July 07, 2016

The Force Awakens

Star Wars isn't "science fiction." It's medieval fantasy with suits of armor made from extruded ballistic plastic (painted white to make them easier targets, I suppose). Light sabers instead of swords and lasers instead of longbows. (Except the laser bolts move slower than actual arrows.)

Not that there's anything wrong with that. Repurposing old genres makes the topsoil of popular entertainment all the richer. And like McDonald's french fries, when it comes to genre entertainment, the decent low-brow stuff beats the tony high-brow stuff nine times out of ten.

The first Star Wars movie (1977) defined this revised genre. With Irvin Kershner at the helm, The Empire Strikes Back (1980) extended it (it even included a dragon in a cave). Then things went downhill and never recovered. Not even after George Lucas bowed out and laughed all the way to the bank

Granted, at that stage there was no place to go but up. But so determined was Disney to rekindle some of that now "classic" fairy tale goodness (its specialty, after all), that they made the same movie all over again, only with better CGI and a worse script.

It'd be one thing if they'd made exactly the same move. But everybody was so familiar with the archetypes that they forgot to fill in the rest. In between each predictable turn of plot, there's supposed to be, you know, a story. And the accompanying material that fashions ongoing character development.

As a result, The Force Awakens ends up a compilation of deus ex machina moments, the characters and their reasons for being there springing into existence out of empty space like subatomic particles.

The original Star Wars has a few of these problems too, though they're not nearly as glaring. For example, Luke demonstrating the skills of an experienced ball turret gunner straight off the literal farm.

In fact, everybody in the Star Wars universe is surprisingly adept at both operating (and sabotaging) complex military hardware they've never seen before. Galaxies long ago and far away must have had the same high school curriculum as Girls und Panzer (in which armored combat is an extracurricular activity).

And the last act of Star Wars is plain silly, suggesting that a couple hundred hours flying VFR in a Piper Cub qualifies a pilot to jump into an F-22 and fly circles around an MIG-29. (See also: Independent Day, but at least the Randy Quaid and Bill Pullman characters had flown military jets before.)

Otherwise, Luke is realistically shown to be the novice that he is, whose best option in a tight situation (again, until the heroic last act) is to run away or hire some muscle. Even after extensive one-on-one training, he is incapable of besting Darth Vader with a light saber in The Empire Strikes Back.

By contrast, the time to learn any activity, any skill, any knowledge-dependent process in The Force Awakens—from "I've never seen this thing before" to "I can use it as well as a professional"—is about sixty seconds.

All the more exasperating is that most of these glaring plot holes could have been easily fixed.

1. Finn goes AWOL after ten minutes of doing whatever he was programmed/trained to do since forever.

Well, they certainly don't make stormtroopers like they used to. For such a key character, a bit more substance behind the decision would go a long way to informing us about his character and personality.

Easy fix: Make Finn part of Kylo Ren's detail. Finn is sick and tired of babysitting this whiny kid with anger management issues, has been nicked one too many times during his temper tantrums. Then witnessing Ren's depravity in person punches his ticket to get out of there before he ends up as cannon fodder.

This would also explain why a narcissistic sociopath like Ren would notice who Finn was in the first place, let alone bother to call him a "traitor." Because he knew Finn personally.

2. I read the manual and now I can fly a starship better than an experienced pilot.

"Howling Mad" Murdock on the A-Team could fly anything because he learned how to fly everything. But since the original Star Wars, "The Force" somehow became shorthand for "Hard work, study, and practice is for suckers."

Easy fix: Make Ridley a mechanic when we first meet her. She works for the pawnshop proprietor who owns the ticket on the Millennium Falcon. She's trying to fix it because Han disabled it before hawking it and it won't go FTL, making it worthless. In the meantime, Ridley uses it to cart junk around.

One day she spots Finn and BB-8 out in the desert and gives them a ride. When they get back, Han Solo and Chewbacca have shown up to claim their craft. In the middle of arguing about who owns what and who owes whom, the stormtroopers charge in and all hell breaks loose.

