The Problem of Perspective

I recently watched The Wind Rises, Hayao Miyazaki’s final film (at least until he comes out of retirement again). It isn’t his best work for a number of reasons, but the problem that most interested me wasn’t in the film; it was in myself.

Set in the lead-up to the Second World War, the film follows the life of an engineer making fighter planes for the Japanese military machine. And there’s the rub. I knew what those planes would be used for: the invasion of China, the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and the war against the United States. True, the film goes out of its way to say that its hero doesn’t much like making weapons of war, and that he would prefer to be making passenger planes. But no one is exactly holding a gun to his head either.

And knowing what followed, knowing where those weapons he built would be used, dragged me kicking and screaming out of the viewing experience. As much as I sympathized with the protagonist, and I really did, I spent much of the film thinking about how many lives could be saved if he simply quit his job, if he gave up. I rooted against him rather than for him.

Watching The Wind Rises involved a kind of dual experience. The film was pulling me in one direction: sympathize with the protagonist and hope he accomplishes what he sets out to do. My own perspective was pulling me in another: wish that the protagonist would fail, because of the horror that he is helping to unleash on the world. I could feel both influences operating on me at the same time, but the latter was much stronger than the former.

Take another example. The first time I watched Hitchcock’s Vertigo, it was in a university class. There were thirty students: half girls, half boys. After the film’s closing image, the boys all sat nodding quietly to themselves. We loved the film, disturbing as it was. But the girls didn’t seem to share our enthusiasm. They sat in brooding silence. I have never seen such a profoundly different reaction to a film solely along gender lines, and, as the class discussion progressed, I understood why.

Beware of Spoilers.

“It’s horrible,” one girl said, “She lied to him, and so she had to die?” At first I thought she’d simply misinterpreted the film. I understood the film’s ending to be a judgment, not on Kim Novak’s character, but on Jimmy Stewart’s. She doesn’t die through any fault of her own, but because he can’t bring himself to face reality and see her as she is. He is to blame, not her.

But that’s because I identified with Jimmy Stewart’s character. The film made a tremendous effort to put me in his shoes, and, being male, I had no alternative perspective to work against it. The girls in the class, on the other hand, all identified with Kim Novak’s character. The extreme and destructive fantasization of women in the film struck a chord with them, no less than with the boys. But where we saw ourselves, albeit uncomfortably, in the perpetrator, they saw themselves in the victim. And that perspective turned the entire film on its head. Because they identified with Kim Novak’s character, they saw the film’s ending as a judgment on her. Taken in that light, the film fails. Its ending becomes something morally repugnant, literally blaming the victim.

I still think Vertigo is a brilliant film. But it isn’t a brilliant film for everyone. That is to say, most men will watch the film and leave the theater feeling both stunned and thoughtful. Most women will leave it feeling soiled. And that’s a result of our differing experiences of the issue the film tackles. The film pulls our emotions, but so does our personal perspective.

The latter influence can’t help being dominant. Plenty of films crystalize, refine, or complicate our existing perspectives. But I have never yet seen a film that overwrote one of my fundamental beliefs or experiences, that convinced me to be something other than I am. The success or failure of a film relies on its ability to play with the existing material of our emotions.

We can take away two lessons from that observation, overly sweeping as it probably is. First, the job of a film isn’t to change people. It can’t change people, except in the most qualified of ways. A film can educate, it can challenge, and it can entertain. But it cannot destroy the bedrock of perspective, and it cannot create beliefs that are not already there. Second, the success or failure of a film relies, at least in part, on its ability to play off the perspectives of an audience. If a film can agree with its audience’s existing perspective, its foot is in the door. The rest of what it does narratively and visually can either seal the deal or squander the opportunity. But, if the film contradicts its audience’s perspective instead of colluding with it, then no amount of storytelling finesse can save it from failure.

