FAIR, BLATANT WARNING: This article contains plot spoilers for the movie Star Wars: The Force Awakens and all Star Wars films before it. After this sentence, there will be immediate discussion about Star Wars: The Force Awakens concerning parts of the film after the hour mark.
The singular moment of The Force Awakens seems obvious. The one which, miraculously, has been hidden from most of the internet thus far; the moment when, like Anakin and Luke Skywalker before them, Han Solo and his son, Kylo Ren, step out onto the walkway of a space station. “If you see our son, bring him home,” Leia tells Han before he leaves on the mission. Like her mother before her, she wants to see the good in the galaxy, even in Kylo, turned to the Dark Side by Andy Serkis as the mysterious Supreme Leader Snoke. For a second, on the bridge, you’re made to think it’s happened.
But by killing off Han Solo, J.J. Abrams establishes Kylo Ren as the definitive villain of the new trilogy, a position that looked set to be filled by Darth Maul in The Phantom Menance, only for him to meet a similar fate to Han, and to be replaced by – God rest his soul – Christopher Lee, whose years of exemplary acting credentials couldn’t save him from some of the lines he was given.
Kylo Ren is impulsive and unpredictable, Adam Driver turning from mostly comedic credits (HBO’s Girls, and an amusing turn opposite Daniel Radcliffe in the otherwise average rom-com What If) to this, taking the Bad Guy mantle with bold vulnerability. Millions of pieces of merchandise will eventually (we’ll get to it later) be sold with his helmet on it.
But it is not his movie.
After the confrontation, Ren chases former Stormtrooper Finn (played fantastically by John Boyega, giving agency and heart to characters who have been used mainly as cannon fodder in the series thus far) and Rey, a desert scavenger-turned captive of the First Order, out onto the snowy woods that cover their giant base. Finn is gravely injured and the lightsaber he carries to defend himself against Ren’s crossguard weapon falls into the snow. The saber, belonging to Ren’s grandfather and the idol around which he shapes his new Empire, shifts ever so slightly; and flies into Rey’s hands.
If you think the motif that plays during this moment – the moment – sounds familiar, it’s because it was used before, in a very similar way. It’s a very short one, at the end of the track “Burning Homestead” on John Williams’ first Star Wars score. As Luke and Old Ben Kenobi find the Jawa’s trailer in destroyed, Luke races back home; only to find his home in ruins and his aunt and uncle’s remains there. He surveys the scene, and this music plays.
Luke’s next words, after witnessing the burning homestead, are “[…] I want to learn the ways of the Force, and become a Jedi like my father.”
Many theories support the idea that the new trilogy will follow this idea very literally; the idea that Rey is the daughter of Luke Skywalker and an unknown woman. And while it’s an exciting prospect, I’ll be taking the role of the cynic for now, because it will be sweeter to say “I told you so” down the line, and Star Wars fans (which, 481 words into this article, I guess I’m forced to self-identify as) are nothing if not prideful.
Here, The Force Awakens is at its most successful. Here, it evokes the old trilogy in the most considered and emotional of ways, using the motif to signal the beginning of the most drastic change in these character’s lives. Before now, Rey was lost, thrown from one battle to the next with little time to consider which way is up, all because a droid asked to stay. By the end of The Force Awakens, she has purpose, friendship, and a really cool spaceship.
Experienced feminist writers could explain what this represents much more eloquently than me; how seeing Rey be exceedingly competent, unapologetically emotional, and have a great destiny suddenly granted to her after a lifetime of waiting will be an inspiration for a new generation of young women, like how I used to jump off my bedside table and pretend I was Mace Windu.
(I don’t wanna talk about it.)
It’s worth noting that this is the first time a main female character has wielded ligthsaber in the Star Wars saga. The few female Jedi that appear in the prequelS, characters like Aayla Secura and Shaak Ti, are barely given any lines; a deleted scene from Revenge of the Sith shows Shaak Ti being killed by General Grievous, another of the prequels’ more disappointing villains.
Rey is the obvious centre around which the narrative rotates. She is the star of Star Wars. Beautiful, and with a incredible range of expression, Ridley plays Rey as uneasy and hesitant but still brave, and in awe of the vast worlds and characters she meets, having spent so much of her life alone, Ridley commands the screen just as readily as Oscar Isaac, already a Golden Globe-winning actor and at the head of another Disney (and Fox) property in 2016, X-Men Apocalypse. But insider information at Disney seems to suggest they thought otherwise.
On the 20th, Disney reshuffled their calendars. Instead of releasing in July 2017, Rian Johnson’s Episode VIII will launch almost exactly two years after The Force Awakens, on December 15th of that year. Why?
#WhereIsRey is why. Or rather, it’s one of the many reasons. The official word is that more time is being allocated to rewrite the script to focus more on the new group of good guys, Rey, Finn, and Isaac’s Poe Dameron, after an overwhelming fan response to those characters. The #WhereIsRey campaign, started on social media after the character’s notable absence from certain Force Awakens product lines, eventually led to an admission from a Disney insider:
“They presumed [Kylo Ren] would be the big breakout role from the film. They were completely surprised when it was Rey everyone identified with and wanted to see more of.
Now they’re stuck with vast amounts of Kylo Ren product that is not moving, and a tidal wave of complaints about a lack of Rey items.”
The demand for Rey merchandise was stronger than anyone seemed to have anticipated; that is to say, in essence, that Disney bet against the protagonist of their own film.
One could argue it makes financial sense. Darth Vader is the single most bankable character in the series, it would make sense that his successor be the one character audiences want to see more of, on lunchboxes, water bottles, cheesestrings, the list goes on and on. But, as the film itself is quick to remind the viewer, Kylo Ren is not Darth Vader. His appearance as a Vader-like entity is quickly undermined, both by Rey’s ability to match him and by his outbursts on the First Order base, a far cry from Vader’s deliberate, menacing coolness.
Who do we have to thank for Rey, and the moment? John Williams, firstly. The second best moment of The Force Awakens also belongs to him, where a new composition slowly and expertly leads us to the end credits as Rey finally meets Luke Skywalker atop the Jedi steps, in a way even that really weird helicopter shot couldn’t spoil. Lawrence Kasdan, Michael Arndt and JJ Abrams gave every character, even BB-8, life in their script for the film. Kathleen Kennedy, the brains behind Lucasfilm after Disney’s acquisition, surely had a hand in granting Rey the agency she displays in The Force Awakens. Whether Rey is a creation of George Lucas or not is unclear given how much must have changed once he gave up the keys to the Falcon, but my heart wants to say he’s his, having created an icon in Princess Leia and to a lesser extent, in Natalie Portman’s Padme, whose performance is far from the worst thing about the prequels.
We all know what is.