The Force Awakens and The Empire Strikes Back
Simplicity is never a bad idea in films. But it’s certainly not impossible to have multiple plotlines. For example, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, my favorite in the franchise, tells two different stories and links them together in the end. It works. It actually works great, as the two stories come crashing into each other for a thrilling climax. Everyone fails at the end. Luke steps into manhood at great cost. He has to face the truth about who his father is. He gets his ass properly kicked and fully understands just how outclassed he is fighting Vader. He loses a hand and his blue lightsaber for his troubles. Innocence gone. But he’s also stepped into his power. The sins of Han’s past have finally caught up with him. Metaphorically, he dies.
Naturally, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK tells a more sophisticated story than STAR WARS. They’re both great films, but very different films. Similarly RETURN OF THE JEDI deals with two separate plot lines, but the writing simply isn’t as good or original. There’s lots of action, but the characters aren’t put through the ringer as much as they were in the previous film. And yeah, we want to see the Empire go down, but they aren’t on the brink of any great victory. (As it turns out, the second Death Star was just being built to lure the rebels to one spot, but this plotline doesn’t pay off, as it doesn’t actually affect a reversal in the story). I’m not sure Han needed to die, but certainly an act of self-sacrifice would have given him a great arc, considering his origins and the fact that his friends had all recently risked their lives to save his.
So why don’t the parallel plotlines work so well in THE FORCE AWAKENS? I’d argue it’s for similar reaons that Return of the Jedi was just okay, where THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK was great. (And just to clarify, I don’t feel THE FORCE AWAKENS is “deeply broken.” It’s a good flick, but it’s not a great one either). Is it the presence of Han Solo, or the fact that he wasn’t used so well? Let’s look at his death. Is it an act of self sacrifice? Sort of. He risks his life to try to reach the part of his son that is still good. And he fails. Let’s face it. That’s kind of esoteric. And the choice not too tough to make. What father (complete assholes notwithstanding) wouldn’t gladly sacrifice himself for his son? Not a tough choice. What if it had come down to Han having to choose between the lives of his Resistance friends (and by extension the galaxy) and the life of his son? Much tougher. The right thing to do is kill Kylo Ren, but Han can’t kill his son. The consequence is that the mission fails. The Resistance (including Leia) gets decimated, and the only people to make it out alive are those who were on the mission to destroy Death Star 3. Basically the Empire destroys all its opposition except for maybe twenty dudes. (Han lives, but he’s now consumed with guilt and a lust for revenge and vows to kill Kylo Ren the next chance he gets). Thus the mission to find Luke Skywalker and build a new Jedi Order becomes their only hope ;-) And a slim one at that.
Hence, The Force Awakens doesn’t suffer from too many characters. Rather, it doesn’t push those characters to their emotional limits. It doesn’t present them with hard choices that damn them no matter which path they choose. It tries to be an EMPIRE STRIKES BACK with a STAR WARS ending.