“With a good script a good director can produce a masterpiece; with the same script a mediocre director can make a passable film. But with a bad script even a good director can’t possibly make a good film. For truly cinematic expression, the camera and the microphone must be able to cross both fire and water. That is what makes a real movie. The script must be something that has the power to do this.” -- Akira Kurosawa
It’s fitting that I open my discussion with this Kurosawa quote, since the original Star Wars films draw so much from this man’s life work. Surely any fan has heard of the excellent film The Hidden Fortress and its influence on the Galaxy Far, Far Away. Perhaps “influence” is putting it mildly: It’s certain that Star Wars wouldn’t exist without Kurosawa. Themes of spirituality, of honor, of the warrior’s code were all present in many of his films. He was a master storyteller who wrote or co-wrote many of his scripts. He was a devourer of novels and loved cinema as an art form, developing his style from early silent films.
As the title suggests, this essay is going to be about the new Star Wars trilogy: Episodes 7 through 9. I bring up the name of this grandmaster because I strongly feel that anyone who presumes to lead a Star Wars project but doesn’t love and understand Kurosawa, shouldn’t be hired. That doesn’t mean the new films need to be derivative: At a script level, however, the Star Wars films need to share Kurosawa’s DNA. I will argue that The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi do not.
The Creative Writing Critique Room
According to our great teacher, the backbone of every film is its script. Let’s take him at his word. I’ll state my thesis upfront: I don’t believe Episodes 7 and 8 would pass scrutiny in a college level creative writing class. I believe any student of the discipline would be able to poke massive holes in the foundations of these stories. Tempting as it is, I’m not going to approach this critique as a disappointed fan, which I am. I’m going to try and back up all my arguments with examples. I’m also not only going to be deconstructive: I’m going to recommend improvements based on the existing canon, assuming a redo isn’t on the horizon.
Episode 9 has just wrapped shooting, of course, but let’s do this as a workshop exercise. I think it’s important for anyone in a creative field, even enthusiasts, to analyze professional work. I take storytelling seriously, and so should anyone who enjoys film. Do you like a certain movie? Ask yourself why you like it. Give examples. Do you dislike a certain movie? How come? These are the same questions you might ask if you’re trying to learn how to shoot free throws. Did you miss your shots? Did you sink them? Why? How can you improve?
One final point: I don’t think there’s anything wrong with holding the Star Wars series under scrutiny. All the greatest works of art are studied hundreds, or thousands of years after their creation. Nobody can say Star Wars isn’t great. The original trilogy, anyway. If the newest trilogy was called by another title, I suspect they would have just been considered decent Sci-Fi flicks, and forgotten. By contrast, the great stories of our species may contain truths and knowledge that have existed for millennia. None of us will live for more than a hundred years, if we’re fortunate. Storytelling is how ideas, or memes, can live beyond our lifetimes. Stories are like packages that contain things like archetypes, morals, characters, and heroes. Perhaps you’ll recognize something called the Hero’s Journey, if you’re a fan of Star Wars.
At the foundation of every story is its “thesis,” which is directly related to the word “theme.” So let’s examine the themes of Star Wars, and why the latest films either ignore (or don’t seem to understand) them.
Spirituality and The Force
When is the last time you were in a church, or a temple, or a holy place? What did you feel when you were there? Reverence? Boredom? Inspiration? Reflection? Awe? What kinds of questions did you ask yourself? What is life? What’s its meaning? Why am I here? What’s my place in all this? I’ve listened to countless reviews of the latest trilogy and it seems that only a few of them touch on what I think is the most fundamental pillars of Star Wars, which is Spirituality.
The original trilogy was a sort of a spiritual buffet. It combines many religions, including Buddhism, the Dao, and Shinto, which is broadly related to Animism. All of these coalesce into a vague, but beautiful concept referred to as “the Force.”
From Animism, we’re taught that there’s life in everything – even things we perceive as inanimate, like rocks, or trees. The original trilogy goes a step further and asks us, can machines be part of the force, too? According to those first three films, the answer is no. Machines are meant to be controlled by the animate world, but they do not possess the Force. Consider what Luke was told when Obi-Wan encouraged him to turn off his sensors, as he was targeting the weak spot in the first death star. Consider Darth Vader, who is more machine than man.
