Continued from a previous post.
There is a case to be made in defense of the inclusion of Starkiller Base in the movie.
I think it’s important to note that while the First Order isn’t the Empire, its members want to be the “New Empire.” Their fetishization of the Imperial past is shown by their usage of Imperial-style military equipment: Star Destroyers, Shuttles, and Stormtroopers all decked-out in an updated Imperial style. Kylo Ren himself is obsessed with his grandfather, Darth Vader, and is desperate to collect relics that speak to the latter’s power.
And, Kylo Ren, and by extension, the First Order, feel very insecure. The mere existence of a map that leads to Luke Skywalker is enough to send them into a full-on military conflict with the New Republic. So what we have here is an ascendant empire with an inferiority complex, with a love for all things Imperial.
The real question is, why wouldn’t they build a Death Star. It would both make them feel secure, as it’s the ultimate weapon, but also it would solidify any claims they have to the empty Imerpial throne. The Empire had a Death Star, we have a better version: Starkiller Base.
From a story perspective, it makes sense that the First Order would do what it did.
And yet, this is possibly the biggest complaint I’ve heard about the movie, formulated as either “why did they do yet another Death Star?” or as “Episode VII was just a remake of A New Hope.”
This is really interesting, as for some reason, X-wings, cute, plot-advancing droids with secret plans, Star Destroyers, lightsabers, and people saying “I have a bad feeling about this,” doesn’t provoke this intense reaction.
I’ve come up with a theory as to why that is.
In short, the third act is the weakest act.
The third act of the movie as starts roughly when Kylo kidnaps Rey and lasts to the end of the movie.
Like the movie as a whole, it has a frenetic pace. Unlike in other Star Wars movies, ships jump from place to place in no time flat, losing the valuable time spent in hyperspace, time that allowed characters to bond (or not), and provided for calmer moments that broke up the action. One of my biggest gripes with The Force Awakens is that it never slows down, never really utilizes these moments to get inside the heads of our characters and show us what they’re really thinking. They hardly have a chance to catch their breath before they’re launched into something new.
And once Kylo kidnaps Rey, well, the pedal is to the metal for the rest of the movie. Compounding this issue, the movie gets fairly nostalgic.
Han flies a ship into a secret imperial installation in order to blow it up (Episode VI), while also flying into a secret imperial installation in order to stage a rescue (Episode IV), and then makes a quip about throwing someone into a trash compactor (Episode IV).
Why does he make this joke? Is he really still upset about it 30 years later? Does he also see that he is once again on a rescue mission on a Death Star? Must he point out the similarity to the audience watching the movie?
And then, beyond the nostalgia, the movie gets cheesy. When Finn adopts his faux-Alpha Male attitude around Rey, it’s awkward. It’s clear why he is doing it, but it’s still awkward.
He does it twice on Starkiller Base, once while laying out his rescue plan to Han (Why are you shaking your head like that?”), and then again when capturing Captain Phasma (“I’m in charge now!”), and it works neither time. It comes across as cheesy. Previous to this, Finn claims to have been a janitor on Starkiller Base, which is supposed to be funny but is really just confusing. Why is the First Order using soldiers as sanitation workers?
And boy, Harrison Ford looks like an irritated old man while all this is happening. These are not bad scenes, but the writing and execution are just wonky enough to pull you out of the movie.
And I think that’s what’s going on: there’s a nostalgia going on a time where the audience is less engrossed in the movie. They realize something’s off, and the knee-jerk reaction is to blame something big, even when other aspects of the movie might be at fault.
I’m not by any means saying the movie is perfect, but allegations of being a “remake” seem unjustified to me.
In fact, as I was watching this movie, I learned something about creating compelling characters that I’m trying to incorporate into my own fiction.
Here goes: Any novice writer that’s spent any time trying to get any writing advice at all has heard the maxim: make your character want something (even if it’s just a glass of water). The point of this is to make your character more compelling and to drive the narrative forward. It seems both obvious and hard to apply. Your characters shouldn’t just lounge around with nothing to do, that’s boring, but on the other hand, if they just want one thing, they become, well, one-dimensional.
As the traditional maxim goes, you’re supposed to prevent your character from getting what they want until the end, and that is supposed to create tension and conflict.
So, I was happy to discover that there’s arguably something else going on in The Force Awakens.
Every main character wants two things.
Rey: Wants to be on Jakku when her family returns.
Also always wants to do the right thing.
Finn: Wants to flee the First Order
Also wants Rey.
Kylo: Wants to be the baddest bad guy
Also secretly wants to be good.
And, I think it’s really cool how these play out. The wants these characters have would not necessarily be in conflict, if it were not for the other things happening in the plot.
Rey can do the right thing and stay on Jakku until BB-8 shows up. Then she has to make a choice.
Finn can flee the first Order and be around Rey until Rey is kidnapped by the First Order. Then he has to make a choice.
Kylo can be the baddest bad guy and secretly want to be good until he’s told to kill his father. Then he has to make a choice.
I love this dynamic: you can have both for a little while, but things are going to change and you’re going to have to choose. I think it’s really compelling and makes for good storytelling. Overall, it’s not a movie without flaw, though the common discourse around it has focused on characteristics that are ultimately not the ones that keep it from being a “great” movie.
Look, someone has to clean the bathrooms.
If someone is unfit for battle (Finn takes off his mask and has a panic attack at the first casualty he sees) then why not put them on sanitation?
All joking aside, I love this character philosophy that you bring up here. Character tension seems really difficult, and they have create epitome of inner-conflict in Kylo Ren. I would be interested to read a study about how they handle his conflict because they show it before they talk about it. Actually, I’m not sure they talk about it at all. Maybe once or twice, but never while Kylo is in the scene, unless they’re shoving it in his face. They do a fabulous job of showing his conflict, and they continue doing a great job in The Last Jedi.
The characterization works well for a lot of excellent characters, but we have to be careful that it does not take only this to make a good character. Some good characters have this, and it isn’t treated well, and so the character feels flat and plot-serving. Take Jyn Erso, she is a ball of conflicting interest. She wants to help her father and the rebellion at the beginning, and when those things come in conflict… Wait, when those things come into conflict with one another she just picks the one that makes for a more interesting plot… Almost as if she knew she was in a movie…
All joking aside, this makes Jyn fall flat, even though she had these conflicting desires. How the desires are handled, and the following drama and tension is critical to what you are referring to.