Do you remember where you were in December 2015? Were you eagerly awaiting the arrival of the first installment of the new Star Wars sequel trilogy? Maybe you fell somewhere in between ambivalence or complete disdain? Regardless of your excitement levels, it was hard to avoid the return of Star Wars. Marketing and hype surrounded everything leading up to it. It’s hard to believe that The Force Awakens was released just four years ago. Four years since the sequel trilogy began and we were introduced to a newer generation of Star Wars heroes and villains.

Four years since Disney thrust Star Wars back into the cultural zeitgeist after a decade-long hiatus. As we sit here now, just a few days away from not only the end of the Star Wars sequel trilogy but the so-called end of the Skywalker saga, it’s important to reflect on the impact the sequel trilogy has had on both the Star Wars universe and pop culture. Let’s recap the questions poised in The Force Awakens, the answers given in The Last Jedi, and what’s to come in The Rise of Skywalker.

There’s Been An Awakening, Have You Felt It?

“Luke Skywalker has vanished.”

These are the first words that play out in the opening crawl of The Force Awakens. Right away, JJ Abrams makes it known that this story will be told through the eyes of a new generation. The journey begins the way A New Hope began, on a desert planet with a droid. Instead of R2-D2 carrying a plea for Obi-Wan Kenobi, we have BB-8, a one-of-a-kind BB unit owned by General Leia Organa’s star pilot, Poe Dameron. BB-8 receives part of a map that leads to Luke Skywalker from Poe. Poe is then captured by the evil Kylo Ren.

Sequel trilogy main characters Rey and Finn run to escape from the First Order on Jakku.
© Lucasfilm 2015

In BB-8’s journey to bring the map back to the Resistance, he meets Rey. Rey is a lonely scavenger with a mysterious past and a destiny far greater than she could imagine. Poe escapes from the First Order with the help of a rogue Stormtrooper named FN-2187, later nicknamed Finn. Their ship crashes back onto Jakku after a tie fighter shoots them down. Poe is seemingly dead after the ship sinks into the sand and explodes. Finn escapes from the wreckage and stumbles upon Rey and BB-8. Our heroes are all acquainted, our villain is revealed, and a race to bring the map to the Resistance is set in motion.

A New Journey Begins In The Star Wars Trilogy

What transpires afterward is a classic Star Wars story of good versus evil, as Rey and Finn are thrust into the fight against the First Order. Along the way, they enlist Han, witness Han’s death at the hands of Kylo, face Kylo Ren themselves, destroy the First Order’s superweapon, a la Death Star, and become Resistance heroes. All the makings of a Star Wars movie appear; a familial twist (Kylo is actually Han and Leia’s son), an epic lightsaber battle between Kylo and Rey, and an ending that is bittersweet yet hopeful.

Rey reaches the top of the mountain on Ahch-To to find Luke.
© Lucasfilm 2015

The first installment of the sequel trilogy ends as Leia and the Resistance track Luke to a remote island named Ahch-To. Leia sends Rey to bring Luke back into the fight against the First Order. The final shot, a literal cliffhanger, shows Rey holding out Anakin’s lightsaber for Luke to take. The mission of The Force Awakens was clear. Abrams was to bring Star Wars back in a digestible way. He set out to make a movie that appealed to older fans with the promised return of the original trio, and capture the hearts of new fans with Rey, Finn, Poe, and Kylo. It emulated much of A New Hope. It also opened up a whole new universe riddled with mystery and provided no shortage of questions and theories ripe for discussion.

This Is Not Going To Go The Way You Think

While JJ Abrams and The Force Awakens were tasked with bringing Star Wars back into the spotlight, Rian Johnson and The Last Jedi were responsible for untangling much of the mystery Abrams setup. The conversation post-TFA revolved around two things: Who were Rey’s parents? And what made Luke run off to an isolated island? To say Johnson’s answers to these questions were divisive would be an understatement.

Luke sits amidst the wreckage of his burned Jedi Templre.
Lucasfilm © 2017

Much like The Empire Strikes Back, The Last Jedi splits our heroes up and sends them each on their own adventure. Rey is on Ahch-To trying to enlist a jaded, depressed Luke Skywalker to join the fight, Poe is working to become a leader of the Resistance, and Finn is tasked with stopping the First Order from tracking the Resistance fleet. 

When sitting down to write the script for The Last Jedi, Rian Johnson placed the names of each major character on a table and asked,

“What could be the hardest thing for each character to go through?”

This strategy is the foundation of the plot of The Last Jedi. The film features various disjointed plots and essentially makes each character experience failure. Looking at The Last Jedi through this perspective, one of failure and what comes out of it makes the story much more compelling.

