Star Wars Episode 7

For all the praise that Star Wars: The Force Awakens has received, I find myself more and more disappointed with the film as time passes and the initial excitement behind me.

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Many of the complaints have surrounded the fact that the plot is copied and pasted from episode 4, which is true. But enough has been said that I won’t rehash it. Instead I’ll argue the piss-poor quality of the film’s narrative structure, with Starkiller Base as my case study. I won’t even get into how lazy, stupid, and repetitive it was, and how unbelievable it was even for Star Wars (I cannot suspend my disbelief so far as to accept that  planet can swallow and store a star, then shoot it through hyperspace, and then not subsequently freeze over).

Instead l argue that it simply didn’t work as a plot point. It was storytelling at its worst.

 

Central Conflict

For comparison, let’s look at how the same idea plays out in Episode 4. The Death Star is introduced at the very beginning of the movie and are immediately the central driving force of the entire narrative. The Death Star is the great threat throughout the entire movie that directly or indirectly drives the plot and characters, so it makes sense that it becomes the third act confrontation.

Contrast with Force Awakens. Instead of being a driving hook that gives the protagonists momentum, it randomly manifests a good way through the movie irrelevant to the established mission. The sudden diversion has nothing to do with the protagonists’ inciting incident (discovery of the map), so the entire third act becomes a tangent rather than a crescendo.

The actual goal: Find Luke, becomes magically solved as a result of no effort on the cast’s part.  The movie’s true central conflict is cheaply fixed for no reason other than arbitrary script
necessity: “It’s the end of the movie and we need to wrap this up”. While the third act is a manufactured conflict irrelevant that appears out of nowhere. What becomes insulting is how clumsy the attempt to hide the sudden deus ex RD2D was. C3PO tells the audience with confidence that it is unlikely R2 has the map, only for us to find out that he does have it when the timing is right. Both Droids were together with both parts of the map but we weren’t allowed to resolve that yet for completely forced reasons. There is no logical tie to the destruction of Star Killer Base and the awakening of R2, so the tidy resolution feels artificial and forced rather than earned in any way.

 

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The Plans

In Episode 4, the Death Star plans are the McGuffin, providing a believable through line, which the rest of the drama is founded on. The importance of the plans are set up in the opening crawl, so when the McGuffin is used to address the threat in the third act, it feels coherent. All the drama of the movie is derived from the attempts to unite the plans with the rebels, so when this happens it feels earned.

Meanwhile Ep 7’s McGuffin is the map to Luke. It has no meaningful connection or relevance to the major threat and plays no part in resolving the threat. So the immediate execution of the plan against the spontaneous threat feels unnatural, unearned, disjointed, and cheap.

 

Earning the Payoff

It may seem convenient that Rebels could so quickly analyze the plans and find a fatal flaw. While this is a slight weakness with the movie, the pacing would crumble under realistic time frames. Instead the series of obstacles that we invested in symbolically represent the overall drama of utilizing the stolen plans. We can suspend our disbelief at the ease of the analysis because the rest of the drama was difficult, earned, and allowed to play out over the course of the movie. It is a natural release of properly planted and cultivated dramatic tension.

Contrast with Force Awakens. Immediately after becoming aware of its existence 2/3 of the way into the movie, it takes the main characters all of 45 seconds of witty banter and spit balling ideas before flawlessly executing an ad hoc plan without any real obstacles or course corrections. Hell, Finn immediately finds the one person he knows on a PLANET they just crash landed on, this person “happens” to have the authority to deactivate the entire planet’s shields, and they are able to kidnap her and convince her to do it without so much as a hiccup. While bad things do happen on the Base (like Han Solo’s death or the lightsaber fight with Ren), none of is even remotely an obstacle to the goal of destroying the base, which is done with jovial ease.

