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Star Wars The Rise of Skywalker Documentary: The Skywalker Legacy is emotional, frustrating, and glorious

The stars of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker draw their weapons against an unseen enemy
In Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker, Finn (John Boyega), Rey (Daisy Ridley), C-3PO, (Anthony Daniels) and Poe (Oscar Isaac) are ready for action. Pic credit: Lucasfilm

When the digital home version of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker was released early with nearly three hours worth of extras, many fans ran straight from quarantine kitchen to quarantine screen.

What they found was The Skywalker Legacy, an emotional full-length documentary on TRoS, which is devastating in its accidental honesty.

Since my version, streamed from Amazon Prime, lacked a menu, animation, or even titles, I wasn’t sure of the actual name of this gem until I looked it up for this article, so I made up my own:

The heartbreaking documentary about lost potential and Disney’s utterly eye-watering lack of self-awareness

The Skywalker Legacy — on the Amazon Prime version, anyway — is prefaced with the world’s most underwhelming intro, a black screen briefly reading “DOCUMENTARY.”

And that is the last time any Star Wars fan will, for better or worse, experience a void of emotion for the next two and a half hours.

More on the shorter featurettes in another piece. This deserves a whole lot of dwelling.

And I’ll just say it: If the three films of the Disney trilogy were as carefully wrought, as finely tuned, as substantive, and as quietly reflective as this documentary, the Star Wars community, in 2020, would be in a very different place.

“We’re all on Tatooine right now”

The Skywalker Legacy opens with vintage footage from the 1982 filming of Return of the Jedi — when we all thought this was over the first, first time.

A few straggles of fans made their way out to Buttercup Valley in California to peer over the Lucasfilm fence.

This was where Star Wars creator George Lucas was filming the Sarlacc sequence, although the fans did not yet know it as such. Jabba’s sail barge rested amongst the dunes with nary a green screen in sight.

“When you watch the movie,” said one fan, “you can tell they were made by people who really care… We’re all on Tatooine right now.”

Then, there was this pronouncement: “By the time all nine movies are done… I’m afraid to see what you guys come up with.”

And this is the first in a series of: “They… included that. Disney really included that remark on this release of this movie of this trilogy.”

The whole Skywalker Legacy documentary — absorbing, fascinating, bittersweet — is a parade of statements and toss-away remarks which point to one truth on the surface.

With a mere brush of the salt of Crait, it reveals a startlingly scarlet, much larger reality about where Star Wars teeters at this moment.

It was done

What the 1982 fan references, of course, is Lucas’ original notion that Star Wars consisted of nine chapters, bracketed by C-3PO and R2-D2 telling the story of the Skywalkers.

The Star Wars community initially hoped for the completion of all nine films, which didn’t come to pass. The series was instead compressed and brought to rest with Return of the Jedi.

The final shot was literally a wide-angle cast photo: It was done. Emperor and Empire dead. Droids safe. Vader turned. Leia and Han a firm couple. Galaxy saved.

The bow could not have been tied any tighter. The kids and the Ewoks were gonna be all right.

The cast of Return of the Jedi is pictured in the movie's final scene
Yub Nub: The kids are gonna be all right. Pic credit: Lucasfilm

Some Star Wars fans were pre-angered with a sequel trilogy, as its very existence extinguished the sprawling, rough-and-tumble afterlife built by the novels and comic books which trickled from Lucasfilm in the years to follow.

Some warned against the untying of the bow because once that ribbon was tugged, the beloved main characters — unless they’d died in the interim — were doomed to experience hardship, unsavory changes, and tragedy.

It had to happen because there’s no story without it.

How could anyone resist?

But with Disney money to dump and all three main actors still alive and willing to re-enter the galaxy, not to mention Anthony Daniels (C-3PO) and Peter Mayhew (Chewbacca) — well, how could anyone resist?

As the fan unwittingly predicted in 1982, perhaps we should have been afraid.

I knew as I settled into my theater seat at midnight on December 17, 2015, that what I was about to see would forever change my perception and overlay my memories of that wide-angle shot pat at the end of Return of the Jedi.

And that’s the embedded problem.

At one point in the documentary, someone says, “Every day we ask ourselves, how can we end this…?”

Answering back across the ages are whole generations of fans and the wiped-away original Force ghost of old Anakin Skywalker screaming, “Dude, it ALREADY ENDED.”

In Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, Anakin Skywalker, Yoda, and Obi-Wan Kenobi smile at the end scene
Remember when Force ghosts made sense? Pic credit: Lucasfilm

The very title of this documentary, which traces the making of the film in run order, signals the tricky business of going home again to a galaxy far, far away.

Most fans, and the culture in general, did not think of Star Wars as a story of the Skywalkers.

It was… Star Wars. Big wars in a big galaxy.

The Skywalkers were in it, and forever stirring the pot with their sibling-kissing and attempted patricides, but the story was of the galaxy itself, the push of light against dark.

