Continuing my examination of The Force Awakens, from the standpoint of character, my stance continues to be that the film does some things well, but not all of them, and not enough. This also applies to character.
(First, let me just get this out of the way: General Hux is terrible. Seriously, every time he’s on screen in this movie, I find myself wincing, worst of all during his Space Hitler speech before unleashing the Starkiller weapon. I don’t know what happened there, but Hux sux.)
(Oh wait: Captain Phasma also sucks. She’s useless and terrible. Her silver armor looks awesome, but in terms of what she gets done in the movie? She’s barely competent at all, between “I don’t know why the janitor I put on that really important mission turned out so poorly” and “Oh, you have a blaster to my head? OK, I’ll turn off Starkiller Station’s shields so your ships can take a whack at blowing it up.” Phasma is terrible. Hux and Phasma: Well, they don’t make ‘em like Grand Moff Tarkin or Admiral Piett anymore, I guess.)
A big deal was made about the movie’s return to beloved characters from the Original Trilogy. Well, Luke Skywalker doesn’t show up until the very last shots, and for the first half of the movie (before Starkiller Station takes over), he’s one Maguffin in a movie full of ‘em. Luke, like Maz, is less a character than a plot point. We’re not really told much at all about why he’s hiding on some distant planet, other than he tried training some Jedi and it went horribly wrong (the implication is that Kylo Ren slaughtered them), and he took his ball and went…someplace. Did he run away out of shame? Or is he licking his wounds until he can rise again and confront Kylo Ren? Guess what…the movie doesn’t tell us.
Then there’s his sister, Leia. She might be handled the best out of the entire batch of characters in this movie. Her place is relatively established; we know what she’s doing and what her role is. The unexplained stuff, with regard to Leia, is more about the film’s murky political stance than anything else. I honestly don’t have much problem with Leia in The Force Awakens. I like her leadership, and I like how the film didn’t make her Han Solo’s angry ex (if she’s even the ex at all).
But then there’s Han Solo. I loved seeing him again, but…well, look. I hate that he basically regressed into being a total loser after his son Ben became Kylo Ren. I really, really, really don’t like that. First, he says that “he went back to the only thing he was ever good at”, which is total BS. Han Solo was good at an awful lot of stuff, which is why he was successful, first as a smuggler (dumping his cargo at the first sign of an Imperial cruiser aside), and then as a military leader for the Rebellion. And not just when he became a General: he was a de facto Rebel leader at the beginning of The Empire Strikes Back; when he decides that he has to go pay his debt to Jabba, both Leia (who isn’t owning up to being in love with him yet) and General Riekkan voice their dismay. The idea that “the only thing I was ever good at” is flying around a shitty cruiser in deep space, looking for the ship that got stolen from him, simply feels wrong.
I made this point in a few different places, and I got a similar response each time: These are realistic reactions to something traumatic happening to one’s child. They saw their beloved son turn to the Dark Side of the Force, and then Leia threw herself into her position as a military leader and Han turned into…a loser. My problem with this argument? I don’t watch Star Wars for the realistic family relationships. That’s what Battlestar Galactica is for.
None of that stuff really added up for me. It ends up negating Han’s arc from the Original Trilogy, when he went from the cynical space pirate to the man who found something to believe in. Now, we’re told, he’s lost everything he ever believed in after all. I don’t know that it had to be this way. It’s nice to see Han Solo again; he has a lot of great moments in this movie. His satisfied smile as he stands in the Millennium Falcon cockpit; his “I always thought the Force was mumbo-jumbo” speech…he has a lot of fine, fine moments. But I didn’t like his starting point.
As for his ending point…well, that brings us to Kylo Ren, doesn’t it?
I found it interesting that after years of having people tell me that one reason the Prequels are terrible is that Darth Vader is basically revealed as a whiny teenager, along comes Kylo Ren, a villain so whiny that I expected to see Tom Brady’s face beneath the mask when he removed it. Before I saw the movie, I saw all manner of commentary about how great a villain Kylo Ren is, but…well, he’s OK, but he suffers from a lot of what holds the other characters back: We don’t know who he is or what he wants.
