A narrative is a synthesis. A protagonist and an antagonist pushing against each other, powering the story machine. Often, the conflicts are a conflict of interest, and they deal with that in their own way. That’s the story.
That’s how films are driven. And audiences will be a lot more forgiving of a film if the protagonist and the antagonist work as characters. Contrivances and forced scenes are a lot easier to swallow if we can at least understand why the protagonist and antagonist are fixed against each other. The old adage of “no story without conflict” is referenced so often because it’s imperative.
Without a convincing conflict between protagonist and antagonist, nothing else is convincing. Star Wars has worked with audiences because the fantastical world it builds is irrelevant – the characters have releatable desires, so the space battles feel important because they’re driving a conflict we can believe. That’s why Star Wars succeeds at storytelling. From the first shot, a conflict’s established.
The opening crawl tells us that the protagonist is fighting in a rebellion against an empire. The first thing we see in this civil war is a rebel transport ship, followed by a much larger imperial battleship. All in one shot. That immediately establishes the conflict and how powerless the rebels feel against the Empire, and how oppressive the Empire is.
Therefore, we can relate to it. From that point on, we want the rebels to succeed and for the imperials to be crushed, because it reflects real situations in the world. There are many oppressive governments resisting uprisings, and that’s what makes Star Wars a recognisable conflict. So when we meet Vader, we already understand what Vader wants.
In Star Wars, Vader wants to recover the stolen Death Star plans, while Luke wants to return them to Leia, the character that’s come between them. That’s synthesis. And it works brilliantly. Whereas Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens has the same problem that just about every Abrams-directed film has.
The characters don’t have established motivations, which makes them difficult to feel any empathy toward. Alfred Hitchcock once said that motivations are irrelevant in fiction, and thus was propelled onto a pedestal Hitchock doesn’t deserve. Character motivations do matter, and it’s where Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens falls short. Remember: story-telling is building a house, and you need capable foundations to support it.
Without the foundations being capable, the whole structure doesn’t work. Motivations are the foundation of storytelling. Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens doesn’t have them. While Han’s motivations aren’t established very well -Han seems to pilot Finn, Rey and Chewie just about anywhere Han senses may be convenient or just feels like going – Han’s a character I can put aside.
This isn’t about Han. I do consider Han the protagonist for being the first character credited and for Han’s familial connection to the antagonist, but Han’s not the antagonist. That’s Ren. And Ren’s motivations aren’t established at all, which makes understanding why Ren’s so hell bent on destruction difficult to understand (like his voice).
When we first meet Ren, here’s what happens: Ren arrives on Jakku, seeking the map to Luke; Ren intimidates and kills The Vicar and orders the Jakku village to be burned down. So basically, Ren’s seeking a MacGuffin. The problem is… so was Vader. Except the MacGuffin of Star Wars was the Death Star plans, and they’re recovered at the end of Act II – Luke’s accomplished Luke’s goal of returning the schematics to Leia, making Act III the resolution, as the Death Star schematics’ relevance pays-off in a battle sequence.
The Death Star schematics are never just a plot-driver – they provide the conflict but also the resolution. Whereas the map to Luke is itself not explained well and ultimately contribute nothing to Ren’s character. Instead, the map to Luke is established as being important early-on in order to lead Rey to Luke at the end. But finding Luke is completely irrelevant.
All Rey wants is to return Luke’s lightsaber, but Luke’s location could have been revealed through any arbitrary plot device. And that’s what the map is – arbitrary. Through Star Wars, Vader’s character is driven by the desire to recover the schematics to a weapon that will empower the Empire, and in Act III, becomes desperate as the Rebellion now has the power to destroy the Death Star. Vader’s developing motivations affect Vader’s actions and it makes Vader work as an antagonist.
But Ren is dispatched to Jakuu to for no reason other than to introduce something that’s only present for the purposes of nostalgic fan service. And Ren justifies this by claiming to fulfil Vader’s own wishes, even though it’s also acknowledged that Luke taught Ren the ways of the Force. Did Luke not mention that Vader found inner peace and turned to the Light? And why exactly did Ren turn his back on the Jedi?
These things are given as back story, as an attempt to flesh-out Ren’s character and make Ren seem complex and interesting, but a back story is more than just vague descriptions of his past – character establishment requires being told why Ren took those actions, based on Ren’s world view. Ben explained in Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi that the truth depends on our points of view. It’s one of the key scenes in the Saga, as it defines the ongoing conflict present: these character just disagree on certain aspects. Whereas Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens decides to insert a character – Maz – to explain that the First Order is simply evil’s new form, following the fall of the Galactic Empire.
And as soon as something is labelled as evil, it’s no longer complex. And when something’s not complex, there’s no space for relateability, and that makes me ultimately not care about what a character wants. So why should I care about anything else? Ren might feel an inner turmoil within him as he struggles with the Dark and the Light, but I prefer that to actually be developed, and not just used as an excuse for objectively incompetent storytelling.