Sunday, February 7, 2016

STAR WARS: The Franchise Awakens - Story Under Construction

The fact that Rey has such a profound spiritual experience under Maz Kanata’s bar is even more interesting in light of the fact that Maz’s castle is constructed on the site of an ancient battle between the Jedi and the Sith (according Pablo Hidalgo’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens: The Visual Dictionary). Timothy Zahn surmised in his novel Heir to the Empire that perhaps Yoda had battled a Dark Jedi on Dagobah in the exact spot where Luke had his vision, explaining why that area was otherwise inexplicably strong with the Dark Side of the Force. 

Of course, they would never do anything like that in the movies.

That would be ridiculous.

This concept that Maz’s castle was once a stronghold in a war between the Jedi and the Sith supports this same idea. Maz is very attuned to the Force, so the site of her centuries-standing sanctuary may have been specifically chosen as an act of Force-balanced Feng Shui.

Mission accomplished, Maz...

Rey’s spiritual dilemma is quickly and violently metamorphosed into an all too real physical dilemma. The fracturing of Rey’s perceptions, hopes, and dreams is accompanied by a literal breakdown of events in the story. As Rey feels her universe crumbling around her, in another star system the First Order is launching its most destructive attack on the Republic. 

General Hux gives a rousing propaganda speech to an impressive looking assembly of First Order troops. Immediately following this is the launch of their new super weapon, a weapon that sucks power from the sun to unleash unimaginable devastation. This first wildly successful test of the weapon destroys five Republic planets (because in Episode IV they only destroyed one planet, and more is always better).


The background provided in the Visual Dictionary about Hux gives us some insight into this scene. Hux is the son of an Imperial officer, raised to believe the propaganda the Empire disseminated about its manifest destiny over the galaxy. It’s interesting to note that many of the First Order and Resistance fighters in the film are young enough not to have actually witnessed the events of the previous war. Instead they are children of that conflict whose understanding of it is only supplied through the context of what their parents have told them about it.

Like many of the First Order’s agents, Hux has no real battle experience. He believes that simulation training is sufficient to make good soldiers, mostly because he himself has been largely trained merely through the use of battle simulations. We begin to see very early on that this is not the case. In Greg Rucka’s Before the Awakening, we see that FN-2187 was the top of his class, showing remarkable skill and battle instincts in simulations, but the mission on Jakku was his first engagement and the real horror of war immediately prompted him to reject all he had been taught.

But Hux still believes in a clean, easy, and decisive resolution to the conflict with the Republic. He’s super-keen on the use of the Starkiller weapon because it offers the First Order the opportunity to destroy their enemies remotely, without having to get their hands dirty with the harsh business of a real war.

And Hux’s strategy appears to be working. The first shot takes out the host system where the Republic’s new Senate is gathered as well as the bulk of the Republic’s fleet, seemingly crushing any potential opposition. He somehow believes that this will conquer the galaxy for them automatically, when it actually threatens to de-stabilize the galaxy even further and make it that much harder to bring all those systems back together under a single system of rule.

Descriptions of the Starkiller device suggest that it can destroy a star system by targeting the star itself (a capability suggested in the name of the weapon, which is also an homage to early drafts of the STAR WARS script that originally identified Luke Skywalker as Luke Starkiller). What we see in the movie is a little more direct, though: Starkiller base appears to fire missiles across space that target the individual planets in the Hosnian system. This may have seemed more visually satisfying when shooting the movie, but comes off as just a silly way to one-up the original film by blowing up even more planets. The destruction of a sun and its surrounding planets would have been a much more profound and terrifying idea, but the movie makes it look like they’re just randomly blowing stuff up. It doesn’t help that we have no idea what is blowing up or why, and everything has to be explained after the fact so that we understand the story we’re watching.

This sequence is meant to put the chocolate in the peanut butter and bring the entire movie together so that all the story elements overlap in a meaningful way, but it all happens so quickly and arbitrarily that it plays a little clumsy.

