The Screenplay Strikes Out: How Swinging Too Soon Can Spoil Your Space Opera

BY: LEWIS MEDEIROS

Spoiler Warning: Although specific “Rogue One” spoilers will be avoided in favor of referencing the movie in general terms, story elements of “The Force Awakens” will be discussed in detail and without remorse. Do not read this if you haven’t watched it and do not wish to be spoiled.
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“Crazy thing is… it’s true. The hype, the criticism… all of it.”

It’s been a nice stretch of time since the seventh episode of the Star Wars film series put butts in theaters, discs on shelves, and downloads in Flixter folders (or whatever your particular service of choice is… mine, in this case, was actually PlayStation Network). We’ve all had a lot of time to think about the ups and downs of the film, and for some of the novelty of the new characters to wear off. Probably the most interesting thing to happen in that time, at least as far as it affects our opinions of Episode VII, is the theatrical debut of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story this past month, which shares certain surface-level features with Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Such as, for one thing, a female protagonist, as comment-box Ronnie Randoms will constantly remind you either to celebrate its blessed progressiveness or whine about what it means for the future of pop culture purity, somehow both camps managing to annoy you just as much as the other… or is that just me?

While the merits and possible pitfalls of the industry push toward more inclusive writing and casting is a worthwhile conversation — one I’ll gladly participate in if the other person’s not a raging asshole about the issue — it’s a really, really, really, really, really really really small part of what went into Episode VII. It may seem like the be-all and end-all to some people, but it’s not. The movie’s a bigger, more complicated thing than that by far.

I admit, half the reason I’ve thought as much about the ups and downs of this movie as I have is just because… of the kind of the person I am. When I was a child and my parents and grandparents still took me to the movie theater on a regular basis, I was the kid who sat in the back of the car trying to get conversation going about specific things about the movie we just saw, only to be disappointed when the most in-depth thoughts the others had were limited to “I didn’t like it” and “it was good.” And well, not to smack-talk anyone without naming them, but that is one boring-ass conversation and it sure doesn’t do much to fill the time on the long drive home.

So maybe it’s my boring-car-ride Vietnam flashbacks that kick in whenever someone rants about how a movie is trash (or is the best thing since strawberry cheesecake) and offers only the simplest, most buzzwordy basis for feeling the way they do. The kind of conviction Ronnie Random will display about his opinions rarely correlates to the amount of thought put into expressing them whether he’s right or wrong about it; if there’s a single critical reason Ronnie can never seem to change anyone else’s mind, it’s because he doesn’t have anything more substantial to convey his thoughts with offer than his own feelings and a basic cookie-cutter argument. That’s not gonna really do much to convince someone who doesn’t already agree with it. It becomes a form of masturbatory reassurance of one’s own opinions when one finds the opportunity to rant at someone who disagrees, tell themselves how stubborn and wrong that person is for not seeing the light, and then hear someone else agree with them about it. Someone is wrong on the Internet is a welcome fact to such a person, not something that needs to be corrected. It is the sensation of pointing at someone and knowing that person is wrong which provides the rush and keeps people coming back for more. Actually changing someone’s mind is a cheap bonus when it happens. A feeling becomes the end goal, frustrating those among the masses who want a conversation to achieve a constructive conclusion.

Be it on the Internet or among the stars, war… war never changes. And war on the Internet is mostly just one long, boring car ride.

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Above: an example of a car ride that isn’t boring.

Sitting here, writing this in 2016’s sunset hour (it’ll be 2017 by the time I post it), it’s interesting to think about The Force Awakens and note how similar and yet different my feelings are now compared to what I felt at the times of the first impressions discussion and commentary we did on YouTube just after the film’s home release. Sometimes it’s as simple as needing a frame of reference that puts your feelings into better context or gives you a new way of thinking about something you didn’t have before; and Rogue One certainly is that. I’ve only seen it the one time, so my opinions on that movie in particular are still unrefined and incomplete, but seeing it did inspire a couple of eventual eureka moments that enabled me to see in new ways aspects of The Force Awakens that have been complicated talking-points since its release. And I’m not talking about in-universe plot analysis; I mean aspects of it as a cinematic production.