Machinery represents a lack of spirituality. It represents mankind’s desire to transcend, pervert, and subjugate nature. In the original trilogy, machines are bad. And yet droids have personalities. Those who use the dark side are considered wicked. They do unnatural, destructive things. Those who use the light side live like monks, using their abilities to nurture life. Nonetheless, when you use the force to manipulate things in the physical world, it’s because you’re touching the spiritual world. Since there’s life in everything, even cold, supposedly lifeless metal, Yoda was able to lift Luke’s X-wing out of the water. Luke could see the blaster sphere thing shoot lasers at him, and he could deflect the blasts with his light saber.
In the Dao, we see a struggle not between good and Evil necessarily; rather Chaos and Order. The Star Wars prequels, for all their faults, still do a decent job at showing what happens to a society when too much Order has taken over. It leaves a huge vacuum for chaos to come in.
Has anyone who’s played Dungeons and Dragons? If so, you would know that Chaos and Order aren’t moral pronouncements. You can be Chaotic Good, or Lawful Evil. The Old Republic was stale, tied up in bureaucracy. The Empire was Lawful, but evil. The original Sith, as portrayed in the Darth Bane trilogy, were Chaotic Neutral. You might even argue Chaotic good. In Knights of the Old Republic, you had a choice to use either the light or dark side, or perhaps be neutral – which I might call balanced.
There’s so much that can be said about the Force: It’s beautiful. It’s mysterious. It’s in us, and all around us. Why, then, does the New Trilogy barely even touch it? The Force isn’t about parlor tricks like making things levitate, or hacking peoples’ brains. The Force is life itself. It is the very thing that you stare up into the sky and wonder about. It’s so vast, and it’s everywhere. It’s unknowable, yet invites us to become one with it.
The FORCE is the thing we take with us when we leave the movie theater. It’s the opening of our third eyes. Why do so few people talk about this? Why does nobody mention this in the reviews, when they say there’s “something wrong” about the films, but they can’t quite put their fingers on it?
Here’s why: These new films are not being written by spiritual people.
Let’s completely bypass the “corporate business side of things.” We know these movies need to sell action figures, and that board meetings take place to put all kinds of things in the scripts that don’t belong there. Let’s pretend Star Wars was a work of creative expression. (Remember, this is a creative writing class.)
When we meet Luke, he wants to become a Jedi. So does Rey. So do we, the members of the audience. Becoming a Jedi opens our minds, it gives us strength, and meaning, and a connection to ancient knowledge. Who wouldn’t want to become one? How can you become one? According to the hero’s journey, you have to find a Sage.
Luke has Ben Kenobi, followed by Yoda. Obi-Wan teaches Luke some fun tricks, sure. More importantly than that, however, he makes Luke curious. There’s more to the force than just tricks. The Force holds the answers to every question Luke has ever, and will ever, ask. Answers to questions he wouldn’t even know to ask. As audience members following Luke on this journey, we crave this knowledge so we can take it home with us to ponder. This is why us nerds see these movies so many times over. They contain wisdom. Who hasn’t walked out of a theater as a kid, or an adult, and tried to lift something off a table with the force? Did you succeed? No? Well, you can still ponder the mysteries of the Force.
How is knowledge and mastery passed from one brain to another? Through books, teachers, and practice. This is what the Jedi used to do: The Jedi, in A New Hope, are a dead religion in the galaxy. All their records having been destroyed by the Empire. Have you ever played a video game, and lost your save file? It feels frustrating, right? Well, in that sense, knowledge is our species’ version of a “save file” that we pass down from generation to generation.
Obi-Wan is a great Sage. Yoda is an even greater sage. This is a beautiful, sacred role in storytelling, in the Hero’s Journey. We have to honor people who are older than us. They are keepers of tradition and knowledge. Their job is to pass the torch to younger people, and the duty of students is to listen to, and expand upon, that knowledge.
