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Getting a ‘Rise’ out of ‘Star Wars’

Daisy Ridley, as Rey, returns in "Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker."
Daisy Ridley, as Rey, returns in "Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker."Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures/Lucasfilm Limited

You can imagine what the makers of “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” were up against with their ninth-episode extravaganza, coming to a galaxy near you, opening on Dec. 20, with screenings on Dec. 19. It can’t be easy bringing down the curtain on one of the most beloved, revered, and influential series in movie history.

The stakes were considerable, affirms writer Chris Terrio, an Oscar winner for “Argo” who teamed on the “Skywalker” script with director J.J. Abrams. “We’ll never do another project that feels as big and as exposed and that means so much to so many people,” says Terrio, speaking by telephone from a Los Angeles publicity event.

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“But this story does have an end,” vows cast mainstay Anthony Daniels, who has appeared as C-3PO in each of the films — a 42-year run all told. “And it’s a good end, one that respects George [Lucas]’s original idea.”

Still, would anyone have guessed that wrapping the iconic sci-fi saga would involve quite so much re-strategizing? Figuring out how to blow up the Death Star may have been less complicated.

When Disney got into the “Star Wars” business, with its $4 billion acquisition of Lucasfilm seven years ago, the entertainment giant clearly did so with some aggressive, intricately detailed plans for the venerable franchise. Witness the swift rollout not only of a new, expeditiously scheduled “Star Wars” trilogy, but for the first time ever spinoff films to alternate with the release of the core features.

One-off “Star Tours” rides at Disney’s theme parks gave way to whole sections of each resort being devoted to splashy new “Star Wars” attractions. And when the company escalated TV’s streaming wars by launching Disney+ to compete with Netflix, Amazon, and others, it trumpeted the Western-styled “Star Wars” series “The Mandalorian” as its platform’s flagship.

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Werner Herzog, in "The Mandalorian."
Werner Herzog, in "The Mandalorian."Lucasfilm Ltd.

Go figure, then, that the creative arc that would carry “Star Wars” fans through the concluding trilogy wasn’t something mapped out in its entirety from the time that “The Force Awakens” arrived in 2015. After delivering that installment, new franchise steward Abrams handed off the writing and directing duties to Rian Johnson for the 2017 follow-up, “The Last Jedi.” But while some expected Johnson back for an immediate encore — and talk continues that he’ll again be involved with a “Star Wars” vehicle at some point — he ultimately moved on to make the recently released whodunit “Knives Out.” Instead, the finale assignment went to another rising director, Colin Trevorrow (“Jurassic World”).

Cue “The Imperial March,” however — or maybe a ditty about creative differences — as Trevorrow couldn’t agree with Disney brass on the story, and exited the project before production started. (It’s becoming a trend: Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, the duo behind “The Lego Movie,” were replaced by Ron Howard late in production on “Solo,” while “Fantastic Four” director Josh Trank saw another “Star Wars” spinoff unravel.) Re-enter producer Abrams in an unexpected return to the director’s chair, and a change in the film’s release date from May 2019 to this month.

So what, exactly, was the problem in pointing out the finish line to Force phenom Rey, Vader-worshipping Kylo Ren, and all the other next-generation and old-school “Star Wars” characters? Untangling the narrative knots was a family matter of sorts, according to Terrio: “What really anchored the movie for us was looking at this as the human and emotional story of a family, and how the galactic tides of history are bearing them along.”

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Director J.J. Abrams (left) and screenwriter Chris Terrio at "Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker" press event earlier this month.
Director J.J. Abrams (left) and screenwriter Chris Terrio at "Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker" press event earlier this month. Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Disney

Indeed, recent coverage of the film’s release has pointedly referred to this as being the last chapter in “the Skywalker Saga,” a label that’s been around for years, but not really as a franchise default. (The tag is bolstered, we’ll assume, by the return of Ian McDiarmid’s Emperor Palpatine for one more go-round. Billy Dee Williams is also back, as Lando Calrissian.)

While cast and crew have toed the studio line, speaking about “Rise of Skywalker” mostly in spoiler-proof generalities, you wonder if there’s something to be taken from the way that Terrio references the movie’s yin-and-yang Force prodigies. “Rey and Ren are adversaries who are each other’s intimates,” he says, breaking from coverage that alternatively name-checks the characters as Rey and Kylo — and setting off alliterative bells that maybe there’s a Luke-and-Leia twist coming. Should fans blindly trust the villain’s “Last Jedi” reveal that Rey’s mysterious parents were “filthy junk traders [who] sold you off for drinking money”?

All will soon be made clear, of course — even if certain details aren’t what was originally envisioned by the filmmakers, let alone audiences. “It’s like a stream where the water flows around a rock,” Terrio finally says of unpredicted developments along the saga’s path to completion. “It ends up creating a more interesting pattern.”

Ryan huddle
photo illustration Ryan Huddle

Tom Russo can be reached at trusso2222@gmail.com.

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