Plot Surgery: The Force Awakens

Plot Surgery: The Force Awakens

SPOILER ALERT: If you’ve found your way here and, somehow, haven’t seen The Force Awakens yet, I’ll be spoiling more or less all of it.

As promised, it’s time to dissect The Force Awakens, exploring its most glaring flaws and proposing some solutions without scrapping the entire thing. I favor this approach for two reasons. First, I actually like what the new trilogy tries to do quite a bit, and don’t want to throw it out wholesale. Second, and more importantly for our purposes, starting over from scratch doesn’t make for interesting or informative critique so much as…well, fan fiction. I’d much rather tweak and improve the story we actually got than try to build something brand new.

Before we dive in, there are a few elements in the film I wish I could fix, but go beyond the scope of this post. For example, I hate the breathless moment-to-moment pacing that J.J. Abrams (and filmmakers in general these days) seem enamored with. Also, many of the changes I make here would necessitate smaller changes to other parts of the film. For instance, Snoke’s scenes would require a different venue, and the conversations would have to be reworked. However, such editing is easy for any half-decent screenwriter to do, and my goal obviously isn’t to present you with a fully reworked script.

In other words, this is meatball plot surgery. Don’t stress over every little detail.

So, if you’re curious about how the story as a whole could be improved, and made to fit better with what we know about the wider Star Wars universe, then welcome! Hope you’re ready to get your hands dirty.

Diagnosis


Before we get into the “surgery” part of this process, we need to diagnose the illness. I’m sure it’ll come as no surprise to anyone that Starkiller Base lies at the heart of many of the movie’s problems. I mean, the damn thing’s a moon-sized, completely unnecessary plot hole. How did the First Order, a nascent group of Empire fanboys, build such a thing in so little time? How did the Republic/Resistance not get wind of this and sabotage or destroy it before the work was complete—you know, like the Rebellion did with the second Death Star? How did the First Order even have the resources to build it and the armada they apparently use to take military control of the galaxy in The Last Jedi?

Starkiller Base, a snowy moon with a massive trench running across its diameter, which houses an enormous laser cannon.
Twinkle, twinkle, little Starkiller, how I wonder why you are…

Starkiller Base is a bizarre throwback to the days when our heroes were outgunned and outnumbered at every turn. Narratively speaking, the superweapon cliche is completely played out, and one of Lucas’s more laudable decisions in the prequels was move away from them. That’s the Empire’s schtick, and while Alderaan didn’t fare too well in the era of the Death Stars, they ultimately amounted to little more than military boondoggles. Even in-universe, therefore, the idea should look pretty stale to everyone.

It brings up some uncomfortable questions about the wider political and strategic situation in the galaxy, as well. If the Republic is the main center of political/economic gravity in the galaxy, then why does Leia need to lead a “brave resistance” against the First Order? How is the Resistance related to the Republic military, and why are they seemingly alone in their struggle? Nothing about this dynamic makes any sense, and just seems like a lazy excuse to put us back in the afore-mentioned “Scrappy Good Guys vs. Overwhelming Bad Guys” situation again, however implausible or uninteresting it might be. Far better to give our heroes from the original trilogy their victory, then show them dealing with the problems that come with maintaining a resurgent but fragile Republic. That’s one element from the famous Thrawn trilogy Lucasfilm would’ve gone well to keep.

Now, while some complain that TFA is basically a retread of A New Hope, it actually departs from that film’s structure in the first act—to its detriment. A New Hope kept its focus pretty tight, taking us from R2 and Threepio on to Luke, with the occasional cut to the Imperial side. TFA, on the other hand, cuts frenetically between Rey and Finn, never really settling into any one perspective until the two characters meet, leaving us in doubt as to who our protagonist really is.

Finn looking determined, holding a blue lightsaber at the ready.
Finn: Totally our fledgling Jedi this time around…right?

In fairness, I’m sure this was deliberate misdirection, given the trailers’ clear attempt to paint Finn, not Rey, as our Jedi-to-be. Unfortunately, the right way to do this would have been getting to know each in their turn before throwing them together…exactly the way A New Hope’s first act is structured. If, for some reason that’s not an option, then just dropping the pretense altogether and letting us settle into the rhythm of Rey’s life is the best option.

