When we talk about alternate versions of movies it usually centers on how things could have begun or ended differently. There's the different endings of Blade Runner, and it happened when we heard about the alternate opening of The Force Awakens back when J.J. Abrams apparently wanted to open on Luke's severed hand floating through space. (Hell, even Rian Johnson had an alternate opening for The Last Jedi.) And now, this talk is central to the discussion about The Rise of Skywalker.
In the past few weeks rumors have circulated that there were alternate openings or bizzaro endings. The thing is, if anyone thinks a different beginning or ending could have "fixed" everything wrong with The Rise of Skywalker, they're missing the larger view of the Force — the giant, muddled middle of this movie is why it's such problematic and divisive film. Spoilers ahead.
According to Lucasfilm Story Group member Pablo Hidalgo, he pitched an alternate ending where Ben Solo survived and ended up on the planet Ahch-To. If you believe stuntman Juan Bautista, who was inside of one of the Knights of Ren costumes, there was also some kind of alternate ending where Rey didn't come back to life. All of this is noise. None of it matters. If you want to believe any of this stuff would have "fixed" or changed The Rise of Skywalker that we got, that's fine. But, if you actually look at the bulk of the movie's runtime, the problem is a very, very muddled second act in which a whole lot of nothing happens.
If we consider everything up until Rey thinks she kills Chewbacca to be the first third of the movie, then you can quickly see why everything that happens after that is a complete shitshow. Let's take a look at the three acts of The Rise of Skywalker, boiled down to their most simple elements.
Palpatine is back! Sith Wayfinders are the key to finding him! Rey and the gang have to go to Burning Man Planet to locate a clue, that will lead them to another clue. Rey can heal sandworms, Poe has a secret, Finn has a secret, and C-3P0 learns a secret that can only be deciphered by some illegal programming. After stealing a ship and losing the Falcon, Rey shoots lightning out of her hands and thinks she's killed Chewbacca. Our heroes head-off to Crime Planet, to hire someone to deprogram C-3PO and get him to reveal what's written on the nifty dagger they stole.
Um. Okay. So, Poe used to be a smuggler and he has an old girlfriend (?) named Zorri Bliss and she gives him a special medallion, but also leads them to Babu Frik (who is apparently hilarious according to Twitter) and Babu reboots C-3PO to make him translate the Sith writing on the dagger. Chewbacca is not dead, so we have to rescue him at some point, oh, and by the way, remember, we lost the Falcon, too, so we better figure out how to get that back. Where's Lando? Nevermind, we left him on Burning Man Planet. I wonder if he'll be back? Anyway, there's no time to worry about that, because now, Finn, Rey and Poe have to get Chewie, get the Falcon back, then go to the Endor system, to a planet that IS NOT the Forest Moon of Endor, but instead is Water Endor.
The Death Star we saw esplode in Return of the Jedi, apparently had a really big chunk that just daintily fell on Water Endor, which is handy, because the Dagger (which we can now read because of C-3PO's memory wipe) tells everyone they have to go there.
We meet some Ex-Stormtroopers who have space horses, and also cool water skimmers. They tell everyone to chill out. Rey can't chill out, takes a water skimmer, goes to the broken Death Star, meets Nightmare Dark Rey for like three seconds – a hallucination so specific it includes a totally detailed evil double-bladed lightsaber — and then, she also meets Kylo Ren who is there. Oh, I almost forgot — An important detail, right before we got to Water Endor, Kylo Ren and Rey had a mind-fight, and Kylo revealed that Rey is Palpatine's granddaughter. This is why she can shoot lightning. Anyway, Kylo is on Water Endor and that's a big deal.
Oh did we mention that General Hux is good? Yeah, that doesn't matter, but it does take up several minutes of the movie. Anyway.
Leia talks to Ben/Kylo through the Force, and then Rey stabs him. She then feels bad about this and uses her healing powers to bring him back. (Okay?) Then she leaves in a huff and steals his TIE Fighter (which we'll see that she wrecks in a few minutes.) Meanwhile, Ben has a dream-chat with dead Han Solo and he decides to become good.
Leia dies. Rey goes to Porg Land, talks to ghost Luke who tells her he knew she was a Palpatine the whole time, and then grabs his old X-Wing out of the swamp, tosses her the keys, and says, yeah, you're good to drive this thing, go kill the Emperor, your grandfather.
Meanwhile, the Resistance tries to get their act together and Lando shows up.
Everybody goes to the Emperor's Gross Planet. A billion spaceships show up because Zorri Bliss told them too. Rey fights Palpatine. Space horses ride on top of a Star Destroyer. Ben and Rey act extra cool (but not as cool as they were in The Last Jedi) the Emperor tries to suck their life force out, shoots lighting, and is all-around way more powerful than he's ever been.
Eventually, with Ben's help, and the help of every Jedi ghost ever, Rey defeats the Dark Side. Then she goes to live on Tatooine and says her name is Rey Skywalker. The End!
