Tag Archives: Rey

The Why of Skywalker

Well, I’m not sure what to make of the title.

It’s not quite as straightforward as A New Hope or The Force Awakens, nor is it as clunky as Attack of the Clones or as obvious as Revenge of the Sith.  But after the abrupt drop of the trailer for the final installment of the great space saga that began 42 years ago this May, we’re left with just as many questions about The Rise of Skywalker as we had the instant before we saw Rey in the desert, igniting her lightsaber against the screaming approach of Kylo Ren’s TIE Silencer.  Has the returning creative force that is J.J. Abrams managed to craft a satisfying end to this particular tale after the creative choices made by Rian Johnson in The Last Jedi left a vocal group of hardcore fans mewling over their spilt blue milk?  Is Star Wars going out in a blaze of exploding Death Star glory or limping, exhausted into a gentle fade away like Luke himself on his mountainside hideaway?

Star Wars as a series of movies isn’t one that lends itself to a lot of different interpretations.  You either buy into it and love it or shrug your shoulders and regard it with indifference.  (There tends not to be a lot of people who actively dislike it, save your typical clove cigarette-sniffing film critics who believe George Lucas and his generation killed the art of cinema.)  More to the point, there generally aren’t a lot of ideas at work in each movie, beyond the exploration of the archetypes of good and evil.  Ambiguity is nowhere to be found, and character motivations are generally skin deep, that is, “we must do X before Y happens.”  Rian Johnson’s stroke of inspiration in The Last Jedi was to sneak some genuine food for thought into this relatively restrictive frame.  While the bad guys chased down the good guys and laser blasts flew, we saw the usual notions of heroism and destiny turned on their heads.  From the moment Luke blithely chucked his legendary lightsaber over his shoulder, our expectations were thwarted.  We saw storied legends turn to cowards and were asked to examine the difference between a hero and a leader.  We were asked to consider the notion and worth of sacrifice.  We saw ugliness beneath opulence.  We saw three different versions of the same event and were asked to choose which one we believed.  In what was perhaps the boldest answer to the many mystery box questions left over from The Force Awakens and yet one that dovetailed neatly with the central thesis of the movie, Johnson told us that Rey (the wonderful Daisy Ridley) was descended from absolutely no one of any consequence.  Whenever the movie was meant to go right, it turned left, and unusually for this crowd-pleaser of a saga, a lot of folks got pissed off.

Angry Star Wars fans are nothing new as they’ve been skulking around the Internet ever since a certain Mr. Lucas thought that a bumbling orange floppy-eared amphibian was what his audience truly craved.  How many “raped my childhood” posts and comments were we forced to sift through while navigating the primitive interwebs circa 2000 A.D.?  But even through the uneven experience that was the prequel trilogy the love for the universe itself remained undimmed, largely because of the reassurance that the images of Luke, Han and Leia as they were first presented were preserved in cinematic amber, to be revisited whenever you had a spare two hours and a Blu-ray copy handy.  Luke Skywalker in particular was the unflappable hero, last seen beaming alongside his comrades by an Endor celebration bonfire, his mission accomplished, the future a galaxy of possibility.  Surely then, when he returned to the fray as teased by the final shot of The Force Awakens, we would see him again donning that mantle and slicing apart First Order Star Destroyers and other Chuck Norris-esque feats while those same angry fans now wet themselves in orgiastic ecstasy.  You know, much the same reaction as accompanied the reveal of Darth Vader hacking down hapless Rebels left and right in the closing scene of Rogue One.

And it would have been an incredibly boring movie.

A downtrodden Luke was a huge surprise, and incredibly necessary, because otherwise, what is his story?  Where does he go?  What does he do?  Grab the lightsaber and jump aboard the Millennium Falcon five seconds later so the remainder of the movie’s run time is stormtroopers getting sliced up?  There is a pretty good reason why these movies aren’t made by knuckling under to fanservice.  And why WhinyFanBoi68 doesn’t have a first-look deal at Disney, despite the many volumes of self-penned Luke/Mara Jade sex scenes on his hard drive.

