Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019) The story lines and plotting of a Star Wars film faces a range of challenges that are unlikely to be met: continuing the mythology and universe established in previous films through the developing of established plot lines, repeatedly homaging and referring to previous films, referencing dramatic tropes, retaining favored locations and characters, and developing new characters with new and dynamic story lines, all to meet the judgement of a diverse spectrum of fans. These legacy issues, the influence of the earlier films, do significantly impact on the plotting for The Rise of Skywalker, but here the emphasis is on considering this story as a single piece of storytelling: does it work on its own terms: does it narrate a successful dramatic story? The broad answer is 'no', for several reasons.
Firstly, the story relies on spectacular action for a large part of its appeal, but this is often not story action, because its incidental to the characters and their story: it doesn't matter to the plot that there are very impressive sets or special effects: these are part of the realism but not necessarily the story. If a set/location scene has ten space ships rather than five, its visually more impressive, but the plot isn't redefined or progressed. The early SF and Fantasy TV series from which Star Wars stems had limited special FX and budget limiting spectacular but were thought of as thrilling because of the plot action and the fact that the story revolved round a central character who the audience was invested in. The Rise of Skywalker is problematic in this because the characters are not established with dramatic goals as part of story action.
Rey (Daisy Ridley) who might be thought of as the central protagonist is established in the story while training: this is visual exciting, but it does not establish any key plot element: the training closely refers to a scene in a previous Star Wars films so this link is its main reason for being in the film: Rey is training just as Luke Skywalker trained. The reason for the training is given in exposition in a scene preceding showing Rey training, and then at the end Rey receives a message that makes her respond/act, but the training itself plays no key part in the plot: Rey, rather than practicing her light saber skills in the scene might be preparing a meal or sleeping and still receive the message that forwards the story and Rey's action as part of this: the main plotting for the film narrative is not based on the training. So, a scene to establish Rey, rather than training, should have involved Rey in something crucial: there is story action around a spy and messages being passed to the Resistance of which Rey is a member: So, Rey might have been the go-between or collector of the important message, but this central story action is given to other characters.
The training scene is also problematic in establishing Rey's internal character: Rey is training, which seems inactive, except for its visual component, there no goal for the action of the scene. The precise plot of the scene is that Rey looses concentration falls, and after loosing control comically cuts down some trees and damages her android assistant. This action makes Rey seem lacking competence and perhaps out of control: Giving Rey these traits can work for the narrative as long as they are recognized and overcome in later scenes, so that the establishing scene is part of a character arc, but this is not the case: in later scenes Rey is completely competent, making the establishing scene unconnected to later scenes: the character establishment of Rey in the story lacks coherence with later events.
In Raiders of The Lost Ark (1981) The hero Indiana Jones is established through heroic action: Indiana faces deadly danger and escape it. This heroism don't succeed in successful actions, Indiana loses his prize, but the prologue shows Indiana's bravery and determination, and this failure establishes the antagonist in the story: the villain who the hero, Indiana, is matched against. The main plotting in The Raiders of The Lost Ark rests on Indiana at the center of the action, always being brave and fighting to achieve their goal. Their heroism is tested by the story. In contrast, Rey is established as skilled, but liable to failing and loosing control and this is not how to establish a hero. It's possible to have a hero with doubts, 'am I able to complete this task', but Rey is not placed in this position and the performance is stern faced: Rey does not appear to need to train and appears confident in herself: there's no sense of the level of skill achieved and still needed: the scene and is story action setting a goal. Also, the training skills don't foreshadow a skill needed later in the film: something that Rey learned in training that is key to defeating an opponent. The establishment of the droid is also problematic. The droid appears in later scenes, but has not essential part of the plot. Having the droid is just a link to previous films.
One of the Star Wars films did focus on the training of Luke Skywalker and this developed through a number scenes, so was central to the plot. In the Western gunfighter film Magnificent Seven (1960) each of the seven is established showing their particular skill, with a gun, with a knife, with one being barely competent. Then in the main story these specific skills are used, and they effect the main story directly, and how the characters die. So the showing of the skills is part of the main plot, unlike Rey being showing training in Star Wars.
Rey has a motivation to protect the Resistance, but this is presented as understood, through another character as spoken exposition, rather than being dramatically established in story. Rey simply goes to the Resistance when called to help. This loyalty should be presented as a central character motivation, but it is moved through with little attention: Rey might be established saving the resistance members who are returning, fleeing with the secret message which forms a major element of the plot, and in doing this Rey needs to make a choice between obtaining the message or saving her comrades: this would put Rey within the main story plot from the start and establish Rey as working as a member of the resistance. As it stands the plotting of the film returns with Rey to the Resistance base several times, but this is primarily for information, exposition: very little happens/changes at the base. So, Rey's action on behalf of the Resistance is present but not made central and crucial. Others carry the vital first message, others also search for the location of the Sith/First Order/Last Order, who are the enemy of the Resistance.
Rey's main conflict/drive is established in the second half of the training scene, in a conversation with Kylo Ren, but the conflict this sets up seems somewhat untenable. Ben Solo/Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) wants Rey to join him in ruling the galaxy: as it is their destiny. This is clearly stated in the film, but the reason for it is not clear. This plot might be thought of as a Shakespearean era story device: the desire to rule, to be king and have a queen is what Kylo Ren wants. However, the reason for this is not shown in the film.
Kylo as a character in the film is established, first shown, as being ruthless in battle, but this action is not connected to Rey. Kylo is shown to want to resist the Sith leader Palpatine, but this is stated in a dialogue, like a stage play: there are no story events in the film that motivate this. Rey's and Kylo Ren's relationship is actually dependent on previous films and is not clearly established in the narrative of The Rise of Skywalker, so undermining both Kylo's and Rey's motivation in the film. Additionally, Rey is never really tempted to join Kylo, so there's no internal conflict for Rey and Kylo appears at different times just repeating the same aim, that they rule together, but this plot aim is not developed in the story and creates no changes in Rey: the plot line is concluded at the end, after two hours of stasis, but little happens in between in terms of plot.
There are two visually impressive encounters between Kylo Ren and Rey, one a fight in the desert, and the other on a destroyed Death Star in a sea storm, but they result in no change to the original story situation: these meetings should make a difference in character development and relationships, but they do not. They are visually impressive scenes, but as story action they make little difference to the initial situation.
Both Rey and Kylo needed to be better established in The Rise of Skywalker and for this to develop as the story progresses. The reason for the Rey/Kylo Ren's character dynamic is not coherent in the film, but has been put in place as the story line is a continuation from the previous film: The Last Jedi.
The plot option of battling Kylo against Ren to make a more active story in The Rise of Skywalker is a tenable option, but Kylo would need to do damage to others and to Rey in his aim to control her, but the aim of the story is to have Kylo redeem himself so Kylo cannot do irredeemably evil things. Here, there is a problem with moral dualism. The form of the action movie is to keep a clear division between hero and villain, heroic and evil action, but this is confused in Kylo Ren's character. He's shown killing, wanting to rule, to be a villain, but this is not meant to condemn him and there is meant to be sympathy for the character due to their losing their true nature and goodness: this confuses the moral dualism of this kind of story. An evil character might have doubts, but a complete character reversal would need to be shown in main story action to be convincing: Kylo's resistance to doing harm is based on the fact that he does not actively support the arch-villain's Palpatine's plan. In response to this challenge to their authority Palaptine just waits, so Rey's resistence to the Sith Lord is effectively an inactive the story. The result is that Kylo does as he wants, her pursues Rey, and then he faces a fight at the end: the Kylo, Palpatine relationship is a static situation. They are in conflict but this has little part in the main action of the story, which us a treasure hunt for a Sith Wayfinder.
If Rey, Kylo and Palpatine are meant be the main antagonists and protagonists in the story far too much plot and story action is given to Finn and Poe: they retrieve the message that prompts the main action of the story and they act to find where the Sith base/planet is hidden as much as Rey. If the film is meant to be en ensemble then Finn and Poe needed to be established with strong personal goals. Poe is a pilot in the resistance, but this commitment is taken as given and not established or shown in the film. Similarly, Finn is not established. He is an escapee from the Sith/Empire/First order and this is referenced in a conversation in The Rise of Skywalker at a later point in the film, but if it was central to the character then it needed to be established at the start. As always it is a previous film that has put in place story elements and these are not well established in the current film. The main action is given to Finn and Poe in the plot to find a Sith Wayfinder as much as it is given to Rey, and Kylo and Palpatine, are figures on peripherally in this story line.
Poe and Finn are given a presence in the film as main characters, but the are poorly established and have limited character arcs as if they are secondary characters: they are not given key motivations in their establishing scenes and they act almost impersonally, like dutiful foot soldiers as obedient member of the Resistance: what make Poe support the Resistance, his internal lift, is not articulated in the film and Finn's support for the Resistance is discussed towards the end of the film with a minor character. The audience for the film needed character motivations at the start of story, to give the characters interiority and so that the audience could support them as the story develops. This is not done.
A lot of the action in the film involves the group who are hunting for the Sith Wayfinder which comprises: Poe, Finn, Rey, Chewbacca, and C3PO. In this plot line there is danger from a creature, a problem with a droid, a capture and a rescue of one of the group, and Poe meeting a former romantic interest. None of this directly involves the antagonists Palpatine and Rey, and none of this changes the group or the characters in the group: it would be possible to write the story with just Rey undertaking the treasure hunt or just Finn and Poe undertaking the treasure hunt: the group is gathered in the story, but the need for these characters to be together is not based on well plotted motivations: they are gathered because this is how the initial Star Wars film is plotted. A group is gathered to save Princess Leia. In the first film Luke Skywalker leads and gathers, so there is a central character and a meaningful group is formed: their motivations are clear. This is not the case in The Rise of Skywalker.
Overall, as an opinion on the film, the plotting fails to establish characters with internal motivations that the supports a developing character arc for the central figures. The main story line does not put the protagonists and antagonists in direct conflict, and the characters who are secondary to the main conflict, Poe, Finn, Chewbacca and C3PO, occupy central positions in the story, while the main characters are in stasis, a conflict is set up but the plot does not develop, complicate and change this.
Its recognized that with franchise films, which develop through sequels that plot will need to be obedient to continuation: having returning characters, using familiar story tropes, story settings, particular scenes set ups, and this in itself prevents characters from developing, new characters from being brought to the fore and for the story line developing successfully from this limitation. The biggest issue with the franchise film is that its becomes about itself: the discussion and reception of Stars Wars, like this article is about the film as a narrative text, while what Star Wars reflects as a social allegory as a depiction of characters in relation to the real world is entirely missing. The story is effectively good characters who face and defeat an evil. The heroes are democratic, supportive and caring, while the villains are fascistic slave owners. This has a real world context, but this is not what is discussed in relation to the film. Franchise films loose social relevance and as can be seen from the reviews and comments become vehicles for fan culture, rather than story.
Copyright: Eugene Doyen 2019