Star Wars: Why the New Trilogy Has to Look Forward, Not Back

Never mind the Skywalkers - to stand on its own two feet, Star Wars: Episode VIII needs to make a break with the past.

Rey in Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Photo: Lucasfilm / Disney

NB: The following contains spoilers for Star Wars: The Force Awakens and delves into a few rumors regarding this year’s Star Wars: Episode VIII.

JJ Abrams laid solid foundations, now it’s up to Rian Johnson to start building the house. In many respects, Johnson, the director of such films as Brick and Looper, has an even tougher job than Abrams did with 2015‘s Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the movie that reintroduced the franchise after a hiatus of almost a decade.

Where Abrams’ Episode VII had the luxury of drawing on A New Hopes characters, imagery and storytelling – even ending the film with an assault on a Death Star-like battle station – Johnson arguably has to move away from the Original Trilogy playbook for his forthcoming sequel. To put it simply, if this year’s Episode VIII ends with X-Wings blowing up another piece of huge fascist ordnance in space, it’s going to feel as though Disney’s content to simply repeat itself with each movie and watch the ticket receipts roll in.

In fairness, The Force Awakens didn’t need to revolutionize the series, and its simplicity was one of its positives. Where The Phantom Menace held audiences at arm’s length with its interplanetary politics and dour characterisation, The Force Awakens wisely put character before plot. Criticisms that The Force Awakens’ story was largely a retread of A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back weren’t unfounded, but the film arguably did an excellent job of introducing a new generation of heroes and villains with a spark of life.

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There’s a fizzy chemistry between Rey, Fin and X-Wing pilot Poe Dameron; plucky droid BB-8 felt like such a natural fit in the Star Wars universe that R2 and C3PO, bless, them, felt almost superfluous. The jury may be out on whether Supreme Leader Snoke is a worthy successor to Emperor Palpatine, but Kylo Renn and General Hux are superb value: a pair of vain, petty, vindictive school bullies who just happen to have an entire phalanx of Stormtroopers and ships under their command.

The Force Awakens may have also brought back old characters from the Star Wars canon – Leia, Han, Chewie and, briefly, Luke – but the film really belonged to those new leads. What Johnson does with Rey, Fin and the rest of his fresh-faced cast next is, I’d argue, crucial to the fate of Star Wars immediate future. While it was reassuring to be reminded of the space opera’s long history in Abrams’ film, Episode VIII needs to start looking forward in order to keep the series fresh for another 40 years.

Unanswered questions

So when we talk about looking forward, what do we really mean? Well, take some of the unanswered questions left over from The Force Awakens. Head over to YouTube, and you’ll find dozens of videos, mostly all speculating about the same two things: Snoke’s true identity and Rey’s parentage. If you’ve seen those videos, or read the various rumors floating around other corners of the internet, you’ll have an idea of the answers fans have come up with – Rey’s a Kenobi, or she’s a Skywalker. One rumor – which we’re quietly hoping isn’t true – suggests that Rey is a reincarnation of Anakin.

The same goes for Snoke: there’s the popular theory that he’s some kind of re-embodiment of Anakin Skywalker, or maybe Emperor Palpatine. That weird flash of energy we saw hurtling up the Death Star shaft in Return Of The Jedi? That was Palpatine’s evil spirit, off to find another body to inhabit. Another – more plausible – story pegs Snoke as Darth Plagueis, a dark lord first talked about by Palpatine in Revenge Of The Sith. A far more outlandish theory suggests that Snoke is Mace Windu, angry at being blasted out of a window by Palpatine’s lightning fingers in Episode III and, for some reason, now batting for the Dark Side of the Force. (Why Snoke no longer looks, sounds or acts remotely like Samuel L. Jackson doesn’t appear to figure in this theory, but hey, that’s the internet for you.)

