TFA part 2: Rey and Her Family


January 15, 2017

Part one of my The Force Awakens review is here:

As mentioned in part one, Rey was a partial replacement for Luke but quickly became her own character. During the screenwriting process it was decided to give Luke an extremely low amount of screen time partly so that he doesn’t upstage the other characters, especially the new ones, and partly so that he would get his own special moment which happens to be one of the film’s biggest payoffs. So I will honor that by continuing to discuss one of the most important new characters as I understand her, in this long second part of my review.

Rey in a cave with Finn

In part two I hope to show that

1. Rey is an overwhelmingly positive character while also flawed as a person,
2. she undergoes a great deal of growth by recognizing and utilizing her positive qualities and learning from mistakes (helped a great deal by Daisy Ridley’s charisma and facial expressions), but
3. doing this also risks opening herself to new flaws and becoming vulnerable to the Dark Side.
4. At least for the purposes of Episode VII, what matters more than finding Rey’s parents is her discovery of both a new family and her true self.

What you’ll find here: a detailed analysis of Rey’s actions and motivations over the course of the movie, scene by scene, as I saw them.
What you won’t find here: lengthy discussion concerning the identity of Rey’s original family. Besides the fact that there is plenty of that to be found elsewhere, I believe that, at least in this one film, it does not matter very much.

To summarize, Rey is portrayed as someone who through necessity acquired the skills she needed in order to survive a harsh (both physically and mentally) environment. The ability to learn from mistakes quickly was one of these survival skills. She also possesses a strong will that helps her apply those skills more and more, and a strong empathetic nature that leads her to form bonds with others. She also displays the basic, but powerful, human need for belonging. In the beginning of the film she holds herself back from actually applying these qualities to fulfill her goals of belonging and family; over time, with the help of the humans, Wookiee, and droid she bonds with, she realizes her value and breaks free of her psychological restrictions to find her place. However, she also becomes more vulnerable to the Dark Side than ever.

In a short but dense sequence I will examine again in a discussion of the film’s music, we spend a little time with Rey’s lonely life in a graveyard for war veterans, scavenging their junk and selling it for meager rations. It’s clear from Rey’s many tally marks that the particular day we watch is just the latest in an endless cycle of similar days, during which she had time to develop self-sufficiency and her mechanical knowledge (which was illustrated earlier from her scavenging valuable parts from the Star Destroyer) and to experience extreme social isolation. Her character shines through the evening meal scene in her playfulness with the X-wing pilot’s helmet, her thoughtful expression as she observed the ship flying off and no doubt imagined being on one with her family when they finally rescue her, and her anger at the injustice of Teedo (and Unkar Plutt). Even her little flower in a vase has a payoff when Rey is taken by how green Takodana lake country is later. We also see that she loves the old Star Wars stories as much as we do (from the pilot helmet in this scene, and her attitude towards the myth of Luke Skywalker in a later one), that her skills gained from years as a salvager are wasted on someone like Unkar Plutt, and that she longs for belonging and social connection. At the same time, I believe the pain of abandonment that helps her feel empathy also caused her to desire self-sufficiency to the point of putting up an emotional wall, as with her initial refusal to let BB-8 stay with her, or even Finn to hold her hand even though she was willing to help both of them with their own goals. It was after she listened to BB-8 communicate his fear and loneliness in the middle of the desert that Rey relented and allowed him to stay the night out of empathy. These few minutes set the scene for Rey’s struggle with and reconciliation of her independent nature with her compassion and desire for a family throughout the film. Although she saw and recognized the implication of the elderly lady sitting across from her, Rey consciously remained on Jakku and allowed these lonely days and nights to repeat themselves because she wanted her family to come back and right the wrong of having left her there instead of raising her; and because of the abandonment, she feared change. She strongly came across to me as a war orphan, a lonely survivor, and I was not surprised to see how long she was willing to wait for the only people who ever showed her love. I couldn’t help but notice that the hair style of young Rey in the Force vision was identical to that of adult Rey; if this was a true memory, I can easily see adolescent and adult Rey doing her best each day to look as much like the girl who was left behind as possible so that whoever left her there would be able to recognize her a dozen years later.