As exciting as it is to live in an era where social media allows us to interact with the creators of our favorite art, the drawback comes when those same creators mistakenly interpret the shouted (and usually profane) demands of a fervent minority as the opinion of the many.  They will even find themselves feeling like they have to defend their creative choices vocally – feeding the trolls, in effect – instead of letting the work stand for itself.  Driven by these same trolls (and lazy media writers who give them megaphones by boosting their bleats to drive clicks), the public narrative on Star Wars now says that the poor reception of The Last Jedi led to an underwhelming response to Solo: A Star Wars Story and now The Rise of Skywalker will undo much of what was established by The Last Jedi in order to calm everybody down and make sure everyone has a rollicking good time at the conclusion of this saga.  Never mind that J.J. Abrams himself said he loved the script for The Last Jedi so much that he wished he was directing it, or that Solo still made a metric tonne of money despite its key fault (outside of the fact that you can’t really recast Harrison Ford’s most iconic role) that it was looking backward rather than forward.  The movie gods have decided, and there will be no take-backsies.  Apparently.

The most surprising thing to me among the litany of Last Jedi bitching was the note that one would think would resonate most among Star Wars fans:  that the Force wasn’t the exclusive property of one noble family.  That the revelation of Rey as the daughter of drunken (and deceased) junk dealers, and the anonymous kid on Canto Bight Forcing a broom into his hands before staring up hopefully into the night sky, hinted at a galaxy where anyone could be the hero, regardless of bloodline.  When we were young, who wasn’t that kid pretending that a hockey stick or a pool skimmer or any lousy stick you could find was a blue-bladed lightsaber ready to scare off those bullies who chased you home?  Who didn’t dream that we could find within us the same courage that led Luke to confront the Emperor, to confront our own demons, whatever they were?  Rian Johnson was one of those kids.  Making Rey a nobody, making her someone who found it within herself to be a hero no matter where she came from, was a powerful message for him to send – a tribute, in essence, to all the dreamers out there.  The idea that it might be retconned in The Rise of Skywalker to make her someone famous all along is like telling all those kids and kids at heart that it doesn’t matter how hard you try, you’ll never get anywhere unless you’re born a Kardashian.

Or a Trump.

It’ll be unfortunate if that is the direction Abrams et al choose to push the story, in the hopes of soothing the commenterati desperate for predictable, straightforward answers to complete their wiki pages.  If Rey has to be a Skywalker to fulfill the promise of the title, wouldn’t it be more interesting if it’s a name she chooses for herself, rather than it being an inevitable cosmic birthright?  If the First Order’s (and the undead Emperor’s, apparently, I’m really not wild about that revelation) obsession with destroying Skywalker leads instead to the rise of millions of self-proclaimed Skywalkers across the galaxy – a sort of I am Spartacus moment to the strains of John Williams’ Force Theme?  “No one’s ever really gone,” says the voice of Luke in the trailer.  Maybe that line doesn’t have to be so bloody literal.  Maybe this is the resolution of the conflict that is Kylo Ren:  even though he wants to continue the legacy of his grandfather, no one else does.  Maybe the lasting victory of the light side over the dark is in what people remember and most want to take with them.

I’m not saying I necessarily want that to be the answer.   But the line between a lasting experience and something that is merely a diversion is the ability to surprise and to go deeper than what is happening on the surface, and based on the trailer I’m really not sure which is in store.  In many ways, Rian Johnson achieved the former with The Last Jedi simply given how many people are still talking about his movie, even if it is with disdain.  Once The Rise of Skywalker has come and gone, will we still be talking about it years afterward, or will it be merely a pretty good movie that leaves not a trace of aftertaste or thirst for interpretation?  An epic conclusion or a series of boxes ticked to avoid a rash of hot takes?

I know which one I’d prefer.

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Fun and Fancy Speculation about Star Wars: Episode VIII

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Spoilers, of course.

The last reels have unspooled.  The final reviews are in.  Billions of dollars have exchanged hands.  Billions of bytes of data have been exchanged in the evaluation and measurement of the story’s worth.  Opinions have been cemented and there is little else to say about Star Wars: The Force Awakens.  There remains but one lingering question:  what’s next?

Episode VIII has begun filming; we know this, thanks to the official announcement featuring a recreation of the final moments of the previous movie, and writer-director Rian Johnson’s sporadic tweets on the subject.  We’ve heard that Benicio del Toro and Laura Dern have joined the cast, most of which is returning.  We were disappointed but ultimately understanding about the shift of the release date from May to December of 2017, particularly if the additional time means a better movie is the result.  Other than that, the lid is closed, and as fans the only thing we can do between now and then is speculate.  What lies among the stars for Rey, Finn, Poe, Kylo and BB-8?  How will Luke and Leia fit in?  Will the Resistance defeat the First Order once and for all?

