The big day is almost upon us, so I wanted to take a moment to gather my thoughts going into Ep. VIII (TLJ). I reread my review from Ep. VII (here), and while I enjoyed that movie I think it suffered from three main flaws:
- Lack of worldbuilding (e.g. new ships, alien races, Jedi lore etc.)
- Rey is inexplicably overpowered and good at everything
- Kylo Ren is not a sufficiently frightening villain
Yes I purposefully ignored what many consider to be the most fatal flaw of Ep. VII (TFA) which is that it was essentially just Ep. IV all over again, which is completely true. Point 1 touches on it a little. But as I’ve said before I believe that was (for good or ill) an intentional choice by a notoriously conservative Disney studio that wanted a safe bet on their 4 billion dollar investment in the franchise. It was not what a lot of fans hoped TFA would be, but it is what it is. I found TFA to be an enjoyable film that left me excited for the next one. All that being said, if subsequent installments do not take some more narrative risks and move the story along, I will consider this trilogy irredeemable.
I think with the number of new films Disney has planned, we are going to see the story expand in a lot of ways. We did get Rogue One, which I really enjoyed despite the criminally underutilized role of Forest Whitaker. (Seriously, if you cast an actor with an Oscar and a BAFTA, then he should have more screen time and be at least somewhat integral to the plot) I think most of Rogue One’s issue stemmed from the rewrites and reshoots that plagued its production, so I am just happy it turned out as well as it did.
But to address my points about Ep. VII. These are things that I think Ep. VIII must address to be successful.
- There must be some more worldbuilding, and that really should include some new ships and weapons. The X-wing and TIE fighter are among the most iconic images in all of film. Even the atrocious prequels tried to forge their own identity with the Naboo starfighter and Darth Maul’s lightstaff. (Shouldn’t he have used a maul, though? Just saying.) However TFA was content to rest on their laurels and did not even bother to mine the whole cannon of ships available to the Rebels. We didn’t even see any Y-wings. And no, I don’t buy into any garbage about the Incom T70 X-wing replacing the T65 X-wing and Y-wing because it has both air-air and air-ground capabilities. Fans do not want to see incrementally upgraded starfighters on screen. We want a fantastic battle filled with beloved X-wings, Y-wings, TIEs, and cool new ships thrown in the mix.
- Much has been said about Rey being a strong female lead in a scifi film (Sometimes I wonder if it escapes people’s notice that Leia was also a female lead in the original.) But she was truthfully an uncompelling character. She lives as an orphan foraging for scraps on a backwater planet, but we are expected to believe she is somehow an ace pilot, crack mechanic, lightsaber-wielding, mindtrick-using almost-Jedi, despite the fact that she didn’t even believe in the Force at the beginning of the movie. I expect that this will be addressed in TLJ, but I am also afraid it will be done in a very retcon sort of way. JJ Abrams wanted the big mystery of the film to be about Rey’s parentage, but honestly I’m not that interested in that question. She is undoubtedly tied into the Skywalker clan somehow. She is probably Luke’s daughter or niece or something. This is not that exciting of a question.How does she have all of these skills and force knowledge that she should not have? That is the real question that must be addressed. They give us some hints, and it seems likely she trained at the Jedi Academy at a very young age before Kylo turned bad and Luke went AWOL. Maybe that explains some of it, but it doesn’t explain why she remains languishing on Jakku living on scraps, or why she does not remember her time with Luke. Some have suggested that her memories were wiped with the Force, but is this really possible? In 6 prior films have we ever heard about someone having false memories implanted with the Force? Also the genesis of her amazing skillset is not presented as a mystery in TFA. We are expected to accept that, and then in TLJ it will be retconned by saying she trained with Luke when she was younger. Even if this was the plan all along, this is just bad writing. We spent the whole first film being annoyed by Rey instead of growing to like an important new character.
So I say all that to say this: Rey must be more flawed in TLJ. We need to see her struggling with the Force. We need to see her struggle with the paths of Light and Dark, and being afraid to confront the evil before her. This is also related to my complaints about Kylo Ren in Point 3.
- Kylo is a weak villain. TFA revealed early on that he is Han’s son (gasp), and we know he is not really a full Sith. Rey is able to resist his mind probe, and he also loses to her in a lightsaber duel. In fact Finn, who is not even Force sensitive (that we know of), is able to hold his own for a few minutes against Kylo. I am not scared of Kylo Ren in the way that I was scared of Vader. Part of the appeal of the original Star Wars trilogy was the underdog element: a no-name farm boy from Tatooine rises up to defeat a seemingly invulnerable villain. Classic David v. Goliath. The fight between Kylo and Rey is more like a football game where Kylo is a one-touchdown favorite, but you wouldn’t be surprised to see a Rey upset.
I do not really see a way to salvage Kylo as a villain going forward. I think this is the most grievous (pun?) sin of TFA. It did not set up the rest of the trilogy on a strong foundation of a terrifying and strangely compelling bad guy. I see only two viable options: rely more heavily on Snoke, about whom we know little, or bring in a third player. This is the same mistake that was made by killing Darth Maul in Phantom Menace and then replacing him with a ho-hum Count Dooku in Attack of the Clones. It would have been much, much better for Maul to survive and haunt Obi Wan for the remainder of the trilogy. Dooku was entirely dispensable in Clones because we knew he would not be a contender when the Big Bad (Palpatine) came out in Ep. III. TLJ faces the same dilemma: they either have to introduce a new bad guy or bring out the Big Bad too early. If they do introduce a new Sith, they need to survive and remain a relevant part of the story through the next film. Possibly they can use Capt. Phasma (who did not get much screen time in TFA) to fill this role because the audience has at least already been introduced to her. This might be the best option available, but Phasma is not known as a Force user, so it will be difficult to sell her as a worthy foil to Rey and Luke.
This brings me to a final point that I hope to see in TLJ: for the love of all that is Star Wars we had better FINALLY see Jedi Master Luke at the height of his powers! Luke is supposed to be the greatest Jedi Master of all time, and he was sitting on the sidelines for all of TFA. I know that ultimately this trilogy is about Rey, Finn, and Poe, so probably the final showdown will be between Rey and Snoke. That is why this film is the perfect opportunity to see Luke go full Rambo and decimate an entire regiment of stormtroopers or something. They should save Rey’s big moment for the last film and make the climax of this one about Luke. We have been waiting forty years to see Luke kick butt and take names, and now is the time.
Final thoughts: I am completely stoked to see the new film. I do think the last one had some serious but not fatal flaws, and I think they can potentially be resolved in this episode to set up Ep. IX to conclude an excellent trilogy. On the flip side, if they don’t address these issues now, the whole thing may still go south. I am optimistic that this one will be good.