Here’s the rub with all these theories: in one way or another, they all feel a bit disappointing. The current word is that we’ll discover who Rey’s parents are in Episode VIII; but if Luke turns around and says, “You’re a Kenobi” or “You’re a Skywalker,” won’t that seem a bit deflating? Imagine that, after two years of speculation, Rey turns out to be pretty much exactly who she was rumored to be all along. It’ll feel like Star Trek Into Darkness villain reveal all over again.

Likewise Snoke: if he emerges from the shadows in Episode VIII or IX and reveals himself to be a regenerated Vader or Palpatine, it’ll potentially feel as though Star Wars is just regurgitating the same old villains. Or, if Snoke turns around and says, “I’m Darth Plagueis” then it’s highly likely that movie-goers less steeped in Star Wars lore will sit in the dark going, “Who?”

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Worse still, Disney run the risk of making the Star Wars universe feel smaller, when the new series of movies should be opening it back up again. We already have the Star Wars Story spin-offs to delve back into the past and show us the previously unseen adventures of characters like Han Solo and Lando Calrissian, or the Rebel band that stole the plans to the Death Star. This leaves the numbered sequels to explore new corners of the galaxy; take us to planets we haven’t visited, creatures we’ve never met. By the same token, there’s a lot to be said, at least in this writer’s estimation, for not linking Rey, Finn and Snoke’s identities too closely to existing characters.

The possibilities of the new

Episode VIII undoubtedly has a lot of questions to answer, either in full or in part, but those answers don’t necessarily have to be connected to the stories of the Skywalker dynasty to provide a satisfying sense of closure. One interesting theory on Reddit, for example, posits that a clue to Rey’s lineage lies in Marvel’s Shattered Empire series of comics.

Set before the events of The Force Awakens, the story sees Luke Skywalker and skilled Rebel pilot Shara Bey wrest fragments of a Force-sensitive tree from the Empire. Bey, it’s later revealed, is the mother of Poe Dameron. Filling in the blanks, a user on Reddit argues the case for Rey being Poe’s younger sister, and that she wound up being strong with the Force because Shara Bey planted part of the tree outside her house.

A bit of a stretch? Perhaps, but it’s certainly possible that Force-sensitive trees have something to do with the franchise’s immediate future; given that they appear in both The Clone Wars and Shattered Empire, they’re clearly part of the established Star Wars canon. Plus, there’s a bit of circumstantial evidence from the set of Episode VIII itself: photos sneaked out of the production show that its makers have built a set of the planet Ach-To. That set has the Millennium Falcon parked at the foot of a flight of stone steps which lead up to the trunk of a wizened, decidedly magical-looking tree. Could it be here where Luke explains how the tree made Rey the skilled heroine she’s become? After all, Luke said in Shattered Empire that he planned to take his piece of Force tree and plant it near a Jedi temple.

As for Snoke, there’s always the possibility that he isn’t Palpatine, or Anakin, or Mace Windu, but an entirely new villain from some murky part of the universe. Those who believe in this theory point to an excerpt from the novel Aftermath, which is again part of the official Star Wars canon as it currently stands:

“Palpatine felt that the universe beyond the edges of our maps was where his power came from. Over the many years he, with our aid, sent men and woman beyond known space. They built labs and communication stations on distant moons, asteroids, out there in the wilds. We must follow them.”

Maybe the Emperor was right: the power of the Sith may indeed come from some uncharted region. After the Empire was smashed in the Battle of Endor, perhaps some of its remaining acolytes started probing around in unknown space, where a force even more evil than Palpatine was uncorked.

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For now, these are, of course, all just theories. But introducing a villain from a previously unseen part of the galaxy and having Rey be part of a new lineage would, I’d suggest, serve to distinguish the new Star Wars movies from the old. And by proving that there’s life in the Star Wars film saga away from the Skywalker line, the franchise will have the chance to extend its scope far beyond the confines of the Original Trilogy and its actors.

Only time will tell what path Episodes VIII and IX will take, but for now, a key line uttered by Maz Kanata in The Force Awakens gives me a shred of hope:

“The belonging you seek is not behind you. It is ahead.”