The numerous controversies and overall divided reaction to the latest Star Wars trilogy have caused an overwhelming abundance of forcefully-expressed opinions, verdicts, and sentiments over the past five years.
However, one thing most people couldn't have possibly seen coming was making a high majority of the Star Wars fanbase look back fondly upon the oft-maligned prequels––and their central character––Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader, aka Hayden Christensen.
But that's exactly what they've done: the days of rabid prequel-bashing are officially over. They're history. The tables have been turned.
In the words of one Twitter user, "I don’t think I’ve ever seen Star Wars fans united in agreement over a single topic quite like the fact that Hayden Christensen has to be in Ep IX."
[NOTE: the following is rife with spoilers and numerous plot reveals, so if you haven't yet viewed "Star Wars: Episode IV: The Rise of Skywalker," I suggest you return at a later time]
Showing Us Why
It's no secret that the single, most important thing this newest sequence of films had to do was justify. Its. Existence. There had to be shown beyond a shadow of a doubt that there was a profound reason (one greater than nostalgia or money-making) to continue the story of the original, six-film saga.
2015's The Force Awakens was (almost) a step in the right direction. I say "almost" because the film was absolutely steeped in nostalgia––and too often revisited plot points from A New Hope. But it did do a solid job of laying the groundwork for the next two sequels. And with its successful release and subsequent reception, anticipations and expectations were running high.
Then we got The Last Jedi.
So many varied and heated opinions have already been voiced on this issue, I won't go into any great detail concerning the film. However, it should be noted that, though not nearly being as bad as some have made it out to be, Jedi didn't do the final installment any favors with its almost flagrant disregard for classic Star Wars tradition.
Don't get me wrong: The Last Jedi got a lot of things right. But, truth be told, I felt the narrative as a whole didn't cover enough ground to give the sequel adequate breathing room with which to complete the saga on a satisfying note.
But even with those misgivings, I decided to reserve judgment until I had seen the last film, always assuming that the powers-that-be had a definitive outline they were sticking to.
However, after watching Rise of Skywalker and reading the many various commentaries about all that went on during the film's production, it seems as though that assumption was wrong.
And after 287 minutes of screentime (the sum-total of Force & Jedi), it still had to be proven why we needed a new trilogy in the first place.
Interestingly, though, Lucas himself had a definitive plan and vision for the final three episodes and––despite sounding somewhat crazy, it looks as though they might have been able to address and solve that aforementioned dilemma.
He recently revealed his plans for the trilogy just last year. Make of them what you will: “[The next three Star Wars films] were going to get into a microbiotic 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 the 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.”
“Back in the day, I used to say ultimately what this means is we were just cars, vehicles for the Whills to travel around in...We’re vessels for them. And the conduit is the midichlorians. The midichlorians are the ones that communicate with the Whills. The Whills, in a general sense, they are the Force… All the way back to—with the Force and the Jedi and everything—the whole concept of how things happen was laid out completely from [the beginning] to the end. But I never got to finish. I never got to tell people about it.”
Further details that have since been reported are as follows: 1) instead of being around the same age as Luke, Leia, and Han, the main characters would have been teenagers, 2) instead of being an old recluse, Luke would have been in his 30's and 40's and would have a love interest, 3) emphasis would've been placed on Leia's force sensitivity (Rian Johnson attempted to pull this off in The Last Jedi, but as Ben Sherlock of screenrant.com put it, "However, it’s unknown if his version of events had Leia flying around the deep emptiness of space like she’d suddenly become Mary Poppins. The problem with that scene was that it made the established mythology of the Force immediately inconsistent."), and 4) Luke would have died in the final movie, not in Episode VIII.
While much of the Star Wars fandom criticized Luke's exile and subsequent actions as uncharacteristic, those were actually in Lucas's original treatments. Again, Sherlock reports that "The difference is that instead of waiting until the very end of Episode VII to reveal him, Lucas would’ve brought in Luke much earlier. A young stalwart named Kira (who was later renamed Rey) would find him and become the beacon of hope that keeps him going as he trained her in the ways of the Force. It was in the portrayal of this crucial character development that The Last Jedi stumbled."
