Destroy All Monsters: Ben Solo Was The Key To The STAR WARS Sequel Trilogy, And JJ Abrams Never Noticed
One of the things I found most compelling about Rian Johnson's The Last Jedi -- which is no short list, so all the cranks and Reddit boys reading this can just skip to social media now -- was how complete its conclusion felt. Of course, the Resistance had been all but destroyed at that point and the galaxy was in almost as dark a place as Planet Earth circa 2020, but in terms of actual narrative debt, there were really only two pieces of character work that needed resolving.
The first concerned Rey. After a film (and a bit) spent scouring the galaxy for an all-powerful Force-user who could save the Resistance -- believing that person, at first, to be Luke Skywalker, and later his nephew, Ben Solo -- Rey is on the verge of understanding that she could be that Jedi. (Leia's final line in The Last Jedi could be read as the General coaxing the young woman to believe that she, herself, is the solution to her own quest, a narrative device as old as "There's no place like home" and as recent as the "Show Yourself" sequence from Frozen II.)
The second piece of narrative debt at the end of The Last Jedi, however, belongs to Kylo Ren (née Ben Solo), the last Skywalker, scion of Anakin's bloodline, and the son of Han and Leia. Hidden in plain sight in The Force Awakens -- marketed as another in a lengthy line of Expanded Universe bad guys in Vaderesque garb with a Vaderesque lightsabre, before being revealed to be the broken heart of the Original Trilogy's power couple -- Ben Solo comes into his own in The Last Jedi.
JJ Abrams, The Force Awakens' director, is possessed of almost supernatural gifts at casting. He put Adam Driver in the Kylo Ren role in 2013, when Driver was still just a weird breakout star from HBO's Girls. By 2017, however, he had long since started to establish himself as one of the lead talents of his generation, and in The Last Jedi he begins to demonstrate how formidable that skill can be when unleashed within the confines of a Star Wars movie.
Driver is mesmerizing in The Last Jedi. He is helped substantially by Johnson's script, which both closes the book (and the Millennium Falcon door) on the question of whether Solo was just a misunderstood kid or a sleeper agent or whatever other conspiracy theory was generated by the internet after The Force Awakens; and breaks his sociopathy open, giving it substance and nuance and even a whiff of purpose, before crushing Solo with the weight of it.
No Star Wars character has ever been left in a worse position than Ben Solo at the end of The Last Jedi. His fate exceeds even Anakin's in the final moments of Revenge of the Sith; Anakin at least had the partial psychological "out" of Palpatine's endlessly silky manipulations, which ultimately entombed the fallen Jedi in that walking coffin.
Solo's coffin is entirely of his own making: he murders Snoke, having misread a vision of himself and Rey shattering the galaxy together and ruling its ashes as, one supposes, Jedi fuckbuddies*; he proclaims himself Supreme Leader of the First Order in what we presume is some kind of endgame for his decade-long blood lust and thirst for power; he falls for the Skywalker gambit and lets the Resistance escape his clutches, and is left grasping a memento of his dead father in the remains of a Rebel base, while the only other person he may ever have truly connected to closes the door on him, Godfather-style, and flies away.
(*At this point it's worth clarifying that I am no Reylo, and that this piece will not treat with the romantic fantasies around Rey and Ben. I continue to find the abuse and other toxic signalling in Ben's treatment of Rey too disturbing to re-code as romantic, although the past five years have shown that the mileage of an extremely large and vocal portion of the internet may vary.)
Ben's outcome in The Last Jedi is tragic -- classically so -- because it's entirely of his own making, an outcome built brick by brick by the failures in Ben Solo's imagination and the boundless entitlement in his princeling heart. The final image of him in that film -- even the dice have been revealed to be an illusion, and the newly-minted Supreme Leader is alone on his knees in a ruin -- is stunning, and it captivatingly sets up the major question of the next chapter.
Naturally, JJ Abrams being JJ Abrams, it's a complete whiff from here out.
The list of things I find disappointing in The Rise of Skywalker is no shorter than my Last Jedi love-list, but I'll try to keep this discourse contained to what I consider to be the catastrophic failure of the work: the inability to locate a dramatic end-point for Ben Solo that fits with the two previous chapters, and by doing so, satisfyingly resolving the purpose of the sequel trilogy.
Interestingly, although Colin Trevorrow's leaked script for Episode IX is a wholesale improvement on The Rise of Skywalker on nearly every vector, it fails as resoundingly as Abrams' script in this one, foundational aspect. In Trevorrow's Duel of the Fates, Kylo Ren is "solved" by going (even further) full tilt bad guy; in The Rise of Skywalker, Kylo Ren is "solved" by having him flip ineffectually back to the good side on a (seeming) whim, and then die "heroically" for his efforts a few scenes later.