Take, for instance, the old Much-Ado-About-Rey debate, encompassing everything from bickering over social justice influence to finally getting into a talk with someone who can set that subject aside long enough to talk about whether Rey got enough character development or whether the skills she was capable of in the movie were sufficiently justified by the narrative. This topic is a perfect example of a boring car ride conversation most days. “I’m so happy to see a strong female character get to be the hero,” says a woman in the comments, and then wonders how someone could misunderstand what she means by it so thoroughly that they respond “you shouldn’t force a Mary Sue into a story just to have more women around!” and then the person who said that looks around in frustration, wondering why no one seems to understand the assortment of specific, long-winded complaints he’s summed up in a two-word label, or which ones apply to this one character. “It’s like a fanfiction!” snarks someone else, expecting everyone else in the room to completely understand a criticism which, through trivialized overuse, has been run through the language grinder so many times that you might as well not say anything for all the meaning it conveys to the listener. And now that everyone has summed up their thoughts into neatly-compacted code word summaries, they brofist whoever it is agrees with them and everyone just kind of leaves the room without learning a thing about what anyone else there thinks or why they thought it.

Rogue One gave us Jyn Erso, and without going into spoilers, I can say she provides an interesting contrast to Rey in a number of ways. Rey is a character with only an incomplete, to-be-continued arc to analyze as yet, while Jyn’s story is self-contained within her one film, with a definitive beginning, middle, and end. But Jyn is also a stoic character, keeping her feelings inside and conveying most of what she feels or thinks through dialogue; Rey has an outwardly expressive personality (much helped by Daisy Ridley’s marvelous acting and at times some well-conceived visual-only characterization) that can make her seem more interesting to get to know as a character. Jyn is very clear-cut, ultimately kind of basic, and it’s easy to learn everything there is to learn about her in a single pass through the movie because her story was made to be stand-alone, like a one-shot Expanded Universe novel in movie format. Rey was made to leave questions unanswered but also to provide enough sense of who she was that viewers could develop familiarity and an attachment to her beyond the face-value concept and character design. Re-watching the film a few times over the intervening year, little things trickled into my subconscious understanding of her, such as…

…Rey’s seemingly girl-power-fueled “I can take care of myself” attitude toward men is an understated character defect. Every time it comes up she has misunderstood a man who is trying to help her, or even a man’s reason for giving her a blaster pistol. Finn trips over this by accident because he lacks general social skills at this point, Han Solo doesn’t blink an eye at it (he’s too old and world-wise to let it ruffle his feathers). This character defect is presented several times as a recurring personality trait and one can surmise it arose during her life on Jakku. We know enough about Jakku from the film to assume that people generally won’t be nice to each other unless there is something in it for them, there is mutually agreed-upon cooperation involved, or they are perhaps condescending to you. So she puts on a deliberate tough front so that people know not to screw with her, but still daydreams outside her little walker-hovel with an old Rebellion pilot’s helm on her head, a private moment of childlike boredom that serves as a prelude to her open interest in the Jedi. And yet, she doesn’t know that Han Solo was a Rebellion general, only that he was a smuggler and that the Millennium Falcon is a ship that made a certain run in a misremembered number of parsecs, even though she knew who Luke Skywalker was; she was perhaps more interested in stories of adventure than in historical fact. Her tough front only surfaces in the face of what she sees as condescending and does not stop her from running away when she gets the piss scared out of her by Luke’s lightsaber and its associated mystical mumbo-jumbo vision thing. Though she’s shown as capable of getting herself out of trouble and defending herself (where all her victories are shown to be so far) and shown to be both capable of and inclined to help other people, she never in this film answers the call to action that would prompt her to step up and seriously fight evil of her own volition, which itself is the backbone of Jyn Erso’s story. Rey covers refusal of the call during the movie but only hits the meeting with a mentor stage at the end. She has by the end of the movie only passed through half of the stages on Joseph Campbell Hero’s Journey that Luke covered in his own first film, despite apparently being “too capable.”

It’s repeated on multiple occasions that up until she’s captured by Kylo Ren, she has every intention of going back to Jakku once BB-8 has been safely returned to Resistance hands. The possibility and intention of going back, which is stolen from Luke very early on in A New Hope, remains with Rey until the point at which circumstance locks her into a situation where she must continue to participate in events just to escape with her life. It is actually Finn who answers a call to action and willingly gives up an opportunity to flee the battle in order to save Rey, progressing as far along the Hero’s Journey as the middle steps, the ordeal and the reward (this latter step still in progress as of Episode VII’s ending), which is precisely where Luke ended up at the end of A New Hope. In spite of maybe laying it on a little thick at times, nothing about these characters or the story they, Han, and Chewbacca experience is even close to broken or poorly-done. It’s a fully operational battle station capable of blowing the audience out of its chair, in fact. It just a small weakness in its infrastructure that could have done with torpedo shielding, which manifests mostly in small pacing problems with the way both characters are written. These are flaws to note, criticize, look past, and hope will be ironed out in a sequel. The distracting external meta conversation of diversity, emphasized by its louder proponents and detractors, makes it into a bigger deal than it is.

