Sunday, January 03, 2016

The Force Awakens Was Great Until It Wasn’t, Part 1: Finn

So you all know that I’m a Star Wars fan. And you all know that I’m a curmudgeon. So will I be a fan or a curmudgeon when it comes to the latest movie to have “Star Wars” in its title? Eh, both. I thought the first half was shockingly good, but then everything I liked about the first part turned sour. So let’s spend a week looking at those elements and figuring out how they lost me.

Let’s start with Finn, played by John Boyega. A stormtrooper-turned-deserter is a great idea for a character, for so many reasons:
  • It’s something that we never saw, or even imagined, in the original trilogy. It implies right away that this movie will venture into new territory, and not just be a retread.
  • It automatically sets him out on a great Maslovian journey, going from literally zero to hero.
  • It gives the actor a lot to play, and Boyega does a great job with it.
  • It recreates the thematic idealism and inherent pacifism of the original trilogy: if a stormtrooper can be redeemed, then anybody can.
  • It gives us something else that we’ve never seen in a Star Wars movie before: an everyman. A guy who is essentially new to this universe and to heroism, who gets to plunge in over his head, get confused, say gee whiz to some things, and roll his eyes at others, just like we’re doing in the audience. (That wasn’t really what Luke was like. He was actually a pretty canny operator throughout.)
But it’s that last quality that gets him in trouble in the second half. Here’s the thing about everymen: they have to come into their own eventually. We love to identify with a hero at first, but then we want them to leave us behind: we don’t want to play a video game in which we have to push the joystick in order to get our avatar to move.

This brings us to the other problem big problem with Finn: his motivation never tracks after the first half, even though it could have and should have.

These two problems both come to a head in a bit of dialogue that gets a nice little laugh in the theater, but harms the character irreparably: when he reveals to Han that he was actually just a janitor in the big base, and he lied to the rebellion about being able to blow it up. That’s bad enough, but then he compounds the problem by implying that he doesn’t particularly want to blow it up and he’s actually there to save his would-be girlfriend.

I’m sorry, what? This is an everyman trope too far. He’s a stormtrooper, he’s agreed to lead an assault on the stormtroopers’ planet-destroying weapon, so everyone he’s just met and indeed the entire galaxy is counting on him. This is his chance to use his special skills and become the big hero we all want and need him to be, but he’s too busy crushing? Suddenly I hate him.

And the movie doesn’t really seem to like him that much either. Did you notice that they never put him on the same level with Rey, literally or figuratively? In the cantina scene where he wants to ditch out on her, he is for some reason on a lower step and a head shorter than her. Why? And that hug they have when they reunite at the base, he’s hugging her low, which makes for the most friendzoney hug of all time: His big romantic gesture (I’d rather find you than save the universe!) results in zero romantic sparks. Is it any surprise that he gets knocked out and misses the finale (not even waking up for the epilogue)? At that point, he’s been totally sacrificed as a character, rendered to just the role of not-Rey. It’s a bummer because it turns a potentially-great character into an impossible-to-cheer-for dud.

But hey, what about Rey? Let’s get to her tomorrow…


Mark said...

Agreed completely. It was to the point where I genuinely hoped that he had been killed in the his (almost) final scene.

I'll be interested to see what you have to say about Rey, but for me it felt like the movie had a similar problem as the prequels of not knowing who the hero was. For the first (I have no idea how many) minutes it was clear that Finn would be the hero, and then it seemed like all of a sudden the filmmakers said "actually, this Rey character is more interesting to us, let's make her our hero".

Misa Sugiura said...

I remember feeling a let down in that moment as well. Unless we were supposed to feel disappointed? He has two more episodes to go, presumably. Still, I wanted him to man up and want to save the galaxy as well as the girl.

Misa Sugiura said...

PS: I love your blog!

Ben said...

I tapped out quite a bit earlier, when Finn cheered while mowing down stormtroopers, not ten minutes after being stunned by the death of one in battle. This was his introduction and the fundamental conceit of his character, that there's humanity behind the helmets and he understands it; it should reasonably have fueled an aversion to violence or at least regret at its necessity in the face of evil. Or for the sake of survival, which we find out is much more his motive when he first meets Poe: "Why are you saving me?" "Because it's the right thing." "You need a pilot." "I need a pilot." That's twice his morality is undone in the first fifteen minutes, and then the possibility that this is the beginning of his development is undone when, as you say, he's not trying to save the galaxy, he's crushing.

A stormtrooper deserter is a great idea, but I'm not sure what they did with it. The feeling I get is that the character became subject to higher priorities, like making Rey the more prominent lead and injecting comedy throughout.

