I don’t think I’m breaking any new ground in the Star Wars discourse when I say that The Force Awakens’ Super Size Death Star plotline is the screenwriting equivalent of copied homework.
Don’t try to tell me Starkiller Base isn’t a Death Star; I know what a Death Star is. It’s a big round Goliath metaphor with a planet-blasting hole in it, and it always contains a tiny weak point which can be lasered up until the whole thing explodes. It’s not a new thing now just because it’s the size of a planet instead of a moon.
Whether it came from screenwriters, or risk-averse Disney executives intent on the safest plot imaginable, the decision to clutter up half of The Force Awakens’ runtime with The Death Star Rises is pretty inexplicable to me. The resulting film suffers heavily from the law of diminishing returns.
After all, there’s a dramatic reason that David only fights one Goliath. If he kills three Goliaths, each victory becomes less remarkable than the last. By the third time around, the reader stops asking, “Is he gonna defeat Goliath?” and starts asking, “Who’s the dingus that keeps sending all these Goliaths?” or even, “What if Goliaths are the real underdog here?”
This effect is best illustrated, within the Star Wars subtrilogy of Death Star movies, by the evolving remarks of Han Solo. In A New Hope, Han gives the following assessment of the Rebellion’s plan to attack the Death Star:
Beautiful! The stakes are set; the odds are impossible; the divergent choices of the idealistic Luke and pragmatic Han make perfect sense. And the resulting one-in-a-million destruction sequence ranks among the greatest scenes that ever pleased a crowd. Just listen to this audio clip of a 1977 audience’s reaction, and you’ll hear exactly what this scene does to people:
Start listening at 2:43 for the finale. Makes me cry a little.
Now, let’s move to Death Star 2: Electric Boogaloo in Return of the Jedi, and see what Han has to say about the second attack plan:
This time around, Han knows it’s difficult to blow up a Death Star, but it’s not impossible. There are legitimate stakes here, but he’s not about to lose sleep over them. In fact, he’s willing to be pretty cheeky about the whole shebang.
This speaks well to Return of the Jedi’s relative indifference to Death Star Deuce; the station is there, and it’s a problem, but the film kindly requests that you invest yourself more thoroughly in the other, more novel elements (Jabba’s sail barge, the Luke/Vader/Emperor hate triangle, Salacious P. Crumb, et cetera).
Over the 33 years since Return of the Jedi’s release, the use of a second Death Star has likely tied with the presence of Ewoks as the most widely-criticized aspect of the film – which makes it all the more strange that The Force Awakens would take this flaw and dial it up to eleven.
Return of the Jedi would likely have benefited from something else in the Death Star’s place – perhaps an attack on the Emperor’s never-witnessed Imperial Palace? – but compared to The Force Awakens, Return of the Jedi works about as subtly and skilfully with its redundant plotline as a viewer could hope for, remaining otherwise quite different from A New Hope. There’s no attempt to ape the original stakes by sacrificing a neutral planet, the Rebel assault turns out to be a trap this time, most of the thriling dogfight takes place outside the station (where it serves as a solid visual motivator for Luke’s internal conflict), and the attack run itself is portrayed in a very brisk sequence – a scene which, strangely enough, feels more like a comforting post-Vader epilogue than a narrative climax in its own right, driven by a pretty triumphant piece of score and conveying only a mild sense of danger.
This deft touch, however, is entirely absent from The Force Awakens (though perhaps no touch would be deft enough to justify a third doggone Death Star). Here, once again, the film’s approach to its looming massacre-ball is best summarized by the pithy remarks of Han Solo:
This furiously meta slice of dialogue officially marked the point, in my Force Awakens experience, where my giant Star Wars grin turned into the crooked puzzle-frown emoji:
Over three movies, we’ve gone from “Attacking this thing is a death sentence” to “Just ‘splode it or whatever like always; I’m going back to bed.” This could have been a good piece of misdirection if another character had cut in with “Actually, we can’t blow it up,” and the plot had taken a new direction from there – or if the Starkiller assault had ultimately ended in failure. As it stands, however, Han’s line is a merciless stakes-killer, throwing out its arms and declaring to the audience, “Don’t panic, folks! You’ll get the same happy ending you’ve gotten twice before.”
Han’s comment comes across as an attempt to sidestep criticism by owning up to the screenplay’s repetition – a technique which is most commonly seen in sitcoms that have jumped the shark. Even in comedy, it’s more likely to be irritating than entertaining. Frankly, if I could rid the world of one common artistic delusion, “Pointing out your story’s problems is just as good as fixing them” would be a strong contender.
