WASHINGTON, Jan. 3, 2015 – One of the best-known images in the “Star Wars” franchise is the backstory text that rolls up the screen at the beginning of each film as John Williams’ stirring martial theme unfurls in the soundtrack.
Reminiscent of plot summaries that began each chapter of 1930s and 1940s movie serials like “Flash Gordon,” the scroll’s purpose in the “Star Wars” films is not only to provide the audience much needed exposition in case they haven’t seen previous films but also serves to create momentum for the current film’s story line.
In the newest “Star Wars” installment, the opening scroll echoes previous films in the franchise and also exhibits hints of the malfunctions that show up a little later in the film. The current opening scroll tries to set up the same power dynamics as those of the original trilogy while also alluding to the conclusion of “Return of the Jedi.”
That’s our first clue to a surprising sense of the filmmakers’ desperation to return to the dynamic of the Empire and Rebellion, as if this were crucial to reclaiming that initial narrative to score a success with the new film. But this actually undercuts the power structures of the movie.
The existence of the new Republic can’t be ignored because it would completely invalidate the “Return of the Jedi,” the conclusion of which, presumably, animates the story for “The Force Awakens.” Yet the studio seems to have no idea how to incorporate that continuity. This result? The movie quite literally blows up the new status quo established in “Return of the Jedi.”
Character and Continuity
Creating a new atmosphere for characters to inhabit isn’t a bad thing. But this film’s atmosphere doesn’t really feel new. In large part, that’s because the main villainous entity known as the “First Order” is poorly defined. Very little effort is put into their relationship to the Republic or their role within the Star Wars universe other than their existence as a remnant of the presumably defunct Empire. This, in turn, causes further issues because it puts into question logical necessity of the Resistance.
When the narratively empty Republic is presumably destroyed, the event rings hollow since the First Order hasn’t been defined. Aside from being identified as essentially evil, we’re expected to accept this only because the creators use direct iconography of the earlier Empire.
This creates a continuity issue almost from the start of the new film — one that has a way of running through the rest of it. The backstory for “The Force Awakens,” along with motivations and details, is rushed through or outright abandoned within the course of the film, all of which is prefigured in that opening scroll. The convenient sketchiness allows something of a new beginning for the current intended trilogy, but at the expense of the larger story line that precedes it.
“The Force Awakens” does provide a number of one-to-one connections with the preceding franchise films, however. Yet they seem like early “Star Wars” material, warmed over for a new generation. Poe Dameron, for example, first appears in much the same way that Princess Leia was introduced in “A New Hope.” His goal is to find a map to the whereabouts of Luke Skywalker. As the hero of the original trilogy, Luke is regarded as a figure of hope for the Resistance.
Poe is positioned early on as a major character, but his role in the film is not much more than that of a glorified background character. His apparent character arc – his quests for the plans to the Resistance and/or finding Luke Skywalker – are largely short-circuited by his disappearance from a large portion of the movie. He’s basically forgotten until he shows up again with no more than a hand wave.
This progression of the early Poe Dameron narrative is interrupted by another scene, this one directly mimicking the scene in which Darth Vader boards Princess Leia’s ship in “A New Hope.” The current film’s Darth replacement-villain — Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren — now takes up the leader’s role for the invading enemy, something that also seems entirely derivative.
The “Star Wars” universe has never been a complex study of character. At its best, each of the earlier characters was very simple and broadly drawn, and their story arcs were clearly defined. Luke wanted to become a pilot and make a difference, Leia needed to get Death Star plans to help the Rebellions, Han needed to get paid anyway he could, and Vader wanted to crush the Rebellion.
“The Force Awakens,” however, consistently has trouble clearly stating and expanding on character arcs and motivations. This is maddening, because at the heart of the new film are some excellent new ideas begging to be fleshed. This is easy to see in the development of John Boyega’s Finn, “Stormtrooper, FN-2187.”
Finn has a crisis of faith in the opening sequence, causing him to abandon the First Order. This is a fantastic and interesting idea, given Finn’s previous dedication to his role, and it’s this kind of personal turmoil and rebellion that’s never been fully explored in the “Star Wars” franchise.
Finn has been raised to be a storm trooper the way an animal is raised for food. After having dealt first with clones and later with the conscription of humans to bolster its armed forces, rebellion is a major new concept to Finn, as storm troopers like him are trained to act only with unquestioning obedience to superior authority.
This should be a major issue for the First Order. It’s an example of their potentially crumbling façade and the nightmare of any totalitarian dictatorship. What if elements of their power structure begin to think for themselves and not as they’re told? But any intellectual or hierarchical concerns this might provide are briskly pushed to the side.
Character introductions have always been important in the “Star Wars” franchise, whether it’s Vader in his black visage, Leia standing toe-to-toe with our villain, or Han casually sitting at a table. In this context, the most important character in this new trilogy is Daisy Ridley’s Rey. The first time anyone sees the goggle-wearing Rey is in a close-up shot before she scales down the decimated star destroyer she’s scavenging.
These opening moments with Rey, as well as her visit to a border town in Jakku, are important because it’s one of few moments the audience gets to spend quality time alone with the character. Otherwise, the action in this film is so continuous that the characters are simply bouncing off one set piece after another.
Take for example a scene in which Rey and Finn destroy two tie fighters in the Millennium Falcon. At this point, the characters have known each other for a total of five minutes. But instead of getting to know each character better, we’re drawn to the Falcon as it subsequently falls apart, is boarded by inhabitants of frigate piloted by Han Solo and Chewbacca.
Next, Rey and Finn are attacked by pirates and beasts that Han and Chewie have been carrying on board. This action-packed mess takes up some 20 minutes of screen time during which there’s very little in the way of legitimate communication among any of the characters.
Character development. Or not.
“The Force Awakens,” while by no means a slight film in terms of content, falls down like so many 21st century action movies do in that it never gives its characters a moment to breathe or interact with one another outside of trying to protect each other from the next impending distraction.
The result is that characters like Finn and Rey are just collections of experiences, stripped of emotional agency. Lacking deeper character development, this is a film that frequently doesn’t earn a payoff for it’s more dramatic moments. This issue seems most acute in the film’s handling of Kylo Ren, the pivotal character tasked with bearing the brunt of that constant pull between the light and dark side of the Force.
His deep conflicts between the light and dark sides as well as with his quickly recognizable relationship with his parentage do not arise from character. Rather, the understanding of his conflicts relies simplistically on the audience’s understanding what’s supposed to happen. Neither Driver nor Ford, in this case, has to do any heavy lifting for their characters, despite their best efforts.
With Kylo Ren, Rey and Finn, the movie at times feels like it’s checking off boxes rather than building toward key moments filled with emotional resonance, as we still occasionally experience in the better action films.
Conclusion: Star Wars fans will love it anyway, flaws and all
Fortunately — or not — these moments will be largely forgotten in two years when Episode VIII is released. The current movie progresses so quickly and its visuals are so disorienting and distracting that there’s not much time to question what’s being done. “The Force Awakens” is mostly able to get away with its hollow narrative and near lack of real character development because everyone involved in it is more than game for the fun of the franchise and there’s so much palpable energy residing in their performances.
Today’s “Star Wars” fans are willing to forgive a lot when it comes to these films because, at least in 2016, their main interest in the franchise is the CGI spectacle. It all fulfills the longing to have, once again, that shared experience, not just with friends and family but with complete strangers dressed up as a Tusken Raider or Boba Fett. “Star Wars” has become such an industry that it’s enough for fans to simply lose themselves in the experience, so long as it’s obvious — at least to them — that they’re being taken for a ride.