Seriously, what is Kylo Ren trying to accomplish? Well, we know a few things: he’s looking for Luke Skywalker, presumably so he can kill him and end the Jedi, but other than that, the film leaves Ren’s motivations in the dark. Sure, he tells Darth Vader’s helmet that he will “finish what you [Vader] started”, but that scene stands by itself with no context at all, and what did Darth Vader start, anyway? What is Kylo Ren getting at, here? I honestly don’t know. Killing all the Jedi? Taking over the Galaxy? Is he plotting to destroy Supreme Leader Snoke? We don’t know. All we know is that Kylo Ren is trying to resist the “call of the light”, that he’s keenly interested in Rey, and…that’s about it, actually.
Only, that’s not it: we know that he is Han and Leia’s son, and once Han and Leia meet again and start talking, the film finally gives some explanation. Not much, but a little. Their son was apparently deeply troubled; apparently Han and Leia saw his dark potential early, and Leia sent him to Luke to be trained, in hopes that Luke would keep her son from falling to the Dark Side. Unfortunately, Luke failed, and Kylo Ren killed all of Luke’s students.
That’s a pretty interesting bit of background, isn’t it? We’re being told that Kylo Ren was born evil. Han even says, “He had too much Vader in him.” But they still believe that he can turn back the Force’s good side. Leia hasn’t given up, and neither has Han, because when he has the chance, he goes to confront his son.
The problem here is that we’re given nothing to go on, regarding how and why Kylo Ren fell to the Dark Side. The nature of his temptation is neither explained nor even hinted at, which ends up making me feel like Kylo Ren is here because it’s a Star Wars movie and by God, you have to have a bad guy with a red lightsaber. It’s Star Wars law. Nothing is fleshed out about Kylo Ren in any way, except that he’s evil, he’s tempted by good, and he has a pair of very famous parents.
Maybe this doesn’t seem important, but to me, it is. Character motivations matter. Character histories matter. Again, we don’t need a half-hour of Kylo Ren’s history to establish any of this; leaving details in the dark is entirely permissible. This film, however, once again gives us nothing to go on. And if you respond “Well, the Original Trilogy never established how Darth Vader was tempted!”, I’d say you’re partially right, and so what? The OT had the task of establishing all of this stuff, so the point of establishing Vader in A New Hope as a fallen Jedi isn’t so much to say something about Vader but to say something about the Force and what can happen when its power is misused. Evil is established as a tempting thing. By the time we’re into our seventh movie about this stuff, though, that’s a given. Why did Vader want power? The Prequels give us very real reasons for that. Seriously, though: ask these questions. What does Kylo Ren want, and why does he want it?
The movie doesn’t answer these questions, and in my opinion as a writer, those are the most important questions that one can ever ask about a fictional character. The only time anything every really crystallizes in terms of what Kylo Ren wants is when he is finally confronted by his father.
This is clearly the film’s most interesting scene. The way it’s written, the scene makes us think (or tries to, anyway) that Kylo Ren is fighting the Dark Side, and that he needs his father’s help to turn back to the light. Unfortunately, we realize all too late that it’s the exact other way around: Kylo Ren wants to renounce the good side completely, and he can only do this by killing his father.
This is interesting because it’s a reverse of Return of the Jedi, isn’t it? Back then, in order for Luke to finally become a Jedi, to lay claim to his destiny, both Yoda and Obi Wan tell him that he has to confront Vader. The meaning of this is not lost on Luke, and he protests: “I can’t kill my own father.” To Luke, the very idea is evil and horrible, even though Obi Wan is insistent, first saying “You must face Darth Vader again,” and then sighing and concluding that everything is lost when Luke says that he can’t do it. For Luke, killing his own father is unthinkable, and this is reinforced when the Emperor continually goads Luke into attacking.
Thirty years later, though, here is Kylo Ren faced with the same task: he has been told that he has to kill his father in order to complete his own Force journey, but his is toward the Dark side. For Kylo Ren, killing his father is the ultimate act of evil, the point beyond which he can never turn back toward the light once he does it. And kill Han Solo he does, running him through with his brilliant red lightsaber.
