Friday, January 1, 2016

The Franchise Awakens: The Call to Adventure!

SPOILER ALERT! I will be discussing the first act of STAR WARS EPISODE VII: THE FORCE AWAKENS in detail in this article.

Episode VII doesn’t just recycle concepts seen in the original film; it also recycles concepts from earlier drafts of the first film’s script. Poe Dameron’s hand-off of the data module to BB-8, followed by his confrontation with Kylo Ren and capture, all make him a little like Deak Starkiller from George Lucas’ second draft of the STAR WARS script. In that version of the script Deak fulfilled the same function that Princess Leia would in later drafts: He confronted Vader, was captured and tortured, sent R2-D2 to draw Luke into the story, and was eventually rescued. The same happens to Poe in the course of Episode VII.

Poe is, on the surface, just as much like Leia as he is Deak Starkiller, but in some ways I think he calls back to Deak more than Leia. Like Deak, the object of Poe’s quest is more spiritual in nature. In the second draft of the original STAR WARS script, Deak sent the droids to find Luke and get the legendary Kiber Crystal to the Starkiller, a powerful Jedi who might be able to free the galaxy from Imperial oppression and the influence of the Dark Side. The droids found Luke, who then became tasked with finding the Starkiller. In the end finding the Starkiller was proven superfluous next to the importance of bringing Luke into the story, because Luke played a much more important role in galactic events.

In Episode VII, Poe’s mission is to find Luke Skywalker for basically the same reason that Deak was sending for the Starkiller. Like Deak, Poe is prevented from completing the mission himself. He entrusts his mission to BB-8, who then finds Rey, who then becomes tasked with finding Skywalker herself. And in the end finding Luke Skywalker appears to be less important than bringing Rey into the story, because it looks like she will have a far more important role in shaping galactic events.

Episode VII is more reminiscent of the second draft of the original script because it does not revolve around a plot to destroy the Empire’s super-weapon in the same way that the story of Episode IV did. Destroying the Starkiller Base is not Poe’s primary objective and gets introduced almost as an ancillary concern to give everybody something to do in the third act. The primary objective is to re-connect with an ancient spiritual power, which leads to the introduction of a renewed sense of hope for the galaxy.

In the story and out, we start out thinking we need to reconnect with old heroes when what we really need are new ones. 

After his capture, Poe is tortured by the First Order. Like Leia’s torture in Episode IV, this is more suggested than it is shown, but the novelization states that Poe is beaten for days before being interrogated by Kylo Ren. Whereas Poe was able to resist physical torture, Kylo Ren penetrates his mind using the Force and learns that the map is hidden in a droid.

Captain Phasma, a caped stormtrooper in chrome armor, is the commanding officer of the First Order stormtroopers. She orders FN-2187 to hand in his blaster for inspection and report to her unit. In the novel FN-2187 pretended that his blaster jammed and that was why he was unable to fire, but this ruse would not withstand scrutiny once the weapon was inspected.

Captain Phasma, caped stormtrooper extraordinaire 

In the 2015 Fall Preview issue of Entertainment Weekly, director JJ Abrams said that the chrome sheen on Phasma’s costume reminded him of the death balls in Phantasm, and Phasma’s name is an homage to that film.

This is just one man's opinion, but Disney may be going a little overboard with the merchandising on this one. 

The look of the character has roots that go back almost as far as her namesake. She looks like early concept art Ralph McQuarrie did for the first film, which envisioned a Darth Vader that much more closely resembled the stormtroopers.

Compare Phasma (left) to the rough concept of Darth Vader (right). 

In the story the chrome alloy supposedly came from a melted down space yacht owned by Palpatine, which had been constructed on his home planet Naboo.

Does that symbolize the recycling of the old STAR WARS movies into this one, or the fact that the prequels have been scrapped?

Instead of submitting himself for sanction and re-programming, a shell-shocked FN-2187 rescues Poe Dameron and they escape in a stolen Special Forces TIE Fighter. Just as it happens with Deak Starkiller in the second draft of STAR WARS and Princess Leia in the finished STAR WARS movie, Poe is rescued by someone in stormtrooper armor. This is the first time this has happened where the rescuer is actually a stormtrooper.

"This is what real stormtroopers look like. Some of us. Others look different." 

