Connect Care Commit: Star Wars

Why it might be hard to identify with Luke:
  • We don’t meet him until 16 minutes in! (because his early scenes were deleted.) Then, when we do meet him, he’s whiny and petulant (though James Kennedy disagrees: 1, 2, 3)
  • The first 16 minutes are all about creating a thoroughly convincing world with its own bizarre logic and a wealth of detail. The grime and focus on economic activity is convincing (Wait, should the first C be Convince?? That’s worth thinking about!)
  • We bristle for him when his uncle tells him, “You can waste time with your friends when your chores are done, now get to it.” We feel for him when he says, “If there’s a bright center on the universe, you’re on the planet it’s farthest from.” We agree with his aunt when she tries to tell his uncle that he should be a fighter pilot and not a farmer. Ultimately, we care the most when he looks off into the distance at the two suns with yearning on his face. That’s really a CCC moment.
  • In the deleted scenes he was the only one on the planet monitoring the action above (Knowledge of above and below is always likeable), but that’s gone. In what we see, he knows what’s wrong with the red robot. He does a good job taking care of the droids. We admire his wiliness in negotiating with his uncle.
Five Es
  • Eat: Blue milk!
  • Exercise: Not really. He jogs a bit back and forth to the robots.
  • Economic Activity: Tons of it.
  • Enjoy: In the deleted scenes, we got to see him hang out with his friends
  • Emulate: He plays with a toy plane.
Rise above
  • Subconsciously, he knows he's putting his job at risk by removing the inhibitor bolt to see more of the princess. He ditches out on his job to chase after R2, but that’s still just to keep his boss/uncle happy. He doesn’t really rise above his job until everybody’s dead.
High five a black guy
  • Nope
  • He shows empathy toward the robots.

Star Wars: The Archive

This was the first movie whose coverage I archived, but now I’ve archived the archive!
When I updated the checklist to version six, I lost some answers that were interesting from the longer checklist, so let’s put those here:
Are the physics of the world (realistic or stylized?) established early and maintained throughout?
The princess is hit by a laser and faints somewhat harmlessly. Horrible things will happen off-screen to characters we don’t care about, but characters we like will be hurt only in gentle ways, as in Obi Wan’s vanishing, which he accepts before it comes.  Even the choking is indirect, which makes it more chilling but less brutal to watch. 
Are set-up and pay-off used to dazzle the audience (and maybe distract attention from plot contrivances)?
Not really.  The plotting feels somewhat haphazard, without much payoff in this movie.  This isn’t necessarily bad: the shaggy-dog all-over-the-galaxy plot-progression is actually quite thrilling in an off-kilter kind of way.  We never cycle back around to anything (never go back to Tatooine, etc.) or cut ahead (introducing the rebel base before Luke gets there, etc.)

Every Star Wars Post

Hi guys, I’m glad my posts this week on The Force Awakens were so popular. Just so you know, I’ve written a lot about the series and what it can tell you about writing, so feel free to sample any or all of the below. (As for next week, I’m tempted to rush into my year-end list to keep the current-movie discussion going, but it’s not ready, so I’ll spend two weeks dissecting a recent pilot instead – I hope people stick around anyway!)

The Ultimate Story Checklist: Star Wars

How Star Wars Proves That Legacies are Better than Prophesies 

The Value of Obi Wan’s Counterintuitive Metaphor Family in Star Wars

Luke as Emotional Manipulator in Star Wars

The Value of the Half-Fact in Star Wars

The Way the Worlds Work in Star Wars

The Value of Shaggy Dog Storytelling in Star Wars

Considering Luke's Late Introduction and the Deleted Scenes of Star Wars

James Kennedy wrote an in-depth letter (1, 2, 3) about why we like Luke, and I responded

How Star Wars Tapped into Real Life National Pain

How Return of the Jedi Dared to Confront the Great Hypocrisy

How Star Wars Set Its Tone and Rewrote Our Genre Expectations

Freudian and Jungian Arcs in Star Wars

The Value of Moving Up the Timeline in Star Wars and Empire Strikes Back

The Value of Writing it Bad Today so You Can Write It Better Tomorrow

The Way That No World Works in the Prequels

And finally, I did a four-part series (1, 2, 3, 4) entitled The Force Awakens Was Great Until It Wasn’t