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Game of Thrones & The Timing of Tension

I’ve harped a lot on the importance of giving story events room to breath. A film isn’t just a collection of significant events. It can never be all “wow” moments. Instead, the best films give us a pattern of tension that ebbs and flows like the tide. The moments of highest tension are complemented and built up to by the low-tension moments that surround them. There must be a low tide for us to feel the significance of the high tide. The same is true of all stories: novels, films and television shows. And, in honor of the new episode coming out tomorrow, I thought I’d address an example of the timing of tension present in Game of Thrones.

Beware of Spoilers

Television is an interesting medium, in part because it’s so iterative. Each episode, and each season, tells a story, but because one episode and one season follows the next we can view each iteration as an experiment. The show-runners constantly try new things, playing with their established pattern in an effort to match and better their previous performance. There is always a pattern, even in a show as famous for delivering surprises as Game of Thrones, and there are always changes between iterations.

Rarely, however, are those changes as radical as the one that began with Season 4 of Game of Thrones. The pattern of the show for the first three seasons started slow, delivering small escalations of tension in each episode until the ninth, when all of those little tensions would explode into an epic climax. The tenth episode then wrapped up loose ends and raised new questions, giving us a reason to come back for the next season.

In the fourth season, the show-runners threw this pattern to the wind. Instead of having all of the show’s tension build to a single episode in the season, they decided to try producing more frequent climaxes to keep the tension high. In the second episode we get the long awaited moment of Joffrey’s death. In the fourth episode we see Daenerys conquer Meereen, and witness the startling revelation of how White Walkers are made from ordinary human children. In the fifth episode we have a tense battle in Craster’s keep, and Daenerys decides to stay and rule Meereen. In the eighth episode we get the duel between the Mountain and Oberyn. And in the ninth and tenth episodes we witness the battle between the Night’s Watch and the Wildlings. Almost every episode has some kind of big reveal or climactic moment.

As an experiment, this change from the show’s usual pattern is very informative. What it was supposed to do was keep us on our toes, keep us guessing, and keep the tension constantly high. What it actually did was dilute the tension that previous seasons had built so expertly, and make the conflicts feel smaller. Because the tensions built and released at a smaller and more frequent pace, the season’s overall climax in episodes nine and ten felt smaller and less important. Not as much time had been spent building towards this overall climax, and too much energy had already been released by the more frequent mini-climaxes. The show was still extremely entertaining, but the change in the timing of tension had a noticeably negative effect.

And the show-runners noticed. If you look at the pattern of tension in season five, it seems to be an interesting hybrid of the two more radical patterns present in the preceding seasons. Big events happen frequently, but they are kept just muted enough to allow the larger arc of tension to escalate towards the double climax in episodes eight and nine. Put another way, instead of discharging the tension with frequent smaller climaxes, the show-runners ensure that the big events featured in every episode contribute to the larger arc. The reveals and events constantly up the stakes, raise more new questions than they answer, and build the tension instead of releasing it.

Overall this new hybrid-pattern is very effective. It allows the tension to build at a steady pace, but keeps feeding the audience enough tidbits to make it feel like the plot is moving forward in each episode. Season 6 follows a similar pattern, and  I suspect that the show-runners will continue it in Season 7. But you never know. They may surprise us with something entirely new.

The Curious Case of Indiana Jones

Raiders of the Lost Ark is one of my all time favorite films. I know, I know, that doesn’t exactly make me one of a kind. Everyone loves Raiders. And part of that is simply its understated competence. It isn’t flashy the way, for instance, Tarantino’s films tend to be. Spielberg is the master of the workmanlike film style. His films aren’t usually loaded with bells and whistles. You hardly notice them on a stylistic level. They simply work. But none of that means that his films don’t innovate. And Raiders works all the better for the unusual way Spielberg structures its conflicts and resolution.

