A Star Wars Story What went wrong with the sequel trilogy.


I saw Star Wars in 1977 in a movie theater outside a mall in Florida. It made such an impression on me I asked if I could see it again the next day instead of The Rescuers. My family was on vacation, and I was about to turn nine that June.

The movie washed over me like that Star Destroyer coming into frame. It was magical. I was far too young for the early Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon space adventures. For me, Star Trek and Batman reruns were the after-school viewing choices. The Six Million Dollar Man was my favorite television program, and I had not only a Steve Austin action figure but the full gamut of Six Million Dollar Man toys like the Bionic Transport and Repair Station and the Mission Control Center with the Command Console.

However, Star Wars dominated my imagination during that summer of ’77, and I couldn’t let go of the galaxy far, far away.

I collected the comic books and, of course, the toys. My brother and I amassed an impressive array of action figures, vehicles, and playsets. We had a Death Star, Millennium Falcon, X-Wing and Tie Fighter, Tatooine playset, Hoth playset, and so much more.

The movies were always on in the background via VHS copies that I’m pretty sure I still own. There isn’t a movie I’ve seen more than the original Star Wars.

I was in grad school greedily reading Heir to the Empire in 1991. I dragged my family to see The Phantom Menace at the local movie theater. When the prequel trilogy was in full bloom, my daughter and I would have lightsaber battles as we jumped around my apartment making purposely bad Luke Skywalker impressions in full whine-mode, “Nooooooooo. It’s not true… That’s impossible!”

Suffice it to say, Star Wars has meant a lot to me throughout my life.

When Disney purchased Lucasfilm for a cool 4 billion, everyone knew a sequel trilogy was on the horizon. So, it’s no surprise I was at one of the first showings of The Force Awakens, and I was giddy walking out of the theater. A terrible ice storm might have been coming down, but I happily scrapped my windshield content in knowing Star Wars was in good hands.

Fast forward to just a few short weeks ago when I took a half a day off to watch The Rise of Skywalker. I was genuinely excited. I hoped what I was about to see was going to match my creative spirit. I mean, they didn’t use my preferred title, The First Skywalker, but damn if I wasn’t too far off. I had grown fond of the sequel trilogy characters and wanted desperately to have a resolution that felt earned and satisfying.

It was close. So, so close.

If you’re a fan like me, you had already mapped out what happened after our heroes partied down on Endor. Even if you hadn’t ignited your imagination, there were the Expanded Universe series of novels, comics, video games, and more to keep the post-Return of the Jedi timeline humming along.

I didn’t partake of everything. I choose what appealed to me and left out the rest. It was an expanded universe, and none of it was cannon. To my mind, all of it was glorified fan fiction, and sometimes that’s the best kind.

The post-Return of the Jedi expanded universe was fun and imaginative and generally worked perfectly to extend the life of the franchise. That is until Lucasfilm sold it all to Disney, and all of that fun and imagination would have to be reimagined and rebooted.

I loved The Force Awakens as a Star Wars film. It was in no small part because of the nostalgia factor, with J. J. Abrams warming over the plot of A New Hope. I admit, the title is garbage, but then so many of the Star Wars films have weak titles: The Phantom MenaceThe Empire Strikes Back, and, honestly, A New Hope. The Force Awakens was derivative, but it had to be because George Lucas had no idea how to recapture the joy of Star Wars with his prequel trilogy, and Abrams had his finger pressed firmly on the pulse of Star Wars fandom. The movie itself was a reminder of what I loved about Star Wars back in 1977, and it set the table beautifully for a slam dunk of a trilogy, and then, for some reason, Abrams wasn’t set on directing the next one, and that’s when the wheels came off.

If I remember correctly, Abrams had gone on the record saying he was not going to direct the next film in the promotion for The Force Awakens. I’m sure there were political and financial reasons, but ultimately it cost this new trilogy a cohesive and coherent voice. You can hate on how Abrams does his “mystery box” shtick, but he does make pretty entertaining flicks.

Kathleen Kennedy took a chance on Rian Johnson for the second film in the franchise. Johnson, in my view, is a fantastic writer and director. He has a vision. I was excited to see how he would take the foundation laid down by Abrams. I thought he would create something truly memorable. Of course, I was also under the impression there was a plan. Johnson is a great filmmaker, but he led the franchise down a problematic path, and he did so because he didn’t adhere to the Abrams foundation. The Last Jedi is a pretty great film, but it’s weak and confusing as the second film in light of the first film. He took a sledgehammer to that foundation, and while beautiful and striking in several ways, narratively, it’s not good.

