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Why The Rise of Skywalker ending was always going to be a risk with J.J. Abrams directing
Endings are not J.J. Abrams' strong suit, and he'd be the first one to tell you as much.
As he said in a recent profile in The New York Times, "Ending a story is tough." And ending Star Wars — or, at least, the current trilogy, if not the entire nine-chapter Skywalker Saga — was an almost impossibly tough task. Abrams, though, was an especially curious selection for this specific task. Yes, he'd already proven his bona fides with science fiction, with action, and with Star Wars in general. But Abrams' ability to craft memorable endings is vastly less impressive than how he sets things up, an unfortunate consistency he maintains with Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.
Being fair, with The Rise of Skywalker, Abrams has been placed in a weird position. Though he co-wrote and directed the 2015 entry Star Wars: The Force Awakens, re-introducing the world to Star Wars, he was never meant to be the man shepherding the franchise to its conclusion.
Rian Johnson, writer and director of such films as Brick and Looper, was announced as the sole writer and director of the follow-up to The Force Awakens, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and his work would be followed up in a third film directed and co-written by Colin Trevorrow of Jurassic World.
But plans never work out the way you hope they will, at least if you're Kathleen Kennedy and you're running Lucasfilm. Though Abrams and Johnson did helm the first two entries in this sequel trilogy, Johnson's The Last Jedi has been met by a constant backlash since the moment it arrived in theaters. (That backlash, to this writer, is almost entirely ridiculous, both because it's propped up by misogyny and racism, and because The Last Jedi is the best new Star Wars movie by more than a few parsecs. Sorry, haters.) For reasons unknown to us outside rumors of high-level disagreements, Trevorrow departed the final film and Abrams stepped in to direct and co-write the finale.
This shift is only the latest of many in the Star Wars universe. Ron Howard's Solo: A Star Wars Story was originally going to be directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller of 21 Jump Street and The Lego Movie; despite being mid-production, they were let go from the project and Howard stepped in to bring the film to completion. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, despite being directed by Gareth Edwards, was plagued by production issues and underwent extensive reshoots before being released three years ago. And that's not even including the Josh Trank-directed film that was nixed before it became a reality. (Or the in-franchise films from Game of Thrones helmers David Benioff and Dan Weiss that were also quashed recently.)
So whatever else is true, the recent Star Wars films have seemingly been driven less by an impetus to tell coherent, multi-film stories and more by a desire to ... well, just make new Star Wars films.
Add to that the compressed production timeline for the concluding trilogy of the Skywalker Saga, with just two years between films instead of three, and it's easy to understand why the ending represented by The Rise of Skywalker is an unsatisfying letdown.
Though the original trilogy does have some connective threads that don't entirely line up — even now, 42 years later, it's hard to watch the original Star Wars and reconcile the way the follow-up films write around Luke's father being "killed" by Darth Vader turning into an issue of the man's spirit being murdered in place of embracing the Dark Side — the overall conclusion had a warped sense of logic and finality.
But The Rise of Skywalker has an ending that feels drastically disconnected from both The Last Jedi and, in some ways, The Force Awakens itself. The film ostensibly does resolve the major conflict of the new trilogy, when the First Order (or, rather, the new Final Order) is quashed for good by the Resistance. But the path it takes to get to that conclusion is bumpy in ways that imply whatever creative vision Abrams and his Force Awakens co-writer Lawrence Kasdan had for the overall series either didn't become a mandate for the full series or wasn't ever too clear to begin with.
Consider the mid-film revelation that Rey (Daisy Ridley) is someone very important indeed: She's the granddaughter of Emperor Palpatine. Anyone who saw The Force Awakens would not be surprised that Rey's lineage was of some importance. She has just trace memories of being separated from her family as a little girl, with constant implications that she couldn't just be some random person who's superpowered with the Force. Even though The Last Jedi threw everyone for a loop by having Rey accept that her parents were junk traders of no serious import or renown, The Rise of Skywalker tries to leapfrog over that reveal with its own surprise.
