MAJOR SPOILERS BELOW FOR THOSE OF YOU (ALL 3 OF YOU) THAT HAVEN’T SEEN STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS
In light of Star Wars: The Force Awakens coming out on DVD and Blu-ray next month, I wanted to scrutinize the film from a screenwriters perspective and point out a few glaring missteps that director J. J. Abrams and Disney made while making the newest chapter in the beloved Star Wars saga. You may or may not agree with this perspective, but I find most have agreed with this analysis regarding the second largest blockbuster film of all time.
I, like so many others, had the pleasure of experiencing Star Wars: The Force Awakens during its first midnight show when it played on December 18, 2015. Although I had a great time, and felt like a kid experiencing the original movie for the first time, I still felt as if something was a little “off.” In fact, as I was exiting the theater, a friend commented that he loved it and rated it a 9.5, asking for my opinion. I told him even then that the fan boy in me rated it a 9.5, but from a professional perspective I had to rate it significantly lower.
As a screenwriter, it’s our job to paint vivid and memorable characters that an audience is willing to follow on their journey no matter where it takes us. Consistency of character is key however, and the crafting of the story our characters are thrust into is just as important as the characterizations themselves. While the characters of Rey, Finn, Poe, and Kylo Ren are memorable, it’s already been pointed out a number of times that Star Wars: The Force Awakens was essentially just a rehash of Star Wars episode IV: A New Hope. Although doing so was a safe move by the film studio and J.J. Abrams after the backlash the prequel trilogy received, it still was not handled as deftly as the original film. Although episode IV had a number of “coincidences,” The Force Awakens might as well have been called Star Wars: Deus Ex Machina. Although I’m not going to go through all of them (as there’s far greater grievances), I wanted to mention a few.
The opening started very strong, and set the pace and tone of what we were about to experience. But when Finn makes his escape with Poe, I started to become a little concerned regarding “who” these characters were, and if the history and “rules” of the Star Wars universe was going to be respected. Storm troopers have been established as being soldiers who don’t really have, nor are really allowed to have, an identity. It’s for this reason even that they’re not supposed to remove their helmets. This was even briefly touched on when Captain Phasma berates Finn for having removed his. Thus, it felt out of place when a storm trooper, that has experienced next to no racial culture, suddenly starts whooping and hollering “Did you see that?! Did you see that?!” when he shot down his first tie fighter. It was jarring, unexpected, and it wasn’t part of Finn’s characterization that followed for the remainder of the story. We get that he was excited, but his demeanor was not in line with someone who lived in a galaxy far, far away. raised from birth to be a storm trooper.
This was followed up by showing how valuable BB-8 was. Not only was he carrying a map to where Luke Skywalker was hiding, but he was a very powerful little droid worth a significant amount of money. Yet a scavenger, who already has BB-8 ensnared in a net, just lets him go without a fight when the young female, Rey, demands it. The “piece of junk” ship just so happens to be the Millennium Falcon…with the keys still sitting in the ignition….and works “almost” perfectly despite collecting dust for a number of years. Han Solo, our favorite smuggler, just so happens to be hovering over the planet of Jakku and traps his favored ship in a tractor beam immediately as it leaves the planets orbit. Han’s friend Maz Kanata just so happens to have Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber. This lightsaber immediately resonates with Rey, prompting a force vision, followed by the Imperials sudden arrival. Rey gets captured while the remainder are saved and rescued by the Resistance – led by the now General Leia. Coincidence after coincidence happens (mind trick anyone?) all culminating with the planet miraculously splitting in half (separating and stopping Rey from killing the villainous Kylo Ren) and R2-D2 “waking up.” The whole film just felt overly formulaic, and a bit predictable, which is why we said it could be called Star Wars: Deus Ex Machina.
But the first of two major issues I took grievance with was the handling of Captain Phasma, portrayed by Game of Thrones’ Gwendolyn Christie. Phasma was supposed to be a powerful new character in the Star Wars universe, akin to Boba Fett. Instead she did nothing more than single-handedly cause the defeat of the First Order by bringing down the shields, without a fight, before being shoved into a garbage compactor. Meanwhile it’s been noted on many online forums that the new fan favorite character in the film was the storm trooper that shouted “traitor” at Finn, deployed his weapon, and fought the defected hero wielding a lightsaber. In fact, this character was given a name and back story, when there was none previously. And why is this character a new favorite? Because the audience felt this battle was one of a personal nature, and therefore more engaged in the outcome. All the filmmakers needed to do to fix this issue, and more so the screenwriter, was replace the storm trooper who fought Finn with Captain Phasma. Everything else could have played out the same including her being shot and left for dead. This way, when our heroes stumble upon her upon the Starkiller ship later, it would make sense why she would not have (and may not have been able to) put up a fight. Further, you now have two rivalries: Rey versus Kylo Ren, and Finn versus Phasma.
Which brings me to my largest grievance with the film; the death of our favorite smuggler Han Solo. It was telegraphed the moment Han stepped out on the catwalk. What should have been an emotional gut punch to the chest instead left me feeling very little. Losing this cinematic character of history should have been as iconic of a moment as the classic line “I am your father.” And again, this scene could have played out the same way, and given the desired effect, with one little tweak.
Others have said that Han and Kylo needed to have had previous interaction before this moment. Although that would have definitely added gravitas to the scene, it also would’ve extended the run time. Instead, they needed to not reveal Kylo Ren’s face earlier in the film when he was interrogating Rey. When Han calls out to Kylo to “take off his mask” and Kylo responds with “what do you think you’ll see,” we can see that Han is overcome with emotion when he responds with “the face of my son.” And if you’ll recall, Kylo complies in removing his mask to reveal himself to his father. Had this been the first time in the film that we, as an audience, saw the face behind the mask; a young, somewhat goofy looking boy who didn’t even have the trademark Sith scars yet, the remainder of the scene that played out (Kylo struggling with his emotions before giving in to the dark side and slaying his father) would have been a more powerful moment. But by already seeing Kylo previously, the power of this scene, and what follows, was lost. We really wish they had done this.
It may seem like I didn’t really like Star Wars: The Force Awakens, but that’s far from true. In fact, as a fan of the saga, I had an amazing time watching it and appreciating how it harkened back to the originals in some clever and fun-filled ways. But the movie is nothing more than a “popcorn flick” and in no ways a cinematic masterpiece, or compelling script. It just goes to show you how important it is as a screenwriter to make strong and carefully crafted storytelling decisions in order to avoid boxing yourself into a corner forcing you to rely on cliches or deus ex machina.
The Force Awakens gets a pass because it was significantly better than the prequel trilogy, but if this same formulaic and cliché storytelling continues in the next film chapter, I fear fans will not be as forgiving. As a result the pressure is high for those taking the reigns for Episode VIII, so let’s hope that Disney doesn’t drop the ball. Meanwhile, everyone can enjoy the Star Wars: The Force Awakens blue ray when it hits shelves today. As for me, I’ll be holding out for the 3D version being released later in the year.