Despite the surface rebranding efforts, the Starkiller Base plotline mimics the story beats of A New Hope much more directly than Return of the Jedi’s behemoth did; there’s the pitiless obliteration of gentle planets, the viewing of schematics as our heroes enter the third act, and a lengthy attack run which even contains some trench action. It’s all a foregone conclusion that eats up a good chunk of the film’s runtime, stealing attention from Rey’s somewhat-wanting character arc (speaking as someone who loves Rey, and wants better things for Rey), and surrendering the chance to take audiences on a once-in-a-lifetime emotional ride in favor of chasing the highs of A New Hope.
I don’t know if anyone’s been to a theater where the destruction of Starkiller Base caused the audience to hoot and holler like it’s 1977, but I heard crickets at mine. The loudest and most powerful thought I had, during that moment, was “Oh, I guess this one implodes, more like.”
Even Supreme Commander Snoke – the guy who spent a trillion credits to build Starkiller — can’t bring himself to act surprised when the thing explodes. This is just what Death Stars do, people; read a book.
To summarize: I am upset with this plotline. But what’s been far more disheartening, to me, has been the excuse-making responses from many critics and fans. I pick no bones with genuinely felt movie-joy – it’s a rare and wonderful thing, infinitely more profound than my litany of gripes – but the most common reaction I’ve heard has been a sort of bedgrudging resignation, followed by a labyrinth of rationalizations – not to make the Starkiller plotline good, but to make it acceptable. “Sure, they did the Death Star thing a third time, but I guess it’s fine because…”
“The Star Wars narratives are supposed to ‘rhyme’ with each other. George Lucas said so. This is just continuing the tradition.”
There’s a difference between rhyming, and just changing the font size of the original word. Even George Lucas said the new movie was derivative, before Disney used their scary backstage powers to force a public apology to the corporate Gods.
“Star Wars is supposed to be dopey popcorn-brain self-referential nonsense. That’s why we love it.”
There was a time when we loved Star Wars for bringing us new and wild shit. There was a time when we loved the Death Star, not because we always have, but because we’d never seen a moon-sized space station before, and it was blowing not only planets, but also our minds. The same goes for laser swords, magic energy fields, meteor worms, and every other weird, nigh-unimaginable concept that the original Star Wars trilogy weaved into a compelling, well-told saga with lovable characters and immortal themes.
Sure, the series has always adhered to the classical Hero’s Journey narrative structure, but there’s infinite room for variation within that framework. And it may have repurposed popular tropes of samurai and war cinema for a fantastical space setting, but that shouldn’t be phrased like it’s a simple feat. Even starting from “samurai in space,” there are endless creative crossroads for an artist to take before landing on the Jedi concept that we know and love – hell, the prequels should stand as solid proof that there are a million ways to do Star Wars wrong. The Original Trilogy did it right.
But as I believe the head-hanging acceptance of The Force Awakens’ narrative cannibalism demonstrates, the Star Wars fandom is strangely prone to defensive self-loathing. I recall that, when the flaws of the ongoing prequel trilogy were being pointed out, some of the most common fan defenses could be boiled down to, “Sure, but the original trilogy wasn’t actually good either; we’re just wrong people who like bad things.”
Perhaps due to a long history of unfriendly comparisons with the more cerebral Star Trek (which – let’s be real – we only compare these dissimilar franchises because they share half a title) and the onslaught of mythos-cheapening material we’ve gotten over the last few decades, many Star Wars fans have learned that they’d rather dismiss the whole thing – and therefore themselves – than defend it. Which, I think, is a real shame.
So if you genuinely enjoy the third Death Star, I’m earnestly glad that you do; but I can’t personally stomach the viewpoint of “This is bad, but we don’t deserve better.” If you like Star Wars, you’re a person with good taste. Star Wars is good, fun, smart, well-crafted, worthy of your love, and you are worthy of Star Wars’ love in return.
“The Force Awakens is best viewed as a Soft Reboot/Half-Remake/Quasi-Remaster of A New Hope.”
Personally, I’m a little creeped-out by any attempt to stitch together a shambling, nonsensical frankengenre to absolve the sins of one movie. Star Wars, Episode VII: The Force Awakens is a sequel to Return of the Jedi. There’s a number right in the title. Those are the terms by which it succeeds or fails.
“Would you rather we try something new, and end up with something as bad as the prequels?”
