Johnson can’t shake the shadow of the striking Empire.
The Force Awakens (Star Wars Episode VII, released in 2015 and directed by J.J. Abrams) set up the Sequel Trilogy very much in the image of the Original Trilogy, drawing a fine line between revisiting and rebooting. Despite the upbeat end of the latter, with the Empire defeated and Luke Skywalker a fully-fledged Jedi, the beginning of Episode VII found the galaxy far, far away in much the same state as those of us who saw Episode IV in the seventies found it. Luke had disappeared and taken the Jedi with him; a much-aged Han Solo was scouring the galaxy for his son, Kylo Ren, with the ageless Chewy back at his side in the Millennium Falcon; and the Empire had reformed as the First Order, its rise checked by the Resistance. Some of this came as a non sequitur: the Jedi won the Galactic Civil War and should have been re-established; junior Jedi Ren seemed to have destroyed the Jedi academy with relative ease (recalling Anakin Skywalker’s rampage in Episode III); the First Order was clearly not the first anything and the Resistance wasn’t the resistance – just the New Republican Armed Forces – if anything, the First/New Order were the resistance, challenging the New Republic’s victory.
The reproduction of the setting of the Original Trilogy was matched by Episode VII’s characters, who closely paralleled those of the first: Luke became Rey, R2D2 became BB8, Han became Finn (both renegades turned good guy), Darth Vader became Kylo, Yoda became Luke, the Emperor Palpatine became Supreme Leader Snoke, and Chewy was still, well, Chewy. In addition, the plots of Episodes VII and IV were almost identical, involving a mission to destroy the Death Star in the latter and a mission to destroy the Death Planet in the former. These similarities raised the question of whether Episode VIII would follow Episode V – one of the most popular of all the various trilogies and series (the Anthology Films were launched in 2016, with Gareth Edwards’ Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) – or take the Sequel Trilogy in a different direction from the Original.
The signature opening crawl that begins Episode VIII reveals that events have moved along rather rapidly since the end of the last episode and that the skirmishes with the First Order were in fact more than they appeared, putting the New Republic first on the back foot and then on both feet on the run. The story starts with the New Republican battle fleet fleeing from the First Order and Rey attempting to persuade a reluctant Luke to join the fray. The New Republican forces – which are now indeed the Resistance – are led by Leia Organa and the central narrative is focused on the fleet, with various efforts being made to evade an extended pursuit that ends with a handful of survivors on the planet Crait. The reproduction of Episode IV in Episode VII is itself reproduced as the various locations of Episode V are revisited in Episode VIII: Hoth has become Crait, with the AT-ATs lumbering on salt rather than snow; Dagobah has become Ahch-To, host to a disgusting species or two of its own; and Bespin has become Cantonica, playground where the greedy rich spend their ill-gotten gains.
The combination of similar characters, similar places, and a similar plot sets the Sequel Trilogy firmly under the shadow of the Original, a shadow from which it unfortunately fails to escape in Episode VIII. This is not to say that Rian Johnson doesn’t introduce original and unexpected subplots and character complexities, just that they are insufficient to set Episode VIII on a par with its predecessor. Johnson also explores new themes, including a strong environmental ethic that sees Chewy turn vegetarian and Finn rescue a Fathier herd from captivity, but somewhere between Episodes V and VIII some of the magic was lost. The fault is with the Sequel Trilogy in general rather than Episode VIII in particular. Two thirds of the way through, I wonder if the main problem isn’t the absence of the affective structure that the sometimes overlapping but more often conflicting motives, desires, and goals of Luke, Leia, and Han brought to the original. The Prequel Trilogy tried to reproduce the dramatic tension with Anakin and Padmé and failed. The Sequel Trilogy is attempting the same with Ren and Rey and hasn’t quite succeeded yet. Perhaps two just isn’t enough and three isn’t always a crowd?***