I was going to write a whole thing about Rise of Skywalker, but basically, it’s fine. Not a great movie, but enjoyable. I like the sequel trilogy characters a good deal but ultimately, as I wrote before it came out, I don’t think J.J. Abrams was very interested in continuing the larger story. Now, after it’s all over I still want to know what happens after Return of the Jedi. The status quo is right where we left it in 1983. The Empire/First Order is destroyed, Palpatine is dead, and there’s a (new) New Republic to build and new Jedi to train.
Aside: If I had to bet, I’d place money on history being much kinder to The Last Jedi than the other two movies in the trilogy.
I could write a good bit about Rise of Skywalker’s problems and propose ways to clean it up. Why create Jannah and then give her nothing to do? But the larger issue is that the trilogy just isn’t about anything—there was very clearly no big plan—and you can’t script doctor that away.* So, instead, I thought it might be interesting to look at what George Lucas had originally intended for the sequel trilogy to be about.
In The Secret History of Star Wars, Michael Kaminski devotes an entire appendix entry to the sequel trilogy, pulling together what Lucas has said about the story over the years. There isn’t much. Reading between the lines, I’m pretty convinced he had a good deal in mind for Luke’s story but wound up telling most of that in the first three movies. I recommend Kaminski’s book for the full exploration, but here are a few of the essentials.
Depending on when Lucas is quoted, Luke is either the central figure of the story or, as Hamill says he was told when filming the first movie, “You’ll just be like a cameo. You’ll be like Obi-Wan handing the lightsaber down to the next new hope.”
Lucas says in a few places that the sequels about be about “the rebuilding of the Republic,” He says: “The final three movies feature an adult Luke and the final confrontation between the rebels and the Empire.” This implies the next trilogy would be a direct sequel to Return of the Jedi, with the Empire still around. But in many other places he talks about each trilogy being separated by 20+ years. Point being, he really didn’t have this nailed down, then he burnt out making Return of the Jedi and sort of just let the story be over with the defeat of the Emperor.
He did have a bit to say about the themes, which I think could have pointed the way for where the stories might have gone. He says they will be about “the necessity for moral choices and the wisdom needed to distinguish right from wrong.” In 1983 he said:
In the sequel Luke would be a sixty-year-old Jedi knight. Han Solo and Leia would be together, although Lucas says, “They might be married, or not. We have never actually discussed marriage in this galaxy. I don’t know if it exists yet. Who knows what relationship they will have? I mean, they’re together, let’s put it what way.” The sequel focuses mainly on Luke, and Lucas says Mark Hamill will have first crack at the part if he is old enough. “If the first trilogy is social and political and talks about how society evolves,” Lucas says, ”Star Wars is more about personal growth and self-realization, and the third deal with moral and philosophical problems. In Star Wars, there is a very clear line drawn between good and evil. Eventually you have to face the fact that good and evil aren’t that clear-cut and the real issue is trying to understand the different. The sequel is about Jedi knighthood, justice, confrontation, and passing on what you have learned.”
Putting that all together, we clearly see he moved back and forth on how to handle the idea of so many movies. Assuming you’re committed to a trilogy of trilogies, you can sort of break the possible approaches up in a few ways:
- A prequel trilogy plus a hexology following Luke. He defeats Vader in 6 and then goes out to train a new Jedi in 7–9 to defeat either the Emperor or a new villain.
- A prequel trilogy centering on Obi-Wan, the original trilogy with Obi-Wan as mentor handing off to Luke, a sequel trilogy with Luke as Mentor handing off to a new Jedi.
- An ennealogy about the Emperor.
It seems like J.J. Abrams started off making 2) before deciding to make 3). You’d have to work pretty hard to convince me that the plan all along was for the Emperor to be behind everything. It’s a sensible idea, but there’s nothing at all in Return of the Jedi to suggest that he’s not dead. From everything I’ve read about Star Wars (and it’s a lot), I’m absolutely convinced that by the time he finished Return of the Jedi, Lucas intended for the story to be over. Any new sequel would have to find its own story.
Indeed, from the very little we know, Lucas’s plans for subsequent movies were entirely apart from the Skywalker saga. This goes back to the very beginning, when he planned for what became Star Wars to be just one story—an excerpt—from the “Journal of the Whills.” The Lord of the Rings to the Journal’s Silmarillion. He has an idea of what The Force really is:
The Force breaks into two sides: the living Force and a greater, cosmic Force. The living Force makes you sensitive to other living things, makes you intuitive, and allows you to read other people’s minds, et cetera. But the greater Force has to do with destiny. In working with the Force, you can find your destiny and you can choose to either follow it, or not.
He apparently wrote down a sketch of what his next idea was, which he handed off to Disney. What we know of it comes from this quote:
GL: [The next three Star Wars films] were going to get into a macrobiotic world. But there’s this world of creatures that operate differently than we do. I call them the Whills. And the Whills are the ones who actually control the universe. They feed off the Force.
If I’d held onto the company I could have done it, and then it would have been done. Of course, a lot of fans would have hated it, just like they did Phantom Menace and everything, but at least the whole story from beginning to end would be told.
“The Whills,” Lucas explained, “are the ones who actually control the universe. They feed off the Force.” Lifeforms, meanwhile, be they Jedi or Sith, or bounty hunters or mechanics, are simply “vehicles for the Whills to travel around in. … And the conduit is the midi-chlorians. The midi-chlorians are the ones that communicate with the Whills. The Whills, in a general sense, they are the Force.”
Now, it’s easy to dismiss this as silly, but this is just backstory, not story. Ignore the sequels they actually made, and imagine if instead the Wachowskis, before The Matrix, had made a movie about Neo as a superhero, and it was beloved. Then they said they wanted to make a movie about where Neo’s powers came from. He’s really a computer program and the whole world is virtual reality. We know that movie is great, but there’s a world where it sounds really stupid. My point is, this is the sort of stuff that feeds the post-prequels George Lucas hate, but remember how improbable the success of Star Wars was. Even Harrison Ford and Alec Guinness seemed to think they were just making another in a long line of schlocky 1970s sci-fi movies that would be forgotten by year’s end. It just happened that Lucas had a great vision and hired the right collaborators that this silly space fairy tale turned out to be one of the century’s great epics.
We’re still left with the question of where it goes from here. It seems like Lucas never knew, Abrams punted, and the currently-announced series all take place in the past.† I guess whatever plan the Whills have, we’ll have to wait a bit longer.
* A quick stab at it, anyway: keep the idea of Luke as mentor to a new Jedi (Rey). Keep the idea of Ben Solo as a fallen Jedi trainee, and Luke as his failed former teacher just like Ben/Anakin. But actually spend time showing the First Order rising. Show us why the people want to take the easy path. Draw from the difficulties of post-Civil War reconstruction in America, from how WWI led to WWII, how demagogues rise, how Neo-Nazis still exist, and so on. Abstract it all, obviously, but use it to show how Leia isn’t able to just pick up the pieces. No big villain pulling the strings. Just Ben in way over his head, ultimately realizing he’s created a monster in the First Order and its zealots and joining up with the new Jedi to end it. ↩
† The Mandalorian is set between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens, the upcoming Obi-Wan and Cassian Andor shows come before Star Wars, a new season of The Clone Wars even earlier, and Resistance during the sequel trilogy. Rian Johnson is developing new movies but to my knowledge nothing has been said of their setting. ↩