Figuring out what happens next isn’t actually that difficult.  The way forward is much clearer than the dangling threads of The Force Awakens would make it seem.  Let’s look at them one at a time.

The state of the galaxy

The First Order was successful in wiping out the capital of the Republic and most of the Republic fleet, leaving the Resistance without its primary means of support.  However, their superweapon Starkiller Base was also destroyed, reducing the First Order to much the same state.  So as Episode VIII begins, the galaxy is without a central government – essentially in a state of anarchy, with two substantially weakened powers grappling to establish themselves as the sole viable unifying force, with thousands of star systems up for grabs.  The Resistance was depicted as something of a ragtag band using old ships and weapons, while the First Order appears to be much better funded with plenty of state of the art materiel and personnel.  Even with Starkiller Base eliminated, the First Order may be better equipped to continue the battle for the galaxy even if it has to be one measly star system at a time.  One could very well envisage the opening crawl setting up the story thus:  while the First Order has been dealt a blow, with the Republic gone they have begun a war of attrition, pushing outward and laying claim to system after system, and the Resistance finds itself unable to keep up and looking desperately for a way to stem the tide.

We know nothing about Benicio del Toro’s character yet, other than vague comments about him being a villain.  That doesn’t mean necessarily that he’s another member of the First Order – their entire leadership is intact after The Force Awakens.  What if, instead, he’s the leader of a third party – some kind of wealthy (if shady) syndicate that the Resistance needs to court in order to keep up the fight?  We know the galaxy is full of criminals, like the infamous Hutts, or the rival gangs that sought to extract their swindled funds from Han Solo before they were eaten by rathtars.  What if Del Toro is the head of the mysterious Kanjiklub – or more likely, the leader of a Spectre-like organization that controls all illicit activity throughout the galaxy and has no great love for the First Order?  You could have an interesting story there with both the Resistance and the First Order attempting to sway his group into the fight, a sort of “enemy of my enemy is my friend” type of dilemma.  For General Leia, it would mean a significant challenge to her principles.  Is it worth doing business with devils to defeat the greatest devil of all?  If it has to resort to similar methods to achieve its ends, is the Resistance no better than the very foe it professes to despise?

The state of the Force

Even though the previous movie ended on a shot of Luke Skywalker and Rey looking silently at one another as the music swelled, Episode VIII likely won’t pick up with them for at least the first ten minutes (remember, all Star Wars movies begin with a spaceship going somewhere).  It would be foolish to believe that merely a glimpse of his old lightsaber will be enough to convince Luke to impart his knowledge to this completely unknown girl.  And I do believe she is unknown, despite the wishes by many fans that she will turn out to be Luke’s daughter.  There would simply be no story for Luke if that were the case.  Why would he refuse to train his own child?  You can suggest that it might be because the previous attempt to train one of his bloodline went bad, but there’s a considerable difference between a nephew and a daughter.  Rather, I would imagine that Luke will want nothing to do with Rey, having decided (at least at first) that the galaxy is better off without people who can touch the Force.  At least, until Rey proves herself somehow.  This is where a concept that was deleted from The Force Awakens might come into play.  (Hollywood never lets a good idea go un-recycled.)

Before screenwriters Arndt, Kasdan and Abrams decided that Luke himself was to be the object of the quest, there was discussion that there might be some valuable information left over in remnants of the Death Star that had crashed in an ocean on Rey’s world, and that that would be the story’s McGuffin.  In the movie, Han said that it was rumored Luke had gone looking for the first Jedi temple.  Yet when we find him he’s on an empty island in the middle of a vast ocean.  What if the Jedi temple is somewhere under all that water, and in order for Rey to be granted the benefit of Luke’s teachings, she is forced to help him find it, in a quest through ancient ruins that invokes Indiana Jones?  (Laura Dern as an oracle/ghost of one of the first Jedi, perhaps?)  The journey would of course be a spiritual one as well as a physical one, with Rey finding out even more about herself along the way and discovering, rather like The Karate Kid, that what appears as a futile series of labors has in fact been her Jedi training all along.  One aspect I find interesting in the discussion of who Rey might be is that every single theory suggests she was left on Jakku for her protection.  What if that’s not the case – what if she was abandoned there because her parents were afraid of her, because they thought she was dangerous?  What if there is more dark side in her than we’ve been led to believe thus far?  It sets up a fascinating contrast with Kylo Ren, whose training we know thanks to Snoke’s last line of dialogue is also incomplete.  In Episode VIII we might see parallel stories of Rey being trained to resist her innate darkness while Kylo struggles to purge the last of his inner light as he endures unexpected guilt over his act of patricide – and because there is an Episode IX to come, we may not see the resolution of that conflict yet.

