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Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Thoughts on THE FORCE AWAKENS, Episode III: Poe, Rey, Me (or, the Whodats and the Waddadaywants)

The Force Awakens review, parts one and two

So, if I found the basic story bones of The Force Awakens unsatisfying on a lot of levels, what about the other area where the film has been picking up major praise: its characters? Well...it’s actually a lot better in that regard than its main story. But I still have problems.

Let’s start with our new hotshot pilot, Poe Dameron. We meet him very early in the film, since he’s the one General Leia Organa has sent to fetch the map from the old dude whose name is never mentioned. (Yes, I know that he has a name and that it’s probably in the credits and that it’s something like Los Mekka Ban or Los Lobos Bananas or something like that, but he’s not important and frankly he’s not even a character so much as a plot device, so I’ll just call him “Abner Ravenwood”.) We get some nice glimpses of Poe’s personality here: he genuinely seems to care about his droid, telling BB8 that he’ll be back for him, and he’s calm in the face of a sudden crisis. This is a fellow who has been through a lot of fighting and battling, and nothing much phases him, not even being forced to his knees in front of Kylo Ren.

There’s something else I found interesting about Poe Dameron, though: he is very quick to size up any particular situation and decide his course of action. At no point in the film does Poe look flummoxed, or at a loss as to what to do next. He sizes up Finn almost immediately; he calmly figures out how to fly a ship with which he’s unfamiliar; he manages to get himself from being lost in the middle of a desert back home. Poe Dameron is confident and competent, but he never seems particularly cocky about it, which is interesting.

And, as our next character tells us, he is “one hell of a pilot.” And if there’s one thing that a good Star Wars story always needs, it’s a character who is one hell of a pilot. If the movie walks right up to the brink of adding a CGI twinkle to Poe's eye, well...fine.

That brings us to Finn. I love this guy. John Boyega plays him almost perfectly. Boyega nails every one of Finn’s emotions, so we know that he is really feeling the things he is feeling. (I know, that’s not a very good way of putting it, but we’re gonna go with it.)

The problem with Finn is that, like so much of this story, things about him aren’t explained sufficiently for them to make sense.

Late in the film, Finn admits that his job on Starkiller Station was sanitation. This is probably intended mostly as a joke, so we can see the look on Han Solo’s face when he realizes that everything is hanging on the actions of an Imperial First Order janitor. Still, I didn’t have a problem with that, really. In fact, I didn’t have a problem with that at all. After all, why not? We’ve already had a moisture farmer save the Galaxy, so why not a janitor?

The problem here is that if you’re going to posit that Finn was a janitor, then you have to explain in some way just why he was in the contingent of stormtroopers being sent on a mission led by Kylo Ren himself to hopefully recover a very important artifact. Otherwise, you’ve got a janitor being sent along to blow up the Guns of Navarone, and that doesn’t work:

GREGORY PECK: Who’s that guy?

DAVID NIVEN: He’s a janitor.

PECK: What’s his specialty?

NIVEN: He cleans the toilets.

PECK: But in terms of this mission--

NIVEN: He’s useless, sir.

Here’s this incredibly important mission, which Kylo Ren thinks sufficiently important to threaten Space Hitler General Hux while possibly disobeying Supreme Leader Snoke, and in the relatively small group of stormtroopers is a guy who seems to be seeing his first action ever. Does that seem right? Maybe it does...if the film establishes Finn as some kind of special stormtrooper. Of course, we see that he is, but why do the Imperials First Order folks?

And like always, this could be done so easily! Just slip a line or two into the scene where Kylo Ren and Space Hitler General Hux question Captain Phasma about him:

PHASMA: FN-2187. He reported to my division for reconditioning.

HUX: Has he shown any signs of insubordination?

PHASMA: This is his first offense.

HUX: It says here that the Jakku village was his first action. Why would you assign so inexperienced a soldier to such an important mission, Captain?

PHASMA: He has been training heavily. His aptitude marks are off the charts. There was nothing in his profile to indicate any such moral questioning of the Order.

HUX: There is now.