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“Hold up there, Big Deal. We’re not done yet.” “…You’re a monster.”

The Force Awakens has a pretty interesting original plot thread to think about, lots of things about its newly-introduced characters and circumstances that beg the viewer to pay attention to them and to ask what they mean and where they’re going, much like Rey herself. And much like Rey herself, and Finn, they’re often missed or undervalued by the audience because of some larger, more obvious element overshadowing them, because important aspects aren’t being focused on as closely. Rey is evaluated often from the perspective of either “is she a good female character?” or its cynical opposite, “is she a bad female character who exists only to be a female character?” The bald-faced “Is she a good character?” question takes a back seat to this. You would think it’d be the same question, but it isn’t; the former pair of questions is about justifying the sex of the protagonist (or else proving that her sex is there to further an agenda), and are too wrapped up whether the character should be what she is to really talk about individual ups and downs. The former two questions aren’t analyzing so much as checking for whichever boring-car-ride answer they most want to be able to give when asked. A similar distraction frequently occurs with Finn, though not as much, I think, because he was better-developed over the course of the film and stands on his own as a character a little better than Rey does.

Those distractions are like the Starkiller Base looming over the rest of Rey’s otherwise admirable merits, the ultimate boring-car-ride answers to whether she’s a good character or not. They are the big, dumb, convoluted element that prevents many from seeing, appreciating, and properly picking apart more relevant aspects. Unlike the actual Starkiller Base, though, those questions are imposed by audience expectation or preconception. Fifty years down the line, no one will be asking those questions of Rey even if they still recall the time when they were asked on a regular basis. They’ll appreciate what Rey does well, see the moments when it’s a bit overdone as being a product of the time, and just kind of take it for what it is. The movie as a whole is not so lucky, which is unfortunate, because without considering its own built-in distraction — Starkiller Base, the Amazing Shark-Jumping Nuclear Battle Planet — the story and its characters are all pretty solid and provide a nice starting film for a trilogy to open up on, Rey and Finn included.

As some of you might have figured out around about the previous paragraph, that whole tangent was just a really long segue into how I’ve come to feel about the rest of the film. I also kind of want to see if anyone stops reading halfway through and obsesses over the social justice stuff; call it a… social science experiment.

If the movie’s good, original moments and cleverly re-imagined references are the individually interesting elements that together form a strong piece of storytelling, its overdone potent likeness to A New Hope is the overshadowing distraction that makes it hard to see or even (for some people) care about that stuff. But the film would have been regarded as a mostly-original story with a heavy emphasis on remixed callback elements if it weren’t for that one distraction, the film’s single biggest, worst-written, and most needless plot element: the uber-remixed bigger-dick-than-your-dick Death Star rehash. Starkiller Base being absent from the film would have resulted in it being all-around a better story, and all it would have taken is a bit of re-tooling of those events surrounding the film’s climax for it to work: the plot and character motivations, almost all of what shows on-screen, even the vast majority of the script, would have remained almost completely untouched and the whole film would have come off as more self-sufficient and meaningful in spite of its many, many callbacks. In this case, less would indeed be more.

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…I see you rolling your eyes out there, Ronnie Random. Sit back down.

