How Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker Returned to the Death Star

A return to the Death Star has been in the works since the concept stage of Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker Death Star

The trailers for The Rise of Skywalker reveal a lot and nothing at all. The central conflict is still a mystery, although we know Jedi trainee Rey will to go-to-toe with the evil Supreme Leader Kylo Ren, ending her story as it began: among the wreckage of the previous generation’s wars. As revealed in the movie’s very first trailer, Rey, Finn, and Poe have to return to the ruins of the Death Star, which now floats over icy blue water on an undisclosed planet. 

“It felt like going into the haunted house, the place that you have to go to,” director J.J. Abrams told EW regarding the return of the Death Star. “This is a story of people having to grapple with the burden the prior generation dumps on those that follow. So literally returning to this wreck of the past and having to fight it out felt like an obvious metaphor, but also felt incredibly cinematic.”

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Surprisingly, Abrams and the rest of the creative team behind the Sequel Trilogy have been planning to return to the Death Star since the development stages of The Force Awakens. The creative meetings for Episode VII centered around two questions posed by co-production designer Rick Carter: “How strong is the Force?” and “Who is Luke Skywalker?” Part of answering those questions led to the idea of a finale aboard a drowned Death Star. 

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The Art of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the making-of book by Phil Szostak, gives us a deeper look into how the Death Star eventually made its return in The Rise of Skywalker:

Why the Death Star?

During the concept art phase in January 2013, artist Iain McCaig worked on a scene for The Force Awakens that would have led the story’s young hero, originally named Kira, to discovering the location of Luke Skywalker aboard the ruins of the Imperial space station.

“When the adventure’s over, Kira finds a hidden map inside the Emperor’s tower of the second Death Star. And the map tells you where the Jedi are and where Luke is hiding.”

As revealed in The Art of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Kira meeting Luke Skywalker and learning the ways of the Force from the Jedi Master in isolation was originally a major plot point in George Lucas’ outline for Episode VII. Luke’s role is obviously very different in what became The Force Awakens, with the Jedi Master and the Death Star having to wait until the sequels to truly leave their marks on the new trilogy, but in this early concept phase, they both capped Episode VII. The idea of finding Luke at the end of the movie clearly stuck.

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Instead of a stopping point at the beginning of Rey’s journey, the Death Star is one of the places that closes out the adventure. Why was the Death Star chosen in the first place? Perhaps it goes back to Abrams’ ideas about the Sequel Trilogy trio learning about how the previous generation’s war affects them. Abrams has been criticized for hewing too closely to the imagery and structure of the Original Trilogy, but he has also created characters with various intriguing relationships to that era, from Poe’s hero worship of Leia Organa to Kylo Ren’s obsession with his grandfather, Darth Vader. Going back to the Death Star, the scavenger literally exploring the ruins of where the Empire’s fall was assured, fits in with that theme perfectly. 

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What inspired the look of the Death Star wreckage?

“Fire and ice” was a key visual juxtaposition for Carter when working on the look of The Force Awakens. Before the idea of the Death Star wreckage was proposed, artist Erik Tiemens illustrated a Jedi standing over blue-black water, wielding a double-bladed lightsaber. One blade is red, the other blue. This “fire and ice” color scheme and other concept art Tiemens created eventually influenced the look of the fight in the snow on Starkiller Base at the end of The Force Awakens. (This idea was in place before the character or even the concept of Kylo Ren was solidified. Ideas for the “Jedi Killer” character which became Kylo Ren start later, in June 2013.) 

Around the same time the image of Starkiller Base was being created, artists were also working on images of the Millennium Falcon flying through blue ocean toward the underwater ruins of the Emperor’s throne room. The color scheme and lighting are the same as those seen in some trailers for The Rise of Skywalker. The artists weren’t always considering this from a story perspective, though: concept design supervisor Ryan Church is quoted as saying “Rick [Carter] said, ‘What if the Emperor’s chamber had crash-landed after the second Death Star explosion?’ That doesn’t make any sense, but that’s when Rick knows he has something. He’ll say, ‘Exactly!’”

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The underwater Death Star concept didn’t survive through the summer of concept work. By August 2013, Carter had solidified that the movie would take place across three planets—“Desert, forest, snow,” concept artist Christian Alzmann quotes Carter as saying. These terrains eventually became Jakku, Takodana, and Starkiller Base. But it seems that Abrams liked the Death Star concept so much that he couldn’t help but go back to it when it came time to make The Rise of Skywalker.

Shards of the Death Star stick out of a violent ocean in Episode IX footage. We also see brief glimpses of Rey and Kylo Ren standing inside the Emperor’s decrepit throne room, the underwater concept art from The Force Awakens clearly an inspiration. What has brought hero and villain to this place of darkness and what does the space station’s return mean for the saga as a whole? We’ll find out on Dec. 20.

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Megan Crouse writes about Star Wars and pop culture for StarWars.com, Star Wars Insider, and Den of Geek. Read more of her work here. Find her on Twitter @blogfullofwords.

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