The state of the galaxy’s favorite bromance

When we last saw Finn, he was lying unconscious in a Resistance medical bay after taking a lightsaber to the spine.  He will of course make a miraculous recovery and be consumed now with taking the fight to his former colleagues after spending most of the first movie running away from them.  John Boyega, tweeting on the first day’s shooting, included a hint of what might be either his character’s arc or an actual line of dialogue:

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This would fit what I talked about above, with the Resistance in regrouping mode as the First Order takes system after system, and Finn growing impatient with the progress of the war.  He’s going to want to punish the people who stole his life from him.  Trying to keep him from going too far down the dark path – even though in this example it’s not a question of being seduced to the dark side of the Force – will be his BFF Poe Dameron.  One could even see the two of them being dispatched on a mission that has something to do with the scenario I hypothesized above regarding Benicio del Toro’s character.  Rian Johnson is said to have arranged screenings for the cast of the Gregory Peck war movie Twelve O’Clock High and the Russian film Letter Never Sent; the former is about a hard-nosed general whipping a bunch of misfit bomber pilots into fighting shape, while the latter is about a group of geologists who get trapped in the Siberian woods while searching for diamonds.  Finn and Poe (and little BB-8 for good measure) might be cast into an homage to either, or a combination of both of these narratives.

As to “the lip bite that launched a thousand ships”?  I think it would a tremendous and welcome step forward to have gay characters in a Star Wars movie.  I don’t think it’s going to happen.  I don’t think the powers that be would slam the door on the possibility by dropping Poe’s yet-unseen girlfriend into the plot, but they will more than likely skirt what they could see as a potential audience-alienating controversy by leaving the matter to wishful conjecture instead.  The main thrust of the story is always going to be the war in the galaxy far far away, and every subplot will be in service to that narrative, not progressive social commentary, as much as we might welcome it.  Finn and Poe will remain pals and comrades-in-arms, but nothing more.

Putting it all together

The second act of a play is traditionally the darkest, or, as Lawrence Kasdan has put it, “when everything goes to hell.”  Characters are brought to their lowest point.  Everything we’ve taken for granted collapses.  The remaining pieces are assembled in an unexpected order for the final dramatic showdown.  I think we will see the First Order resurgent, the Resistance on the edge of a final defeat, friends set against one another and Rey and Kylo Ren both forced to wage mortal battles with their own respective souls, perhaps even in the form of a lightsaber rematch.  I doubt we will see anything as gut-wrenching as Han Solo’s death – it would be gilding the lily a bit to take another one of the classic trio out of the picture – but as the credits roll we’ll be left with significant doubt as to whether our heroes will survive.  We may even be doubtful as to whether our heroes are actually heroes.  Just as Darth Vader ultimately turned out to be the true hero of the original trilogy by killing his evil master in Return of the Jedi, what if his grandson, whom we could never possibly consider forgiving after what he did to our childhood idol in The Force Awakens, is fated to follow a similar path?

About the only thing we can be certain of about Episode VIII is that once it’s done we’ll be having the exact same conversation about Episode IX.  In the meantime, let me know your own thoughts in the comments – do you see these as logical developments, or do you have another idea about what will follow the crawl on December 15, 2017?

In Search of Rey’s Parents… Or Not

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Prefacing this entry with the usual SPOILER ALERT for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, although seriously, if you’re one of the eight people left in the world who hasn’t seen it yet, what’s stopping you already?  I’m gonna get into major storyline discussion here, so please stop now if you don’t want to have the movie ruined for you.  Should you proceed past this paragraph, you are tacitly agreeing to hold me blameless.  Putting on the hold music while you consider wading further…

…doo dee doo dee doodeedoo, da da da da, dara dada daa.  (That’s the Cantina Band song, FYI.)