This moment was not a shock to me, owing partly to my general unavoidance of spoilers at the time (I wasn’t seeking spoilers out, but I generally don’t care all that much if someone “spoils” a story for me, as “finding out what happens next” is only one reason for following a story, and hardly the most important one) and to my general familiarity with the Star Wars approach to the Campbellian story structure. Han Solo was cast as this film’s Old Mentor, and the Old Mentor always has to die. The only real mystery was in how it would happen: would he sacrifice his life to destroy Starkiller Station? Would something else happen?
The death of Han Solo was a sharp moment in the film, which is why it’s too bad the film basically ignores it afterward. Yes, it does. Han is never mentioned by name again after he dies. There is some initial wailing and crying, by Rey and Finn and Chewbacca; on the
Rebel Base Resistance Base, Leia gets this look like she’s just been clubbed in the stomach…as if three voices have suddenly cried out in terror, a disturbance in the Force…and that’s about it. Leia and Rey share a crying embrace when Rey finally arrives at the Resistance base, but as the two haven’t even met until then, the moment doesn’t feel “real” to me. Han is never mentioned by name again in the film after Kylo Ren runs him through, and worst of all? Chewbacca’s grief is never dealt with.
At the moment it happens, Chewbacca wails and starts blasting everything he can and he detonates the charges…and then? That’s it. No acknowledgment of Chewie’s horror at seeing this man with whom he’s lived so much of his life, with whom he has shared so much, die in such a fashion. And consider: that’s Han Solo’s son killing him. Chewie would have known young Ben Solo. He would have once considered Ben Solo a friend, as much a part of his family as Leia or Luke or…Han himself. I grant that the movie can’t stop in the middle of the Starkiller Station battle to give Chewie much more than a few howls, but afterward? No funeral? No ceremony of remembrance? No one going to cry on Chewie’s shoulder and vice versa? Not even a mention of Han Solo or of the act of evil that took him?
I’m sorry, but that’s pretty weak tea, and it reduces Han’s death – which is a powerful, powerful moment – to little more than a required plot point, and this movie does an awful lot of reducing what should be important characters and things to mere plot points.
(Interesting thought I had after seeing an amazing Kylo Ren cosplay on Tumblr: What if Kylo Ren had been a woman? That might have been interesting. We’ve had a lot of father-and-son stuff in Star Wars; maybe it’s time to explore the mother-daughter dynamic in terms of the Force and whatnot. Of course, maybe that’s where they’re going with Rey, but by being all coy with the whole “We have to hide her real identity for at least another movie!” bullshit, Kasdan-and-Abrams-and-company write themselves out of some very interesting story possibilities. It doesn’t all have to be about saving the revelations for later, folks.)
Ultimately, I think that’s my problem with the approach to character in The Force Awakens. Motivations are muddy and unexplored. Histories are left in abeyance all over the place. It’s the same problem with the plot in general: Very little is explained. How long are we supposed to wait for the explanations? Storytelling is far, far more than just a matter of making sure you have a lot of revelations to unveil toward the end of your tale, and the way this is shaping up, the last third of Episode IX is going to feel like the biggest episode of Scooby Doo ever, with masks being ripped off to reveal Old Man Carruthers all over the place. I really am getting sick of the “We have to keep our secrets as long as humanly possible!” approach to storytelling. It’s ruined a lot of teevee shows that just had to have their big long secret-filled mytharcs, it’s ruined book series that end up treading water while we wait for the Big Reveals, and now it’s in danger of ruining Star Wars.
It’s too bad, too, because it means that JJ Abrams won out in establishing the film’s storytelling. Lawrence Kasdan isn’t perfect, but when it comes to character, he’s better than this.
To be concluded with some actual praise for this movie! No, it ain’t all bad, folks — there’s a lot that I really did like about The Force Awakens, and I’ll get into that in this post series’s finale!