By morning, Rey was already friendly toward BB-8. She showed a new openness to him about waiting hopefully for her family (where the night before she curtly reflected his words back on him about being classified), punctuating her words with a squint in the sun and a friendly “come on!” Her attachment to and compassion for him won out against her near-starvation: she cannot sell him. Her dislike of injustice (due to the way Unkar Plutt treated her) is likely another reason she will fight anyone who tries to steal BB-8, or his master’s jacket for that matter. But even though she was impressed with Finn’s supposed identity as a Resistance fighter, her emotional wall prevented her from accepting the protection of anyone not a part of her original family. This wall caused her to lash out — “I know how to run without you grabbing my hand” — whenever Finn did so to keep her by his side and guide her from danger. It was when an explosion knocked Finn out but left her conscious that she began to realize that Finn’s concern for her was honest (and no danger to her identity). When Finn woke up, he asked her “are you okay?” and she seemed confused before answering. At first I thought this was a bit of humor — Finn asks if she’s okay even though he was the one to lose consciousness and she was the one to wake him up. But the screenplay sheds a bit more light on this: “are you okay?” is not a question she recalls ever being asked of her. Finn had taken the first step to earning her trust. So, she decided to show her understanding and forgiveness of his behavior by offering him her hand, herself. After this, she became the one to guide him from danger, and he followed.

Finn and Rey continued to bond through shared experiences, and Rey finally put her knowledge of starships to more exciting use, when they successfully used their skills to evade capture by the TIE-fighters (and later by the pirates). While congratulating each other, Rey admitted she had never left the planet before even though she had flown ships. The appearance of BB-8 and Finn forced Rey to physically leave Jakku and to take another step to leaving it, and her obsession with her past, mentally as well. Rey was still ambivalent about Finn becoming her friend or family (his asking personal questions probably didn’t help), and she refused to explain the reason she wanted to return to Jakku. When the two ran into the legend himself, Rey all but latched on to Han Solo as a replacement father. She could not be more excited to know him, or desperate to impress him, which soon led to a key moment when she helped fix his ship.

The pirate/rathtar sequence served a number of purposes: introducing characters who may potentially appear in future movies; explaining how Snoke knew Han had BB-8 so he could give that character-developing information to Kylo; giving us a glimpse of Han and Chewbacca’s lives as semi- competent smugglers (also likely to appear in a future movie); foreshadowing Han’s finally reaching the end of his luck; starting a series of payoffs regarding Chewie’s bowcaster; and building Finn and Rey’s relationship and character progression further. Visually, the action and weird new monsters took a necessary backseat to Ridley’s beautiful facial expressions of fear, horror, disgust, and excitement. After the little adventure with the TIE-fighters, Rey had become more confident in her skills to save lives other than her own and by doing so she established herself as a true friend to Finn, Han, and Chewie. However, Rey also learned the value of cool-headedness without being overconfident. She attempted to use her mechanical knowledge to covertly close specific blast doors and trap the pirates who were not believing Han’s lies, but accidentally released the rathtars instead — “Wrong fuses!” Finn was caught by a rathtar and nearly died because of this. Rey therefore corrected her mistake by using a control panel to shut the correct blast door on the rathtar, saving Finn. In a film that moved very quickly, I loved that it took a moment after she searched the maze of empty corridors for Finn to show us her look of despair change to one of hope when she noticed the control panel behind her.