Lucas has also openly criticized Disney’s decision to go "retro" with The Force Awakens: “They wanted to do a retro movie. I don’t like that. Every movie, I work very hard to make them completely different, with different planets, with different spaceships, make it new.”
As we all know, Lucas turned over his story treatments for all three episodes after the acquisition of Lucasfilm by Disney, but they reportedly "discarded" his story ideas. Personally, I would've liked to see Lucas's vision carried out, but in the end, that is no longer of any consequence, save for us to ruminate on what could've been.
By the time The Rise of Skywalker rolled around, Disney found itself in the predicament of having to resolve three trilogies and multiple plot threads in one movie. As I stated earlier, The Last Jedi didn't help on that count: instead of helping resolve a few of Abrams' mystery boxes, Jedi either shoved them aside by saying they weren't important or created completely new questions that needed to be addressed (such as: if Rey is truly a nobody and can yet harness such remarkable power, what are the implications for Anakin Skywalker, the "Chosen One" and purportedly the most powerful Jedi who ever lived?)
This is very much a stern reminder that only goes to show how essential it is to plan out your story beats before executing them (especially in a series of interlinked & contiguous films: one can get away with a lot more, and has much more room to operate in books than onscreen).
Besides, Star Wars films are interlocked into a series of trilogies––and thus (as was later lamented by screenwriter Chris Terrio), it was not possible to split Rise of Skywalker into two parts, which might have resulted in a much different critical reception.
Palpatine's Return has Significant Implications
With so many things at stake, J.J. Abrams was chosen to replace the previously-announced director, Colin Trevorrow, and with the help of Chris Terrio, wrote a completely new script. It has since been revealed that his main contribution and "answer" to the film's many obstacles was the suggestion to bring back Ian McDiarmid's Emperor Palpatine (also known as Darth Sidious), with the hope that his inclusion would win over those who weren't yet convinced the new films were justifiable. Because, make no mistake: if Palpatine is involved, things "matter"––hence the reason why tickets are still selling by the bucketload.
This decision, which had the potential to either be really good or really not good makes perfect sense (seeing as it was now likely too late to breathe life into Lucas's story ideas). In the words of Abrams himself: “Well, when you look at this as nine chapters of a story, perhaps the weirder thing would be if Palpatine didn’t return. You just look at what he talks about, who he is, how important he is, what the story is—strangely, his absence entirely from the third trilogy would be conspicuous. It would be very weird.”
If you don't remember, in Episode 6, Anakin/Vader, in a moment of tortured indecision, sacrifices himself to save his son, Luke, by hurling Palpatine into an endless shaft. His surviving organs are fried to a crisp by the Emperor's lightning, and his sacrifice and death bring a (one would think) definitive end to the Story of Skywalker.
As Hannah Collins of CBR.com asserts, "In his dying moments, Luke removes Vader's mask so that he can see his son "with [his] own eyes," allowing him to die a heroes' death as Anakin Skywalker, the man who sacrificed himself to end his master's reign of terror on the galaxy. It's one of the most iconic heel-turn moments of redemption in cinema history. Except that, as of The Rise of Skywalker, this is no longer true. We now know that, much like Darth Maul, the Emperor's first apprentice, Palpatine wasn't stopped for good, even after tumbling to what should have been inescapable doom. Even the promise of his return irreparably damages Vader's legacy. At best, Vader simply stalled Palpatine for a couple of decades, which doesn't have the same noble ring to it."
One must think the producers and screenwriters at least considered the fact that such a move could seriously undermine the story of the original six films. Therefore, it would need to be executed with care; and it would need to be proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that such a return was both necessary and conceivable.
Now, on to the film itself!