I actually quite liked Kylo, in as much as you can like the bastard who took down your childhood hero. I thought he was the most interesting of the new characters, and a refreshing change from the Sith lords of old, who were always utterly confident and, well, cool. Depicting him as, essentially, a wanna-be whose prone to throwing tantrums is different… and interesting. I remember reading a lot discussion about his lightsaber, why it flickers and looks more like a flame than a "classic" saber. My hunch is that it's one more piece of evidence that he's a wanna-be who's not getting it right. In other words, he cobbled it together himself and got it to work well enough, but it's not a proper lightsaber… which would explain why he wants Anakin/Luke/Rey's saber so much. He WANTS to be Darth Vader, but he's…just… not… good enough. And that's interesting. Or at least potentially interesting. (I could also make a smart-ass remark about JJ Abrams and George Lucas here… 😀 )
Like you, I find it interesting that the same people who bitched endlessly about Anakin (and to a lesser extent, Luke) being whiny are so in love with Kylo Ren, who's about as emo as you can get. And I think that points to what really lies at the heart of this movie: the philosophy behind it and the reactions to it. Namely, it's not the prequels. That seems to be the fulcrum on which every creative decision turned — we've got to make this as much like the original trilogy as we can! Okay, how about if we do a remake of A New Hope (actually Return of the Jedi, in certain regards). We have to get back to "rebels vs. Empire" because that was what everybody loved (even if it makes no sense and isn't organic to the story)! No explanation of the geopolitics of the situation, because everybody hated the Senate stuff and the tax routes! Ships that look exactly like classic X-Wings and TIE fighters, even though things would've evolved considerably in 30 years, because people loved X-wings and TIE fighters, and didn't like the ships in the prequels! Hell, we'll even destroy something a world that looks a hell of a lot like Coruscant as a symbolic end to the prequels! (Hosnian system? Whatev. I'm willing to bet at some point in the story's evolution, that was Coruscant. I'm surprised we didn't catch a glimpse of Jar Jar as the death ray was coming down.)
Even after nearly 20 years and all the fanboy glee at Lucas' absence, it's still all about the prequels.
As for Han Solo, I don't know that it's all that unrealistic he would've run back to his smuggling ways when everything went to shit. In my experience, people often try to get back to where they believe they were their best or their happiest, even if their assessment of when that was is false to objective viewers. So I wasn't especially bothered by that.
But I also think his reversion had less to do with JJ thinking "what might he do if his happy ending fell apart" than with JJ thinking "I've got to reset everything to the original trilogy-ness." The popular conception of Han Solo, what the general audience who doesn't think very deeply about stuff believes, is "sarcastic smuggler pilot." NOT "Aliiance hero," or "military leader" or "dude who has been many things and evolved like any other human being evolves." It's the reason why you say "Captain Kirk" and people think "womanizer." He's really not, if you actually study the original Star Trek — certainly he likes women and isn't above using his masculine charms to save the ship… but this idea that he's always getting laid or trying to get laid simply isn't supported by the actual show. Same with Han; he's a loser again (your words) because that's the Han people fell in love with in ANH and that's what JJ's mission brief was, to bring back the spirit of ANH. Too bad he doesn't have the storytelling chops to pull it off without simply aping the old films.
(I don't think it's coincidence that his take on Star Trek is less what Star Trek actually was than what people think it was. That seems to be how his mind works. He's a superficial thinker, IMO, and doesn't understand either of these properties nearly as much as he believes. Add in his maddening insistence that everything has to be a mystery without a satisfying answer… gah. I never have had much use for a tease.)
See, there's the rub: This is Star Wars, where everybody is mythic and bigger than life and all that. This is not the place for characters who do what normal people do. Maybe in real life people do, on occasion, revert to some former version of themselves…but I want as little "real life" in my Star Wars as humanly possible!
I think you're spot on with your criticisms of character development, but I'd like to comment on this point:
"and what did Darth Vader start, anyway? What is Kylo Ren getting at, here? I honestly don’t know. Killing all the Jedi? "
Vader's motivations are pretty clear in episode 5: To bring order to the galaxy. At that point he is even willing to sacrifice the emperor to achieve that end. The prequels filled in more of the backstory by showing that his original motivation was that Anakin thought that a benevolent dictatorship would solve all the problems in the galaxy, and Palpatine convinced him that Palpatine could be that benevolent dictator. Of course he subverted Anakin and turned him toward the dark side, distorted his vision, etc.
Now back to Kylo. Because he starts out as evil, all he sees is Vader wanted to use the Dark Side to bring order to the galaxy, and that's what Kylo wants to finish.