Review of Star Wars Episode VII from a literary standpoint (spoiler alert)

***Contains some spoilers. Watch the movie first.***

I’ve spent a while waiting for the rest of Australia to get to the cinemas and see Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens for nearly a week now, since the midnight screening that my engineer husband took me to while I yawned my head off. Post-Boxing Day, I figure enough people have seen it – and enough spoilers have already been posted all over the internet in reviews and Facebook posts. Here’s what I thought of Episode VII, from a strictly literary standpoint.

Con 1: Stale plot

When I was in my first or second year of uni, I chose Script Writing as an elective even though I hadn’t yet completed either of the prerequisite units, Media Writing or Film & TV. My tutor told us in the first class to steer clear of established genres where there was nothing new to be written, because while you would have an instant fan base, it was a fan base of genuine critics of that genre. They would mercilessly spot every plot flaw and every line of dodgy dialogue.

I didn’t listen, and chose to write a WWII novel.

I got a 4 for my script and barely passed the subject. It is the one unit I did poorly in, although at least I learned my lesson and aced the prerequisite units when I finally did them.

Anyway, that’s what Episode VII felt like to me, when judged from a literary point of view. It’s an established genre. More than that, it’s an established series. A lot has already been done – in the movies, in the cartoon series, and in the canon novels. So I expected something more creative than a rehashed mish-mash of previous episodes.

I hear an outcry across the internet, so allow me to point to just four recycled plot points:

The terrifying weapon plot point:

Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope introduced the Death Star, a battle station the size of a moon, with a weapon so powerful that it destroyed the planet of Alderaan with one shot. Luckily, the rebels had collected a blueprint that enabled them to find its weakness and take it out.

In Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi, the Empire built a new Death Star the size of a bigger moon, with a weapon so powerful that it could destroy a planet with one shot. Luckily, the rebels had collected a blueprint that enabled them to find its weakness and take it out.

In Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, the First Order (the new Empire equivalent) built a Death Star-style weapon the size of a planet, which was so powerful that it destroyed several planets at once by firing several shots at once. Big sigh.

The prequels were so much more interesting than the original trilogy in terms of plot, purely because they focussed on giant power struggles and the politics of the Senate. Not just a big weapon.

Overcompensating for something?

The alien bar scene:

We go into a bar scene where there are lots of weird aliens and a high risk of offending someone. Cantina scene, anyone?

The surprising hero plot device:

Plucky young thing turns out to be the last remaining person with the Force, and has to fight their nemesis before really starting their training. However, I found it really intriguing that our main hero in this case was resistant to training altogether – it added a new layer to this plot point.

Did I mention that the hero always comes from a desert planet? Anikin and Luke both grew up on Tatooine, while Rey comes from Jakku. They all arise from the sand to fly through space as heroic pilots.

The droid on a mission plot device:

R2-D2 has to carry the message from Princess Leia to Obi-Wan Kenobi – and BB-8 has to carry a map fragment from the Resistance to

Pro 1: Passes the Bechdel test

I’ve always loved how the Star Wars series handled their female role models. They’re not side actors or mere extras in a male-led world – they are genuine co-leaders.

Episode VII’s hero, Rey, never gets told she can’t do something just because she’s a girl, so that she has to prove them wrong. She does everything just like any male hero would do, without delivering any clichéd lines about her enemy getting beaten by a girl.

Is this still important? YES. Bechdel statistics show that in 2014 and 2015, just over half of the movies released passed the test.

And the test is not hard at all to pass:

  1. It must have two named female characters…
  2. Who talk to each other in a conversation at some point…
  3. About something other than one of the male characters.

I enjoyed watching bonds of mentoring form between Rey and Han, Rey and Leia, and Rey and Maz. I look forward to seeing how her character grows and matures in later movies.

Con 2: Lack of hope

I watched Episode VI: Return of the Jedi before seeing Episode VII, and I just love that happy ending – the Empire has been defeated, the Sith are both dead, and the Rebellion has won. The galaxies are celebrating. After that, the canon novels had some really interesting things going on, like Luke training the young Jedi.

But Episode VII skips over all of that, bypassing three decades worth of regrowing the Jedi, and heads straight to when all of the Jedi are gone and Luke himself has gone into hiding because he feels himself responsible. Basically, all of the hopeful parts are over and only the reasons for despair are left.

To make it even worse, J.J. Abrams killed off my favourite character – and the main form of comic relief in the series.

I can think of one moment that was genuinely funny (Stormtroopers turning around and running away when they hear their master having a tantrum) and a few moments where characters took care of each other during tough times. There was nothing substantial enough to lighten the dark themes, though, which means either the writing wasn’t good enough or the directing was too heavy-handed.

Pro 2: Villain not 100% evil, hero not 100% good

I liked about the original trilogy that Darth Vader turned out to still have a little good, a little hope, left in him. Kylo Ren in Episode VII is similarly seen struggling between the desire for both light and dark, although in the end he turns to evil.

Finn is likewise a great anti-hero, a Stormtrooper who decides not to fight for the First Order. He’s not some winner who decides to join the Resistance and help fight evil; he’s just trying to survive, running away to escape what’s going on in the galaxy. But he’s got a good heart underneath and gets sucked into helping the people around him.

This breaks the movie free of having only 2D characters, so it passes this literary test.

Con 3: Gratuitous violence

People loved the original trilogy – and to a certain extent prequel number 2 – because the focus was on story, characters, interesting aliens, and power struggles. The violence was brief, moved the plot forward, and frankly was not very violent. Episode III and Episode VII focussed in large part on elaborately choreographed fight scenes that went on for aaaaages.

This is why the teenage boys at the midnight screening were deliriously happy throughout the whole movie, and why I was cringing in my seat.

From a literary standpoint, gratuitous anything is bad. Gratuitous swearing; gratuitous sex scenes; gratuitous violence. Everything should move the plot forward, not just be there for the sake of the writer’s ego. You will read this in any book about writing, ever.

Our world does not need more violent movies in its mainstream culture. We already have too many  SAW movies and too many Grand Theft Auto video games. We already have too many Columbine-type shootings coming from young people who are absorbing violence as normal. The Star Wars series gets marketed to families through the LEGO, the action figures, etc., but Episode VII really isn’t for kids.

Conclusion:

If you like explosions, lightsabers, gutsy female characters, droids, and giant weapons, you will like this movie a lot. If you have an eye for something a little more literary, you may find reasons both for enjoyment and disappointment in this movie.

 

(C) This post is copyright 2015, TJ Withers-Ryan. Reblogging is permitted as long as you credit me as the author of this work.

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