A lot of the story beats or visual motifs in The Force Awakens are nabbed wholesale from the original trilogy, with the basic structure of its plot most closely resembling A New Hope, but what throws The Force Awakens out of balance is the multiple-planet-buster laser-spitfire doomsday station that the First Order has somehow managed to create by hollowing out an entire planet and enabling it to draw its power from the nearby star. What a good number of scornful plot synopses seem to misunderstand, perhaps because their brains have skipped a step and filled in a blank that they were tricked by the movie into filling, is that Starkiller Base isn’t even half as integral to the overall plot or the characters as the original Death Star was in A New Hope, where it was the focus of the beginning, middle, and end of the episode. It is, as a matter of fact, entirely tacked-on here; it comes out of nowhere, and while it is the setting of the climax it is at best a backdrop to it. Perhaps the novelization ascribes it more significance (I have only just downloaded it, so as I get to reading, I’ll cross my fingers and hope it does), but Starkiller Base really just sort of exists as a casual acknowledgement that the First Order really is just as much a threat as the Empire and really has advanced their technology to the point of being more than just a wannabe bunch of Neo-Nazis hiding out within their assigned borders on the galactic map. The moral of its stunning return to military prominence and devastating attack on the New Republic is supposed to be about complacency after victory allowing evil to re-surface, but the film omits or cuts out everything to do with the state of the Resistance and the New Republic, the throughline of its own narrative point in favor of rushing straight to war within the space of a single film. Even the prequels had a better grasp of how to handle the pacing of this than Episode VII was written with.

To be up-front: I’m aware that the First Order has quite a lot to it, but the problem with this is that none of it is really reflected in the film. We do not, for example, find out that the New Republic periodically moves its capital and that it was the entire New Republic seat of power that Starkiller Base destroyed at the midpoint of the film, or that the New Republic had previously seen the Resistance as scaremongers, that there was a real political divide that led to the New Republic and the Resistance being separate entities in partial cooperation rather than a singular cohesive military power. Rather than playing to how this situation came about, the story contains no content explaining it: the New Republic itself might as well be a cheap extra, and if they weren’t going to play a significant part at all, the plot point wherein the New Republic is wiped out by the First Order should have been left for a later episode, perhaps the middle of the trilogy, and could have been simply foreshadowed through the events of The Force Awakens with the focus of this film being build-up and establishment. It should have the Philosopher’s Stone chapter, rather than skipping straight to Goblet of Fire. Even Starkiller Base itself could have functioned somewhat the same if the revelation and explanations surrounding it were paced slowly and deliberately enough that it didn’t spill over the moment the story turned a sharp corner.

To be clear: Starkiller Base as presented is a bad enough plot object on its own. There’s a kind of rule-of-thumb that fiction — fantasy and science fiction most of all, but really any kind of fiction — should always be written with a healthy consideration of. That rule is best summed up as “If anything can happen, it’s hard to care what does,” a quote I read somewhere years ago. I can not for the life of me remember where I first came across it. It’s not a caution against including fantastical elements wholesale, just a reminder that a writer has to avoid going so far with them that they run the risk of burning out the audience’s suspension of disbelief. There needs to be at least enough consistency, limitation, and explanation that the reader’s or viewer’s brain feels naturally comfortable with whatever goes unexplained. Pacing and establishment can make the difference between an interesting twist and an asspull. Sometimes all that’s needed are the nuggets of worldbuilding that give it basic structure and a measure of restraint in what happens and when. It was enough that we had a basic sense of the Death Star’s function, its interior, and that it could move; whatever else we knew to be impossible about it, improbable about it, or complex about it was not significant enough to derail enjoyment, only to spark conversation and theorizing. When Rogue One revealed new information about the nature of its critical weakness or the specific power source, it was important enough to be interesting but tangential enough that the original movie’s plot feels just as complete without it. This balance of concept, restraint, consistency, and a feeling that the story has rules and limitations requires both a sense for what questions the average person would feel the need to ask and for how much of something is so much that it prompts yet more questions.

Starkiller Base fails on both of those counts. That it is “too” much is the more obvious problem, since it can apparently eradicate entire solar systems in a matter of seconds even over a distance of light-years (apparently the First Order has developed the technology to fire planet-killing laser blasts through hyperspace), but it simultaneously answers a question for itself that the Death Star originally left unanswered — “What is its power source?” — and in so doing raises multiple others, such as “Can it move and if so, how?” and “What does the First Order do with it when that star is completely drained?” and “How the fuck does it drain a star from far enough away that the planet surface still has snow on it?” The question of how it fires its laser at such a distance to achieve instant results when the Death Star needed close proximity and a clear line of fire is less of a problem (my brain filled the basic answer in on its own with that hyperspace jab, see?) but when you still end up with other questions unanswered that make the entire concept seem illogical, even the questions you could think up an answer to on your own just add to the senselessness of it all.

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The funny thing is, Starkiller Base totally was mobile, and every single relevant detail about it is explained elsewhere, just not the specific things needed within the context of the film for it to stand on its own.

