Monday, January 04, 2016

The Force Awakens Was Great Until It Wasn’t, Part 2: Rey

So let me start out by saying: Rey is appealing throughout the movie. Actress Daisy Ridley is a natural star, and she rises to this very large task …I would say she steals the movie from her co-stars, but that gets to the problem: She doesn’t get a chance to steal it, because it’s handed to her.

The movie takes a bold risk I usually advise against: it introduces its heroes separately, and gets us to care about each of them separately in unconnected scenes. This is a lot more work, and works against our natural inclination (to cling to one character and let that character lead us through the story), but in this case it works great. They win us over to both Finn and Rey in their separate intros, and we invest them equally as co-heroes.

There’s a lot to like about Rey right away:
  • Like Luke, she’s a working-class-hero on a glory-less hard-scrabble backwater planet.
  • As with Luke, we don’t quite get what’s going on economically, but we understand enough to get invested in her financial struggles and frustrations, which is all we need. We think she’s earned those rations and we burn when she doesn’t get them.
  • She has humiliations and tough decisions to make that make us like her, especially with BB-8.
  • She has independence, attitude and gumption. We love her when she says “Stop taking my hand!” (and how she says it.)
Then things start to get a little shaky as we think, “Hey this girl is really good at everything.” She’s never seen greenery before, but she can fly the Millenium Falcon single handedly? Well, okay, I guess she’s naturally talented. She can speak Wookie? Okay, sure I guess there might have been wookies on that planet (but it would have been nice to see one).

Then it gets worse. Everybody is suddenly giving her more praise than she seems to earn: Han, Finn, Maz, Kylo Ren...everybody. We already liked her, okay, guys? You can stop telling us to like her. Then, all of a sudden, she goes from thinking the Jedi were a myth to being a Jedi master in a few hours …and she just becomes kind of a joke.

The turn is so baffling that it’s convinced everyone that she must be Luke’s daughter in order to explain it, but what would that explain? Yes, Return of the Jedi introduced the notion that the Force is strong in some families, but it was kind of an afterthought. Luke didn’t have it easy because his dad was a Jedi: he had to train the hell out of himself, and, more importantly, he had to go on a searching spiritual journey to access the power.

This movie flushes all that spirituality down the toilet: It’s 2015, who has the time? Yes, it’s neat to see a girl do all this stuff, but it feels empty: it’s unearned and it cheapens Luke’s journey along the way, implying that it was all in the (midichlorian-filled) blood, not won through trials of the heart or soul.

How could they have fixed this problem? Either have her just not be a Jedi until the next movie (James Kennedy pointed out that Luke never even used his lightsaber in battle in the first movie, back when we had patience), or make her a life-long would-be Jedi groupie who takes to it instantly because she’s a book-taught amateur and she’s just been waiting for her chance to put her fandom into practice. (That would also explain why she’s suddenly so eager to find Luke at the end, when she couldn’t care less before that.)

Tomorrow, let’s get to the guy whose ass she kicks…


Unknown said...

A theory I've heard tossed around is that she was trained as a child and left on Jakku when Kylo den turned evil and started killing Jedi.

Brian Malbon said...

You've brought up some excellent points. I don't have any defence for the poor use of Finn's character arc at all, except that I like him and I hope they treat him better in the next movie. But I've thought a lot about Rey, and I can at least defend some, if not all, of your complaints.

In several movies so far and in the plethora of novels, we've seen Force-sensitive would-be Jedi using their abilities without knowing it. Luke can bullseye Womp rats from the air at high speeds, a feat he insists isn't that hard, and yet nobody else in the rebellion can hit a two-metre exhaust port even with the help of a computer. Only Luke could do it, by using the Force, like he always had. And delving back into the hated prequels, we see the same thing in nine-year old Anakin - the only human who can fly a pod racer and survive - because he's been using the Force the whole time.

This doesn't completely explain Rey's hyper-competence, unless we also pick up on the fact that she's a very fast learner. I don't find it contrived that she can fly the Falcon like an ace on the first shot - I find it contrived that a ship that hasn't flown in years can launch perfectly in moments, and everything involved with Han's freighter finding them seconds after they leave atmosphere is some ridiculous shit. But Rey is already a skilled pilot, and able to use the Force (though she doesn't know that's what she's doing), and flying the Falcon is just a matter of figuring out the different controls - which we see her fail at before she finds her footing. Just note the scene immediately following their escape - both Finn and Rey startled at each other and at themselves that they were just able to do things they had no idea they could do.

It's the same when Rey meets Kylo Ren. She doesn't know how to enter and manipulate the minds of others - until Ren shows her. In a way, he's teaching her how to use the Force. What, besides the Jedi mind trick, does Rey use her powers for? That's the one skill she's learned and she uses it exactly twice.

Which brings us to the lightsaber fight. This is a fight that has absolutely nothing to do with mastery of the Force, and everything to do with established skills. Ren is overconfident, rash and desperate to prove something - but who in the galaxy has he ever had to fight with a lightsaber before? There are no other Jedi. Luke's old, lost saber might be the only one out there beside Luke's own green one and Kylo Ren's, which as another website pointed out, is unrefined, savage and not the learned lore of a Jedi. Luke never taught him to build a lightsaber before he fell to the Dark Side. This may well be the first time he's had to use it to actually fight an opponent rather than as a tool of murder and intimidation. Meanwhile Rey is shown right from the start to have extensive skill in hand-to-hand combat with her staff. Translating that skill to the shorter lightsaber should have been easy, especially since this fight is not the delicate ballet of the Jedi but a savage, violent and undisciplined hacking away at one another. Bear in mind also that she doesn't defeat Ren. She only marks him, what would be considered a "touch" in fencing, before the too-convenient splitting apart of the planet separates them.

