Sometimes, the fate of everyone ever just doesn’t matter to us.
This is not a review of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I like it, despite its shortcomings. There is, however, a rather transparently notable storytelling blunder that warrants a brief discussion.
In The Force Awakens, the First Order controls the Starkiller Base – a planetary superweapon about 100 times the size of the Death Star. Midway through, General Hux fiercely announces the impending death of the Republic. Then he activates the weapon, which projects a giant red laser blast that traverses parsecs across the galaxy, and wipes out an entire star system, which we learn is the Republic capital and fleet. Billions, maybe trillions, die as four planets are obliterated in one swift act of red terror.
And nothing changes.
General Hux, Kylo Ren, Supreme Leader Snoke, and the First Order are still the bad guys. Nothing in the story is previously framed as a race against time against the Starkiller Base. Everything is about finding Luke Skywalker, and as far as we know, that’s all the First Order is interested in, until Snoke gives the order. There is also no apparent reason in the story to make Snoke give the order, other than “it’s ready.” He doesn’t appear to believe it’s going to strengthen Kylo Ren’s loyalty to the dark side, nor does he appear so threatened by the Republic. And no one talks about this as though it’s merely a test for the weapon itself.
But okay, at least this frames the race against time on the Base in the final act, and informs us that the Resistance is now on its own. So plot-wise it’s not all for naught.
Narrative-wise, however, it’s even less useful. We catch a brief glimpse of the doomed on those ill-fated planets before they go kablooey, but otherwise we’ve never seen them before and we’ve only heard mention of the Republic once. It backs the Resistance’s fight against the First Order, but that’s it; we don’t know how deep the support goes or if there are issues, and we aren’t given any names of people involved or story points about that.
So what exactly mattered here?
Everyone noted the parallel with A New Hope, where the Death Star blew up Alderaan. That was a pretty big and terrifying moment in that movie, even though we barely ever hear about it later. Why didn’t the parallel sequence in The Force Awakens land with that same impact?
One of the Mass Effect series’ best characters, Mordin Solus, at one point says the following:
“Hard to care about two armies fighting… one wins, one loses. For this fight, want personal connection. Can’t anthropomorphize galaxy, but can think of favorite nephew… fighting for him.”
Consider the essential differences. Alderaan was Princess Leia’s home that she was racing to with the stolen Death Star plans when the Empire intercepted and captured her. Leia is tortured to no avail, so Grand Moff Tarkin coerces her cooperation by volunteering Alderaan as the test subject of the station’s destructive power. When she (seemingly) folds, Tarkin fires on the planet away anyway, and Vader forces her to watch in sheer horror.
Meanwhile, after receiving the message Leia left for Obi-Wan, our heroes had just escaped the Empire’s clutches on Tatooine, and were headed to Alderaan to present the Death Star plans to Leia’s father. When the planet blows up, the film immediately cuts to Obi-Wan, who had nearly collapsed, explaining that he just felt the screams of millions followed by their sudden silence.
In A New Hope, all roads led to Alderaan. When Tarkin blew it up, it was immediately felt by characters we know, and it completely flipped the parameters of their mission. In The Force Awakens, it’s a bad event with quadruple the gusto but no personal impact.
Storytellers fall into this trap all the time. They look at The Return of the King and think, “man, that Battle of Pelennor Fields sure was awesome. Can we do that?” Then they rush to it, failing to understand how earned those epic moments were. You’re not invested in that battle because of the fact that Sauron is marching an army 20x the size of Saruman’s at Helm’s Deep. You care because Gandalf, Pippin, and Faramir – characters we’ve connected and spent time with – are in that besieged city. You care because you’ve just seen Gondor’s mad steward scatter the lingering remnants of his strength to the winds, with only Faramir having returned battered, bloody, and barely alive, and with the city now effectively helpless. You care because you want Théoden, Éomer, Éowyn, and Merry to make it out of that impossible fight alive. You care because you want Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli to make it in time. And finally, you care because keeping this battle interesting is the only way to keep Sauron’s eye transfixed on everything but Frodo and Sam as the two continue their creep to his wasteland of death.
Every massive piece of spectacle in The Lord of the Rings is earned. The same is true for The Matrix. There was more riding on Neo’s solo fight with Agent Smith in the first film than there was in his fight against 100 in Reloaded. A story does not become more urgent or important because the numerical scope increases.
And in Star Wars, stakes are not raised just because billions die instead of millions, or four planets get vaporized instead of one.
It was more powerful and euphoric to watch Kylo Ren stare at the speeding red flares from a distance, knowing what he was going through emotionally. You’d think it would be even more powerful watching our heroes bask in the horror of those planets’ destruction, but after a few tears they all go back to what they were doing. Things change there only because Ren shows up, not because of the empty war crime we see transpire with all of J.J. Abrams’s movie magic and John Williams’s best efforts on the silver screen.
No characters were involved in that. It meant nothing because it mattered to no one.
When next you find yourself wondering why the shock and awe of something massive just isn’t clicking with you, remember Mordin’s words. One favorite nephew is more compelling than everyone ever.