So it looks as if Star Wars fans have a lot more to chew over in the months leading up to the hotly-anticipated final installment of the so-called Skywalker Saga: December’s Star Wars: Episode IX — The Rise of Skywalker. It’s been a tumultuous journey ever since Disney bought out the revered LucasFilm studio — giving them control over both Star Wars and Indiana Jones — and announced that they were going to seek a return on their $4.05 billion investment by releasing a brand new trilogy of movies, featuring O.G. characters that had not been seen on the big screen in decades and returning things to a more recognizable status quo than fans endured during George Lucas’ ill-advised prequel trilogy years.
Even so, despite the more fan-friendly approach to the franchise, things were rocky right from the get-go. Many fans were put off by the decision to tap sci-fi mega-producer J. J. Abrams to direct the new film. Even then, Abrams was probably best known for his impressive run of TV series, which included Alias (2001-2006), Lost (2004-2010) and Fringe (2008-2013), than he was for his directorial work, which included Mission: Impossible III (2006), Star Trek (2009) and Super 8 (2011). Many resented the idea that this singular filmmaker would have been foundational to an entire generation of fans’ understanding of the two bedrock franchises of modern-day science fiction (being Star Trek and Star Wars). Many didn’t care for his gimmicky approach to selling his various projects (woefully epitomized by his “mystery box” idea0. Some just didn’t think that he had the chops for tackling George Lucas’ passion project.
When the first movie of the new trilogy, The Force Awakens, came out, the fanbase was split in two camps. One segment loved the back-to-basics approach that Abrams had chosen to employ: returning to the boilerplate, monomythic ‘Heroe’s Jounrey” storyline that Lucas plucked straight from Joseph Campbell, relocating the exotic space opera to the Tatooine-like planet of Jakku and bringing back the original trilogy cast members for one final moment in the limelight. Others, however, thought that the film was painfully derivative of those earlier movies, drew too deeply from that 1970’s wellspring of genre pulp and didn’t do enough to make the new trilogy stand on its own merits. Heck, there was even a sizable portion of the Star Wars-going public that still deeply resented the de-canonization of the Star Wars Extended Universe (a collection of books, games, TV shows and other Star Wars media that built directly on the events depicted in the original film trilogy).
And what The Force Awakens started in splintering the fan base, the next movie, The Last Jedi, shattered entirely. That film’s director, the decidedly more idiosyncratic Rian Johnson, took the (arguably) overly-familiar franchise and blew it up far beyond what Abrams had clearly envisioned for it. Characters turned their back on their complicated pasts, narrative expectations were dashed, heroes were proven wrong and plot points were unceremoniously cut short of fruition. It resembled the original movies more in spirit than in their strict presentation, and there’s no doubt that the end result was much messier and aggressively less satisfying than the simplistic nostalgia-pings that Abrams delivered two years earlier, and that infuriated certain toxic segments of Star Wars fans beyond the pale.
And now we are staring down the final installment of this new trilogy. Abrams has returned to the director’s chair, although what he can pull from his thoroughly tumbled foundations from The Force Awakens is anybody’s guess at this point. Johnson is out, although is evidently set to helm a full trilogy of his own at some future date. Han is gone. Luke is gone. Leia remains only in existing footage taken of the dearly departed Carrie Fischer from the two most recent movies. Snoke has been dethroned. The new rebellion is on its last legs. All in all, it’s a rather exciting place to start from (and something that we refreshingly can’t fully predict at the present moment).
At D23, the Disney-branded conference where the mega-corporation announced its most exciting new ventures going forward, fans were treated to a new trailer for the upcoming blockbuster. In it, we see a dark-robed Rey wielding a double-bladed red lightsaber (akin to the one wielded by the recently revealed to be alive Darth Maul previously seen in 1999’s The Phantom Menace). This of course has led to rampant speculation that Rey has finally turned to the Dark Side (perhaps at Kylo Ren’s beckoning), but I can’t help but see this all for what it invariably will prove to be: classic misdirection.
Everything about this trilogy, sometimes awkward and post-hoc though it may be, has been about setting up and subverting expectations: from Kylo Ren’s reveal to Luke’s “never came back from ‘Nam” despondency to Snoke’s rapid dispatchment to the truth behind Rey’s parentage. Even the movie’s title, The Rise of Skywalker, is a likely feint, which I’m willing to bet refers to a new, Jedi-like order referred to by that famous surname. The new Rey from the trailer may be anything from a dark premonition (similar to what Luke saw in Yoda’s cave in The Empire Strikes Back) to a Sith-produced clone of herself (similar to what we saw in Attack of the Clones). We don’t know nearly as much as we think we do, and it’s all thanks to Johnson’s “swing for the fences” style of direction and Abrams’ “mystery box” marketing. And, for once, I love not knowing what to expect come December.