"The Rise of Skywalker" is the end of an era. Kinda. Sorta. Opening Dec. 20, this ninth film in the "Star Wars" saga that began in 1977 has been touted as a grand finale. Yet like the much-ballyhooed "death of Superman" comic-book storyline that made international press in the 1990s — spoiler: He's not dead — the Star Wars franchise isn't going anywhere.
" 'The end of the Skywalker saga' was the way we approached this movie," says the film's director and co-writer J.J. Abrams, 53, in a suite at a Midtown Manhattan hotel. "It wasn't some secret winking — 'We're doing this, but we're setting that up.' I'm not saying there isn't the possibility of other stories with some of the characters in some way," allows the TV auteur behind "Alias" and “Lost" and the director of two "Star Trek" movies. The Star Wars universe, he notes, continues in various media and in such TV series as "The Mandalorian" on Disney+, "and undoubtedly will in other movies. But this is very much an end to this trilogy of trilogies."
It certainly seems so for Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), who died and became "one with the Force" in "The Last Jedi" (2017), and for Han Solo (Harrison Ford), dispatched in "The Force Awakens" (2015). And while General Leia Organa (the late Carrie Fisher) appears in "Rise of Skywalker" through unused and repurposed footage from "The Last Jedi," chances are we won't be seeing more of her going forward. But the title does promise a Skywalker rising, after all. Could it be the single-name-only Rey (Daisy Ridley)? And what about those working stiffs in Canto Bright at the end of the last film, discussing the Skywalker legend — after which one of them accesses the Force? Maybe "Skywalker" is a state of mind.
WHAT WE KNOW
All we do know is that more than a year has passed since the events of "The Last Jedi" and that the Resistance spearheaded by Leia, Rey, Finn (John Boyega) and Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) has been all but quashed by the First Order — now headed by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) after he killed Supreme Leader Snoke. And from what intimations can be gleaned, we appear to be heading toward a final showdown between those overarching entities the Jedi Order and the Sith.
“Some of it is sort of practical this-would-be-a-fun-action-sequence kind of stuff," Abrams says of how he and co-writer Chris Terrio crafted the culmination. "But the deeper thing is telling a story about friendship, about self-discovery, about faith, about oppression, about what it is to rebel and at what cost."
"I think the movie is about life and death, really," reflects "Argo" Oscar winner Terrio, 42. "It's about what we leave behind and legacy and how we're remembered," he says of the characters. "And there's a meta component to that, too, because we as writers and filmmakers are grappling with these things when it comes to ‘Star Wars.’ We are trying to leave a legacy of what these films are and what they mean to us. I think even in the title, without giving away anything about the meaning, but built into it is that sense of birth, death, resurrection and how we remember and what we remember and who we remember."
IN THE BEGINNING
The movie's official credits, as it happens, remember the originally hired director, Colin Trevorrow ("Jurassic World"), who with his writing partner Derek Connolly retains a "story by" credit. Trevorrow, who has been circumspect about the circumstances regarding his exit, told Empire magazine last month it was "not my place" to speak about what he and Connolly might have contributed, other than to say, "I'm grateful to J.J. for embracing some of our ideas."
"I probably shouldn't comment on that stuff," says Terrio. "I can only tell you what I know and what I did." He and Abrams, he says, "started from a blank page. We came on and we started with white boards — dry-erase boards — just writing ideas of what we wanted to see in the last ‘Star Wars,’ just as fans. … That later became a document that we would expand and pass back and forth to each other."
During the time they were writing, actress Kelly Marie Tran — the first woman of color in a major Star Wars role, introduced as Resistance mechanic Rose Tico in "The Last Jedi" — became the victim of such virulent racist cyberbullying that she left social media in 2017 and penned a New York Times op-end about it in August 2018. Given the honor and integrity inherent in “Star Wars,” and the diversity and inclusiveness of the current trilogy, does it feel as if some of the audience actually worships the Dark Side?
"I don't really think that," says Abrams, before reconsidering. "Some people, sure," he amends. "The internet gives people an often anonymous platform to spew." But it's more than that, he says. "I think hate speech, rage and vitriol has been normalized clearly beyond just online." And while the movie doesn't address that directly, "We live in a complicated time," Abrams says, "and I don't think anyone who is making anything they really care about does it in a vacuum."
"I don't want to speak for the audience," Tran, 30, at the Disney offices in New York, says diplomatically. "I mean, I'm sure there are people like that.” And enduring such trolls, she says, "really made me respect artists more across all fields, because I now realize how hard it is to be vulnerable and honest and continue to put work out into the world under that sort of lens."
"Star Wars fans are a passionate group, and I'm only grateful to them," avers Abrams, "even those who are [ticked] off because we changed too little or we changed too much, we didn't use the character the way they saw it fit, whatever the thing is, because they care."
Perhaps one simply has to keep, to use the original film's subtitle, a new hope.
C-3PO HAS BEEN GOLDEN METAL HEART OF 'STAR WARS'
This is the droid you're looking for: C-3P0, the golden-metal heart of "Star Wars," played from the beginning by Anthony Daniels — the only actor to have appeared in all 11 movies, even the two spinoffs.
"On the set on my last day," the British actor, 73, recalls of "Rise of Skywalker," "I was quite emotional for a few moments.” Director and co-writter J.J. Abrams "made a nice speech and then I made a little speech and so on. I can genuinely say that I had such a happy experience on this film that it's a very good way to go out, and the film itself really is a very good end."
Kelly Marie Tran, who plays Rose Tico, met Daniels on her very first day on a Star Wars set, on "The Last Jedi" (2017). "It was a scene with me, John [Boyega], Oscar [Isaac] and Anthony,” she recalls, saying he later told her "he doesn't keep any Star Wars stuff in his actual living space … He's done such an amazing job of being able to work within this franchise and then in his home life to just, like, forget about it."
Not that Daniels isn't wholly in C-3P0's head when in costume. He even shifts to first-person momentarily when talking about the droid. "It is my ability to be tenacious and to have survived this whole whatever-you-would-call it," he says of the character's core qualities. "C-3P0 is quite a lonely figure in many ways."
But also Star Wars' own Zelig: Daniels as C-3PO appears in all nine main films and in "Rogue One" (2016), while the actor additionally plays Tak, a con-man slave in the Kessel spice mines, in "Solo" (2018), and Lt. Dannl Faytonni in "Attack of the Clones" (2002) and "Revenge of the Sith" (2005).
Of the original, low-budget "Star Wars" (1977), Daniels marvels, "It was a B-movie, a sci-fi one-off. I had 12 weeks on it and I was quite happy when it ended -- it was a ton of work under difficult circumstances. We all thought it was a B or less-value movie. And only George [Lucas] had the, well, the genius to go through with it," he says of Star Wars’ creator. "And here we are thinking of him today as we have moved on and up and around and now quite rightly it's coming to an end.
"But for me," he adds warmly, and with British understatement, "having been there on day one, and being now in Hollywood about to go see the final act, it's a really curious story."