Raiders is fundamentally a work of genre fiction. In the same way that Star Wars takes the old pulp-paperback space opera books and updates them for film audiences, Raiders builds upon the pulp adventure stories: stories of adventurers, explorers, and “archeologists,” men who always manage to find more magical artifacts and damsels in distress than valuable scientific data. But Spielberg makes one significant change to the old genre, and that change is the groundwork of what makes the Indiana Jones series so much more compelling than its source material. He takes the hardbitten and unflappable James Bond types who fill their pages, and he cuts their hamstrings.

The traditional model of conflict for pulp adventure stories was almost entirely physical: falling boulders, pits of vipers, enemies with guns (sound familiar?). But, in those stories, the heroes were always up to the challenge. They were smarter, faster, stronger, more macho than normal people, and therefore more than a match for the physical challenges thrown at them. Indiana Jones, on the other hand, is not cut from such a super-human cloth. He’s smart, and fast, and strong to be sure, but he’s always a little out of his depth. The challenges thrown at him, whether physical or otherwise, are always just a little bigger than he can handle. The great innovation of Indiana Jones’s character is that he tends to lose.

And that means two things. First, it means that we can relate to him much more intimately than we can relate to other pulp heroes. No one identifies with James Bond, unless they’re some kind of sociopath. We watch Bond because he’s cool and unflappable, and that’s fun to watch. But we don’t see ourselves in him. We do see ourselves in Indie though, and that gives the story a much more personal and intimate feeling. Second, placing Indie’s abilities just below the level of his challenges keeps the tension high. No matter what he’s doing, no matter how hard he tries or how much he learns, Indie is always going to be outmatched. He’s always going to be the underdog, desperately trying to play catch-up. And that makes the danger feel far more real.

This pattern follows through to the resolution of the film. Indie loses. There’s no two ways about it. He ends his final gambit of the story tied to a stake beside Marion, the helpless captives of their Nazi antagonists. The film’s happy resolution comes, not through any agency on Indie’s part, but because the Nazis go a step too far. They open the Ark, and God literally smites them. Talk about a Deus Ex Machina ending. It’s everything a writer is taught not to do, and it’s brilliant.

In general we avoid Deus Ex Machina resolutions because they feel tacked on. They take the story out of the hands of the character and put it in the hands of an outside force. But in this case it’s incredibly appropriate. The story up to that point isn’t really about Indie’s quest for the Ark. It’s about him and Marion, their love, and their struggle to survive the Nazis’ quest for the Ark. The resolution distills that fact. Indie isn’t up to the challenge of finding the Ark and taking on the whole Nazi army in the process. But he is up to the challenge of surviving.

In the end Indie is finally shorn of his pulp-heroic trappings. He doesn’t have the whip, he doesn’t have the gun, he doesn’t even have freedom of movement. He’s just an ordinary human being in over his head. But the secret of the film is that he’s never been anything more than that. And that’s what makes him such a compelling character.

An Observation on Superheroes

I thought I would close out my three post streak about superheroes with a simple observation I had recently. Superheroes, in comics as well as on the screen, aren’t usually protagonists by the standard definition.

We generally think of the protagonist, in structural terms, as the person who wants something in a story. The protagonist has a goal, and he/she will face obstacles and enemies who seek to prevent him/her from reaching it. But if you think about superheroes, they often don’t fit this model. Oh, to be sure, superheroes want things like any other character. Their wants just usually confine themselves to Stan Lee’s model in Spiderman: they want love, stability, the things that we all want. But these generally aren’t the goals that drive the plot. Spiderman is a high-school kid with all of a high-school kid’s desires, but those desires don’t drive the story forward. Instead, they simply help to flesh out his character as a relatable hero. What superheroes want, in a plot-significant sense, is generally no more than to stop the villain from achieving his aims.

Which leads us to something of a startling thought. Superheroes, by and large, are not protagonists. On the contrary, they are antagonists. Their role is not to achieve a goal of their own, but to serve as the obstacle that successfully diverts the goals of an evil or misguided protagonist (read, Super-villain).