This, incidentally, is why J.J. Abrams’s “Mystery Box” is, frankly, an artistic and intellectual gimmick that needs to die.

Moving right along, the Rathar sequence is…ridiculous. While it technically serves some important narrative functions, there are far better ways to establish that Rey can make mistakes, that Han has fallen back into his smuggler’s life, and that the First Order now knows that BB-8 is with them aboard the Millennium Falcon. Also, I’m not wild about how it turns Han’s trouble with a bunch of criminal gangs into a comedic element; it makes him look less like a broken down old man and just…kind of a dumbass. The original trilogy made him out to be a savvy, experienced rogue whose troubles came from the inherent danger of his business, not his own idiocy.

Maz Kanata’s, on the other hand, is reasonably well done, though Rey’s wonder at seeing a forest for the first time deserves more weight than it got. Also, Han telling her that she has a lot to learn because she doesn’t know where the safety on a blaster is, as opposed to her Rathtar trick that nearly got everyone killed…like, really? It’s weird stuff like this that has some people convinced she’s a Mary Sue.

The film’s greatest problem, though, has nothing to do with our heroes at all, and everything to do with the freaking destruction of the Republic! We in the audience have exactly zero investment in the Republic, and have no concrete reason to panic at the obliteration of its core worlds. This development further serves to set us back into a Rebel-Empire underdog story, which completely undercuts all the accomplishments in the original trilogy. Everything the Rebellion fought for just…dies, before we’ve even had a chance to see any of it? Seriously, this is the kind of unimaginative, ham-fisted move I expect from the Call of Duty series.

From that point on, though, the story stays pretty strong, the only real problems being R2-D2’s hilariously convenient reactivation, and the fact that we don’t get enough time with Rey during her breakout. Thus, this seems like the perfect moment to move into the “treatment” phase of our operation.

Treatment


Okay, so what can we do about all this? Surprisingly, none of it actually requires a total teardown of the plot, which is a testament both to the silliness of these decisions and the strength of the surrounding plot “tissue.”

First thing’s first: we need a better handle on the political situation. Now, The Last Jedi makes it seem like the Resistance’s mission is to protect and empower those in the galaxy who remain downtrodden despite the Republic’s rebirth…which is actually a really cool idea! It makes sense that Leia would want to eschew all the political bullshit involved in running the Republic in favor of actually, you know, helping people. It would also explain why the Resistance isn’t, strictly speaking, an official branch of the Republic military: the Republic doesn’t have the resources to liberate the entire galaxy at once, but they can quietly fund what amounts to an independent special forces unit operating in the Outer Rim to combat the spreading poison of the First Order.

Finn standing in the middle of the desert holding Poe Dameron's jacket, having just crashed on the surface of Jakku.
So, somewhere around this moment is when we’d switch to Rey.

Speaking of the First Order: it goes without saying that we’re cutting Starkiller Base—it makes so much more sense for them to be building up their forces in secret, kidnapping children for their stormtrooper corps and building an armada piece-by-piece using what’s left of Imperial infrastructure in the Outer Rim. The Resistance might be aware of and working against them, but even Leia doesn’t imagine for a minute that they have the strength to challenge the Republic.

With those worldbuilding tidbits out of the way, let’s get into The Force Awakens proper. Our first task is reshuffling the first act to make it less fragmented. As in the original movie, our first POV character is Poe, quickly followed by Finn. However, we shouldn’t meet Rey until Finn crash-lands on Jakku and begins his trek to her village. At that point, we jump into her POV, watching her finish up the day’s scavenging1Once we move these scenes around, we end up meeting Rey at about the 19 minute mark. For reference, we first encounter Luke at almost exactly 18 minutes in ANH (in the original, pre-special edition cut, that is).. Afterwards, she encounters BB-8 and reluctantly lets him stay with her, then brings him along as she goes to work the next day. Seeing her try to scavenge with him constantly at her heels, bombarding her with questions, would be hilarious, charming, and give us an opportunity to learn more about her personality and history.

After gathering all she needs, she does her trade with Unkar Plutt, refuses to sell BB-8 to him, and gets set upon by his goons just as Finn, half-dead from his nearly 24-hour trek through the desert, stumbles into town, whereupon they make their escape from the First Order in the Millennium Falcon.