Possibly worse than the sheer chaos of Starkiller Base as a concept without external clarification is that it doesn’t make up for it by being important to the story the film is most concerned with telling. Starkiller Base is introduced properly halfway through the episode with the complete destruction of a Republic-aligned solar system along with all of its inhabited planets. We are never told anything about the planets destroyed or the people on them beyond “We’re shooting lasers at the Republic now, see?” The importance this presents to the plot is that the Resistance is in a mad rush to take down Starkiller Base before it can destroy them, too, but this entire plot thread is shown so briefly and flimsily that it’s barely there. The only acknowledgment of the explanation for why the First Order targeted the system they did (C-3PO saying that “without the Republic fleet, we’re doomed” and Hux’s own stated intention to vaguely destroy the Republic) is passed over so casually that one wonders why it was brought up to begin with. And apparently the First Order just knows what system the Resistance is based in, so the film attempts to repeat the same source of tension the first movie used: the imminent destruction of the entire world the good guys are based on along with the main bulk of the military forces they’d assembled against the villains, destroying any chance they might reassembled.

The problem with that is that the climax treats the battle to destroy Starkiller Base like a side plot in comparison to the rescue of Rey, Kylo Ren’s confrontation with Han Solo, and the lightsaber battle between Finn, Rey, and Kylo Ren as they escape the base. The weight of the danger that this maniacal totalitarian military now has the ability to wipe out multiple civilizations at a distance is noted the way that an American civilian on his way to work in the morning might glance at a news article about the latest horrific war event in the Middle East. Even Han only acknowledges that the galaxy is counting on them to disable the shields around Starkiller Base with exasperation during a moment of comic relief. The Force Awakens treats the destruction of Starkiller Base as a victory with little acknowledgment of what was lost before the battle even started; it’s a backburner aspect of the plot even though it’s such a heavy turn of events that it should have been the plot. It’s as if the story of the Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban film adaptation decided to go the opposite route and only ever focus on the creation of the Marauder’s Map and how personal that is to Harry, with the sequence of events central to the book’s actual plot becoming a half-explained handful of footnotes along the way, the majority of it on the cutting room floor and a wiki page. Were they afraid that going into the political situation of the New Republic, Resistance, and First Order would turn off prequel haters? Seriously, it wasn’t the politics that ruined that franchise, it was that the politics were written and presented in a boring way. As long as you don’t share George Lucas’s weakness for boring scenes where people are just sitting around talking about stuff, it is fine to bring up the politics of the galaxy from time to time.

The upshot is that in seeking to echo A New Hope in such an arbitrary and ill-explained way at the expense of more thorough and well-paced storytelling, the quality of the plot is soured by association and an otherwise shocking turn of events blows its load (all over the galaxy) far too soon. It would have been more significant if left for a future episode, and it would also have been a resurgence of the Death Star concept that was divorced from the “this is totally a remake of A New Hope” criticism by way of being given its own extended storyline. It would have been a complete inversion of the Empire’s failure to use a planet-killer battle station to impose their brand of order on the galaxy; it would have been the First Order definitively proving itself both cleverer and more evil than the dark forces that came before it. Instead, they just sort of magically are because the movie says they are.

The actual main story of The Force Awakens is about Rey, Finn, and Kylo Ren, and while it’s entangled in a series of events that treats imagery and story beats like zones in an episode of Sonic the Hedgehog 4.  The story’s cleverest aspect is the way it mixes up and often reverses those familiar elements, though. BB-8 is not carrying critical information on how to defeat an enemy, but on how to locate an ally, and it protecting it from an enemy that wants to obtain it so they can destroy that ally; informants who spot BB-8 at the cantina do not just alert the villains this time, but also the good guys; the masked black Force-wielding swordsman is not just a stand-in for Darth Vader, but a man trying and failing to live up to him, being harshly criticized by General Hux where Vader stood as a dignified equal to Grand Moff Tarkin. The confrontation between Kylo Ren and Rey occurs as a battle between the bearer of Darth Vader’s destroyed Sith mask and the wielder of Anakin Skywalker’s Jedi lightsaber at a time when Kylo Ren himself is struggling with the light’s pull away from the Dark Side he seeks to grow closer to in Darth Vader’s honor. Rey is not simply “The Chosen One,” she is but half of a conflicted legacy that is torn between two opposing halves of itself, and the film ends with her carrying the relic that signifies her half of it to the Jedi Master who represents Anakin’s true legacy, while Kylo Ren is returned into the hands of a Dark Side pretender; yet Kylo Ren is confirmed to be Anakin’s blood, and we have no proof yet that Rey also is, and so she finds Luke with the question of her place in this fateful confrontation unresolved. She ignorantly appears not out of a Jedi Academy but as a vulture upon the wreckage of the old Empire’s last catastrophic battle on Jakku (though the film never mentions it, Jakku is the site where the Empire was put down for good, hence the ship wreckage and old equipment from both sides strewn about the place), and while Finn defects from the present-day First Order intentionally. They are an alliance between the disaffected complacent regard for the past and the direct, horrific-yet-ignored consequences of the present, with Poe Dameron, a fighter for the Resistance that refuses to fall into either of history’s traps, bringing them together.

