'Rise of Skywalker' and the End of 'Star Wars'

Lucasfilm is marketing this as the final chapter of a saga, so what will the franchise be without its driving force?

Monday night, the final trailer for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker premiered, along with the announcement that tickets are now on sale. Given the flurry of trailer reaction videos, social media posts, memes, and record-breaking presales, it seems unlikely that the trailer release slipped under anyone’s radar.

Star Wars is always a big deal in any medium, and Star Wars fans are always a little — OK a lot — over-reactionary when it comes to a new theatrical release. But The Rise of Skywalker, which sees J.J. Abrams return to the director’s seat, is special. This latest installment, Episode IX, isn’t just the last installment of the sequel trilogy, but the last installment of the Star Wars Saga that began in 1977 with George Lucas’ Star Wars, now better known as A New Hope. But if, as we already know, Rise of Skywalker isn’t the end of the franchise — with more movies planned for release starting in 2022 — what, if anything, is really ending?

In order to answer that we first need to establish what the Star Wars Saga consists of? Technically, it’s only the episodic films, with the other film released since George Lucas sold Lucasfilm to Disney in 2012 existing as supplemental stories. But Lucasfilm in its current form, overseen by Kathleen Kennedy, has placed less emphasis on the numeric titles of the Sequel Trilogy, i.e. episodes VII-IX.

The episode numbers are still present in the opening crawls, but in terms of the film’s marketing, they’ve been nonexistent. And the previous entries comprising the Original Trilogy and the Prequel Trilogy have received new Blu-ray and digital releases that have likewise removed the Roman numerals from the titles. The effort here seems to be in the service of giving equal weight to Star Wars releases past, present and future. Now that the A Star Wars Story label is seemingly defunct, there seems to be an intention for Star Wars movies to simply exist as Star Wars, writ large, and not as part of a hierarchical system where some films are more important than others.

We could also look at Star Wars Saga as being Skywalker centric, the stories of Anakin (Hayden Christensen), Luke (Mark Hamill) and Leia (Carrie Fisher), and Ben Solo (Adam Driver). But even that definition seems questionable given that the sequel series has focused on Rey (Daisy Ridley), who, barring some unlikely retcon, is not a Skywalker. If it’s the Skywalker Saga that’s ending, does that mean that the fates of Leia and Ben Solo, aka Kylo Ren, are sealed? As the last living Skywalkers that we know of, should they die their bloodline dies with them. Given Carrie Fisher’s passing, and Kylo Ren’s status as a villain, it’s not unforeseeable that both characters meet their ends in The Rise of Skywalker, but this is also J.J. Abrams we’re talking about, a mystery box filmmaker who doesn’t reveal the turns of his stories in trailers.

The Last Jedi (2017) emphasized that the light and dark side were larger than the Skywalker namesake, while also demystifying the black and white notions of the force. It’s been theorized that Skywalker becomes the new name for force-users who exist not along the paths of light and dark, but somewhere in between and without the antiquated structures of Jedi and Sith. If that’s the case, and Skywalker becomes something bigger than a bloodline, then once again the conclusion of the Saga isn’t the end of the Skywalker story, even more so if Leia and a redeemed Ben Solo live.

What seems most likely is that the end of this Saga is more than Roman numerals, and Skywalkers’ bloodlines and namesakes. The end of this Saga is the end of the Palpatine conflict. Ian McDiarmid’s return to the franchise came as a shock when his role was revealed at Star Wars Celebration earlier this year. The Emperor seemed thoroughly defeated at the end of The Return of the Jedi (1983), and although the now non-canonical expanded universe saw him return, the likelihood of him showing up in another movie seemed slim. But his return gives the Star Wars Saga a concrete through-line, a singular big bad, whose lines in the latest trailer seem to suggest that he planned for all of this.

Of course we know that this Star Wars movie, like all the others before it, was not planned out beat for beat from the beginning. Ideas change, collaborators are brought on while others exit, and the effort is made to create a cohesive narrative that ties back to the beginning. As a narrative exploring the machinations of the Emperor, the Star Wars Saga in that regard will likely feel complete, while allowing another to begin.

In a 2015 Wired profile on Kathleen Kennedy and Lucasfilm’s efforts to revitalize the franchise, the infinite possibilities of the franchise were discussed, along with the ability to move around in time. There are currently three separate Star Wars film projects in the works: a trilogy written and produced by Game of Thrones' David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, the first of which is set to premiere in December 2022; a trilogy from The Last Jedi writer-director Rian Johnson; and a film developed by Marvel Studios’ Kevin Feige. It seems unlikely, given how the oversaturation of Star Wars affected the box office of Solo (2018) that we’ll see these film series release concurrently. The three-year break between The Rise of Skywalker and Benioff and Weiss’ film should give fans just enough time to miss the franchise again. No details about any of these films have been released, but if I had to guess, we expect some to happen before A New Hope and others to happen after The Rise of Skywalker.

The Rise of Skywalker feels like the end of a specific narrative, and the end of a saga makes for great marketing, but even if we’re saying goodbye to some of these characters, it seems doubtful that they won’t be seen again in some fashion, be it movies, series, comics, video games or novels. Perhaps the answer is right there in the trailer, “This Christmas the Saga will end. The story lives forever.” Under its previous, and perhaps antiquated definition of saga, Star Wars is ending. But as a story, not simply one defined by numbered entries, bloodlines and parallel narratives, Star Wars entries will continue on forever.