What Hollywood should learn from The Rise of Skywalker’s disastrous mistakes

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker sealed 2019’s status as a landmark year for terrible finales of major pop culture franchises. Twelve months ago was the double whammy this writer likes to call the ‘Endgame of Thrones’, but even those disasters paled in comparison to the trainwreck ending of the Star Wars sequel trilogy.

As Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker heads to Disney+, it’s only fitting to take a step back and talk about how it all went wrong. We contend that not only is Episode IX the worst Star Wars movie ever made, it’s also a prime example of the worst aspects of modern blockbuster filmmaking. There’s a lesson to be learned here, not just for any future Star Wars movies, but big Hollywood franchises in general.

© Lucasfilm Ltd.

We could spend hours dismantling the many reasons why everything relating to the story and characters of Episode IX is bad and wrong, but that would barely be scratching the surface. (Here’s Outtake’s not-so-glowing review of the film by James Hanton.)

The real problem with Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is its fear. Never has a movie been so afraid of itself, and of its audience. Episode IX is terrified of not giving Star Wars fans what they want, while simultaneously having absolutely no idea what it is they do want. When the plot of the movie leaked, many immediately dismissed it as fake; it was too stupid, too unbelievably awful to actually be true. In fact, we were so sure that the leaks were a prank that Outtake published wrote a whole article about it.

Then, the unthinkable happened. We collectively witnessed the leaks being confirmed on the big screen. Audiences witnessed The Rise of Skywalker undo everything that happened in The Last Jedi with reckless abandon, appease popular fan theories with utterly no regard for narrative cohesion, and suffocate itself in self-referential pandering to the original trilogy, especially Return of the Jedi. Within the first five minutes, the film hit a level of embarrassing stupidity that few could have ever imagined.

Courtesy of IMDB, © Lucasfilm Ltd.

All of that is done in the service of answering one question: “Is this what you want?’

Doubt, uncertainty, and panic define The Rise of Skywalker at every level. It’s a film that was forged in the crucible of fan backlash and is so desperate to win the favour of a nebulous fandom that it obliterates its own identity in the process.

Episode IX is not a story being told, but a checklist of things it feverishly hopes is to the audience’s liking. It reads like an algorithm was let loose in a bunch of Star Wars fan forums and then cobbled together a script. Even the title sounds like it was the product of a Star Wars name generator. The Force Awakens faced criticism for its many similarities to A New Hope, when in fact it was one of the movie’s strengths. The newest instalment emulated its predecessor from a place of reverence and passion; it felt like an honest attempt to recapture the magic of Star Wars for a new audience.

When The Rise of Skywalker apes Return of the Jedi, it does so to try and fill its own creative voids. It’s shameless, empty recycling of ideas and characters that hollows them out of any meaning or value.

© Lucasfilm Ltd.

The prequel trilogy also didn’t give Star Wars fans what they wanted, but for all their many, many, MANY problems, those movies remained committed to a singular vision. George Lucas mostly stuck to his guns and made the trilogy that he wanted to make. He was ridiculed for it, and the films were at the time lambasted as the worst thing to ever happen to Star Wars. Yet, time has been kind to the prequels – even those that have grown to enjoy them ironically still enjoy them.

It’s hard to see time being kind to The Rise of Skywalker. If anything, it’s probably going to seem even more embarrassing down the line. Fandoms are deeply fickle communities. The idea that any franchise has a fan hive-mind united in its likes and dislikes is patently absurd. It’s especially ridiculous for a massively popular franchise like Star Wars, with its staggering cross-generational global audience.

Trying to pander to fans is unwieldy and extremely difficult and even if by some miracle you pull it off, what exactly have you achieved? Avengers: Endgame managed it, but for all its crowd-pleasing spectacle, in the end it fell flat. Whatever risks the MCU was willing to take, Endgame walked them back so that it could deliver fans a neat, safe, predictable outcome.

© Marvel Studios

If done well, pandering to fans is boring. If done poorly, you get a disastrous mess like The Rise of Skywalker.

Rian Johnson, director of The Last Jedi (the best Star Wars movie by a huge margin), said that as a fan, he wants to be challenged, not pandered to. There’s only so much that you can do creatively when you’re toeing the line and letting fandoms dictate where stories should begin and end. Figuring out how to challenge your audience without pushing things too far is tricky, but it’s a risk absolutely worth taking.

If there’s any lesson that Hollywood should learn from The Rise of Skywalker, it’s this – don’t be afraid to tell new stories. Push creative boundaries. Be daring and exciting.

Even when you’re bringing back an old franchise, don’t just do it to milk the nostalgia. There are always new stories waiting to be told and people out there looking for them – even if they don’t know it.

Stanyo Zhelev

Socially awkward geek that loves movies and writing about them. King's College London graduate. Look for on Letterboxd (https://letterboxd.com/cinemastan/) and my personal site (http://thecinemastan.com/)