A much better story could have been right there, in the middle. Source: Star Wars / LucasFilms / Disney

Storytelling Structure

What The Rise of Skywalker Can Teach about Storytelling

The Good and Bad of The Rise of Skywalker, Why The New Trilogy Is So Predictable, Whose Fault It Is, and What They Could Have Done Differently (Spoilers)

Why The Sequel Trilogy Is Completely Inconsistent

In The Rise of Skywalker, this is Rey’s list of To Dos:

  • Get intel about the existence of the Emperor and where he is.
  • Realize you need to find the wayfinder.
  • Go to Pasaana to find the wayfinder. Get a dagger with Sith inscriptions instead.
  • Travel to Kijimi to translate the inscriptions.
  • Retrieve the dagger and Chewie from the destroyer.
  • Go to Kef Bir to find the wayfinder.

And this is just in the first half of the movie. Everything is so rushed, that there are plot holes everywhere. To name just a few:

  • Poe Dameron jumps to lightspeed several times without programming, always landing in weird places, never hitting anything while on lightspeed, but very closely missing obstacles when in normal speed
  • Rey leaves for 3 seconds, Chewie follows her for 2 seconds, and he gets kidnapped.
  • Rey can feel Chewie alive when he’s in the star destroyer, but not when he’s in the transporter.
  • Luke was looking for the dagger for decades but Rey finds it in 5 seconds.
  • Zorii Bliss hates Poe Dameron but 5, minutes later she gives him all she’s fought for her entire life.
  • Finn has something to tell Rey, but never does.
  • C3PO will lose his memory forever and has no backup, except oh well R2D2 has one.

Why is everything so rushed? Because JJ Abrams, the director, wanted to fit 2 movies in 1.

2h22m of movie are not enough for JJ. He has so much to tell us that he crams a million adventures, at the cost of plot holes, robotic dialogue, and no character building. For example, Kylo Ren spends two movies on the Dark Side, but Leia says hi and he turns to the Light. Rey gives up and goes to Ahch To, but luke is like “Hey what up don’t do that young padawan” and she changes her mind. Or when Chewie is dead, they’re all sad for all of 23 seconds before moving on.

Not that I blame JJ: Rian Johnson, the director of Star Wars 8 – The Last Jedi, knew he only had one shot to make an impact on SW, so he finished off the arcs of both Poe Dameron, Finn and Luke Skywalker, leaving little for JJ to work with. He also took the saga in a completely different direction, but JJ had the last word, and he wasn’t going to waste it:

  • Rian Johnson kills off Snope? NOT REALLY! Turns out he was just a clone, and the idea that there’s a huge maleficent person representing the dark side is still here! It’s not just Kylo and Rey!
  • Rian Johnson says Rey is nobody, and the daughter of nobody? NOT REALLY! Both she and her parents are in fact Palpatines! They chose to be nobodies, do you understand? (how so exactly? It’s not like they gave up a throne. They were escaping Palpatine. That’s hardly trying to be nobody, and it’s definitely not being nobody.)
  • Rian Johnson hints at the the entire galaxy rising against the First Order but NOT REALLY! They’re just joining at the last minute because they got a sure shot at killing the emperor and the Sith.
  • Rian Johnson introduces the key fact that you can now fight big destroyers through kamikaze lightspeed attacks, but NO! The resistance forgets to know how to use that against the new fleet of destroyers—which were very nicely set up as a bowling formation by the way.
  • Rose is the new player in the saga but NO! Let me introduce this friend Zorii Bliss for Poe Dameron and this friend Janna for Finn.

What’s going on here?

It feels like JJ Abrams started the trilogy, but Rian Johnson wanted to take it in a completely different direction, so he did. Later, when JJ Abrams took over the 3rd movie, he didn’t know what to make of Star Wars 8, so he just walked back most of the new and interesting things that Rian Johnson had introduced.

The Rise of Skywalker editor and longtime Abrams collaborator Maryann Brandon previously admitted The Last Jedi presented “a lot of challenges in terms of where Episode IX had to go to finish the saga,” and the screenwriter for Episode IX said in a previous interview the sudden death of Snoke (Andy Serkis) in The Last Jedi made telling Kylo’s story in Skywalker “tricky.”

In improv, when somebody says something, the next person has to accept it and play with it. Instead, JJ Abrams and Rian Johnson have been wrestling control of the trilogy. We can only imagine what would have happened if Colin Trevorrow, the initial director for Star Wars 9, had done what he wanted.

That could have worked out if they both had a ton of freedom in the Star Wars Universe, but they didn’t because of George Lucas.

Why The Rise of Skywalker Is So Predictable

In 2017, before The Last Jedi premiered, I made some predictions of what would happen in that movie. 90% were correct.

In 2018, I made some predictions, this time about Star Wars 9 (The Rise of Skywalker). 100% of those were correct:

  • The balance of the Force is restored.
  • Kylo Ren and Rey merge, which happens fourfold: They fight each other, they love each other, they give life to each other, and they give life to Palpatine.
  • The entire galaxy rises against the First Order.
  • The First Order will lose after a last minute upset.

