movies Uncategorized

Convenient coincidences in ‘The Force Awakens’

J.J. Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek reboot leaned too heavily on unlikely coincidences. Kirk just happens to get marooned on the same moon as elder Spock. Monsters just happen to chase him straight into Spock’s cave hideout. Scotty just happens to be stationed a few miles away.[4]

Abrams’ latest sci-fi epic, The Force Awakens, features several similar plot holes:

WARNING: spoilers below!

  • BB–8 somehow rolls its way to Rey. What are the chances that the droid who knows Luke Skywalker’s location runs into the Force-sensitive girl with apparent ties to the Skywalker clan?[1]
  • Finn stumbles onto Rey and BB–8. Improbably, the fugitive stormtrooper happens upon the fugitive droid and its new master. Jakku must be a very small planet.
  • The Millennium Falcon is rusting away on Jakku—of all the planets in the galaxy. I actually liked the Falcon’s reveal, but doesn’t it seem improbable that the same ship that ferried Luke from Tatooine has been waiting around to carry Rey away from Jakku?
  • Maz Kanata, this film’s Force-sensitive guru character, possesses Luke Skywalker’s old lightsaber. That’s very convenient, since it triggers Rey’s Force awakening. Kanata brushes aside Han Solo’s question about how she acquired it. But… seriously, Maz, why’s this thing in your basement?
  • Finn knows too much about Starkiller Base—more than his low-level First Order position would explain. A stormtrooper peon knows the superweapon’s key weakness?[2]
  • R2-D2 reactivates at just the right time. Why did the trash-can droid pick that opportune moment to wake up? Talk about Deus ex Machina.[3]
  • In general, what are the chances that the events depicted in The Force Awakens would mirror the original trilogy so slavishly? A twenty-year-old orphan on a desert planet finds a droid sought by both the evil imperials and a noble resistance. The droid carries information that could sway the balance of power in the galaxy. Our hero teams up with a roguish outlaw and an older mentor aboard the Millenium Falcon. The mentor character tells stories about the Force and legendary Jedi. A short alien guru guides our hero toward the Light side of the Force. The insurgency destroys a gigantic space weapon just before it blasts them out of existence. Welcome to Deja Vu: the Movie.

    “It’s like poetry. It rhymes.”

Don’t get me wrong; I enjoyed The Force Awakens. But these plot seams show where the filmmakers valued nostalgia over storytelling. The writers wanted Han Solo to find our young heroes, so they placed the Falcon (which Solo could track) on Jakku. They needed Luke Skywalker for the cliffhanger, so R2-D2 waits until the denouement to power up.

These twists may cater to aging fans’ sentimentality, but they make little sense in context.

  1. The movie doesn’t actually make Rey’s identify clear. It’s still theoretically possible that she’s just a random orphan, who’s not connected with the Skywalkers at all. But then why even mention the “family” she’s waiting for on Jakku? And why does Anakin’s old lightsaber trigger her Force vision?  ↩
  2. Or was Finn bluffing so that he could rescue Rey?  ↩
  3. One potential explanation: R2-D2 can use the Force. That’s an intriguing theory, but it’s never actually been confirmed by the movies.  ↩
  4. I’ve heard these happy accidents explained away as “fate”—i.e. the universe “course-corrects” and finds a way to bind these characters’ destinies together. Bullshit; that’s screenwriter-speak for “We couldn’t think of a good story reason.”
movies Uncategorized

Quick take on the new ‘Force Awakens’ trailer

This is a great movie trailer.

It gives away just enough plot detail. We sense The Force Awakens’ epic scope, but we’re not spoiled by a blow-by-blow story outline. We meet the main characters one by one (Rey, Finn, Kylo Ren, Han Solo), but they’re sketched out in very faint strokes.

The preview also feels like Star Wars. I credit the music, which was apparently composed just for the trailer. We hear rearranged versions of three iconic leitmotifs (The Force theme, the Han & Leia love theme, and the Skywalker overture), cementing us in a familiar world.

As for the previewed movie itself, here are a few thoughts:

  • As with the last trailer, I love the wrecked Star Destroyer on the desert planet. When Rey rappels into a cavernous loading dock, we get a sense of scale that space battles can’t offer. The off-kilter colossus inspires both dread and awe—akin to watching giant ships sink on screen.
  • The trailer hints that Finn, the young male lead, is an AWOL stormtrooper. It’s fun to take the cartoon army drones from earlier film and crack them open this way. What motivates the Empire’s foot soldiers? What’s their story? What happens when they doubt the cause?
  • The masked baddie clearly worships Darth Vader. “I will finish what you started,” he pledges to Vader’s misshapen mask. What does he mean? My guess: he’s fixated on eradicating the Jedi—the first mission that the Emperor gave to his right-hand cyborg.
  • Han Solo is this film’s Obi-Wan Kenobi: the aging, wise mentor who’s seen some shit in his day. That’s a fun switcheroo, since Han was young, dumb, and Force-skeptical in the original films.
  • Why has the Force fallen into legend? Why would anyone doubt that the Dark Side and the Jedi ever existed?
  • A related question: where is Luke Skywalker? We know he’s in the film, but he’s been absent from every trailer. Lucasfilm has released no official images of Mark Hamill in costume. My guess: Luke appears in the movie, but only at the very end—maybe even the literal last shot. The Force Awakens may well have been titled “The Search for Luke” instead. When he finally shows up, will Skywalker be a good guy—or a villain?
  • It’s fun to see Carrie Fisher back in Leia-garb (sans side-buns). Based on her limited trailer screen time, Leia may be more a bureaucrat than an action hero this time around. Are she and Han still together? Their embrace in the trailer seems like a “goodbye” moment. Were they just recently reconciled / reunited?
  • Somebody’s going to die. We see Rey weeping at one point in the trailer. My money’s on Han Solo. One more rollicking adventure that ends with a hero’s send-off. After all, Harrison Ford wanted his character to be killed off two sequels ago.
  • My main worry about Episode VII is that it will play the nostalgia card too often. I’m glad to see the old gang, but the echoes here seem over-loud. Do we really need the Millenium Falcon? Wouldn’t that ship have been mothballed decades ago? And why set your battle scenes on a desert planet and a snow-bound planet—mirroring Tatooine and Hoth? Most problematically, why are the Rebellion and the Empire (or whatever they’re called now) still going at it, half a century later? Wouldn’t this conflict have wrapped up by now?

Overall, I’m pumped for The Force Awakens. But my New Hope is tempered by painful memory; The Phantom Menace’s trailer was kick-ass, too. And we all know how that turned out.

movies Uncategorized

Vicarious wonder

Late last week, there was a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in joy. Why? Disney unveiled a beautifully-edited, emotional, spoiler-light trailer for the upcoming Star Wars sequel, The Force Awakens. Unlike the first promo (which starred only unknown newcomers), this latest promo features several fan favorites, including Luke Skywalker and R2-D2. The trailer also boasts arresting visuals: a decayed, shipwrecked Star Destroyer. Darth Vader’s iconic mask, warped and scarred by his cremation. And, of course, a fleeting glimpse of Han Solo and Chewbacca (pictured above).

The franchise’s diehard fans lost their collective shit when the trailer hit the web. After all, they have a lot riding on The Force Awakens. The disastrous prequels broke nerds’ hearts; they’re relying on Episode VII to set things right. “Help us, J.J. Abrams,” geek fandom pleads. “You’re our only hope.” The trailer gives them reason to believe that Star Wars might be good again.

To understand the fans’ fervor, watch a few of the many live reactions published to YouTube since the trailer’s release. In each video, someone watches the teaser for the first time. Geeks’ eyes widen with wonder when Luke’s voiceover begins. Enthralled forty-year-olds pump their fists as the Millenium Falcon soars by. Enraptured fans weep when Han appears.

Fan Reactions
Fan reactions to Han Solo’s return, via ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens Trailer 2 Reaction Mashup’ on YouTube.

I love these reaction videos. Each offers an opportunity to relive the experience of watching the trailer for the very first time. The only way to recover that “trailer virgin” wonder is vicariously—through someone else’s eyes. Each viewer’s enthusiasm affirms and justifies my own, and the fanbase’s deep feelings remind me just how seminal this franchise is for geek culture.

These videos also make me excited to share my pop culture addictions with my daughter. She’s six weeks old right now, so it’ll be a while. But someday she’ll watch Star Wars for the very first time. When she does, I’ll be watching her. Will she gasp in horror when she learns Darth Vader’s true identity—like these adorable kids?[1] Will she cry when Spock sacrifices himself to save the Enterprise? Will reading The Hobbit inspire sketches of Bag End and Rivendell? I can’t wait to find out. I’ll never visit Middle-Earth or Hogwarts or Tatooine again for the first time. But she will, and I get to escort her.

We love watching others—family, friends, or strangers—learn to love what we love.[2]

Finally, here’s a parody of these fan reaction videos, featuring cut-in footage of Matthew McConaughey from Interstellar:

  1. For more kids’ reaction to the climactic Empire reveal, see this compilation.  ↩
  2. Maybe, just maybe, this will keep home theaters from killing the multiplex. The shared experience is what makes the cinema magical—not screen size or comfy chairs or artery-clogging butter. We relish being surrounded by others encountering the same intoxicating story. Hearing them gasp and laugh and cry enhances and augments our own wonder.  ↩
movies Uncategorized

“It is your destiny.”

