(In my opinion.)
(Not including “Give it a better title”.)
Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker is an okay film. It’s far from the best Star Wars movie, but it’s also a big step above the prequels. It just seems like a series of weird decisions were made, resulting in a badly paced and unsatisfying film. I’ve had these ideas rattling around my head since I saw the film, so I’m going to put them down here: 5 small changes (which are not all the same degree of “small” but generally leave the overall film unchanged), then 2 bigger ones (one that dramatically alters the plot, and the other which changes the ending), all of which I think would be an improvement in some way on what we got.
5 Small Changes That Would Make the Movie Better
1. Set up the opening crawl in The Last Jedi
The Rise of Skywalker begins with the baffling out-of-nowhere reveal that Emperor Sheev Palpatine is alive, that he has broadcast a message to the entire galaxy, and that all the characters in the film are now searching for him. It’s a jarring moment that sets up how poorly paced and ill-conceived a lot of the story in the first half of the film will be.
One simple solution would have been to set it up at the end of the previous film. Toward the end of The Last Jedi, the surviving Resistance members are trapped in an old mining base under siege from the First Order, and sending out messages to the galaxy asking for someone – anyone – to help. They receive no replies, and it seems like all hope is lost. What if, in that moment where they’re at their lowest, that was when the Emperor chose to broadcast his message? They could double down on the hopelessness of the moment – right before Luke shows up to restore some of that hope – set up a mystery for The Rise of Skywalker, and even give us a little bit of Kylo Ren reacting to the message to set up his obsession with finding Palpatine in the beginning of the third film.
When the audience already knows that Palpatine is alive – and has heard the message that is referenced in the opening crawl – it goes from baffling nonsense to a reminder of where things stand.
2. Remove Kylo Ren from Pasaana, or, make the Knights of Ren less pointless
The first 15 minutes of the film are a mess. The reveal of Palpatine in the opening text is immediately followed by a rushed sequence of Kylo Ren finding a Sith wayfinder, flying to Exegol, meeting Palpatine, and setting off with the Knights of Ren to find Rey. This is followed by the utter wasting of the Knights of Ren, who appear for a few seconds at a time only to stand around in dramatic poses doing nothing – an unintentionally funny choice that completely undercuts any sense of threat they’re meant to pose to the main characters. If we’re meant to take them seriously as a threat, they need to do something more than take Chewbacca prisoner off-screen.
So the Knights of Ren should be the final confrontation for Rey on Pasaana. Kylo Ren should stay away, rather than showing up for that odd tug-of-war scene and the transparently manipulative Chewbacca death fake-out. The way to do this is by drawing out the scenes that lead to Kylo meeting Palpatine – spread them across the first part of the film, have him make his way to Exegol while Rey and the others are on Pasaana, and return after Kijimi. Instead of Kylo confronting Rey in the desert, have Rey fight the Knights of Ren – and only barely make it out alive. If you’re going to use the Knights, and set them up as the ultimate badasses as JJ Abrams clearly intended, you need them to actually pose a threat. Otherwise they’re pointless, and in the cut of Episode IX we got, the Knights of Ren are pointless.
3. Let Rose Tico be part of the movie
Episode IX does Kelly Marie Tran a huge disservice. It takes one of the major characters of The Last Jedi and turns her into a glorified extra, with only scant screen-time. I’ve heard the reason for this is that the writers wanted a major character to be present in the General Leia scenes – that are made up of cutting-room floor footage from The Force Awakens, limiting pretty heavily what they could do with her – but the end result comes across like JJ Abrams only wanting to play with the characters he came up with himself.
Rose didn’t need to be at the Resistance base with Leia – the same thing could be accomplished by the presence of Maz Kanata, Lando Calrissian, and perhaps most appropriately Billie Lourd’s character Lt. Connix. You could even swap Rose for Chewbacca, and have him be the major presence at Leia’s side, if it feels like there are too many characters present on Pasaana and Kijimi. However it’s done, it’s better than the way they wasted her.