 

Episode 6

Let’s compare these differences with the third movie that utilizes the exact same plotline. Right off the bat, the Death Star threat Return of the Jedi suffers from a similar weakly contrived nature as in Force Awakens. The awkward pacing of the movie makes Jabba’s Palace a disjointed adventure from destroying the second Death Star. However, it can at least be forgiven that this is the third film in a larger trilogy. Not the first film, which needs to be a more self-contained story.

Next, the McGuffin. In Episode 6, the McGuffin is Luke’s need to confront Vader. The payoff comes in three ways.

  1. It appropriately drives Luke’s involvement in the confronting the threat
  2. It supports the Empire’s motivations for their actions
  3. The confrontation itself naturally becomes the catalyst for resolving the threat (Killing the Emperor)

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Now how about earning the resolution? This time we do not see any struggle to obtain the plans or the stolen ship. At first glance this detracts from the credibility of the threat-solution dynamic. But unlike Force Awakens, the solution is contrived on screen but not contrived in-universe. We are told that “many Bothans died” getting these plans. Exposition reveals that obtaining the solution did have a high cost. Still, it is not as powerful because we didn’t know those characters and had no investment in their struggles.

However, in he third act, the Emperor reveals that it was a trap. He allowed the plans to be stolen to bait the rebels. Suddenly the initial weakness of the easy solution becomes a strength. Our expectations have been flipped and the dissonance we had with the ease of the solution is released into appropriate narrative tension. Instead of sliding through the plan like butter on ice, the heroes must react and adapt.

 

A Final Comparison

We can apply this 3 part filter to most any other hero’s journey type movie and it will only shed further light on how sucky the Star Killer Base plotline was. Take Lord of the Rings:

Central Conflict: The Rise of Sauron is directly relevant to our hero’s inciting incident: Escaping the Shire with the Ring.

McGuffin connection: Destroying the Ring was integral to defeating Sauron.

Earning the Resolution: We watch 9 exhaustive hours of Frodo journeying to Mount Doom.

Now imagine if Lord of the Rings had Frodo on a totally different mission for the first two films, like finding Bilbo, only to realize in the last act of the story that Sauron even existed and the ring needed to be destroyed. Then through a single witty conversation comes up with a plan to destroy the ring and executes it with ease. Turning back to his initial quest: finding Bilbo, Frodo finds this inexplicably resolved without any further action on his part.

 

That’s the Force Awakens and that kind of sucked about it.


  • Kingfisher12

    I wouldn’t say it sucked, but I definitely agree there are many, many flaws in it that the filmmakers should be properly ashamed of.

    A narrative has at least two parts – the story itself (the conflict and its resolution) and the way the story is told. A great story told poorly is a bad narrative. An awful story told excellently is a spectacle.

    Episode 7 gave us parts of potentially good stories, told pretty well. It gave us the beginning of a ‘New Hope’ Story, the middle of a ‘Ben Solo/Kylo Ren’ story, and the end of a ‘Destroy Starkiller’ Story. The only complete story presented was the ‘Finn’ story, and it was also the story they didn’t tell particularly well.

    It’s okay to foreshadow and set up events in a future episode, but in order to be a satisfying experience those elements have to be garnish to an actual story with a beginning, middle, and end. It did give us one of those (Finn), but probably spent less than half the time telling that story, with the rest of the time being spent on not telling other stories, and doing it very well.

    As for unlikely scenarios and plot-holes the size of planets (literally), that’s what you get when you go for theme-park rides instead of storytelling.

  • whtllnew

    I don’t think I can agree with you here. I mean…I too was disappointed in Force Awakens, but when I tried to figure out why I was forced to conclude that it didn’t have a single problem that didn’t also exist in the original trilogy (eps 4-6). Your analysis strikes me more as a well thought out justification for that feeling than describing actual problems with ep 7 that didn’t exist in eps 4-6. In other words, I can’t find any LOGICAL flaws in your argument but it still wasn’t THAT bad.

