Spoilers ahead for Star Wars: The Force Awakens!
I liked Star Wars: The Force Awakens. It was one hell of a good time at the theater, and it does quite a job at recapturing the magic of the original trilogy, as evidenced by the overwhelming audience reactions. Unfortunately, no movie is perfect, and every movie is worth thinking twice about. As rip-roaring and swashbuckling the new adventures in The Force Awakens are, the film is ultimately weighed down by a few of its missed opportunities and its questionable choices. So let’s discuss how the film could have been improved, and hope the same mistakes don’t reappear in the next franchise installments.
1. Rework the middle portion
The beginning and ending parts of any film stick in one’s mind more than the middle portion, so it’s quite lucky that the strongest points of The Force Awakens come at either end of its runtime. While nothing particularly egregious happens in the film’s middle portion, it seems especially light and forgettable by comparison. After Rey and Finn meet Han and Chewie, they encounter several groups of thugs set upon capturing BB-8 for the First Order and enacting revenge on Han Solo for cheating them a few times. So begins a sequence wherein our heroes dispense of these utterly replaceable villains by releasing CGI monsters that don’t quite match with the other creatures of the film. Worse, they don’t even matter to the plot.
Things proceed in the same rather dull vein as Han and Rey undergo some rushed mentor-protege bonding sessions before visiting a Mos Eisley Cantina lookalike where yet another replaceable villain calls the First Order on them — a lazy bit of plotting that, thankfully, leads to a capture sequence that reinvigorates the film after this inconsequential stretch.
2. Smooth over the romantic exposition
Franchise entries regularly have trouble fitting in all the exposition and character service they need to without the film’s seams showing. After all, that’s more or less what dragged down the latest Avengers installment. The Force Awakens does fine reestablishing its world and the relationships between its characters, both old friends and new, without coming across as labored — except for a few spots. The breakneck-paced film comes to a jarring halt at least twice. When Han Solo and Leia Organa are reunited, their brief scenes together consist mostly of them standing still in one spot and reminiscing about their imperfect relationship and enduring affection for one another. Of course, these two must share a scene, but their reminiscences feel labored, like the film is just hitting this beat because it has to. Reconfiguring the dialogue and having them do something as they speak — perhaps prepare for battle? — would make quite a difference here.
3. More Poe Dameron
The Force Awakens does a bang-up job of balancing the past of the franchise with its future, giving audiences the old reunions we crave and the lovable new characters we deserve in mostly equal measure. Only one character ends up getting the short end of the stick — Oscar Isaac’s sardonic pulp hero Poe Dameron, who is assumed to be dead for much of the film’s runtime after kicking off the movie with a star-worthy performance and plenty of quotable wisecracks. It’s nice to think Poe will have the chance to shine further in subsequent entries, but he’s too often set aside, made to lead a secondary climactic sequence that only distracts from the first, in favor of old-fashioned fan service. The original 1977 Star Wars made room for three young heroes in Han Solo, Luke Skywalker and Leia Organa, without sacrificing screen time for mentor Ben Kenobi or villainous Darth Vader. It doesn’t seem like too much to ask for to squeeze in more time for the third young hero of the new trilogy, without sacrificing screen-time for mentor Han Solo or villainous Kylo Ren.
4. Improve the secondary villains
Of all the new characters, Kylo Ren may be the most interesting, for simply being the sort of villain we’ve yet to see within this universe, struggling against his good side and idolizing those who came before him just as the filmmakers clearly idolize the original trilogy. He isn’t alone on the dark side, however, though perhaps he should be. He’s joined by the Domhnall Gleeson’s fascistic First Order leader Admiral Hux, who doesn’t have much to do but deliver a Hitler-esque speech to inspire the troops. He’s undeveloped but fine enough as the political leader of the First Order, not unlike the undeveloped Grand Moff Tarkin of the originals.
But then there’s Snoke — a crappy CGI-rendered Emperor surrogate seen only through hologram in several scenes wherein he reprimands Hux and Ren. These scenes accomplish virtually nothing, except to tease future releases like a Marvel post-credits scene featuring Thanos, and they take away from the power of Ren and Hux. Why do we need a mysterious big bad again? Just because the originals have one? Even worse is the well-designed but ultimately useless storm trooper commander Captain Phasma, who is dispensed without having done anything cool, Boba Fett-style.
5. Be original
By far the greatest weakness of The Force Awakens is its unwillingness to make its own choices and take its own risk. After the disastrously different prequels, it seems J.J. Abrams and company decided to play it safe by more or less remaking A New Hope with a mix of new and old actors, hitting the same beats and even visiting near-identical locations along the way. From the young hero forced into action from her desert planet home to the mentor sacrificed at the hands of a masked villain, The Force Awakens hews so closely to the original in terms of plot and even in terms of design — as the First Order shamelessly evokes the styles of the Empire, and the cantina on Takodana does the same for Mos Eisley. By the time the heroes are discussing how to exploit the convenient weak spot of the planet-destroying Starkiller base, the similarities are almost impossible to ignore.
The original trilogy became a cultural phenomenon because everything in the films felt new and lived-in, as though every corner of this universe was populated by strange creatures and histories just waiting to be discovered. Aping the designs and the plotting of A New Hope and its sequels so extensively eliminates the spontaneous sense of discovery that made the originals so exciting. While Abrams has done a fine job reentering the same world while giving us different but still lovable heroes to invest in, he’s missed one of the most intoxicating elements of Star Wars due to his unquestioning faith in the originals. Hopefully, Disney will let Episode VIII carve its own path and rekindle the spontaneity.
Follow Jeff Rindskopf on Twitter @jrindskopf
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