And yes, lying about being able to blow up the oscillator is crazy - and it's completely unnecessary! Finn's task was to disable the shield: if they needed him to lie to get to the base, he could've simply lied about how well he knows his way around it and volunteer to go (a double reason to capture Phasma: to lead them to the shield control).

Unknown said...

It's funny ... I loved the movie, but I thought they ruined Finn's character in a totally different (though perhaps related) scene.

For me, it was what I think was the act 1 to act 2 break (though I don't have it plotted out, so I could be wrong on that) when he abandoned the plot for what seemed to me no good reason until the movie found ways to over-motivate him to come back.

At the beginning, we had two awesome, super-sympathetic, super-intrinsically-motivated characters who had joined the plot on very little provocation, because it was the right thing. I thought that worked GREAT. Especially for Finn, the fact that he took zero time to leave everything he'd ever known was an incredibly strong character choice--we see how strongly he's motivated by and drawn towards doing good. Not all stories work with that level of squeaky-clean hero, but I thought it was pretty perfect here.

And then, when he and Rey have literally nothing better to be doing than this adventure, all of a sudden he's leaving to go to the outer rim of the galaxy. He’s running away from his new skills and new friends (who may be the only friends he’s literally ever had (and I loved the interactions they’d had right before this!) to go the middle of nowhere? Why?

It was especially frustrating because the plot so easily could have given him a valid reason for second thoughts at that point in the story. Like ... he’s naively done the right thing, and there are so many ways to gut-punch him into realizing he’s bitten off more than he could chew. (Having to kill fellow stormtroopers who were the only family he’s ever known! Revelations about the organization he’s pretending he’s part of but actually knows nothing about! Seriously, the list goes on.)

Instead, he wanders away from the plot (and I think Rey does too, but her scenes at this point were so confusing that I can't remember the sequence of them) and the movie just kind of hangs there for several scenes until Rey is kidnapped so Finn has to rejoin the plot. I didn't think his characterization ever recovered from that switch from internal to external motivation.

All I can think was that the screenwriters had this giant Joseph Campbell checklist and somebody said "Oh my gosh, we forgot to make him refuse the call!" at which point all the characters refused to be involved in the plot they were already well-involved in so the screenwriters could throw in unnecessary, external, and totally character-erasing motivation.

(I also thought they completely and utterly didn't earn that R2-D2 Wakes Up moment. Even if they come up with some detail later on that explains why it happened, it was just this ugly moment of "...What? Really?" They needed to earn their way out of the dark moment after Han's death, and instead they got rescued by a random plot device.)

Unknown said...

Just to add why I think my complaint and the original post are kind of the same issue:

Finn joined the good guys on very flimsy provocation, and that was great: we learn he's willing to sacrifice a lot for what he believes is right, and he's willing to move quickly into drastic action. But it was a really naive move on his part, and his motivation needed to get deeper and more complicated at some point. The movie could have ended act 1/started act 2 with Finn realizing how naive he'd been and how much he didn't know, and seeing/realizing something that made him understand why the resistance was necessary. That way, when the time comes towards the end for him to floor us with his heroism, we'd have gotten it. Instead, the movie took away his half-baked selflessness and instead of giving him a deeper, more mature selfless motivation, it gave him the smaller, narrower, and basically selfish one of saving the girl.

(And there were many, many moments I really liked in here. Rey's payoff, that even if she didn't exactly need saving, someone had cared enough to come back for her, was lovely. But they could have made that happen even if Finn had had a deeper overall motivation.)

Matt Bird said...

I agree that his sudden decision to ditch should have had a big motivation, if it happened at all, whereas instead it just seemed to come out of nowhere. And yeah, it feels like they were relying on some story guru (not unlike myself) who told them that they needed that beat there, even if it was totally inorganic to the story.

Sam Zucca said...

To me it just left me wanting more. I understand the problems with Finn's arc, and that it wasn't that solid throughout a lot of the film. The way I see it is that he is essentially in a supporting role instead of being a protagonist. He may have a significant amount of screen time, but essentially most of his actions in this is to help Rey. By looking at it from Finn's point of view, it does give a rather uneven story. But the deceit was that we were following Rey the whole time, and due to Finn having had certain tropes of the protagonist throughout, it was easy to see it as about him instead. Also, I really didn't see any of the romance element between Rey and Finn in this one. To me it boiled down to simply a friendship, they stick up for each other and at first this is what helps Finn survive. Only at the midpoint of the film do Finn's two agenda's split; he has to choose between his friend and saving his own skin. What I mainly liked about The Force Awakens is that it wasn't all tied up at the end. This is probably the Star Wars film with the most loose ends, and I think it suggests that we're getting a more structured story in terms of a trilogy instead of in single films.