Last year’s Star Wars: Episode VII The Force Awakens was not a movie with a strong identity of its own. Critics responded well and audiences enjoyed it, but The Force Awakens’‘s biggest criticism has been how familiar the plot felt. Fans very quickly noted the plot, characters, and themes of the first installment of the sequel trilogy were a clear, intentional call-back to the first installment of the original trilogy. With the filming for Episode VIII just having wrapped up, it is time to look ahead at how that movie needs to establish a new, distinct identity for the sequel trilogy.
Looking at the plot of Episode VII feels like poetry – it all rhymes. The characters of Rey, Kylo Ren, Finn, and Poe all can be immediately compared to Luke, Darth Vader, Leia, and Han. Starkiller Base is the Death Star. Luke’s location is the Death Star Plans. The First Order are the Empire. The Resistance are the Rebels. And BB-8 is R2-D2. Maybe a few scenes ended up out of order, the Tarkin wanna-be survives the movie, and an old character has to play the part of Obi-Wan. But otherwise, The Force Awakens has nothing we haven’t already seen.
For all the criticism that the prequel trilogy received, those movies were by no means mere imitations of the originals. They had their own identities. The prequels set out to tell a very different kind of story of tragedy and failure — whether they succeeded or not. Artistically, the prequels take place in a clean, elegant universe. That was clearly different from the gritty, rusted look that the movies of the ’70s and ’80s had. Their plots never involve superweapons, the sides in the Clones Wars are not good vs evil, and the heroes win every battle only to ultimately come out losers in the story.
J.J. Abrams has left enough open in Episode VII with his patented “mystery box” formula to excite fans to speculate where Episode VIII is going. There are all kinds of wild theories as to Rey’s parentage, who Snoke is, and where Kylo Ren’s arc is going. But will they even be necessary if Episode VIII simply leeches off the identities of the original films?
Disney knows better than to stick to the traditional at this point. The Marvel Cinematic Universe continues to offer new heroes and villains, new types of films with different tones — in the last few years we’ve had a wacky heist comedy, a gritty action film, and a weird space opera, along with the wonderful superhero action. And Pixar only makes a new sequel if it can find an interesting way to explore a new element of a character — Finding Dory is the most successful movie of the year because it did things differently. Disney animated films only return to the princess well if they have a new direction to take, like Frozen did. Audiences want something familiar, but something unique and interesting as well.
There’s no reason the sequel trilogy can’t grow out of the mighty shadow of its predecessors. To escape the endless cycle of nostalgia, Episode VIII needs to aim for something utterly unlike Empire Strikes Back. Do not have a Hoth stand-in, do not turn Luke into Yoda, do not have Kylo Ren reveal that he is Rey’s cousin or uncle or former bestie or something.
Episode VIII will most likely be the darkest entry in the sequel trilogy. That’s standard three-act structure. Empire Strikes Back was dark, but let us see some variation in the darkness. Can it be a three-front Galactic Civil War? Are there variations on the Force that we have not seen yet? What if Luke is really evil? At least it’s something different.
There is a lot of promise in Episode VII. It was a very good pilot episode of a whole new generation of Star Wars story. The characters were likable, the tone was where it needed to be, the script moved properly, and the remaining mysteries are interesting. But all of this is wasted if you can solve the mysteries just by watching the old movies. Already with Rogue One: A Star Wars Story the franchise seems to be trying for stories not involving the Skywalker family. That is a hopeful sign.
The “same old thing” was great, but it’s time for the Star Wars universe to reach its full potential.