There are exceptions to this rule. There are moments in the Iron Man films where Tony Stark genuinely wants something for his own sake, and both Guardians of the Galaxy films present entire teams of heroes who have real goals of their own in addition to wanting to stop their villains. In these cases the heroes’ plans and goals at least somewhat balance out the villains’, and we can certainly make a case for calling them true protagonists.

Whether or not you consider this structural quirk to be a problem with the superhero genre, it’s interesting to consider who these films are really about. And, in many cases, the obvious conclusion is that superhero films are not about superheroes at all. They are about super-villains.

The Superhero’s Third Act Problem

The bane of the superhero movie has always been Act 3. Think about Iron Man for a minute. The first act of the film has Tony Stark get captured and escape by building the Iron Man suit, effectively becoming a superhero. The second act shows him playing around with his new superpowers, and hunting down random bad guys in the Middle East. And it’s an absolute blast. We get to watch technology based super-powers beating up people who richly deserve it and who obviously don’t stand a chance. That, in a nutshell, has always been the appeal of the superhero genre. We want to watch a cool hero doing cool things. But that’s not enough for a story.

And there’s where we get the Act 3 problem. Because stories feed off of conflict. Conflict is the main thing separating a story from a list of loosely connected events. Act 1 of Iron Man actually has an excellent conflict, and stands really well as a story on its own. Tony Stark is a megalomaniac whose ambition and vanity get him captured by terrorists; he wants to escape, and they want to force him to build weapons for them. It’s great material, and it makes the first act of the film an immensely satisfying story. Act 2 is definitely more of a list. There’s conflict, but it’s minimal, and the antagonists are too weak to really stand a chance against our protagonist.

Again, that makes for some really fun scenes, but it leaves the filmmakers’ options for the third act limited. If they continue to simply provide the viewer with cool scenes, they will have a film that never feels resolved because it has no big conflict or question to be resolved. The result will be fundamentally unsatisfying to the audience. But, as we break into the third act, there is little conflict present in the story for the filmmakers to mine. That means that most of the groundwork for building tension has to be done in the third act itself. In Iron Man the film’s plot takes a sharp left turn. We find out that Tony’s friend and coworker, Obadiah Stane, has been working against him the whole time. Stane steals the designs for Tony’s super-suit, builds a better one, and tries to kill our hero. One big superhero fight later, and we have the resolution to a conflict that is just barely passable to end the movie on. 

So, the filmmakers behind Iron Man managed to cut a corner and limp over the finish line. I’m being a little unfair here; I’m sure this was the story arc planned from the beginning, and it’s become more or less ubiquitous in the genre. But that doesn’t quite change the fact that all of the films sharing this arc have very weak third acts. You can almost always feel the moment when, like an emergency flair calling out for rescue, the super-villain will leap from the background into the foreground to engage our hero in an unmemorable and melodramatic final battle. Almost all of these third acts are the same. They tend to be the most boring parts of their respective films. And part of that is that they tend to substitute explosions and brute combat for interesting action. But the greater part, I think, is that the conflicts in these final acts almost always come with little to no set-up in the preceding two. Instead, they leap out of left field and manage, by the skin of their teeth, to convince us that we sat through some kind of coherent story. It may be better than the immediate alternative, but it’s also a fundamentally unsatisfying way to end a film.

Wonder Woman & Missed Opportunities

I don’t usually like superhero movies. There are, of course, a few big exceptions: I like the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, the first Iron Man, the first Avengers, and I like Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. None of these will ever be my favorite films, but they all entertained me. And so did Wonder Woman. Aside from a slow start and the chronic condition of an overpowered hero, the film manages to tell an entertaining and engaging adventure story. And it almost, almost surprised me.

Beware of spoilers.

The majority of the film features Wonder Woman’s adventures as she hunts for her super-villain: the Greek god Ares. She is convinced that human conflict, and specifically the First World War, all comes as a direct result of Ares’s interference in the world. Kill the big bad god, she reasons, and you end all war. Put like that it sounds silly, but it’s really no worse than any other superhero’s M.O. (which will have to be a subject for a later post).

