Might as well jump in with my biggest problem with The Force Awakens, right? Well, as I watched the movie the first time, and again the second time, and again still the third time, I found myself saying the same two words over and over and over again:
Take it from me, folks: in any kind of storytelling endeavor, be it a movie or a novel or a teevee show or comic book or anything at all, you do not want your audience saying “What, what?” a lot. If you can avoid it at all, great, because every “Wait, what?” constitutes a moment when your audience has left the story and is instead trying to piece together the logic of your tale. “Wait, what?” makes things difficult. “Wait, what?” is a thing to be avoided.
But The Force Awakens is full to overflowing with “Wait, what?” moments, and every single one of them made me crazy, because I do not want to be sitting there watching a Star Wars movie and thinking “Wait, what?” all the time.
The first “Wait, what?” happens in the movie’s opening minutes. We’ve seen the opening crawl, and the ominous sight of a NextGen Star Destroyer crossing in front of a planet. We’ve seen
Imperial First Order troop transports, loaded with stormtroopers on their way to engage. Then we’re in some dusty village where everyone lives underneath tents, and in one particular tent, some old dude is handing a flash drive to some Rebel New Republic Resistance pilot, saying something about “This will make things right” and mentioning the “Balance of the Force”. The flash drive, we will learn soon enough, contains a piece of a map that leads to the location of Luke Skywalker.
This is quite the Maguffin, and that is about as much explanation as we get for it. At all. Why does this map exist? Who made it? Why is it a fragment? Almost none of this is explained. Based on the little bits of context the movie provides in two different conversations that come much later in the movie, I am guessing that the map shows the locations of Jedi Temples which are in systems not known on any charts, so without any names, you have no idea what you’re looking at. If you use this fragment with the rest of the map, you can figure out which is the first Jedi Temple, which is where Luke might have said he was going.
This doesn’t really make sense, though, does it? The fragment contains other stars and systems too, so how hard would it be to match the known systems in the fragment map to charts of the known Galaxy, and then use that information to figure out where the uncharted systems are?
This does seem to me to be an interesting call-back to Attack of the Clones, however, because part of that film’s plot hinged on the deletion of a particular star system from the Republic’s maps. Also, while it’s never stated outright, it’s heavily implied in The Empire Strikes Back that Dagobah does not appear on standard charts either. So there is precedent for this, but the movie doesn’t give enough to go on, and what it does give, it gives in throwaway lines that are so quick, you miss them.
More problematic is the old guy. Who the hell is he? What’s he doing with this piece of map? Where did he get it? The film doesn’t answer any of that at all, and frankly…it needs to. It doesn’t have to give the entire backstory of this fellow, but there has to be something. There’s a very old meme in adventure stories, where the old grizzled treasure-hunter shows up with the treasure map and hands it off to Our Hero before dying of the knife in his back or whatever, and that would be OK. This could even be set up with a few lines of dialogue. But instead, the movie implies other things about this guy. He’s got a personal stake here. He is invested. His delivering of this map to Poe Dameron is a moral act, and a few minutes later, when he knows he is doomed, he mouths off to Kylo Ren. Now this fellow is actually interesting, but the movie blows him off, so he’s not a character. He’s a plot convenience.
And now that our
Rebel Resistance hero has the Info That The Empire First Order wants, and he’s about to get captured, what does he do with it? He sticks it into his trusty astromech droid and sends the droid out into the wilderness of a desert planet. This brings us to another big problem with this movie: “Stop me if you’ve seen this flick before.”
A lot of my problems with The Force Awakens boil down to either “Wait, what?” or “Stop me if you’ve seen this flick before.”
We’re on a desert planet, called
Tatooine Jakku, where apparently some massive battle took place, to judge from the wreckage littering the planet surface. Nevertheless, there are these enormous machines and ships, full of parts and metal that are worth money, and…exactly one scavenger digging through it all. What gives with that? What economy is this? Is Jakku an important world in any way? We never know. It’s just a backdrop.
