AUTHOR’S NOTE: This article was originally published on the Cinematic Katzenjammer in January, 2016.
Dr. Manhattan: “Don’t you see the futility of asking me to save a world that I no longer have any stake in?.”
Silk Spectre II: “Jon, don’t be ridiculous! Earth’s too important to hinge on one relationship!”
Dr. Manhattan: “Not to me.”
Silk Spectre II: “Everyone will die!”
Dr. Manhattan: “And the universe will not even notice.”
In Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the First Order controls the Starkiller Base – a planetary super-weapon roughly 100 times the size of the original Death Star. Midway through the movie, General Hux fiercely announces the impending death of the Republic. He then 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. There has been no established race against time involving the Starkiller Base. Everything is about finding Luke Skywalker, and, as far as we know, that’s all the First Order is interested in too. No motivation for or reason behind the order is given either, other than “it is ready now.” Snoke does not appear to be concerned with Kylo Ren’s wavering or the strength of the Republic itself. And no one talks about this as though it’s merely a test for the weapon itself. The most he frets over is the possibility that if the Resistance finds Skywalker, a new Jedi will rise from it, and therefore the First Order needs a changed strategy. This statement from him is neither clear nor intelligible. Otherwise, what story exists at this point sees its flow interrupted for this moment.
But okay, we’ve got a new plot re-framing from this. Now it’s a new race against time and the Resistance is on its own.
Which raises another problem; what was the narrative function? Should we be angry with Luke Skywalker – the guy we assume could have made a difference here – for disappearing? Is this his failure? Did this affect Kylo Ren’s personal struggle to stay true to the dark path? Was there anyone or anything particularly important or of interest to anyone on any of those planets?
The answer to the above questions in this film (forget the followups) is anywhere between “no” and “unclear.” We catch a brief glimpse of the doomed on those ill-fated worlds before they shatter. Otherwise, we have never seen them before and the Republic has only been vaguely mentioned once. It apparently backs the Resistance’s fight against the First Order, but that’s it. We don’t know how. We don’t know how deep. We don’t know if there are problems. We don’t know who is involved or what they are concerned with. The characters we have followed thus far are all either missing in action or on some other world meeting each other.
This sequence is meant to rhyme with the Death Star’s nuking of Alderaan in the Original Star Wars. But did any of it matter here?
In Mass Effect 2, Mordin Solus makes the following observation:
“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.”
We’ve compared the two scenes; now let’s contrast them. 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 battle 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 Leia’s message, our heroes – Luke Skywalker, Obi-Wan Kenobi, C-3PO, R2-D2, Han Solo, and Chewbacca – 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, Obi-Wan feels it immediately. And then, to their bewilderment, they come upon the scattered asteroids of what used to be their destination. That then leads them straight to the Death Star itself.
In the Original Star Wars, 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 and filmmakers fall into this trap all the time. When a story moment is epic and hits you hard, it is rarely because the moment itself is simply that way in a vacuum. It’s numbers game logic without the humanity.
You can depict a destructive event with the best visual effects, texture, and musical scoring ever created, but if no character is immediately, viscerally, and dramatically involved in it, it amounts to nothing more than an empty war crime that you’ll forget about five minutes later. The dramatic substance behind it is where the power comes from, and that comes from characters. They are our links, and we need to know what they’re doing or at least what they’re about. A story does not become more urgent or important just because a bigger weapon is shooting at a bigger target.
And in Star Wars, stakes are not raised just because untold billions die instead of millions, or four planets get vaporized instead of one. The Force Awakens anthropomorphized the unidentified planets and the unidentified people on them. And because nothing in the story led to it, the moment happened in a vacuum.
Everyone died… and you didn’t even notice. That’s what happens when you don’t have a favorite nephew.