Here’s where we find the almost-surprise. She encounters a murderous general in the German army and, convinced that he is Ares in disguise, she kills him. And nothing happens. He wasn’t Ares. He was just another bad man, doing bad things without any real supernatural instigation.

I think that moment presented the filmmakers with a staggering opportunity. The implication of the German general dying, and not being Ares, is that there is no Ares; no supernatural force of evil making human beings do bad things. The protagonist is wrong. Which is a staggering thought: a superhero who spends her entire story chasing a villain who doesn’t exist. Her actions are none the less heroic for lacking such an opposite number; on the contrary, that imbalance grounds her in human conflicts. Super she may be, but she is first and foremost a human being fighting other human beings for ordinary human reasons. Personally I find that a much more appealing prospect than the flat struggles we normally see in the genre.

But hold the phone! Just because that one guy wasn’t Ares doesn’t mean there is no Ares. And the film dutifully produces its super-villain. Oh, to be sure, he makes a point of revealing that, shocker, he is not responsible for human conflict. We are quite capable of killing each other without his egging us on. That in fact, seems to be the reason he wants to wipe out the human race, as no super-villain before him has ever tried to do, I’m sure. For a big reveal it’s rather weak. And the fight that follows is easily the most boring scene in the entire film: a D.C. slugfest tinged with the disappointment of wasted potential.

To be fair, I liked the film. It was an enjoyable adventure that managed, at times, to be surprisingly human. That is not a feat to be ignored, especially given D.C.’s recent track record. But I can’t help feeling that the filmmakers missed an opportunity to create something far more memorable, and a part of me can’t help mourning for the Wonder Woman film that will never be.

Inglorious Openings

If you’ve seen Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds, then you remember the opening scene. It begins “Once Upon A Time in Nazi Occupied France,” and ends with Shoshanna, one of the film’s principal characters, fleeing for her life across an open field. In its totality, Inglorious Basterds is both one of my favorite and least favorite films. I love it because of its devotion to character, to dramatic tension, and to brilliant visual and aural storytelling. I hate it because it lacks a strong narrative through-line and because, well let’s face it, the world of the film is a slew of hideous atrocities that consistently challenge our association with its nominal heroes. But, whether I love or hate the film as a whole, there’s no denying that this first scene is one of the best and most carefully crafted pieces of cinema that I have ever seen. In it, Tarantino’s normally violent and ostentatious style takes a back seat to a visual and narrative subtlety that can only be called masterful.

On its most essential level, the film’s opening scene does nothing more or less than what good stories have always done: it sets up an expectation in the audience, and then challenges that expectation. The resulting clash of ideas, like flint on steel, creates sparks of tension and emotion. Eisenstein would have called it dialectical filmmaking. The rest of us settle for less pretentious descriptions like narrative contrast and juxtaposition. But the principle is more or less the same: A + B = C. One idea, challenged by another, becomes a third. In this particular case, Tarantino begins by creating a fairytale in which good stands against evil, heroes challenge monsters, and the world can be put to rights. Then, one at a time, he pulls the jenga blocks out from the base of the tower that he himself created. He forcibly strips us of the fairytale delusions that he foisted upon us in the first place.

So how does he manage to pull this off? There are four key elements: a well chosen opening image, visual depth, skillful manipulation of multiple languages, and music. The first of these elements is perhaps the most obvious. The credits fade out, giving way, not to a physical image, but to a title card that reads, “One upon a time… in Nazi occupied France.” A lot of people read that and laugh the first time they see the film. Why not? The contrast between the fairytale invocation, “Once upon a time,” and the setting, “in Nazi occupied France,” at first seems ridiculous. But even as we laugh, Tarantino has successfully invoked a specific set of expectations. He has created a link in our minds between this story and all of the other stories we’ve ever read beginning with the words “Once upon a time.” Whether consciously or unconsciously, we are primed to expect heroes and monsters, challenges that will be overcome, and above all the inevitable triumph of a primal good over a primal evil.