Yet watching The Rise of Skywalker, it's a struggle to imagine that this — Rey being related to the evilest man in the Skywalker Saga — was the plan all along. Either because of the creative upheaval or because of Abrams' own long history of struggling with endings, the one we have here feels cobbled together at the last second. Both in his earlier TV work and films such as Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness, Abrams' work is marked by an excellent ability to build something up, and a failure to plan out beyond the setup or the first act.
Abrams and his collaborators have always had this kind of creative struggle, not always by their own design. Some of the fan-service moments in The Rise of Skywalker feel like they're beholden as much to fan hopes and expectations as to anything in the story.
Take the climactic moment, after Rey and the now-reformed Ben Solo (Adam Driver) have killed Emperor Palpatine once and for all. (In all fairness, Rey's the one who takes him down in full, while Ben is temporarily injured.) They reunite, and Ben uses his own Force powers to heal Rey's wounds. And then ... they kiss passionately, something that feels at odds with Rey's journey throughout the trilogy. But it doesn't feel quite at odds with the passionate "Reylo" shipping fanbase online.
That specific subset may be delighted by the embrace, where other fans (such as this writer) may have wondered why the moment existed at all (especially since there was a very clear romantic subplot hinted at in the original between Rey and Finn).
It's similar in some ways to the way that the TV show Lost would cater to small subsets of its fanbase, especially in the third season, in part to placate those groups and in part to spin their wheels. Though Abrams' involvement in the third season of the show (for which he's credited as co-creator) was minimal — he directed only the premiere — the show itself struggled in the early going.
The creative nadir of Lost is an episode titled "Stranger in a Strange Land," in which the flashback structure is enabled to present us with the conclusive answer to a burning question: What's up with the tattoos our ostensible hero Jack Shephard has? Only a small group of fans really cared about that, and the answers were both definitive and entirely useless.
The real answer regarding Jack's tattoos — the character had them because actor Matthew Fox had tattoos before he began filming the show — was boring. The in-show answer was nonsense. The best part of the episode came only afterward, when showrunners Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse acknowledged that the negative reaction to the installment inspired them to convince ABC to let them end the show on their own terms instead of spinning their wheels.
Within Abrams' films, the most obvious attempt at fan service that landed painfully flat was in the 2013 sequel Star Trek Into Darkness. In the run-up to the film, the second new Star Trek film, people presumed it would follow the same basic structure of the original films. In essence, people figured that the sequel would be all about Khan.
But Abrams, the cast, and the crew went out of their way to convince people that just wasn't the case — hell, Benedict Cumberbatch was cast as a guy named John Harrison. No way he could be Khan! Those names are totally different!
Of course, you know what happened: John Harrison was an alias for the bad guy's identity, Khan. When that reveal is presented in Into Darkness, the characters respond in a nonplussed fashion — because of course they do.
This version of Kirk, Spock, and the others don't know who the hell Khan Noonien Singh is. The reveal isn't about the characters; it's about fans who presumably wanted a new take on Khan. Rey finding out that she's the granddaughter of Sheev Palpatine is less impactful for her — she's likely heard stories of Palpatine, even before he let loose a mysterious recording in the events of the sequel trilogy — than it is for everyone watching who knows how much history Palpatine has within the Skywalker Saga.
It's a plot twist for the fans, not the characters.
That twist exists in the new film because Abrams and co-writer Chris Terrio are struggling to pick up the pieces from the previous installments in a coherent fashion. (At this juncture, it's worth remembering that if you don't like how the characters in The Last Jedi are separated from each other, it's only because Johnson was picking up the pieces Abrams left behind at the end of The Force Awakens.)
It's yet another example of how Abrams is extremely skilled at setting up a great world and casting it with charismatic talents but has very little ability to wrap things up successfully. Fan service won the day with The Rise of Skywalker. It's a letdown, but not a surprising one if you look at its director's track record.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBCUniversal.