||With the dust settling on the Star Wars sequel trilogy, and television looking a far more comfortable place for the saga and its spin-offs to continue, what happened with the movies after the initial three remains a matter of heated debate. It's impossible to bring up these online, never mind real life, without an argument breaking out between those who thought their faith in the productions had been rewarded, and those who believed a great story spread across three instalments had been ravaged by creators who did not understand what they were doing, which curiously included those originals' instigator, George Lucas.
So how did they wrap them up? Was anyone satisfied? You would be surprised, as despite all the flak 2005's Revenge of the Sith and 2019's The Rise of Skywalker received from fans and casual observers alike, they do have those who appreciate them. The prequel trilogy was widely regarded as a failure, odd for a series that included the two highest grossing movies of their years, but Attack of the Clones had let the side down. It still made a huge amount of profit, but not quite as much as the studio expected, yet Sith had an ace up its sleeve: finally we would see how Anakin Skywalker was transformed into the feared uber-villain Darth Vader.
One problem with that was identified in Clones: the actor playing this role, Hayden Christensen, simply lacked the gravitas and charm to carry off the burden on his young shoulders. Not wishing to add to the pile-on that savaged his early career and left the poor chap nicknamed Mannequin Skywalker thanks to his lack of ability, but he was a severely weak link in the Star Wars chain, and in Sith his sullen attitude made it difficult to believe he could have seduced a star with some charisma like Natalie Portman, playing Padme, his beloved. Indeed, it was equally difficult to reconcile this whiny brat as Lucas bizarrely conceived him with the Vader of the classics.
Lucas' solution was to fall back on the technical side, and attempt to dazzle the audience with spectacle; back in 2005, this succeed to an extent, as Star Wars superfan Kevin Smith proclaimed it a new classic, for instance, yet looking back on it after all these years where its integration of effects and live action actors has been far surpassed, it comes across as if Lucas realised his dialogue scenes were falling like lead balloons and had resorted to distraction as a method of making up for them. There’s not one sequence where characters are speaking to one another, either small talk or imparting vital information, that sounds in any way natural or engaging.
What of the plot? The theme was deception, as Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid, almost uniquely - until the likes of Samuel L. Jackson in Captain Marvel - reprising a role as his younger self while older) pits the goodies against baddies as a dread puppet master, so much so that he was the only character who was doing anything proactive (if evil scheming is proactive). Ewan McGregor's Obi-Wan Kenobi battled uselessly, you knew who was going to die before watching if you had any experience of the sources, and rather than a note of triumph, we were leading up to a massive downer as evil wins, fair enough, so did The Empire Strikes Back, but this was no Empire.
Which brings us to the other movie in the series that revolved around Emperor Palpatine, The Rise of Skywalker, which after the previous entry The Last Jedi broke many fans' hearts was merely rubbing their nose in the ashes of their former fervour for each of them. Lucas was no longer involved, and even after the prequels he was increasingly held up as the man who understood the characters, unlike J.J. Abrams who had taken it over from him, this despite the fact Abrams had far more experience in bringing hits to the big and small screen. Sure, Lucas had Star Wars which changed everything, and Indiana Jones was his idea, but Howard the Duck and Radioland Murders?
Perhaps it was more that the millions of fans were getting old, seeing that childhood love of Star Wars sour as adulthood gave them reason to be cynical about... well, pretty much everything, it seemed, this was the world we were living in now, not a galaxy far, far away. For whatever reason, they simply refused to see any good in Skywalker and could only see the flaws, pointing to it as the lowest grossing in the sequel franchise as proof Abrams was a mere opportunist run by profit and satisfied he wasn't getting all he wanted. But this earned over a billion at the box office, unheard of for part three of a trilogy, outside of Marvel movies.
The Last Jedi actually had some fervent defenders, and they turned against Skywalker too when it was perceived that its twists were in fact dialling back various issues the fans had had with the second one. But if you make movies to satisfy those who slate your work at every turn, you're on a hiding to nothing, and it was easier to believe Abrams and company were in fact making their movie for those who did like what they created, which was the case - they liked Last Jedi, and they liked Skywalker. It was assuredly a more upbeat finale than what Lucas had concocted for Sith, despite the sequels' preoccupation with not having anyone's romantic longings be realised.
If you were the sort of filmgoer who shipped characters in every movie you saw and were frustrated over and over when the writers had other ideas, the lack of unions between, say, Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Finn (John Boyega) - or even Finn and Poe (Oscar Isaac) - would leave you near a fury of tutting, as apparently that kind of love should be left until wars are over (or after the credits roll). What was more important in conflict was friendship, as time and again the companions you have will get you through the tough years (unless they are blown up in laser cannon fire, I suppose), and this emphasis, as non-sexual as Star Wars always was, was genuinely pleasing.
Anthony Daniels' C3-PO and his robot pal R2-D2 were emblematic of that friendship, and the sweetest element was brought out in them. Yes, there were the action sequences, already containing more zip than anything in Sith, and there was the clever way they incorporated the late Carrie Fisher as General Leia, and even the way female characters like Kelly Marie Tran's Rose and Keri Russell's Zorii had much improved lots compared to Portman being the sole significant woman with any screen time in Sith, but it was the highlighting the mates you make on life's journey, some of whom stick around, others falling by the wayside.
Be that as eventful as Star Wars or not, this created the camaraderie fans should have been looking for. The idea that this was banal because the company behind it wanted to make money (quelle horreur!) or because a new generation were embracing it was nothing if enough people enjoyed it on the level intended, as entertainment for as wide an audience as possible. No, Skywalker was not as provocative or imaginative as The Last Jedi, but it wrapped up the sprawling saga as best it could, Ridley had improved over the course of three films in a manner that Christensen never managed over two, and there were appearances, doubling as endorsements, by plenty of long-standing participants. It was at least a better ending than Return of the Jedi had been for the original trilogy.