Now that we’ve had a little over a month to watch, re-watch, digest, mull, contemplate and postulate regarding the implications of the newest Star Wars movie, not to mention its – in the modest opinion of this scribe – gobsmackingly awesome lead character, we turn our lonely eyes to imagining what lies beyond the horizon of December 2017 and revelations promised to us by the ambiguous finale there on that isolated mountaintop in the middle of an endless sea where nascent Jedi Rey presented the fabled blue lightsaber of Anakin Skywalker to its last master Luke, just before the iris wipe to credits.  One of the biggest mysteries left unanswered as those blue names began fading in and out surrounded Rey herself, how she was able to achieve a decent mastery of the Force so quickly, and if perhaps the solution lies in her parentage.  There are three main theories circulating the Internet to that regard:  that she is Luke’s daughter, that she is Obi-Wan Kenobi’s granddaughter, or she is another child of Han Solo and Leia Organa whom they chose not to acknowledge during their many interactions with her in The Force Awakens.  While it’s very possible that one of those theories is the correct answer, I would argue that from a story perspective, it’s better if Rey is none of the above.  Why?  Let’s get into that.

1.  The Star Wars universe is incestuous enough already.

One of the loveliest aspects of the narrative of the very first Star Wars movie is how each character guides you to the next through a series of what seem like chance encounters.  Princess Leia hides the Death Star plans inside R2-D2, who meets up with C-3P0 and crashes with him on Tatooine.  They are abducted by Jawas who then sell them to the family of Luke Skywalker, who takes them to Obi-Wan Kenobi, who takes him to Han Solo and Chewbacca, who takes the whole gang back to Princess Leia, completing the circle.  With the sequels we learned of familial connections that made that journey in the first film seem like an amazing series of coincidences.  Indeed, it’s well known that making the villain the father of the hero did not occur to George Lucas until well into the second draft of The Empire Strikes Back, and likewise had he known that Luke and Leia would turn out to be siblings in the next movie we would have escaped the notorious makeout scene in the Hoth medical bay.

You can’t argue the dramatic impact of those revelations – the original trilogy probably would not have had as much resonance without them – but as modern writers and directors, you can’t go back to that parched well yet again without risking the audience’s suspension of disbelief.  The prequels made things worse by establishing that C-3P0 had been built by Anakin Skywalker himself and that R2-D2 had been present for every significant event that transformed the Republic into the Empire, the cumulative effect of which was to retroactively make old Obi-Wan Kenobi into the biggest exaggerator/outright liar this side of Coruscant.  (Theory #2, that Rey is a descendant of Kenobi, would make him an even bigger liar, and render all his sanctimonious teachings to Anakin about forsaking attachment for the greater good pretty well moot.)

It almost escalated into the realm of the ridiculous:  we were spared, thankfully, an “Anakin, I am your father” moment from Episode III when a planned monologue from Palpatine about how he used the Force to will the midichlorians (ugh) to create the young Skywalker was dropped from the final script.  To paraphrase Douglas Adams, space is really, really, really, really big.  Are we to accept that every major happening in the really, really, really big Star Wars galaxy centers on three generations of a single family who keep running into each other in amazingly convenient fashion, and hold back just enough truth from their encounters to keep the plot moving right along?  The Force Awakens was fairly criticized for having its story rely too much on coincidence, and Episode VIII should endeavor to move away from that – not turn the whole enterprise into a “who’s your father” exercise that would embarrass Maury Povich.

2.  It weakens Kylo Ren’s character arc.

Kylo Ren, a.k.a. Ben Solo, sees himself as the natural heir to Darth Vader (the evil part of Vader, not the redeem-yourself-in-the-end-by-killing-the-bad-guy-aspect).  As a member of the hallowed Skywalker line, Kylo believes he has been chosen by the Force itself to fulfill a grand purpose left unfinished.  When he is using the Force to extract information from Rey’s mind and finds his own mind under siege by her awakening Force powers, his deepest fear, that he will never achieve that goal, is revealed.  After Rey rejects his offer of teaching her and defeats him in their climactic lightsaber duel, the implication for Kylo going forward is an escalating path of bitterness that he is not, in fact, the Chosen One he believes himself to be.  That his destiny is one of mediocrity, being vilified for his murderous actions, and ultimately being forgotten.  How much more brutal for his ego does it become, how many more lightsaber-slashing tantrums ensue, if the person who is fated for greatness in the Force turns out to be a mere nobody from a backwater world plucked from obscurity, instead of being yet another scion of an already famous family?