Since I’ve already assumed we’re ditching the Chewbacca death fake-out, the group’s trip to the Star Destroyer over Kijimi can be reframed, with Rose and Finn arguing to the others that they should intervene in the First Order’s terrorising of the citizens of the planet – they can go up there to free the prisoners the Stormtroopers have taken, helping set up the reason why those citizens will show up to fight at the end of the movie. It would respect Rose’s character as established in the Canto Bight sequence of The Last Jedi, and Finn’s bond with her developed from those same scenes, to have them be the ones that argue in favour of helping the common people rather than throwing aside everything to follow the main quest.
(And hey, we’re also ditching the scene where a Final Order Star Destroyer blows up Kijimi. It’s complete nonsense, both for being the second fake-out death in the film (Zorii Bliss and Babu Frik show up again at the end despite having no way off planet) and for having one Final Order ship be out there doing this when the entire ending is about preventing the ships from launching from Exegol.)
4. Let Rey be a nobody
Rey begins this trilogy in a trap of her own making. Her parents sold her and left her behind on Jakku; she spent her entire life waiting for them to come back and get her. It takes the appearance of BB-8 and Finn to get her to leave the planet, and the intervention of Maz Kanata to make her finally admit to herself that she didn’t really expect her parents to come back – that she needed to move past them and live her life. The Last Jedi sees her still caught on the idea of who her parents were and why they abandoned her – and gives us a bold answer, when Kylo Ren forces Rey to confront what she – once again – already knew: that they were nobodies. She didn’t come from anywhere special, and her parents were just flawed human beings. In the end, it was only up to Rey herself to decide who she was, and whether she should be defined by where she came from.
But nope! Never mind, she’s actually the granddaughter of the Galactic Emperor. They just couldn’t let Star Wars actually do something interesting with her character, so no – if she’s a powerful Jedi she has to be the descendant of someone else who’s strong in the Force. Nevermind the final scene of The Last Jedi, which took that message about Rey and expanded it, showing that the Force belongs to everyone through the person of the slave boy on Canto Bight. Nope – she’s just born into Force royalty.
The worst thing about this decision is that it doesn’t actually affect anything in The Rise of Skywalker. We’re meant to take it as an indication that, because she’s the grandchild of a Sith, her path leads inevitably to the Dark Side, and so this is her struggle for the film. But we already saw Luke reprimand her for being drawn toward the Dark, and we hear in this film how she’s been disturbed by Force-vision dreams of herself on the Sith throne. She doesn’t need to be a Palpatine to struggle with the temptation of the Dark. You could entirely cut the revelation of her heritage from this film and it would change nothing.
Why was Palpatine hunting for her as a child, and why does he want her brought to Exegol? Because he had a Force vision that this child, born strong in the Force, would be the one to kill him. Simple, done. The film still works with no other changes needed.
5. Finn was a Stormtrooper – let that matter
Finn’s story across this trilogy is a bit of a mess. He defects from the Stormtroopers because he can’t stand to see his fellow soldiers killed and doesn’t want to kill civilians; he immediately turns around and starts killing his former comrades. But he still has a character arc; in The Force Awakens he has to confront his instinct to run as far away as he can get and instead face his fear to fight for his friend, Rey. In The Last Jedi he learns that there’s more to fight for than just keeping himself and his friends safe, and that it’s better to fight to protect something than to fight to destroy the thing he hates (i.e., the First Order who kidnapped and brainwashed him, along with all his fellow Stormtroopers). In The Rise of Skywalker, he follows Rey around, figures out he’s Force-sensitive, and blows up a Final Order ship – he doesn’t really have an arc, and his connection with more soldiers who defected from the First Order doesn’t amount to anything.
It really feels like the problem is in the final act of the film. Finn and ex-Stormtrooper Jannah lead the assault on the Final Order command ship to destroy the tower which will allow the rest of the fleet to navigate out of Exegol’s atmosphere. Then, having accomplished this, they decide to stay on the ship for one more thing – which turns out to be hotwiring a cannon on the Star Destroyer’s hull in order to fire it at the command deck. When you think about it this is a pretty small thing to put their lives on, in the context of a fleet of so many of these identical ships; yes, they kill the commander of the fleet, but it’s just one ship.
