Welp, now that the hype has died down for Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, I can at last move on and hope to the Force that I don’t have to see yet another bit of merchandising associated with the franchise for a while. Personally, having watched the movie, I thought it an adequate entry in the franchise. I didn’t love it, but I thought it was a decent enough stepping stone for future episodes to work with that certainly indicated some improvement from the previous trilogy. Still, there were some noticeable issues I had with the movie, issues that hopefully will be rectified in future installments.
Here are some basic ways that the next movie can improve upon what we got from the previous episode.
Warning: there are some spoilerish details in this post so if you don’t care for that sort of thing, watch the movie wherever before reading the following.
1. Improve the Writing for Rey
I’m kind of on the fence on whether or not Rey falls into the Sue category. On the one hand, she is perhaps a tad too competent to ever come off as an underdog, is quickly loved and trusted by others, has no notable (and persistent) flaws, makes no real mistakes that harm her and the people close to her, and never seems to be in any real peril. On the other, perhaps her character and any shortcomings could be explored in future films (although this would then raise the question of just why the writers didn’t bother giving her some sort of prominent flaw to work past over the series given that she pretty much accepts that she has nothing to look forward to going back to Jakku). If she’s not a Sue, she does come dangerously, dangerously close, and she also doesn’t have the excuse of being an escapist character a la James Bond due to such characters not really working in a series like Star Wars.
The writing for Rey seemed to be an issue that plagues a lot of male writers whenever they try to write a strong female character. Maybe they just don’t know how to write women. Maybe they are afraid of being seen as sexist. But what often happens is that they wind up creating a character devoid of actual flaws (ex. A female lead who is clumsy, but clumsiness isn’t really much of a flaw to work with compared to say, an actual shortcoming as a person such as greed, racism, vindictiveness, possessiveness, and so on) who can’t be challenged on any meaningful level whether physical (notice that a lot of female action leads don’t really get hit all that much or show any signs of damage when they do, in contrast to say, John McClane in the first Die Hard, who is brave and resourceful, yet a clearly flawed person that steadily takes on more and more damage and stress over the course of the story) or otherwise.
A rather well written action heroine was Sarah Connor in Terminator 2. Where modern films might portray her as a standard badass with survival skills, T2 instead was willing to portray her as a flawed human being who had suffered a lot of emotional and mental damage as a result of her experiences. She was paranoid, prone to acts of extremism, was unwilling to develop relationships with either her son or other people (note that in contrast to the rapid bond she builds up with Kyle in the first movie, she’s mentioned as having shacked up with guys simply as a means of helping John learn the skills he needs to fulfill his destiny). In fact, it’s young John, who we first believe to be a mere delinquent, that possesses traits more associated with femininity in that he is the one who provides a moral compass for both his mother and the machine assigned with protecting him. This is how you write nuanced characters without allowing their sex or gender to limit what they can become.
Here’s just one possible thing they might do with Rey. Play on the fact that she’s a prodigy when it comes to a great many things. Maybe, just like the man who crafted the lightsaber she brought to Luke, she grows cocky as a result of her successes. Maybe this combines with the habits she developed growing up alone and seemingly friendless on Jakku to make her think that she doesn’t need to rely on anyone and can handle things herself once she’s been properly trained and has attained the necessary experience. Maybe seeing Finn in such bad shape as a result of trying to protect her makes her all the more afraid of connecting with others too closely and obsessing over becoming strong enough that she not only doesn’t need saving, but also in ensuring that she can protect those who mean so much to her. Think Anakin, except with much better writing. It’d also serve as a nice contrast with Luke’s own character arc in the original trilogy, which suffered from the fact that he faced far less temptation than Anakin had. It’d also be a great way to play on the concept of an action heroine and that of the damsel in distress, in that Rey’s distress would be not the result of her being a helpless weakling, but because of the character flaws stemming from her own strengths. Take what’s there and expand on it to create a character with various nuances to her, including her own vices and virtues.
2. Make Snoke an Actual Character or at Least Give Him a Presence
It’s not going to be easy replacing Emperor Sheev Palpatine alias Darth Sidious. Whether you loved his low key ham in Return of the Jedi or his over the top scenery chewing in Revenge of the Sith, the guy was just a fun villain to root against. In the former, he managed to exude menace as the personification of all that was evil in the series, while in the latter, he was a breath of fresh air and emotion in a sea of vapid dullness. Hell, his first name managed to make him an even more memetic character once it came out.
