Out of all the many charges leveled against the Star Wars sequel trilogy, perhaps the loudest, most persistent, and most widely accepted is the accusation that it is disjointed and incoherent. The complaint goes something like this: “There was no plan for the trilogy. Each film had different writers and directors, and they were just making it up as they went along, so the whole thing fell apart.” Even worse, it is sometimes contended that each creative collaborator actively worked at undoing what the others had done – that The Last Jedi subverted the integrity of The Force Awakens, and that The Rise of Skywalker, in turn, subverted the integrity of The Last Jedi.
Is this really true, though?
It is admittedly true that, when you set the films side by side, some of the seams show. And, by all accounts, it is true that no overarching plan was set firmly in place at any time during the making of the three films. However, I suspect that this complaint derives much of its persuasive power from an overestimation of just how rigorously George Lucas had planned out the previous two trilogies. The evidence suggests that the filmmakers behind those trilogies were also, to some extent, “making it up as they went along.” During the production of A New Hope, was Leia intended to be Luke’s sister? How much of Anakin’s motive for turning to the Dark Side was revised and rewritten during the production of Revenge of the Sith? And how much do these questions really matter? The process behind all art – especially collaborative art, and film is one of the most intensely collaborative art forms – involves a continual dialogue between the conscious design of the artist (or artists) and the organic “accidents” that spontaneously arise during the process.
If the sequel trilogy is indeed more coherent than it is typically given credit for, how is one to account for that coherence? Any account of the artists’ process would have to be speculative, but it seems to me that, after J.J. Abrams and his cowriter Lawrence Kasdan set the stage with The Force Awakens, the filmmakers behind each subsequent entry (Rian Johnson for The Last Jedi; Abrams, this time cowriting with Chris Terrio, for The Rise of Skywalker) looked carefully and thoughtfully at the themes, motifs, and structure of the preceding films in the trilogy and designed their additions to the story accordingly. In other words, even if the trilogy did not begin with a coherent overarching plan, The Last Jedi was designed to build coherently on The Force Awakens, and The Rise of Skywalker was designed to build coherently on The Last Jedi.
Here are a few of the patterned motifs that work to unify the Star Wars sequels into a cohesive trilogy…
In all three films, the heroes use some heretofore unheard-of lightspeed trick to get out of a tight spot.
- This happens twice in Episode VII. First, Han Solo uses the Millennium Falcon to leave a freighter’s hangar at lightspeed. (“Is that even possible?” / “I never ask that question until after I’ve done it.”) Later, he uses the Millennium Falcon to land on Starkiller Base at lightspeed, thus getting through its shields.
- In Episode VIII, Vice Admiral Holdo splits Snoke’s Star Destroyer by flying through it at lightspeed.
- In Episode IX, Poe uses the Millennium Falcon to make a series of rapid hyperspace jumps – a trick referred to as “lightspeed skipping.”
In all three films, the villains use some version of a Death Star weapon.
- In Episode VII, the First Order uses Starkiller Base to destroy Hosnian Prime and threaten the Resistance base on D’Qar.
- In Episode VIII, the First Order uses a laser battering ram – what Finn refers to as “miniaturized Death Star tech” – to besiege the Resistance base on Crait.
- In Episode IX, the Final Order uses planet-killing weapons mounted on Star Destroyers to destroy Kijimi and threaten the rest of the galaxy.
These sets of parallels mainly demonstrate repeated plot devices, without necessarily speaking to a greater thematic unity. However, some of the other patterns are more meaningful. Consider, for instance, that in all three films, a significant part of the action takes place at an ancient location, home to a wizened old character who tries to guide Rey onto a particular path – and in each case, Rey resists their guidance.
- In Episode VII, there is Maz Kanata’s castle – a “watering hole” that is a thousand years old. Maz’s castle seems to host a strong Force presence, but it is natural or “neutral”, not aligned with the Jedi or the Sith. Maz urges Rey to take the Skywalker saber instead of returning to Jakku; Rey refuses her advice and runs off into the forest, where she encounters Kylo Ren.
- In Episode VIII, there is the ancient Jedi Temple on Ahch-To. Luke Skywalker tells Rey that it is time for the Jedi to end; Rey refuses his advice and runs off to save Ben Solo and the Resistance. In contrast to what Luke wanted, her actions perpetuate the Jedi.
- In Episode IX, there is the ancient Sith Temple on Exegol. Emperor Palpatine urges Rey to strike him down and become a Sith; Rey refuses his advice, gives the Skywalker saber to Ben Solo, and saves the Resistance. In contrast to what Palpatine wanted, her actions end the Sith.