Which brings me to another series of “Wait, what?!” questions. This film’s worldbuilding is awful, and I hate to say that, but it is.
Let’s look back at A New Hope. Everything is explained very clearly and elegantly: there’s a Galactic Empire, and there’s a Rebellion. That’s it. Simple, easy. We know how powerful the Empire is, and we know that the Rebellion is just getting started but is still very fragile. We also know that the Empire hasn’t been around all that long, by virtue of the Emperor having only now been able to get rid of the Senate (a move that is met with skepticism by the Emperor’s own flag officers). In a fairly small amount of dialog and exposition, we learn a lot about the political state of affairs as A New Hope begins.
Contrast that with The Force Awakens, which gives us the First Order which is apparently rising from the ashes of the Empire…but how? How big is it? How strong are they? How big is the Republic and how strong is it? Why is the Resistance seemingly a totally separate thing from the Republic? How is the First Order strong enough to build a weapon that can wipe out the Republic with one shot? What does the loss of Starkiller Station mean to the First Order, and what does the loss of
Coruscant the Hosnian System mean to the Republic which may or may not be part of the Resistance (oh wait, reverse that).
We know who the “bad guys” are, but that’s not really enough, because no real goals are ever discussed for either the good guys or the bad guys, other than some very Hitler-ian scenery-chewing by General Hux and the requisite “We’re doomed!” from the Resistance, unless they can figure out how to dismantle the Starkiller Station. (That nobody ever raises their hand and says, “Maybe we just go someplace else until we figure out how to destroy it?” is also annoying.)
But back to Jakku, where our friendly important-data-carrying droid is rescued by a local, who then takes the droid on as a companion while she waits for a family that isn’t coming back. Why is she still waiting after all these years (which she has even marked, day-by-day, on her wall)? Who knows. The movie isn’t going to explain that, because JJ Abrams really loves his mysteries and not explaining things. This is not new; it is, in fact, one of his most maddening habits as a storyteller.
Along the way we meet Kylo Ren, who thinks that finding the map to Luke Skywalker (who, for a missing guy, sure seems well-known by everybody) is so important that he has an entire Star Destroyer attached to the job, including General Hux, the military leader of the entire First Order. That strikes me as strange, since in Raiders of the Lost Ark, we don’t have Hitler himself digging in the sands of Tanis. What’s up with that, Lawrence Kasdan? You wrote both films.
The Millennium Falcon is there on Jakku, sitting in a junkyard? Well, OK…we get a quick explanation of this from Han Solo, in which he lists the last four people who have successively stolen the ship. That’s fine, although conceptually…well, it seems to me that the Falcon should be berthed in the Coruscant version of the Smithsonian. But instead, here it is, waiting to be flown by Rey, who hasn’t shown a single hint of being a good pilot until this moment. This isn’t a fatal thing, really; A New Hope commits the same mistake, positing several times that Luke Skywalker is a great pilot, for which we never see any evidence until he straps in to fight the Death Star. So I’ll allow this, but it’s still maddening, because all it takes is a simple exchange:
FINN: How did you know how to fly this ship?
REY: It’s been sitting on that lot for years. I like to sneak in and…pretend.
FINN: Not even pretending could make you fly it that well.
Not everything has to be explained, but a little acknowledgment of the mystery goes a long way.
(And for that matter: Does it strike anyone else as odd that Poe Dameron takes this potential traitor stormtrooper at face value? That he doesn’t even question it when this stormtrooper says, “I want you to fly me out of here!”?)
Also note that about this point, our Maguffins change. The map to Luke takes a back seat, and we’re instead trying to figure out where the Resistance base is. Why does the Resistance need a secret, hidden base that the First Order can’t find? Who knows…but A New Hope had that same thing, so we have to have it here, too. Never mind that it made sense in the earlier film.