Han had been separated from his Falcon for many years. Unkar Plutt made modifications to it that Han wouldn’t have known about and Rey would, so it was the perfect opportunity for Rey to show off her knowledge of his own ship. She reminded Han of that moof milker-installed compressor he had noticed earlier and mentioned the fuel pump as well, leading to her aforementioned excited attempt to please the owner of the ship and father she never had– “I bypassed the compressor!” Her subsequent disappointment at Han’s reaction, I think, reminded her that Han is not her father (that we know of) and her struggle with adopting a new family versus waiting for her old one would continue all the way to Takodano. I could understand her rejection of Han’s job offer (a real job with a real mentor, not the wage slavery of an exploiter like Unkar Plutt). The offer proved he was impressed after all, but she was already reminded that she probably has real parents somewhere and she must wait for them. She was unable to break free of the ingrained belief that waiting on Jakku was the only way she would find belonging. It is a struggle between two difficult choices that many of us are familiar with. But nonetheless she was quite pleased to have received the offer and to accompany him, Finn, and BB-8 to Maz’s cantina, again using that squinting in the sun mannerism that she did with BB-8 earlier.

Two things happened in the cantina that forced Rey to confront her contrary needs for belonging and for an old family that wasn’t going to come and give her that belonging. First, Finn admitted the truth about not being Resistance, but it didn’t seem to matter to her; his honesty did him credit and she wanted him to stay with her regardless of who he was. (She said “don’t go” even though she couldn’t have expected him to come back with her to Jakku, so her pleading convinced me that she was seriously considering not going back at all if Finn would stay with her. She was open to finding a new family.) His walking out the door made her realize how much she cared for him but also left her feeling abandoned again. The second thing was the call of the lightsaber and subsequent Force visions or memories, which forced her to face the fact that her old family wasn’t coming back and that she had a new possible future, that of a hero and perhaps a Jedi, and that she could at least find a new family (if not search for her old one instead of passively waiting for them). But Rey couldn’t yet escape her obsession with the past or her fear of change; she was too used to repeating her days of waiting for them, and Finn’s abandonment only reinforced the idea that there was no other way to find belonging than to wait for it to come back and find her where it left her on Jakku. The years of waiting for her family, being alone on this unusual new planet, surrounded by strangers and having just experienced a bad dream, all came to a head when Maz said the belonging she seeks is not in her past. Rey was truly hurt by this: it must have felt as if her long wait on Jakku was for nothing. Rey pointedly did not follow Maz’s instructions to close her eyes and feel the Force. Instead, Rey ran away.

Although Rey didn’t lose her ability to defend herself from ordinary soldiers (if awkwardly, forgetting the safety on her blaster), her fears, loss of confidence, and rejection of her strength in the Force left her especially vulnerable to control by Kylo Ren. As the rathtar sequence taught Rey a lesson in overconfidence, the forest sequence taught her a lesson in lack of confidence. On Starkiller Base, this time it was Kylo who forced her to face who she was, and this time Rey applied what she had learned and began to accept her true self as a strong-willed person who corrects her mistakes. Rey’s instinct from the beginning of the movie was to fight back and this time she accepted it and trusted herself. She faced Kylo as an equal, learned his technique, and used his own power against him. This time he was the one to run away. Like many scenes in this movie, I think the skill and chemistry of the actors was vital in pulling off a truly believable interaction.

The screenplay says that Rey, feeling her strength and potential after this experience, realizes that anything is possible. I would also venture to say that Rey has heard stories and myths about the Jedi and in particular Luke Skywalker and, now that she has learned he is real, she wondered what else is. If the Jedi mind trick showed up in any of these stories, there’s no doubt Rey would want to try it especially now that she is back in problem-solving mode. And if she had not heard of the mind trick before, depending on your mileage it might not be too much of a stretch to suggest that her mental duel with Kylo taught her a bit of his knowledge of influencing minds. And of course there’s the fan theory that Rey has had some Jedi training before having been left on Jakku, or at least be a blood relation to an actual Jedi.