The Force Awakens Was Great Until It Wasn’t, Finale: The Remake Problem

My final complaint about the movie is one that’s already been widely aired, but it’s worth laying out again. Like Abrams’s previous movie, Star Trek Into Darkness, it can’t decide whether it wants to be a remake or a sequel. Let’s look at all the many, many ways that it plays like a remake:
  • We begin with a shot of a huge evil ship, then a big black-clad bad guy interrogates someone about the resistance.
  • We cut away to a robot-buying scene in a desert culture with a discontent working class hero.
  • Our hero finds a plucky droid with hidden info that demands to be taken back to the rebels.
  • She flees the planet in the Millenium Falcon with Stormtroopers one step behind.
  • (out of order) She goes to a cantina-like bar with Han Solo
  • She gets taken on board a planet-size super-weapon.
  • The resistance blows it up after identifying its one big weakness (And they’d already reused this one, but this movie did it for a third time!)
But does that have to be bad? After all, I love the James Bond movies, and they’re nothing if not derivative of each other. As with everything else I’ve covered this week, it’s starts out okay and then gets depressingly problematic over the course of the movie, inducing a collective eye-roll by the time we get to the “plan the big attack” sequence.

But the real problem is that the movie only makes sense as a sequel. Goldeneye may be derivative of the best Bond movies, but it doesn’t create emotion by bringing back Pussy Galore and killing her off. This movie, on the other hand, is all about cashing in on old value. This is most obvious in the killing of Han Solo, but an even bigger issue is the movie’s driving force: the search for Luke Skywalker. Why? Why is anybody besides Leia searching for him? Do they need him to help the resistance? Does he have key information they need? Why would Rey or Finn care about finding him?

The only reason that anybody cares about Luke, on-screen or off, is because of our affection for the original trilogy: this movie gives us no reason to like him or want him to join the cause.

If the movie wanted to do an ultra-faithful Bond-style pastiche, then it had a responsibility to create its own story value, instead of coasting on the pre-created value. On the other hand, if it’s going play like a sequel, it’s got a responsibility to give us a fresh story.

The biggest problem with the remake issue is it required them to instantly flush away the happy ending of the original trilogy. Somehow the politics have instantly rebooted back to the original set-up: Scrappy rebellion vs. huge fascist army. How hard would it have been to simply make the “First Order” into an Al-Qaeda like group? Shouldn’t they call themselves the resistance/rebels, and denounce the ruling Republic as a new empire in disguise?

That would have been an interesting chance to flip and critique the politics of the original trilogy, but instead we just get a reset button, because a virtually-scene-for-scene remake wouldn’t make sense under those new parameters. It’s a slap in the face to the original trilogy and the epic journey that we took with those characters.

Oh well. It’s a fun movie to watch, and I can’t begrudge it its huge success, but it certainly has massive problems. Will I get sucked into watching the next one? I guess. But will I enjoy the inevitable fan fatigue and critical backlash if they stick to their plan of making a new movie or spin-off each and every year into perpetuity? Boy oh boy yes.

The Force Awakens Was Great Until It Wasn’t, Part 3: Ren and the Old Gang

When I heard that JJ Abrams was rebooting Star Wars right after the fiasco of Star Trek Into Darkness, I was mortified, but then I thought, “Well, I dunno, the first two seasons of ‘Alias’ were good fun, and he says he likes this franchise a lot more, so maybe I should give it a chance…”, but then I heard that the original cast was coming back, and I thought, “Oh, never mind,” because it seemed to me that there was no way to bring back the cast without quickly writing them out again, and the only way to do that would be to make them victims of the new story, sacrificing old value for future value.

So was I right? Yeah, pretty much.

But first, let’s once again look at what worked:
  • Abrams and company do a great job writing fun and witty dialogue for Han. They split up Han and Leia in a not-overly-depressing way and give Han and Chewie a fun new scoundrel-y life. Ford slipped back easily into the role (something he wasn’t able to do with Indiana Jones) and his line-reading of “That’s not how the force works!” stole the movie.
  • Leia works great as a general, and Fisher is great as well in her small role.
  • Their son Kylo Ren is an interesting new take on evil-as-son figure as opposed to evil-as-father that we’re used to, and Adam Driver does a great job showing us the evil potential of Luke’s old petulance (inspiring a great Twitter feed.)
But then this element is once again spoiled. As the always-excellent Rob Bricken writes here, Kylo Ren killing Han permanently sours both this trilogy and the original trilogy in one fell swoop. All six movies have now inescapably become one big tragedy. Whenever a son murders his father, then his life, his dad’s life and his mom’s life are always going to be defined solely by that horrible moment, and everything else fades into insignificance. (And if he does it with training and a weapon he got from his uncle, then you can toss him in there as well.) 