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Wait, what? There was political symbolism in there? I couldn’t hear it over the actual politicians exploding into space-dust around me.

There is value in creating a foil to a past event through echo or similarity. It gives the audience a new way to think about what the foil compares to or contrasts against in a new way, and a lot of the events in The Force Awakens seem specifically tailored to have this effect. You can get a sense for where the balance of galactic power has shifted toward by the fact that the Resistance is treated with equal preference when informants at Maz’s cantina alert both the the First Order and the Resistance to BB-8’s location at the same time, you can get a sense for Han Solo’s mindset now as it relates to the past by him again being a smuggler, but willingly taking Rey and Finn to an establishment run by a Resistance ally on a lush forest world rather than being found by our heroes hanging out in a dust-bowl hive of scum and villainy and being hired for cash. Kylo Ren’s tattered appearance and flickery blade lend him the visual appearance of a rough, unfinished imitation of the smoothly-outfitted, stoic Darth Vader, and yet under Kylo Ren’s mask is not yet any of the irreparable damage that Anakin Skywalker had to live with; Kylo Ren is free to take his helmet off. The intimidating voice modulator is one of A New Hope‘s most striking opening features, yet one of the first lines spoken to him by another character makes fun of it by pointing out that it’s hard to understand what Kylo Ren is saying. All of this serves to establish a tone of familiar, yet unfamiliar; a transitional piece from the prequel trilogy back into the present-day era in which we left Luke, Leia, and Han at the end of Return of the Jedi so many years before. That would be a great place to begin, a means of conveying to the audience that this new series understands the past but is also moving forward into the future.

Starkiller Base presents none of these interesting compare-and-contrast aspects to think of (at least, not within the film itself). It is simply a bigger, more awesome, not-half-as-well-done copy of the classic Death Star, and it stands as an example of what many would dismiss the entire film as. Since the film is scared to even touch on politics, the shocking revelation that Gasp! They had a doomsday weapon hidden away all along! has no real punch to it. The thing is, there is a perfectly serviceable way that the story could have echoed the climax of Episode IV without reaching for a Death Star destruction battle, and would have worked better with the story and not used up the Starkiller Base concept too soon. The story of A New Hope wasn’t just about the Rebels destroying the Death Star, it was about the Empire tracking down the Rebel Base and being thwarted in their attempt to destroy it. Even the process of the Empire finding out where the base was located figured into the plot in a significant way.

Envision a version of Starkiller Base that is not, in fact, a star killer: it does not drain the sun, it does not destroy planets. It is merely a Base, the primary military fortress of the First Order where all manner of research and development for an unknown project which the Resistance is aware of but does not yet know the specifics of (though they have one suspicion they are terrified of), as well as sharing in the propagation of Stormtrooper training programs and other critical operations that are carried out en masse across the First Order’s colonized worlds. The Resistance has been unable to pin down the location of this one critical installation due to the First Order’s cunning, but in a reversal of events from A New Hope, Finn gives the Resistance its location in order to recruit their aid in saving Rey, a circumstance that Kylo Ren did not predict because he rightly expected that Finn’s desire would be to flee the fighting and disappear into obscurity. With this information finally in their grasp, the Resistance calls in its Republic allies to launch a strike against the base, with Finn, Han, and Chewbacca launching a risky planetside operation (same method, same motivations, same result as with current Starkiller Base) to render the surface facilities vulnerable to attack. The base even visually resembles the film’s snowed-in military installation, bringing to mind also the Empire’s assault on Hoth. Yet even here the difference between the New Republic and the Galactic Empire can be seen, as the Republic rains down only an attempt at a conventional military victory and does not have anything equivalent to a Death Star of their own. Throughout the climax, instead of tense countdowns to absolute destruction are forceful yet level-headed demands that the First Order surrender; it is not desperation with which they fight on, but fanatical opposition to the Republic. Here Finn is given the chance to lament that his fellow Stormtroopers are unable to make the choice he made, the choice to lower their guns, to stop fighting.

