Every sequel ever made is royally screwed. Those poor filmmakers can go back to their hit movies with the purest intentions and the best bundle of influences, but how many second instalments can really hold a candle to their predecessors or, more pressingly, hope to compare to those transcendent Part Twos. The same names are always on the lips of those idealistic artistes – Godfather Part II, Terminator 2: Judgement Day and The Empire Strikes Back.
But how many have ever actually done the impossible – giving audiences more of what they loved about the first, while building on their mythos in fresh, exciting, unexpected ways? Probably a handful at best, and none to the calibre of that holy trinity. All right, maybe Toy Story 2.
An exclusive club, and one Rian Johnson hopes to join with his low-budget indie offering The Last Jedi. The second part of the newest Star Wars trilogy, it rides in on the coattails of the mostly-successful Force Awakens – which was most widely criticised for hewing too close to the template set in the original 1977 film.
This leaves Johnson with double the weight on his shoulders. If Last Jedi is too similar to the revered Empire, it solidifies a worrying trend in the Disney trilogy defined by a lack of originality and risks taken. However, there are plenty of valuable lessons to learn from Empire that Johnson could do with taking on board, and by diverging too far his work may well end up on the ever-growing discard pile of underwhelming follow-ups.
Essentially, J.J. Abrams’ great mistake with Force Awakens, according to those who disparage his attempts, was his tendency to hew closely to the original in a tangible, plot-centric sense. Plot beats play out akin to corresponding moments in Star Wars, literally lifting events and giving them an aesthetic rework. Arguably, he does succeed in imbuing the film with something fresh by using his new cast of characters, and our familiarity with the returning class, to discuss new themes and concepts, giving fans of the saga something exciting to talk about.
To avoid the pitfalls that drew fandom ire to Abrams, then, Johnson should endeavour to draw more abstract parallels between his own work and Empire. With that in mind, it’s worth looking at what made Empire great on a conceptual level to see how a successful Last Jedi might play out.
Fundamental to the 1980 sequel’s triumph is its interplay of light and dark. While it is constantly credited with establishing the “darker middle chapter” trend of franchise filmmaking ad infinitum, Empire is far more nuanced than that, to the credit of director Irving Kershner and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan. To offset the moment a cyborg Sith lord slicing off his son’s hand, there is excitement and adventure as Lando Calrissian chases Boba Fett across Cloud City. Playing alongside the psychological torment of Luke Skywalker’s grappling with the force is the sweeping romance of Princess Leia and Han Solo. An intricate interplay of opposite shades means Empire remains as thrilling as it is compelling – audiences are encouraged to feel joy as much as they are expected to muse on the morality and mysticism at play.
Another miracle Kershner and Kasdan carry off is just how much new ground is broken in Empire without ever violating the ethos set down by George Lucas in the first film. With fresh new worlds like Hoth and Dagobah to explore, exciting new characters like Lando and Yoda, and rich new layers added to the mythology of the force, the Jedi, and Anakin Skywalker’s clouded history, viewers are treated to a completely blown-out view of the universe first encountered in 1977, but everything introduced here feels incredibly true to what came before. Crucially, it also doesn’t rob the world of its mystery and intrigue – a cardinal sin George Lucas would singlehandedly commit time and time again for his prequel trilogy.
Johnson has been left with a lot of questions to answer or expand upon by Abrams, but he should learn from Empire that an revelation like “I am your father” is only as interesting as the journey it sets its characters on afterwards.
This ties into the final concept Johnson must grapple with for Episode VIII, by taking characters known to and cared for by the audience and launching them in exciting, unexpected directions which challenge actors and fans alike. If Rey, Kylo Ren, Finn, and the other key players haven’t undergone some kind of fundamental transformation or significant development by the film’s end, then Last Jedi’s 150 minute runtime will be for nought. As Luke learns to grapple with the force, takes matters into his own hands out of love for his friends, and must learn from the mistakes his impatience leads him to make, while Han learns compassion and self-sacrifice and Leia becomes a more open, emotional person as a result of their respective trials and tribulations.
Something is always missing from this golden formula when a sequel ultimately fails. While filmmakers may think audiences want more of the same – and sometimes audiences think so too – giving them exactly that is a betrayal of the idealistic notion of franchise filmmaking. No matter how daunting the task of balancing the new and the familiar, a lack of risks will never reap true reward. But Johnson must, as Kershner and Kasdan did, know the fundamentals of the characters and stories he has taken responsibility for. There is a legacy riding on his back that needs upholding, and any misstep may dilute the power of Star Wars’ true classics like Empire Strikes Back.
Johnson comes across in interviews as someone who knows all this, stating that he wants his film to be “surprising, but feel honest and real”. Its a promising attitude, so long as it comes with the guts to follow through. As a wise, green man once said in the last truly great Star Wars sequel: “Try not. Do. Or do not. There is no try.”