  • CWalois

    Another example of lazy storytelling — why was the Millennium Falcon parked right where Rey has been working as a slave all this time? That’s about as likely as how Scotty is discovered by Spock in J.J.’s first Star Trek movie.

    And (as you said) why did R2D2 (not “RD2D” 🙂 wake up when he did? I feel like I actually sensed the audience disappointment and puzzlement at that part in real-time.

    Rey also felt a lot like a Mary Sue, succeeding at everything Force-related on her first try.

    That being said, I am still interested to see where the story goes. But yes, I was almost angry at how lazy it was to create an even bigger Death Star and then just blow it up at the end. Surely they could have surprised the audience at least a little by having the attack (by all of, what, four people?) only hobble it, so that it retreats into hyperspace, and bringing it back for subsequent movies as a perpetual bogeyman?

    • Rey being a Mary Sue bothered me too.

      Most of it was OK, I liked her character enough to be happy that she was talented. But the light saber fight with Ren totally broke it for me. That she could best him in a duel after he had years of training was too much. It just made him really really suck.

      People try to argue that he was shot. Bit that handicap is kind of mitigated by the fact that she was just thrown against a tree and dropped 20 feet.

      They should have had her surprisingly not die as a testament to her ability and then barely escape kylo because the earthquake separates them. It could have clearly demonstrated her potential while plausibly allowing her to escape a far more skilled foe.

      Instead, JJ knew he only got to direct one move and wanted to have the glory of filming the first “badass” girl lightsabe fight, logic be damned.

      • whtllnew

        Was that really any worse than having stormtroopers get beaten by stone age teddy bears?

        • A little. I’ll give you taht it was a similar amount of cringe-worthy stupidity.

          But the difference is that Kylo was the Main baddy. It would have been more like those teddy bears beating vader to death with a sack of stones.

          Or Luke beating Palpatine to death with an Ewok. Wait actually that would have been pretty cool.

          • CWalois

            I will say this, though: that aspect of the story can be totally redeemed if, the next time Rey fights Kylo, he’s gotten stronger and beats her. After all, he is aspiring to one day be as strong as Darth Vader, so what differs from an ordinary villain is that he is on a journey. Most villains are “finished stories”. It would be interesting to get a sort of reverse hero’s journey where he starts off weak and gradually fulfills his dreams of getting more powerful in the Dark Side. It would also be the reverse of Luke gradually matching Vader in strength if Kylo pulls ahead of Rey in his training.

            I’m split on whether I think they actually have the creativity/guts to tell this story, however, or whether the desire to entertain a wide audience will cause them to play it safe. Certainly, if done right, this approach needn’t glorify being evil, and Kylo can still be beaten in the end, but it would provide an interesting take on a villain that isn’t seen often.

            What’s more likely is that he will repent at some point and turn to the Light Side. This can still be compelling if done right, but it strikes me as the turnout that everyone is expecting, so I’d rather see him become more evil. But to be honest, Kylo is the only original thing about the movie and I like the idea of a villain-in-training, so that’s why I’m interested in seeing the coming Episodes.

  • 404_Username_Not_Found

    My biggest complaint is that Han didn’t stab first.

    Apparently Abrams did not learn from Lucas’ great mistake.

    • CWalois

      The way that scene turns out is totally predictable; it’s just a question of how soon you see it coming. Is it when Han first sees his son? Good on you, you know your stories. Is it when Han starts to cross the bridge towards Ben? Not bad. Is it when Ben says he needs his father’s help with something? Okay, uh, you’re in the same boat as me. But you still saw it coming a few seconds in advance.

      But what’s interesting is that sometimes it’s good for a scene to be predictable. When you’re going to kill a major character, there’s supposed to be foreshadowing or at least some fore-warning, so that it doesn’t feel too abrupt for the audience to accept. So I think that Abrams didn’t necessarily intend for the scene to be surprising. As for Han, I guess he wasn’t genre-savvy and didn’t see it coming, but who can blame him? He hadn’t seen his son in a long time, and he was trying to be a good dad.

