Now, I would like to clarify right off the bat that this is not one of the hundreds of articles grasping for attention by claiming that the new Star Wars movie is worse than the abysmal prequel movies. Indeed, I consider the new entry in the series to be on-par with—or possibly even slightly better than—Episode VI (putting it just behind V and IV in my overall rankings). But regardless of how much I enjoyed it, I want to talk about one of my two biggest criticisms of the movie, which most commentators (both positive and negative) have been ignoring: the film’s pacing.
My other biggest criticism is The Force Awakens‘ excessive fanservice—with the most egregious example (which graduates from fanservice into the repetition that many have gone a bit overboard in deriding) being the Star Killer Base. But plenty of people have raised that concern. The more technical concern that I have, and most likely the primary reason that I consider it a weaker film than most of the original trilogy, is that its pacing is over-rushed, essentially throughout.
The nature of this article is such that it requires spoiling basic plot details of Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, so you should only continue reading after this paragraph if you either do not mind spoilers or have already seen the film.
Pacing and The Force Awakens:
The Force Awakens did a lot of things right. It brought the series back to the light, unserious action serial style of the original trilogy; it introduced a suite of interesting and fun new characters; its comedy and its drama were sufficiently effective; and it had the emotional core that was missing from the hollow, clumsy prequels. Do I wish that it had taken more risks with the plot? Yes, but the Star Wars franchise has always had a certain ‘fated recurrence’ theme and there are now two upcoming films (plus many spin-offs) to take the property in bold new directions.
So just to be absolutely clear, what do I mean when I say the word ‘pacing?’ I mean the spacing of plot events in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and the rhythmic connection between slower-moving portions of the film and faster-moving portions. And what do I mean when I say above that the pacing of the film is ‘over-rushed?’ I mean that the film is comprised almost wholely of faster-moving sections that jam too many plot events too close together.
Most of Star Wars: The Force Awakens is spent on the First Order’s chase of the film’s primary MacGuffin, the Luke Skywalker star map in the possession of BB-8. The first scene is the frantic removal of that map from a village, just as it is besieged by the First Order and entirely destroyed. This marks the first of many disposable locations that will be introduced and almost immediately torn asunder, but more on that later. Subsequent to this sequence, the audience meets Rey, and these introductory scenes are the only relaxed experience that the viewer will have until The Force Awakens is nearly at its climax. From here on out, each scene in succession is packed with action and confrontation, with little or no breathing room in between.
Now, I can already hear the response to this allegation: ‘So what’s the problem? It’s an action movie! It’s supposed to be action-packed!’ Well, I agree, but I don’t think that’s as clear-cut a thing to desire as it seems. A good go-to example of the right way to pace an action movie is Die Hard; it intersperses the violent and tense interactions between McClane and the criminals with the experiences of the hostages, the mounting suspicions of the police, and McClane’s stealthy traversal of the Nakatomi Plaza. Imagine instead the same movie shot as nothing but McClane pursued by gunfire as he runs from one room into another for 2 hours. The movie needs to establish a calm baseline for the tense and active moments to seem meaningfully tense and active.
Or consider the movie Crank. Its basic premise entails that it is an action movie that throws such pacing concerns out the window. The result is that the action set pieces knowingly abandon any semblance of realism, and are instead generally played for laughs. And I think, even in the case of a movie like Crank, if you watch it again you’ll be surprised at how often the protagonist engages in lengthy conversations and intentionally slowed interactions.
Pacing in The Force Awakens:
So now consider Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which follows up the introduction of Rey with Poe’s torture followed by Poe and Finn’s explosive escape followed by a ship crash followed by a hand-to-hand fight scene followed by a ship chase scene followed by the deadly gas mishap followed by a tractor beam capture followed by the attack of Han Solo’s debt collectors followed by the rathtar chase followed by the Falcon escape followed (shortly after) by Rey’s vision followed by the attack on the cantina and so on.
The only exceptions I can readily think of—which come before the scenes with the Resistance directly preceding the climax and which go on for more than 45 seconds—are the cantina scene and the interactions with Snoke. But the characters never allow you to feel relaxed, as we hear variations on ‘We shall inform the First Order that the droid is here’ from auxiliary characters on at least three separate occasions, including hearing it from two characters in succession upon entering the cantina.
The result is that the film ends up feeling at times somewhat exasperated and breathless. The viewer doesn’t become connected to any location long enough to mourn its decimation; even the destruction of the cantina amounts to little more than an additional visual snack. Imagine a horror movie that is nothing but a series of jump scares. At some point you’re no longer even startled. You just think, ‘there goes another one,’ as I did while watching outposts, buildings, communities, planets, and ships explode one after the other in The Force Awakens.
I was never convinced that there was a chance of failure during the climax, in part because there had not been a new location introduced yet without almost immediately having it partially or entirely destroyed. This heightens a sense that the drama and tension of the climax are manufactured (which is certainly not helped by the distractingly hackneyed, unrealistic, and overused ‘countdown-to-fire’ coming from the First Order’s operations personnel before and during the final fight).
Now, in order to make my case—and make it clearly—I have had to overemphasize some of my observations here, so I would like to conclude by reiterating that I truly enjoyed The Force Awakens and felt that it was a worthy entry in the Star Wars saga. Fortunately for reconciling my enjoyment with my above point about the disposability of the settings, this series has always been more about the characters and the emotional storytelling than about the backstory of the universe or each of the planets.
But the overarching issue of the un-rhythmic, overly quick pacing that plagues the first two acts is that we never get to live a while in the universe of Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, as we do in the original trilogy, for instance, on Tatooine, in the Falcon, on Bespin, on Hoth, on Dagobah, on the Endor moon, and even aboard the first Death Star. This makes it a lot harder for the action to be compelling when it arrives, and makes the characters harder to emotionally invest in. Counterintuitively, I think this action movie would have benefitted from sacrificing just a bit of its action to additional exposition. (Perhaps more exposition also would have prevented the remarks of the many commenters who feel numerous plot points in The Force Awakens raise questions that the series seems uninterested in answering.) Needless to say, however, I’m very interested in seeing what happens next.