How Rey Reflects The Strengths & Weaknesses Of STAR WARS THE FORCE AWAKENS
Amidst the mad rush of advance tickets sales, I made sure to lock down a screening on each day of the film’s opening weekend. You know, just in case. Nothing will ever rival the atmosphere of opening night, as six hundred of us long time fans huddled under the gargantuan IMAX Screen at Lincoln Square, awaiting the sequel to our very childhoods. We laughed, we cheered, some of us even cried. The adrenaline rush carried over to the next day, when I found myself watching it once more (this time seated a mere six inches in front of a giant Dolby Atmos speaker) and I had just as much fun as the first-timers in the audience. Then came Saturday. Then Sunday. And I just didn’t bother. The more I thought about the film after coming down from my initial high, the more things started to fall apart. That’s what tends to happen with J.J. Abrams movies. Whether or not he’s entirely responsible for the shape the story takes, he’s able to mask its flaws with enough flash and forward momentum that you don’t really notice them at first, not to mention his penchant for extracting great performances from his chosen gems. I gave myself nearly two weeks to digest my issues with the film (which I’ll go into in detail about momentarily) and when I finally decided to watch it again last night, a strange thing happened. Despite being aware of the film’s half-baked, familiar plot and its characters’ muddled motivations, I found myself swept up in the individual moments, knowing full well that I would be even more annoyed at having noticed the film’s problems the moment the credits rolled. A strange feeling for sure, but even stranger was the fact that two whole weeks in, I was still sitting amongst a sold out audience at Lincoln Square, whose cheers and applause bookended the film. Audiences don’t normally do that past the first Saturday, at least at that location. The memes and parody Twitters are almost inescapable, and people are simply itching for the day when they can discuss it openly without the fear of spoiling it for someone. Despite being largely agreed upon as inferior to the Original Trilogy, and even with its issues constantly floating towards the surface as the days go by, Star Wars: The Force Awakens has connected with our culture in a big way. Whether or not it makes more money than every other movie in history, that’s already a milestone worth investigating.
The night I first saw the film, I wrote about how Kylo Ren felt like a reflection of J.J. Abrams. Much like the subject matter, that was my gut response to the film’s text and texture. The Force Awakens is a conflicted film clearly resulting from some story changes late in the game, but one that gets by on its incredible characters and the delightful actors portraying them. If Disney’s learned one thing from its Marvel success, it’s how to create and market characters that people love fiercely and intensely. Yet a prevailing criticism is how those characters are done a disservice by the film itself, and Rey is a perfect example. Take for instance a pair of moments seemingly cobbled out of older iterations of the story, the two scenes between Rey and Leia. When they first meet, shortly after the death of Han Solo, they embrace, and the entire scene shifts focus to show them isolated from the rest of the crowd. Neither has any real awareness of the other outside of what they’ve been told (presumably), and from what we’ve seen, they don’t share any emotional connection, or at least they shouldn’t. No, I’m not talking about them potentially being related, or connected through the Force, or any number of other assumptions or predictions that may or may not be true. What I am positing though is that this moment, while completely unearned in a dramatic sense, can still have profound weight, as can their second scene, where we hear the only words spoken between them:
“May the Force be with you.”
Good storytelling involves context, and whether that context is delivered visually or through dialogue (preferred methods aside), it involves giving the audience information to process. I still maintain that these two minor scenes between Rey and Leia would hold much more weight if they had some sort of connection or relationship outside of the fact that we know who they are, but in a world of sequels and long-form cinematic storytelling, is that the only context that matters? These are scenes that don’t hold weight in terms of the emotional development of the characters, or our emotional arcs while watching them, and are ‘unearned’ the same way R2-D2 waking up as a plot convenience feels unearned (even Abrams describes it as “completely lucky and an easy way out,” so please don’t give me any of those excuses that turn the Force into Bluetooth), and yet those who hold the Leia and Rey scenes in high regard despite this have largely said similar things: their embrace is the first time two female main characters are interacting in the saga,and their parting exchange marks the first time an entire generation of Star Wars fans will hear the iconic catchphrase, and it’s an exchange between two women.
Now, before we get all hot and bothered about this, let’s draw a line in the sand here. I’m not saying that this gives those scenes the kind of dramatic weight I was referring to, and I still maintain that an actual relationship between the characters would make their interactions matter more while still having the same effect when it comes to our understanding of the external context, one that’s almost divorced from the story itself. In fact, I’m not even going to really bring up demographics and representation as an end point for my argument, because this is about dramatic moments in a world where these same issues likely don’t exist. Whether or not you felt anything during those scenes, this is an easy-to-understand explanation for why some people did, and it’s one example of the film’s relationship to iconography. That relationship is paramount to understanding not only the film’s strengths and weaknesses, but Rey’s.