And while at first that comparison with Nazi occupied France seems humorous, our previous experience with films set during the Second World War actually reinforces our fairytale expectations. A friend of mine once observed that the Nazis’ most enduring legacy, for many people, is not anything they themselves did. Rather, it is their status as the most archetypal of Hollywood villains. We’ve seen uncomplicated Nazi villains again and again until they have taken on the role of a kind of modern-day Grendel. In that sense, the setting “in Nazi-occupied France” meshes rather than contrasts with the fairytale “once upon a time.” The villain has been prepared for us, and now we only await a Beowulf, an equally uncomplicated hero, to stand up and defeat evil.

The first half of Tarantino’s opening scene seems to provide such a hero. Perrier Lapadite is constantly placed near the center of the frame, and in many of the shots he towers over the camera: the ultimate example of a larger than life figure. Tarantino keeps the space around Perrier remarkably flat, eliminating both background details and depth perspective. This visual decision serves two purposes. First, it centers our perspective all the more clearly on Perrier. And, second, it reduces the realism of the environment, making the world of the film seem more like the world of a storybook. This, in turn, subtly reinforces our fairytale expectations, helping us attach heroic importance to Perrier.

The sparing use of music, picking up first when the Nazi caravan comes into view at the far end of the road, and quickly fading out again when it comes time for Perrier to confront Landa, plays with the fairytale aesthetic. The non-diegetic music (in other words, it is present for the audience but not for the characters) is a signal of the fictionality of what we are seeing. The music tells us what to feel, in this case a building sense of heroic tension, but it also takes us out of the real world. It signals to us that this is just a story, and that what we are seeing is going to follow story rules rather than real world rules. When the music fades out with Landa’s arrival, that serves as a subtle signal to the audience that the fairytale, with its simple good versus evil narrative, will not hold true throughout the scene. The music challenges the fairytale worldview even as the flattened visual space seeks to maintain it. It thereby brings us ever so slightly back into shades of grey.

Tarantino’s use of multiple languages works in tandem with the soundtrack here. Most of the first half of the scene is performed in French. So what? What’s so special about French? Absolutely nothing. They could be speaking German, or Spanish, or Sawhili for all it matters. The important point here is that most viewers have to follow the scene’s dialogue, not out loud, but through subtitles. We are literally reading our way through the scene as we would read the text of a storybook. That fact, tied up with the flattened visual space and the expectations created by the opening image, massively reinforces the fairytale worldview. Not only does the film say it’s a fairytale, and look a little like a storybook illustration, but we actually have to read it like a storybook as well.

The scene’s major turning point comes when Landa switches from French to English. In a narrative sense, this is a turning point because the Jews hiding beneath Perrier’s floorboards can no longer understand the conversation. But, more importantly, the audience is no longer consuming the dialogue as text. The sudden shift is deeply unsettling. Perrier’s situation begins to feel less titanic and more real, and far from a sense of heroism the dialogue begins to emphasize a sense of helplessness. This is due in part to the dialogue itself, which has Perrier cooperating with Landa rather than defying him, and in part to the medium through which we experience it. The shift from French to English thus marks the point where Tarantino truly starts to demolish the scene’s fairytale foundations.

The music and the subtitled French return all at once, after Perrier’s hero-act has finally collapsed, making him little more than an unwilling Nazi collaborator. At the end we therefore experience three of our four fairytale elements, but with the fairytale having been stripped from us. The music tells us it is a story, but it has taken on a sinister quality. We read the dialogue as text, but we know that what we are reading is a lie. And we see the relatively flat visual environment, but now that flatness seems to provide no escape from the violence taking place in front of us. Far from creating the sense of security that we experience at the beginning of the scene, these elements combine to create a new fairytale that is nothing more than a trap for Landa’s victims. The fairytale itself becomes the enemy.