It’s worth noting that one of the stormtroopers lets out a Wilhelm scream when being blasted by FN-2187. That is a classic sound effect from the 1950’s that sound designer Ben Burtt used in the original STAR WARS. Since then the sound has become a staple of STAR WARS films and other franchises like the Indiana Jones series.


Phasma reports that FN-2187 was analyzed and sent for re-conditioning, but never had a prior incident of non-conformity. FN-2187 deserted after being ordered to report for re-conditioning, but it’s interesting that Phasma sent him for re-conditioning without following up to confirm that he got there. Even now that he’s turned traitor she says it like nothing out of the ordinary has happened. She almost seems to be defending him a little here. In an earlier scene where she cautioned him not to remove his helmet, it almost seemed like she was giving him a word of warning rather than an admonishment. These moments by themselves aren’t very suspicious, but Phasma seems to support the main characters – voluntarily or involuntarily – throughout the movie. She either has a hidden agenda or she’s just bad at her job.

As they depart the destroyer in their stolen TIE fighter, Poe introduces himself and resolves to call FN-2187 “Finn” because it’s easier to say. Finn wants to leave the system (which is strange because I thought TIE fighters couldn’t travel long distances without a command ship), but Poe insists on returning to Jakku to continue his mission. He is so insistent, in fact, that he tells this stranger his mission and describes BB-8 to him, even down to the color. It looks like it would have been a lot easier for the First Order to have someone pretend to rescue Poe so they could simply ask him where the map was. That would parallel the Death Star escape in the first film too, since Darth Vader allowed Leia to escape because he had planted a tracker in the Millennium Falcon. I don’t think that’s the case here, even though several of Finn’s actions throughout the movie could be considered suspect in the right light. But there is too much exposition about Finn and his mindset that is communicated only for the audience’s benefit for this to make sense in the story. The novelization also states more than once that the other characters take Finn into their confidence because they get a natural sense that they can trust him.

Their TIE fighter is shot down during their descent to Jakku. Finn ejects, but Poe is nowhere to be found. Finn recovers Poe’s jacket from the wreckage, but the ship sinks into the sand and explodes. Since Finn only saves the jacket from the fighter, we can assume that Poe was not in the cockpit when it sank. Finn also came down in a parachute after ejecting, so we can assume that Poe may also have successfully ejected. Finn doesn’t assume this, so instead of looking for Poe in the area surrounding the crash, he steals his jacket and leaves.

Some people criticize the concept of spaceships having ejector seats with parachutes, but several times throughout the movie we will see that these ships are also perfectly capable of flying within the atmosphere of a planet. Maybe they have other safeguards for space crashes, but even if they didn’t this seems like a logical feature. If you crash in outer space, there probably isn’t much point in ejecting anyway.

If I were doing this, I'd want a parachute. 

The Luke Skywalker analog in this film is Rey. She’s a desert scavenger who was apparently abandoned by her family when she was very young. Rey salvages parts from crashed Imperial wrecks to sell at a nearby trading post and she lives inside a fallen AT-AT. It’s interesting to me that we don’t see any wrecked rebel ships in any of these crash sites. Could this have been the site of an Imperial civil skirmish? After the Empire broke up, there had to be some warring factions of remaining Imperials. This occurred in the old Expanded Universe, before leaders like Grand Admiral Thrawn arose to the reunite them.

"Finally something we can all agree on!" 

Rey has some possessions that suggest she may have salvaged rebel wrecks as well. Inside her home she has a handmade doll that looks like an old X-wing pilot. The novel says that it is recycled material from an old rebel flight suit, but it doesn’t say where she got it. She also has an old X-wing pilot helmet, which she tries on just for fun. We are possibly only meant to think these were salvaged from wreckage, but so far we have only seen her salvage Imperial wrecks. There may be another reason why Rey has the remnants of an old rebel flight suit in her possession or that she would make a doll resembling an X-wing pilot.

Rey hears a scavenger trying to capture BB-8 and saves the droid, who decides to stay with her. It is not stated in the story why BB-8 chooses to stay with Rey rather than searching for Poe or attempting to make contact with the Resistance. This may just be to facilitate the story, but there may be a much simpler reason in the story for the droid’s interest in Rey.

Rey looks a lot like early concept art from the first film that envisioned Luke as a female character. Her name may be an homage to Del Rey, the publisher that originally printed the STAR WARS novelization and its follow-up, SPLINTER OF THE MIND’S EYE, as well as the original trilogy of Han Solo novels.