Why turn this wonderful love story into a horrible tragedy, JJ? What gives you the right? You didn’t create that value, so you have no right to destroy it. If you want to create a tragedy, create your own, don’t take this wonderful story other people created and ruin it for your own shock value.

Worse, this feels like a deliberate slap in the face to the idealism of Return of the Jedi: Once again, a hero insists on confronting a family member and trying to bring him to the light when others think that’s naïve, but this time they’re all proven right. It’s another example of being embarrassed by the idealism of the source material and defacing it while nevertheless trying to extract its value.

It’s one thing for us, who have had 32 years to enjoy the happily-ever-after before having it snatched away, but think of the kids of the future who will finish Jedi and go straight on this this, only to instantly have the exultation of the first trilogy slapped right out of them!  And Chewie watching Han get killed?? That’s something nobody ever wanted to see!  It’s unbearable for me, but I can’t imagine how painful it must be for a kid.  My kids (ages 4 and 1) love the originals (the whole “limited screen time” thing goes out the window with the second kid) and I’ll be keeping them away from this one for as long as humanly possible.

So what’s the solution? Just start a generation later! Let the original characters die peaceful deaths in their sleep and then create all-new value. (Or at least let Han and Leia die peaceful deaths, and then maybe have their son turn evil years later and kill Luke, who was already a bit conflicted from the last two movies.)

This leaves one more problem for tomorrow, the biggest one…

The Force Awakens Was Great Until It Wasn’t, Part 2: Rey

So let me start out by saying: Rey is appealing throughout the movie. Actress Daisy Ridley is a natural star, and she rises to this very large task …I would say she steals the movie from her co-stars, but that gets to the problem: She doesn’t get a chance to steal it, because it’s handed to her.

The movie takes a bold risk I usually advise against: it introduces its heroes separately, and gets us to care about each of them separately in unconnected scenes. This is a lot more work, and works against our natural inclination (to cling to one character and let that character lead us through the story), but in this case it works great. They win us over to both Finn and Rey in their separate intros, and we invest them equally as co-heroes.

There’s a lot to like about Rey right away:
  • Like Luke, she’s a working-class-hero on a glory-less hard-scrabble backwater planet.
  • As with Luke, we don’t quite get what’s going on economically, but we understand enough to get invested in her financial struggles and frustrations, which is all we need. We think she’s earned those rations and we burn when she doesn’t get them.
  • She has humiliations and tough decisions to make that make us like her, especially with BB-8.
  • She has independence, attitude and gumption. We love her when she says “Stop taking my hand!” (and how she says it.)
Then things start to get a little shaky as we think, “Hey this girl is really good at everything.” She’s never seen greenery before, but she can fly the Millenium Falcon single handedly? Well, okay, I guess she’s naturally talented. She can speak Wookie? Okay, sure I guess there might have been wookies on that planet (but it would have been nice to see one).

Then it gets worse. Everybody is suddenly giving her more praise than she seems to earn: Han, Finn, Maz, Kylo Ren...everybody. We already liked her, okay, guys? You can stop telling us to like her. Then, all of a sudden, she goes from thinking the Jedi were a myth to being a Jedi master in a few hours …and she just becomes kind of a joke.

The turn is so baffling that it’s convinced everyone that she must be Luke’s daughter in order to explain it, but what would that explain? Yes, Return of the Jedi introduced the notion that the Force is strong in some families, but it was kind of an afterthought. Luke didn’t have it easy because his dad was a Jedi: he had to train the hell out of himself, and, more importantly, he had to go on a searching spiritual journey to access the power.

This movie flushes all that spirituality down the toilet: It’s 2015, who has the time? Yes, it’s neat to see a girl do all this stuff, but it feels empty: it’s unearned and it cheapens Luke’s journey along the way, implying that it was all in the (midichlorian-filled) blood, not won through trials of the heart or soul.

How could they have fixed this problem? Either have her just not be a Jedi until the next movie (James Kennedy pointed out that Luke never even used his lightsaber in battle in the first movie, back when we had patience), or make her a life-long would-be Jedi groupie who takes to it instantly because she’s a book-taught amateur and she’s just been waiting for her chance to put her fandom into practice. (That would also explain why she’s suddenly so eager to find Luke at the end, when she couldn’t care less before that.)

Tomorrow, let’s get to the guy whose ass she kicks…

The Force Awakens Was Great Until It Wasn’t, Part 1: Finn

So you all know that I’m a Star Wars fan. And you all know that I’m a curmudgeon. So will I be a fan or a curmudgeon when it comes to the latest movie to have “Star Wars” in its title? Eh, both. I thought the first half was shockingly good, but then everything I liked about the first part turned sour. So let’s spend a week looking at those elements and figuring out how they lost me.

