It’s do-or-die time for Star Wars

Spoiler Warning: There will be spoilers ahead for Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi, as well as other films in the Star Wars franchise.

The final film in the Star Wars sequel trilogy, The Rise of Skywalker, releases tomorrow here in the UK. And it’s not unfair to say that there’s a lot riding on it for fans of the franchise.

Disney spent a lot of money to buy Lucasfilm – and with it the rights to Star Wars – back in 2012. Depending on what measure you use, they might’ve just about broken even by now, thanks to three successful titles at the box office, one headline series leading the charge for their new streaming platform, and sales of a ton of toys and merchandise. But breaking even isn’t good enough for a huge company, and with Solo: A Star Wars Story being the first title in the history of the franchise to fail to make its money back, there’s a lot riding on The Rise of Skywalker as far as Disney is concerned.

It’s also a critical time for fans.

The spectre of Palpatine looms over Rey and Kylo Ren on the promo poster for The Rise of Skywalker.

Personally I enjoyed The Last Jedi, though I think it works better as a standalone piece than it does as part two of a trilogy, or part eight of an ongoing series. The major shift in tone from The Force Awakens – as epitomised by the scene in which Luke Skywalker simply throws away his old lightsaber – is certainly jarring. And while I’m a fan of the film myself, I understand the criticism levied at it by some in the Star Wars fanbase.

The Last Jedi was, whichever side of the argument you’re on, an unquestionably divisive film. And unfortunately, one consequence of the controversy it generated is that fans have broken up into factions. Some fan groups have descended into pure hate, attacking Disney, Lucasfilm, Kathleen Kennedy, and even actors and actresses from the films. This insane amount of online negativity has damaged the Star Wars brand to an extent. The Rise of Skywalker has to find a way to get things back on track.

In the run-up to the release of Solo: A Star Wars Story, some groups of fans were planning to boycott the film and its merchandise as a way to register their dislike of The Last Jedi and disapproval of the overall direction of the franchise. How many of them stuck to their guns and didn’t see Solo is something impossible to measure, but the negative feelings and ill-will undoubtedly hurt the film, which came out only five months after The Last Jedi.

What The Rise of Skywalker has to manage to do is bring back those fans. It has to give them a reason to want to show up at the box office, but more than that, it has to give the story a satisfying conclusion – one which can reunite the fractured fanbase.

I honestly don’t know whether it can.

Adam Driver as Kylo Ren.

The problem isn’t that huge numbers of people will stay away. I think that most Star Wars fans, even those who felt that The Last Jedi was a terrible film, will head back to the cinema this time around, if for no other reason than morbid curiosity. At the end of the day, this franchise has been running since 1977, and the first phase of its story – that of Luke Skywalker and Anakin Skywalker – is finally coming to a close. That alone is reason to turn up and check out the film. Whether fans who found The Last Jedi to be a bad experience will find the conclusion of the story to be satisfactory is another question, however.

The Star Wars sequel trilogy failed to reunite its core three characters – Han, Luke, and Leia. By killing off Han Solo in The Force Awakens while Luke was still out of the picture, there was no opportunity for a reunion. And with the untimely passing of Carrie Fisher – as well as Luke’s supposed death in The Last Jedi – there’s now no chance to bring them back together even in a flashback sequence. In time, I suspect this will come to be viewed as a mistake. And as I wrote in my list of disappointments of the decade, the decision to have Luke going missing be the driving force for the plot of The Force Awakens will probably also be seen as problematic in hindsight.

There are, undoubtedly, missteps and mistakes to be overcome in The Rise of Skywalker. On the one hand, bringing back JJ Abrams for the film is a positive thing. He was, after all, responsible for creating characters like Rey, Poe, and Finn, and did initially draft out where those characters could go after The Force Awakens ended. But because the decision was taken to split up the storytelling of these films, giving each part to a different writer/director, Rian Johnson had the opportunity to ignore much of that story treatment when he wrote The Last Jedi – and that seems to be exactly what he did. Johnson was constrained by the concept of Luke being missing, but now Abrams is constrained by the ending of The Last Jedi too. And if it’s the case that the characters are in a completely different place than he intended them to be, then he basically will have had to write a whole new story for The Rise of Skywalker.

JJ Abrams is a good storyteller, and he can make films that are respectful of their place in a franchise but without feeling the need to entirely copy an existing story. His work on Star Trek Into Darkness shows this – that film pays homage to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan without copying it or overwriting it. But Abrams can also cross that line, and I’d argue that The Force Awakens strayed from being an homage to the first Star Wars film into copying it. Starkiller Base is, for all practical purposes, the Death Star, even down to the vulnerable hole at the end of a trench that a team of X-wings have to attack. When I first saw The Force Awakens I thought that kind of film is exactly what I wanted from Star Wars, especially after the disappointment of the prequel films a decade earlier. But looking back, it wasn’t the best take on Star Wars, and a little more originality would have been called for, as well as a better use of Luke Skywalker – or at the very least a reason for his absence.