Neither works, but the Abrams version ossifies the miscalculation by further burying Solo, and Adam Driver, in neutralizing plot contrivances. Having cast one of the aforementioned best actors of his generation, Abrams conceals Driver in a remade version of Kylo Ren's helmet and keeps him offscreen for most of The Rise of Skywalker's first half. What scenes he does have are built around plot mechanics and exposition, not character drama or conflict. (There isn't even a moment parallel to the one in The Force Awakens, where dopey sad boy Ren looks glumly at his treasured Vader helmet and wonders to himself what the fuck it's all for.)
And having inherited a narrative jumping-off point where Kylo Ren is the man at the top of the First Order's pyramid, Abrams' (literal! From the first moments of the crawl!) first order of business is to shunt Ren aside, and reestablish Palpatine as the true Big Bad of the galaxy.
This naturally puts Ren back in the same position he held in the first film: reporting to an ubervillain in a subservient role; running errands, most of them related to Rey. Ironically, Abrams' efforts to clone the structure of Return of the Jedi for The Rise of Skywalker may have over-succeeded here: in the earlier film, Darth Vader's dominance as the central villain of the trilogy was negated by the introduction of the Emperor, shunting aside all of Vader's individual purpose as established in The Empire Strikes Back. Here, it happens to Kylo Ren; but unlike Vader, the cost at a character level feels larger.
This may perhaps be because while Vader was, and remains, a visual icon, the unmasking of Ben Solo in The Force Awakens, made (at the time) permanent in The Last Jedi, forces us to confront a humanity in the character that Vader is not similarly afforded until after the Emperor's death (give or take when you choose to slot the prequel trilogy into your Star Wars watch party, of course). Supercharged by Driver's performance, Ben Solo has an angst and interiority that makes him a charismatic, unsettling character, a question mark in (at this point, endless) search of resolution.
Kylo Ren is not allowed interiority in The Rise of Skywalker, which reduces him to the narrative equivalent of a second-string supporting character, akin to Hux or Poe. After everything that has been unwrapped about the character in the previous two episodes, this gap in The Rise of Skywalker feels not unlike driving suddenly and unexpectedly off a narrative cliff. The sequel trilogy has generally played fast and loose with which characters are deserving of the story's focus at any given time (and John Boyega's recent comments about how Finn's centrality was misrepresented in the marketing of The Force Awakens to sell tickets puts a specific, and very ugly, face on the hurt that such decisions have caused). Somehow, though, miscalculating the importance of the Ben Solo storyline in this concluding chapter feels like a genuine example of the storytellers not understanding what the story was about in the first place.
With all deference to Disney's shareholders -- who were, I am absolutely aware, the true motivation behind the creation of the sequel trilogy -- I am a firm believer that stories of this type only work when there is purpose to the tale beyond merely getting the gang back together. ("The gang's all here," the poster for Lethal Weapon 4 once promised, in a seeming up-front admission of that film's self-imposed limitations, and an early threat of what was to become of franchise filmmaking in the decades to follow.)
What I mean by this is: for the sequel trilogy to succeed (narratively and creatively), it needed to be about more than just merely the exercise of making three new Star Wars movies. Now, there is nothing wrong with just making new Star Wars movies, or even new Star Wars movies whose major purpose is little more than playing within our nostalgic familiarity with existing styles and formats of the Star Wars universe (see: Solo: A Star Wars Story; The Mandalorian).
The internal paradox of making new episodes within the Skywalker cycle, though, is that by dint of the basic rules of serialized storytelling, along with where these episodes exist in the overall narrative, Episodes VII-IX can't simply be exercises, no matter how smooth or pleasurable their simulation of "the feeling of Star Wars" turns out to be. They inherently owe a larger debt to the story as a whole, and that debt becomes more and more inescapable as the sequel trilogy wears on. Here, I think, we have a case of both the fans and the studio -- all the way up to Bob Iger, Disney's then-chairman -- misunderstanding the success of The Force Awakens. That film, absolutely, manipulated those pleasure centers successfully, and to boot, emulated the major plot structure of the original Star Wars closely enough that one of the film's chief criticisms was that it felt like a remake.
But -- and this is important -- The Force Awakens was not a remake, because of who it chose to focus on and how it chose to focus on them. (Movies aren't what they're about, but the way in which they are about them.) The Force Awakens is about characters -- Rey, Finn, and Kylo Ren / Ben Solo -- who have grown up on the wreckage (in at least one case, literally) of the original Star Wars trilogy. That story's myths and legends -- which are, of course, our myths and legends -- are part of the DNA of how they understand their place in the galaxy. This means that the sequel trilogy films, at least in part, aren't just about what they're about; they're about us, too, and our relationships to Star Wars itself.
In Ben Solo's case, hinted at in The Force Awakens and then given full bloom in The Last Jedi, that relationship is a sour one. The power of his bloodline collided with his frustration with three of those legends -- the three he was related to -- and when it met his uncle's inability to confront his own poor understanding of the legend of Luke Skywalker, it exploded.