The fight occurs on three fronts: on the surface where Han, Finn, and Rey go about as they do in the film already, in the sky where a fleet of fighters has broken through to the planet surface, and in orbit where the heavy cruisers and Star Destroyers do battle. As the battle goes against the First Order and the base’s most critical central facilities are wiped out when Poe Dameron exploits a hole in the armored plating of the base’s main power plant and puts it into catastrophic meltdown, the First Order sets a long-standing pinch evacuation plan into motion and succeeds in breaking through the Republic forces with a large portion of their armies in a daring maneuver that causes severe casualties for the Republic: the base was secretly equipped with a planetary surface-to-orbit laser cannon on par with the Death Star’s ship-destroying power level, with which they manage to create enough of an opening before the cruisers counterattack and destroy it, allowing a lion’s share of their own ships to escape the battle into hyperspace. The First Order avoids a full defeat, but are set on the run the same way the Rebellion had been decades before on Hoth, and the reveal of the base’s secret weapon clues the Resistance in that their suspicion may have been correct after all, that Starkiller Base might be part of a large-scale, strategically-fragmented effort by the First Order to reattain the Empire’s old Death Star technology, and possibly to improve upon it.

With this revelation, the very name of Starkiller Base is speculated to be a statement of intent as well as a reference to this experimental derivative, a defensive application of the Death Star’s super-laser made to destroy oncoming battleships as the second Death Star decimated Rebel cruisers during the Battle of Endor. The Republic military is left reeling from their losses but have achieved enough of a victory that the aftermath is moderately celebratory, except for Leia, Rey, and Chewbacca, who are subdued after the death of Han Solo and Finn’s severe injury at Kylo Ren’s hands. The film ends with uncertainty as the Resistance debates the likelihood that the First Order has made significant progress in recreating the terror of the old battle station and the need to confirm whether the project is still a danger, and Rey departs to seek out Luke Skywalker; the old Jedi may be needed to defend the New Republic now more than ever. As opposing elements of the Force awaken in both Rey and Kylo Ren, the New Republic begins to awaken to the threat posed by the First Order, which they had vastly underestimate until now, but the Republic is still divided on the severity of the problem. Meanwhile, Snoke reassures General Hux that the true fruit of the project is nearing completion and that “the planet remains mobile, impossible for the Resistance to find,” at which point he declares this mysterious moving planet to be the new Starkiller Base, gives Hux the current coordinates, and commands the general to bring Kylo Ren with him there in order to complete his training.

You’ll notice that in this scenario, only the circumstances of the space battle and the nature of Starkiller Base change much. Everything on the ground involving Han, Finn, Chewbacca, and Rey still fits it and would need additions rather than alterations, because Starkiller Base itself was ironically irrelevant to what was going down for a large part of the movie! The scenario even accounts for “the return of or improvement upon the Death Star” as a necessary element in a truly forward-thinking sequel to the original trilogy. The Death Star itself represents military escalation beyond conventional warfare into deterrence through threat of mass destruction, and the specter of its existence on the galactic stage can never be upstaged by anything but an escalation toward even more destructive stages of its own development direction.

finn-on-jakku
This all has the side-effect of providing Finn an opportunity for more depth of character, since it shifts the focus away from a really big laser beam, toward learning more about the First Order.

With the story significance of the last battles of the film shifting to a less cartoonishly over-the-top set of stakes and a more personal, down-to-earth military engagement, it would lose nothing at all. The seriousness of the threat posed by Starkiller Base was not executed well in the film as it stands; the evil of the First Order is sufficiently conveyed through their loyalty to the memory of the Galactic Empire and to the Dark Side, not to mention the fresh information on new-wave Stormtrooper indoctrination conveyed through Finn’s plot, an effect that would have been enhanced with the revelation that they are building a new Death Star derivative of some sort. The overall sense of where the balance of power stands would shift to that of a brutal and long-running galactic civil war between New Republic and First Order, a sensible long-term result of the Empire’s fall in Return of the Jedi emphasizing that elements of history cycle and repeat and linger, manifesting in new ways, sometimes flying in the face of previous iterations: a story of karma and frustration at the idea that it may never end, but hope that if good keeps on fighting, it will be enough. It would have also made the release of Rogue One more timely and fitting, a look back at the time in the past when the old Rebel Alliance launched a strike at the base where the original Death Star project was likewise being researched and developed, a similar situation thematically but also very different.