Time ran out

“I’ve always called it a space fantasy, designed to be a modern fairy tale,” says a young Lucas in one clip. It is especially agonizing to visit with Young George in The Skywalker Legacy, what with his plaid and his giant glasses and his insistence, via Yoda, that there is no try. Do or do not.

And much of the Disney trilogy is one big stew of Try. It attempts to close out what was closed out long ago.

For as the new series unfolded and time ran out (and I mean this literally — production of these movies was unnecessarily crammed into short time frames so as to clear the way for still more Star Wars films) it became clear that the Disney trilogy was clutching too hard at the past.

They steadfastly refused to give Rey, Finn, and Poe real stories of their own.

Disney had it all

These three fascinating characters who leaped from the screen in The Force Awakens, all played by stellar actors, walk for almost seven full hours in the shadows of the original three instead of experiencing their own comprehensible arcs.

I mean, for three whole movies, they don’t even get their own ships.

They’re piloting the Millennium Falcon, Luke’s X-Wing, a TIE fighter — everything and anything except what can be claimed as their very own. (Poe’s custom X-Wing, the sleek and deadly Black One, was, fittingly, blown up by… a Skywalker.)

It is a pity. And an almost unbearable waste.

Disney had it all: The first three, the next three, and John Williams to score the whole smash. The stupendous potential of this cultural nuclear reaction was shut down by a  monetized schedule and too many corporate cooks.

And the Star Wars community was given, instead, noted sand-hater Anakin Skywalker’s lightsaber forever buried in a Tatooine pit.

That’s these three movies, in the end: A fondue of fan service, a middle finger to what we thought we knew, and not enough of what we still don’t know.

One big overworked family

This business of the “Skywalker Saga” wasn’t really A Thing until it was marketed as such in the latter stages of the Disney trilogy. Indeed, the idea of One Family to Force Them All was already becoming frayed when we learned that Luke and Leia just happened to be twins in Return of the Jedi.

Was this necessary? Was Vader as Luke’s father necessary? (Probably.) But Lucas went to the well once too often: If we’re going to have a father-son dynamic ladled onto the drama, why not throw in a twin sister as well?

Throughout “The Skywalker Saga,” vintage footage pours over anyone older than the Millennial age bracket like the special effect department’s water cannon trained on the game Ms. Ridley.

The practical effects of the Cold War era are examined; a young and un-embittered Mark Hamill grins as he and Harrison Ford rehearse lines in a rocking Falcon set.

“We could bounce into a… supermarket,” sputters Ford, instead of “supernova,” proving once again that 99.99% of original Star Wars trilogy’s humor issues directly from his dry expressions, if even by accident.

The original Star Wars cast rehearses lines on set
Original flavor: “We’re fine here… we’re all…fine. How about you?” Pic credit: Lucasfilm

As images of the original cast float next to footage of their older, current selves (Billy Dee Williams manages to look exactly, precisely the suave same, only with a different-colored cape), charming footage of the new cast gives us glimpses of what could have been.

Alien flesh

What The Skywalker Saga underlines is that J.J. Abrams gets Star Wars. He does.

But for whatever reason, that understanding simply never made it into the final script. He was wise enough, for example, to ditch the cartoon populaces that constituted the prequel trilogy (Episodes 1-3, it should be noted, are barely referenced in The Skywalker Legacy.)

But then Abrams makes such odd decisions as casting the arresting Lupita Nyong’o, then burying her under a pile of CGI as Maz Kanata.

I was surprised to learn here that the crew went to the trouble of building a highly realistic Maz Kanata puppet-robot, as she was so clearly an animation in the movie.

Know why they hit the pixels? CGI was layered in later for “increased expression.” Oh.

Even the Dune Ripoff Sandworm upon which Rey reveals her Force healing powers began its life as a giant, multipart puppet to give the cast a meanie to act against — but was then replaced with CGI, alien flesh rendered a soulless animation.

What might have been

The documentary gently reveals the hand-over-heart time, effort, creativity, and loving attention that went into every single physical aspect of TRoS.

More minutes are spent on the absorbing creation of some scenes than the time it took them to unspool in the actual movie. The impact is tremendous and a wistful cascade of what-might-have-been.

The emotion-laden twin Jedi training flashback, for example — which could have and maybe even should have been its own movie — reveals that Carrie Fisher’s daughter, Billie Lourd, played younger Leia.

We’re shown the tremendous physical training and wirework undertaken by Daisy Ridley, as well as the meticulous attention to detail a practical set demands (crew, actors, and director are shown skidding around a First Order ship in booties and socks to keep the floor properly and terrifyingly shiny.)

Who noticed the roofs?

We learn the Kijimi set involved hundreds of craftsmen and was built from scratch, roofs, and all.

For those of you (which is most of you) who suffer from Star Wars planetary exhaustion, that’s what most refer to as “the World War II one” — the cold, citified world where First Order troopers are banging house-to-house as Rey, Finn, and Poe crouch about under impeccably styled hooded cloaks.