Rey is surprisingly knowledgeable on a number of sophisticated topics. Not only is she a top notch engineer with an inherent understanding of state-of-art technology, she also understands BB-8 and can speak (or at least understand) Wookiee. One explanation for this could be that Rey has been able to salvage and access data records from the ships she has plundered over the years. Another may be that she has access to information because of who her family was. This seems unlikely, since they don’t seem to have left her much of anything else. The simplest explanation is that just because she’s a scavenger on a desert planet doesn’t mean she can’t be educated. I think it’s more likely that she is working off of scavenged data. First Order propaganda seems to be prevalent on Jakku, because Luke Skywalker saved the galaxy and destroyed the Empire, but Rey later admits to believing he was only a myth.

When Rey trades in more salvage parts to Unkar Plutt (played under a ton of makeup by Simon Pegg), Plutt offers her 60 portions of dehydrated oatmeal bread (which is a fortune for a girl who lives in an AT-AT) for BB-8. Rey refuses and he orders his men to follow her and retrieve the droid. At this point the First Order knows that the map is in a droid, and there must not be too many droids left in the galaxy because everyone who sees BB-8 assumes he’s the droid they’re looking for.

Finn makes his way to Rey’s settlement after shedding his armor and trekking through the desert. He sees Plutt’s goons attack Rey to steal BB-8 and almost intercedes, but quickly sees that she can handle herself.

Finn recognizes BB-8 as the droid Dameron told him about, which possesses a map to Luke Skywalker. But everyone recognizes BB-8, so Dameron’s description to Finn is pretty much irrelevant. BB-8 sees that Finn is wearing Poe’s jacket and tells Rey that it must be stolen. Rey and BB-8 chase Finn down and he tells them that he rescued Poe from the First Order, but Poe was killed when they crashed on the planet. He doesn’t explain why that logically translates into him wearing Poe’s jacket, but nobody spends too much time on that. Instead Rey assumes he is with the Resistance and Finn agrees because this seems like the quickest way to get her to stop hitting him with a stick.

First Order troops attack the settlement and Finn assumes they are after him even though they are actually after BB-8. This again speaks to his sincerity, because Finn at no time seems to accept the importance of the droid or what he carries. He is absolutely paranoid in his belief that the First Order can and will track him anywhere he goes, which could end up being the case since they always seem to find him no matter where he is.

What Finn doesn't know is that the First Order planted a tracker in Poe Dameron's jacket. 

As to the matter of the mysterious map that leads to Luke Skywalker: Kylo Ren reveals that the map was recovered from old Imperial archives, but portions of it had been erased. He does not explain why everyone thinks the map will lead to Luke Skywalker, but he is obsessed with recovering the missing piece. Even though the Supreme Leader Snoke ordered the droid to be destroyed if it could not be recovered, Kylo insists on risking everything to get it intact. General Hux, the Grand Moff Tarkin of the piece, warns Kylo Ren not to put his own interests above those of their supreme leader. Finn, Rey, and BB-8 get to the Millennium Falcon, which is in Plutt’s impound, and escape. Rey knows enough about the ship to know that it will fly, but she says it hasn’t been flown in years. Plutt shouts at them as they take off, but otherwise nothing is done to prevent them stealing it.

Finn and Rey manage to get past a TIE fighter patrol and into orbit, but Rey doesn’t want to leave Jakku. In order to avoid this, Finn confesses to BB-8 that he is not with the Resistance but needs to know the location of the secret rebel base anyway. BB-8 shockingly accepts this appeal, telling them where they need to take him.

There is no time to work out a plan, though, because the Millennium Falcon is captured in open space by a freighter that turns out to be owned by Han Solo and Chewbacca. Han tells them that the ship was stolen from him, and Rey explains the entire chain of custody that led from one theft to another until it ended up with Unkar Plutt. Han doesn’t explain when it was stolen or why he didn’t bother to track it down, or why he is now bothering to recover it if he didn’t care before, but in any event he is now resolved to reclaim it as his own and dump them off at the first available stop.