Snoke clearly is meant to be the overarching villain of this new trilogy just as Palpatine was for the previous two. Just like Sheev, he’s the brains behind the bad guys, and appears before his subordinates utilizing hologram technology that makes him look huge and imposing. So far though, I’m not sure what we have to work with. He’s clearly the bad guy, but there’s been little revealed about him as a character. In contrast to Palpatine, he wasn’t left completely to the imagination in the first film of the new trilogy (compare that to the original trilogy, where the emperor is only mentioned in A New Hope, appears through a hologram for one scene in The Empire Strikes Back, and then finally makes his proper debut in ROTJ, thus serving as a shadowy reflection of Yoda).
Hopefully this time we actually get something to characterize Snoke because so far he feels like Palpatine 2.0, except with nowhere near as much charisma.
3. Don’t Make Another Into Darkness
I can understand why TFA was basically a Greatest Hits Collection of classic SW. As with Abrams’ Star Trek, the studio needed to revive a cash cow franchise while also making it accessible to mainstream audiences. Like that movie, they basically made a sequel that was actually a soft reboot of everything, hence all the familiar tropes and other story elements, while also hitting the reset button to make the good guys the underdogs all over again (boy, does the happy ending in ROTJ look like the Rebels jumped the gun a bit in hindsight), and bringing in their very own versions of Vader, the Emperor, and the Empire (making everything the good guys worked for three movies ago kind of pointless).
But now that the hard part’s done, they can surely go off in their own direction, right?
Unfortunately, this is the cash cow franchise. As seen with the Marvel movies, Disney probably doesn’t want to take too many risks given how much money there is to be made with an IP they bought for over four billion dollars. It’s why they’re planning on running the franchise into the ground by releasing an episode every two years instead of three like the previous two trilogies, and why they’re also release spinoff anthology movies in between. It’s why Disney is making such a big deal out of how “inclusive” the franchise now is whenever they get the chance (and why “progressive” media outlets are so keen to swoop in on such developments). SW is a product, it always has been, and Disney intends to outdo even George Lucas when it comes to making money off of it, and that means creating a product that will appeal to as many people as possible. It’s not about politics or art or what have you. It’s about getting to what’s in your wallet by any means.
It honestly wouldn’t surprise me if the suits altered whatever script Rian Johnson turned in so that it would be more marketable. Yeah, maybe they might true to make their very own version of Empire, but honestly, given Disney’s desire to create a multi-movie universe in the vein of Marvel, they’ll probably stuff it to the brim with allusions to other SW movies and maybe even lift certain parts verbatim from other movies, just like Star Trek Into Darkness did.
Maybe I’m wrong and Disney is confident enough in the IP and people involved to handle the next episode with a light touch, but given stories about the behind-the-scenes antics at Marvel, don’t be surprised if the movie only appears adventurous only to turn out to be just adventurous enough to make the average schlep think it so, when it reality it’s a fairly safe picture that markets itself as adventurous (you know, like a lot of the Marvel movies).
Bonus: If There’s Actually a Space Battle or Dogfighting, Do a Better Job With It
As with The Phantom Menace, part of the climax of TFA involved dogfighting and blowing up a command center. And just like TPM, I honestly could have cared less about what was going on there. This was because of much more than the whole blowing up the Death Star bit being highly overplayed by that point. It’s also because I had no reason to feel invested in what was going on.
In contrast to ANH, where the movie’s focus was on the battle at the Death Star, and where the stakes felt huge because the Empire getting off a shot would destroy everything the Rebels had worked for, in TFA the focus was on what was happening on the ground. Aside from maybe Poe Dameron, all the characters the audience was supposed to care about were directly on the planet. Furthermore, there was nothing particularly exciting choreography-wise or even new with the dogfighting. ANH was something different yet so familiar, making it stand out from everything else that came out during that era. ROTJ, while rehashing the Death Star plotline, at least had the advantage of this being a vital part of the climax of the original trilogy in addition to showcasing just how far special effects had come since the original Star Wars.
If anything, the filmmakers should take a page out of the playbook from, of all people, George Lucas. Go nuts with depicting the sheer scale of battles, but avoid making the mistake of not focusing on crafting characters that the audience cares about. People are way more willing to accept over the top sequences so long as they are not only done well, but also when much of the tension surrounds the question of just what these characters the viewer is invested in must do to get out of the sticky situation they find themselves in.
Bonus: Fewer Cameos
One thing about TFA that should cause it to age less gracefully than the movies it tries to be a pastiche of is its inclusion of celebrity cameos. Cameos are by their very nature distracting, because they take the audience out of the story so that they can make remarks about Celebrity X suddenly appearing in a movie. Cameos also tend to date movies. When any flick features a celebrity cameo, it immediately dates itself due to the fact that big names of any moment will eventually fade into obscurity at some point or another. TFA managed to avoid most of the usual issues with cameos by only including celebrities as voices, although hopefully future films will just focus on telling a story.