The ninth film, The Rise of Skywalker, binds together the threads of the story, concluding not just the two films that have preceded it but the other eight films with which it collectively tells the story of the Skywalker family: Anakin, who fell into darkness and became Darth Vader; Luke, who was raised a farmboy but became a Jedi knight; and Ben, now Kylo Ren, whose journey to redemption takes the story into its final frames.
It also features the final on-screen performance of actress Carrie Fisher, who plays Princess Leia, and heralds the return of scoundrel-turned-rebel-general Lando Calrissian, played by Williams, who first appeared in the 1980 film The Empire Strikes Back and whose return serves as one of the final pieces of the jigsaw in a long-arc story that, for many, spans our shared lifetime.
“I think it was the best,” Williams says, smiling, when referring to The Empire Strikes Back, which served as the first Star Wars sequel,excluding the much-maligned Star Wars Holiday Special. His position is not controversial nor ego-driven; it is shared by much of the Star Wars fan community and the legendary film critic Pauline Kael.
“That was the introduction of Lando Calrissian and certainly it was an opportunity to work with, at that time, certainly one of the most extraordinary filmmakers in George Lucas. I got tremendously excited about it. And then when I got my name, Lando Calrissian, the cape was part of the image, it was a great idea. I’m a product of those old swashbuckling movies with Errol Flynn. So I said, this is going to be a swashbuckling character.”
Williams reprised the role in 1983’s Return of the Jedi, the US public radio adaptation of the original Star Wars trilogy and, more recently, the animated Star Wars: Rebels television series and the video game Star Wars: Battlefront. Now 82, Williams is still a fit man, serious for much of our conversation but able to produce Lando’s trademark charm – and that winning smile – instantly.
Speaking to The Sun-Herald in a wood-panelled parlour of the Montage Hotel in Beverly Hills, Williams says the essential heroism of Lando Calrissian – a good man who made some bad deals – was still there when he returned to the role.
“You don’t lose the initial charm of the character, that kind of heroic figure, you don’t lose that. I think in this situation, there’s a kind of depth that didn’t exist before,” he says, but declines to offer more detail for risk of spoiling the story. “He’s a good guy and he’s a hero. He certainly proved himself a hero. But I think of him really in the same way I think of [casino mogul] Steve Wynn in Las Vegas. That’s how I see Lando.”
Tougher was returning to Star Wars after the loss of its much-loved princess-turned-general Leia, played by Fisher. “Working with Carrie was a lot of fun because she’s a very funny, witty, very smart individual and we always had a lot of fun just messing around with each other and just having fun; I miss her,” Williams says. “[Outside of filming] we didn’t see each other all the time, but we, every now and again, would run into each other and talk about meeting up somewhere, but then never really got around to doing that.”
The new company of actors is different to the company of Fisher, Mark Hamill and Harrison Ford, Williams says, but he is not sure why. “The kind of cohesiveness [the audience sees] doesn’t exist until you see the final product, so everything for me was pieces and I know that those pieces will be put together, so that we all will have an experience. The trailer … I get chills when I see that trailer. It’s so strong and so powerful. And of course, Daisy Ridley [who plays Rey], I think she has an incredible presence on the screen. She brings a strength and a power, and a femininity at the same time. That is powerful.”
Different, too, were the directorial touches of George Lucas, who directed the first Star Wars and produced its sequels, and J.J. Abrams, who directs The Rise of Skywalker and has effectively shepherded the story to its conclusion.
“George was always there guiding things, so I always got the feeling that he didn’t necessarily trust his vision in other people’s hands without being there,” Williams says. “J.J. … you feel his energy, he sparkles, he’s building all the time, building layers. You can visualise it, you can feel it, you can see it, you know. He’s more animated. He’s fun to watch. I loved working with him.”
Getting the ending right
There is much riding on The Rise of Skywalker. In its immediate context, it concludes a three-part story that began with The Force Awakens in 2015. It also concludes a nine-film cycle that began with Star Wars in 1977. But in a far more personal sense, it closes a story which began when many of us were children: one of Jedi knights, rebel princesses, dark lords and a great space conflict so grand and awe-inspiring that it shook the stars. There is a lot riding on any film, but closing a chapter on our shared childhood? There’s a lot riding on that.
It is perhaps a powerful indication of the cultural and emotional power of Star Wars that we have forgiven many of its missteps. And, given its astonishing success, it may surprise to reflect on its history and discover there were many.
The original trilogy – Ewoks aside – is largely flawless. Irvin Kershner’s The Empire Strikes Back is unequivocally the best film in structure and tone, but George Lucas’ 1977 Star Wars is perhaps unique in cinema history. And Richard Marquand’s Return of the Jedi layered the cake with richness of detail: the Emperor, the lightsabre duel between father and son, and the redemption of Darth Vader.
The prequel stories were a mixed bag. Some elements – Liam Neeson’s Qui Gon Jinn, the sinister Darth Maul and the Clone Wars, hinted at in the original Star Wars with Princess Leia’s holographic plea for help to Obi-Wan Kenobi, were powerful contributions to the Star Wars canon. But the prequels also gave us Jar-Jar Binks, the biological “midichlorian” explanation for the previously “mystical” Force and a birth for Darth Vader that felt poorly ripped straight from the pages of James Whale’s Frankenstein.
The newer sequel trilogy, too, came with wrinkles. Repeated story elements – the Death Star/Starkiller Base, the desert planet Tattooine/Jakku, the masked villain Darth Vader/Kylo Ren and the story-slowing misdirection of characters, such as Supreme Commander Snoke and Captain Phasma who landed with narrative promise but ultimately came to nothing, were a problem. It is a dark reflection on the long-arc story that at least two of the films (the prequel The Phantom Menace and the sequel The Last Jedi) could be dropped from the larger cycle of films without interrupting the story.
So The Rise of Skywalker has a lot riding on it. It must finish its trilogy and wrap up the Skywalker story. It also has to somehow nod to all eight films before it, particularly the original, and deliver a thrilling finish to the clash between Empire and rebellion. May the Force be with them.
What comes next?
As the nine-film Skywalker story draws to a close, a four-decade-long film cycle that improbably spans barely 1000 minutes of screen time, the Star Wars story itself sits at a crossroads. Unlike the franchise machines of Marvel and DC Comics, the future for Star Wars is less certain.
There is no central driving narrative, outside of plans to begin a new trilogy and a new story within the Star Wars universe. Those films, planned for 2022, 2024 and 2026, were being developed by Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, but their involvement dissolved in the wake of their Netflix deal and, not to be indelicate, a less-than-thrilling final season of Game of Thrones.
Talk of a second trilogy from The Last Jedi director Rian Johnson has also faded into background noise, overtaken by the promise of a single film from Marvel auteur Kevin Feige, the hugely buzzy Star Wars television series The Mandalorian, from Jon Favreau and Dave Filoni, and the promise of several more television projects, including an Obi-Wan Kenobi series featuring actor Ewan McGregor and a still-in-development Rogue One spin-off about the life of rebel spy Cassian Andor (Diego Luna).
Stars Wars: The Rise of Skywalker opens on December 19.
Michael Idato is the culture editor-at-large of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.