Fanservice is not substance. Used sparingly, fanservice is a great tool for giving a story flavor and personality–be it through nostalgia, catchphrases, outrageous character moments, over the top sexy moments, over the top funny moments, etc. But mistaking fanservice for substance leads to valuable screen time spent on uninteresting content.
What do we love about Han Solo?
He’s a rogue and a scoundrel. We see him go from selfish to selfless in Episode IV and from emotionally closed to emotionally vulnerable in Episode V and VI. We see him come to believe in the Force and become an entirely new person by the end of the original trilogy.
When we see Han on screen the first time in Episode VII, we see THAT character. We see the lovable rogue. We remember the emotionally transformative journey we went on with him in the originals.
Hearing him say, “Chewie, we’re home” and “The stories are all true” is meaningful because it comes from him specifically.
But then, the movie continues with him.
What are we shown?
Do we see the scoundrel? Do we see the cynic? Do we see the vast emotional transformation?
No, we see an emotionally open character who believes in the Force and, without hesitation, joins the Resistance with no thought of personal gain. He’s selfless, he’s mature, he cares about his family.
We do NOT see what we love about Han. We see a boring, flat character we only care about because of his name.
Trying to turn the nostalgia fanservice of Han into substance gave us a lot of screen time devoted to a mediocre character. This was time that could have been spent on ANYTHING–developing Rey and Finn, developing the plot, developing the themes, even exploring the setting. But no, we have to watch Han in another cantina, Han trying to find weapons for our main characters, Han fiddling with Chewie’s bowcaster for two minutes. The nostalgia high is gone at this point, it’s diluted by the amount of time we’ve spent on it, and the rest of the movie suffers for it.
Look at another prime example of insubstantial fanservice: the Force.
What did using the Force mean in Episode IV?
It meant Luke turning off his targeting computer and trusting his instincts.
In Episode V, what did being a Jedi mean?
It meant not judging based on appearances.
It meant being able to face yourself.
In Episode VI, it meant throwing your lightsaber away and refusing to fight, because you believe so strongly that there is Good even in your biggest enemies.
The Force in the originals was a DEEP and moving concept that was explored and expounded upon more and more with each movie.
In Episode VII, what did using the Force mean? What did being a Jedi mean?
Lightsaber fights and mind tricks.
Rey’s Force moment was making a lightsaber fly through the air. Finn’s was just holding a lightsaber. Flashy, cool, but superficial and insubstantial.
We had one scene where we heard the classic explanation of what the Force is, an energy field creating by all living things, etc. And it went no deeper than that. Not even a little.
Even in the Other Star Wars Movies That Shall Not Be Named, we explored entirely new dimensions of the Force and what it means to be Jedi. Qui Gon showed us the role of openness and lack of prejudice in Jedi philosophy with the concept of the Living Force. Anakin showed us how devotion to the Force plays out (for better or for worse) with love and romance.
For a movie called “The Force Awakens”, we wasted so much time on the superficial aspects of the Force, we simply did not have time to explore what we love about it: it’s meaning. This is what happens when you treat fanservice like substance.
There are ways of doing nostalgia so that it acts as both fanservice and content. Rey wearing an X-Wing helmet while she ate dinner was a perfect example of this.
It’s nostalgic to us because it brings back all the awesome memories, but it goes further than just that because it’s such a strong display of character. She’s a scavenger, which means she could have easily traded this piece of junk for a little more food. But despite barely scraping by as it is, she decided she’d rather have the helmet. That’s how much she respects the past and longs to become like the heroes she’s heard about growing up.
If more of Episode VII followed this pattern, or if they had been sparing and just chosen a few scenes–“Chewie, we’re home”, “The stories are all true”, the dramatic appearance of Luke at the end–instead of devoting every other second to nostalgia, we would have had a great movie with great fanservice as a bonus.
But instead, they just kept layering on the nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake without a thought for substance. We ended up with a half-baked movie that spent more time superficially reminding us about other stories than it did developing its own.
In my mind, this was the cause of nearly all the other problems I’ve discussed in this series: you will not have time to tell a full, satisfying story if you devote so much space to insubstantial content.
I can only hope they tone it down in Episode VIII.
Stay tuned for one final conclusory post to this series in two weeks. Thanks for reading!
<<PART 4 – OUTRO>>
So why exactly