We meet Han Solo – I’ll have more to say about his reversion post-ROTJ from respected General to “loser who owes lots of people money and can’t get his shit together” later – who gruffly escorts Rey and Finn to
Endor some forest planet, where they go to a bar so they can meet Maz, who will somehow help them get to the Resistance in the…whatever system it’s in. If there’s an explanation for this detour, I missed it…maybe something about how apparently the Millennium Falcon is the single most traceable ship in the universe now, for some reason. (This makes no sense. Han says that it those criminal gangs were able to find him by tracing the Falcon then the First Order must be coming too, but why would they have been searching for Han by looking for the Falcon, which hasn’t been in his possession in years? That would be like trying to track me down by searching for the Volkwagen Rabbit I drove in 1996.)
Of course, the only reason for any of this is to bring Maz into the story, so she can serve as Force-mystic. Fine; we have to have a Force-mystic of some sort…but she serves absolutely zero purpose other than to be a Force-mystic. Seriously: the only reason she’s in this movie is to jumpstart Rey on her Force-journey. In this five-minute sequence, we cram in all of the first steps in Rey’s Campbellian journey: her Call to Adventure, her Supernatural Aid, her Refusal of the Call. Who is Maz? The film has no interest in telling us. And in what might be the most jaw-dropping of the movie’s “Wait, what?!” moments, we learn that Maz has been keeping Luke’s original lightsaber, the one that was Anakin’s, in a box n her basement. Probably next to her piles of old newspapers and Galactic Geographics.
Look, I really don’t mean to snark here, but…that moment really bothered me, because it had no explanation and no set-up. Last time we saw that lightsaber, it was tumbling into the central reactor shaft on Cloud City after Darth Vader had lopped off Luke’s hand. There must be a hell of a story involved in that lightsaber’s presence in Maz’s basement, but we don’t get it…or even a hint of it. We do get Maz saying basically, “It’s a long story and I don’t have time,” which is…well, look. That sucks. It’s terrible. That lightsaber is one of the iconic artifacts of the Star Wars story, and just sticking it in there with no explanation at all is incredibly lame. It’s a moment that had me wondering if Abrams and Kasdan even cared about the internal logic of their story. To draw a parallel to an earlier Kasdan script, it’s as if Indiana Jones shows up in Egypt to look for the Ark, finds the Map Room, despairs of figuring out how to use it, and only then does Marion show up, unintroduced, to hand him the Headpiece to the Staff of Ra and say, “Use this.”
This is where we get our first hint that Rey is Force-sensitive, by the way – in the middle of this entire sequence that has no backing from the larger tale.
And worse, now we have not one but two Maguffins in this movie, neither one of which has any kind of explanation that really helps. The “map to Luke Skywalker” gets a little bit of explanation, but it’s split up all over the movie. Han Solo tells us that when Luke vanished, he might have been looking for “the first Jedi Temple” (why? Don’t ask), so maybe the map isn’t so much a map to Luke as it’s a map to what Luke was looking for. A little later on, C-3PO indicates that the locations on the map seem to be uncharted star systems, so it’s a map devoid of context or starting point.
Hey! Maybe there’s a dead knight in that Jedi Temple whose grave is carved with the name of the planet where the map starts! Well, wrong movie, but the whole “two unexplained maguffins” thing feels like if Raiders of the Lost Ark had sent Indiana Jones after “the lost Ark” without telling us what the Ark is, and then halfway through, had the Holy Grail show up.
Now there’s a Godawful sequence in which the
Empire First Order fires its superduperhyperspecial weapon, the Starkiller Station (after General Hux delivers one of the worst Evil Military Leader speeches I’ve ever seen in a movie). It apparently fires multiple blasts at once, and apparently the blasts travel through hyperspace, to destroy a bunch of planets at once, including the planet where the Republic is based. It’s the destruction of Alderaan, amped up to eleven, complete with horrified people on the doomed planet watching the Death Ray coming down to incinerate them.
Big Imperial weapon blows up planet as demonstration of its awful might.
Stop me if you’ve seen this movie before.
