These new Star Wars movies sure do bring out my analytical side. I’ve already done my review of The Last Jedi, but in this piece of over-thinking I wanted to focus more on Rey, who I find one of the most frustrating protagonists in the recent times. No don’t run, this is not another article on why Rey is a Mary Sue, or why it’s wrong and/or sexist to think that she is. I have zero interest in comparing power levels and skills and why this character shouldn’t have beaten that character, I’m more interested in examining things like motivations and character arcs, and why the writing for this trilogy so far has been letting Rey down.
Spoilers for The Last Jedi ahead.
I should point out that part of the reason Rey feels so frustrating is that there’s much about her character that’s genuinely great, not the least of which is Daisy Ridley’s lived-in and winning performance. She might not be as exuberantly charming in The Last Jedi as she was in The Force Awakens since this time around she mostly interacts with the angst-ridden Skywalker men rather than fellow charmers like Finn and Han Solo, but she’s no less captivating for it. As a personality, Rey is insanely appealing: tough but vulnerable, kind, ferocious, generous, forgiving to a fault, morally upright, etc. Can a great personality alone make for a great character? Sometimes… but in a coming-of-age story set within an epic space opera/adventure, a list of great personal qualities is not enough. I think it’s pretty telling that, after the first film, most of the discussions about Rey were either a) whether or not she was a Mary Sue and b) who her parents were, as opposed to what Rey might do in the next film or how her character might develop.
I should also point out that Rey’s story is obviously not over and we might get a clearer picture of her character once Episode IX is done and dusted. But I’d argue that obscuring your character’s motivations and not letting the viewer into their headspace for the sake of mystery boxes and possible future storylines is not a satisfying way to build your protagonist.
What is my motivation?
In Lindsay Ellis’ excellent analysis of Disney’s Hercules, she points out that it is more important for a fictional character to be motivated than it is to be likeable or sympathetic. And two films in, Rey’s motivations are still rather nebulous. She ends The Force Awakens seemingly wanting to help the Resistance, and she ends The Last Jedi wanting to help the Resistance, except that now she can also lift rocks. Meanwhile, it’s hard to see where her allegiance to the Resistance comes from other than a generic sense of “doing the right thing”. The only person inside the Resistance she has any actual ties with is BB-8; Finn wasn’t a part of the Resistance in the last film and don’t even get me started on that unearned hug from Leia in The Force Awakens.
Luke even calls Rey out by bluntly asking her about her personal reasons for coming to the island. To which the honest answer is that she needs a teacher who can show Rey her place in all of this and help her make sense of her newly discovered powers. Fine, good start, but by the end of the film it’s not really clear what her lessons with Luke amounted to and what Rey absorbed from them. Does she agree that the Jedi must end or does she think that the order simply needs reinvention? Why did she steal the old Jedi books? The ending of the film triumphantly proclaims Rey as the last Jedi, but one can’t help the feeling that it’s all coming from the other characters like Luke and Yoda, rather than Rey herself who feels more like a pawn of fate rather than an active player.
They were nobody
For the record, I’m more than fine with the revelation that Rey’s parents weren’t anyone special. It creates a nice thematic contrast with Kylo Ren (the Prince and the Garbage Girl!) and sends a nice egalitarian message. But this explanation of the heritage reveal from writer/director Rian Johnson had me scratching my head:
“I was thinking, what’s the most powerful answer to that question? Powerful meaning: what’s the hardest thing that Rey could hear? That’s what you’re after with challenging your characters. I think back to the ‘I am your father’ moment with Vader and Luke, and the reason I think that lands is not because it’s a surprise or a twist but because it’s the hardest thing Luke and thus the audience could hear at that moment.
In our movie, it’s kind of the opposite. The easiest thing for Rey and the audience to hear is, Oh yeah, you’re so-and-so’s daughter. That would be wish fulfillment and instantly hand her a place in this story on a silver platter. The hardest thing for her is to hear she’s not going to get that easy answer.”
This certainly sounds great on paper, and makes for an intriguing parallel with Ryan Gosling’s protagonist in Blade Runner 2049, who was teased with a promise of a unique heritage that would make him special indeed. Problem is, I never got the impression that Rey was somehow counting on her parentage to give her a sense of purpose, or that she hoped that her parents were someone important, which you kinda need to establish in order for the reveal to have an impact. In The Force Awakens, Rey doesn’t care whether her parents were royalty or paupers – she just wants them back. So why exactly would it be hard for her to hear that her parents were nothing special? For Rey to be suddenly heartbroken in the throne room because her parents were nobody feels like a mere projection of the real-world Star Wars fandom’s obsession with Rey’s heritage onto the character.
Where did Rey go?
Despite my nitpicks with the parentage reveal, I thought that The Last Jedi did a great job bringing Rey to her lowest point in the throne room, where she got dealt a double whammy: she faced the painful truth about her parents, and her attempt to save Ben Solo from the dark side failed spectacularly. And then Rey is dropped from the story until the Crait action scene, where she comes in on the Falcon whooping and cheering like none of that traumatic stuff happened. WTF movie?
This is a pretty standard, time-tested formula: the hero hits rock bottom, then after some reflection, soul-searching and/or helpful advice from another character they pick themselves up and get their shit together. See The Lion King, Moana, or even Luke’s character arc from The Last Jedi which follows this exact pattern with the wonderful scene between him and Yoda. Imagine if this scene didn’t happen and we went from Luke as Rey last sees him straight to Luke’s redemptive last stand on Crait – not quite the same satisfying story. Yet the movie isn’t concerned with getting Rey – supposedly the main protagonist – from hero’s darkest hour to hero’s comeback in a convincing manner. All the impact of her failure and despair is instantly wiped out for the sake of a feelgood ending and I felt completely disconnected from her character in the last stretch of the film.
Rey and Kylo sitting in a tree
Well, almost completely disconnected, because the film does allow a brief glimpse into Rey’s head during her and Kylo Ren’s last ForceSkype encounter, where he looks at her like a puppy that’s been kicked and she doesn’t look happy with him at all before slamming the door shut.
Rey’s dynamic with Kylo in The Last Jedi was hands down the strongest part of the film, and universally praised regardless of whether people saw the romantic aspect in their relationship or not. Their conversations dug into Rey’s psyche in the way little else in the series did; when she interacts with him she feels like a real person rather than a Strong Role Model for Women Everywhere. While I love them as a duo (and I think that the romantic aspect is only going to get stronger in the final episode despite their separation), the impression I get two movies in is that this dynamic is in fact the main aspect of Rey’s character journey, while the rest is an afterthought. Which is frankly disappointing. Kylo Ren is a fantastic, dynamic character with or without his interactions with Rey, but Rey is only really interesting (not, it must be stressed, the same as likeable or appealing) as the part of the Rey/Kylo dynamic, rather than being an interesting character on her own. I’ve read many hand-wringing articles about how a romance with a villain would undermine Rey’s validity as a character, but what’s really undermining her is the reluctance of the writers to take any risks with Rey outside of her connection with Kylo.
This is still not the biggest problem; some characters, including protagonists, only become interesting when they have a chance to interact with the other, more developed and/or intriguing characters. I always felt that Luke in the original trilogy was pretty bland outside of his dynamic with Darth Vader. But at least I never got an impression with Luke (or Anakin in the prequels for that matter) that their respective films were deliberately obscuring their motivations and innermost thoughts.