The Force (Re)Awakens: How I would approach the Star Wars sequels

The Last Jedi is out and people have some feelings. I thought it was alright. There were things I liked and things I didn’t like. But since it’s 2017, nuance is dead and polarization reigns. This can only be the best Star Wars movie ever or the worst. There’s even a petition to have the film removed from canon. And there’s the typical losers who are all butthurt over the presence of minorities and women, but the less said about those people the better.

I could parse through The Last Jedi and delineate what I thought worked (Rey, Luke, and Kylo) vs what didn’t (pretty much everything on Canto Bight), but I think that would be pretty much useless. My issues with The Last Jedi, and also The Force Awakens, go a lot deeper than a few plot choices here and there. I have an issue with how this new series has been established and the groundwork it is being built upon. Therefore, I thought it would be a better exercise to show how I would approach the new series from the ground up, starting with Force Awakens.

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Artist:  Grzegorz Domaradzki (aka Gabz)

One of the major criticisms of the prequels (and there are many) was that there was too much politics. And this is certainly fair. Lucas gives the audience a lot of bullshit about trade disputes and partisanship among senators, when we’re just sitting there like, “so…who’s the Trade Federation again?”

However, I would say that the sequels don’t have enough politics. Part of the reason I was so excited about the new movies was that they would show what happened following the events of Return of the Jedi. Like, what happened in the vacuum following the destruction of the Empire and the death of Palpatine and Vader. And the answer is…not much. The Force Awakens picks up like episodes 4-6 didn’t really matter.

I understand that what they’re trying to say is that Star Wars is like the mythological journey; it’s a cycle. We reach the end and start again at the beginning. OK, yeah I get that. But what we’re getting is lazy storytelling. It feels like they’re using this as a thematic way to justify fan service, intertextuality, and nostalgia-bating.  Thematically, things can be cyclical, yes. Perhaps characters in the Star Wars universe will always be battling the dichotomy of the light and dark sides of the force. However, that doesn’t mean the plot need stay the same. Say what you will about the prequels, but at least they tried to give us a different look at how the Star Wars universe may work.

Instead, I would stage the sequels in a kind of civil war setting. After the events of RotJ there were forces that joined the Rebellion to try and recreate a democratic republic. Conversely, there were still forces that remained loyal to the Empire. The First Order and the Resistance are battling it out over control of the galaxy as equal forces.

All that being said, the first act of Force Awakens works really well. They do a great job showing the audience Rey’s character in particular. For me, the movie starts to fall flat in act two, for several reasons. First is when we see yet again another Death Star. Seriously? A third one? Like I said, yeah myths are cyclical but you don’t gotta be so literal about it. Also, when the First Order destroys all the planets of the Republic, the audience feels nothing. Like who are these people? What’s the significance of this destruction? Compare this to A New Hope when Grand Moff Tarkin destroys Alderaan. It feels monumental. In Force Awakens, it’s like, “Oh, OK, that happened.” The First Order’s destruction of Takodana was enough to demonstrate their ruthlessness. Also, the audience got a chance to actually spend time there so it feels more personal.

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Secondly, Rey’s “refusal of the call” feels contrived. Han offers her to join him but she declines because she wants to return to Jakku. And when she touches Luke’s lightsaber, she runs from it. Why? The audience feels no empathy for her in this moment. There’s nothing back on Jakku. It’s obvious. Rey believes her family is coming for her, but the audience has seen no convincing reason to believe this.

(Also, what’s the point of Jakku? Why not just make it Tatooine? It’s exactly the same. It would also help establish the legend of Luke Skywalker, etc.)

Contrast this to Luke’s refusal in A New Hope. Obi-Wan asks him to join, but Luke refuses because he feels like he needs to stay and help Uncle Owen. This is a great moment because the audience empathises with Luke’s inner conflict. We know he wants to leave and join the Rebellion but we also see that Luke is dutiful to his uncle.

I think we should have learned in the first act of Force Awakens that Rey was sold by her family. Her stubborn belief that her family is returning is the lie she chooses to believe. This way the audience would feel empathy for Rey. We could better understand her inner conflict, what’s holding her back. Why not set up the contrast between Rey and Kylo as early as possible. He has “royal” blood whereas she’s a nobody. This is a missed opportunity that swells into an implosion. We’re given this deliberately misleading bait and switch, hinting that maybe her parentage is significant. When the reveal comes in The Last Jedi, it falls flat. This has JJ Abrams’ fingerprints all over it, based on all the red herrings we had to endure in Lost. To me, it’s cheap storytelling.

Ultimately, Rey is a weak protagonist. She’s too passive. Things happen to her. A strong protagonist wants things. They have desire and they drive the plot by chasing after what they want. Take Luke for example. When we first meet him he’s a farm boy who desperately wants to get out of town and become a pilot for the rebellion. When the Falcon gets captured by the Death Star, it’s Luke who convinces Han to help him save Leia.