[Note: I will not be touching on the current “Mary Sue” argument, because it’s one that involves at least three conflicting definitions from different decades, and it’s not really relevant here]
Right from the outset, Rey is the equal and opposite of Luke Skywalker. Left on a desert planet by her family, she dreams of space adventure and joining the Resistance, wearing the old helmet of an X-Wing pilot, and even has a doll of a Rebellion fighter. Unlike Luke however, she doesn’t want to leave her home. At this point, there’s not much of the film’s mirrored iconography that’s gone unmentioned, from a Stormtrooper disguising himself as a Rebel to a son on the Dark Side resisting the light as he meets his father on a bridge, and I’ve already talked about Kylo Ren fashioning his identity out of Star Wars iconography, but it goes deeper than simply being part of a film that’s half-sequel, half-homage. It’s about this new generation, both familiar and brand new, carving out an identity from the ruins of what came before, and their trajectory is upward mobility within the ranks of the saga. Rey goes from living and working inside fallen Empire ships to being offered a job on the Millennium Falcon. Finn goes from being an anonymous Stormtrooper to a wielder of Luke’s lightsaber. And perhaps most interestingly, while the film’s most blatant Empire Strikes Back re-tread takes place in the form of Han confronting Ren on the bridge, both Rey and Finn have balcony seats to it, as the event unfolds illuminated by spotlight. While the film is planting the seeds for the future of Star Wars, it’s keeping one foot firmly in the past, reclaiming it as part of both this new saga, and its new multifarious fanbase.
This recontextualization however, is not without pitfalls. While we get to live vicariously through the likes of Rey, the need for the saga to replicate even its surprises begins to permeate the character’s construction. Rey says that her origins are classified, though she seems determined to wait for a family she seems to know. As if the filmmakers were getting ready for a big reveal about her lineage but went back on it well into production, the way several of her scenes are edited render the explanation for her abilities in a strange state of limbo. One shot holds on Han Solo as he reacts to hearing about her desert origins, while another cuts away from his conversation with Maz just as Rey is brought up. Neither of these things are given enough emphasis to really matter, but their presence can’t be entirely discounted. They don’t amount to anything within the film, but they could be used to explain something or the other about her in the sequel, if the filmmakers choose to do so. And yet, ignoring them wouldn’t really take much away either. The same can be said for Rey’s abilities, and how her own reactions to them are cut short in the edit. Does she have prior experience with the Millennium Falcon, and perhaps even some Jedi training that she can’t remember? Alternatively, is she just an unusually quick learner? Or it it some combination of the two, where she has prior experience with one and is just naturally attuned to the other? The door seems to have been left open for a number of possibilities, but if Episode VIII were to, for whatever reason, discount these scenes altogether, it wouldn’t make all that much of a difference in the long run. Part of the reason she feels half way between Will Hunting and Jason Bourne is because the ‘mystery’ of her lineage and her past doesn’t really have any effect on her story. Furthermore, it’s hard to really discern what her story is, because it feels woven together from several different drafts that had to be re-attuned to a particular structure, perhaps even during production.
After her first conversation with Maz, when Finn has decided to leave, Rey finally embraces her call to action, not only accepting the mission to return BB-8, but showing enthusiasm at the idea of joining the fight against evil. She even begs Finn to do the same, but it’s his turn to refuse the call. Moments later, she touches Luke’s lightsaber and has visions of both his past, as well as her own. I like this new aspect to the Jedi mythology in which lightsabers are sort of like Horcruxes, but it’s this flashback scene (which also feels like it’s cut extremely short) and the one that immediately follows that feel like the nexus of the film’s disparate nature. While it serves as a setup for her eventual fight with Kylo Ren in a couple of ways, Maz’s words about the relic are somewhat curious. “It belonged to Luke and his father before him, and now it calls to you” is a line that seems to have direct implications for Rey’s lineage, but it’s immediately followed up by her acceptance of the fact that whomever left her on Jakku isn’t coming back, and that training with Luke is her future. In which case, what does that say about the idea that she might already have been trained by him, based on what could be interpreted as suppressed or hidden memories? And does that cancel out the possibility that she’s related to him in some way? One could certainly assume so, but this isn’t so much about speculation as it is about the apparent lack of clarity on the subject of Rey, because either answer could potentially make sense in the sequel. Did the filmmakers even know the answers to these questions? If so, did they change their minds during production? I don’t know the answers and I’m not sure that I want to know (a story for another time, as Maz might say), but the fact that the scene in the basement lends sufficient reason to ask them in the first place speaks volumes about how they eventually approached Rey.