“Mystery box” storytelling is what JJ Abrams has always done. He sets up a puzzle, a set of unexplained situations and circumstances, which draw in audiences and get people thinking. But he never writes a conclusion. His mysteries are beautifully set up – and then he disappears, leaving the ending to someone else. He did that in the television series Lost, which started well, but unfortunately became incredibly convoluted and ended with a controversial and, to many people, disappointing finale. So whether Abrams really was the right choice to bring the “Skywalker saga” to its end is something I’m not convinced of – at least, not yet.

The Rise of Skywalker has a difficult job to do if it’s going to be viewed as a success by both fans and detractors of The Last Jedi – and whether this division in the fanbase between the two camps will be temporary or permanent really does depend on how this film is received. If it manages to be a hit, then the fanbase can come back together and look forward together to new Star Wars projects. But if after release, fans remain divided into pro-Disney and anti-Disney camps, the biggest and best opportunity to heal that divide will have been lost. Also lost will be some fans – who will no longer turn up for new films and shows in the franchise. This happened to an extent with Star Trek, three times in fact: in 1987 with fans who didn’t want The Next Generation, in 2009 with fans who didn’t want the reboot films, and in 2017 when some fans didn’t want Discovery.

Any discussion of this topic would be remiss to not point out that some of the anti-Disney communities online actually make money – even a living in some cases – from their hate. And yes, a lot of it crosses the line from criticism into outright hate. For some of these YouTube channels, websites, and social media groups, controversy, division, and hatred are what drive clicks, views, and advertising revenue. If they were to come out and say “hey guys, The Rise of Skywalker was great and you should all go to see it!” they’d lose subscribers and viewers so fast they’d have nothing left. Many of the people who read and watch such content are there purely to see their own preexisting opinions reflected back at them, and the people creating this content know this. They know that their audiences expect a negative reaction to The Rise of Skywalker – and most of them will give them what they want, regardless of whether it’s what they actually think. And the reason is simple: attention and money.

With that in mind, The Rise of Skywalker has to go even further than any other title in order to be successful. It has to absolutely knock it out of the park, because if it does, maybe the overwhelming positive reaction from fans will force at least some of these people to concede. But if it’s only okay – and even if it’s good but not great – the online hate and anti-Disney sentiment will continue, because people are getting attention from the community and money from advertising on sites like YouTube for speaking out in that way.

It’s an uphill struggle then. But it’s one of Lucasfilm’s own making in a way – splitting up the story, and giving three different writers and directors essentially free reign to do whatever they wanted was an own goal. When creating any story, let alone one that has to be the follow-up to a genre-defining set of films, it’s important to take the time and plan it out. They needed to think carefully about legacy characters as well as plot out character arcs for the new ones. There’s no evidence that there was any proper planning or story work done – and that was a mistake.

Some of the story points which appear to be part of The Rise of Skywalker are questionable, too. Palpatine feels shoehorned in, especially given he was scarcely mentioned in the previous two films and had no impact whatsoever on their plots. A combination of fanservice, to appeal to those who hated The Last Jedi, and desperation, caused by the lack of a significantly imposing villain after Snoke’s death, seems to be why Palpatine has returned. Those reasons do not form the basis of a strong narrative, and the risk is that his appearance in the film will simply come across as cheap and lazy.

I’m sure Disney and Lucasfilm are aware of these issues, and others. There’s a lot riding on JJ Abrams and his storytelling, and in a very real sense The Rise of Skywalker will, for better or worse, set the stage for the next phase of Star Wars.

On a personal level, I really hope that the film will be a success. Not least because I want an ending to Luke and Leia’s stories that will be satisfying, but because I really want to see the division of the last two years put behind us as fans. There will always be disagreements over The Last Jedi – just like there are in Star Trek over who’s a better captain – but if the majority of fans can at least return to civility and get back to a place where new Star Wars projects generate almost universal excitement rather than arguments, I think The Rise of Skywalker will have done its job. Reviews from critics have come out in the last couple of days, and seem to be positive – but critic reviews for The Last Jedi were strong too, and failed to anticipate that film’s divisiveness. So we will have to wait and see.

If we can return to a place in the fanbase where debates are good-natured then that’s really going to be a positive thing. The negativity generated two years ago has been difficult to wade through, at times. There are enough things in the world today to divide people; we don’t need entertainment adding to that. Not when it’s supposed to be escapism and a distraction.

It’s my hope that The Rise of Skywalker will go a long way to mending fences, and that the Star Wars franchise can have a more united and secure future going forward.

The Star Wars franchise and The Rise of Skywalker are the copyright of Lucasfilm and Disney. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.