But what does Rey want? I mean, I guess she wants her family back. But the storytellers shroud her only desire in mystery, thus leaving her motives unclear to the audience. Consequently, Finn comes across as a much stronger, more interesting character. He has a clear motive. He wants to escape from the First Order. They forced him to do reprehensible acts and he’s running away. This makes him act like a coward at one point, which is an interesting character choice. The audience empathizes with this choice.

I mean, why does Rey help BB-8? Luke helped R2D2 because he represented for him the opportunity for adventure. Luke wanted to join the rebellion at this point. Rey has no interest in the Resistance when BB-8 appears. Wouldn’t it make more sense that she would use him as a bargaining chip to ingratiate with Unkar Plutt, who based on the cut scene seemed to have a role in the transaction for Rey and her parents. This would be a more effective refusal of the call. BB-8 tells her about the Resistance and that he has a map to Luke Skywalker, etc. But Rey doesn’t want any part of all that. She’s looking for her parents.

So Rey sells BB-8 believing that Plutt will provide information on her parents. Plutt wants BB-8 because he’s an agent of the First Order. He’s part of a junta that rules over Jakku on behalf of the First Order. He tells Rey that her parents sold her to him to be used for indentured servitude. That’s why she goes around scavenging parts for him, etc. She refuses to believe Plutt and think he’s lying. Her anger extends to the First Order. She hates what they’ve done to the people of Jakku. They’re violent thugs who enslave people like her.

She then encounters Finn, who is trying to recover the droid out of duty to Poe. When Rey learns this, she resolves to help them. Later, when Rey has her vision on Takodana , it makes more sense to the audience. We get a stronger sense that she’s lying to herself about her parents and this is why she resists the call to adventure. When Kylo captures her, he feels that she’s sensitive to the force. He tries to seduce her by appealing to her anger towards her parents. He promises that together they’ll make them pay and build a better, more just universe. But she resists this narrative and resolves to resist the dark side.

I think that battle of will she has with Kylo is enough of a representation of her strength with the force. When she faces off with Kylo, I would make it more obvious that he’s injured and unfocused due to his encounter with Han. In addition, I would make it more of a team effort between Rey and Finn to take him down.

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Now, let’s talk about Kylo Ren. In my opinion, Ben Solo is a poorly written character that has been saved by Adam Driver’s excellent performance. We’re given no good reason that he should’ve been seduced by the dark side. Much like a great hero, audiences must empathize with the villain. Vader became a classic villain when we learned about his inner conflict between the thirst for power and the love for his son.

I would take a more radical approach with Ben’s backstory: Han and Leia were bad parents. After the Rebellion, Leia became consumed with politics; fighting the First Order at every turn, straining to keep the fledgling Republic together as best she could. This left her with no time to care for her son. Likewise, Han struggled with domestic life. He missed the adventure of his days as a smuggler and rebel. He had no stomach for politics and patience for life at home. He begins to fall back into his old life and becomes a deadbeat dad. All the while, little Ben struggles to fill this void. He’s strong with the force but has no one to guide him. Luke offers to take him in at his new academy. However, Ben feels the pressure of his family’s legacy. He’s ambitious and wants to live up to his name. Yet he also feels unresolved anger towards his family for abandoning him. He begins to look up to someone else; his grandfather. This drives him towards the dark side. I think this is probably a better motive for having murderous rage towards his parents and uncle.

This also gives Han an arc for this movie. He’s driven by guilt and a desire for redemption, which Rey stokes by encouraging him to resume his fight against the First Order. We get a better reason for why he’s so downtrodden when we first meet him.

Kylo has rejected the Jedi and is obsessed with the metaphysics and lore of the Sith. That’s why he wears the mask. He’s trying to revive them. That’s what his Order of Ren represents. Therefore, there is no Snoke. I mean, what a shitty, useless character. He’s just a stand-in for Palpatine. If Kylo needs a superior, just make Hux older. Have a similar dynamic as Vader and Tarkin.

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cool story, bro

A lot of this is obviously writing from the inside out, not actual plotting. But I think it sets a better groundwork for these characters. We get a nice four-corner character dynamic between Rey, Finn, Han, and Kylo. Finn and Han are both running from their pasts. Kylo is angry and his rage pushes him to do horrible things. Whereas Rey embodies the thematic idea of the film: To rise above past trauma and strive to do the right thing. This better establishes what seems to be a nice meta-theme for the sequels: How do we reconcile the past so we can move forward? This will be picked up in my take on The Last Jedi.

Cheers

-b

~ by braddunne on December 26, 2017.

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