Let’s start with Finn, played by John Boyega. A stormtrooper-turned-deserter is a great idea for a character, for so many reasons:
  • It’s something that we never saw, or even imagined, in the original trilogy. It implies right away that this movie will venture into new territory, and not just be a retread.
  • It automatically sets him out on a great Maslovian journey, going from literally zero to hero.
  • It gives the actor a lot to play, and Boyega does a great job with it.
  • It recreates the thematic idealism and inherent pacifism of the original trilogy: if a stormtrooper can be redeemed, then anybody can.
  • It gives us something else that we’ve never seen in a Star Wars movie before: an everyman. A guy who is essentially new to this universe and to heroism, who gets to plunge in over his head, get confused, say gee whiz to some things, and roll his eyes at others, just like we’re doing in the audience. (That wasn’t really what Luke was like. He was actually a pretty canny operator throughout.)
But it’s that last quality that gets him in trouble in the second half. Here’s the thing about everymen: they have to come into their own eventually. We love to identify with a hero at first, but then we want them to leave us behind: we don’t want to play a video game in which we have to push the joystick in order to get our avatar to move.

This brings us to the other problem big problem with Finn: his motivation never tracks after the first half, even though it could have and should have.

These two problems both come to a head in a bit of dialogue that gets a nice little laugh in the theater, but harms the character irreparably: when he reveals to Han that he was actually just a janitor in the big base, and he lied to the rebellion about being able to blow it up. That’s bad enough, but then he compounds the problem by implying that he doesn’t particularly want to blow it up and he’s actually there to save his would-be girlfriend.

I’m sorry, what? This is an everyman trope too far. He’s a stormtrooper, he’s agreed to lead an assault on the stormtroopers’ planet-destroying weapon, so everyone he’s just met and indeed the entire galaxy is counting on him. This is his chance to use his special skills and become the big hero we all want and need him to be, but he’s too busy crushing? Suddenly I hate him.

And the movie doesn’t really seem to like him that much either. Did you notice that they never put him on the same level with Rey, literally or figuratively? In the cantina scene where he wants to ditch out on her, he is for some reason on a lower step and a head shorter than her. Why? And that hug they have when they reunite at the base, he’s hugging her low, which makes for the most friendzoney hug of all time: His big romantic gesture (I’d rather find you than save the universe!) results in zero romantic sparks. Is it any surprise that he gets knocked out and misses the finale (not even waking up for the epilogue)? At that point, he’s been totally sacrificed as a character, rendered to just the role of not-Rey. It’s a bummer because it turns a potentially-great character into an impossible-to-cheer-for dud.

But hey, what about Rey? Let’s get to her tomorrow…

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Prophesies Suck, Legacies Rock

At last! The final Star Wars post…
It’s the word I hate the most in all of fiction: prophesy. Prophesies are the laziest form of lazy writing: foreshadowing without any shadows. There’s nothing worse then the horrible sinking feeling I got at the end of the fifth Harry Potter book when the prophecy was revealed. I at least had some vague hopes that it was a fake out, but alas it wasn’t.

Even when the ultimate point is that prophesies are a bad idea, as in the Star Wars prequels, they’re still coldly alienating to an audience: That usually just means that it comes true in an ironic way, which still implies a predestined universe, which is something that audiences hate. We want our heroes to have free agency, to choose to be great, and earn their place in our hearts, without a prophesy telling us (or them) how special they are.

But as James Kennedy pointed out in the letter that started these posts:
  • Aunt Beru says, “Luke's not a farmer, Owen. He has too much of his father in him” and Uncle Owen responds, “That's what I’m afraid of”, now we’re truly intrigued by Luke – there’s more to Luke than even Luke knows, and they key to it all is his father! So we’re subtly prepped for when Ben Kenobi starts talking about Luke’s father: whatever Ben says about Luke’s father (great star pilot, Jedi knight, cunning warrior) is something that is potentially true about Luke. Aunt Beru has promised it in this scene! She’s planted the seed here!
All the way from “Oedipus” to Guardians of the Galaxy, the secret of the hidden birth has been a beloved third-quarter twist. Of course, the even bigger reveal in The Empire Strikes Back will up the stakes for Luke, but even this first movie has a smaller version of the revelation: Luke finds out that his dad was a great Jedi.