Han’s freighter is boarded (rather easily) by rival factions who feel cheated in Han’s recent venture to capture three rathtars, which are now aboard the ship. There’s no real explanation for how two killer gangs were able to board Han’s ship without any defenses to prevent this, and there’s also no explanation for why they all want Han dead when he has clearly secured what he promised them.

This whole sequence feels forced and isn’t quite as organic as the action leading up to it. Its main purpose seems to be to show us that Han is in this movie and is exactly the same character he was in the first movie, scheming and smuggling and only just barely staying out of trouble. Since it isn’t introducing a new character or idea to the story, it kind of slows the movie down. It just cashes in on Han being there, but it doesn’t give him much to do.

Han kind of comes off as the creepy college professor who's always hanging out with his students. 

Rey and Finn are in hiding under the floor, but BB-8 is with Han and Chewie, and the gangs instantly recognize him as the droid the First Order is looking for. Trying to seal off the blast doors to close in the gangs, Rey accidentally releases the rathtars.

Aesthetically this scene mirrors the trash compactor sequence in the first movie. The characters are playing out a “belly of the whale” type scenario in the bowels of Han’s freighter, making this a bit of a mythological proving ground for them. The rathtars are designed to look like early concept art for the Dianoga trash monster in the first movie, so the parallel is (at least cosmetically) intentional.

As a trial on their hero’s journey, this sequence represents a crossing of the threshold for Rey and Finn. Up until this point they were simply trying to get away from the First Order and they were on the cusp of deciding what to do to help BB-8 when Han’s ship swallowed them up. Overcoming the perils represented by the threshold guardians manifested in the forms of not particularly intimidating space pirates and murder-monster killing machines is their first step into a larger world.

Again we see this sequence as an excuse to show us Han is still his old rock ‘em sock ‘em self. It even plays as an apology for the “Greedo Fires First” position of the Special Editions. At one point Han punches a goon to get past him, then, realizing this is not cold-blooded enough to show us that Han is a take-no-prisoners hard-case, he throws the guy screaming into the gaping maw of a rathtar. This doesn’t redeem the Greedo revision, because what made the Greedo scene so silly is that in the original version Han was clearly justified and acting in self-defense. It didn’t need to be edited to portray Han as a good guy. Making up for that unnecessary whitewashing by having Han kill a guy for no reason is missing the point just as badly.

It might just be time to stop being mad about that anyway, guys...

They all fight their way to the Falcon, but Chewie is shot and his right arm is injured. Han escapes the freighter by making the jump to light speed while still in the hangar, and the Millennium Falcon whisks them away from the pirates, Jakku, and any real hope or fear of ever going back to the lives they knew.

Finn recognizes Han as the famous General of the Rebellion and Rey recognizes him as an infamous smuggler. Appealing to him to help them in their cause, they decide to tell him about their super-secret mission too. Han acts like he’s reluctant to get involved. He looks at the map BB-8 is carrying, telling them that it is incomplete.

This movie matches the plot construction of the original movie almost beat for beat. At first Han is not fully recognizable because his role in this movie is not analogous to his role in the first STAR WARS. His story role in this movie is the same as Obi-Wan Kenobi’s was in the first movie. He’s the mysterious patron from another age who pops up out of nowhere and starts telling them all the necessary details about the back story.

When Han tells Rey and Finn about Luke’s disappearance, we begin to get an inkling of what the map really is. According to Han, Luke tried to rebuild the Jedi Order, but one apprentice turned and ruined it all. Feeling responsible, Luke went into exile and no one knows where he went. Some people believe that Luke is looking for the first Jedi temple. If the map stolen from the Imperial archives is a map to the first Jedi temple, then it makes sense that people believe that the map is the key to finding Luke. It doesn’t really make sense for everyone to believe he will definitely be at this location after all these years, but it at least makes more sense than saying that BB-8 has a map to Luke Skywalker.

At this point in the story, Han becomes the herald that guides Rey and Finn on their hero’s journey. His exposition introduces them to the larger world, confirming that the Force and the Jedi are in fact real and, by extension, the conflict between light and dark is equally real. Technically BB-8 carries the information itself, but Han is the only one with any understanding of what it means. Until this point in the story they were both satisfied to help BB-8 on his way and then go back to their own agendas. Han’s revelations change the scope of the situation for them. While he is not directly or intentionally prompting them to join in the larger story, the information he gives them constitutes, in terms of the hero path described by Joseph Campbell, their call to adventure.

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