Rey’s subsequent freakout, while certainly not unmotivated, is a second refusal of her call to action, and leads to another pair of curious moments. The first is when she messes up with blaster but then fires with pinpoint accuracy and her brief moment of surprise at this occurrence is cut off once again, to the point where many of us didn’t seem to notice the first couple of times, if at all. Was the intent to have audiences notice that she’s an unusually good shooter for someone who didn’t know how to turn off the safety a second earlier? Was it to hint at it without giving too much away? Was it something in between that would, once again, allow a couple of different answers later on? Or was it to not make this noticeable at all by cutting her reaction out as much as possible, with no other alternative than to get that hint of surprise? One could certainly argue that the intent doesn’t matter, or that the eventual answer will be in line with whatever the intent was, but the hesitance around this approach to Rey firing a weapon is the same hesitance applied to pulling the trigger on Rey actually making an active decision to answer her call. She’s soon whisked away by Kylo Ren, transported to the location of the film’s climax, and while this gives Finn sufficient reason to answer his call, it doesn’t do much for her in the larger sense. It’s here, while under his captivity, that she learns (or re-learns? It’s not quite clear) to use the Force, resisting Ren’s influence and tricking James Bond into dropping his gun, and while this certainly marks a difference for the character in the most literal sense – she wasn’t using the Force before, but she’s using the Force now – it’s not something one can really call character development. She never actively refused to use the Force, nor did she try to use the Force and fail prior. All she did was refuse to touch the lightsaber again before her moment of reprieve, at which point any potential for development or decision-making was robbed from her. And yet, turning the tables on Ren and Jedi mind-tricking the Stormtrooper are moments that audiences have connected with on some level. They don’t add to a larger whole in terms of the story, but the standalone effect of them and moments like them peppered throughout the film have resulted in an experience that Star Wars fans have embraced.
Rey’s use of the Force here once again falls victim to how it’s constructed (how she knows this isn’t clear, and could have several explanations that don’t really impact her character within the film’s framework) but it works because we know what a Jedi mind trick is. It’s what we would do if we were in the movie. At this point I’m essentially explaining the concept of fan service, but the internal battle being fought by some who feel torn over the film is over the demarcation between fan service as a storytelling shorthand – like Kylo Ren worshipping Vader’s mask – and fan service as an unsuccessful substitute for story. This is exactly where my Rey dilemma stems from, because it isn’t just limited to her actions. It seeps through the page like split ink, and ends up defining her. Where Finn is able to pick up a familiar training ball and put it down before resuming his task of assisting an injured Wookiee, Rey has no such luxury. She can’t put down the Easter eggs, because they’re woven in to her every action and decision, and her backstory is a hint that draws attention to itself without ever doing much else. She is, herself, a walking mystery box that Abrams didn’t even end up opening, whether by intent or by decree, and both she and Star Wars: The Force Awakens suffer for it.
In my previous article, I mentioned her biggest and most important moment being when Finn comes to rescue her. I still stand by that assertion, and I don’t mean it derisively in the slightest. She isn’t a damsel in distress, nor does she exist solely to motivate Finn, and that moment leads to her realizing that she can move forward. Sadly, this isn’t translated into any actions or decisions until after the conflict has been resolved for the time being, when she flies off to find Luke. During the fight on Starkiller Base, she pulls the lightsaber out of the snow like he once did, which is in technical terms her answering her call to action (finally, after having refused it over and over again until the very end), but it isn’t at all related to her realization that she can leave Jakku behind. While she says, out loud, in words, that she’s never going to touch the lightsaber again, she’s never presented with the opportunity until that moment on the Base, so there’s no real struggle for her in that regard either, because up until now, nothing has really led to that decision, in a dramatic sense. That being said, if you talk to anyone who enjoyed the movie with an audience that made their feelings known, there’s a good chance they’ll tell you that her moment with the lightsaber garnered more applause and cheers than anything else in the film. It’s a scene that works almost entirely in a extra-textual sense, in that a female Jedi that we’ve been following is now assuming this iconic role, and a familiar leitmotif plays as she embraces what we understand to be her destiny, based on familiarity with stories about the same. Okay, maybe I’m being a little harsh on this scene (I do love it, mind you). Maz did make mention of her destiny, Rey did once say she wouldn’t pick up the lightsaber, and she really does hate Kylo Ren for murdering the closest thing she had to a father. I’m not being sarcastic about those first two points, because a little bit of factual context is better than no emotional context at all, and it allows us to extrapolate at least some amount of meaning.