A belatedly-revealed legacy is the smart version of a prophesy. On the one hand, if you believe in nature over nurture, then you’ll feel that you can inherit the qualities and/or abilities of your dad, even if you’ve never met him…but even if you believe strictly in nurture, a secret-dad reveal can still have a powerful psychological effect on a person, because we all have limiters in our head saying “a person like me can’t aim that high.” Finding out about great accomplishments in your family lets you know, “hey, why shouldn’t I be able to do the same thing?”

Luke just chortled when Threepio called him “Sir Luke”, but once he finds out more about his father from Obi Wan, he begins to change his way of thinking: Hey maybe a guy like me can be a knight…

Rulebook Casefile: The Value of a Counterintuitive Metaphor Family in Star Wars

An unexpected metaphor family can be a great way to add complexity to a character. It’s fine to simply draw a character’s metaphor family from the role they play in the narrative (the cop can’t stop using cop lingo at home, the doctor sees everything in medical terms) but sometimes it’s more interesting to skip over the obvious choice and choose a metaphor family that subtly highlights a suppressed aspect of a hero’s personality.

Obi Wan in Star Wars is a great example. His role in the story at first seems to be that of “jolly old elf” / hermit / wizard, and that’s all true, but none of these labels determine his metaphor family. His language reveals that all of those roles are somewhat of an affectation hiding what Obi Wan really is: a general.
  • One of his first lines could come out of the mouth of Patton: “Quickly, son, they’re on the move.”
  • When he gives Luke an emblem of his religion, he gives him, of all things, a laser-sword, and he praises it by pointing out that it has superior target accuracy to a laser-gun: “This is the weapon of a Jedi Knight. Not as clumsy or as random as a blaster.”
  • Later his concern with weapon accuracy continues: “Sand People always ride single file to hide their numbers. And these blast points, too accurate for Sand People. Only Imperial stormtroopers are so precise.”
  • And there’s plenty more general-speak… “But it also obeys your commands” “In my experience, there’s no such thing as luck.” “No, it’s a short range fighter.”
It’s not just a matter of his knowledge-set, his word choice is inherently militaristic: referring to their “numbers”, “blast points”, etc.

This isn’t to say that Obi-Wan isn’t a spiritual character, he clearly is, but if the spiritual wisdom he dispensed was accompanied by a more new age-y metaphor family (which would be the default choice) then we would be more likely to see him as a hoary old stock character. Giving him a metaphor family that speaks to his suppressed former life enriches the character and makes his wisdom seem much more powerful, because it’s clearly hard-won.

Rulebook Casefile: Luke as Emotional Manipulator in Star Wars

Just a few more Star Wars posts, I promise! There’s a lot to talk about with this movie!
I’ve said many time that every character should pursue what he or she wants using verbal tricks and traps, rather than direct requests or confrontations. This isn’t just true of dishonest or manipulative characters: even nice guys should use tricks and traps to pursue their nice guy goals. As I said in my original post on this topic:
  • Don’t assume that only unsympathetic or devious characters do this. Anyone who is clever and persuasive knows that they must pepper their conversation with tricks and traps. Take a look at the knife scene in Twelve Angry Men. As a lone holdout juror in a murder trial, Henry Fonda pretty much plays the ultimate living embodiment of human decency. He’s one of the most humble and noble heroes in the history of movies. And he does it all with tricks and traps.
Another character notable for his open-hearted idealism is Luke Skywalker. There’s a reason he dresses all in white: he’s unambiguously good! But Luke, too, is a big fan of tricks and traps. He actually uses a lot of indirect and manipulative dialogue, in an admirably crafty way:
  • He tries to trap his Uncle Owen by talking up the usefulness of the new droids before slyly segueing to the idea they could take his place on the farm. (“I think those new droids are going to work out fine. In fact, I, uh, was also thinking about our agreement…”)
  • He goads Han into accepting a lower offer in the Cantina (“We could buy our ship for that!”) and pushes him to work harder on the broken lightspeed (“I thought you said this thing was fast?”)
  • He hammers away at Han when he won’t help in rescuing Leia, circling around him looking for weak spots, until he finally figures it out (“She’s rich!”)
  • Once he wins Han over, he’s the one who comes up with the trick where they pretend Chewy is their captive.
We think of Han and the slick one, but he’s actually transparent and plainspoken, while Luke is far more wily, and more likely to wrap Han around his finger. This culminates in the finale, when Luke finally convinces Han to totally betray his own self-interest by hitting him below the belt one last time: “Well, take care of yourself, Han... guess that's what you’re best at, isn’t it?” Han just can’t stay away after that.

Obi Wan isn’t the only one who knows how to play mind tricks!