Missing the Point:
An Analysis of Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Part I – The Film
— A Guest Blog by Daniel Noa
Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a massive hit. Given the caliber of the filmmakers, from Hollywood it-boy J.J. Abrams, to Kathleen Kennedy, elder-stateswoman of Hollywood, to the various production designers and department heads, and finally of course Harrison Ford, this should not be surprising. So it pains me to write that I was incredibly disappointed with the film. Given all the love I see for this movie on the internet, this may frustrate you. I do not want to diminish your enjoyment of this film, so rather than take to Twitter, I have written this 2-part essay to explain my issues with the movie, both as a film (Part I) and as a Star Wars story (Part II), in as clear and logical a way as possible.
First, as a film, The Force Awakens has no story. It is a sequence of tenuously connected events featuring several characters, each of which becomes the “main character” (or main protagonist) depending on the moment in question. The film sets up its first main protagonist, Poe Dameron, and a main quest (the search for Luke Skywalker), but then dispenses with both of them after the first act. Poe does return, but his further presence is so anecdotal and generic that the film might actually have had more impact had he died in the crash, as Finn suspected he had (and as Oscar Isaac —the actor portraying Poe Dameron — told GQ last weekend he was originally supposed to).
Once we are introduced to Finn, however, the film seems to enter some uncharted territory. Indeed, any film that features a child soldier (Finn explains that stormtroopers are taken from their families at a young age and indoctrinated into the program) who has an “ah-ha” moment and decides to change sides should have a lot of material to work with. Unfortunately, John Boyega’s portrayal is so full of energy and verve that one has a hard time believing he has ever been a brainwashed, conditioned stormtrooper. Where does all this personality come from? Nonetheless, he is set up as the main protagonist — a runaway slave who seems to have no qualms at all about killing his fellow brainwashed, conditioned slaves.
But then we meet the girl who seems intended to be the main protagonist, except she is “no one.” As he did in Star Trek Into Darkness, Abrams uses audiences’ ignorance as a stand-in for mystery. But throughout the movie several characters appear to either know or suspect her identity, yet it continually cuts away at critical points where some explanation might be forthcoming. Obfuscation does not equal suspense in storytelling. We are in the dark about her identity not because the other characters are, but because of editing decisions on the part of the storyteller.
Speaking of story, the original Star Wars‘ strengths were the action sequences and the interesting story moments, and how beautifully they relied on each other. For example, Obi-Wan Kenobi explaining the Force to Luke in A New Hope, or Yoda’s soliloquies in The Empire Strikes Back, or Luke’s confrontation with Darth Vader in Return of the Jedi are all beautifully developed bits of dramatic storytelling that The Force Awakens does not take adequate time for. The hints we do get, such as the scene where Han Solo explains what happened to Luke Skywalker in the intervening years since Return of the Jedi, tease a more compelling story than anything we witness onscreen.
But one would assume a 2015 film could top the action sequences from the 40-year-old Star Wars trilogy. Surely constructing a sequential, layered, complex action sequence along the lines of a Death Star trench run, or an asteroid field chase, or the Battle of Hoth, must be something a couple of bright filmmakers with a nearly limitless budget could construct. Yet while there is plenty of action in The Force Awakens, much of it involving shooting, running, and flying around in circles, almost no thought seems to have been put into anything that could fairly be called a “sequence.”
The closest to a true sequence we see may be the Millennium Falcon flying through the Star Destroyer wreckage, but it doesn’t quite qualify. Action sequences are something George Lucas practically invented. Though they originate in the earlier Bond and Hitchcock films, Lucas perfected them between his Star Wars and Indiana Jones trilogies. They feature an inciting event which leads to another which builds on the first leading to an even larger event which leads to a climax. A good sequence should form its own visual story that is easy to follow while also being exciting and, most importantly, tense. What the trench run from A New Hope, and asteroid chase from Empire, and the speeder chase from Jedi share is a clear sense of purpose, stakes, spatial geography, a deliberate sense of pace, and an ability to stand on their own as cinematic achievements. The action moments in The Force Awakens lack these things, and, to use a criticism often heard leveled against the Star Wars prequels, they seem to be taken from a video game.
For example, the first scene that should qualify as an action sequence is Finn and Poe’s escape from the Star Destroyer. The TIE fighter takes off, but is actually still tied to a mooring line, so Finn shoots a bunch of people (those brainwashed child soldiers I referenced earlier). Then they leave, and Poe says “we have to shoot as many of these canons as we can,” which is a line that would fit in any objective-based video game. Finn then proceeds to shoot at the guns on this massive ship. The ship then gets some missiles on-line and shoots down the fighter without much difficulty. Later, when the stormtroopers and TIE fighters chase Rey and Finn through a market place, it has some energy, but cannot compare to the marketplace chase in the JJ Abrams produced Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, much less the market chase in Lucas’ own Raiders of the Lost Ark.
The final attack on the Starkiller Base has little to no choreography. Basically, the X-wings shoot at things. There is no elaborate setup, no tense goal that must be met (like flying fast through a long and dangerous trench, or flying into the super structure pursued by enemy fighters, though both of these sequences from previous films are briefly called out). In fact the entire sequence is confusing (even on second viewing) as is everything about the weapon they are attempting to destroy. Poe Dameron, the only named character involved in the battle, no longer carries any real importance as he has not done anything interesting since the first act. Both this battle, and the earlier X-wing battle, are simply a compendium of context-less shots of ships shooting at each other, rendered with the coolness and slickness of a video game.
These issues are structural filmmaking issues, much of which has to do with filmmaking intent, and while I believe they keep the film from measuring up to previous Star Wars installments, they may still be legitimate filmmaking choices. In Part II, I will explain that The Force Awakens does not adhere to the rules and mythology of the Star Wars universe as we saw depicted in the original trilogy in some very essential ways.
(All Accessed 12/21/15)
Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ Box Office: $247M Opening Weekend, $528M Worldwide
Which ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ Character Was Originally Supposed to Die?