Probably the most common complaint with regards to Disney’s “Sequel Trilogy” of Star Wars films concerns the supposed lack of a central, cohesive story being told over the three films. Kathleen Kennedy apparently gave her three writers (initially JJ Abrams/Lawrence Kasdan, Rian Johnson, and Colin Trevorrow) carte blanche to do whatever they wanted with the story, and that level of freedom has been a source of great angst amongst many Star Wars fans.
In fact, it might be the most common complaint to be found on both sides of the biggest divide in the fanbase; those who think The Last Jedi was a minor masterpiece and those who would just as soon strike it from canon are often found having common ground on the idea that “the trilogy should have been planned out from the beginning.”
Is that really necessary, though?
Did this trilogy need to be mapped out ahead of time? Or, to put it another way, was the trilogy’s perceived failure ultimately attributable to the lack of a story-trajectory being set in stone back in 2014 or so?
In my opinion, no. The trilogy did not need to be mapped out in detail or even have the major themes and character arcs understood on day one. My reasoning for that belief is two-fold.
First, lots of great stories—told over multiple installments—are written on the fly.
There are varying degrees to consider here. On the one hand is a trilogy like Back to the Future, which was originally conceived as a single story and then, when the time came for a sequel, the two follow-up films were written and shot back-to-back. Nevertheless, the way the latter two films flesh out and play off of the original shows that a multi-part story can be told at least somewhat on the fly.
On the TV side of things there’s Battlestar Galactica and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, both of which featured long-developing character and plot arcs that climaxed in epic finales, neither of which were mapped out ahead of time. The former show is, admittedly, criticized for the payoff to its storylines, but there’s no denying the show’s ability to have top-notch writing without a roadmap.
Even more acclaimed is Breaking Bad, which was made with the flimsiest of ideas at the core: “Mr. Chips becomes Scarface.” Every moment, big and small, was made on the fly and even characters who ended up being critical to the show—such as Jesse—were originally expected to be killed off within the first few episodes.
And then there’s The Lord of the Rings, which was written so much on the fly that Tolkien apparently wrote until he reached a dead-end, then threw fifty or so manuscript pages out and started over, letting the story simply go wherever his imagination took him.
In short, countless great stories have been told on the fly, with minimal (or even no) major planning being done ahead of time.
Second, previous Star Wars trilogies are proof that planning things out ahead of time is no guarantee for storyline success.
Despite long-held protestations to the contrary, the original Star Wars trilogy was not planned out by George Lucas in the mid-’70s. Some even allege that he had the whole six-film saga (or was it nine? or twelve? the story changes depending on when its told) planned out in remarkable detail before he ever wrote A New Hope (which wasn’t even called A New Hope until 1981).
In truth, Lucas had a story about a princess, a farm boy, a pirate, and a couple of wizards, all in the vein of Flash Gordon. Naturally, he had to think about character backstories, but in the mid-’70s that meant something like this:
Luke – farm boy, dad killed by evil wizard, yearns for adventure
Old wizard – former teacher of evil wizard, offers to train Luke
Evil wizard – works for the bad guys, wears a special breathing mask because he fought the old wizard and fell into a volcano
Empire/Emperor – rose from a democratic republic, corrupt politicians took too much power, etc.
It was hardly a detailed synopsis of Attack of the Clones.
Star Wars was just that: Star Wars. It was a one and done whiz-bang space adventure made when Lucas failed to get the rights to Flash Gordon. No one expected it to be a success, least of all George, but when it was he set his sights on a sequel. To be fair, there was a tremendous amount of good luck here: Vader living at the end of the movie, and Obi Wan’s hesitation when asked how Luke’s father died became unintentional seeds to build the next two movies around, but it was never intended to be a series.
The Empire Strikes Back was written by Lawrence Kasdan, after Leigh Brackett’s initial script was rejected. Vader being Luke’s dad was a late addition to the writing process. Return of the Jedi’s development is even more interesting: The idea of a Star Wars TRILOGY wasn’t a thing until just before Return of the Jedi. Lucas had initially planned (after Empire) for the series to be an ongoing one. He likes to talk today about how Star Wars is a “generational story” but that’s merely a reflection of what it became (or, at worst, revisionist history).
Return of the Jedi was never to be the end of the story of Luke and Vader; the sequel to Empire was supposed to focus on the rescue of Han and climax with a second Vader vs Luke fight, ending with the revelation by Vader that Luke has a sister (not Leia). Future movies would have been about finding that long-lost Skywalker, defeating (or redeeming) Vader, and taking down the Emperor. After Lucas got burned out and wanted to end Star Wars he smashed his future ideas together (little more than a hodgepodge of sentences to form the basis for a final movie.
People like to say that the Original Trilogy had Lucas “guiding it” but he was just winging it like the rest, and sometimes the best ideas in Star Wars—such as Vader’s identity—weren’t even his!
Star Wars—the original trilogy—was made by three different directors and written by multiple different writers, without any overarching plan at the outset.
And it’s fantastic.
On the other hand, the Prequel Trilogy was mapped out, in pretty thorough detail, in 1994-1995, and they’re rightly considered inferior products to the original three. So, again, a “plan” is not an automatic recipe for success, nor is the lack of one a harbinger of doom.
I will concede that some great stories are mapped out in excruciating detail. Babylon 5 and Harry Potter are two that come to mind.
The Sequel Trilogy wasn’t mapped out, and it lacked a central voice guiding the whole affair, the way the sprawling MCU has Kevin Feige, but it’s unfair to the whole trilogy to say the whole thing is a failure just because it didn’t have a plan.
It didn’t need a plan; it needed an ending.
The sequel trilogy had a compelling, plot-heavy beginning, an emotional, character-heavy middle, and simply needed a climactic and thematic finale. The “failure” (if you will) of the sequel trilogy is in the finale. Had part three stuck the landing, no one would be complaining (with any merit) about a lack of a plan, etc.
The Force Awakens asks a lot of questions and leaves both the answers and the point of those answers to the subsequent films. That’s what the beginning of a trilogy should do. The Last Jedi answers those questions and then leaves the point of those answers to the final film. That’s what the middle of a trilogy should do.
Movie three sticks out like a sore thumb because it chose to (1) ignore the answers as given in part two, wherever possible, (2) answer part one’s questions in its own, sometimes contradictory ways, and (3) try to find time to give us the point to those new answers, while still having to (4) pay lip-service to the answers already given. It tried to do too much of all the wrong things and collapsed under its own misguided weight.
Say what you want about The Last Jedi: You may not have liked the answers it gave to the questions posed in The Force Awakens, but it still took what it was given and crafted a story around it. The Rise of Skywalker did not, and for that, the film suffered…
and the trilogy as a whole does too.