See? Just like that you establish that Finn’s special (for some reason), give him a bit of history, and so on. But the movie didn’t bother. Instead, Finn’s allegiances and motivations are pretty sketchy throughout the entire film. That doesn’t have to be a problem, but absent some more explanatory material and heavy lifting by the script, it is. Maybe it sounds like I’m quibbling and splitting hairs, but I don’t think so.

Consider: Finn tells us that he has never known any family or any life outside of the First Order. The implication is that the Order is taking babies and literally raising them to become stormtroopers. Finn doesn’t tell us that he once had a name but they took it from him; he tells us that he’s never had any other name outside of his alphanumerical identifier within the Order. What’s more, Captain Phasma tells us that he’s never shown any signs of insubordination until his break from the Order. This either implies that there’s something very special about Finn, or that there’s something very overrated about Imperial First Order indoctrination techniques. His break comes from seeing a single one of his combat mates killed and leaving a smear of blood on his helmet.

That’s not all about Finn, though, and while his background is problematic given the way the script handles it, there are other fascinating things about him. Finn seems to latch onto new friends as soon as he meets them, forming emotional bonds very quickly. Is this a fault? I don’t know. I’m not inclined to think so just yet. It may be a part of who he is, which would be interesting; that stormtrooper who dies on Jakku, wiping his own blood on Finn’s mask – what if he’s a friend Finn had just met? That would be interesting, but if that aspect of his character vanishes forever, then I may have to suspect that his insta-bonding with Poe and then Rey was just a plot contrivance. And that would be a pity.

(By the way, to step away from character for just a moment...we're never given a timeframe for how long it's been since Return of the Jedi, but I'm assuming it's roughly thirty years. Well, we're told that all of these First Order goons were taken from their families and raised as stormtroopers. That's a hell of a lot of stormtroopers, innit? Wouldn't the Republic notice something like thousands of babies being stolen from someplace? Then again, maybe not, because they also didn't notice a planet being reworked into Death Star 3.0. Anyway....)

And then there’s Rey.

Who is she? We know virtually nothing about her. We meet her as a scavenger, digging through old, crashed Star Destroyers for parts that she thinks are valuable. Is she a mercenary in this? Not quite, because there’s a brief throwaway scene that shows her scrubbing the parts she’s found, in a very slave-like way. Not to say that she’s a slave, but she is clearly in thrall to the partsmonger (whose name I don’t recall and am not looking up).

In terms of exposition, Rey is probably the best thing in the movie. She’s very skilled at getting around, she knows what she’s looking for and how to get it, and she’s willing to work very hard at it. The fact that nobody else is scavenging the ships that she is scavenging suggests that it takes a very good scavenger to get at the parts that are worth anything at all, but it’s too bad the film’s dialogue doesn’t give any kind of confirmation. She just plunks her parts on the counter, the partsmonger gives her “portions”, and that’s it. But why not:

PARTSMONGER: And what have we today? More parts from that old Star Destroyer?

REY plunks the parts on the counter.

PARTSMONGER: Ohhh...impressive. Lots of old pilots swear by these. I figured they were all gone from that wreck.

REY: I know where to look. No one else even tries.

PARTSMONGER: These are worth...one portion.

Some gibbering weirdos online have suggested that Rey is too talented, to the point that it makes her a “Mary Sue” (which is not quite the standard use of that term, but whatever). The piloting issue could have been dealt with better, but the mechanic stuff? That’s pretty obvious from what we see early on. As for her Force abilities...well, more on that in a bit.

Rey informs BB-8 (and, therefore, us) that she’s been separated from her family for a very long time. This is a little hard to swallow, but fine. We’re given no reason for her to have not given up on them, just that she hasn’t given up on them.

Worse, though, is that the film never really gives us any idea of what Rey wants.

Characters need to want things. They need to be motivated. What motivates Rey? I have no idea. She seems to have no motivation other than to stay put and wait for her family. Over the course of the film, this doesn’t change much, at least until the film’s very end, when she seems to want something very much...but what? We’re not really told. The implication is that she wants Luke to teach her to use the Force, but that’s a supposition, really. She might want something completely different.