In The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, Rey is a student in search of a Mentor. She finds Han Solo, who can only confirm that the force exists. He points Rey to Luke, the real Sage. Except when she meets him… well, you know what happens. But why?
Unworthy Teachers and Padawan Masters
“There is nothing that says more about its creator than the work itself.” -Akira Kurosawa
Luke Skywalker in The Last Jedi is not a Sage; he’s portrayed as an old fool. When we and Rey meet him, we are not filled with hope and excitement; we’re disappointed, even disgusted. Remember now, this is a creative writing critique: What is the author’s intent with this message? Words like “subversive” have been used. Let me also add words like “sacrilegious,” and “irreverent”. To be clear, I’m not pronouncing a moral stance on whether the author’s intent was good or wicked. He wanted to tell us something about himself, so let’s listen.
Rey has no Sage. The Last Jedi boldly pronounces Luke as unworthy of the title. He has studied the history of the Jedi, and faced his own related hardships. He has become crestfallen, hopeless. He has no lessons left to pass on to a student. No worthy lessons, anyway. Unfortunately, we, and Rey, are left to teach ourselves the ways of the Force – because according to the author of this piece, the keepers of ancient knowledge are corrupt. The Jedi failed to stop Darth Sidous. Luke failed to prevent Kylo from converting to the dark side. He wants to throw the baby out with the bath water.
Well, fine. Luke’s story concludes with him throwing away his old religion, the one he spent his whole adult life attempting to revive. Rey is left with the sacred Jedi texts, able to interpret them however she wishes, like a religious reformer. This allows future authors of Star Wars, whoever they may be, to reinterpret the Force however they see fit. Is that a lesson that a wise teacher would promote? Is that what Yoda would tell us to do? Or would he tell us that the Force exists, that it has always existed, and that we are only a part of it? That it can’t be manipulated, or appropriated, at least without consequences?
Speaking of learning from the past, let’s consider the theme of inheritance for a moment. What’s your relationship like with your parents? Do you want to be like them? Are they lacking in traits that you want to develop in yourself? Do they possess traits that you don’t want to adopt? These are parts of our origin story – just like those of Rey and Luke. For Luke, his is the theme that a certain great teacher of our time talks about: “Rescuing your Father from the underworld.” This statement isn’t simply about rescuing Anakin, physically. It’s also about reviving old traditions which have been forgotten, and corrupted.
When Luke is called to rescue his father and revive the Jedi Order, we are also being called to reach into our own families, our cultures, and revive and purify ancient traditions. That’s why the story of Luke’s parentage resonates with us so deeply. That’s why fans got angry that Hayden Christensen was replaced as Ghost Anakin in the Return of the Jedi. His was a story about redemption, of coming full circle. Those of us who criticize Star Wars like Mr. Plinkett have taken its lessons to heart. We criticize the series, because it isn’t following its own theses. We want it to do better.
But Rey doesn’t know her parents. According to the Last Jedi, she may be her own parent. This could have some fascinating lore implications, but I’m also frustrated by the theme I mentioned a moment ago about reformation: As of Episode 8, Rey is free to interpret the Jedi texts however she (and Disney) pleases. If that’s true, and that her existence is a physical manifestation of the force – that means she is a conduit for the force. Hence, “The Force Awakens”. Her will is the will of the Force. In the hands of a good writer, this can be interesting. I, however, have not seen enough examples from Kathleen Kennedy to make me optimistic.
Rey, nonetheless, is obsessed with the ideas of mentors, of learning who she is, where she came from. This is key to her character and story arc, and is being set up as a big reveal in Episode 9. I’ll get to character-specific arcs in a moment. For now, let me ask one more question related to themes and spirituality: What is the status quo of the galaxy in the New Trilogy? What’s it like to be a citizen in the New Republic? Unfortunately, aside from Rey growing up on a salvage planet, we never find out. This is a monstrous failure of writing, and a big no-no in creative writing.
