Star Wars: The Force Awakens has made a billion dollars faster than any other film in history. It’s the hottest movie ticket in the world. And it’s an exciting, fast-paced movie. It’s fun. I enjoyed it. I’m not being a Star Grinch when I say that I don’t want to see it again. It’s a cool flick. It’s fine.
And I’m absolutely itching to fix everything that’s wrong with it.
Ordinarily, I don’t do this. Writers own their work, even if the ‘writer’ is a committee. But Star Wars is communal property, like the six pack of Diet Coke in the break room fridge. And nearly every conversation I have had with people about The Force Awakens has gone like this: ‘I liked it. But. . . .’ So let’s roll up our sleeves. (I’m going to assume that you’ve all seen the movie. But since some of you may not have, I’m not going to reveal The Big Spoiler. Just: there is one).
First of all, let’s acknowledge that The Force Awakens is a pastiche. Early in the film, when we first meet Rey (the incandescent Daisy Ridley; what a find, and so great to see a female protagonist), she’s scavenging in a crashed Star Destroyer, quite possibly the one we see at the beginning of Star Wars (Episode Four, the first movie. I won’t call it A New Hope). That’s how she makes her living; picking up bits and pieces from destroyed ships. My son pointed out that her profession provides the perfect metaphor for the whole movie; that’s J. J. Abrams. He’s Rey; he’s a scavenger. That’s the whole movie; bits and pieces (and plot points, and story elements) from the first three movies. I wish the story were a little more original. But Rian Johnson is directing (and writing) the next one. I’m content to look at The Force Awakens as a combination homage and extended trailer for the two much better films that will follow.
No, I don’t propose to redo the whole thing. I want to fix this movie. Reshooting and reediting wouldn’t cost more than ten million, tops. (Hey, it’s not my money).
Star Wars films always take place in both a political and a religious context. There’s the Empire v. Rebel Alliance story: politics. And there’s the Force: religion. This film is no exception. Except in this case, it’s the sinister First Order (which wouldn’t seem to be in power, right? Which presumably is a rebellion against the Galactic Republic?), and the good guys, the Resistance (which otherwise would seem to be . . . the government?) So the original films are about a scrappy insurgency against a tyrannical central government. In this film, it’s about a Hitleresque insurgency against . . . the Weimar Republic? Which, for a military force, relies on a Resistance? Mercenaries? Or legitimate soldiers on the side of the Senate? And where’s the Senate anyway? Disempowered, even assassinated?
The Senate, the Republic, are barely mentioned in this film. And we need more; the scroll isn’t enough by itself.
Meanwhile, we do see something of the First Order political structure. We see a ginormous holograph of The Supreme Leader (the great Andy Serkis). Under him is General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), who gets one big scene, a marvelously fascistic speech to an army of storm troopers; he stands for ‘order.’ (Of course he does). Also in the ruling triumverate is Kylo Ren, who represents the Dark Side, and hero-worships his grandfather, Darth Vader, but who is otherwise a bit of an adolescent weenie. He eventually is involved in The Big Spoiler, which I won’t reveal here. (I know he’s a controversial character, but I like everything about the actor, the performance, and his story thread. In fact, I think it needs to expand).
The Force, meanwhile, has been popularly relegated to myth and legend. Except maybe not; because this film’s MacGuffin is Luke Skywalker. The First Order wants him. So does the Resistance. But why? Because he’s the only Jedi Knight left? That’s more important than, oh, destroying an entire planet?
Here’s my suggestion. Tie the political and spiritual more closely together. Instead of the Force being mythical, how about instead if the Dark Side of the Force is the only Force people know? Maybe that’s the secret to the First Order; they have the Dark Side, having succeeded in shutting down all access to the Light Side. Luke has disappeared; they want to kill him. What if the world is just . . . meaner? What if the First Order is ascendent because the Dark Side infects everything, sours all interpersonal relationships? (We see a hint of it on Jokku; Rey doesn’t seem to have many friends, and the world seems driven entirely by self-interest).
The light side, meanwhile, like Luke, exists, but quietly and in hiding. When Finn (and John Boyega is terrific in the role) can’t bring himself to murder villagers, he says it’s because it was the right thing to do. Well, where does his conscience come from? Not his upbringing. The light side, obviously. What’s needed is more of an acknowledgment about how weird his little rebellion is. Poe Dameron needs to react to it; he takes it way too much in stride.
Rey’s initial skepticism about the Force would have more impact if her doubts were about the possibility of the Force having a good side, not the Force existing at all. Again, Han could sell that. He could talk about how there was a time when the Force was a positive thing.
Maybe even this: what if the poisoned atmosphere of a Dark Side-dominated world was, in part, what broke up his marriage to Leia. Because, come on, there needs to be some bitterness there, doesn’t there? Kylo brought the dark side into the midst of that family? And there’s some lingering nastiness? It would give Carrie Fisher something to do, at least.
A lot of this, both the political and spiritual elements in this film could be clarified by fixing the one great completely incomprehensible missed opportunity of the film. It amazes me that Abrams didn’t do more with Poe. I mean, Oscar Isaac is a terrific actor. Poe is an exciting and interesting and charismatic character. But he gets four minutes screentime early in the movie (where he’s terrifically compelling), and then disappears for ninety minutes. Then he comes back to destroy the Death Star-ish planet thing. “Where have you been?” asks Finn? He offers a brief, unsatisfying answer. Not. Good. Enough.
Of course, it’s possible that they’re making him deliberately mysterious, because they have plans for the character in the next two movies, probably involving an extended flashback. Maybe so. I still the film’s use of Finn as a massive missed opportunity. The Star Wars films don’t do well with flashbacks. They’re great at cross-cutting between multiple story lines. Here’s what you could do:
Show his TIE fighter crash, his survival, and his spectacular escape from Jokku. He’s a great pilot; maybe he steals some other crappy ship, or maybe he steals another TIE fighter. (It would lengthen the movie by, I don’t know, three minutes. Big deal). He meets Rey, is smitten. (Love triangle!) But he’s also skeptical of Finn. ‘Yeah, he rescued me, but why?’ Stormtroopers don’t just throw off their training and indoctrination like that. But then Leia (she has The Force, remember), says, ‘there’s something about this guy. I think he has the Force.’ Again, Poe’s skeptical, (the Force is all Dark Side, remember), but it’s Leia; she’s a legendary figure too. And Han could back him up, ‘I like this kid, he reminds me of . . . Luke.’
I wouldn’t recast Kylo Ren–I like Adam Driver in the role, and love the character. I loved The Big Spoiler. I’m willing to put up with all the echoes of the first three movies. I just think there are missed opportunities here. Let’s fix it. Back to your laptop, Mr. Abrams!