Her Force-abilities come out of nowhere, jump-started by Luke’s lightsaber (again, in a moment that is not explained at all, so much so that it just feels like a plot contrivance to me), and later brought forward by Kylo Ren’s mental maneuvering. The film doesn’t state this outright, either, but it makes sense: Rey doesn’t really start to do impressive things with the Force until Ren goes playing around in her head. I actually don’t have a problem with Rey discovering that she’s had latent Force-abilities all along, but again, it would have been nice if the script had taken a little more effort to establish this.

So we have two main characters – Rey and Finn – who are clearly at the start of an arc of some sort, but we don’t really know much at all about that because we have no idea what those two characters want. Finn spends most of the movie being motivated to get away from the Empire First Order, but when Rey gets captured, his motivation is now to rescue her. But what about after that? At the end of the film, has he bought into the Republic Resistance? We don’t know, because he’s knocked unconscious during the last battle and never talks again. As for Rey’s arc – again, we have no idea what she wants. Her missing family is never mentioned again after Maz tells her that “whoever you’re waiting for isn’t coming back”, but we don’t really get any idea of what’s motivating her after that, other than getting away from Kylo Ren. She has Force power, but does she want to learn to use it? We have no idea. A New Hope gives Luke Skywalker a line when his old world is destroyed and he’s forced onto his Campbellian path: “I want to learn the ways of the Force and become a Jedi like my father.” What do Rey and Finn want as the film ends? We simply don’t know, and that bothers me. Characters need to have motivations. Characters need to want things.

Rey’s arc, such as it is, seems to me to bear a bit of resemblance to another arc in another story, in which a young girl whose name starts with ‘R’ learns more and more about her latent abilities, attracts the keen interest of malevolent forces, uncorks a huge amount of whoop-ass on unsuspecting villains, and in the end becomes the pilot of a beloved spaceship after that ship’s pilot has died. Rey, in a lot of ways, is River Tam from Firefly.

(And while I’m on the subject, JJ Abrams missed a big emotional moment. When Finn and company find Rey on Starkiller Station, and Finn says “We came back for you,” that should be a huge moment. Rey has waited her whole life for someone to come back for her, and now, someone has. But Abrams lets the moment slide by with a quick hug.)

Rey and Finn kick a lot of ass, they have great chemistry, and...well, that’s about it. Kicking a lot of ass, in itself, does not a great character make. They are engaging and interesting characters, but ultimately they fall a bit flat because we don't know what their motivations are or their desires or what they hope to accomplish. They're basically sympathetic characters, not very well fleshed out, who are along for the ride in a story that is itself not very well fleshed out.

And that's a shame, because they're still really fun to watch.

This entry is long enough by now, so I’ll continue discussing character in The Force Awakens in another post.

1 comment:

Jason said...

Again, I blame JJ's tendency toward sloppiness for all these problems. Yes, I know Kasdan was involved too, but you can bet your bottom credit JJ was the one calling the shots (I STRONGLY suspect Kasdan's biggest contribution was the Han/Chewie stuff; that seemed most in line with his style to me.) Rey is the hero because... she is. And isn't it kewl that we have a female lead? Finn deserts the Empire/Order because... he does. And isn't it kewl that we have an ex-stormtrooper as a hero and he happens to be black? (By the way, am I the only one who cringed a bit when the black dude was revealed to have been... a janitor? Maybe I'm overanalyzing and being defensive about the way everybody freaked the hell out about racism in the prequels, but it really struck me as too close to an old stereotype for comfort. In my more cynical moments, I've wondered why they didn't just call him "Rochester.")

And then there's Poe... Poe is so frickin' heroic, he never ever shows doubt or fear. Poe who we learn nothing about other than he's a pilot... because he needs to fly a ship in two big sequences. But he's kewl. And that's all that matters in a JJ story.

Just as JJ couldn't be bothered to think through things like the First Order, the map, the lightsaber, etc., he didn't create actual characters either. He created character types, human plot devices that move about under their own power. He's a terribly superficial storyteller. It makes me crazy that he's so respected... and that George Lucas is so dissed.