Kylo feels entitled to greatness by virtue of being descended from greatness.  If he is pitted against someone descended from that exact same greatness, what results is petulant cries of “mom and dad always liked you best” as glowing blades clash (and Kylo is teetering a little too far on the emo scale for the liking of many to begin with).  It becomes the equivalent of Kim and Kourtney and Khloe duking it out for Force supremacy, and honestly, nobody really roots for anyone in that contest, do they?  Instead, Kylo’s rage at failing to measure up to someone who has not a drop of Skywalker blood in her would truly push him over the edge – and if he is to follow Anakin Skywalker’s ultimate path of redemption, the choice to save someone who was not family (especially after he had no problem murdering his own father) would be all the more meaningful.

3.  It makes Rey less special, and it reinforces the dubious lesson that greatness depends solely on where you came from.

Daisy Ridley’s performance as Rey elevated her above contemporary genre female heroes simply by how much whiz-bang joy she invested in it.  Rey wasn’t one of these downtrodden “sigh, I guess I have to go reluctantly save the world now because I’m the only one who can” tropes yanked from dystopian teen fiction.  While her choice to join the fight was not a willing one, once she committed she went all in, and brought a sense of wonder to the new world she was discovering both without and within.  Despite her initial and understandable fears, she embraced her abilities with the Force and became stronger than the young “no one” had ever dreamed.  Obviously Rey’s connection to her family is a pivotal component of her character; when we first meet her she is marking off the days since she was abandoned by them on the desert planet Jakku, and she longs to go back and continue waiting for them to return.  In the vision that accompanies her first touch of the lightsaber, we see a young Rey begging them not to go, and a spaceship rising into the sky in the distance, the faces of her family conveniently kept off camera for a possible future revelation.  If we see a future reprise of this scene and the camera whips around to reveal Luke Skywalker, or anyone else we already know, Rey’s choice to grow becomes less about personal courage and more about inevitability and predestination.  In that iteration, the choice was never hers – her DNA made it for her.  Put it in more contemporary terms:  a young man is born to a legendary major league home run hitter and eventually grows up to hit even more home runs than his father.  How interesting is that story, versus that of a young man born to an non-athletic minimum-wage day laborer who against much longer odds achieves the same goal?

The Chosen One is a trope that stretches back to the beginning of human storytelling, and resonates because there is a part of every single one of us that sometimes wishes we were “chosen ones” ourselves.  But in a way, this fantasy is abdicating a very precious responsibility – free will, our ability to write our own destiny – by wishing that someone else had set everything in motion for us long before we were born.  That we were born into royalty, or a long line of millionaires/magicians/mutants, or whatever, and all that is needed to rise from the puddle of mediocrity in which we think we swim is that fabled call to adventure.  There is something to be said for the concept of a true nobody who comes from nothing rising to seize the lightsaber by virtue of her own determination and hard work (a concept sure to appeal to the libertarians out there) and righting the course of history.  It would certainly be a positive message to send to the young women who identify with Rey that they don’t need to be of noble blood (or marry someone who is) in order to make something remarkable of themselves.

We know, based on the existence of Yoda, Obi-Wan Kenobi and the countless other Jedi who populated the prequels, that the Force is not confined to the members of the Skywalker family.  Kenobi says in the first movie that the Force exists in all living things, and as much as you might hate the whole midichlorian concept, it reinforces this idea that everything has the ability to touch the Force on some level.  We also know that the Force is sentient, and is constantly attempting to balance itself by investing individual people with an enhanced ability to use it.  For all we know, there could be thousands of young men and women like Rey spread throughout the galaxy, gifted in different areas with an unusual level of aptitude that they don’t fully understand.  Poe Dameron’s ace piloting skills, for example, might even be another manifestation of the Force, if to a more limited degree.  But only Rey has the courage to “let it in,” which, if it speaks to her fortitude and not her parentage, makes her all the more compelling a character.  It tells the audience that every last one of you has the potential for greatness, and nothing about that requires that your last name is or has ever been Skywalker.

4.  And it’s exactly what we’re expecting them to do.

And that is my biggest gripe with the potential big reveal about Rey’s parents in Episode VIII.  J.J. Abrams et al did such a phenomenal job in keeping Rey’s story secret for The Force Awakens that watching her discover her true self was the most wonderful surprise about a movie that relied so much on echoing the story beats of the first, classic trilogy.  I can’t help but thinking that if Rian Johnson and Colin Trevorrow (respective directors of Episode VIII and IX) go down the well-trodden road of hanging the emotional stakes of the next two movies on a tired, obvious theory about Rey that everyone has already guessed, then the audience response will be a fairly giant collective shrug – and it’s not as though those movies don’t already have enormous expectations to live up to the standard set by TFA.  Certainly it’s fun to speculate about who Rey could really be, but we want the answer to be something that nobody ever saw coming.  We want to be surprised again, and frankly, given the amount of money and talent going into producing these things, we should see nothing less than their best efforts to do just that.  The greatest stories are those where your expectations are turned on their head, not just met (barely).