No, because I’m not a monster. But the notion that our only two choices are “bad new thing” and “good old thing” is a very sad concept of not only Star Wars, but the very nature of time itself. I’m not down with it.
“Well, what new story could they have done? Tell me an entire story right now.”
Ordinarily, I would dismiss this argument by noting that screenwriters are paid job-money to spend job-time crafting new plots. Just because a fan can’t conjur a superior plot right this second doesn’t mean a paid professional would be unable to accomplish the same over several months.
I would also note that cinema is a fantastically young medium, when compared to literature or theatre – both of which are still managing to accomplish new things – so the implication of “Every story has already been done!” is a slothful absurdity, especially when you’re working with a series about space-wizards where literally anything is possible.
However, in the case of The Force Awakens, I don’t have to come up with a hypothetical alternate plotline. There already is one, sitting right at the beginning of the opening prologue scroll, shining in starlit gold for all to see:
LUKE SKYWALKER HAS VANISHED.
This is a perfect premise. Every Star Wars fan who came to the theater last December was literally making a journey to find Luke Skywalker. If the new heroes had been doing the same thing, throughout the film? We would’ve all been on the same team, through thick and thin.
The Star Wars series has told many kinds of stories – romance, revenge, escape, war – but not one of them has been a missing-person narrative, front to back. And missing-person narratives are dynamite, baby! Saving Private Ryan. Gone Baby Gone. The Long Goodbye. The Searchers. Add lightsabers to any one of those, and you’re already moving in the right direction.
It’s true that the question of “Where’s Luke?” plays a role in The Force Awakens. But almost immediately, that question is stuffed into a droid and reduced to a quiet MacGuffin, functionally identical to A New Hope’s Death Star plans. Once Starkiller Base destroys the Republic, the question of Luke’s whereabouts is relegated to the background entirely.
Imagine, instead, a purely “Where’s Luke?” story, inspiring a cross-galaxy planet-hopping journey with a lean, desperate First Order hot on our heroes’ tail. With Luke being a continuous fixture of the plot, we could spend some time figuring out how Rey and Finn actually feel about his legend. Do they know he was there when the Emperor died? How did the tales of 30 years ago affect and inspire this new generation? Do Han and Leia miss their closest friend, or is there too much bad blood from the fall of Kylo Ren? There’s excellent dramatic potential in all these questions, and the Starkiller Base plotline leaves little room for them.
Perhaps Han and Leia, as enigmatic sidekicks on this road trip, would have the chance to take on new and interesting roles – as opposed to the situation in The Force Awakens, where Han is forced into Obi-Wan’s A New Hope role almost exactly, and Leia is crammed into the role of that bearded Rebel commander who says, “May the Force be with you.”
Perhaps Rey, with all that extra time with Leia, would have more of a chance to discuss the nature of the Force. Maybe Leia is reluctant to use it, herself, since the Kylo Ren catastrophe – until Han dies, at which point she uses the Force to bring down a friggin’ fleet.
Speaking of Han’s death: perhaps when Kylo Ren mortally injures him, Han still has the chance to board the Falcon one last time, and tries to hold on until they reach Luke Skywalker – but, with some moving last words aboard the ship he loves, he passes away just moments before being reunited with his old friend. I’m getting choked up just thinking about it.
Not that I wasn’t shocked — like everyone else — when Han died in The Force Awakens. But only a few hours later, I felt like I had learned about his death from a Wikipedia article. It lacked staying power.
And then – at the very end — the search would be concluded. With Leia and the other heroes having changed course to lure the First Order away from reaching Luke, Rey would be the only one who ultimately finds him. We’d still end on that ultra-powerful shot of the first meeting between the two heroes, but it would serve as the fulfillment of this movie’s story, instead of a mere teaser for the next one.
Which is, honestly, a good summary of my feelings after seeing The Force Awakens: that I still haven’t seen a new Star Wars movie, but just a very long, promising trailer for a new series. That series may yet be fantastic — the ingredients are there — but it’s a shame that it will only be two complete movies long.
I don’t rattle off these hypothetical shower-plotlines to hype up my storytelling abilities, which are, frankly, nascent as hell. I only mean to illustrate how vast the possibilities really are for all-new, all-exciting chapters of the Star Wars universe. If there’s a positive takeaway to be gleaned from this carping screed, I hope it’s this: that art is young, there is always something new under the twin suns, and if we want something more than throwbacks to yesteryear, there’s no real reason we can’t get it.