Star Wars: Episode VIII – what we know, what might happen

Episode VIII is due out in time for the Star Wars 40th anniversary. Here's what we know so far, plus a bit of speculation about its events.

NB: The following contains potential spoilers for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and speculation about Episode VIII. 

“In the middle act of a movie or a book or anything else,  not much happens. It sort of evolves the story, makes the plot more complicated.” – George Lucas on The Empire Strikes Back

Disney may have had a lot riding on Star Wars: The Force Awakens – essentially, the future of an entire franchise – but next year’s Episode VIII brings potentially nail-biting risks of its own. It will, after all, have to follow on from the success of The Force Awakens – currently the third biggest film of all time in terms of ticket sales – and will also draw inevitable comparisons with The Empire Strikes Back.

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Episode VII lands just one day after the 40th anniversary of the original Star Wars’ release in 1977. If Irvin Kershner felt a chill go through his veins when Lucas offered him the chance to direct the sequel to Star Wars in the late 1970s, we can imagine Episode VIII director Rian Johnson feeling more than a little apprehensive about following The Force Awakens.

Inevitably, we don’t know too much at all about Episode VIII’s events. But by piecing the shreds of information we’ve gleaned so far, and attempting to fill in the gaps with a bit of conjecture, an intriguing picture begins to form of the saga’s next chapter. As we did with this winter’s Star Wars spin-off Rogue One, let’s look at the facts first, before getting into the rumours and unconfirmed reports surrounding Episode VIII.

  

  

Rian Johnson is the writer and director

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Yes, JJ Abrams is vacating the director’s chair and leaving the task of making Episode VIII to the Brick, Brothers Bloom and Looper filmmaker Rian Johnson. Unlike Abrams, Johnson doesn’t have a major sci-fi franchise like Star Trek in his portfolio, but this is no bad thing; before Star Wars, George Lucas’ only genre feature was the coolly dystopian THX-1138 – a far cry from the majestic space fantasy of Star Wars.

But Johnson could bring his eclectic taste in cinema to bear on Episode VIII in the same way Lucas did back in the 1970s. Lucas’ original movie was, after all, inspired by everything from Akira Kurosawa to David Lean to Flash Gordon. Johnson appears to be bringing a similarly broad palette of movies for his 2017 sequel; according to Indiewire, Johnson screened the classic war film Twelve O’Clock High (1949) and Soviet drama Letter Never Sent for his crew before filming on Episode VIII began.

As for the script, Johnson’s in charge of writing that, too, making him the only filmmaker to both write and direct a Star Wars film other than Lucas – a rare privilege indeed. We recently heard from Finn actor John Boyega that Johnson’s Episode VIII story is much “darker” than the rip-roaring Force Awakens; Star Wars screenwriting veteran Lawrence Kasdan playfully described Johnson’s script as “weird” when speaking to the LA Times.

“These movies will all be so different,” Kasdan said. “Rian Johnson is a friend of mine – he’s going to make some weird thin. If you’ve seen Rian’s work, you know it’s not going to be like anything that’s ever been in Star Wars.”

Kathleen Kennedy says the entire cast of The Force Awakens is returning

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The havoc wrought in The Force Awakens’ final third may have left you wondering exactly who would reappear in the next movie. Unlike Star Wars, which was careful to show Darth Vader spinning safely off into space in his Tie Fighter after the destruction of the Death Star, The Force Awakens didn’t actually depict Captain Phasma, General Hux or Kylo Ren scrambling away from the imploding Starkiller Base.

According to co-producer and Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy, we can all rest easy. Speaking at the London premiere of The Force Awakens last year, Kennedy said of Rian Johnson’s sequel, “There will be a handful of new cast members in Episode VIII, but also all the cast members you see here tonight will be in it as well.”

This naturally begs the question: will Han be back in Episode VIII, perhaps in flashback form, or was Kennedy just covering her tracks to avoid spoilers? Interestingly, Episode VIII’s IMDb entry lists both Harrison Ford and Max von Sydow’s Lor San Tekka (who was seen in a tiny role at the start of The Force Awakens) as being among the sequel’s returning cast. Again, this could be an attempt to hide the events of a movie that is still riding high in cinemas…

There are plenty of new characters, too

Of the new faces coming in Episode VIII, the only officially-confirmed actor is Benicio Del Toro, who’s playing a villain of currently obscure identity.