Within what seems like moments of their arrival, Finn makes arrangements to join the Crimson Corsair’s pirate crew and escape to the Outer Rim while Rey discovers her Jedi destiny in the basement below. The First Order and the Resistance have been separately informed of BB-8’s presence in the bar, leading you to wonder why they don’t just keep the droid hidden since it’s so readily recognizable to everyone in the universe.

Maybe sending a "one of a kind" droid on a super secret mission
wasn't the best idea in the world.

As Rey is running through the woods (to where, exactly?), the First Order starts blowing up planets from Starkiller base at the exact moment Kylo Ren arrives on Takodana with a squadron of stormtroopers, hell-bent on keeping the map to Luke Skywalker from falling into the right hands even though the assault on the Hosnian system is intended to remove the Resistance threat altogether.

While all of this is going on, Maz gives Finn the lightsaber, because now that they are under attack he has abandoned his effort to escape in order to insure his friends’ safety. Finn lightsaber fights one of his former squad-mates, who comes at him with an electric riot stick. The internet playfully dubbed this character TR8R due to the fact that he screams “TRAITOR!” at Finn very dramatically. His actual designation is FN-2199. In Before the Awakening, FN-2199 – or Nines, as he is nicknamed by his teammates – served on the same fire team as FN-2187 during training, but was distinctly more vicious than the rest. His enmity with Finn is a bit more personal since they actually served together.

Some people have complained about Finn’s ability to use a lightsaber, but as we see from observing Nines in this scene and as is explained in Before the Awakening, the First Order stormtroopers are trained to fight with melee weapons.

"And for today's lesson, just in case you ever have to battle a Jedi,
we're going to teach you how to fight with sticks."

The fact that Maz has Luke’s lost lightsaber is barely discussed in the movie, mostly because whenever people stand still for two long things just start blowing up around them. Han asks her how she got it and she assures him that’s a story for another time (presumably the sequel). 

There is a rich alternate history of this lightsaber provided in the expanded canon that, if any of it were to contribute to the new canon, could give us an even more tragic back story about how Maz has it and how it eventually finds its way back to Luke. In Timothy Zahn’s The Last Command, the third and final installment of the Thrawn trilogy, the lightsaber and Luke’s severed hand were recovered by the Empire, the hand being used to create an evil clone of Luke. This evil clone (who for some reason is named Luuke) dueled with Luke using his original lightsaber. During the duel Luke was actually saved by Mara Jade, a former Imperial agent the Emperor had brainwashed into wanting to kill Luke. Finally satisfying this last command by killing Luke’s clone, Mara was freed of the Emperor’s influence and claimed the lightsaber as her own.

Above is a Mara montage, including moments from the books, 
a truly embarrassing 
collectible statue that is so focused on her back side that it's almost impossible 
to find a picture of what the front of it looks like, and finally what I assume is 
a fan-created image of Mara if she were played by Summer Glau

In the expanded history, Mara trained to become a Jedi, eventually falling in love with Luke and even marrying him, only to be killed by – wait for it – Han and Leia’s son, who had been trained by Luke to become a Jedi but was seduced by the Dark Side of the Force. So the reemergence of this lightsaber could have even more ominous undertones if any of these ideas were mined from the old expanded canon for use in the new trilogy.

Han and Finn fight ground troops while Rey confronts Kylo Ren in the woods. BB-8 escapes, so Kylo decides to take Rey instead and abandon his pursuit of the droid. In light of Kylo’s stated purpose, this action makes no sense. It becomes evident later on, at least in part, that once Kylo discovers Rey, he is no longer interested in his original goal of finding the droid to find Skywalker (or keep other people from finding him, or something). He is now much more interested in Rey.

Just because everything in the movie needs to be happening right at this minute, the Resistance also shows up to defend Han and Finn from the stormtroopers. And just because absolutely everything has to be happening at this very second, the X-wing squadron that engages the First Order is commanded by none other than Poe Dameron, who I guess is still alive for some reason.

"Thanks for completing my mission, Finn. I would have helped, but after
we crashed I had to head back to base to get a clean jumpsuit."