The Greatest Teacher, Failure Is

Rey, who has developed an interesting and fateful connection with Kylo, fails to bring him back to the light. Her naivety and good heart blind her, as she ignores Luke’s warnings and runs to rescue Kylo. Finn and Resistance technician, Rose, fail to thwart a First Order attack on an already dwindling Resistance fleet. Poe is responsible for the death of multiple Resistance fighters, which results in his demotion. Kylo, fresh off patricide and a defeat at the hands of Rey, is dealing with his own demons as well as ridicule from his master, Snoke.

But perhaps the most heartbreaking and controversial failure is that of Luke’s. We learn that his failure to train Kylo, to snuff out the darkness in him as a child, was what sent him into exile. His failure forced him to confront the shortcomings of the Jedi philosophy. This ultimately led to his decision to retreat from his loved ones. 

Luke faces the evil Kylo Ren in the second installment of the sequel trilogy, The Last Jedi.
Lucasfilm © 2017

Failure is a heavy topic for a space fantasy originally intended for children. But according to Yoda, failure is the greatest teacher. Out of their failure, Rey realizes that she does not need Kylo Ren to save the Resistance; she is the hero she’s desperately been searching for in other people. Finn finally chooses to fight, instead of running away from the fight. Poe takes his pride in stride and takes his place as a leader of the Resistance. And Luke confronts Kylo, apologizes for his failure, and in turn, gives the Resistance enough time to escape from the corner they’ve been backed into. Their failures lead to an epic final battle. The battle shows that sometimes fighting what we hate isn’t as important as saving what we love.

The Return Of JJ Abrams In The Star Wars Trilogy

Of course, it’s impossible to discuss The Last Jedi without a conversation around expectations. Beyond a story about failure, Johnson set out to make a Star Wars film that defied almost everything you expect from a Star Wars film. He took what JJ Abrams set up, soaked up two years of theories, and turned it on its head. The most prominent examples of this would include the reveal that Rey’s parents were “filthy junk traders,” the death of Snoke, and most prominently, the characterization of Luke. It is no secret that the decisions Johnson made caused a significant upheaval in the Star Wars fandom. The risks he took make the stakes for The Rise of Skywalker much higher. 

JJ Abrams on set, talking to Adam Driver who plays Kylo Ren.
Adam Driver and J.J. Abrams on the set of STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER; Courtesy of Rolling Stone

So taking into account what JJ Abrams set up in The Force Awakens and what Rian Johnson elaborated on in The Last Jedi, what’s left for The Rise of Skywalker? Well, with the return of JJ Abrams, the possibilities are endless. Abrams has stated in almost every interview thus far that The Rise of Skywalker has proven to be a more difficult challenge than The Force Awakens because he is responsible for ending all nine movies.  

The Rise Of An Old Enemy

The shocking return of Palpatine changes the whole scope of the sequel trilogy. His appearance allows for the connection between all three trilogies. It also asks us to consider that all of this has been his doing from the beginning. How does his involvement interfere with Kylo Ren’s new position as Supreme Leader? If Palpatine has been pulling the strings of this story the whole time, what is his endgame? 

Palpatine’s involvement is just a single layer of the mystery box Abrams has to open. Abrams being hired to finish the story he started brings back many questions he poised in The Force Awakens. The discussion of Rey’s parentage was seemingly put to bed in The Last Jedi, but it seems that’s not a case fully closed, yet. Another loose thread set up in The Force Awakens is the Knights of Ren. Kylo Ren’s faithful soldiers were noticeably absent in The Last Jedi. They appear in the new trailers and promotional photos so their involvement is bound to further complicate Kylo Ren’s story. 

The Star Wars Trilogy Comes To An End

Ending Rey, Finn, Poe, and Kylo’s story is seemingly at the forefront of this story. There has also been the question of whether Rey will go dark or Kylo will go back to the light. These two theories are without a doubt being teased by the trailers and TV spots we’ve seen thus far. We’ve seen Rey with a double-bladed red lightsaber and what appears to be Rey and Kylo fighting together again. Will Rey redeem Kylo? Will Kylo choose to do the right thing himself? Or will Kylo go against the Vader precedent and stand firm as the villain?

Rey and Kylo face off in the last film of the sequel trilogy, The Rise of Skywalker.
Lucasfilm © 2019

There is no shortage of questions going into The Rise of Skywalker. It is overwhelming to think of all the heavy-lifting JJ Abrams has to do to satisfy both new and old fans of Star Wars. The divisive reaction to The Last Jedi sheds an even brighter spotlight on the film. But it is JJ Abrams that introduced us to these new characters; who is better fitted to conclude this sequel trilogy then the man who started it?