Here’s how I know The Rise of Skywalker isn’t up to snuff. Once in theatres was enough for me. I’ll still read the novelization, and will watch it again at home afterwards, but I have no desire to deal with all the crap that attends going to the movies for it.
However, I don’t want to recite a litany of the ways TROS was disappointing. Instead, I want to think through how the film could have been better, given where the story stood at the end of The Last Jedi, and where the film ended.
Let’s start with Leia. I get that they wanted her to play a key role in Kylo/Ben’s redemption, but without actually having Carrie Fisher around, Leia’s presence and death were both super flat. Instead, they could have dealt with her death in the opening crawl, and had the first shot of the film in the Alderaanian graveyard, with the remnants of the Resistance performing a service in her honor. Hell, maybe the first shot is Lando’s ship arriving.
We acknowledge the leadership vacuum in the Resistance. Some look to Poe, but he’s still wrestling with being a hotshot pilot vs. taking on a more prominent leadership role, and hasn’t fully come to grips with what he did in the run-up to the Battle of Crait. Poe is keen on General Calrissian heading things up, but that’s not really Lando’s bag. He digs the title, but doesn’t want the responsibility. Instead, he offers to help use his old contacts to beef up the Resistance. Chewbacca goes with him. Leia’s death also flips out Kylo, and Palpatine uses the opportunity to reach out to him through the Force.
Next, let’s give the Kylo Ren vs. Hux and conflict within the First Order more time to breathe. I actually think this could have been one of the primary story lines of the film. Imagine if we got to watch Resistance leadership pulling itself together at the same time as the First Order is tearing itself apart. Rather than the whole chasing this artifact and that, we could have had Kylo unbalanced by the loss of his mother, pulled towards Palpatine and chasing (with the Knights of Ren, sure) after what to Hux would appear to be phantoms. Disillusioned, he reaches out to the Resistance as part of a play to eliminate Kylo.
Let’s keep the memory wipe of C-3PO, except instead of doing it to translate Sith MapQuest, the Resistance has to do it as part of a scheme to get in contact with Hux, because he can’t get word out from the Star Destroyer he’s based on without getting busted. Think of it as the reverse of what the Rebels did to K-2SO in Rogue One. This gives us an excuse to get our heroes in trouble, put Rey in Kylo’s quarters, etc.
Now that I think about it, this could also have given us a different way to introduce Jannah. I saw a tweet recently suggesting that she could have told Finn she and others left the First Order after they heard about his actions. Imagine taking that a step further, and being able to see them do it on screen because they ran into Finn on a First Order Star Destroyer.
Okay, so at this point let’s say we have Kylo haring off to Exogol, on a promise of power, one-upping grandpappy Vader, etc. He’s dealing with a bunch of Sithy things, including ghosts of Han and Luke getting in his way. The Resistance has to make a decision. Do they go after this new threat, or take advantage of turmoil in the First Order to get a much needed win on that front? Poe wants to do the latter, but ultimately recognizes they don’t have the resources. Rey takes off for Exogol in the Falcon…let’s say with Rose, because the ship is in desperate need of repairs. Finn and Jannah tag along, on the excuse that some First Order knowledge might be useful. Really, Finn is nervous about what Rey and Rose might discuss, and Jannah is infatuated with Finn.
Rey and the gang pause before the final leg to Exogol, where they run into a substantial part of the First Order fleet. They have to fight their way through, with a slight assist from Hux, who sabotages First Order efforts to capture them. In the process, our heroes see Hux get busted, courtesy holo transmission from him. Once they finally make it to Exogol, everyone but Rey focuses on repairs so that they can maybe make it back out alive. They also contact the Resistance to let them know about the fleet and Hux’s predicament.
Poe reasons that Hux is too valuable a resource to lose, and risks going after him. He also contacts Lando, and has him send anyone who can help to a rendezvous point outside the storms near the entry point to Exogol.
So— we still get our big lightsaber fight and space battle going on simultaneously. Yay! A couple changes, though. The Rey/Kylo/Palpatine part is a much more intimate affair. No more arena of whatever the hell those things were, and no fleet of planet-killing Star Destroyers, because Oh. My. God. Just the three of them battling each other and their own demons. Palpatine does his cackling “I have foreseen this” thing. Rey has to deal with being Palpy’s grand baby. Leia speaks through Rey to Kylo, which finally breaks him. On the space battle side, we start quietly as well. Initially there are not enough Resistance ships to risk taking on the First Order fleet, and they keep their distance. The First Order similarly ignores the Resistance ships as not being a threat. However, there is a steady stream of newcomers joining the Resistance. The First Order begins to get nervous, and at some point a hot head arrives and barrels forward to attack, ignoring Poe’s calls for him to stop. This causes confusion on all sides and the battle kicks off in earnest.
On Exogol, Ben and Rey defeat Palpatine, and race to leave before everything crumbles around them. They emerge from the storms in the middle of a now-raging space battle. The storms have increased in severity, and have jacked up the Falcon’s shields, and they’re sitting ducks. Black Squadron swoops in to escort the Falcon to relative safety. We see Poe’s ship, but it’s piloted by Wedge Antilles.
See, fanboys? I can pander, too.
Whatever destroyed Exogol has spread, and the storms surrounding it increase in size and intensity. They begin to swallow up the First Order fleet, which is now trapped between the storms and the Resistance. Poe sees this and orders everyone away, while lightning leaps from one First Order ship to another in a web of destruction that ultimately claims nearly the entire fleet. The Resistance wins the day!
One last thing I would do. Throughout the new trilogy, Rey has been pining for her parents, or trying to find out where she belongs. By the end of TROS, she has been explicitly told she’s more or less heir to the Sith, while she at the same time makes a conscious choice to fight against that. In the epilogue to TROS, Rey does two things that I think are in conflict with each other. She claims the name “Rey Skywalker,” as if claiming the mantle of the light. However, she also sparks a new lightsaber that is a golden yellowish color. This is a color we have seen from Temple Guards Star Wars animated shows, but in the context of Rey’s story I think we can interpret it as Rey forging her own path. I would probably drop the whole “Rey burying lightsabers on Tatooine for Jawas to dig up later” bit, but could easily see a small exchange at the end where one of the other First Order troopers who left with Jannah asks “Rey who?” To which Rey smiles and says, “Just Rey.”
So anyway, if anyone wants to give someone at Lucasfilm my contact information, I’d be happy to talk to them. I know it’s too late for the Skywalker Saga, but maybe I can pitch in on something coming up. 🙃