But since the scenes set there whiz past so quickly, who even noticed the roofs?

The same question arises over and over: If this much care went into the make-up of the fourteenth alien to the left in Row Eighty in a scene lasting all of two seconds, how did it come to happen that this movie zooms wildly around the way it does?

Why didn’t someone pause in the scrupulous aging of the bottom-back wall of Leia’s Rebel blockade runner, seen in the background of some planet or another for a moment or two, and say, “Hey, remember what Finn was trying to tell Rey all movie? What was that? Maybe we should spend another second or two there and let the audience in on it?”

“Isn’t it sad what’s happened?”

“Isn’t it sad what’s happened?” Abrams says at one point, his arm around Sally Guinness, Alec Guinness’ granddaughter. “I’ve come to the dark side,” she says, beaming.

The highly likable Abrams is joking about the fact that she’s sitting in as a First Order officer rather than fighting with the good guys, as did Guinness’ character, Obi-Wan Kenobi.

But after a delighted smile or two over the family connection, a second’s thought will bring a new, far sadder meaning to his words.

Evidence abounds that this team understood how to nod to hardcore fans in subtle, meaningful ways.

A proto-C-3PO head, based on legendary artist Ralph McQuarrie’s original concept of the droid, hovers in the background of one scene; an entire section of Babu Frik‘s workshop was given over to a cameo by John Williams and populated by metal representations of each of his 52 Academy Award-nominated films — a whip for Indiana Jones, a set of dog tags from Saving Private Ryan.

Such creativity and finesse were infuriatingly missing in the script itself.

These loving touches prove it was possible to service the fanbase without soft-rebooting the trilogy and hammering us over the head with the likes of Maz thrusting a medal at Chewbacca even though Lucas explained in 1977 that they don’t mean anything to Wookies.

And yet, the anvils fell.

An offside penalty away

So do the innocuous remarks from the crew: “Intricacy is closely interconnected to a complete mess, so we’ve got one or the other. I’m not sure which,” says an employee of the prop department.

We don’t have a chance to appreciate the two to three months of her life that went into building this set, because the storyboard is trundling us off on yet another complete mess of a fetch quest.

Yes, it’s time to show the deep discussions and painstaking design that went into the Sith knife which revealed the location of yet another McGuffin — one which wouldn’t have worked had the main characters not happened to have been standing precisely where they unsheathed it.

This exquisitely wrought prop and the fine acting brought to the crucial moment cannot hide the fact that this entire movie hinged on the fact that Rey was an offside penalty away from never finding what she needed.

Planned Destruction

And that’s the problem.

In the documentary, there’s a lot of talk of destruction from these spectacularly talented people at the height of their creative flows. The accidental connotation of this is often weighty indeed.

For example, the Emperor’s throne room from Return of the Jedi, where Anakin’s massive sacrifice takes place — the crux of the entire original trilogy — was painstakingly researched, part-sourced, and rebuilt for this film.

And then, to serve Version of the Nanosecond, destroyed.

We’re still on Tatooine

So while TRoS offers the universe astonishingly meaningful, fleeting shots like a TIE fighter resting silently right next to X-Wing, it all comes tumbling down with such hamhanded scenes as Rey skidding into the Lars homestead,  smiling gently as she enters…. this place she’s never been to, seen, or heard about.

As the fan from 1982 at the top of the documentary said, we’re all on Tatooine — and it’s because, from the prequels to Jedi to TRoS, we never really left Tatooine. The franchise is afraid to let us.

And so as images of the new cast flicker next to those of the original, all doctored to look as if they issued directly from the Reagan era, we’re once again left wondering what’s going on once the emotional kick washes through.

So ends 44 years

“Oh, I really don’t like this,” Ridley says as she steps gingerly onto the Tatooine sled during rehearsals.

She means the deep angle of the slope; she instead voices some of the fanbase’s reaction as it absorbed the sight of an ugly, gaping hole cratered into what’s left of where Luke Skywalker grew up.

“So ends 44 years,” says Anthony Daniels preparing for what he says will be his last shot as C-3PO. But lovable as Daniels is, nobody believes him, because nobody really thought of the films as an unbroken, inevitable cycle until about a minute ago.

And while the stakes of this movie in a cultural sense were tremendous, by death-gripping the original characters and constantly looking in the rearview mirror, Lucasfilm allowed no real stakes in the story itself.

Kind of Sad

Oh, we’ll see C-3P0 again. And again. And, in the maddening Lucasfilm tradition, again, in a special edition with alternate dubbed-in dialogue which instantaneously becomes the new canon.

The documentary’s final seconds consist of Lucasfilm executive Kathleen Kennedy saying, “It’s kind of sad that we have to tear it down.”

Ostensibly, she’s talking about the set she’s sitting on, but… not really.

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Tim Hunter

You’re right… kind of sad… :(