I know a number of people have done Palpatine-less TROS edits, but it seems to me he’s integrated in the story SO much that you sort of just have to accept the glaring gaps that cutting him out entirely creates. However, has anyone played with the idea of making Palpatine a holographic message accompanying the Final Order fleet he stashed away before his (permanent, one-and-only) death?
The film could start with Kylo getting the wayfinder from Mustafar, going to Exegol…and instead of a cloning facility, he finds cultists who are just maintaining the fleet, who present him with a posthumous message from the late Emperor explaining what it is. Perhaps “it will be yours if you do as I ask” could be further recontextualized as originally intended for Vader, a fallen Luke, or Snoke.
Changing the heroes’ mission from finding Palpatine to finding the fleet would be fairly straightforward, though there would be other hurdles later on that I don’t (yet) have ideas for, the biggest one being what Rey’s doing on Exegol (if she even goes there at all), or whether the Kef Bir duel can be made into a sufficiently climactic final confrontation between her and Kylo with a satisfying resolution.
Another benefit would be that, if we only ever see Palpatine as a decades-old recording, there would be a lot more wiggle room to give him new dialogue via AI or a soundalike, and use distortion effects to mitigate the discrepancies.
EDIT: Okay, I think I have a rough-albeit-workable idea of how the third act & related stuff could go (naturally, a no-Palpatine cut would also mean Rey isn’t a Palpatine):
Rey stabs Kylo during the Kef Bir duel. She then heals him, but is horrified that she stabbed him in the first place so she flees in Kylo’s TIE. The first major difference here is that before fleeing she drops the Skywalker lightsaber and leaves it behind.
Kylo has a heart-to-heart with Han’s memory. He renounces the dark side, but after he throws away his crossguard lightsaber we see a new shot of his gloved hand picking up his grandfather’s lightsaber. (It doesn’t seem as controversial to most people here as the other controversial TROS elements, but personally I hate the Force teleporting objects.)
Rey flees to Ahch-To, terrified by her inner darkness (which could be further strengthened beforehand if this edit goes with the “Rey killed her parents” concept). Luke gives her encouragement, minus the Palpatine stuff. Edits would need to be made to remove the Skywalker saber’s visibility; one easy thing could be to start the scene (after the island establishing shot) with her and Luke already in conversation. Luke gives her Leia’s saber not for any vague symbolic reason, but to replace the one she doesn’t have anymore.
Rey flies to Exegol, laying down nav markers for the Resistance fleet just like in the official movie. She lands, and instead of confronting Palpatine she is faced with all-new Force visions (combination of recycled & modified footage & audio, new voice work for generic Sith whispers. Lot of possibilities here). Now this scene is more of a Dagobah cave-type situation, in which she’s here to confront the dark side within herself. Palpatine could easily be part of these visions (to reuse footage without him actually being back).
The space battle began while all this is going on. Things look bad and the darkness is overwhelming, but Rey’s faith is restored when she connects with the Jedi spirits and/or senses that a redeemed Ben has arrived to help. She overcomes the visions, rejects the darkness, has passed the ultimate trial, and is now a true Jedi. The red guards attack her while the Knights of Ren attack Ben, and they both kick butt separately.
Ben and Rey reunite, and perhaps see the Palpatine hologram one last time. Before they can discuss what happens next, an explosion rocks the arena (maybe a ship crash or a stray shot). It hurls Ben into the pit and seemingly kills Rey. Then Ben crawls out, and the rest can play out either as normal or with whatever other unrelated changes people have made (Ben lives/Ben dies, they kiss/no kiss).