      • whtllnew

        I only saw it coming because that’s the way Hollywood does things. Looked at realistically it didn’t really make sense for Ben to act the way he did and then kill Han. It would have been OK if he’d been more obviously evil in that scene.

        • CWalois

          You don’t think Ben was trying to draw him in by acting vulnerable or penitent? I do acknowledge that the ultimate reason for how the scene plays out, in the real world, is that there was some surprise intended*. But looking at it that way takes all the fun out of it 🙂

          *Alongside a certain amount of foreboding, as I said, to prepare the audience for what is going to happen.

  • Not seen any of the “new” Star Wars films, only the original three. Didn’t think they were that great, glad to hear the new ones are even sillier:-) I’m a Star Trek and Dr Who fan, not a Star Wars fan. Now, does this count as blasphemy for anyone?

    Looking at Lord of the Rings instead, when we compare the Hobbit films to the book, it’s highly amusing to me that the Hobbit films are so much bigger in scope than the book was (or deserved to be), and how much stuff got shoe-horned in as a result. As an example of this, it’s fasinating how many dark portents of Sauron and the purpose of the Ring are shoved into the Hobbit films, basically added retrospectively after Jackson’s LotR’s films. I kept on thinking: I don’t remember this entire subplot! eg. Radagast and the necromancer. Also I’m sure Legolas didn’t appear in the Hobbit!

    • whtllnew

      Yeah, it WAS a bit much sometimes. Really weird. Some of what they did was an improvement (the tension between the dwarves and elves makes more sense now), some of it was bad (look at the books, then look at the movies. Bilbo isn’t nearly the hero in the movies as he is in the books).

    • Kingfisher12

      I just replaced my copy of The Hobbit and I have not seen the Hobbit films. I don’t think I’ve forgiven Peter Jackson for what he did to LotR.

      The largest sin, I saw, was changing the sequence of the ‘Flight to the Ford” to shoehorn in a character that is barely in the books, and is very boring in the movie. And by doing so completely robs Frodo from what I thought was the defining moment for his character in the whole trilogy.

      I shouldn’t grudge Jackson for telling the stories he wants to tell, but to do it at the expense of one of my favorite stories is upsetting.

      • Yeah I completely agree with that. I like the LoTR movies a lot but they are nothing on the books. You have to remember though that LoTR was the beginning of the faithful adaptation trend. Before that movies based on books wildly diverged more than not.

        Now what Jackson did to the Hobbitm That’s truly unforgivable in my mind

        • Kingfisher12

          That dissuades me further from seeing them.

          I do agree that this was the beginning of movies being true to books, and It just wasn’t quite there in that first movie. I did enjoy the movies for what they were, and I shouldn’t condemn them for what they are not.

          But that being said, I think they could have been a lot better if they had treated their main protagonist like a hero (as he clearly is in the books) instead of a sack of potatoes.

      • CWalois

        Can you refresh my memory, it’s been a while since I read the books — what did Frodo do differently?

        • Kingfisher12

          Well for starters he’s conscious. Though injured, his primary care is for the safety of his friends.

          The elf that meets them has to make his horse drag Frodo ahead alone. When he makes it across the horse stops and even though he’s terrified, he quite bravely defies the riders. The spell is cast by Elrond and Gandalf out of sight. As far as Frodo knows he’s totally alone, and it sets the baseline of his bravery.

          • CWalois

            I see, I didn’t remember that. Interesting that Jackson didn’t appreciate the importance of that scene for the character of Frodo. I enjoyed the LOTR movies well enough, but Jackson is overrated as a director (I’ve yet to encounter a director in Hollywood these days who isn’t). In general, though, when are the adapters of a work ever equal in skill to the original creator of that work? So I don’t hold it against Jackson as much as the whole Hollywood system that puts money-making above quality products.

