Star Wars Episode 7Posted: May 18, 2016
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- It appropriately drives Luke’s involvement in the confronting the threat
- It supports the Empire’s motivations for their actions
- The confrontation itself naturally becomes the catalyst for resolving the threat (Killing the Emperor)
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.