A Rathtar in a corridor on Han's freighter, the Erevana. Tantacles sprout from the creature's large, round body, and it has a mouth full of sharp teeth.
Okay…Rathtars are pretty terrifying, I’ll grant you, but the whole sequence aboard the Erevana eats up nearly 7 minutes of screentime. Out it goes.

The next major change is, of course, the removal of the Rathtar sequence—just get it the hell out of there. We can have a nice, tense scene with Finn and Rey, quickly joined by Han and Chewie2We can say they’re flying some rinky-dink ship around searching for the Falcon, one they’re happy to abandon once they find it. That means Unkar Plutt can’t have had it for “years,” as Rey says, but that really doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things., trying to repair the Falcon before Kylo Ren’s Star Destroyer3Because…yeah, Abrams and Kasdan seem to have just forgotten about that little detail. detects and intercepts them. I’d want to see Rey making a few understandable but annoying mistakes while they scramble to get the hyperdrive back online that give Han a chance to dust off his “Out of my way, you dumb kid!” routine. That was a huge part of his character in A New Hope, and it would be wonderful to see it again. It’d also head off the “Rey’s a Mary Sue” criticism at the pass. Unlike Luke in ANH, however, she makes him think twice after bypassing the compressor, keeping the ship from exploding in hyperspace.

Turns out, Rey is quite a bit more savvy than Luke was in the beginning. Go figure! This is also the perfect opportunity to establish an actual father-daughter dynamic between Rey and Han, an element the movie never quite managed to pull off.

So, now we come to the Maz Kanata sequence, which mostly works, but it’s here that our removal of Starkiller Base first comes into play. If the First Order doesn’t blow up the Republic’s home system, how does it get to Takodana without getting curb-stomped by the Republic fleet? Well, think about it: their primary goal at this point is to get to Luke Skywalker before the Resistance, not destroy the Republic. All they need to do right now is tie up the Republic fleet while they launch a lightning raid on Maz’s world, soon followed by an attack on the Resitance’s headquarters. This, therefore, is what they do, and the raid itself plays out exactly as it did in the original movie. And despite Starkiller’s absence in this rewrite, Rey’s capture and interrogation can actually stay exactly as it was, the only difference being that it takes place on Ren’s ship, not the base.

Now, how we get to the third-act conflict, as well as the nature of that conflict, will need some thought. Instead of Starkiller threatening to destroy the Resistance’s headquarters, Kylo Ren should attack it directly. The Resistance’s greatest defensive asset has been its secrecy, but that’s shot to hell by this point in the story. Ren, knowing that the Resistance now has the complete map to Luke, seems perfectly positioned to make such a last-ditch maneuver, and it fits perfectly with his well-established impetuousness.

Before we talk battle plans, let’s address the R2-D2 problem. The canon explanation for his catatonic state is sensible enough: he went into low-power mode to recover from years of continuous operation, sorting through and organizing his databanks in the process…a lot like what happens in the human brain during sleep, actually. Thus, when he hears that BB-8 has half of the key to tracking down his old master, he “wakes up” and starts squealing the droid equivalent of “Oo, oo, I’ve got the rest you guys!” The only issue here is the timing: it makes no sense for him to wake up after Starkiller Base has been destroyed, so we’ll just have him power up when our heroes reach Resistance HQ.

Before they can send anyone to find Ahch-To, however, Kylo Ren shows up and quickly places them under siege. So, now we need to talk battle tactics4I know, I know, I’m sorry, but these are the kinds of nitpicky details you need to think through if you’re going to write convincing stories. Bear with me, guys.!

A Resistance officer looking into the skies of D'Qar at a First Order Star Destroyer.
Basically, imagine this happens in TFA, followed by a pitched space, air, and ground battle. Would’ve been pretty sweet, right?

Resistance HQ probably has at least a modest shield to prevent its total obliteration from orbit, which means the First Order will have to launch a combined air and ground assault. The Resistance has its fighter squadrons, of course, but it’ll also need some way to deal damage to an orbiting capital ship, which means either a surface-to-space cannon or, preferably, the use of a small fleet like the one we see in The Last Jedi. Basically, they plan to hold off the assault as best they can while a strike force attempts to board the Star Destroyer. Their objectives are clear: rescue Rey and cause as much general havoc as possible. Finn can assist them with key information about shield and armor strengths, internal layouts, First Order tactics, and so on.