Geekdom is abuzz; Star Wars will be reborn. Out of nowhere, Disney snatched up the rights from Lucasfilm, simultaneously announcing sequels to Return of the Jedi. After the disastrous prequel trilogy, a new director and proven screenwriter will attempt to jump-start the stalled franchise.

Fans are already speculating wildly about the new trilogy’s likely story. What conflict will drive the films? How long after Return of the Jedi will the movies take place? Will we re-join familiar characters—Luke, Leia, and Han—or will a new cadre of adventurers steal the spotlight?

To me, one question looms largest of all. How do you tell a good story when the main character is dead? According to Lucas, Star Wars (Episodes I-VI) centered around Anakin Skywalker: his mysterious origins, his fall from grace, his ruthless rule, his ultimate redemption, and his tragic death.[1] With Vader gone, what’s left to tell?

Of course, you could simply shift the focus from Vader to the characters who survived Return of the Jedi. What are our old friends up to? Luke likely spends his time scouting wunderkinds for a Jedi Academy. Leia wades through Galactic Senate bureaucracy. Han Solo gives up smuggling and starts his own shipping company.

Hardly spellbinding stuff. In fact, a Vaderless Star Wars sounds insufferably boring. Who wants to eavesdrop on Leia’s interminable Galactic Senate hearings? Or watch Han Solo chair Kessel Transport board meetings? Or look over Professor Skywalker’s shoulder as he revises the syllabus for Jedi Mindtricks 101? “Happily ever after” reads well on paper, but in practice proves sadly dull.

Even introducing some replacement villain seems fraught with downsides. How do you top Vader’s menace? All due respect to Darth Whoever or Admiral Thrawn, but Ol’ Helmet Head automatically trumps any newcomer. The Dark Lord of the Sith is a tough act to follow.

So what can you do? ROTJ painted the franchise into a corner. Lucas killed off the lead, burned him on a pyre, and turned him into a ghost. Everything revolved around Vader—the prophecy, the conflict, the heartbreak, and the biggest stakes. How do you move on from that?

Simple. You don’t move on. You stay with Anakin Skywalker; you make his legacy the central conflict. Focus your films on the one character who can’t shake Vader’s shadow.

In short, Luke Skywalker must turn to the Dark Side.

In fact, we’ve already seen Luke start down that path. Watch his Return of the Jedi entrance again. Skywalker strides menacingly into Jabba’s palace, cloaked in black and brooding. He chokes Jabba’s guards (to death?), then threatens to destroy Jabba himself should the Hutt fail to acknowledge Luke’s power. The transformation takes us by surprise; these aren’t behaviors we expect from the blasé Jedi.

We begin to wonder if the Emperor might have been right about Luke. “I have foreseen it,” Palpatine crows, predicting Luke’s downfall. “It is your destiny,” he insists later. And Luke does eventually give in. When Vader threatens to corrupt Leia, Luke lets love crowd out the detached, Zen-Jedi mindset. Hatred flares up, and Luke rages against his father, the machine. For a while, at least, Luke indulges the Dark Side of the Force, before that same compassionate streak prevents him from finishing off Vader.

That brings us to the end of Jedi. In the wake of Vader’s death (and his own flirtation with the Dark Side), Luke must face serious questions about the Force. “How can the Light Side be truly good,” he must wonder, “when it demands that I ignore my deepest feelings, my love for family and friends?” Kenobi and Yoda endorsed a sterile, calculated approach to the Force. Meanwhile, the Sith embraced the full breadth of human experience: desire, yes, but also compassion and love.

As the decades pass, Luke attempts to forge a middle way—to “bring balance to the Force,” as his father did. To check cold logic with compassion. Skywalker’s syncretism slowly corrupts the Jedi way. Eventually, some impossible scenario pits his heart and head against one another. Maybe Leia is put in harm’s way, and Luke vows to protect her—by any means necessary.

Whatever the particular details, Luke falls. The filmmakers would probably save the big reveal for Film Two—echoing the original trilogy’s major revelation in Empire Strikes Back. Just imagine the gasps when the audience sees Luke Skywalker, that archetypal movie hero, finally turn. How heartbreaking would it be to watch a bewildered, elderly Han Solo die at Luke’s hands? And think of the conflict in Film Three, as Leia must plot to end her brother’s life.

The story would be deliciously controversial. Fans would debate, berate, and celebrate the plot twist, just as they did when Vader declared himself Luke’s father. Hopefully, J.J. Abrams and Co. have the guts to take such a risk—to sully the reputation of Star Wars’ golden boy. Handled well, it would do more than just pay homage to the early films’ central character. It would rescue Star Wars from years of neglect.

  1. Perhaps Lucas was not being entirely truthful. A New Hope doesn’t seem to focus squarely on Vader. Grand Moff Tarkin share the top villain billing. Did Lucas really always intend to elevate Vader in the later films?  ↩