The transformation from the beginning of the scene to the end therefore fleshes out the irony that makes us laugh at its opening image. And that irony holds true throughout the film. The stories that we are accustomed to, both in fairytales and WWII films, tend to highlight the struggle of good heroes against evil villains. But that’s not the type of story that Tarantino is interested in making. Instead, he chooses to highlight the brutality and the evil on all sides, suggesting that there is no such thing as a hero. The entire film, but especially that first scene, thumbs its nose at heroic war narratives. It laughs at us for thinking that there can be such a thing as good. Good, it seems to suggest, is nothing more than a story we tell ourselves to push evil out sight. It is one of the film’s ironies that this perspective only makes us crave our fairytale stories all the more hungrily.

The Force Keeps Sleeping

All right, so you saw the latest instalment in the Star Wars franchise come Disney cash-cow. You heard the hype, you paid your ten bucks to Mickey’s jaws, and you either went pop-eyed over the whole thing or gave it a solid, “Eh.” If you’re in the first camp, I apologize for what you’re about to read. But, if you’re in the second camp, you may well have wondered just what made the latest “official” Star Wars film so… boring.

A lot of people have talked about how closely the film follows the story beats of A New Hope, and I’m not going to rehash what they’ve said. It’s true that most of the major developments in the film are pilfered from the first instalment in the series, and it’s true that this gives The Force Awakens a faint hint of staleness. But that alone does not explain why the film is so uninteresting. After all, A New Hope is a good story. You can watch it again and again, and knowing what happens doesn’t ruin the film. It works; so why doesn’t The Force Awakens?

The broad and unhelpful conclusion I’ve come to is that it’s just not very well written. You can see it most clearly in the miserable flatness of the dialogue, like when Finn and Poe take a nice time-out from their desperate escape attempt to share some not so witty banter:

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This exchange is ten lines of dialogue, and what does it accomplish, other than making one of the main characters seem like a goldfish? First, it’s supposed to serve as a charming bonding moment between these two characters (one of whom will shortly disappear from the majority of the film, showing himself to be more or less inconsequential to the story). But the camaraderie of their daring escape ought to be enough to establish a friendship between them anyway. In other words, the characters should keep their focus on the task at hand, and that task will itself bring out their mutual regard.

The second goal this exchange sets out to accomplish is a rather pathetic amount of exposition. The writers have a character who has no name, so they want to name him while also getting another dig in at the bad guys. In ten bloody lines of dialogue. Economy, apparently, is something that happens to other people. Imagine instead that we truncated the exchange:

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It still suffers from randomness in the midst of a crisis, but at least we’ve cut that randomness down from ten lines to four. I feel a bit like Billy Mayes saying it, but that’s six unnecessary and frankly quite flat lines that we’ve cut with practically no effort. We get the camaraderie, we address Finn’s new name and we allow the subtext to take care of the little jab at the bad guys for being so very bad. Best of all, we make Finn seem like an interesting and motivated individual instead of a goldfish.

Okay, you say, but the Star Wars films have always had dialogue that smelled a bit like it came out of a French fromagerie. Bloated dialogue like this doesn’t necessarily ruin the film, but it is a kind of canary in the coal-mine for deeper problems in the writing. A New Hope works, despite its mediocre dialogue, because its underlying story structure is very sound. The Force Awakens, by comparison, is a bridge built on quicksand.

A New Hope is about Luke. No one’s going to argue with that statement. He comes along at the seventeen minute mark, rather late for a traditional Hollywood film, and from that point on the story never flinches from his perspective. Even when we’re following Obi-Wan through the Death Star, we are constantly aware that what we are seeing exists solely to support Luke’s story. And it’s a story as old as civilization: a young man receives a call to adventure, faces trials, and ultimately becomes an adult and a hero. It’s not all that different from the stories of Theseus, Perseus, or Jason and his Argonauts. So, where does The Force Awakens go wrong in its imitation of that formula?