Okay. So, clearly there's way too much stuff that happens in the second act of this movie. And, the worst part about it, is that literally all of it is table-setting for the final act. In some senses, you could argue that the entire movie is just set-up for the climax where everyone ends up on or in orbit of Exegol. Is it anyone's fault in specific that the middle of this movie has so much stuff in it? Well, one could argue that yes, this is specifically the fault of J.J. Abrams and Chris Terrio, the screenwriters of the film, but it's also possible that there are literally just too many characters in this film to manage reasonably.
For example, let's just imagine a version of this movie without General Hux or Allegiant General Pryde. Right there, you cut out a ton of dialogue and water-treading that does absolutely nothing to forward the plot. Will fans be wondering where General Hux went? Seriously, who cares? Where was bushy-bearded General Dodonna from A New Hope in The Empire Strikes Back? Didn't he come with the Rebels to Hoth? Seriously, it doesn't matter. Why wasn't Snap Wexley in The Last Jedi? Guess, what we didn't ask! The Rise of Skywalker is so focused on making sure we understand where every single person is at all times, that the middle of the movie is an exercise in splitting space hairs. Why did Chewbacca need to get kidnapped? Clearly, the answer is so everyone could rescue him and that could remind us of Leia getting rescued in A New Hope. J.J. Abrams got away with this kind of homaging in The Force Awakens, mostly because there were fewer characters, and despite it being silly, the "map to Luke Skywalker" plot device was a little bit more elegant than the complicated treasure quest.
Anyway, the point is, that eliminating things like Chewbacca's capture or the emphasis placed on the shifting leadership inside of the First Order is a game you could play all day long. And that's because the real issue if The Rise of SKywalker that its plot is at war with its story.
The plot of The Rise of Skywalker versus the story of The Rise of Skywalker
What's the story of Episode IX? Well, by my estimation it's mostly about the redemption and rebirth of the Skywalker name and legacy. It's also about the final defeat of the Emperor, and it's a meditation on what future generations do and don't owe the generations that came before. It's about being more than what you were born to and making choices that honor what you believe in.
What's the plot of Episode IX? That's easy: Treasure hunt! Spaceship swapping! Nostalgia-fest! Call-outs to every single Star Wars movie! Erasing character's memories, then giving them the memories back! Character deaths that are retconned with little (or zero) explanation! Character secrets teased in dialogue but never explained, and of course, space horses.
The flaw of The Rise of Skywalker has almost nothing to do with its ending. Rey summoning all the Jedi to help her and Ben becoming briefly a good boy to assist actually is fine. And, in any version of the movie — even one in which Rey and Ben are fighting someone who isn't Palpatine — all of that stuff works.
Rey going to live on Tatooine is a little dopey and silly, but in terms of honoring the story, it's not the worst. If you swapped out Ben Solo and had Rey live somewhere else, it would be fine. However, neither of those things would save the movie, and that's because the middle of the film is just to damn busy to let the story actually matter.
The barrier of entry in the film is the fact that nobody knows how to get to Exegol without the complicated plot allowing them to find it. This is the same barrier of entry for the audience. We are never convinced that Exegol is hard to find, and not just because Kylo Ren finds it in the first act. The reason we are never convinced that it's hard to find is that:
- A: This has never been a thing that has happened in a Star Wars movie before
- B: It simply doesn't work dramatically.
The plots of most Star Wars movies — even ones that rely on a mystery-structure like Attack of the Clones or Rogue One — have never been about entire planets being hidden. Generally speaking, when someone wants to go somewhere, they go there. Whether they use the Force or the nav computer to calculate the jumps in hyperspace is their call. The point is, knowing where you were going, has literally never been a problem in Star Wars before.
That is, until The Force Awakens. When Abrams created "the map to Luke Skywalker," he broke the rules of how we thought about navigating the Star Wars galaxy. But we mostly forgave him because it was a cool way to keep the plot of that film moving without hurting the story. You also might say that a "map to Luke SKywalker" was the thematic point of the movie, too.
Either way, having a hidden destination in The Force Awakens didn't prevent the audience from understanding what was going on. But in The Rise of Skywalker, everything rests on our belief that the plot — the idea that this hidden planet can only be found a specific way — somehow reflects the larger themes of the story. It doesn't.
If you only watch the first 15 minutes or the last 15 minutes of the movie, none of this a problem. But, if you dip into the middle, it's suggested that the rest of the movie can't happen unless these events unfold exactly as they do. The trouble is, anyone can tell that this is a lie. The plot happening in the middle of The Rise of Skywalker is perfunctory and could easily have been jumbled around in a different way. Once you notice this, you'll see through the lies of the Jedi, and the Sith.
A different ending wouldn't have changed any of this. The problems with Episode IX are right at the center. Sadly, even using the Force can't bullseye this womp rat. It's there forever because, unlike an alternate ending, the middle is most of this film.
The Rise of Skywalker is still in theaters.