Other repeated motifs reveal striking progressions of theme and character over the arc of the three films. Notice the way the Skywalker saber keeps changing hands between Luke and Rey:
- At the end of Episode VII, Rey gives the lightsaber to Luke.
- At the beginning of Episode VIII, Luke throws the lightsaber away, even though Rey urges him to use it to confront Kylo Ren and the First Order. At the end of the film, Luke repents of his former despair, takes up the lightsaber, and uses it to confront Kylo Ren and the First Order.
- In Episode IX, Luke and Rey’s roles reverse: Rey gives in to despair and throws the lightsaber away, but Luke catches it and gives it back to her.
The lightsaber also marks crucial turning points in the development of the relationship between Rey and Kylo Ren.
- In Episode VII, Kylo Ren tries to take the lightsaber out of the snow with the Force, but Rey takes it instead. Kylo Ren, who has just renounced his identity as Ben Solo, is unworthy to pull the lightsaber out of the ground – but Rey is worthy. (There is an Excalibur motif here, in keeping with the Arthurian theme running through the sequel trilogy – but that is a good story for another time.)
- In Episode VIII, Rey tries to take the lightsaber from Kylo Ren with the Force, but Kylo Ren holds onto it, and they pull it in opposite directions until it splits in half.
- In Episode IX, Rey – having reunified the lightsaber – uses the Force to give it to Kylo Ren, who has been restored to his identity as Ben Solo and is now worthy to wield it.
Around the midpoint of each film, Rey descends into a metaphorical cave or underworld, where she is faced with a revelation about her parentage. Each of these turning points is also tied to her relationship with Kylo Ren.
- In Episode VII, Rey goes down underneath Maz Kanata’s castle, where she has a vision triggered by the blue Skywalker saber. (The vision includes a memory of her being left on Jakku.) Maz tells her that her parents will never come back to Jakku; Rey runs away from this truth and encounters Kylo Ren for the first time in the forest.
- In Episode VIII, Rey goes down into the watery cave on Ahch-To, where she has a vision in which her parents’ faces are dark to her. She runs to Kylo Ren for comfort; he tells her that her parents were nobodies who abandoned her on Jakku.
- In Episode IX, Rey goes down into Kylo Ren’s meditation chamber on his Star Destroyer. He tells her that her parents left her on Jakku to hide her from Palpatine, her grandfather. This revelation triggers a flashback which reveals their faces for the first time (and which once again includes the memory of her being left on Jakku). Rey reacts to this knowledge by lashing out at Kylo Ren before running away from him. There is a second descent in Episode IX; on the wrecked Death Star, Rey goes down into another hidden chamber and sees a vision of herself with a red lightsaber. She then fights Kylo Ren again before reconciling with him.
Across the sequel trilogy, Kylo Ren’s interactions with the heroes of the original trilogy form a chiastic or circular pattern:
A – Han Solo tries to reconcile with his son. Ben Solo is dead, replaced by Kylo Ren. Kylo Ren stabs his father with his lightsaber.
B – Kylo Ren senses Leia through the Force and holds himself back from an attack that would kill her.
X – Kylo Ren faces Luke on Crait. He tries to kill him with his lightsaber, but realizes he cannot. Luke fades away, as do Han’s dice, leaving Kylo Ren unsatisfied in his attempts to violently break away from the past.
B’ – Leia reaches out to Kylo Ren through the Force and holds him back from an attack that would kill Rey.
A’ – Han Solo reconciles with his son. Kylo Ren is dead, replaced by Ben Solo. Ben Solo throws away the lightsaber he stabbed his father with.
This clues us into one of the trilogy’s central unifying structural devices. In each film, one of the heroes from the original trilogy reckons with their failed relationship with Kylo Ren, and is presented with an opportunity to redeem that failure through their relationship with Rey. (Incidentally, the order in which the three characters make their exits reverses the order in which they made their entrances in A New Hope – Leia, Luke, Han vs. Han, Luke, Leia.)
- In Episode VII, Han, who failed as a father to Kylo Ren, redemptively acts as a father figure to Rey before trying to restore his paternal relationship with Kylo Ren.
- In Episode VIII, Luke, who failed as a teacher to Kylo Ren, redemptively acts as Rey’s teacher before trying to restore his mentor relationship with Kylo Ren.
- In Episode IX, Leia, who failed as a mother to Kylo Ren because she abandoned her Jedi training, redemptively trains Rey as a Jedi before restoring her maternal relationship with Kylo Ren.
I don’t think I have covered all the ways the sequel films are in dialogue with each other here, but I think these are some of the most important ones. Hopefully, they go some ways towards correcting the narrative that the films are hopelessly disunified.