The resonance was immense for the Star Wars universe, but perhaps aided by the raw Method power of Driver's performance, it felt immense for our world, too. Purposefully or not, the creation of Kylo Ren was a wildly canny move for the decade in which the Star Wars sequel trilogy emerged: a decade of Proud Boys, and Gamergate, and school shooters and church shooters (the massacre at the Jedi Temple is, of course, both), and umpteen other examples of disenfranchised white boys sitting on inherited understanding of their place in the world, where that dissonance against their reality was only driving them further and further into unbridled, unprincipled rage.
Now, I would have to imagine that JJ Abrams -- a milquetoast storyteller if ever there were one -- would not be comfortable with the idea of Kylo Ren having "meaning" beyond being a guy that kids are going to dress up as for Hallowe'en. This is one of innumerable reasons Abrams was a good choice to direct The Force Awakens and a fundamentally awful choice to direct The Rise of Skywalker; Abrams has made a career out of setting tables, but has proven reliably that he has no idea how to make a meal.
But let's leave aside the question of whether these films even owe a debt to meaning beyond the confines of their own universe. Regardless of larger weight or purpose to the story, Abrams' castration of Solo in The Rise of Skywalker, both visually and narratively, is more than just a weak storytelling choice in a film that is frankly full of them; it effectively robs the sequel trilogy of an ending. This was made doubly ironic after Abrams spoke of what he considered the purpose of bringing back Palpatine: the idea that the nine-episode Skywalker saga needed some sort of overarching glue, by way of its original Big Bad, which presupposes that that glue could not be... the Skywalkers themselves, of whom Ben Solo is one of the last standing.
Each Star Wars trilogy works with a Skywalker and his relationship with the Dark Side of the Force. In the prequel trilogy, Anakin succumbs to the temptation of that power out of greed and passion; in the original trilogy, Luke faces the same choice and resists it, having learned compassion for what became of his father.
The story of Ben Solo is not a do-over of either of these storylines. For one thing, his fall to the Dark Side, uniquely for this saga, has taken place offscreen; it is a preexisting condition of this trilogy and this era of the story, when an uneasy peace post-Return of the Jedi is within moments of breaking. The question that requires answering, then, is not "will he turn to the Dark Side," where the prior answers are "he will" (Anakin) and "he won't" (Luke). We are beyond this binary. The questions for Ben Solo have more complexity: why did he turn (partially answered in The Last Jedi); will he turn back (arguably, yes; for this story to make sense, he would always have had to turn back at some point); and if so, why.
There is an inescapable flaw inherent to this latter point, which goes back to the earliest days of the Abrams' version of Episode IX, rooted in the decision to use CGI and trickery to keep Carrie Fisher alive long enough to serve a narrative purpose (however successfully or unsuccessfully) in The Rise of Skywalker. That decision was awkward on many levels, but perhaps none more so than for how obviously it would fail to allow The Rise of Skywalker to answer the questions around Ben Solo. Indeed, perhaps in the decision to keep Leia alive, we see the origin of the collateral decision to move Ben Solo to the background: repurposing outtake footage would never have allowed any filmmaker, no matter how gifted, to satisfactorily delve into the roots of Solo's trauma in a way that felt meaningful or earned, and Abrams would have known that long before the cameras rolled.
Thus, The Rise of Skywalker pivots needlessly to Rey, whose character journey is all but resolved at the end of The Last Jedi but whose antagonists -- Kylo Ren and Palpatine -- are at least played by living actors. This is yet another of Abrams' bad decisions, because it reframes Solo's story as little more than a plot point in Rey's.
Rey is my favourite character, so I can scarcely complain about her centrality in this narrative, but there's little avoiding the fact that with these structural changes in play, even her narrative feels lacking. Kylo Ren turns up occasionally to either purposelessly antagonize her or, later, save her life. Ben's turn back from the Dark Side is merely a contrivance to conclude the lightsabre duel on the Death Star wreckage; his story's resolution has little or nothing to do with hers besides bolstering her power at moments when it is needed, up to and including the lunatic moment where he... uh... puts life back in her and then drops dead. As many fans of the character have noted, Ben isn't even afforded a Force ghost in the final moments of the saga, firmly implying that this man who was the unsettling spine of two previous Star Wars movies just ultimately... wasn't that important.
I don't agree. Branding exercises notwithstanding, this thing is called the Skywalker Saga for a reason, and it's not because of any falderal about Rey claiming that name for her own. Ben Solo's story was the third part of a triptych that wove this narrative together, and as the conclusion of that triptych, his story had the potential to be its most resonant. There are, as mentioned previously, uncountable reasons why The Rise of Skywalker doesn't work -- as a film; as a conclusion to this trilogy; or as a conclusion to the nine-part Skywalker Saga -- but losing hold of Ben Solo's narrative thread (in a film, ironically, that is otherwise obsessed with bloodlines and progeny) is what cements The Rise of Skywalker's ultimate failure.
Destroy All Monsters was once a column on ScreenAnarchy. Matt Brown's first book, The Cinema of Survival -- Mad Max: Fury Road, is available for pre-order.