Unlike my last post, this one will have some spoilers. It’s been two weeks, folks. Information wants to be free!
In general, I enjoyed The Force Awakens when I saw it. However, I noticed during the climax at the end that the assault on the Death Star—uh, no, the assault on the Other Thing—anyways, it lacked a lot of the tension that characterized the original Death Star attack during A New Hope. I was discussing this with a friend the other day, and between the two of us I think we figured out the problem, and what JJ Abrams should have done instead.
During A New Hope, the first two attempts to attack the target failed. Worse, with every X-Wing that was shot down, it became increasingly less likely that the target could be attacked at all, until finally we are left with Luke, by himself, a sitting duck in Darth Vader’s gunsights. Dramatic tension was at a fever pitch, and then the Millennium Falcon arrives to save the day. Seconds later, the torpedoes go in, and we experience a massive rush of relief.
In The Force Awakens, first of all, the time limit has little impact on the viewer. We have seen this before, and giving us an exact (and arbitrary) time limit also drains away the tension until it returns in the final seconds, if even then. Second, the attacking squadrons immediately launch their attack on the primary target, and it fails without any particular explanation—or hope that the next one could succeed. Thus, we viewers realize, the X-Wing fighters actually don’t matter at all in the fight for dramatic purposes, and exist mostly to die gloriously.
So all of the attention is focused on our heroes on the ground—the same ones who have already planted bombs, and are in the middle of a dramatic character moment with a lot of emotion, and emotional tension, but not the tension you get from a race against the clock. At the final moment, time even seems to stand still, working against the larger sense of jeopardy the movie was supposed to create. All the pieces are working at cross-purposes.
What should the movie have done instead?
In the massive preemptive strike launched by the Super Weapon, it takes out multiple targets at once and then shuts down for a long period to recharge. This was a mistake, from a storytelling perspective. Only one of its targets was actually time-critical (the Republic fleet). Destroy that one first, and the others could be picked off at leisure. So what JJ Abrams should have done, is have the weapon fire once, every two minutes, continuously.
That way, every mistake the heroes make, every snag they hit, every obstacle they must overcome, means that millions more people die while they watch, each time the weapon fires again. Even better, it provides a better reason for the First Order to discover the location of the Resistance: when the X-Wing fighters make a panicked jump directly from their base to the Super Weapon, the bad guys can simply plot their path backward over the course of the next five or ten minutes. Then, after having destroyed several targets while we squirm in impotent horror, they can finally calculate the location of their hated enemies, and train their sights on the good guys, chortling evilly.
And then they can blow up.
That would have made for a much more effective Act III. And for the rest of us storytellers, it presents a lesson that sudden explosions are not necessarily better than explosions that we see coming, but cannot prevent.