It was announced this week that Episode VIII‘s release date has been bumped from May to December 2017, ostensibly due to that being a window that steers it clear of the comic-book adaptations and other summer movie fare that might eat into its potential box office take.  But it was also revealed that writer-director Rian Johnson is doing another revision on the script (even though filming has already begun) to pare back the roles of some new characters and ensure that the spotlight remains on Rey, Poe and Finn (umm… obviously?).  If they are going to take that extra time to make sure we get the best movie possible, then use it to give us a story that will keep us guessing or make us admit in hindsight that “I never would have thought of that.”  Don’t count on holding the audience’s loyalty if what you are serving is a lame, obvious “Rey, I am your father” reveal.  (The latest theory about Rey is that she is descended from Emperor Palpatine, based on, I don’t know, the fact that they both have British accents?  Not quite sure how old Palps was getting some on the side while he was so single-mindedly plotting to take over the galaxy.)

Rey is such a wonderful addition to the Star Wars universe, and to the motion picture science fiction/fantasy genre in general, that it would be a shame to see her lessened by a cheap, easily anticipated plot twist about her parentage.  She, and her fans cheering her on from the theater seats, deserve far more.  It may be fun to speculate about such things, but I have a feeling that if any of these theories turns out to be right, the result will be only disappointment – and everyone knows we have endured far too much disappointment from this franchise already.

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A Rey of Sunshine

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Be forewarned.  Star Wars spoilers ahead.

Again, in all caps, just so you’re clear.  MAJOR STAR WARS SPOILERS INSIDE.  ABANDON ALL HOPE OF REMAINING UNSPOILT, YE WHO VENTURE PAST THIS POINT.

One more time for those just joining us.  THIS POST WILL CONTAIN STAR WARS SPOILERS.

*hold music hums while you decide*

We all good?  Okay.  By reading on, you hereby agree to hold the author of this site harmless for any potential Star Wars-ruining experience that may occur, in perpetuity until the heat death of the universe.

I saw The Force Awakens yesterday afternoon.  When you hit your fifth decade of life, and you’ve seen so many movies in those forty years that the tropes and cliches of cinematic storytelling have embedded themselves in your neural pathways to the point where your response to them becomes almost Pavlovian, you tend to approach any new theatrical venture, particularly one that has been so excessively hyped, with an unavoidable sense of cynicism.  Here we are now, you say warily, paraphrasing Kurt Cobain, entertain us.  And how often do you walk away feeling satisfied, or surprised?  Rather infrequently, I have to admit.  I enjoy the movies for what they are, but I always see the seams at the edges.  And I went into The Force Awakens with a healthy distrust of its director, J.J. Abrams, a man whose storytelling style relies primarily on frustratingly circular references to the movies he grew up watching, rather than any particular unique vision.

J.J., you sly, sly dog you.

Granted, one does not walk into the seventh installment of a 40-year-old movie franchise expecting mind-blowing originality (I certainly don’t expect it from Bond, my other great cinema love).  I did receive the anticipated reprises of old favorite characters and the homages and tributes to everything that has made the world love Star Wars all these years.  But what I also got, and what made me walk out of the theater with a broad, dumb smile on my face, was something that I’d been longing to see realized on screen for ages, and finding it in a Star Wars movie of all places was like the surprise toy inside the chocolate egg.  I knew too, that as happy as I was to discover this, there were millions of girls and women to whom it would mean so much more.  I’m happy for them most of all.

To wit:  the absolutely compelling character of Rey, played by English actress Daisy Ridley, is the center of the movie.  The “awakening” referred to in the title is hers.  She is brave, skilled, resourceful, determined, and over the course of the story, as her connection to the Force deepens, grows immensely powerful.  She has a past that is not spelled out for us but rather left as a tantalizing mystery.  She is no one’s love interest, and is not defined by her relationships with or unrequited longings for any particular man.  And she kicks tremendous ass, whether it’s outrunning TIE Fighters in a rusty old Millennium Falcon or confronting and defeating Dark Side villain Kylo Ren and saving Finn, the male character whom the movie’s poster and trailers would have you presume is the new Jedi of this trilogy.  (Abrams’ controversial “mystery box” promotion style has worked very well here, which is why again, I hope you’ve already seen the movie as you’re reading this.)  And Rey achieves all of these things without descending into sassy or sexualized caricature, or a neon sign flashing above her head reading “LOOK AT THIS AUDACIOUS, ENLIGHTENED STATEMENT OF FEMINISM WE MALE FILMMAKERS ARE MAKING.”

