Spoilers, of course.
The last reels have unspooled. The final reviews are in. Billions of dollars have exchanged hands. Billions of bytes of data have been exchanged in the evaluation and measurement of the story’s worth. Opinions have been cemented and there is little else to say about Star Wars: The Force Awakens. There remains but one lingering question: what’s next?
Episode VIII has begun filming; we know this, thanks to the official announcement featuring a recreation of the final moments of the previous movie, and writer-director Rian Johnson’s sporadic tweets on the subject. We’ve heard that Benicio del Toro and Laura Dern have joined the cast, most of which is returning. We were disappointed but ultimately understanding about the shift of the release date from May to December of 2017, particularly if the additional time means a better movie is the result. Other than that, the lid is closed, and as fans the only thing we can do between now and then is speculate. What lies among the stars for Rey, Finn, Poe, Kylo and BB-8? How will Luke and Leia fit in? Will the Resistance defeat the First Order once and for all?
Figuring out what happens next isn’t actually that difficult. The way forward is much clearer than the dangling threads of The Force Awakens would make it seem. Let’s look at them one at a time.
The state of the galaxy
The First Order was successful in wiping out the capital of the Republic and most of the Republic fleet, leaving the Resistance without its primary means of support. However, their superweapon Starkiller Base was also destroyed, reducing the First Order to much the same state. So as Episode VIII begins, the galaxy is without a central government – essentially in a state of anarchy, with two substantially weakened powers grappling to establish themselves as the sole viable unifying force, with thousands of star systems up for grabs. The Resistance was depicted as something of a ragtag band using old ships and weapons, while the First Order appears to be much better funded with plenty of state of the art materiel and personnel. Even with Starkiller Base eliminated, the First Order may be better equipped to continue the battle for the galaxy even if it has to be one measly star system at a time. One could very well envisage the opening crawl setting up the story thus: while the First Order has been dealt a blow, with the Republic gone they have begun a war of attrition, pushing outward and laying claim to system after system, and the Resistance finds itself unable to keep up and looking desperately for a way to stem the tide.
We know nothing about Benicio del Toro’s character yet, other than vague comments about him being a villain. That doesn’t mean necessarily that he’s another member of the First Order – their entire leadership is intact after The Force Awakens. What if, instead, he’s the leader of a third party – some kind of wealthy (if shady) syndicate that the Resistance needs to court in order to keep up the fight? We know the galaxy is full of criminals, like the infamous Hutts, or the rival gangs that sought to extract their swindled funds from Han Solo before they were eaten by rathtars. What if Del Toro is the head of the mysterious Kanjiklub – or more likely, the leader of a Spectre-like organization that controls all illicit activity throughout the galaxy and has no great love for the First Order? You could have an interesting story there with both the Resistance and the First Order attempting to sway his group into the fight, a sort of “enemy of my enemy is my friend” type of dilemma. For General Leia, it would mean a significant challenge to her principles. Is it worth doing business with devils to defeat the greatest devil of all? If it has to resort to similar methods to achieve its ends, is the Resistance no better than the very foe it professes to despise?
The state of the Force
Even though the previous movie ended on a shot of Luke Skywalker and Rey looking silently at one another as the music swelled, Episode VIII likely won’t pick up with them for at least the first ten minutes (remember, all Star Wars movies begin with a spaceship going somewhere). It would be foolish to believe that merely a glimpse of his old lightsaber will be enough to convince Luke to impart his knowledge to this completely unknown girl. And I do believe she is unknown, despite the wishes by many fans that she will turn out to be Luke’s daughter. There would simply be no story for Luke if that were the case. Why would he refuse to train his own child? You can suggest that it might be because the previous attempt to train one of his bloodline went bad, but there’s a considerable difference between a nephew and a daughter. Rather, I would imagine that Luke will want nothing to do with Rey, having decided (at least at first) that the galaxy is better off without people who can touch the Force. At least, until Rey proves herself somehow. This is where a concept that was deleted from The Force Awakens might come into play. (Hollywood never lets a good idea go un-recycled.)
