Lately, the word “dark” has been used in numerous places to describe Star Wars: Episode VIII. During an interview with Variety, John Boyega said that when comparing Star Wars: Episode VIII to Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the new film will be “a different take, darker, bigger.” Meanwhile Oscar Isaac thinks that the second act will be dark as well, telling Rolling Stone “In the new film, there’s a lot more to do. What happens now is the heroes get tested. Everybody gets tested! It’s a dark second chapter.” After the relative light-heartedness of The Force Awakens (minus that Han Solo scene), it’s obvious that Episode VIII must take a more serious direction. The second act of a trilogy is usually the act in which the heroes suffer their losses, it’s where they take their lumps, learn from their mistakes, and return in the last act stronger for it.
What I just described is Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back in a nutshell. Luke Skywalker is over matched by Darth Vader, the man that he loses his hand to and then, to add insult to injury, learns is actually his father. The Rebel base on Hoth is destroyed, Han Solo is frozen in carbonite and sent to Jabba the Hutt, and the movie ends on a hopeful but uncertain note. It’s definitely the “darkest” movie in the Original Trilogy, and personally I think it’s the best. However the darkest film in the Prequel Trilogy isn’t the middle chapter, Attack of the Clones, but the last chapter, Revenge of the Sith. The Prequel Trilogy doesn’t follow the same pattern that most trilogies do, with a happy introductory first act, a challenging second act, and a triumphant third act. Instead, the path of the prequel trilogy is a steady descent into darkness, ending on a pitch black note with Revenge of the Sith.
So we know that The Empire Strikes back and Revenge of the Sith are the two “darkest” Star Wars movies, but what does “dark” even mean? I believe that it means different things for each movie. The Empire Strikes Back and Revenge of the Sith can both be categorized as dark, especially when compared to other Star Wars installments, but the darkness comes in different ways, and from different places.
When movies are characterized as “dark”, it’s for lack of a better term. The Empire Strikes Back is a very spiritual film, with themes of resisting temptation, preventing impatience, and channeling ones power for good. When Luke confronts Darth Vader in the force cave, and then see’s his own face in Vader’s helmet, it represents an alternate path for Luke, and hints at the bloodline he shares. Luke is later faced with temptation when Vader offers him the chance to rule the Galaxy, and Luke makes the choice to potentially fall to his death rather than join the dark side. Empire is more serious in tone than Star Wars: A New Hope, and while there are still some light-hearted moments and funny one liners (I personally think it’s C-3PO’s best film), the movie’s heart revolves around these more serious themes.
Empire is also the most character driven film in the Star Wars saga, expanding and adding depth to all of the major characters. In A New Hope, the main characters are little more than archetypes. Luke Skywalker is the young boy unaware of his destiny, thrown into a conflict where he has to find himself. Han Solo is the wisecracking freelancer, Obi Wan Kenobi the wizard-like mentor figure, Darth Vader the evil figure cloaked in black with no real emotional motivations, and Leia the more than capable “damsel in distress”. The characters mature in Empire, and their relationships with each other deepen. Han and Leia fall in love, Luke learns and accepts his destiny, and Vader’s motivations become clearer.
Because The Empire Strikes Back is more spiritual, more character driven, and because the Imperials have the upper hand by the end of the movie, it’s considered to be darker. And since it is darker, many people have the tendency to associate that with better, which I agree with. I want character growth in the movies I watch, and The Empire Strikes Back gives that to me. However, there are no graphic torture scenes, no main characters get killed off, and the movie ends with the knowledge that there is still a final installment to go, so hope is on the horizon.
In Revenge of the Sith however, the opposite happens. There are many graphic (for Star Wars) scenes, such as the murder of the younglings, the beheading of Count Dooku, the execution of Order 66, and of course Anakin Skywalker being burnt to a crisp. Main characters die as well, such as Padmé and Mace Windu, and the movie concludes the trilogy, and for a time concluded the entire saga. The darkness in Revenge of the Sith comes from these more traditionally dark factors, because the story is a tragedy. Anakin Skywalkers descent is supposed to be heartbreaking, and in order for him to fully become Darth Vader, he has to commit these unspeakable acts.
So which type of “dark” will Episode VIII be? If I were to guess, I would say that the movie will fall closer to The Empire Strikes back type of dark than Revenge of the Sith, and not only because of the movie’s placement in the trilogy. Director Rian Johnson is in my opinion the most talented pure filmmaker to helm a Star Wars movie since Irvin Kershner, and the two share many similarities. Johnson, like Kershner in 1978, has never director a blockbuster movie of this scale. His three movies to date have been either low budget indie projects, or mid level, thoughtful, sci fi thrillers. Over and over again it’s been said that Johnson is fostering an indie movie type atmosphere for Star Wars: Episode VIII, and that’s a good thing. If Star Wars: Episode VIII is a darker artistic type film it means that it will most likely go further in depth into the main characters frames of minds, and we’ll find out more backstory. It means that there will probably be more incredibly emotional plot twisting scenes, and a bunch of twists and turns. It means that things won’t go well for our heroes, and they’ll be pushed to their limits, discovering how far they can go. And it means that Rey might finally learn of her destiny, and accept her place in the galaxy. Dark doesn’t have to mean fire and brimstone and death for our favorite characters, it can simply mean that our heroes will be challenged in a way that they never have been before, and the way that they respond to that challenge is the real question.