In January 2020, it is clear there was no set narrative for the sequel trilogy, and that’s why the three films together feel disjointed. Johnson had far too much creative freedom to put his mark on Star Wars, and rewatching the movie, it feels like The Last Jedi is a hard left turn. Not having a clear strategy for the story and the characters was a mistake. I blame Kathleen Kennedy.

Which brings us The Rise of Skywalker, which is a joy to watch. It’s the kind of movie that makes audiences cheer. Unfortunately, it also doesn’t make sense narratively as the third movie after Johnson’s second installment. It’s a tad disappointing for me because all I ever really wanted was a coherent, competent rip-roaring Star Wars adventure told over three parts. I got the first one, the second could be argued was a misstep, and the third tried to make sense of the narrative twists and turns to come out on top. The regret I feel is knowing the potential in having a final trilogy that extended and satisfyingly concluded the Skywalker saga and just not quite getting there. It could have been so much better.

The original trilogy started as a pastiche of Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, The Hidden Fortress, and The Dam Busters. John Williams, Marcia Lucas, and Paul Hirsch saved Star Wars with Oscar-winning music and film editing. Ivan Kershner and Lawrence Kasdan took the foundation that Lucas and others created and elevated it, basically creating a lot of what everyone loves most about Star Wars in one movie. Richard Marquand, in my mind, was a caretaker director who also elevated character moments in Return of the Jedi. The trilogy suffers a bit from not having a three-part narrative plan at the beginning, even though Lucas did write all three stories. The worst offense is the Leia is Luke’s sister bit as it seems off-putting in light of kisses in both A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back.

The prequel trilogy had a singular vision in George Lucas. Love or hate the prequels; the narrative was coherent (mostly) with award-winning actors elevating the terrible dialogue. All three desperately needed an editor/script doctor at the script stage and a better film editor than Ben Burtt, who is an Oscar-winning sound effect editor but not a film editor. They suffer from an infatuation with computer-generated imagery and a couple of poor actor choices.

With the sequel trilogy, the first movie brought the joy back. However, the second movie did not elevate the concepts from the first movie—it took a sledgehammer to them. Rian Johnson’s script wanted to upend the Star Wars table and tell a different kind of story than what Abrams started. Johnson, as a visionary filmmaker, wanted to play in that universe. You don’t hire someone like him and not let him do his thing, but you have to have narrative controls. Rian Johnson genuinely excited me because I loved Brick and Looper. The middle movie needed to be dark, foreboding with maybe even a down ending. Johnson sounded perfect for that type of Star Wars movie. Unfortunately, he made a beautiful looking film with a script that retconned the character motivations and short-circuited the narrative. It was intentional. Suffice it to say, the lack of narrative control and singular vision created a disjointed adventure when set in the context of Abrams’s film.

Kennedy and Disney saw the backlash and disappointment with The Last Jedi and needed to fix Star Wars straightaway. I’m sure the not-great box office of Solo played a part as well. So now we have the third film in the trilogy directed by the guy who directed the first film to try and get everything back on track.

When all of this was announced, it made perfect sense. Disney realized the misstep and took care to put the sequel trilogy back on the straight and narrow, and they needed the guy who started the whole thing. They desperately needed J. J. Abrams to reinvigorate Star Wars, and while he was at it retcon all the crap stuff Johnson did in the last movie, too.

As much as I loved the flick, Abrams didn’t quite have the time nor the chops to fix the mess he was given. If he could have had two films to make Episode 9, it might have been more cohesive, or it might have just been bloated. I believe a three-hour final installment with a built-up narrative and character interactions would have elevated the material.

The last Harry Potter installment was two movies. The last two Avengers movies, which narratively is one film, has a total run time just shy of six hours. Honestly, I think Abrams should have pushed for an Episode 10 and filmed them back-to-back to give everything the proper ending he envisioned.

Of course, the real problem of this sequel trilogy is Rian Johnson’s middle film that jettisoned all that Abrams laid out. I love Johnson, the filmmaker, but his choices, ultimately, were almost universally wrong. The sequel trilogy would have been better served with Abrams directing all three. At the very least, it would have had a consistent narrative and been an entertaining mix of nostalgia and new.

It’s painfully easy to armchair quarterback the decisions made by Disney, Kathleen Kennedy, J. J. Abrams, and Rian Johnson. What I hope is Disney has learned from their mistakes to actively avoid them the next go around. The Mandalorian looks like a step in the right direction.

I know it might be asking a lot, but could the next Star Wars trilogy of films do their level best to enhance my childhood memory of Star Wars? Please, and thank you.

Also, may the Force be with you.