3. I didn't even read the manual but just holding a light saber means I can beat a guy with way more experience than me.

It's easy to establish that both Finn and Ridley can handle themselves in a fight. But that's not enough. Not after the first three Star Wars movies established the deadly difficulty of light saber fighting.

Easy fix: This was sorta hinted at, but it should be pointed out (by Finn, say) that, sans the Force, Ren can't fight his way out of a brown paper bag. Lazy jerk that he is, he never had to. But now he has to. The question is whether actually applying himself will make him a better man too. Ah, a character arc!

On the other hand, some things are not fixable.

The Death Star was a cool enough concept that, first time out, I could quell the eye rolling. But this predilection to "Do the exactly same thing only bigger" movie after movie is just inane.

And here I thought that Space 1999 boasted the stupidest SF premise of all time. Supposing that the Queen in Through the Looking-Glass really could believe six impossible things before breakfast, she couldn't believe this:

Moonbase Alpha is a scientific research colony and watchdog over silos of atomic waste from Earth stored on the Moon's far side. On September 13, 1999, magnetic energy builds to cause an explosive chain-reaction of the waste, blasting the Moon out of Earth orbit and off the plane of the ecliptic, out of the Solar System.

The first Death Star (so sad there's more than one) was the spherical version of the Doomsday Machine from Star Trek. And the Doomsday Machine was huge but not-unreasonable sized. But a whole freaking planet on the run? I'd need a space elevator for my suspension of disbelief to go that high.

Also, these super-advanced societies can travel faster than light but can't make a decent circuit breaker. Or make a non-combustible space ship. (Also see Independence Day, but I do give Independence Day credit for setting off a nuke inside the mothership, which would do pretty much as depicted.)

This single-point-of-failure problem extends to the Republic, which hasn't figured out distributed networking either. They need to take lessons from Monty Python on "Not Being Seen."

Speaking of Monty Python, watching Star Wars gets me into a "What have the Romans ever done for us?" frame of mind. The entire argument against the regime du jour is that they're mean. And not very bright, taking a sledgehammer approach (repeatedly) to solving small problems.

These are the kind of people who, lacking a flyswatter, grab a hammer. Now all the windows are broken and the walls are full of holes. With Disney committed to pumping out rebooted Star Wars sequels on a regular basis, turning every conflict into an galactic existential threat will get old fast.

It's already old.

Firefly employed a not-dissimilar premise—big bad bureaucracy against the little guy—with an important difference: our motley crew has a job to do, and overthrowing the Alliance tomorrow isn't anywhere near the top of the list.

Posit instead that the Empire or First Order or whatever rules with a heavy hand but is basically competent. The Republic doesn't want to (and can't) overthrow the whole shebang. It's the Republic of Texas: it'd rather not be part of Mexico anymore (it helped that Santa Anna was not a nice guy or a smart general).

Even if the center could not hold, the result would likely resemble the Warring States period in Japan, which is still producing great story material four centuries later.

The sovereign power wielded by the warlords during the era compares to that of the Italian city-states, with conflicts taking place mostly at the peripheries of their domains, leaving commerce and agriculture largely undisturbed. This, in turn, led to significant economic, cultural and technological growth.

But the lack of central control also produced a veritable queue of claimants to the throne, and great business opportunities for the pirates and mercenaries in (or out of) their employ. The kind of universe in which Han Solo and crew would feel right at home.

Related posts

Attack of the Clones
The Phantom Menace
McKee meets the "Menace"

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# posted by Blogger Joe
7/08/2016 11:30 AM   
My expectations were so spectacularly low that I enjoyed it.
# posted by Blogger Eugene
7/09/2016 8:36 AM   
Measured in terms of pure entertainment value, The Force Awakens does rank a solid #3 behind Star Wars I and II (with III and the prequels so far behind that you'd need a logarithmic scale to put them in the same graph). Give J.J. Abrams credit for not boring the audience. What irks me is that, unlike the previous four installments, The Force Awakens had the potential to be truly great and that potential went mostly unrealized.