Rey just is who she is, and frankly, it’s glorious.

I’ve always found the term “empowered women” a bit troubling, as it suggests that women on their own are somehow without power.  Rather, it is better to say that a woman is powerful by her very nature as a woman.  Goes with the territory, folks.  And yet in science fiction and fantasy this is too often the exception and not the rule.  Looking back, there has never really been a good reason why in genre movies, women have not been able to take the forefront of the story, other than the increasingly outdated notion that the young boys who make up the presumed primary target demographic for this genre somehow won’t be interested in seeing girls buckle their swash, or that somehow casting a female lead means you have to turn the story into a pedestrian rom-com with true love as the object of the quest.

Instead, women are usually relegated to the secondary roles of eye candy, love interests or over-the-top man-hating villainesses, their characterizations as sketchy as the anatomically impossible poses in which they are often rendered in comic books.  Why have we had eighteen Marvel movies without a female lead?  Your guess is as good as mine, but it seems to stem largely from writers, producers and directors (and executives) unable to arrive at what feels like, in the light of The Force Awakens, should be a very obvious conclusion:  that women with power and agency won’t, in fact, scare men away from fantasy and science fiction movies.  They belong there, as much as the boys do, and audiences will thank you for it.  And yes, the dudes will love these characters too.

Thankfully, there have been huge exceptions of late that may be at last, softening this attitude.  Frozen was a story in the fantasy genre about the bond between two sisters (one with tremendous magical powers), with male characters shunted to the background, and it only became the highest-grossing animated movie of all time.  As I write this The Force Awakens has already become the fastest movie to hit $300 million at the box office, and I’ll wager here and now that it will eventually blast past Avatar and take its place on top of the all-time list.  Because audiences love Luke, Leia, Han and Chewie, but it’s Rey’s story they are going to want to see again and again.

There has been some criticism of her, centering largely on the speed with which she acquires her Force abilities in the movie without any training, and suggesting that this pushes her into Mary Sue territory.  I would suggest that there are two responses to this, one “in-universe” and another examining the broader question.  The in-universe explanation is found in a line from the very first movie, where Luke and Ben are discussing the Force and noting that while it obeys your commands, it also controls your actions.  The Force is sentient and has an awareness of when people’s greed and lust for power has pushed it out of balance, so it creates what it needs to set the universe right again.  Rey’s awakening is in response to the rising threat represented by dark-sider Kylo Ren and his mysterious master Snoke, and the speed at which it happens is perhaps a reflection of the urgency with which it is needed.  (And it also makes for the movie’s best scene in which Rey tries the Jedi Mind Trick on a Stormtrooper played by a very famous actor in disguise…)

You could also suggest that Rey is just that damn gifted, which is where the Mary Sue question comes in, and my answer to that is, so effing what?  In how many movies across how many genres have we seen preternaturally skilled guys?  How many times have we seen a young male screw-up transformed into an unstoppable fighting machine in the space of a five-minute training montage?  Why is this somehow more valid storytelling technique than seeing it happen to a woman?  Yes, Rey may be in some ways an expression of wish fulfillment for fangirls, but thanks to some great writing (by Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan) and Daisy Ridley’s magnetic performance she doesn’t come off like that, and even if she does, I fail to see why this is a bad thing.  We gents have plenty of examples on our side to choose from.  I’d love to see more women like Rey in genre films, treated with all the maturity and complexity that those characters deserve, and I’m glad that the gauntlet has been thrown down.  All those involved with her creation deserve accolades.  (It should also be noted that The Force Awakens passes the Bechdel Test too.)

I’ve come to know a fair number of women through social media who are big genre fans, and I’m excited to read what they thought of Rey.  I imagine they’ll be able to articulate what Rey means to girls and women far better than I possibly could, so I’ll sign off for the time being and let them take the stage and enjoy their well-deserved moment.  And I will wait with bated breath for Episode VIII and the joy of discovering where Rey’s story takes her next, my faith in the ability of the movies, and genre movies in particular, to surprise me renewed, and hungry for more.