Incidentally, if the Resistance does bring their fleet to bear, then this battle should briefly introduce Admiral Holdo, solving the problem of her just popping in out of nowhere in the next movie.

We also have Rey’s escape to consider. I want a little more time with her here, seeing her slowly testing her Force abilities as she evades enemy patrols. This would, again, give us more time with our protagonist, as well as a greater sense of progression as she tentatively explores her new powers, building to the moment when she Force-pulls the lightsaber in the forest. Other than that, though, her escape and and reunion with Finn, Han, and Chewie can stay more or less the same, as can Han’s confrontation with Ben, including the bit where Ben takes a bowcaster hit to his hip5That’s important; Rey is clearly used to melee combat, but Ren needs to be using most of his Dark Side power just to keep himself standing for her victory to seem plausible. Skill with weapons doesn’t mean much if your opponent can just throw you around with the Force all day long..

Kylo Ren facing off with Rey in the middle of a dark, snowy forest. Both hold lit lightsabers.
Side note: That hunch Kylo Ren does creates a terrifying sillhouette. Really good physicality on Adam Driver’s part.

Now for the saber fight. During their escape from the Star Destroyer, the Falcon should be damaged, forcing them to put down in the middle of a forest6I like the snowy aesthetic the movie goes with, so we’ll just say it’s winter on D’Qar, or something. Maybe show some snow on the ground at the Resistance base to establish this earlier. near the Resistance base, but well outside the combat zone. Kylo Ren, running on pure rage at this point, jumps in a shuttle and follows them down. Chewie stays behind to repair the ship while Rey and Finn head out to confront their pursuer. The resulting fight can play out more or less as the original one did, with one key difference: no chasm can open up between Rey and Ren…obviously. She has to make the conscious choice to spare him, which is, honestly, how it should have been in the first place. We need to reinforce that, in spite of her harsh upbringing, Rey can make that choice. Indeed, growing up in such an unforgiving environment gives her exactly the perspective she needs to understand how a person like Kylo Ren comes to be, giving her a solid basis for empathy here.

After the duel, Chewie gets Finn back on board the Falcon, Rey joins them, and they hightail it back to base, where they find the First Order’s forces falling back on General Hux’s instructions, having found the Resistance’s…um, resistance too fierce for their lone battalion to handle. Leia greets them, hugs Chewie, damnit, and through her obvious pain and sorrow remarks that the First Order will be back to deal with them soon. I want some of shots of the devastation and death around resistance HQ here, as well, to add another layer to our characters’ grief. Leia then gives Rey the binary beacon before sending her on her journey. Chewie should object, saying it should be Leia who goes—Luke’s her brother, after all—but Leia explains that she has to stay behind to coordinate the evacuation…and anyway, Rey’s going to need a teacher like Luke to help her control her newfound power.

With that, Rey, Chewie, and R2 head out in the Falcon, land on Ahch-To and, in the exact same sequence as the original, find the last Jedi standing on a cliff overlooking the sea.

This isn’t really relevant to the rewrite, but I just have to say how much I love the movie’s final shots. The complexity of emotion that Daisy Ridley and Mark Hamill manage to convey without a fucking word is astoundingly beautiful: both are heartbroken, each for different reasons. She’s a young woman who just lost the closest thing she’s ever had to a father, and Luke is now an old man whose life’s work long ago crumbled into dust, a far cry from the farm boy whose courage and idealism once saved Darth Vader and struck a lethal blow against the Empire.

Both of them capture the weight of those experiences with facial expressions and body language alone. It’s beautiful. It’s perfect. I wouldn’t change a thing.

Luke Skywalker lowers his hood to reveal his grey hair and beard. He looks old, tired, and bitter.
Not quite the man he was.

Conclusion


A few words before I sign off here. First, that was way longer than I’d planned, so a huge thank you to everybody who stuck with it! Our next stop, as I mentioned last time, will be The Last Jedi. More specifically, I want to discuss Luke Skywalker’s portrayal, both the positives and the negatives, as well as make some tweaks that I think would strengthen the character immensely. I’ll also use this as an opportunity to discuss the themes of trauma, hubris, and the passing of torches that define his story. I plan on releasing that in a couple weeks, give or take.

In the meantime, though, thanks again for reading, and I’ll see you in a couple weeks!

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