But what if instead of commandeering a cannon, they’d hijacked the communications system? What if Finn and Jannah had hacked into the fleet’s comms and broadcast a message to all of the Stormtroopers, all the kidnapped children forced to fight this war, to tell them it was possible to rebel? What if the entire origin of this character, and his meeting someone just like him who had also defected, had actually meant something to the story and helped achieve the victory they were hoping for? You can still give the audience the pleasure of seeing Allegiant General Pryde blown up on his command deck, just have it happen when one of his own ships fires on him, as the whole fleet tears itself apart around him.
2 Bigger Changes That I’m Less Sure About But Like the Idea Of
1. Ditch the Knights of Ren and bring back Phasma
(This is where I pretty much veer off into fanfic.)
Let’s face it, the Knights of Ren are dumb and useless in this film. Yeah, we could make them work better by giving them a decent fight scene with Rey in the early parts of the film, but why bother? They only exist because of a throwaway line in The Force Awakens, and Abrams doesn’t seem to have known what to do with them. So just get rid of them.
Instead, when the main group arrives on Pasaada, someone unexpected shows up: Captain Phasma. She survived the destruction of the Super Star Destroyer in The Last Jedi – though didn’t get out of it unharmed – and is no longer working directly for the First Order: she just wants Finn dead. The Knights of Ren were a bunch of randos we’d never seen before, but for Phasma this is personal.
Our heroes barely make it out of Pasaana and head on to Kijimi. Since they’re in the area and also hunting Rey, Phasma tips off the First Order about where they’re heading and they follow; this leads to another confrontation on Kylo Ren’s Star Destroyer, where Finn, Poe, and Rose are captured by Phasma but rescued by General Hux. We get another “we think she’s dead” bit here, but we’ve already by this point established that she’s going to keep coming back, and these kind of fake-outs are more fun and less manipulative with a recurring villain, so she returns and she’s the one to kill the traitor Hux (note: Phasma has history with Hux and was recruited to the First Order by Hux’s dad, so there are extra levels here for people who’ve read her novel).
From there, Phasma travels to Exegol with Allegiant General Pryde. When Finn and the other defectors make their assault on the Star Destroyer, she of course goes out to face them. However that final confrontation plays out, she most likely ends up killed by her own Stormtroopers after Finn and Jannah successfully broadcast their message. For bonus points, you absolutely must go back and restore this deleted scene from The Last Jedi, which is huge for establishing Phasma’s character and should never have been cut in the first place.
2. Kill Rey, save Ben
I’m conflicted about this one. There are good arguments for each of these characters surviving, or even for both of them. This is probably the least solid suggestion I’m making.
In this film, Kylo Ren gets a presto change-o deathbed redemption, never facing up for the horrific crimes committed both by himself and by the First Order while he was Supreme Leader. What if he was the one who lived? What if Rey had struck down Palpatine, knowing this was exactly what the Emperor wanted, and then sacrificed her life to revive Ben Solo, sidestepping the Sith legacy the Emperor wanted to place upon her. Maybe it was her destiny to kill him and take his place, and she could fulfill that destiny and then give up her life to avoid being corrupted.
Imagine Ben turning up, alive, while the Resistance members celebrate their victory. Someone calls him Kylo Ren, but he says no – his name is Ben Skywalker Solo. They don’t accept him, and he doesn’t expect them to: he’s there to stand trial for his crimes, and begin to atone.
My main reservation is that it might undermine Rey’s arc, that ending where she gets to choose her own path and identity, to do this. But it would be a fascinating turn for Star Wars, something that lived up to the promise of The Last Jedi‘s bold choices.
(Also: Let Finn and Poe kiss.)
(Seriously, John Boyega and Oscar Isaac have spent years talking about how they had such great chemistry and wish they’d gotten to play the characters explicitly as a couple. Someone give those two a big, gay movie.)