Like most fanfare revolving around Star Wars: The Force Awakens, this piece begins not just with a spoiler warning, but with an actual spoiler. From particular shots to well executed twists, it’s a miracle that so much from Disney’s latest pay-off actually remains in the brain. For myself however, picking a favourite moment offered little contest:
As Finn, Rae and BB-8 are dashing for dear life from the First Order’s assault on Jakku, our conscientiously objecting stormtrooper points out of frame to a ship with which the trio might make their escape. Rae responds by dismissing the unseen intergalactic spacecraft as “garbage”, but when the snazzier ride in front of them is roundly disintegrated, she changes her tune and they dash towards the ship, now brought into the shot and revealed to be the Millennium Falcon.
I will always remember the audience reaction to that 10 second sequence; a back-to-back chuckle and mini-applause, followed by a heightened interest that lasted for the rest of the running time. To me, it’s a brief reveal that helps fulfill the promise of the sequel trilogy, however flawed the rest of this opening act may be. We obviously wanted to know what became of the most famous kessel runner of the galaxy, but to touch that nerve of nostalgia so expertly (in the middle of an action-chase sequence no less), using little else than some carefully crafted dialogue and bit of camera panning is an achievement I feel has been heavily glossed over amongst all the hearsay, hereditary guesstimations and ‘it’s A New Hope rip-off!’ grumblings.
I should point out at this point that despite being heavily lapsed as far as geeks go, I still consider a second viewing of Star Wars episode VII to be a pretty requisite outing. Now that all my hopes and fears for this installment had been dealt with in appropriate fashion, the difficulty for round two lay in deciding beforehand just where or what my eyes and ears should focus on once the familiar opening scroll faded away. I’d absorbed nothing but speculation and factory-line fan theories before reuniting with Han Solo and co., and since then I’ve seen the film’s story go through every kind of take-down and equally passionate defense imaginable. In the end, my undivided attention landed on an aspect that I think almost everyone has brushed asunder: the filmmaking itself.
Despite racking up a massive slew of records and memes at the jump of lightspeed, it’s nothing short of peculiar just how little the reviews and fan dissections have appraised the cinematic bells and whistles on display. Whilst I’m sure it’s something best left for the DVD and on-demand release, sitting through the film twice offered plenty enough to explore in the way of cinematography, editing and (remember, its J.J Abrahams at the helm here) lighting techniques. Without the freedom to screen-capture and explore all the individual shots just yet, I’d like to focus on an area of filmmaking that, in my opinion, has always sat as the perfect segway between script and screen: narrative exposition, and why Star Wars: The Force Awakens, warts and all, actually pulls it off quite beautifully.
When it comes to dishing out important plot details with an approach that feels natural and not so (sorry to say it…) ‘forced’, this movie has its work monumentally cut out for itself. Not only does it need to plug up the time gap typical of just about every sequel, but it has no less than thirty years of lost history to account for. Worse still, it wants to ensure we learn as many facts about the new faces as those we discover about our old heroes, to bait us to return for two more thirds of a trilogy, and to provide a ‘Star Warsy’ feeling whose definition no two fans can agree on.
Isn’t it interesting then, that neither of our two lead characters are given any dialogue in their opening ten minutes? Seamlessness is the name of the game when it comes to exposition, and without a single spoken word, the audience gets everything they need to know about Finn and Rae through purely visual storytelling cues. Better yet, their introductions run quite counter to one another; Finn is established as the killer-who-couldn’t through body language, inaction and an abundance of close-up shots (quite outside the image of a Star Wars stormtrooper - the fictional go-to of militarized anonymity), whilst Rae’s role as the interplanetary dreamer is done differently to that of Luke Skywalker in episode 4; with breathtaking establishing shots and a-day-in-the-life-on-Jakku sequence that, again, bait audience expectation using old Star Wars iconography (Star Destroyers, an AT-AT walker etc.). It’s an admittedly cheesy method of rebuilding your fantasy world sure, but one that was sorely missing last time around.
Famed author Jo Walton coined a term that stands as the cornerstone of good narrative exposition: Incluing. Defined as "the process of scattering information seamlessly through the text, as opposed to stopping the story to impart the information", I think the examples I’ve listed so far are textbook standard as far as film is concerned. If you were also looking for a one word answer for what was wrong with the prequel trilogy, incluing is as simultaneously effective and blunt as any lightsaber. Whether you felt more uncomfortable in a Jedi council hall or a galactic republican coffee room, so rarely was any information imparted to the audience through purely cinematic means, perhaps explaining why the CGI rendered ‘single-take’ that opened up Revenge of the Sith probably got more praise than it deserved.
Of course Star Wars as a series has the unique advantage over other blockbusters in that it can actually spell-out plot points from the get go using its opening crawl, yet have it be one of the most thrilling portions of the flick (trade negotiations notwithstanding). Personally, I think this is where our new movie actually outshines the original. Not envisioned as a trilogy, its strange how A New Hope kicks off with the sentence, “It is a period of civil war”, and ends basically in the thick of conflict (though I am aware that George Lucas had other ideas for how it was supposed to read). Meanwhile, J.J. Abrams actually sets up the perfect bookend for film one: “Luke Skywalker has vanished.” And then he is found. Storytelling at its finest!
On the subject, I’ve heard every fan and their mother (and I do mean that earnestly) complain that The Force Awakens tells a story they already heard a long time ago in the exact same, far, far away galaxy. I’ll put my biases on the table and say the throw-backs bothered me far less than others. Whilst a pastiche of old Star Wars tropes was something I only half expected, I rather like the idea of the ‘retro-movie’ that George Lucas himself ironically and deridingly threw out in his Charlie Rose interview.
In practice though, many of the more obvious reused story beats are not given the same expository grace as the new elements. Sure, the film tries not to waste any time in plainly telling us that Kylo Ren is Han Solo’s son, but the reveal of Starkiller Base and subsequent destruction of the Republic, shoehorning Maz Kanata’s cantina into the lull point and setting up a tensionless final X-wing assault wouldn’t feel so tasteless if they were given the same storytelling care as the all important first act of the film, which was happy to let the camera and setting guide the viewer, rather than leave it up to clunky dialogue that pretty much defines the inferior second half.
The most in depth critique of Star Wars: The Force Awakens directorial approach I’ve read is the repeated crowning of J.J. Abrams as the ‘ultimate fan-film director’. Well, to me that implies at least that he is somewhat exceptional at making movies, and an exceptionally made movie is what we got. It leaves me both arrested and cautious for Episode VIII, to be directed by Rian Johnson. Though his complicated 2012 sci-fi hit Looper relied on a narration-led approach that would never fly with Star Wars, it did present symbolic character dynamics and pulpy futuristic-action that could take this premier Hollywood franchise to even bolder frontiers.
Next time: How the 'Blizzard' logo could define the next era of Blockbuster cinema.
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