(1) Use some of the TROS Palpatine footage…but not as Palpatine. If you take Palpatine in the life-support rig and black out his face with shadows, you’re left with a creepy, mysterious hooded figure who could easily be seen as simply the leader of the Exegol cultists, someone who either Snoke or Palpatine had tasked with overseeing the Final Order fleet, and who could be dubbed over with original dialogue to facilitate a wide variety of plot changes without having to worry about fitting lip movements or matching the voice of a preexisting actor.
Suddenly, instead of a character whose revival saddles the film with massive questions and complications for previous stories, we’ve simply got another henchman whose origins can mean as much or as little as the viewer chooses to read into it without truly mattering to the story. Making use of the Palpatine footage in this way also serves a practical purpose that would almost be a necessity to making certain scenes usable, simply because he’s the only person in these scenes that Kylo or Rey interacts with.
Other TROS Palpatine footage could also be modified to use as an old hologram he left for one of his apprentices or other servants, and/or part of a dark-side vision Rey experiences. This would give us the best of both worlds—preserving some of Ian McDiarmid’s massively-enjoyable performance while leaving the character’s ROTJ fate intact.
There are lots of ways the above ideas could go; here’s one example I came up with, as a proof-of-concept:
As Kylo explores the temple, he hears the voice of a Sith Acolyte, the leader of the Exegol operation who for now we’ll simply call the Overseer:
- OVERSEER: At last, Snoke’s apprentice graces us.
- KYLO: I killed Snoke. I’ll kill you.
- OVERSEER: Such hate! More than enough to hear the wayfinder’s call. And it led you here. Just as he knew it would lead someone worthy.
- KYLO: Who?
Kylo finds the black-robed acolytes working at unrecognizable machinery (remove the clear shot of the clone tanks, unless it can somehow be edited to convey that they’re cloning troopers instead of either Snoke or Palpatine). Kylo eventually stands before the Overseer, who gives Kylo a greeting and an explanation:
- OVERSEER: While Lord Snoke prepared the galaxy for a return to order, we kept watch over the true might of the Emperor’s Contingency. What was once Snoke’s inheritance is now yours to claim.
- KYLO: What could you give me?
- (Cue the Star Destroyers rising to the sky. The acolyte triggers an old hologram of Emperor Palpatine)
- PALPATINE MESSAGE: You have trained well, Snoke. The might of the Final Order will soon be ready. You will rule all the galaxy as the new Emperor.
(2) The cave, remember your failure at the cave! A lot of the other changes to remove Palpatine would be fairly straightforward, (like reframing the heroes’ mission from finding him to finding the fleet, changing the hangar reveal from “you’re a Palpatine” to “you killed your parents,” etc.). But the big hurdle that still remains would be how to handle the final battle.
The conventional answer seems to be moving Rey and Kylo’s Death Star duel to take place concurrently with the Exegol space battle. With all due respect to those who have gone this route, I don’t think this entirely works because it leaves the trilogy’s central hero without a role in saving the galaxy from the final threat, and it leaves Kylo with far too little to do—if Rey doesn’t heal him, the last Skywalker dying evil would be a major downer, and if Rey does heal him we’re left with a Ben Solo who apparently renounces the dark side but doesn’t actually do anything to start atoning for his actions.
So my suggestion would be to retain the official film’s general structure, but significantly alter what Rey and Ben find on Exegol—essentially, Rey still flies there to lay down nav markers for the Resistance fleet (preserving her importance to the battle), but once she reaches the arena and confronts the Overseer she experiences intense dark-side visions, comprised of moved, altered, and recycled footage from various sources. Now the scene is more of a spiritual trial like the Dagobah cave, in which Rey has to face all of her fears that have been building throughout the movie about her inner darkness.
I have an outline of how this could go, as well. The centerpiece of this vision would be the Dark Rey sequence, which would have to be removed from its earlier position—and fortunately, could be removed fairly cleanly (once Rey climbs up the ledge leading to the Death Star throne room and turns her head to the right, cut straight to the reveal shot of Kylo already there, to her right, holding the wayfinder).
With that out of the way, here’s my proposal:
- Rey lands on Exegol and comes face-to-face with The Overseer, whose red guards surround her:
- OVERSEER: What have we here? Another contender for the throne?
- REY: I haven’t come to lead the Sith…I’ve come to end them.
- OVERSEER: Really. As a Jedi?
- REY: Yes.
- OVERSEER: [laughs] Many have said such things. Some even believed them. But you know better, child. Do you think the Sith Eternal cannot see through you? Here of all places? Fear and anger define your earliest memories. They define you.
- REY: All you want is for me to hate, but I won’t. Not even you.
- OVERSEER: So you say. But Exegol has a way of…unveiling truths. We shall see soon enough.
- With that, Rey’s surroundings are swallowed in shadow, then she’s bombarded with visions. She sees and hears the Sith of the past, which lead to her again being shown herself destroying her parents’ ship, contrasted with the way she almost killed Chewie, and her stabbing of Kylo in anger. As she sees all this, Luke’s “you went straight to the dark” and Kylo’s “you wanted to prove to my mother you’re a Jedi but you’ve proven something else” thunder in her ears.
- There’s a lot of opportunity here, showing darksiders from the previous movies as well as sufficiently-convincing video game CGI or fan films (with an ethereal vision filter to mask discrepancies and imperfections). Even more opportunity to use villain audio from KOTOR, Clone Wars, Force Unleashed, Battlefront, etc.
- All of this culminates with the Dark Rey duel (with the Death Star background obscured by shadow). Dark Rey knocking Rey over transitions to Rey lying injured on the floor. As part of her vision she sees Palpatine unleashing a massive storm of Force Lightning, though we don’t see it actually connect with the Resistance fleet. Perhaps a montage can be constructed of the lightning somehow destroying planets or electrocuting her friends, just to make clear the destruction she’s seeing is symbolic and not actually happening to the fleet.
- Note: incorporating Palpatine’s lightning storm in some way would likely be a technical necessity, simply because it wreaks so much havoc with the lighting conditions of the Rey footage.
Eventually Rey calms herself, pleading with the Jedi spirits to “be with me.” She hears the voices, rises to her feet, and as the spirits appear behind her (thanks to John’s amazing edit), their light dissipates the darkness and we return to her actual surroundings. As she rises, she responds to Palpatine’s “You are nothing!” With “I… I am a Jedi.” The vision of Palpatine fades away, as do the Jedi spirits. Rey has rejected the darkness, passed the ultimate trial, and is now a true Jedi Knight.
The red guards attack Rey, and she defeats them all while Ben (who arrived while the above was going on, just as in the official movie) fights and defeats the Knights of Ren. Ben joins Rey in the arena. They raise their lightsabers in unison to confront the Overseer, who doesn’t stand a chance against two Jedi.
Admittedly, I don’t yet have a strong idea for how the end of this sequence could be fleshed out in a fully satisfying way. I suppose it would be technically possible to give the Overseer the ability to use Sith Lightning and have Rey kill him the way she kills Palpatine, but I personally wouldn’t be a fan of that since I wouldn’t want to make him more significant than he is. The closest I’ve come up with so far would be having an explosion from the battle above rock the arena—maybe a ship crash or a stray shot—which destroys the Overseer, hurls Ben into the pit, and seemingly kills Rey. From there Ben could crawl out of the pit, and pick up where vanilla TROS or any number of other fanedits do (I’ve got definite opinions on what should be changed there, too, but that’s a topic that’s both beyond the scope of this thread, and which has gotten plenty of debate elsewhere on OT).