In the same way every scene needs an establishing shot, every story needs a setting. Framing. Unfortunately, we can’t learn what the New Republic is like, because these films have no Spirituality. Consider it like this:
Spirituality > Ideology > Politics > Laws
Without a setting for the new Trilogy, all we’re left with is character studies. Leia awaits Luke’s return, an archetype similar to waiting for a savior, a rescuer, a Messiah. Rey goes into space, into the heavens, to find this missing hero – like someone who is sick of waiting for Jesus, and goes out to find him instead. Except, when we find the savior, he’s corrupted, fallen. The moral of The Last Jedi, and perhaps the entire trilogy, is that we have to become our own Saviors. To take tradition, and the sacred Jedi texts, to interpret and twist history to fit our own eisegetical projections.
As this is a creative writing critique, I will reserve my own judgments on the ethics of this thesis. However, let me say this: In religion, there is a word for this sort of pronouncements: Heresy. Is it any surprise that fans of Star Wars were disappointed, even outraged, by this dishonoring of what they revered?
If you don’t love someone, why kiss them? If you don’t love Star Wars, why write a Star Wars film?
Let me move on to characters and positive changes that can be made to improve the story as it already exists.
A few months ago, in a fit of inspiration and frustration, I wrote this about the New Trilogy:
“Star Wars is about Characters, not events. If the characters don’t develop, if they don’t have satisfying arcs, nobody cares about the stuff blowing up on the screen. It’s just a light show. It’s all frosting and no cake. Give the characters stories!”
Every computer needs an Operating System. Otherwise, a PC is just a bunch of interconnected parts that don’t know how to communicate with each other. In the same way, there’s no point in talking about character motivations without first establishing what a character’s purpose in life is. Perhaps we don’t reflect on the meanings of our life every morning when we get out of bed, but it does drive each one of us subconsciously when we choose our goals. When we don’t have life goals, we become depressed. Life loses meaning. Why do you get up every morning?
When writing a character, what are their goals, and targets, for daily life? Each character must have some reason to get out of bed in the morning. With all this said, let’s examine some of the characters in the New Trilogy and how we can write them better.
Rey has been studying the sacred Jedi texts while cruising around in the Millenium Falcon. She has meditated upon them, and has reached new stages of enlightenment. She is now living like a Jedi monk, focused on spiritual matters. According to Buddhism and Shinto, that would mean she has no need for matters of the flesh – nothing at all to do with physical reproduction. Unfortunately for Disney and teenage fans, that means Reylo can never, and will never happen. Why? Because luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.
Finn and Kylo may want Rey, but she has gained knowledge that allows her to transcend beyond the physical world. Carnal desires don’t concern her anymore. She is studying the Force and has learned that neither the light side, nor the dark side, hold the answers. Rather, it’s a balance between the two. Remember a certain prophecy about bringing balance to the force? That’s what the Dao is all about: Living in the eye of the storm between Order and Chaos.
Nonetheless, Star Wars is a fantasy film about space wizards, so she does have to destroy the First Order. She wins, because of course she does. As she battles with Kylo, she has an epiphany. All the lessons she’s been struggling with suddenly snap into place. She understands the Force, and what balance means. She can see all of Kylo’s moves miles ahead of time. So much so, that she doesn’t even fight him or move sometimes. She can see right through him. Kylo becomes more and more frustrated until he exhausts himself. More importantly at the end of Episode 9, Rey will not find her parents, nor will she have children. Instead, she’ll have ascended into enlightenment, and acquired disciples who she will disseminate this knowledge to.
I believe Disney, with their desire to titillate teenage fans and sell toys, is 100% incapable of writing this scenario properly. Nonetheless, this is where her story arc is naturally heading.
He perhaps has some kind of romantic connection with Rey – but I would only permit this to be one-sided. Rey is more spiritual than Kylo, because he is a dark side user. According to the Lore of Star Wars, is associated with baser passions. We will completely drop any hints of a mutual romantic subplot.
Instead, Kylo is being torn up inside. Both the light and dark sides of the Force are warring in his spirit, and his many unspeakable crimes are tormenting him. He can’t sleep anymore. He didn’t directly kill his mother, but he may as well have. He has been tricked by two unworthy teachers, and will decide to forge his own path in the galaxy. Nobody will tell him what to do anymore. He will use the First Order against itself in a final act of rebellion, destroying himself and all his crimes at the same time. Kylo will embark on a suicidal attack against the Republic, splitting the First Order loyalists between himself and Hux. Kylo’s goal is to destroy everything, and to end the war, by killing everyone, including himself. Naturally, this will lead to a showdown between himself and Rey.