There is this part of me though that can’t help but wonder about the film they didn’t make. The one where it was Luke’s lightsaber driving the plot from the beginning as opposed to a map, giving Rey more time to work out her relationship to it, in more than just a physical sense. In the finished film, Rey’s decision to leave Jakku behind in order to find Luke doesn’t have a direct narrative or causal connection to her decision to pick up the lightsaber and embrace the Force, closing her eyes per Maz’s instructions (Gosh, I really need to figure out a shorthand for “we were told this information in words and we’re familiar with her actions because of our knowledge of Star Wars, but it doesn’t really factor in to any drama or development for Rey”), and while two disparate threads can certainly exist within the same character’s story, and even make for compelling drama, let’s look at the two MacGuffins here: [a map to] Luke Skywalker, and Luke’s own lightsaber. Furthermore, let’s look at the implications of the two disparate threads and how they’re resolved: 1) Using the Force to pick up a lightsaber and fight Kylo Ren, i.e. embracing her destiny as a Jedi, and 2) Leaving home in order to seek out Luke’s training, i.e. embracing her destiny as a Jedi. One is determined by when she decides to pick up an object that previously scared the bejeezus out of her, while the other is determined by her decision to let go of a phantom family and embrace the unknown adventure ahead. The latter is a dramatic situation that sounds infinitely more compelling in the context of the saga (our reverence of laser swords aside), but the former gets the rousing moment. In an alternate reality where more care was given to Rey’s story, both threads would be tied together, or perhaps even be one and the same, and the rousing moment would be supported by a decision that impacts the character, as opposed to being tangentially related.
Grabbing the lightsaber can ultimately be interpreted as Rey embracing her destiny, at least in a ceremonial sense, and while there’s little by way of a clear story and series of decisions that leads her to that point, mention must be made of the physical gesture itself. As she pulls it out of the snow and it flies towards her, she grabs it with an extended hand. Later in the film, when she pulls it out of her bag, she offers it to Luke in the exact same position. The threads of this thematic resonance are all in place! It’s almost frustrating, because it feels like something fell through the cracks along the way. Imagine that final scene after an entire film of Rey trying to get to that place, instead of an off-hand mention of how she dreamt about an island, which brings with it a whole new set of vague ideas that don’t amount to much. Imagine her struggling with the decision to leave Jakku for the first third or even the first half of the film before going on a journey where she drives a good chunk of the plot, instead of waiting until the final confrontation. Imagine the journey of that lightsaber coming to an end, and a to new beginning, after it’s spent the entire film on that trajectory from the opening shot, to the chase on Jakku, to the hands of Leia like in the trailers (if memory serves, she’s never made aware of its existence in the film), until it finally becomes a focal point of Rey embracing her destiny before returning it to its former master. Is that not more compelling?
Of course, critiquing or even speculating about a film that doesn’t exist is totally unfair, and the changes along the way could’ve happened for a multitude of reasons, perhaps even to fix a product that was significantly worse than what we saw. My lamentations over this ideal, perhaps unrealistic prior draft stem from the seemingly incomplete threads that I saw surrounding Rey’s story on each of my viewings. My guesswork is really just a hypothetical example to highlight one possibility that results in Rey having a more complete story, and a character arc that would’ve made her already rousing moments in the film even more so. With more narrative cohesion, these moments could’ve been more than what they already were, and while that sounds like the most ungrateful criticism, it simply boils down to my desire to see Rey rise to her potential as a written and acted character.
Daisy Ridley is magnetic and ferocious, and she breathes life and sincerity into Rey at every turn. The theme John Williams wrote for her invokes both humble beginnings and grand possibilities, and I can’t imagine the less-than-earned scenes I mentioned being getting that kind of a visceral response with another actor at the helm. These moments satiated the desires of two, maybe even three generations of fans that would settle for nothing less than classic Star Wars, and even more that were starved to see it through a new lens. It’s a testament to both her prowess as a performer and Abrams’ expert eye for casting that she was able to fulfill that role. However, in the process of creating great moments that are derived more from iconography than from externalizing the internal journeys of the characters, or some healthy combination of the two, I can’t help but feel like both Rey and The Force Awakens were shortchanged… That doesn't mean I love them any less. It just means I know they can be better.