The Day Star Wars Died

Impact's Tom Monks goes into critical depth regarding the current Star Wars-J.J. Abrams era

It is five years this month since The Walt Disney Company completed the acquisition of Lucasfilm, the production firm responsible for the creation of Star Wars, perhaps the most exceptional and significant media franchise in movie history, second only to Disney itself. Too young to go to the cinema when Revenge of the Sith hit theatres in 2005, I thought that I had been born three years too late… Too late to be one of those enviable people that can reminisce about seeing those timeless words; ‘A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away….’ fade into the opening crawl of a fresh addition to the Star Wars saga. And yet, after all this, I am still waiting.

With the writing of a 4.06 billion dollar cheque to mastermind creator George Lucas, there came a flurry of plans and announcements that gave millions of fans a feeling of indescribable excitement. A third trilogy was announced, starting with The Force Awakens (TFA), the title of Episode VII. That promising moment might now be better remembered as when Star Wars exchanged hands, but all its magic was left in those of its creator. How on Hoth did they get it so wrong?

Mistake I: Losing the Plot

Unlike its six predecessors, the film is lacking in quality narrative. As the opening crawl, first and closing scene makes clear; it’s about finding Luke Skywalker. After planet-hopping around the galaxy, the quest is solved by R2D2 magically waking up with the rest of the map – a bizarrely sub-standard plot dynamic that Abrams had to confirm in an interview awkawardly. Amazing – the climax of the entire plot just happens, without any involvement from the main characters. That is unthinkable for a film in this regard. JJ Abrams apparently thought up the plot whilst hiking in the mountains with co-writers. Perhaps the high altitude had made the air a bit thin.

He used a clever ruse to mask this crude plot conclusion. Starkiller Base is quite clearly the climax of the movie, but has absolutely nothing to do with the central plot. This third Death Star conveniently pops up to divert the characters, so that they may have their big action scene and return to base for R2 to handily provide them with everything they need to end the film. Apparently, movie-goers cheered when the first Death Star faced destruction in 1977 – but with absolutely no connection or relevance to the story, TFA viewers were unsurprisingly unmoved when the weapon that obliterated a random set of planets minutes earlier was itself blown-up.

Mistake II: The Wrong Humour

No good film is self-aware that is it is just that, a film. The most basic principle of storytelling and movie making is to take the audience out of the theatre and imagine a world different to their own. TFA has all the potential for escapism but insists on continually reminding you that it’s just a bit of light-hearted fiction. The opening scene where Poe Dameron is arrested by central villain Kylo Ren should be one of the most intense, and serious points in the saga – but the suspense created is promptly exchanged for a easy laugh. “Who talks first, you or me?”. It’s a risk-free approach; make the audience giggle, and they’ll forget the absence of talented storytelling.

Of course, you can have humour in film, and Star Wars has always tried to make us laugh. The dialogue in TFA, however, misses the trick that previous instalments got right. For a piece of work to be timeless, characteristics and dialogue should be ageless, not of the particular trends at the time of moviemaking. Recently, potentially great movies have been made with block busting, not art or creativity in mind. Marvel films fall victim to this as well, and when compared to something like the Dark Knight trilogy, it leaves you wondering what could have been.

Mistake III: Jar Jar Abrams and Crippling Nostalgia

TFA‘s director, JJ Abrams, is an undeniable genius. If you’ve ever watched Lost, you’ll know that Disney went for one of the best in the business to make their movie. But that doesn’t mean he knows how to make Star Wars. The countless coincidental moments in Lost, when characters would stumble across each other in the rainforest, allowing the story to work, unfortunately made its way to an unwelcome position within Abram’s Star Wars. In Han and Chewbacca’s scene where they conveniently find the main characters flying the Millennium Falcon in a random part of outer-space should be deemed a particularly low point for those who have come to associate the saga with its mythical storytelling ability.

Whilst all six of Lucas’ masterpieces are widely loved, a thunderous section of fans have managed to make it seem as though the later three were unpopular. TFA was made to serve them, providing a nostalgia drenched re-run of episodes IV-VI. It couldn’t go wrong, like giving candy to a baby, all that was needed was a parody of the first three to quietly ignore the immense success Lucas achieved when making his prequel episodes, risking the backlash and admirably sticking to what he believed made it good: original storytelling. Disney followed the money instead.

Mistake IV: Episode 6.5

The Skywalker saga’s story is told through a system of episodes. With each one, an individual story is told that neatly connects to two either side of it, without any confusion over what happened in between – that’s the point of an episode. Yet, there is somehow an entire episode’s worth of story missing from the gap between 6 and 7. Why is the balance of galactic power seemingly in huge favour of the First Order, when we know that the Imperials were roundly defeated in the previous episode? The renaming of what is obviously the Empire to the First Order is illustrative – the writers wanted to keep the bad guys in charge but were conscious that it made no sense.

It would be rich to describe this plot as canon. Star Wars is about the hero’s journey, but what TFA essentially tells us is that all the heroism in episodes 4-6 was for nothing. Luke, Leia, Han and Chewy failed. Really?

Mistake V: It Didn’t Even Work

Much of the faults with Disney’s first handling of Star Wars stem from the apparent desire to sell tickets and appease fans with nostalgia and Marvel-esque gags. They forked out for Lucas’ brainchild, so they understandably wanted to make their money back. With that in mind, and given that this was by far the most hyped film in history, you would expect it to challenge Avatar for the highest-grossing record, if not absolutely demolish it. TFA, amazingly, did not get close to pulling it out the bag. To be only the third most successful film of all time will be a major disappointment to those in Disney’s boardroom, especially considering that they put sales ahead of the creativity or originality that got the company to where it is.

Mistake VI: Allowing the One Guy Who Knows What He’s Doing to Walk Away

The most heart-breaking thing is that they had the opportunity to do it right, and willingly passed it by. Lucas sold them the script for the sequel trilogy, only for it to be torn up in favour of an expensive fan film of nostalgia and generic templating. The contrast in ambitions between Lucas and Disney is telling. One told the story he wanted to, the other set on producing a low risk, low creativity money churner.

The problems with TFA are far more extensive than outlined here, but at its heart is this problem – partly leaning onto Lucas’ fault and certainly the side-effect of the blockbuster obsession sparked by his formula’s immense success – that the film industry is rapidly losing its creativity, artistry and endeavour. The pen of the writer is now guided not by his own mind, but by gimmicks that will guarantee eyes on screens, as if a great film would not also do the trick. Sadly, once you start pandering to fans, you rob yourself of the creative freedom that captured them in the first place.

Tom Monks

Featured image courtesy of Joi Ito via Flickr, license here 

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