“Star Wars is coming up,” Del Toro said last September, “we will see how that turns out. Ehhh, the thing is, they don’t let me talk too much about it. I’m like the villain…”

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If you’ve seen such recent films as Sicario or Savages, you’ll know that Del Toro is capable of turning in the kind of villainous performances that reach through the screen and grab you by the throat. While the Star Wars sequels already appear to have their Sith bad guys already (Kylo Ren and Snoke) we’d be stunned if the actor was wasted on some anonymous Star Destroyer goon like Captain Needa.

In other casting news, we heard last year that Gina Rodriguez, Tatiana Maslany, Olivia Cooke and Gugu Mbatha-Raw are among the actresses on a shortlist for major roles in the film. More recently, it was suggested that Mbatha-Raw is no longer in contention, and that Diary Of A Teenage Girl actress Bel Powley could have a part in Episode VIII instead. As yet, we haven’t heard confirmation of these casting reports.

Skellig Michael is once again a setting

The Force Awakens‘ final, swirling sequence saw Rey climbing a cliff on the planet Ahch-To (bless you) – the place where a bearded Luke Skywalker has been living in solitude for many years. We know from reports which circulated last September that Episode VIII will show more of Ahch-To, since Rian Johnson, Daisy Ridley and Mark Hamill were spotted at Skellig Michael – the island off the coast of western Ireland which served as the stand-in for the planet’s dramatic landscape.

There are also reports that portions of the island and its ruins (which double for the first Jedi temple) have been recreated at Pinewood for certain scenes. From that same early portion of filming last September, Mark Hamill was spotted without his beard at an Irish pub; does this mean that the actor’s involvement in the movie ended with his scenes on Ahch-To, or does Luke Skywalker shave off his beard to signal the end of his self-imposed exile? Whatever the truth proves to be, we just like the idea of Luke Skywalker getting drunk on Guinness. The craic is strong with this one.

  

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Rey’s past

Let’s get the obvious stuff out of the way first. The Force Awakens left us with plenty of unanswered questions: who was Rey waiting for on Jakku? Is she somehow related to Luke Skywalker? What made Luke retreat to Ahch-To? What happened events turned Kylo Ren into such a Vader-worshipping, bedroom-trashing nightmare?

These are the kinds of things we’d expect to see explained at least in small part in Episode VIII – there are even signs that The Force Awakens was carefully edited to leave certain bits and pieces a mystery. In Rey’s vision, for example, it’s made more clear that she was left in the dubious care of Unkar Plutt (the greasy junkyard guy played by Simon Pegg) on Jakku. Brief glimpses of Luke and Vader on Bespin were also edited out, presumably to make the vision more ambiguous for all but the most eagle-eyed (and sharp-eared) of viewers.

Might we learn more about things like the Knights of Ren and Rey’s childhood, perhaps in flashback? Again, Max von Sydow and Harrison Ford’s presence on IMDb’s casting list might be a tiny shred of evidence to support this, even if the Star Wars saga doesn’t really go in for big flashback sequences. Maybe they’ll turn up on a holographic recording or something.

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The First Order will strike back

In The Empire Strikes Back, Lucas was keen to show that the Empire’s might was undiminished by the destruction of the Death Star – hence the huge and explosive Imperial assault on the Hoth Rebel base at the start of that film. It doesn’t seem too much of a stretch to imagine that Johnson will attempt something similar in Episode VIII, particularly given the efforts to establish the First Order’s power and reach in The Force Awakens.

After all, The Force Awakens’ liberal use of fascist imagery implied that we’re on the cusp of a new galactic confrontation along the lines of World War II, with the First Order established as the Third Reich to the original Star Wars trilogy’s Prussian Empire.

The Force Awakens’ novelisation has a scene where Leia is desperate to warn the Senate about the threat the First Order represents; once the Starkiller base destroys the New Republic’s capital on Hosnian Prime, the first blow in a much wider war appears to have been struck.

