Back in 2013, when we learned J.J. Abrams would take over the Star Wars franchise, the consensus was that these sequels had to be better than the prequels. There was no way Abrams would make the same mistakes Lucas made, right?
Like the prequels, Rise of Skywalker is riddled with plotholes, retcon, and, worst of all, a sense of being made-up-on-the-fly. And it's this last flaw that seems apparent in a new Star Wars documentary.
Accompanying the digital release of The Rise of Skywalker is a two-hour documentary feature called The Skywalker Legacy. In it, one detail makes something very apparent: Like George Lucas before them, J.J. Abrams and Chris Terrio were rewriting the movie even while they were filming it.
Anyone who subscribes to the idea that Star Wars would be "better" if it were planned out in advance is wrong. And that's because Star Wars has never been planned out in advance. The history of the making of the original trilogy proves it. A seat-of-the-pants mentality is integral to making Star Wars what it is.
And yet. As fans and critics, we can speculate that there are degrees to which this process makes sense. Back in 2005, after Revenge of the Sith hit theaters, there was a somewhat infamous behind-the-scenes clip where George Lucas tells Hayden Christensen that the scene in which Anakin Skywalker turns to the Dark Side has been "rewritten."
This isn't during a table read or a rehearsal. This is on set. In costume. George Lucas was tinkering with some of the most fundamental moments in the saga very late in the production game. If you watch this old behind-the-scenes feature, you'll see at the 6:47 mark, Lucas says to Hayden, "I've spent the whole weekend rewriting the scene with Palpatine... where you turn."
Clearly, there are narrative problems with this scene in Episode III. And clearly, George Lucas rewriting the scene so late into the production process can't be discounted. Sure, sometimes last-minute changes to scripts can be amazing, but in the case of Episode III, it feels like revision and uncertainty was part of the problem with various aspects of the movie actually making emotional sense. Revenge of the Sith has a certain point-A-to-point-B quality in the storytelling. Everything that happens in the film happens because it's supposed to happen, but that doesn't mean we buy the emotional valances of the characters.
And Rise of Skywalker is exactly the same way. At numerous points in the "Skywalker Legacy" documentary, we see co-writer Chris Terrio, with his laptop in hand, clearly doing rewrites on set. You can see this at 3:49, 4:02, and most interestingly, at 10:43, while he is sitting down, with J.J. Abrams, very obviously, working on the script.
At one point, actor John Boyega playfully mocks this process, saying, "These are their creative faces. They're creatively trying to come to a decision and they make faces like this."
So, what's the big deal? Star Wars movies have changed dialogue while filming before, right? Yes! Somewhat famously, Irvin Kershner restructured the scene where Han is frozen in carbonite for The Empire Strikes Back, well past the script stage. (You can read about this in detail in the 1980 book Once Upon a Galaxy: A Journal of the Making of the Empire Strikes Back.) But, there's a big difference between a director asking for some ad-libs, and somebody completely rewriting a pivotal scene.
In other words, Han saying "I know" instead of "I love you too" is not the same as Lucas rewriting a scene in which Anakin turns to the dark side, or whatever Terrio and Abrams are doing on that laptop in this documentary.
Now, admittedly, I could be grasping at straw lightsabers. I have never made a feature film like The Rise of Skywalker. I've never written a screenplay like that. Maybe this is normal. But, I have seen a lot of documentaries about the making of genre films, and I've read dozens of books about how these films are made. And, generally speaking, you don't see the screenwriter making last-minute changes on the set, laptop in hand. Contrast this with literally all behind-the-scenes footage on Star Trek: Picard; screenwriter Michael Chabon is there on set, but he doesn't have his laptop out, frantically rewriting with a nervous look on this face. If you watch this documentary, Chris Terrio looks stressed and under-the-gun for last-minute script changes.
Which, he probably was. It's no secret that the speed at which The Rise of Skywalker was produced is unprecedented. Even Abrams resisted the idea of editing the film while still filming, and it seems like he and Terrio were also forced to do some rowdy rewrites while filming, too. This isn't to say any flaws with the film are the fault of Chris Terrio and J.J.Abrams. Just the opposite. But, from where this writer sits, watching a guy frantically rewrite things in the midst of a documentary about the making of The Rise of Skywalker is not a comforting look. They look stressed. They look tired. And they look like their writing a movie while the movie is already getting made... without them.
We already know there is much about the production (and pre-production) of Episode IX that will likely remain a mystery. From Rey sitting on the Sith Throne, to Colin Trevorrow's Duel of the Fates, to the off-the-wall rumors of the #AbramsCut, what happened behind-the-scenes on this Star Wars will perhaps, always be shrouded by the obscure side of the Force. There aren't any deleted scenes on the Blu-ray and digital release for The Rise of SKywalker, and maybe — just maybe — that's because Terrio and Abrams wrote everything they didn't want out way before they even filmed it. Either that or they were so pressed for time that even the stuff that got cut isn't quite enough to get us excited.
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is out now for digital download.