The Greatest Mistake The Force Awakens Made

One of the most powerful images in J.J. Abram's Star Wars: The Force Awakens is of our heroine Rey's speeder zooming across the Jakkuvian desert, with a hollowed out ruin of an Imperial star destroyer enveloping the entire bleak background. Rey had just come out of that very Star Destroyer, scavenging its parts for a paltry day's wage. The image is so powerful because the Star Destroyer is a giant mechanical carcass, a symbol of the Empire's great downfall and the Rebel's great victory. It is a remnant and an ominous reminder of how things once were...except...things are nearly exactly the same as they were when the Empire was at its peak in Empire Strike Back and (most of) Return of the Jedi. And here is the greatest mistake The Force Awakens makes: offering incredibly meaningful symbolism to those of us who know and care about the Star Wars universe and then totally negating that symbolism with the actual plot of the film.

As a reboot of a major blockbuster franchise, the producers and filmmakers gave into the temptation to go bigger rather than smaller, under the default assumption (and cliche) that "bigger is better." The Star Wars prequels made the same mistake in how they portrayed the Jedi's and Episode VII makes this mistake in how they portray the First Order (i.e., the Empire 2.0). In a previous article ("What the Star Wars Trilogy Should Have Been (But Weren't)") my friend Jason Knott put forward the idea that the prequels would have been much better served had they gone smaller, making the Jedi's a relic of the past rather than a politically and militarily enmeshed (and rather boring) foregone conclusion in the life of the Republic. Smaller, according to Jason, would have been far more intriguing. The Jedis would have been underdogs and would have needed to prove themselves. Rather than being a place holding bureaucrat who cannot stick to a decision about training Anakin as a Jedi, Yoda could have been the charismatic and enigmatic leader of a Jedi resurgence. Part of the story of the prequels would have been the rebuilding (and struggle) of the great and powerful Jedi order. He would have had to gain the trust of the Republic's leaders and their training could have been done somewhat in secret (and thus as a rebellion). This plot change would have made them the underdogs and thus far more interesting. 

And so we get to the way the First Order is portrayed in TFA. Honestly, I have had my fill of the all-encompassing autocratic Empire imagery. I think TFA would have been far more interesting (and far more faithful to where Return of the Jedi left us) if the First Order had been the underdogs. I think most everyone has met their quota of Nazi imagery in films and television to satisfy a lifetime. Using Nazi-esque propaganda is so tempting, I know, and it actually looks really good in TFA, especially in the troops rallying scene where Domhnall Gleeson is the stand-in for Hitler. As a scene in itself I loved it. It scared me as a viewer. However, as a whole, the First Order portrayed as being basically just as powerful as the Emperor's Empire, kind of neuters them for me. They do not feel like much of a threat, just another shortsighted bureaucracy that we can fly x-wings into and blow to bits. What if the First Order were WAY more of a threat, what if they were evil-underdogs, what if they were more of a mirror of today's global environment, what if they were...

...Terrorists and insurgents? Think of it. Imagine not knowing where the First Order would show up next. Imagine them being an unseeable threat that was always one step ahead of General Leia's military forces. Imagine General Leia (and Admiral Ackbar?) attempting to piece together the goodness of the old Republic, but constantly being thwarted in their attempts due to the constant threat of random violence. Imagine the First Order taking on the mantle of martyr's, making The Resistance seem like the oppressors, as if they are the corrupt leaders. Imagine them using their rhetoric to recruit hordes of followers and then infiltrate the Resistance's leadership as spies without anyone knowing. Imagine Kylo Ren truly needing to restore the glory of his grandfather's vision for the galaxy.

Now, before you jump too far ahead, I have no interest in turning this hypothetical Episode VII into an anti-Islamic propaganda piece. I have no interest in taking the imagery and methods of ISIS and projecting them onto the Star Wars universe. There would not need to be lo-fi hostages-with-bags-on-their-heads videos or mass beheadings on a beach, or groups of soldiers crazily shooting their blasters in the air shouting "Death to Leia! Death to the Republic!". To me, "terrorism" has become or is becoming a much more universal concept, just as dictatorships and fascism cannot be relegated merely to Hitler's Third Reich. Which is to say that the big military scene mentioned above could have been a reference to Hitler, but it also could have been a reference, to Stalin, Mussolini, Chairman Mao, or any of a handful of African dictators. Autocracies have been universalized, and so it is with terrorism. In fact, Americans know their own brand of terrorism other than the radically Islamic kind, from the "random" slaughterings of the mentally ill and racist, to the highly conceived operations of a few domestic terrorists. 

The idea that anyone can strike us anywhere and at anytime is a fear that pervades 21st century life on the global scale. Now of course the "First Order as terrorists" angle would have to be translated into a more kid-friendly context for Star Wars and would not have to be played heavy handedly. Star Wars could create its own brand of terrorism, its own imagery and culture. But the basic actions of terrorists will forever be simple: rather than a nation mustering its troops in the full sight of the public, we have a group that plans in secret and strikes out when no one is looking. 