The Mysterious Pi said...

Rey should have been great. All the ingredients were there, and then the writers went on a rampage of piling payoff after payoff onto her, each time with sharply declining setup, until there was little left but plot contrivance. And worst of all, this was often done at the expense of other characters.

I thought Rey's piloting of the Falcon was done well. We'd already seen she was adaptable and clever, so once she got over the initial problems of ploughing furrows in the desert, the things she did didn't seem outlandish, especially with Daisy Ridley selling a perfect mix of determination and panic.

What was awful was how she could fix the Falcon as though by magic. The Falcon is a character and always has been. Benevolent, cantankerous, independent (although subject to machination). Basically a mirror for Han Solo, who was always portrayed as just about an equal to his ship. And then Rey comes in and knows more about the Falcon than Han, and fixes it better than Han--in the face of the entire Han/Falcon mythology that was built up in ANH and ESB--to the point that the Falcon makes calming flight-cabin noises when Rey bypasses widget A by tearing out circuit B. And then, all of a sudden, the Falcon is an object. Plastic to Rey's touch. Han and the Falcon are diminished to make Rey look good. Wouldn't it have been cooler, so much cooler, to have seen her fighting with the Falcon as much as Han did? *That's* what makes someone the 'owner' of the Falcon. Not magic.

Rey learning the mind trick from Kylo should have been made more explicit.

"What are you doing?"

"I am taking what I want."


Kylo begins to try to wrest the information from Rey, who reacts in pain.

"I will show you."

Just a few seconds, but it sets up an intuitive leap that we can make when we see Rey try the mind trick herself--as opposed to seeing her do it, then having to backtrack while other action is ongoing to try to justify what we've witnessed.

The final lightsaber fight probably deserves a post all of its own for the things it did badly and well. For me, the supreme gut punch it contained was at the brink of Rey's defeat, when the bad guy mentions the Force, Rey goes, 'Oh, yeah. The Force!' and magic meditates her way to ultimate badassery in just a few seconds. Never to mind that staff- and sword-fighting are very distinct disciplines, and it's strongly implied that Kylo killed an awful lot of Luke's Jedi trainees in personal combat. I really think this fight could have benefitted from a dramatic structure based on the personalities of the three combatants. Kylo taunting, playing with them. Finn getting in the way and getting his ass kicked, while Rey learns, and adapts. And Kylo still should have won.

However, the outcome of this fight could easily and completely be reversed in the upcoming movies, so Rey's success here could work as a set up, as equally as Kylo's failure. That said, it's a really weird dramatic choice. Bad guys get easy wins they haven't earned. Protagonists fail, often unfairly, and come back stronger.

For all that, I enjoyed the movie, mainly for how great the cast were, and for the possibilities going forward. I hope things get harder for Rey, so she can be a hero in the mythologic tradition of Star Wars. Girl needs stakes. The writers messed her up in that regard.

The Mysterious Pi said...

And the one place Rey's Force powers *should* have come to fore--in reviving R2-D2--they weren't used. Was this a rushed script?

Matt Bird said...

Brian: That's a compelling (albeit generous) reading of the movie, at least from its own point of view. The idea that Luke was always using the force all along is fascinating. On the other hand, another key use of the force by Rey was when she called the lightsaber to her instead letting it fly to to Kylo, and that one definitely seemed like a use too far.

Justin: Agreed, that dialogue would have helped, and it would have been good if she had revived R2!

PaulClarke said...

I like the comments Brian makes. I do think there is more explanation that we actually receive regarding Rey and the force, but I also think they could have done many little things better.

They could have shown Ren's rage and not being able to test his saber skills on anyone.

And most of all I would have liked it if Rey was somehow using her mind-control powers on her home planet. Like Luke shooting Womprats, she doesn't know the full extent of her power, but when Ren goes into her mind it breaks something open, unleashes her strength because she can see it for the first time.
If I was writing it I would have made that a massive moment, where his lack of control opened him up. He can go into others minds, but doesn't know how to defend someone going into his. She could basically steal his ideas and training, and therefore her ability to triumph over him would be far more plausible.

Mark said...

I quite like Brian's thoughts about Luke always having the force, and (in a similar way - please god not because they're related) Rey always having it as well. Personally, I didn't have much problem with her flying the Falcon, etc. while I was watching the movie, though since it's been pointed out, I do think it goes a bit too far. But I'm firmly on Matt's side that Rey's ability to use the force for *specifically Jedi* tasks was too far. Remember how hard Luke had to work to get his light saber at the beginning of Empire?

That said, the use of the Force, the abilities of Jedis, the training required, and more, have been a built in problem with this series since long before the prequels (although the prequels made those problems much deeper). Luke needed so much more training at the end of Empire, but when he comes back to Yoda in Jedi his training is complete. Vader can barely move in his fight against old man Kenobi, but gets more acrobatic by the next two films, and starts throwing shit at Luke. The Jedi mind trick only works on the weak-minded. Luke and Leia are somehow able to communicate telepathically in Empire. There's probably much more.

Basically, the Force was such a new and cool concept that Lucas didn't think to or care to set out any rules for it, so as the later screenwriters, and himself, needed it to do new and better things (and, not coincidentally, CGI allowed them to do new and better things) there were no rules to stop them from saying, "sure, the Force can do whatever I need in this scene (but not too much that it obviates this scene)"