There’s nothing special about these predictions. The only thing they prove is how closely Star Wars has followed a storytelling structure called the Ring Structure.

George Lucas loves storytelling structure. He is the one who first applied The Hero’s Journey to Star Wars. He then applied the more ambitious Ring Structure to the entire 6 movies. The sequel trilogy was bound by this structure, and that put guardrails on the decisions JJ Abrams and Rian Johnson could make.

So now you have a saga’s structure that dictates a lot of what has to happen, with little room for creative maneuvering, and yet two minds squabble around the little creative room there is. Why did that happen?

What’s Wrong with The Sequel Trilogy?

The boss.

Whenever a company does something poorly, it’s the CEO’s fault. They’re ultimately responsible for the smooth functioning of the entire organization. In the case of the Star Wars sequel, the boss is Kathleen Kennedy.

She was put in charge of Star Wars, but she’s not a creative, like John Lasseter or George Lucas. She’s a producer. She’s the business side. And the business is doing really well. But not the creative side. Unfortunately, it was her decision to split the creative ownership of the sequel trilogy. Initially, between 3 different directors, but thankfully Colin Trevorrow was fired when they realized the trilogy was going nowhere with a divided creative vision.

For something like this, you need a single creative owner, the way you had JK Rowling for Harry Potter, George RR Martin for Game of Thrones, Vince Gilligan for Breaking Bad, or Matt Weiner for Mad Men. At Pixar, they always have one single creative owner of every movie, and John Lasseter was always at the top making sure every story was amazing—later doing the same to turn around Disney Studios. Pixar knows that story is everything, but Kathleen Kennedy has forgotten it.

She could have given the vision of the entire trilogy to Rian Johnson or JJ Abrams. She could have one vision or the other. But she broke the story in three pieces of ownership, and you can tell by the end result: If there had been only one creative in charge of the trilogy, The Rise of Skywalker could have been much more interesting.

What Could Have Been a Better Storyline for The Rise of Skywalker?

For me, the main issue with The Rise of Skywalker is not the pace, or the plot holes, or the reversals from the rest of the trilogy. The worst part is that it’s too childish.

Disney movies are great at painting the world in black or white. That makes sense for kids, because they don’t have morals. Before you teach nuance, you need to teach the basics. This is good, this is bad.

That made sense for Star Wars in the 1970s and 80s, because it was earlier in the history of cinema, and because things like Nazism or Communist Dictatorships were recent or current.

But as you grow old, and as the world has become more complex, things get nuanced. They’re not black or white anymore, but in shades of grey.

Harry Potter is a good example of how it’s done. The first three books were childish; they follow basically the same storyline three times. And suddenly, in the midpoint, in Book 4, it suddenly becomes more somber. Now Voldemort has truly arisen. Somebody dies. Harry Potter isn’t a kid anymore. He’s an adolescent now. His audience is becoming an adult, he’s becoming an adult with them, and so are the books. They become more somber, and some of the lines between light and darkness blur. It turns out Dumbledore wasn’t perfect. Snape was playing with both sides. Malfoys have some humanity. Harry is basically the mirror image of Voldemort, except he chose not to fall to evil. Even Tom Riddle has a lot of good reasons to be who he is.

The Rise of Skywalker could have done the same thing and could have decided to nuance the darkness and light. What would that have looked like?

For example, in the Prequel Trilogy we learn that Jedis are not perfect. Many times, they are judge and executioner. They decide what’s right and wrong, and kill accordingly. They are a “deep state” enforcement organization without external checks and balances, and they think they know better than anybody else. They want to negate the existence of the Dark Side, even if it’s just a reality.

JJ Abrams could have played with that theme: Kylo Ren and Rey are already both playing between the Light and Dark Sides. They could have been made to merge them into one, into Grey, a combination that accepts that we’re a mix of both.

Instead, he decided to rehash the same theme as every other Star Wars story: The Light is good, the Dark Side is bad, don’t fear, don’t be angry, just kill the Dark Side though.

The Way Forward

In Star Wars, we have arguably one of the most important pieces of storytelling in history. It has all the story elements to grow up, but it stays childish instead.

That is in part due to the fact that there’s not one single visionary creative that owns a new message. As a result, there is no message.

The original trilogy’s message was the hero’s journey. It was the first time it was used in cinema, and the result was ground-breaking. Not only that, but it was happening in space!

The prequels trilogy is overall bad, but at least it came with a very interesting message: The eerily prescient message of how a democracy can be overthrown by a dictatorship with thunderous applause, all of it baked in Galaxy-level political conflict.

What new message did the Sequel Trilogy add? Nothing. And that is due to the fact that the person at the helm is a business person, not a creative. She wanted to create a trilogy for the business, not for the story. As a result, the trilogy didn’t have a message. Without a message, and with a very determined story structure, there was no room for creating a memorable sequel trilogy.

Until Kathleen Kennedy decides what she wants to say — or appoints the creative person who will — Star Wars is doomed to living off of bland nostalgia.

2 MSc in Engineering. Stanford MBA. Ex-Consultant. Creator of applications with >20M users. Currently leading a billion-dollar business @ Course Hero

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