Note: The following text does not contain spoilers for "Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker."
Save for a handful of anxious Redditors and merciless trolls, the desire to experience "Star Wars" with virgin eyes has been at the core of the fan experience for forty-plus years. But that same resistance to spoilers may be at fault for the shortcomings of "The Rise of Skywalker."
Decades after Darth Vader and company became an integral part of the pop culture zeitgeist, most fans have continued to respect the big reveals of each franchise installment. Every so often, a new viral video emerges of a kid's jaw hitting the floor during the climax of "The Empire Strikes Back." (This one's gold; so is the one below.)
Throughout the moviemaking process, most films undergo test screenings: Small groups are brought in to watch the film in its unfinished stage, and their reactions help the studio figure out what's working and what's not. Some issues can be resolved with a bit of editing; others might require entire re-shoots of key scenes.
But studio tensions are higher, and there's way more at stake, with a film like "The Rise of Skywalker." Word travels quickly over the internet, and leaks can derail a strategic marketing plan, upending the entire theatrical release and amounting to disappointment across the board. No doubt about it: Fringe fans can be malicious, and they've always been particularly prickly about "Star Wars." Vitriolic reactions arguably drove George Lucas out of his own franchise when the prequel trilogy didn't meet their expectations.
In November, a little over a month before the release of "The Rise of Skywalker," director J.J. Abrams indicated in an interview with Esquire that receiving early audience feedback was never on the table: "Of course I've shown it at a friends and family screening, but we've never done like a test screening," he said.
Okay, so perhaps Disney wanted to keep a really tight lid on "Star Wars." That makes sense — until you factor in the massive success of "Avengers: Endgame," which came out earlier this year (and smashed the box office record for 2015's "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," although "Rise" is now expected to now best "Endgame").
In stark contrast to Abrams, "Endgame" directors Joe and Anthony Russo repeatedly emphasized the importance of doing test screenings throughout the editing process. In fact, they did at least four of them.
“We’re vigilant about using test audiences to tell us whether we’re on the right track or we’re making bad decisions," they told Box Office Pro. "With 'Endgame,' it had one of the most incredible audience responses in Marvel history."
The test screenings even helped the Russos determine whether the film's 3-hour length would be an issue, telling Collider that viewers were so riveted, "not a single person got up to use the bathroom." (And honestly? Someone in my row did go to the bathroom during "Rise of Skywalker.")
Crucially, even after screening the film over and over, the risk of spoilers was kept at bay. The "Endgame" cast begged fans to keep the major twists a secret at least through opening weekend, and it essentially worked. Although, to be fair, even the biggest shocks of "Endgame" were basically expected. Did anyone really believe that Tom Holland's Spider-Man, Chadwick Boseman's "Black Panther" and more beloved franchise newcomers had permanently disappeared into the abyss? And weren't we all pretty prepared, even if crushed, to say goodbye to certain superheroes?
Several genuinely surprising moments pepper "The Rise of Skywalker," and it's understandable that the studio wanted to keep those reveals under wraps. But most of the film's flaws are actually unrelated to those scenes. Rather, the issues are more about overall plot, pacing and dialogue. (The inclination to heavily feature Carrie Fisher, who died long before the film started shooting, is admirable, but test audiences almost certainly would've said to pull back a bit. Everyone knows those scenes weren't actually filmed face-to-face and it's distracting.)
Nobody likes spoilers, and Disney's commitment to the element of surprise is, on the whole, a service to fans. But think of it this way: Everyone knew how "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" would end, given that it came straight from a book, and fans still showed up in droves for Parts 1 and 2. And speaking of "Harry Potter" and "Avengers," test audiences might've also pointed out that a few important pieces of dialogue in "Rise of Skywalker" are too similar to ones we've heard in past franchise finales; one of Rey's pivotal lines is a near-direct rip from the mouth of Iron Man.
Studio execs know the ins and outs of what makes a movie good, but the ego-busting truth is that a general audience can recognize what makes one great. Normal, everyday people are fully equipped to critique even the most well-crafted of films. And to that end, while the critics have so far been lukewarm about "The Rise of Skywalker," that doesn't mean fans won't love it. We'll just have to wait through this weekend to find out.
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