By Aaron Stupple and Gregory Meghani
Like all experiences, the viewing of Star Wars Episode VIII will be heavily influenced by expectations. For a typical movie, we try to temper expectations as much as possible because we simply want to maximize my viewing pleasure, and get the most bang for the many bucks spent. However, as a Star Wars fan, the ninth movie in a fraught succession of films inevitably carries expectations.
Rather than sweep these expectations aside, we are instead posting them ahead of time. Our hope is to achieve an honest review, one that provides an objective accounting of the film’s merits, and avoids the influences of happenstance — the hype, the reactions of friends and critics, the boxoffice earnings, one’s own visceral reaction to the popcorn or the seat — that may unconsciously influence one’s judgment.
We have compiled a list of attributes that, if met, would signify a movie worthy of the devotion that the original movies have inspired. These attributes take into consideration the troubled history of Star Wars, seeking to develop the positive attributes that were established with the original films, and avoid the disasters of the prequels. While it is generally agreed that the prequels are vastly inferior to the originals, we feel that the most recent installments, The Force Awakens and Rogue One, offer a mixed bag of reigniting the original glory, but also wading into the vapidity of superhero action-movie franchises like Batman or Transformers.
Rather than relitigate earlier Star Wars movies, we have chosen a set of criteria that address, implicitly or explicitly, the failures and achievements of the eight preceding movies, as well as the cultural and technological changes since 1977. Lastly, our criteria are rooted in a particular perspective of movie-goer, that of the original fan. This is not to say those who, like us, cut their teeth with Mark Hamil and The Trench Scene are in any sense true or more authentic fans, only that we recognize there are those who have grown up in a different relationship to the films, and therefore would have different expectations. To us, Episode IV was a marvel, plodding and quirky at times, but honest, naive, and ultimately thrilling with a dose of mystery. Episode V was even more mysterious and more thrilling, arguably among the best movies ever. Episode VI had its many tens of minutes of screen time devoted to selling stuffed animals, but the ending more than compensated, offering a complete trilogy worthy of cultish devotion. Episodes I-III were an abomination. Episode VII and Rogue One took strong steps toward revitalizing the essential dignity of the Star Wars movie-going experience, but only toyed with the original genius and mystique.
We have broken our criteria into two main classifications, those applying to good movies in general, and those applying to Star Wars in particular. A good episode VIII must be both a good movie, and, in some real sense, adequately “Star Wars-y.”
The basics of a strong narrative must be present.
Conflict. Rising action. Climax. Falling action. These are simply non-negotiable, and even a slight departure from total success in this area will be catastrophic. Such a basic feature would seem not to require mention, but anyone who endured Episode I would see the need.
This too is an essential element that can afford no compromise. Fortunately, and this is the single greatest achievement of Episode VII, we have a set of excellent and interesting characters, at least on the rebel side. On the dark side, we’re looking for more baddies. Kylo Ren is a good start, and the female storm trooper was interesting during her brief appearances, but we’re looking for something more. Snoke and Hux don’t compare to the emperor or Grand Moff Tarkin, to say nothing of Jabba the Hutt or Boba Fett.
And, we will be looking to see these characters make the conflict their conflict, to engage us with their struggles, feel their joy and their pain. When we’re driving our car home from work, we want to occasionally imagine we’re Han Solo. When a kid approaches us with a light saber on Halloween, we want the reflexive urge to grab a broom and start parrying. Granted, it’s harder to feel this pull past the age of 30, but we doubt it’s impossible.
We determined mystique, a sense of mystery and wonder, to be the essential ingredient that has been lost since 1983 when Return of The Jedi ended. It’s hard to think of another movie of this genre that tapped into a pool of wonder like Star Wars did. You could almost substitute mystique for the force, its what binds the movies together. Mystique is what enables a character like Yoda, a muppet straight out of Sesame Street, to steal the show. Mystique enthralls us with the otherwise weak character and even weaker acting of Mark Hamil. Since the climactic end of Return of the Jedi, there has been powerfully little mystique. We saw glimmers in Episode VII (largely confined to the basement of a bar and the downed star ships crashed mysteriously in the desert), but they were fleeting. Rogue One had a few characters and moments that aroused mystery, especially Chirrut Imwe and Saw Gerrera, but we never learned anything about where they came from or what motivated them.
Move the Saga Forward
The original movies all took the saga into another phase. Even episodes I-III did this, though very poorly. However clumsy and boring, we at least saw Anakin Skywaker become Darth Vader, and the Empire and the Rebels establish their opposition. Episode VII really didn’t move the storyline. We have some new characters, and a bunch of questions, but no real movement. You could argue that Episode VII set the ground, which it did, but for 2 hours and 15 minutes, I think we deserve a little progress. Rogue One similarly filled in a gap in the storyline, but didn’t add anything. Instead, battle scene after battle scene started to have the hollowness of another installment of Pirates of the Caribbean. Is all of this going anywhere that’s really worth my attention? Episode VIII needs to pick up where episode VII punted.
Make the Dark Side Dark Again
Battling the dark side is more than just fighting the bad guys, it’s an inner struggle against giving in to the simple but powerful impulses of fear and hatred. What a concept for a science fiction movie, and yet we haven’t seen this element credibly developed since 1983. Episodes II and III tried, but the thin story, weak acting and weaker dialogue instilled none of the intensity of Darth Vader’s first appearance in Episode IV. And even the originals started to go soft on Vader, making the dark side a bit more complex but less fearsome. As for Episode VII, Kylo Ren couldn’t even beat Rey in a lightsaber fight, let alone mind control.
We need to be transported somewhere, and inhabit that place with the characters. I get cold watching Han Solo cut open his tauntaun on Hoth. I get bored watching Anakin Skywalker flip around on a computer generated lava flow.
Droids/Relationship with technology
One of the amazing things about the originals is that C3PO, an anxious robot, actually carries most of the narrative while simultaneously humanizing the action. C3PO squealing about the odds of navigating an asteroid field connects us with the scene in a way that simply watching involved battle sequences never does. R2D2’s beeps and moans heighten the effect, and their banter tells the story without bludgeoning us with it. Taken together, it’s magic, contributing heavily to the movie’s mystique.
Lightsabers contribute enormously to mystique. Batman has a fancy gadget for every situation, but with all the of technological marvels in Star Wars, the central tool is basically a sword. The original movies infused the prop with heredity and ancestry, establishing the idea that there is a long history to this struggle, and that the bearer has a responsibility to settle an ancient score and carry on a noble tradition. And then in Episode VII Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber is stumbled on in the basement of a bar. It’s just sitting there.