And the sequence is a partial call-back to something that got a lot of criticism in an earlier Abrams movie, Star Trek 2009, which gave us Spock standing on a planet in another solar system watching as Vulcan got destroyed, as if a planet in another solar system is still close enough to look bigger than Earth’s moon. It was bullshit then, and it’s bullshit in this movie too. Our heroes look on in horror at the sky as the Starkiller (in another star system!) fires its weapon to destroy some other planets (also in another star system!).
Wait, fucking what.
It was nonsense in Star Trek and it’s nonsense here.
Look, no one expects massive amounts of scientific accuracy in a Star Wars movie, but you can’t just rub our noses in it, either. If the Death Star showed up right this second and blew up planets in the Alpha Centauri system, we wouldn’t see a damn thing for four years. I find it hard to believe JJ Abrams didn’t craft this sequence as a specific “Eff you!” to the people who criticized his Star Trek movie.
And now, let’s talk about Starkiller Station. It’s a planet-destroying space station carved out of a planet itself (Wait, what?), that drains energy from its sun (wait, what?) and can apparently fire through hyperspace to destroy planets in other star systems (wait, what?). Does it drain its sun entirely and then it has to relocate? How is the First Order, which is nowhere near as big as the Empire was, able to build something that’s orders of magnitude bigger than either Death Star? And if they can do that…well, I’m reminded of critiques of SPECTRE in the James Bond movies: Why would an organization with enough money to run these schemes (such as carving a rocket station out of a volcano) go to such criminal lengths to make more money, when clearly they could just make all the money in a legit way?
But I digress. Starkiller Station bothered me, and not just on story terms. It’s something of an article of faith among many Star Wars fans that Return of the Jedi is when George Lucas started losing it, when he got greedy and just wanted to make toys, and when he lost all storytelling sense and just gave us another lazy Death Star. I don’t agree with any of these, but they’re real things that you hear a lot in talking about these movies.
A second Death Star in ROTJ? Uncreative laziness. A third one, even bigger, in The Force Awakens? Well now, see, we’ve been hating on Lucas and so we have to love this non-Lucas Star Wars movie, so out come a lot of very goofy arguments like “These stories are based on mythology which is often cyclical so it’s OK to have the same story beats recur.”
My reply? No, it isn’t.
Lucas told three very different stories in the Prequel Trilogy, but he managed then to have Anakin face the same kinds of choices that Luke had to later make, thus casting Anakin’s fall and Luke’s rise against each other. That’s the mythical recurrence, not the constant reliance on Death Stars. But the entire last act of the movie is all about Starkiller Station, and we pretty much stop caring entirely about either of the two Maguffins that dominated the film’s first two acts, the map and the lightsaber.
And how does the Starkiller Station tale come out? Well, we have to identify a weakness in the station’s design. (Stop me if you’ve seen this flick before.) The weakness will make the station unstable and destroy it. (Stop me if you’ve seen this flick before.) But the Station is heavily shielded, so Han Solo will have to spearhead a small mission to deactivate the shields. (Stop me if you’ve seen this flick before.) When that’s done, the X-Wings will have to make a heroic attack run to exploit the weakness. (Stop me if you’ve seen this flick before.) As the battle happens, there will be a countdown until the station can fire on the
Rebel Resistance base. (Stop me if you’ve seen this flick before.) And all the while, Princess Leia (now General Organa) will stand around a tactical display table, looking concerned. (Stop me if you’ve seen this flick before.)
I’m sorry, but this entire sequence – which is meant to be the Big Climax – really sucked the wind out of whatever story was left. It goes on too long, it alternates between yuk-yuk laughs and Big Emotional Beats, and worst of all, it contains nothing that we’ve never seen before in a Star Wars movie. I have no idea why Abrams and Kasdan felt the need to do the movie this way, but Ye Gods, you know what would have been awesome? A Star Wars road/quest picture, in which all these people are seeking the clues to the location of the Last Jedi Knight. Instead, that story is set aside and we get yet another SuperDuper SpaceFortress whose destruction is nowhere near as tense as the first two (especially the first one), because there’s no real sense of what they’re trying to do other than “Hit it over and over again with everything you’ve got,” as Poe Dameron tells us at least three times. In the original Death Star sequence, way back in A New Hope, there was a lot of tension because there was a time factor and because someone had to hit a target that was very hard to hit in that short time. Here, the approach is literally, “We’ll just blast it a lot in hopes that we blast it enough in our allotted time to destroy it.”