Rey will win the mighty battle. Kylo will beg for death. However, Rey has already begun her path to enlightenment, and she lets him live. She commands him to live, to bear the burden of his crimes, and to live the rest of his life repairing the countless lives he destroyed. Death would be too easy. I would have Kylo deliver the final blow to the First Order, standing alone on top of unbelievably massive piles of destruction, and disappear into smoke, where we may or may not ever hear from him again.
It’s remarkable how little, after two films, we know about Finn. What a missed opportunity this was. What is Finn’s life mission at this point? He has already left the First Order. He’s wandering without a goal. The first thing we’re going to do is use Finn as a lens to view what life is like as a First Order grunt. Does Finn have parents? Let’s give him one. Let’s give him a mom that he needs to support, because his dad died in the spice mines or something. Finn will visit his mom out on some remote colony, maybe with Rose as emotional support. He will tell Rose his backstory – of how he was recruited to the Storm Troopers because life was hard, and he needed work. We will learn about the First Order through Finn, enriching both his character and the antagonists of this story.
As of episode 8, I don’t care about Phasma. She is one-dimensional and extremely poorly written. We’re going to fix that through flashbacks. She trained Finn, and countless other students. She picked on Finn in particular, however, because she’s a mean ol’ drill Sargent. He hates her, but he respects her. She makes him stronger, by feeding his anger. “You want revenge against me, don’t you?” She’ll say when she works him within an inch of his life, forcing him into a bacta tank for the hundredth time. She has it out for Finn. That’s why it will be important for him to confront her in Episode 9. He is confronting his own weakness, and a mentor that knows every last secret of his.
Finn will need a life mission after the fighting is over. He will do his best to stop the recruitment of new Storm Troopers, of the terrible living conditions that make it attractive to join the First Order, or organizations like it.
He will have had a crush on Rey, but that’s because she’s perfect Space Jesus. Instead, he can hook up with Rose. Whatever.
In the series so far, Poe has been one-dimensional. Compared to Rey and Kylo, he is frustrated that all he’s good at is flying and shooting. In Episode 9, he decides he’s going to fly Rey around on her missions, gathering Jedi relics. He’ll watch her do incredible feats, and wonder if he can use the force as well. He tries and fails. We see hints of jealousy in Poe’s heart.
As these characters fly around the galaxy together getting in adventures, they talk. He is frustrated at the impotence of the New Republic. Rey senses something about him, but won’t tell him what. This causes him to distrust her. At a key moment, then, he decides to abandon her.
He ends up in the First Order’s clutches. Kylo interrogates him. They hate each other passionately, but something is wrong: They both want to destroy the First Order. They agree to put their differences aside, and Poe helps Kylo destroy the First Order from the inside. At the end of the film, Poe remains in awe of the Force, and those who can use it. He doesn’t understand the Force, but believes in it and commits to being a better man, of putting his jealousy aside.
“The more successful the villain, the more successful the picture.” Alfred Hitchcock
General Hux is going to be one of the most important characters in Episode 9. The reason has been said many times, in many ways: A plot is only as good as its antagonist. We know Domhnall Gleeson is a good actor, so we’re going to use him.
First, we’re going to show Hux’s daily routines as the co-leader of the First Order. What is his recruitment, his speech-writing like. He genuinely believes he is a good guy, working for good in the galaxy. We are going to establish the First Order as a plausible alternative government to the New Republic, a wholly separate faction that does evil things, but for what it sees as overall good. We will make it seem plausible to want to join the First Order. It bothers Hux that he has to do evil things, but he has his eyes on the prize. Moral ambiguity is one of the things that was so praiseworthy about Game of Thrones, after all.
