually gives Leia something to do, acknowledges the (let’s face it, unintentional) Jedi uselessness in the prequels, explains Rey’s power by redefining what “balancing” the Force means: the Force actually balancing, and not simply good overcoming evil. The potent nostalgia is purposeful this time around. This is a film not about letting the past die, but rather, about learning from its mistakes and growing. This was willfully misinterpreted as Rian Johnson disrespecting the history of Star Wars by fans who listened to the villains and not Yoda.

I felt odd after first viewing The Last Jedi. It challenged me. I knew I loved it, it features some of my all-time favourite Star Wars moments (R2-D2’s Leia hologram, Luke’s first lesson, the throne room, Yoda’s lesson, Holdo light-speed, that entire opening sequence that makes us cheer when the ship blows up, then shows us Leia devastated by the casualties, forcing us to confront the human cost of war and learn Poe’s lesson alongside him), but yeah, challenged.

First, it was not the film I expected it to be. I mean, where were the Knights of Ren? And it didn’t feel like a middle chapter. It felt like an ending, because the set-ups weren’t obvious. The Resistance was decimated, but that felt less like a cliffhanger and more like a sad state of affairs. And I’d been conditioned by The Empire Strikes Back to expect a cliffhanger that more obviously signposted a way forward. It didn’t help that on first viewing, I didn’t get the Broom Boy sequence. It felt like a jarring epilogue after the everyone-all-together tableau on the Millenium Falcon. It felt separate, when I really should have been looking at those two moments together. Leia tells Rey that they have everything they need, and then we see the legend of Luke Skywalker inspiring the galaxy’s most downtrodden.

The Last Jedi sets up the rise of the entire galaxy against the First Order, not just one special person. While it kills off Luke, it allows him to live on as an inspiration. Strike me down and … well, you know the rest. It also paves the way for the sequel trilogy’s Darth Vader, Kylo Ren, to be his own master and do what his grandfather never did. It positions Rey to look beyond her past, Poe to be Leia’s successor, and Finn to … Well, this trilogy has no idea what it’s doing with Finn. He is no longer devoted to Rey, and rather, he’s in the Resistance because he wants to be there, but that’s not much of a launch pad. More than anything else though, it sets up a true end to the saga: the balance of the force.

The Force Awakens‘ set-ups were obvious. They were questions. The Last Jedi‘s set-ups were situational. How did The Rise of Skywalker honour those set-ups?

Um … Not well. It undoes the characters’ progression. The film resurrects Emperor Palpatine as the Big Bad, and in doing so, denies Kylo Ren the mantle. Poe doesn’t assume the leadership until all of Carrie Fisher’s unused footage is awkwardly re-purposed, and even then, all he does is co-general with Finn, who has reverted back to his The Force Awakens state (running after Rey, screaming, “Rey!”). Rey learns her surname, then learns to be her own person, buries the Skywalker lightsabers and then … adopts their surname. Rose is somewhere else looking at Star Destroyer cross-sections or something. The result is a film that, as film critic Daniel Lammin puts it, “is so desperate to be liked”. It’s non-stop fun. The characters are a trio now! Banter! There are things to find! Quests! And answers! The film zooms from place to place, heavy with exposition, only to end up exactly where we expect it to: a confrontation with Emperor Palpatine.

The problem with this trajectory is, we’ve been here before. Return of the Jedi. The Emperor died and the Empire fell. Only it didn’t really. The First Order rose and Emperor Palpatine returned. So when The Rise of Skywalker resolves in almost the same way, it doesn’t feel permanent. Instead of reflecting our times (Nazis are trying to make it okay to be Nazis again!), and exploring how the First Order came from the Empire, and really grappling with what must be done to keep a Second Order from rising in its wake, we are given Emperor Palpatine, professional puppet master and his Final Order. The mystery boxes are opened. Snoke was a clone! Emperor Palpatine was always the villain, and now that we’ve melted his face off his skull, the Nazis are gone forever!

The film attempts to explain this convenience away by saying the confrontation with Emperor Palpatine inspires the galaxy to rise up against the First Order … So, Abrams spent the entire film re-establishing The Last Jedi‘s set-up, only to pay it off in a montage that lasts seconds. Luke Skywalker is reduced to a ghost mentoring one person, and chastising her for tossing his weapon disrespectfully. It is so preoccupied with answering fans’ supposed grievances that it shrinks itself. The Force is left imbalanced. But at least we have answers. And The Knights of Ren were there. That mystery box was sort of opened and just like the others, its answer underwhelmed.

Sequels are dangerous. They re-frame the stories that come before them. By revealing Snoke is simply an extension of Emperor Palpatine, the celebrated throne room sequence in The Last Jedi loses most of its power. Kylo Ren’s actions are retroactively made less significant. And I don’t believe Abrams is unaware of this danger. The Force Awakens was a risk. Luke, Leia and Han were denied their Return of the Jedi happily ever after to launch a sequel trilogy. Now that it’s over, we have to wonder, was the reward worth what they lost?