          • The main nitpick I have with Jackson’s excellent LOTR films is that poor old Tom Bombadil is omitted, and hence the barrow wights don’t stab Frodo, the ring wraith leader does.

          • CWalois

            Well, I never minded the absence of Bombadil because he doesn’t really affect the plot. He’s just sort of a curiosity or diversion from the story.

          • Fair enough, I think coupled with the barrow wights stabbing Frodo, Bombadil and Goldberry helping the hobbits recover added something, but maybe I’m misremembering.

    • 404_Username_Not_Found

      Well Abrams didn’t do justice to Star Trek either, but he made it marketable so they let him keep directing them.

      And I am not a Doctor Who fan, but am told that it is nearly blasphemy to abbreviate it as Dr. Who.

      • Abrams did pretty well on the Star Trek reboot, I thought. Re: Doctor Who/Dr Who, I must have missed that memo, I often abbreviate it to Dr Who.

  • Extending this discussion of McGuffins and imperfect storytelling (oh you’ve started something here Ipray):

    I have a pet theory (based on reading much scifi and horror) that some of the most interesting story arcs arise out of flaws in the narrative structure and the author’s attempts to overcome them. Often, an author accidentally boxes themselves in earlier in the “series” – perhaps before they even knew there was a “series” – and has to fight strenuously to get out of the pit they’ve dug for themselves.

    Examples abound: Julian May’s Pliocene Exiles/Galactic Milieu series, which have a really clever satisfying conclusion (read the books; don’t ask for spoilers), despite clearly showing evidence that in the last book of the Exiles series, the author throw in a monkey wrench: she changed the fictional universe in a way that enabled the final satisfying conclusion to emerge several books later. It’s always fun when an author says “now, did we mention BLAH happened 20 years ago” when that means “I’ve just thought of a new idea to make things interesting: 20 years ago, BLAH happened. I didn’t tell you about it before cos I’ve only just made it up:-)”. The first 3 books were clearly written with only a vague idea of the backdrop (the society the Exiles come from), while book 4 introduces the monkey wrench – a new enemy – and shows how the new struggle works out. By the end of that book, she brings the Exiles series to a good workmanlike conclusion. She could have stopped there…

    But then you wonder if she got curious about the backstory of the exiles – and the new enemy they had to struggle with. So she wrote another 4 books exploring that backstory – and clearly she had the ultimate conclusion baked in right from the start, so it emerges gradually and becomes a completely satisfying answer to both her new books (the Galactic Milieu series) and her old ones (the Pliocene Exiles). But a very surprising one!

    Other examples include Brian Lumley’s Necroscope/Vampire World series, where he builds an invincible hero in book 1 and then destroys him, and clearly then thought: damn, how do I bring the hero back? (Like Sherlock Holmes of course). Then Lumley does it again: after 5 books of the Necroscope series, he goes back and fills in the 10 year gap between books 2 and 3 with another 2 books (the “Lost Years” series), facing himself with the extreme structural problem of letting the hero finish up with no more knowledge than he showed in book 3. That’s still not enough for him: so he writes a related series (the Vampire World) ones set after the original series (“did I mention the hero had twin sons on that world he visited?” no: you only just made that woman and her sons up!). Brilliant original series, with IMHO the best ever depiction of vampires with an actual biology (all others seem tame besides them!) but totally flawed structure.

    My final example seems different, but is actually another example of what I mean: in Peter F Hamilton’s gobsmackingly clever Night’s Dawn trilogy, he sets up a brilliant exponential threat to humanity, shows it working out compellingly over 3 books and 3500 pages. One particularly clever thing he does is show one group discovering what destroyed an ancient race intercut with another group facing the same threat right now. The realisation of both groups that it’s the same problem is superb. Then in the last few hundred pages, he faces the logic of the scenario he’s setup: extinction for the human race, decides he doesn’t like it, and the only thing he can come up with is the biggest and silliest McGuffin of all time (“did we mention ….” no you didn’t, cos you only just thought it up!). Like Superman, with one bound they were free! But, despite the flawed ending, the trilogy is brilliant, one of the most original ideas in scifi/horror in decades (read it if you haven’t already).