Nonetheless, this major plot change would not actually affect much of the film's plot except for one major point:

There would be no Starkiller base/planet/sunsucker to blow up. Now, I did not actually mind the whole Starkiller Base plot device in TFA. Yeah, I thought it was a little lame (and lazy) that here we are blowing up another ultra-mega WMD, but I could roll with it. This is STAR WARS, after all, and we got to see lots of cool aerial fighting and talking back and forth in pilot lingo. So, I was fine as far as it stood in the actual movie itself. However, if the First Order were more in the terrorist/insurgent position, there would be no Starkiller Base at all. There would not even be a budget for that kind of thing! Instead, the plot would go something like this: the Resistance, in an effort to stop the increasing terror attacks on various planets in the galaxy, has finally located the First Order base and they attempt a sneak attack of some kind, both in the air and on the ground. There could have even been some horrible attack, where the Resistance decides "We have got to do something about the First Order!" And then someone shows up with intelligence about where their base is. Whatever, whatever.  You can fill in the details yourself (or J.J. Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan can). The second half of the film would feel more like a heist film or a navy seals raid film (Let's do some Zero Dark Thirty business and go take out our First Order version of Osama bin Laden everybody!). 

But really, with perhaps a few tweaks here and there, hardly any of the other main plot points would need to change:

  • We could still have tie fighter/x-wing fight scenes, although basically all the space ships and weapons (especially on the First Order side) should look a little run-down and battered, rather than cutting edge and pristine (although I would allow for some new models, because "Coooool!"). Terrorist organizations cannot muster the military strength of an actual nation, but they have been able to arm themselves effectively.
  • We could still have Poe Dameron and BB-8 acquiring the map to Luke Skywalker.
  • We could still have helmeted/masked all-but-anonymous soldiers, which is to say the 20th century version of the stormtrooper was a representation of a Nazi stormtrooper and the 21st century version of a stormtrooper could be of a masked terrorist, it is just that both representations would look like Star Wars stormtroopers. The filmmakers could figure this out. Suspending our disbelief for Star Wars really is not much of a problem. Maybe there would be a lot less stormtroopers. There could even be the new model of armor, but again just more beaten up than usual. The First Order could be small but growing and attempting to be really organized and disciplined, patterning after the scope and scale of the old Empire military operations.
  • All this means that we could still have Finn and he could still be a defector and still help Poe Dameron escape when he was being held hostage at the First Order base.
  • We could still have Rey stranded as an exile on Jakku.
  • Which means Luke Skywalker could still have vanished after a failed attempt to restart the Jedi Order.
  • All the Han Solo/Leia stuff would basically be the same.
  • Kylo Ren's whiny teenage angsty raging (which I thought was great), would even be amplified, as his anger would be channelled into restoring the Sith and bringing glory to Darth Vader.
  • You could still have Supreme Leader Snoke doing all his creepy maniacal supreme leader stuff, even though I do not quite get him as a character and was truly turned off by the fact that he was a pretty mediocre example of CGI, despite all the claims of the filmmakers' brilliant performance capture technology. He looked very much like and a character in an animated movie, which really broke the suspension of disbelief for me.
  • Han Solo could still die, only now it would be during the raid on the First Order (terrorist) base.
  • We could still have the conflicts and lightsaber duels with Ren, Rey, and Finn at the end.
  • You could still have R2-D2 wake up at the end with the rest of the map, if you still thought that (rather lazy) plot device was necessary. It's fine, really, just go ahead and do that.
  • We could still have the amazing Captain Phasma and perhaps there would be an awesome do-it-yourself backstory to her chrome suit of armor that would come in a later movie (or a stand alone comic book) where she had to fashion it herself out of old parts she found on salvaged tie-fighters.
  • And we could still tantalizingly leave the reveal of Skywalker to the very end (which I loved, actually).

By the way, we certainly would not want to use the word terrorist or insurgent anywhere. We would let the action speak for itself. Most of the world now knows full well the language of terrorism.

To me, all of this seems like a much more compelling plot. In it, the First Order becomes actually menacing, a terrifying, chaotic, unpredictable force. On top of that, there is movement within the First Order, from having very little power, to gaining influence, to perhaps even restarting the old Empire. This puts the Resistance into a backtracking defense. It would be assumed they were the ones in power, but their's would be an unstable regime where not all the planets in the fledgling new Republic were on board with the General Leia's (or whoever's) leadership. Again, my main assertion is that (in this instance) it would have been better to go smaller. The plot and character lines would be more interesting and they could still do all the cool space and lightsaber fights (or come up with a new exciting scenario for fighting, rather than the same well-worn tropes).

And this shift in plot would certainly have been more faithful to the end of Return of the Jedi as well as to that beautiful shot of the abandoned star destroyer. Making the shift to the First Order as underdogs, terrorists, and insurgents would have made that image more than an epically gripping shot—it would have been an image weighted with meaning. It would have connected the entire film as well as the original trilogy into a cohesive whole, and it would have shown us that defeating empires has actual consequences, both good and bad.

For anyone interested, my friend, Seth Ben-Ezra has offered a more over-arching critique of The Force Awakens here. I have lots of disagreements with him (and we'll have to take care of that in private!), but his article is really well written and thought out:
For Further Comment—Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens
Related Articles:
A New Hope?: A Wishlist For The Re-launch of Star Wars" 
What the Star Wars Prequels Should Have Been (But Weren't)
We Know How the Story Ends: An Exploration of Narrative in Film


Seth Ben-Ezra said...

These suggestions don't address all my concerns with Star Wars VII, but they would certainly have been a major improvement on the film. As I've reflected on this movie more, this is a direction I've been saying I would have liked to have seen.

PostConsumer Reports said...

Yeah, all the problems you pointed out would require a lot more shifting in the plot and characters, whereas I'm more ok with a big chunk of the movie.