One scene in this whole sequence really bugged me: the deactivation of the shields themselves. Chewbacca gets the drop on Captain Phasma, and then Han and Finn get her to do their bidding with so little effort that I literally thought of a scene in The Princess Bride at this point. And if you’re trying to make a seriously engrossing adventure space opera epic, you do not want me thinking of The Princess Bride:
YELLIN is pressed against the main gate. WESTLEY, INIGO, and FEZZIK close in.
WESTLEY: Give us the gate key.
YELLIN: (every ounce of honesty he’s got) I have no gate key.
INIGO: Fezzik, tear his arms off.
YELLIN: Oh, you mean this gate key.
Everything ends up OK, though, kinda-sorta. The
Empire First Order gets its ass kicked and loses its SuperDuper SpaceFortress, but they’ll live to fight another day. The Resistance? Well, they’ve won, but apparently the Republic has just been destroyed, so who knows, since they seem to consist at the end of the film of a few dozen fighters. The future is clouded, and the Empire First Order is almost certainly gearing up to strike back. Stop me if you’ve seen this flick before.
Oh yeah, that guy. Who’s he? Dunno. Heaven forbid the movie tell us.
I’ve also heard a lot of arguments excusing the incredible lack of exposition in The Force Awakens by appealing to A New Hope, which likewise dropped viewers into a story in medias res, and only filled in details as it went. The big citation here is the single-line mention of “the Clone Wars”, which are never explained until decades and four movies later. Thing is, the Clone Wars are not especially relevant to A New Hope; what matters is that Luke’s father was not a freighter pilot but rather a Jedi Knight who fought in the most recent Big War. The unexplained stuff in The Force Awakens, however, really is important to the story. It matters how Luke’s old lightsaber just shows up out of the blue. It matters why the Millennium Falcon has been sitting in a trash-heap for years, and why Rey can fly it. The Force Awakens is a JJ Abrams story through-and-through: not explaining stuff has been his stock in trade for years. And hey, he’s successful. Doesn’t mean I have to like that aspect of what he does. The only time this habit of his has really worked, in my opinion, is in the Mission: Impossible movie he directed, where the good guys and bad guys spend the entire movie vying for possession of a computer drive or something – and at the very end, when Tom Cruise has saved the day, he says to his boss, “So what’s on this hard drive, anyway?” That worked there, though, in an odd way, given the nature of intelligence communities, where it’s often the game that matters more than the object. Here…not so much.
(And gee, how does R2-D2 know exactly when to awaken and cough up the rest of the map? And if he has the map…R2’s a machine. Is there no tech-geek in the Resistance who can hack into R2 and get the damn map? The answer to that is, of course, No, and to the prior question, R2 knows when to wake up because that’s when the movie needs him to wake up. This is lazy storytelling of the, dare I say it, first order.)
As for Lawrence Kasdan, well – I would accuse him of knowing better, but then, in his most famous and successful script prior to this one, he failed to explain just how Indy knew that looking on the power of the Ark was a bad idea and used units of measurement that imply that Indy is four feet tall.
And you can not tell me that a lot of this stuff is explained elsewhere, like in other novels or comics or roleplaying game background materials or, frankly, anyplace else. The movie is the story I come to see, and the explanatory material for what happens in the movie needs to be in the movie. I shouldn’t have to do a research project to understand what’s going on in a movie.
I’ll say this in closing for this section: it’s a good thing that JJ Abrams is a very good kinetic director, because even with all its enormous problems in the story arena, it’s still a very entertaining movie to watch.
In the next segment, we’ll discuss issues pertaining to the characters. (The film makes out better on this score, but again, not without some major reservations.)