Before screenwriters Arndt, Kasdan and Abrams decided that Luke himself was to be the object of the quest, there was discussion that there might be some valuable information left over in remnants of the Death Star that had crashed in an ocean on Rey’s world, and that that would be the story’s McGuffin. In the movie, Han said that it was rumored Luke had gone looking for the first Jedi temple. Yet when we find him he’s on an empty island in the middle of a vast ocean. What if the Jedi temple is somewhere under all that water, and in order for Rey to be granted the benefit of Luke’s teachings, she is forced to help him find it, in a quest through ancient ruins that invokes Indiana Jones? (Laura Dern as an oracle/ghost of one of the first Jedi, perhaps?) The journey would of course be a spiritual one as well as a physical one, with Rey finding out even more about herself along the way and discovering, rather like The Karate Kid, that what appears as a futile series of labors has in fact been her Jedi training all along. One aspect I find interesting in the discussion of who Rey might be is that every single theory suggests she was left on Jakku for her protection. What if that’s not the case – what if she was abandoned there because her parents were afraid of her, because they thought she was dangerous? What if there is more dark side in her than we’ve been led to believe thus far? It sets up a fascinating contrast with Kylo Ren, whose training we know thanks to Snoke’s last line of dialogue is also incomplete. In Episode VIII we might see parallel stories of Rey being trained to resist her innate darkness while Kylo struggles to purge the last of his inner light as he endures unexpected guilt over his act of patricide – and because there is an Episode IX to come, we may not see the resolution of that conflict yet.
The state of the galaxy’s favorite bromance
When we last saw Finn, he was lying unconscious in a Resistance medical bay after taking a lightsaber to the spine. He will of course make a miraculous recovery and be consumed now with taking the fight to his former colleagues after spending most of the first movie running away from them. John Boyega, tweeting on the first day’s shooting, included a hint of what might be either his character’s arc or an actual line of dialogue:
This would fit what I talked about above, with the Resistance in regrouping mode as the First Order takes system after system, and Finn growing impatient with the progress of the war. He’s going to want to punish the people who stole his life from him. Trying to keep him from going too far down the dark path – even though in this example it’s not a question of being seduced to the dark side of the Force – will be his BFF Poe Dameron. One could even see the two of them being dispatched on a mission that has something to do with the scenario I hypothesized above regarding Benicio del Toro’s character. Rian Johnson is said to have arranged screenings for the cast of the Gregory Peck war movie Twelve O’Clock High and the Russian film Letter Never Sent; the former is about a hard-nosed general whipping a bunch of misfit bomber pilots into fighting shape, while the latter is about a group of geologists who get trapped in the Siberian woods while searching for diamonds. Finn and Poe (and little BB-8 for good measure) might be cast into an homage to either, or a combination of both of these narratives.
As to “the lip bite that launched a thousand ships”? I think it would a tremendous and welcome step forward to have gay characters in a Star Wars movie. I don’t think it’s going to happen. I don’t think the powers that be would slam the door on the possibility by dropping Poe’s yet-unseen girlfriend into the plot, but they will more than likely skirt what they could see as a potential audience-alienating controversy by leaving the matter to wishful conjecture instead. The main thrust of the story is always going to be the war in the galaxy far far away, and every subplot will be in service to that narrative, not progressive social commentary, as much as we might welcome it. Finn and Poe will remain pals and comrades-in-arms, but nothing more.
Putting it all together
The second act of a play is traditionally the darkest, or, as Lawrence Kasdan has put it, “when everything goes to hell.” Characters are brought to their lowest point. Everything we’ve taken for granted collapses. The remaining pieces are assembled in an unexpected order for the final dramatic showdown. I think we will see the First Order resurgent, the Resistance on the edge of a final defeat, friends set against one another and Rey and Kylo Ren both forced to wage mortal battles with their own respective souls, perhaps even in the form of a lightsaber rematch. I doubt we will see anything as gut-wrenching as Han Solo’s death – it would be gilding the lily a bit to take another one of the classic trio out of the picture – but as the credits roll we’ll be left with significant doubt as to whether our heroes will survive. We may even be doubtful as to whether our heroes are actually heroes. Just as Darth Vader ultimately turned out to be the true hero of the original trilogy by killing his evil master in Return of the Jedi, what if his grandson, whom we could never possibly consider forgiving after what he did to our childhood idol in The Force Awakens, is fated to follow a similar path?
About the only thing we can be certain of about Episode VIII is that once it’s done we’ll be having the exact same conversation about Episode IX. In the meantime, let me know your own thoughts in the comments – do you see these as logical developments, or do you have another idea about what will follow the crawl on December 15, 2017?