General Hux has a secret romance with a certain lady. He has kept this secret for many years, even to Kylo (who already knows this, through the Force.) Through Hux’ interactions with her, we will see many dimensions to Hux that we haven’t before. We will learn that he is a genius tactician, very charismatic, and very charming, like Thrawn. In Kylo’s absence, he is the de facto leader of the First Order, something he isn’t bad at at all.
Hux will be consolidating the First Order after Snoake has been killed. We will explain his motivations for bringing the galaxy under the Empire’s rule. We’re going to make this plausible, with examples. We will do this through present-time examples, which will give him flashbacks to his own childhood: He will have grown up in a lawless world, full of creeps, psychos, criminals, etc. He begged for some order in his life, and the world around him. He wanted to escape. Then, the Empire came to his garbage dump of his planet and cleaned the streets. He was so grateful to the Empire, that he wanted to join it and spread this Order all over the galaxy.
In D&D terms, Hux is Lawful Evil. He does bad things, to establish law. As it stands in Episodes 8 and 9, Hux is a one-dimensional caricature. We will fix that. We will learn his talents, we may even pity him. His one major flaw is that he hates sharing glory, and that means he has to deal with Kylo, sooner or later.
That will summarize the arcs for the main characters. Some quick housekeeping:
Maz Kanata: She can explain how she got a hold of Luke’s Lightsaber, and perhaps other Jedi relics, when Rey visits her. Personally, I don’t see the point of her character. She was played up, like Phasma, and is little more than a Mystery Box dispenser that speaks in riddles.
Rose’s sister: Would’ve been really cool if she used the force instead of kicking the detonator in Episode 8. Rose may be force sensitive, then. Not enough to become a Jedi, but still sensitive. She can accompany Finn on his personal missions home, to make sure his mom is safe from the war.
Leia: Is just dead. Let her stay dead. She has no role for the rest of the series. I would have her appear in flashbacks as a younger woman, only to establish what it was like after the New Republic took over after Episode 6. Strictly NO CAMEOS.
Jake Skywalker: Mark Hammill is still alive. We have one last chance to redeem his character from Jake to Luke. Since he’s dead, we will have Luke haunt Rey throughout Episode 9, giving her breadcrumbs to follow. He will have no character arc aside from watching her progress, and coming to peace with his own journey. He will forgive himself for what happened with Kylo, and return to the Force, content that the future is bright in Rey’s hands.
Storytelling is one of the oldest, most important disciplines of our species. Unless nuclear war destroys the planet or the sun explodes, storytelling is our species’ closest thing to a “save file.” Stories are how we compile our history, our memes, and pass important lessons to future generations.
Like it or not, Star Wars – like many great films, is one of the touchstones of modern history. It contains many meaningful archetypes and compiles many good spiritual lessons. We fans don’t like it when it’s mishandled, which is unfortunate, because Disney is the farthest thing from a spiritual entity. It is a gluttonous monopoly that only exists to gorge itself. But that’s another topic for another day.
I think JJ Abrams is a big fan of creating Mystery boxes, but is not very talented at filling them. His films are like receiving really well-wrapped Christmas presents as a child, only to find clothes inside. Abrams as a creative leader is good at setting up assists. It’s someone else’s job to dunk the ball. Unfortunately, it’s up to us, the audience, to fill his mystery boxes with our expectations.
Sadly, Disney doesn’t listen to all the wonderful fan theories postulating what’s inside the mystery boxes. For whatever reason, Disney has contempt for its fans. And I can’t speak much for Rian Johnson, because frankly, I don’t think he likes storytelling. He is a deconstructionist. He wants to break film. I think he is a mischievous experimenter who should be kept far away from traditional stories. I liked Looper, but hated his episode of Breaking Bad.
Nonetheless, like Rey carrying the sacred Jedi texts from her unworthy masters, we’re students of the original Star Wars trilogy, and perhaps some of us will write great archetypal stories of our own someday. Regardless of how we inherited this knowledge, we hold the keys to enlightenment in our hands. It’s up to us to learn from our masters before us, and to be worthy of carrying the torch to prepare the next generation after us.
We will do this for hundreds, or thousands, or millions of years, until the final sun sets on this beautiful planet. After that, well, that’s up to the Force.
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