I did not go into the documentary The Skywalker Legacy expecting an unvarnished look at how Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker became such a mess. That’s not the story Disney or Lucasfilm wants to tell about their properties, and it doesn’t matter that Rise of Skywalker made over a billion dollars worldwide. The narrative needed to be “this is a victory lap” and so the documentary adheres to that belief. The result is a film where you get occasional glimpses at a neat thing during the production but mostly it’s a parade of people saying how meaningfuland important this all is while we know the resulting film is kind of a disaster. At its best, The Skywalker Legacyshows what happens when more care is put into being a fan of Star Wars than what would work best for the characters.
The best way to follow The Rise of Skywalker is they use the plot of the film as a guide for what they’ll be covering. So, for example, they’ll talk about Kylo Ren not because they’ve been building to that, but because that’s when the character makes his entrance onto the Star Destroyer, so that’s an opportunity to talk about rebuilding his mask (although, tellingly, they only discuss the look of the reconstructed mask, not the thematic reasoning behind putting it back together). Then they’ll move to whatever happened next in the movie to talk about puppets they built or practical sets and so forth. As a broad overview of various nifty things that happened during production, it’s serviceable yet consistently thin.
Watching The Skywalker Legacy, I couldn’t help but compare it to The Last Jedi documentary, The Director and the Jedi, which also covers production, but doesn’t seem afraid of conflict. A large part of that documentary is director Rian Johnson and actor Mark Hamill butting heads over the story and Luke’s arc, and that makes it a captivating film because those creative differences can yield fascinating compromises and revelations. By comparison, The Skywalker Legacy wants you to know that everyone had an amazing time, fun was had by all, and they honored the past films. It’s a lot like saying you’re part of a legendary music group because one time you shared the stage with them. Rise of Skywalker, through this documentary, makes a case for Episode 9’s legitimacy through proximity and reference rather than any serious engagement beyond the superficial.
There are moments where if you squint you can see the coming pitfalls. For example, there’s one scene where you have director J.J. Abrams surrounded by people who are kind of baffled by the Sith dagger and how it’s going to be incorporated into the story, and Abrams and co-writer Chris Terrio are kind of struggling for an answer. Or, you have Abrams trying to tie everything together by bringing back Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), and everyone “Ooohs” and “Ahhhs” when McDiarmid comes on set in full Palpatine regalia, but there’s really no exploration of how damaging a decision this is for the whole story and why it undermines their narrative goals. There’s no moment where Abrams says, “If I intended for Palpatine to be such a pivotal character, I should have made a bigger deal about him in The Force Awakens.”
The Skywalker Legacy opens not with footage from the movies or even behind-the-scenes footage from The Rise of Skywalker. It’s behind-the-scenes footage from Return of the Jedi, where a bunch of Star Wars fans in 1982 are eager to get a look at what they think will be the final Star Wars movie. The intent here is to tie this storied past to the “real” final installment (although I personally believe Disney won’t hesitate to make episodes 10, 11, and 12 when the time calls for it), but it also shows that the filmmakers behind Rise of Skywalker have more in common with those fans than with George Lucas. What The Skywalker Legacy consistently shows are people who are such fans of Star Wars that they’re not exactly sure how to conclude Star Wars.
On the one hand, I can acknowledge that Abrams, with all the expectations and bureaucracy, had an impossible task ahead of him. I can also admit that from a technical standpoint, what this documentary shows is nothing short of awe-inspiring in terms of the craftsmanship of the crew-people. I have no doubt that everyone on this project worked their fingers bloody to make this film a reality; I just wish The Skywalker Legacy was a bit more forthcoming about the reality of what happened on The Rise of Skywalker.
The Rise of Skywalker is now available to own on digital, and will be available on 4K, Blu-ray, and DVD on March 31st.