I watched The Force Awakens last week, and in what I know is a minority opinion, I found myself wishing it was better. Most of all, I wish they’d ditched the stock text crawl for one simple reason: Star Wars is the only series that can get away with using one, and it encourages lazy writing because you no longer need to establish context through action or character when you can just slap it up as text exposition at the start.
In some films in the series - notably the first two - the script covers everything the audience needs and the crawl has been stylistic and unnecessary as a storytelling tool. From Jedi onwards they’ve become a crutch to save writers having to worry about an opening that establishes the story’s framing. Jedi just about works without the text telling you what everyone’s been doing. TPM leaves you clueless as to why Naboo is being attacked and why the Jedi are there. AOTC uses its crawl to explain who the film’s villain is so it doesn’t need to bother even showing him for two-thirds of its runtime. ROTS tells you the Clone War is happening in a way as meaningless as the film itself, so maybe that’s OK. And TFA, which like TPM has to establish a whole new universe even if you know the previous films, thinks it’s given you enough detail to explain the background - First Order = Empire, Resistance = Rebellion, Luke = vanished - and so none of this stuff needs covering in further detail. That from here on out, “because Star Wars” will allow the film to wave a hand and leave a huge amount unanswered that should in some way have been shown to the viewer.
Perhaps as a result of thinking that more context has been established than it has, or perhaps as a result of needing to ensure there’s a driving sequence of events to avoid the kind of empty A-B-C that made up the prequels, so many of the story’s events, and the characters’ motivations, are waved away. They have to happen because the script says so, and because the fans need to know this film is made by someone who knows the originals. Starkiller Base is like a Death Star - you know what those are, so we don’t need to know much more about it or the threat it poses to anyone - and of course it’s got a weakness and of course it’ll be blown up because you know what Death Stars are like. Threats are dismissed throughout before even being truly established outside prior fan knowledge. Characters make choices “because Star Wars” instead of because of what we’ve seen of them on-screen. And it all happens in a time and a place and a way that has no obvious reason or motivation outside the script needing things to be so. The same lazy establishing of background that begins in the text crawl extends to all parts of the process.
So, relatively spoiler-free, and roughly in the sequence they occurred to me while watching:
Why did Max Von Sydow have the map? Who was he and why would Luke leave it with him?
How come the Falcon came to be on the same planet as Main Character Related To Old Characters, in fact in the same settlement, even more hard to imagine given how large planets are?
How come Han was right there when it took off, scanning for it?
And the First Order, who were originally right there, aren’t?
How did Yoda Analogue (who I mostly liked as CGI characters go) - or indeed anyone else - get Luke’s lightsaber given that it was lost when his hand was chopped off and fell somewhere into Cloud City’s automated waste chutes that drop trash straight out the bottom?
waves hand, in this case quite literally with the line, “that’s a long story for another time” that we will never, ever hear
Why is Kylo Ren looking for Luke at all? And even if it’s out of some vague fear that if he stops being a hermit he could train a new order of Jedi, why so forcefully, given that he apparently killed the last lot of new Jedi when he was just a student himself?
Who are the Resistance resisting exactly? The First Order wants to destroy the Republic, and the Resistance are fighting the First Order, but so, presumably, is the Republic. There’s some mention of “without the Republic’s fleet, we’re doomed”, implying that they work together, and yet they’re a separate entity, much-rumoured on obscure worlds like Jakku. Are they just the people who oppose the First Order on Order-controlled systems, the French Resistance to the Republic’s Allied Command? If so, why are they based on the apparently neutral world where Yoda Analogue lives and why are they led by surely-Republic-bigwig Leia? This was presumably supposed to be contained within the crawl but if so I missed it. I never thought I’d say it after the prequels, but how does all this work exactly?
And who needs justified character drama?
Why does Leia greet Han like they’re old friends rather than having the fight he’s been dreading, and he’s been told he can’t avoid forever? Why set up this tension only to dismiss it completely?
scriptwriter waves hand, having decided that fear of the fight was enough to keep Han and Leia apart for years without it needing to actually happen when they meet again
Why do Leia and Han keep referring to That Guy as ’our son’ rather than by his original name?
scriptwriter waves hand because preserving the reveal of the character’s real name is in some way worth making everyone else’s dialogue ridiculous
How was Poe “thrown clear” of the wreck without his jacket? Why was Finn so sure he’d died that he tells Rey he has?
scriptwriter waves hand, having decided that bullshit ’this character is dead OH NO HE ISN’T’ is still a viable twist that hasn’t been overused in other films, and one, too, that in no way will be ruined by the trailer showing Poe flying an X-wing
Why is Finn so afraid of Rey finding out the truth of who he is when, when she finds out, the news doesn’t even make her mildly nonplussed, let alone cross?
shut your mouth, son; conflict, no matter how reasonable or based in character, doesn’t require resolution if the script demands something else at that point
Why/how is Kylo obsessed with Vader? Is it for any other reason than to show the helmet in the trailer? That “I will finish what you started” line doesn’t even make sense because Vader didn’t start anything.
I’m not even talking to you now.
Why does Leia hug Rey towards the end and not That Other Character Who’d Be Far More Upset? It’s not like they don’t have a long, shared history.
Why did you feel the need to have one character explain another’s motives to them - “You see him as the father you never knew” - when it should be obvious by that point what they see in them anyway? Did you never hear “show, don’t tell”?
I’m calling Security.
I could go on, not least about JJ Abrams’ complete inability to grasp how big space is, much in evidence in Star Trek when Vulcan implodes as well; the nearest planet to Earth appears as a bright dot in the sky but here we have multiple worlds in clear sight of one another, and the beam itself, when the Red Beam Of Death hits. Or about how the Supreme Leader, in a film with such a huge budget, somehow looks like one of the CGI monsters in I Am Legend instead of a believable being, rendering him - and he doesn’t seem to have any reasoning to his choices at all beyond “remember how you guys liked the Emperor in Jedi?” - hollow. Or why Captain Phasma was so woefully underused after her prominent display on all the promo stuff and her special armour. Or, for that matter, and for all that Rey is a good character, why it’s barely any better than the originals in terms of non-lead female screen time.
This isn’t to say there aren’t good points: the Rey stuff on Jakku is largely excellent (though a couple of early lines - “We’re going low!” - are on a par with “I’ll try spinning, that’s a good trick!” from TPM), as is her relationship with Finn early-on, Finn could have been much more fleshed-out as we never see him enjoying being a stormtrooper before he has second thoughts but is otherwise great, Ren is a far better Anakin-alike than Christensen ever was, Harrison Ford seems to be really enjoying being Old Han and plays it with real zip, and the energy and imagination shown throughout is back up to the standard of the originals. On the whole, it’s OK, and the fact that the new characters are the strongest - and that the fan service should be finished with now, and it’s a new director for the next one - bodes well for the sequel.
But I wish they’d ditch the text crawl. I wish they’d ignore the fact that it’s Star Wars and remember that a story comes from a fleshed-out character making choices consistent with what’s been shown to the audience in a context that’s been properly framed. All of which, ironically, was what made the very first movie so strong. You can argue that it’s all easy, cliché, but that doesn’t stop it being effective.
Happy New Year, by the way.