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 the mouse-eared titan, 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:
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:
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?