The Cowardice of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

This post contains spoilers. 

Unlike many critics, I enjoyed Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. That’s not to say it’s perfect, far from it, but I think it achieved what Abrams setup in The Force Awakens; namely, a love letter to the original Star Wars trilogy. Without looking at it that way, it comes across as a horrid copycat of cliches and unoriginality. But I don’t think Abrams ever approaches these genre films with the intent of adding narrative originality. He adds his own directorial flair, a high octane, edge of your seat, thrill-ride, but that’s about it. Still, nerd gushing aside, there are lessons to be learned from its failings and flaws. One of the most glaring is its perpetual narrative cowardice.

Narrative cowardice can take many forms. Often, it’s when the writer sets up a seemingly irreversible action to create an emotional response, only later to come up with a deus ex machina or sleight of hand to reverse it. Sometimes, however, it can also be when the writer sets up an event that could radically alter the trajectory of the story, but doesn’t follow through. A great example in The Rise of Skywalker is when Rey accidentally kills Chewbacca. This scene is a gut punch; it’s heart-wrenching; it’s catastrophic. It’s also wildly perfect. Chewbacca has served his character’s purpose and Rey will need to deal with her powers that are getting out of control. As a side, it’s brave to kill off a beloved character like Chewbacca.

But, as we know, they reverse it; Chewbacca didn’t really die.

This isn’t the only time this happens in the film. Here are some of the others:

  • C-3PO’s memory is wiped only for it to return later through R2-D2.
  • Kylo Ren is almost dead but Rey heals him.
  • Rey and Ben Solo’s life force is taken from them, but they return back to life with no explanation.
  • Ben Solo falls into a pit but somehow survives.

This is a “fool me once” kind of situation, and it sucks all the emotional trust a writer earns from the audience. When you create an emotional action (i.e. killing Chewbacca) to stimulate an emotional response and create narrative weight, you usually need to follow through, otherwise the audience will emotionally retreat. Any future emotional action won’t have as great an impact and by the end, the stakes are gone, everything is white noise, and the audience has tuned out entirely.

This is what happens in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. The plethora of Star Destroyers with planet destroying capabilities and the power of Palpatine bear no weight because everyone we care about is safe and we don’t believe the writer will kill them.

As a writer, this is a valuable lesson. Good story requires change and consequence, otherwise it feels like nothing really happened, and it demands follow-through when something is set up. If they kept their end of the bargain, The Rise of Skywalker would have been a more impactful final movie with real consequences and true devastation combined with an uplifting and heartfelt victory about heroes that overcame all odds. Instead, it was a just an homage with little to lose.

So, unless you have very good reasons to do a sleight of hand, if you kill a character, follow-through and don’t back down. Have narrative courage. It’ll sting. Your audience might rebel. But, when the dust settles, your story will be stronger.