Far from being weakened by the destruction of the Starkiller, then, Episode VIII should see the First Order back and intent on establishing a new Empire across the galaxy. That Rian Johnson’s been showing his crew old war films and gritty Soviet survival dramas certainly indicates to us that the wider battle against General Hux and his cohorts is far from over.

The 1949 film Twelve O’Clock High (the one Johnson showed to his fellow filmmakers) might hint at the tone Episode VIII is going for. The movie’s about a squadron of pilots who stage deadly daylight bombing raids over war-torn France and Germany. In one stunning scene, Gregory Peck’s General Frank Savage addresses a room full of sullen-looking pilots with the following speech:

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“We’re in a war. A shooting war. We’ve got to fight, and some of us have got to die. I’m not telling you not to be afraid. Fear is normal. But stop worrying about it, and yourselves. Stop making plans. Forget about going home. Consider yourselves already dead.”

Perhaps this is what actor Benicio del Toro meant when he talked about the “cool, sci-fi realism” Johnson’s set to bring to Episode VIII. Maybe this is an indication of the grim air war Finn and Poe Dameron will get caught up in next year…

Its story could be about Rey and the Dark Side

We’ve already read all kinds of theories about what might happen in Episode VIII, but one of the most compelling ones involves Rey and her way with the Force. The screenplay for The Force Awakens was recently submitted to the Writer’s Guild of America for awards consideration, which has led certain elements of it to be shared online.

One portion of the script is particularly intriguing, since in its outline of the final fight between Rey and Kylo Ren, Rey is described as being on “a greater edge than even the cliff – the edge of the Dark Side.”

This chimes with The Force Awakens’ novelisation by Alan Dean Foster, which would have been based on a late version of the movie’s script. In it, Foster describes the fateful moment where Rey has the chance to slay Kylo Ren. The passage reads:

“Kill him, a voice inside her head said. It was amorphous, unidentifiable, raw. Pure, vengeful emotion. So easy, she told herself. So quick. She recoiled from it. From the Dark Side.”

What does this have to do with Episode VIII? Well, we already saw how powerful Rey was becoming in The Force Awakens – and with great power, as the old saying goes, comes great responsibility. The notion of Rey dismissing the lure of the Dark Side was only subtly alluded to in The Force Awakens, but what if that was because this much bleaker plot element was deemed more fitting for the sequel?

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If you’re not convinced, consider some other plot ideas left out of The Force Awakens, which have now come to light thanks to the movie’s Art Of book, out this month. In it, we learn that the Force Ghost of Anakin Skywalker would have appeared to Luke. Concept art of this Force Ghost shows a hooded figure whose face shifts eerily between human and mechanoid – from Anakin to Vader.

Concept artist Iain McCaig puts it this way: “If we see Anakin Skywalker, because he does flow back and forth between Darth Vader and Anakin, let’s see him as a character with a light and dark side. The reason Luke is this whole new entity is because he was the first to acknowledge his own Dark Side – that it was not separate from him.”

Now, obviously, Anakin’s Force Ghost didn’t appear in The Force Awakens. But doesn’t the notion of the Dark and the Light side of the Force being one and the same sound like too interesting a notion to dismiss? In another caption, McCaig writes, “I love that quote from A Wizard Of Earthsea, the fantasy novel by Ursula K Le Guin. ‘When you light a candle, you also cast a shadow.’ That inspired me to propose, for the first time, that Anakin’s ghost would come back.'”

Could it be that Luke retreated from the wider galaxy because he was haunted by this duality? If so, the defining story of Episode VIII might not be something as obvious as Rey’s family history, but her attempt to balance the dark with the light.

Lest we forget, Kylo Ren has his own internal struggle going on; what if, by killing his father, Kylo hasn’t managed to extinguish the last bit of goodness in his soul, but instead wound up with a burden of guilt that leaves him even more uncertain about his chosen path as a Sith? The Force Awakens’ screenplay describes Kylo as being “somehow weakened” in the wake of Han’s death. Maybe that murder had the opposite effect from the one Kylo was expecting…

Maybe, then – just maybe – the next two episodes in the Star Wars saga will see the Force restored to balance in an entirely new way. Not by rejecting the Dark Side, but by accepting it as part of a greater power in the universe. 

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Star Wars: Episode VIII is out on the 26th May 2017.