Who is the film about? It sounds like an obvious question, but the more you think about it, the more evident it becomes that the film is really two stories fused together. We don’t have one protagonist, but two. Rey’s story is essentially Luke’s story. She starts out with nowhere to go, but adventure calls her and she rises to the challenge, ultimately becoming the hero everyone needs her to be. Finn’s story is somewhat more unusual for the Star Wars franchise. He begins as a member of a dehumanizing military machine, but decides he wants no part of it, and in the process must discover what he is willing to fight for. Those are both good stories. They could even coexist within the film if one were relegated to assisting in the others’ arc. Instead, the filmmakers chose to give both stories more or less equal weight.

But they still only have two hours to devote to both stories. Dividing that time down the middle means robbing each story of the time it needs to develop and mature. The decision points feel abrupt and disjointed, and Rey’s acquisition of powerful Force abilities comes across as sudden, not because of who she is, but because the film simply doesn’t spend enough time with her to make that moment feel earned. The net result is a film that feels rushed, and whose important moments lack the structural context to make us experience any truly powerful emotions.

Kylo Ren poses a structural problem of similar importance. When a film has an antagonist, say Darth Vader, it’s important that that antagonist be someone worthy of going up against the protagonist. He should never be someone that we dismiss. But that is exactly what we do with Kylo Ren. We don’t fear him; we pity him. He comes across as a petulant child in need of a time-out rather than a truly terrifying villain. And that’s a problem in a story that relies on the age-old conflict of good against evil. Evil must seem emotionally more powerful than good for the heroes’ victory to have any kind of meaning. Giving it bigger guns and better superpowers won’t make it feel stronger. Giving it a deep voice and an air of icy control will. Again, think Darth Vader. Kylo Ren’s tantrums downgrade the conflict from an epic struggle of good against evil to the glorified punishment of a spoiled brat.

Moreover, his behavior erodes the significance of the film’s emotional climax: the moment when Kylo Ren chooses to kill his father instead of coming back to the light (Time-out: the film’s emotional climax is a choice made by its antagonist? Yes, yes it is. Hello story number three). For this scene to work, the audience must believe that Kylo Ren might choose good. We must have some sense that the decision is not a foregone conclusion. If there is no question, the tension shifts from the desperate hope, “Don’t kill him,” to the irritated one, “Why are you still standing there, you idiot? He’s obviously gonna kill you!”

At no point do we believe that Kylo Ren has the capacity to choose good at this moment. Oh, to be sure, he spends a few moments earlier in the film telling Darth Vader’s helmet that he feels conflicted between good and evil. But simply saying he feels conflicted doesn’t make that conflict seem real, particularly when every action he takes seems to point in the opposite direction. Between his spoiled tantrums, his obvious cruelty, and his unaccountable lack of redeeming or even charming features, Kylo Ren’s actual behavior comes across as anything but conflicted. By the time we reach his climactic decision to kill his father we have heard him claim the capacity to choose good, but he has given us absolutely no reason to believe that claim. Instead of experiencing genuine angst over his decision, we feel like we’re marking off yet another tedious box on the film’s narrative check-list.

All told, The Force Awakens falls victim to the same mediocre writing that plagues the most recent wave of superhero films. It’s a film that feels as though it was written by committee. Abrams and his team filled it with stuff: storm troopers, space-ships, fight scenes, betrayals and an unnecessary amount of backstory. But that’s all just clutter. The story, the thing that gives all of that stuff context and meaning, has the structural integrity of a connect-the-dots puzzle. It’s trying to do too much, to cover too much ground in the amount of time allotted to it. Add to that some very clumsy dialogue, and insufficient character-building, and you get a film that, to many, might as well be counting sheep. Then again, those sheep sold a record number of movie tickets. So what do I know?