The Force Awakens has a problem, and it’s Rey. The movie isn’t really about her, and I wish it was.
My heart looped as she flew the Millennium Falcon. When Rey took up a lightsaber, my arms twitched with a six-year-old’s eagerness to fight for the cause of the just and the good, not to mention the awesome. Rey is female and I am not, but that didn’t stop me identifying with her adventure. What did get in the way was how much of the film kept her at arm’s length, losing her point of view in the choices of multiple heroes and focusing on the mystery of her identity instead of who she was despite it.
The defection of trooper Finn after witnessing atrocity is a great story, but it isn’t Rey’s. I’d watch a film focused on Finn, but imagine the original Star Wars as a rollicking Han Solo caper interrupted by Ben Kenobi hiring him, with Luke just tagging along in the cantina. Rey’s lightsaber battle is epic, but it’s a reaction to the main plot. Imagine Luke’s X-wing chasing down Darth Vader’s TIE fighter in revenge for Ben’s death while Biggs and Wedge get to blow up the Death Star.
I’m a fan of The Force Awakens. Everyone involved truly deserves mucho kudos. It’s juggling a lot of laudable goals that make Rey as point-of-view character difficult to maintain. A silly production note about Rey learning something wouldn’t have helped either; the Ghostbusters don’t learn anything, and that movie is phenomenal. But the film’s handling of Rey’s identity mystery ultimately does a disservice to her as a hero, putting her in a box of plot objects that characters and audiences ask questions about, instead of exploring that mystery from her point of view.
In the end of Star Wars: The Search for Luke (spoiler alert!), Rey hands Luke the very icon of his own heroism. Rey challenges Luke to take up the mantle of hero once again. That image works, but the scene doesn’t; it’s a perfect ending, but for another story. That story is Rey taking up the mantle of hero herself.
The film almost delivers that. Rey makes choices that uproot her life and put her in mortal (thrilling) danger. She helps others (and she kicks butt). Like many heroes, she nearly abandons her quest, but doesn’t (without moping or whining, either). So, what’s missing? Is this really just a complaint that The Force Awakens is less simplistic than A New Hope?
Maybe. Maybe a modern story needs a larger cast of heroes to tell a tale with more complexity and nuance. In this case, it comes across as too many plot outlines trying to share the same film. I wanted to follow Rey’s story, see the world through her eyes, and be immersed in her choices and struggles.
The Force Awakens is about Finn, Poe, Kylo Ren, Han Solo, and Rey. But a movie about Rey, with those other great characters in it, would have really been something to see.