    • I like that idea overall. I don’t think every movie needs to be totally formulaic. Books have much more latitude in breaking narrative structure and form. For whatever reason, movies tend to need to follow a bit more regularly to the three act structure, which is why I tend to prefer television.

      I was a screenwriting minor in college (useless). I became really upset when I learned that movies followed such repeatable formulas, but the fact is that breaking to wildly without a cohesive dramatic reason tends to make movies suffer.

      • Hi Ipray, it’s certainly true that all my examples were from books. Considering movies, I think an individual movie nearly always coheres reasonably well, perhaps because more money and more polishing by multiple screenwriters gets inflicted on it?. Unless it’s a complete turkey of course – Plan 9 from Outer Space, anyone? But when you consider movies and their sequels, what about the excellent Pitch Black and it’s amazingly naff sequel The Chonicles of Riddick, which completely changed Riddick’s character (“did we mention that Riddick’s the sole survivor of an alien race…?” answer: no, cos you only just thought it up, and btw, it’s a stupid idea:-)).

  • Drowbert101

    I agree with the overall criticism. It’s pretty clear the goals first and foremost were to legitimize the new Disney ownership of the franchise, establish a clean lineage from the original trilogy while breaking from the original cast, and start a multi-movie story arc. This movie had baggage.

    The copy-paste plot from episode 1… clear message is that “Disney is going to give you the Star Wars you remember from your childhood.”

    The Luke Skywalker map… Hey, we have a big thing planned, with more Star Wars legacy characters.

    But most of the show was basically about the old characters legitimizing the new characters, and confirming that the new characters were up to the same challenges.

    Honestly… gripes aside, I believe that Disney came pretty close to executing what they had to execute. Delivering excellence was way less important than transitioning the franchise.

    • CWalois

      Yes, I’m withholding all judgment until I see if they take the story in an interesting direction. There wasn’t really even a story in VII, just a whole lot of premise-establishing and character-introducing. So I can’t tell yet how good it will all turn out.

      • Drowbert101

        I actually liked Episode 7. I hated 1-3. Despised, even. I have decided that I forgive Star Wars for Lucas’ geriatic years at the helm.

        • CWalois

          III had a lot of promise, but Lucas dropped the ball in characterization, e.g. explaining Anakin’s turn properly. Sure, he doesn’t want Padme to die, and interfering in the fight between Windu and the Emperor made sense in that light, but then he goes and kills a bunch of younglings for no well-defined reason. He goes from conflicted to pure evil in literally minutes.

          The basic problem, if we’re being honest, is that Lucas never cared about deep characterization because Star Wars was just supposed to be space opera like Flash Gordon. I don’t know if he’s capable of writing deeper stuff, but he wasn’t even trying to. A lot of fans simply didn’t want what Lucas was offering; they wanted something more grown-up. But that was never what Star Wars was supposed to be (Empire Strikes Back was an accident).

          • Drowbert101

            Yeah, the high level outline for III was probably fine. The lower-level stuff… writing… was horrible. Didn’t help that Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman were horrible actors.

          • CWalois

            Young actors often fare badly in Lucas’ Star Wars movies because of his famous laziness in directing actors. If the actor doesn’t have lots of experience to draw on, they’re adrift without a paddle. Also, he deliberately writes melodramatic prose, which takes extra skill to deliver well.

          • 404_Username_Not_Found

            Agree whole heartedly. I’ve said for a while that had Star Wars come out int he 90’s instead of the 70’s it would not have been a cultural phenomenon. What gave Star Wars its power was special effects that held it well above its peers.

          • CWalois

            Interesting point. Moviegoers were a lot more cynical by the ’90s.