1/11/2016

A Writer's Look at Star Wars: The Force Awakens


If you're breathing at the moment, you've heard the buzz about Star Wars, Episode VII. Matter of fact, you've probably already seen it. If you haven't, you can't really complain about the spoilers that follow. Get off your ass and see the movie.

Consider yourself warned.

In my lifetime, there has never been a movie like this. Every year sees a handful of hotly anticipated movies; some sequels to successful blockbusters, others high-minded Oscar hopefuls, still others adaptations of already well-known works. But if you added up all the anticipation for every movie that's come out since I was born, it wouldn't even come close to the buildup for Episode VII.

And that, in itself, made it possibly the greatest writing challenge I've ever witnessed. The prequels were big news, sure, but once that first one hit theaters, we were all rolling our eyes for the remaining two. Star Wars has been big business since day one, but those movies--even before we knew they sucked--didn't have the kind of energy around them that Episode VII does. It was like "Hey, they're finally making a new Star Wars. Cool!", and that was about as excited as any 'normal' person got.

But after the travesty that was Episodes I-III, the stakes done got raised. On the one hand, you had what was arguably the most beloved and world-changing media franchise of all time, and on the other, you had a flaccid, blatantly commercial prequel trilogy that just took a massive Cleveland steamer on the whole thing. Never has the ache for redemption been so strong.

I got my hopes up when I heard the important players from the original cast were coming back. That was the first sign, to me. If they had made another Star Wars without Harrison Ford, I would have seen it out of a nerdy sense of duty, not genuine desire. But the cast did come back.

The next worry I had was "Who's writing it?". Perhaps it's professional bias, but to me, the writer is more important than the director (ideally, they're the same person, but I knew this project was going to be a team effort). As long as a director is professional, and doesn't get up his own ass with technique-y gimmicks (I.E. Alejandro González Iñárritu), most directing styles are tolerable to me. Even, mood permitting, that of the much-maligned Michael Bay.

When I watch a movie, I can't help seeing right past the veneer of characterization, exposition, setting, etc, right to the narrative structure. I like stories that display symmetry, minimalism, and a clear causality. I like my stories to have everything they need, and nothing they don't. So I was happy when I learned that J.J. Abrams was in charge, along with help from George Lucas's old pal Lawrence Kasdan, and Pixar alum Michael Arndt. That is a satisfying meeting of minds, and I think it produced a winning script.

The Force Awakens has been criticized for being too similar to A New Hope, and I think that's a somewhat valid note. We have a lonely youngster on a desert planet, with tenuous ties to a family they hardly know getting swept up in an interstellar conflict; a Big Bad in black who will do anything to squash the emerging threat to his power; an adorable droid sidekick who needs to get to his master; a somewhat grizzled mentor character who convinces the hero the force is real...I could go on. We even begin the same way: resistance hero gets in a sticky situation and has to hide a crucial piece of information by giving it to a droid, who runs off and fortuitously meets up with our protagonist. And the climax is the same too: A ragtag group of rebels, spurred on by the cruel display of the badguys' power, locate and exploit the one weakness of the weapon that created said display.

I could go on.  For a long while.

It's true that a lot of things will look too familiar to some. But to me, these things are more about narrative symmetry and paying homage than they are about being derivative. Taking notes from Episode IV was a sound strategy to ensure a higher quality story. I would have done the same. In fact, that's all I know how to do: take inspirations, beats, and elements from high-quality source material, mix them up, and add a few new things. I'm a big believer in the old saying that there's nothing new under the sun, but it doesn't bother me, because shuffling familiar elements has a way of producing sound, likable stories, and the forces of chaos ensure just enough new, fresh material to keep things interesting. So I'm glad that Episode VII took more than a few notes from Episode IV. Anyone who has a problem with something reliably good is a masochist.

The visual element was important to me too. One of the biggest problems with Episodes I-III was that all the CGI was so shiny and fresh looking, it broke the fourth wall. All I could see was special effects. I couldn't see the characters at the heart of it. But it would seem that we've finally entered an era where technology has caught up with the goals of the filmmakers that use it. I can still tell what's CGI in Episode VII, but only because I know what's possible and what's not. just to look at it, the seams don't show at all, and that kept me in the movie.

Structurally, the movie is rock solid. Its characters have the vibrant, timeless quality that made the original engaging. Rey is a great hero; I'm a sucker for a tough chick that can hold her own in a fight; something that Star Wars has always been known for (I.E. Leia). Klyo Ren has been lampooned for being too 'emo', but I actually like that about him. I think his volatility makes him more dangerous, and it keeps him from being just a clone of Vader. His voice under the helmet even makes me think of Tom Hardy's Bane, but at a Teen Titans age.

I was sad to see Han go, but again, I probably would have done the same. Someone had to die to lend credibility to Kylo Ren's villainy, and if you're gonna kill somebody in a story, you've got to make it hurt the audience as much as possible. I can't imagine any Star Wars death that would affect fans more.

The most intriguing things about Episode VII were our two new mysteries: the identity of Supreme Leader Snoke, and the identity of Rey's family. Personally, I think Rey's situation is obvious to anyone who was paying attention. She's a Kenobi, through and through. My money is that she's Obi-Wan's granddaughter. They dress the same, they have the same self-possessed confidence, and when I saw Rey climbing around an area of Starkiller Base that was very reminiscent of the first Death Star, it clicked. And it made the end of the movie all the more poignant: once again, we have a calm, wise Kenobi handing a troubled Skywalker his weapon, beckoning him back into the fray.

Snoke bugs me though. Andy Serkis, who portrayed him in the movie, assured us that Snoke is a completely new character, but I find that unlikely. First of all, it strains against believability; that someone hitherto unknown in the Star Wars universe had the motive, means, and opportunity to attempt to rebuild the Galactic Empire seems crazy to me. How does he have the resources? How does he have the connections? Why does he even want to?

It seems more likely to me that either Snoke is someone we already know, or he has a connection to someone we know. Otherwise, the stakes just aren't high enough. Emperor Palpatine was a mighty, thoroughly intimidating villain who held the galaxy in an iron fist for six movies. He was damn hard to defeat; if it wasn't for Anakin Skywalker's last-second conversion, he probably wouldn't have been. It was one of the narrowest victories ever. And Snoke has to top that, otherwise the third trilogy will actually lower the stakes. I just don't think that a total unknown can come onstage and be more evil and manipulative than the Emperor. Palpatine is up there with Satan when it comes to embodiments of evil. He's so evil, he's a metaphor for evil. So Snoke better have some serious chops, or it will subtly ruin the new trilogy for me.

That said, my hopes are high. J.J. Abrams knows how to spin a web of lies and confusion in order to keep the audience guessing. Lawrence Kasdan knows how to honor the movies that came before, and make use of the best elements in them. And Michael Arndt knows story structure, and has a knack for creating bright, engaging, sympathetic characters. As long as those minds are involved--or at least minds of similar quality--the forthcoming movies will be great.