I think that any of the above can be plausible reasons for Rey’s decision to attempt the mind trick and her success with it, but I think an important reason is the nature of the Force itself. Luke’s own training was fraught with difficulties because he was frequently either too brash and overconfident, or too skeptical and doubtful. “I don’t believe it.” “That is why you fail.” Rey believed it. The first two times she tried to command the stormtrooper to free her, her shaking voice was clearly full of fear and doubt. The third time one can see her eyes unfocus and shift right as she “calms herself,” and with her steady tone of voice turned the command into a simple statement of fact. She did not try; she simply did. Yoda would be proud. As I will say in a review of Rogue One, I am certain that trust in the Force is an important theme of these new films.

The last time she saw Finn, he had apparently turned his back on her when he followed Sidon Ithano on their way to the Outer Rim. She was too distracted by the lightsaber’s call to see him turn around, look back at her one last time and, disappointed with her apparent lack of interest, again turn back on his way; and later she was too unconscious to hear him shout her name as Kylo abducted her. Yet there he was, on Starkiller Base, confirmed by Chewie as being there because it was his idea to rescue her. He didn’t abandon her after all; he, along with Han and Chewie, have done what her old family never did. “The belonging you seek is not behind you. It is ahead.” It cannot be emphasized enough how much this meant to Rey, to be able to break her old cycle of endless waiting and to find a family and true belonging.

After a sequence of again applying what she has learned to — correctly, this time — open blast doors so that Han and Chewie could set explosives, leading to the new trauma of losing her surrogate father to who she has now learned is his real son, Rey’s acceptance of Finn as her family was finally put to the test. Confronting Kylo did not keep Han alive, but neither did running away protect Rey from capture on Takodano or prevent Kylo from cutting off their escape to the Falcon in Starkiller’s snow forest. Kylo was weakened by his failure to let go of his past, his rejection of his light side, and his brutal betrayal of his father. Rey, on the other hand, had let go of her past and embraced her present, her new family, and her identity as a user of the Force, all without losing her compassion. I believe that the nature of the Force came into play again, whether or not Rey is a Skywalker or related to any other Jedi. When the Force was awakened, it could not have chosen a better candidate to manifest itself than someone who was compassionate, who felt connection to all sentients and longed for more, who had the strength to learn from her mistakes, and who was willing to use her powers to defend others. The Force, and Anakin’s lightsaber, rejected Kylo and flew straight to Rey instead.

It was clear from their fight that Rey had little if any training; she used the lightsaber with the same techniques as she did her staff, with raw skill but little discipline. By no means a better fighter than Kylo even in his injured state, after “half a dozen blows” according to the screenplay he was able to regain his strength and drive her back as she became less certain in her abilities again. But Kylo held back because he never intended to kill her, wanting to either train her himself or obey Snoke’s command to take her to him. He tried to convince her verbally, but by mentioning the Force he inadvertently reminded her of Maz’s own teachings. This time, Rey obeyed Maz and closed her eyes, feeling the Light Side. “When Rey opens them, she is centered, fortified.” Believing in it, the Force gave her the strength to overcome Kylo and add to his wounds, filling him with fear and causing him to lose his lightsaber and probably his remaining self-respect. But her anger also caused her to briefly touch the Dark Side, feeling what he felt and thinking of vengeance over justice. As soon she realized this, the ground split between them.

Rey may have learned a great deal about the Force and her role in it, but she was still fallible and not a perfect hero. She needed help, and needed her family. I believe all of this drove her grief at Finn’s possibly mortal wounds, and her empathy towards Leia’s loss when they finally met. With their support, she was able to leave her old life behind and move forward.

Rey’s encounter with Luke Skywalker is a culmination of her character development; whether or not they are related, Luke is by extension also a part of Rey’s family that already includes Chewie, Finn, Leia, and the deceased Han. This family will need to unite in order to attempt to restore justice to the galaxy as they did in the Original Trilogy, but also to save a lost member. When she held out the lightsaber for him, she was requesting his help not only for the galaxy but for herself and their family. Because this last scene relies on musical cues a great deal, I will save that analysis for a future article about the music of TFA.



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