What’s more, the absence of that one arbitrary setpiece (yes, the destruction of random Republic-aligned worlds was at best part of a set piece in its execution) would dial the echoes of A New Hope down just enough that the film would no longer feel quite so much like remake. Starkiller Base and the overall sense that the movie lacks an original identity of its own due to its likeness to Episode IV produce such an overbearing distraction from the primary, most central storyline of the experience. The familiar elements should have been a picture frame, but they went too far when they brought a Death Egg Mk. II into the equation and shifted the balance toward repetition rather than iteration.

It was a symptom of them trying too hard, more than anything, trying too hard to make The Force Awakens a fan-pleasing film that people who love the original trilogy and disliked the prequels would like, piling on what they hoped would go over well and downplaying what they feared would not (such as politics).

Bring it down, bring it down. Don’t do everything you’re eager to do all at once. Be patient and wait.

But those who decided to include a bigger, badder (badderest?) Death Star in the plot at this early stage of the game needed that to be said to them so much more than Rey’s writing needed it. The weakness in Rey’s character might be compared to a tiny exhaust port that can only be exploited with ace accuracy and maybe the instinctive power of a Jedi-in-training; it’s a weakness that’s easily rectified the second time around and almost has to be pointed out to be noticed at all. Starkiller Base is a hideous, incomplete mess of a Death Star meant to lure viewers in and blast away all doubt that the movie will be awesome, but it easily blows apart when one notices that it’s filled with holes large enough to fly a Corellian corvette through. Which is fitting, since the specifics of bringing it down bore more resemblance to the Battle of Endor more than to A New Hope. The New Republic capital being destroyed by a horrifying evolution of the Death Star would have been the perfect Empire Strikes Back middle chapter to this saga, and that would have given it time to establish itself and be properly understood by the audience before exploding. But the screenplay strikes out; the First Order swings too hard, too fast, too soon. What hurts the most, to be honest, is that it insisted on completely running the Starkiller Base element to completion within a single film… despite the movie not being remotely self-contained in any other sense. Pointless.

luke-and-r2-d2
“All I’m saying is we should back up and let the new kids have some time to themselves, Artoo.”

When you strip away the tryhard and overeager element of Starkiller Base by itself, what you have is a story about a defecting Stormtrooper and a lonely scavenger getting wrapped up in events beyond their scope, scrambling to help and protect each other as they make the choice to do the right thing while war rages around them and the ghosts of the galaxy’s past struggles and regrets linger on in new forms, sometimes escalating. More than that, you have a wonderful production that brings to the table beautiful visuals, exciting direction, stellar acting, and a stunning mix of practical and computer-generated effects — the peerless compositions that John Williams gives to the soundtrack are such a fact of life in Star Wars that they hardly need to be mentioned, they can just be assumed. So much went into this movie that the process of making it alone is a fascinating feature film, and the story is a good one at its core. It just loses something to overenthusiasm and overcompensation, like a chef taking his first shot at an intriguing new recipe and getting the taste wrong because he used a bit too much of one very tempting ingredient. That’s the thought that’s been forming in my noggin ever since I saw that 3D midnight showing of Rogue One while visiting my girlfriend in Colorado: a movie setting up the specter of a new Death Star without destroying it right away would have made for an interesting start to a trilogy. Alas, it’s too late now, as the movie has already been made and we’re stuck with the Edgy McDeathbeam version of events from here on out.

It is a very exciting ride overall, though, not least because every inch of it is a new conversation. Too bad most people just want to either chuck it out the window in disgust or get down on their knees in front of it and let it make sweet love to their eyeballs. But such is life. I guess those two things are exciting for whoever’s doing it, but talking about it afterward takes about three seconds and nobody gets anything else out of it. And that’s just kind of a shame.

But war? War never changes. And war on the Internet is and will always remain a really boring car ride. Starkiller Base is stupid. The moment Rey caught that lightsaber makes me shiver every time I see it. Ewoks are annoying. The romance was bad. Jar Jar is like the worst thing ever. Can we turn the radio on now? Talking about this is boring, and those Oldies won’t listen to themselves.

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