Don’t get me wrong: I love Poe Dameron and I’m glad he didn’t die on Jakku, but in a scene where we’ve already been confronted with so many unexplained story coincidences and such a profound shift in narrative flow, reintroducing a character who had been presumed dead is just a little too much to be chucking into the movie all at once.

And I love this sequence, too, I’m not saying that the action bothers me. JJ Abrams in a master scene-builder in the way that Steven Spielberg was a master at building an exciting visual sequence. But like Spielberg, Abrams is not always coherent in his understanding of the world in which the scene is taking place. Having all these elements converge this quickly at this single point in the story makes the universe it’s happening in seem very small. As a matter of construction, it also creates a congested point of confusion where a lot of new information is thrown at us and the story shifts dramatically into being about something else entirely from what we have thus far been told is the premise of the film.

"Now let's all re-convene on a forest planet for the
obligatory third-act war room scene."

The STAR WARS story has always been a fast, forward-moving action adventure serial, so it’s not outside the spirit of the saga to suddenly take the story to a new place and confront the characters with new challenges. The segue in this case just feels a little sloppy here.

Compounding the narrative congestion is the arrival of a Resistance troop transport carrying General Leia Organa. With her arrival, the character dynamic of the story has officially transitioned from what we saw at the beginning to a whole new sensibility. The story began with Finn, Poe, and Rey, narrowing the scope down to Finn and Rey after Poe was apparently killed in the crash on Jakku. The plot threading was clear and clean at that point, following them as they fled the planet and were captured by Han Solo. From that point on the linear progression of the story was less clear. Outside the story, we know that Han is shoe-horned in to connect this movie back to the original film and give audiences something familiar to anchor them to the story. Unfortunately, the story was working just fine with the new characters, so bringing in Han and his adventures with the rathtars and the Guavian Death Gang kind of just takes you out of the story and breaks its momentum.

They could have cut this scene, but nobody wanted to tell
these guys that they wouldn't be in the movie.

From the point where they go to Takodana, the story structure is completely re-worked into being a completely different movie. Rey’s capture and Finn’s need to rescue her follow the original thread, but everything and everyone around them are now solely concerned with something else. And there’s nothing wrong with that, because we’ve established that there is a larger world with a lot more at stake than what’s going on with them, but the problem is the scope and stakes defined for that larger story are not the same as they were at the beginning of the movie. The movie began with a race between the First Order and the Resistance to find a means of locating Luke Skywalker, based on the assumption that Luke can somehow tip the balance in their galactic struggle. The opening crawl tells us that Leia sent Poe to Lor for that purpose, a task then passed on to BB-8, who recruited Rey and Finn to help complete that task. Even Han is begrudgingly brought into the story under the assumption that he will help them in their adventure, but instead of helping them Han basically takes them into another story and the original story sort of evaporates for a while. Not altogether and not all at once, but for a while you just have to accept that you’re watching a different movie and wait patiently for the movie you’ve been watching to pick back up again at some point.

For now, the story revolves around Han’s reunion with Leia. We don’t know exactly how long they’ve been apart, but many years, it would seem. It is not unbelievable that Leia chose to accompany her troops, since she knew Han would be there and clearly wanted to speak with them. It’s not even unbelievable that Poe Dameron is alive and is somehow back with the Resistance instead of out looking for BB-8. Poe made his way back to the Resistance after escaping Jakku, and the events of the story unfolded so quickly that it wasn’t necessary to go after the droid at all. Not only did it become apparent that BB-8 was on Takodana, but the discovery of a greater threat has taken precedence over the search for BB-8 and even the search for Luke Skywalker.

None of these individual story elements represent a problem. They’re all legitimate aspects of the story and they don’t challenge your suspension of disbelief. The problem is that they’re all heaped on too close together and that delivery does challenge your immersion in the story. It’s not a problem with the material, it’s just a little sloppy construction. 

But this movie had a lot to accomplish. A little sloppy construction can be forgiven when you’re trying to tell a story this big, especially in a medium as immediate and condensed as a movie. In fact, a few bumps along the way are to be expected.

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