Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker has a lot going on. In fact, there’s so much packed into the movie, that it doesn’t even have time to explain simple things that might have helped certain plot devices make significantly more sense in the grand scheme of the entire Skywalker saga. And that includesthe opening scene, which doesn’t take the time to tell us that we’re back on a planet we’ve been to before. But in order to discuss that detail, we have to dive into spoilers.
In the opening scene of The Rise of Skywalker, we see Kylo Ren angrily tearing through a bunch of aliens in bowl-like helmets with goggles and dingy, cloak-like clothing. He’s slicing through them one-by-one, even using the Force to pull one of them right into his lightsaber blade. But why?
As we learn, it’s all so he can get his hands on a Sith wayfinder though we don’t know what the hell that is yet. It’s a pyramid-shaped device that almost looks like a Sith holocron, but it’s actually how Kylo Ren finds his way to the Sith planet called Exegol.
The film never explains where this sequence takes place since it’s much more concerned with establishing the break-neck speed with which director J.J. Abrams moves through this entire movie, so we just see Kylo Ren head off to his meeting with Emperor Palpatine.
Thankfully, we have the Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker: The Visual Dictionary released on the day the movie came out to provide some insight into that detail. In the book, there’s an entire section on the planet Mustafar, the volcanic world where Darth Vader built his castle lair that we saw in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. It’s also where we saw the climactic battle with Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith. And this is where the opening scene takes place.
This would have been interesting to know so we could better connect what’s happening with the Sith wayfinder to Star Wars history. At the very least, then we would know why this item is here, that it has a larger history in the dark side, and we would also get a little insight into what has happened to Mustafar in the time since it was left behind by Darth Vader.
It’s the exclusion of these kind of details that frustrate me with The Rise of Skywalker. The entire film moves too fast and glosses over so many details that we never have enough time to understand the importance or weight of them. There are even details that require explanation from director J.J. Abrams for us to fully grasp them in the movie.
There’s one particularly telling and effective moment in The Skywalker Legacy, the feature-lenght documentary that’s included on the Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker home release that sums up much of the ambivalence and consternation that some had with J.J. Abrams’ return to the Star Wars universe. After showing the intricate construction of a giant, practical snake monster, the doc cuts back to footage of Jabba The Hutt, that old analogue beast that slithered its way into our hearts. The sentiment is clear – we’re making movies like we used to! A celebration of practical effects, the dripping of k-y jelly to give viscosity just like the old costume days, it’s all there. There’s excitement on set, everyone talking about how amazing it looks, how lifelike, how this is how you’re supposed to do movies like this.
Cut to Visual Effects Supervisor Roger Guyett who shatters the myth, letting us know the creature was replaced by a CGI version in post.
Guyett’s resume is mighty. Having made his bones on groundbreaking films like Twister and Casper, he helped Spielberg bring the events of D-Day to screen in Saving Private Ryan, helped bring to life the best looking film in the Harry Potter series, Alfonso Cuarón’s Prisoner of Azkaban, and even made the theatrical version of Rent feel more than a stage production. Guyett has had many collaborations with Abrams – from the Star Trek Reboots through The Force Awakens and The Rise of Skywalker he was even second unit director on the former, as well as working with George Lucas on Episode III to round off the prequels. He’s in a unique position to speak to these changing landscapes of epic filmmaking.
We spoke at length about the apparent contradictions and indulgences in making a Star Wars film, and he made the case for why nothing was wasted and all contributed to the final presentation. He was erudite and open to the discussion, making for a dream conversation with a man who quite literally has helped shape what amazes us on screen for decades.
The following has been edited for clarity and concision.
We see practical effects being championed as almost a marketing ploy with the “postquels” as a mix of nostalgia and an attempt to delineate from Lucas’ second trilogy. In some ways the love of the practically-realized snake undercuts the extraordinary CGI you and your team accomplished, and raises questions about why the need to fetishize the on-set inclusions when they’re replaced anyway. Could you talk about that ethos, that somehow doing stuff on a computer is a “cheat” while doing an effect practically is not?
I think at the end of the day we’re all trying to do the best that we can, trying to make the best, most dramatic or emotional movie we can visually. I’m coming from figuring out how do you get the most...