I loved Star Wars: The Force Awakens. It’s everything I always wanted from Star Wars, where they had complex, nuanced women protagonists and people of color. This diversity made the film’s great acting, dialogue, and story even more engrossing. It also hearkened back to some of the best moments of the original trilogy of IV, V, and VI. So this review will also include my examination of the characters and how I interpreted their journey.
What really struck me about The Force Awakens is that although it feels very much like Star Wars, it has a different approach than the other two trilogies. This Star Wars was about the connections between people, and it was emotion heavy. There are a lot of shots that focus on the eyes of people, where we see their reaction to the events before they act. You get to know their personalities, and you can see the struggles they have as they learn and grow. The prequels was mostly just dialogue — not even good dialogue — and the characters felt like cardboard stock to me. The original Luke, Leia, and Han movies were action-based, where you had glimpses into who these characters were, but the movies were so focused on them getting to places, them doing things. Which is fun in its own right, but sometimes it’s also fun to dig a little deeper. (This is why I like the Empire Strikes Back more than four and six. We had a more intimate experience with the characters.)
Star Wars: The Force Awakens uses about the same amount of dialogue as IV, V, or VI, but what stood out to me, is how well they utilized gestures, expressions, emotions, and specific actions to provide a vivid and intimate experience into who these characters are and why they do what they do. I love this approach, and I love how well they used these details to paint a character-focused and emotionally-laden story. I can’t wait to see where these characters go from here.
Below is my examination of some of the characters, but be warned, there be spoilers.
When we first see Rey, she is a scavenger in a hostile environment. Highly skilled in traversing the sand dunes, in fighting, and knowledge of ships, she makes her living finding useful salvage. She’s hardy, determined, and confident in her abilities. Her spark of confidence is not diminished by her circumstances because she knows what her limitations are as those limitations were tested again and again in the hostile desert world of Jakku. Her will to survive is strong, mostly because of her undying hope that her family will honor their promise to return.
When adventures comes her way, her quick thinking and confidence serves her well, but it also causes her to make glaring mistakes. She learns quickly, but then she has to as a survivor and scavenger. That’s all she knows to do — learn quickly if she’s able to do it, because life is survival. So once she realizes she is force sensitive, the first thing she does is try to learn how to wield it, so she can escape, because life taught her to never rely on people to be there for her. This is why Finn’s presence in her life changes her for the better. He teaches her that people can be reliable, they can care, and they will try to be there for her in their own ways. He complements her in that regard.
What caught my breath about Rey’s journey is her resilience. What makes her so resilient? She has a tolerance for discomfort due to her extreme survival skills, learned on Jakku. She must survive in a harsh desert with little water, where her only source of food is reliant on how well she scavenges parts in dangerous locales and how well she mitigates conflict from those seeking to steal the parts from her. No wonder she built up a tolerance for discomfort. Her emotional intelligence developed because she had to read others body language and intentions in order to avoid fights, find safe escape routes, determine who could be an ally or foe — so it’s not surprising to me that she adapts well to changing circumstances, no wonder how mind-blowing they seem to others.
Brene Brown explains what tolerance for discomfort means:
Brene Brown, the resident expert on vulnerability and resilience, said in an interview with Tech Insider: “What I’m talking about is an acceptance that our drive, this insatiable appetite for comfort and happiness, does not reconcile with who we are as people. Sometimes we have to do tough things and feel our way through tough situations, and we have to feel tough emotions.”
Rey understands her emotions and the tough situations she’s had to survive. She dealt with her emotions and got through the situation, so she could survive another day. This resiliency keeps her going, despite all evidence that she’s been abandoned on this harsh world. Even so, her one of her greatest faults is her obstinate attitude and her reluctance to accept help from others. She’s so used to being alone, unable to rely on anyone, that when Finn and Han Solo and Chewie appear to aid her on her journey, she struggles to allow them to assist. Her stubborn confidence in her abilities nearly gets Finn, Han, and Chewie killed when she accidentally unleashes the Rancors rather than sealing off the pirates in Han’s ship. She makes mistakes that put her and sometimes those around her in extreme danger, but she learns from them and accepts responsibility for her actions.
Her second biggest fault is holding onto the myth that her family will return for her, as if the tighter she holds this myth the more likely it will happen. But this causes her to reject Han’s offer of co-pilot, despite the fact part of her really wanted it. They myth of her family’s return and the fear of the lightsaber’s power causes her to reject Maz’s words and the lightsaber. She runs from her friends and returns to what she knows best — being alone, because she cannot accept that her hope for her family was in vain or that her destiny could be tied to something other than Jakku. There in the forest she is overwhelmed by Kylo Ren’s attacks, and she fails to escape the encounter.
We all wish to feel wanted and loved, to have a family that is loyal to us, and Rey wanted that more than anything. Except she never found it on Jakku and never will. It’s when she finally lets go of Jakku that she’s able to realize she found a new family — one in Chewie, Finn, Han, and Leia.
Rey throughout the movie learns from her mistakes, learns new abilities, and most of all never stops growing. Because that’s one thing she can do extremely well — learn and learn fast, because in the game of survival, that’s the only way you will live to see another day. Rey has trained hard, has learned to quickly adapt, and has done her research, and even in her darkest moments, these skills she’s honed her whole life helps her overcome her mistakes, rally from defeat, learn new skills to overcome a stronger foe, and grow as a person. She was extremely well-written for a character with a backstory that made sense in relation to the skills she had.
Finn’s story follows a similar path to Rey’s but approaches growth in a slightly different manner, where his growth lies in becoming more confident in who he is. He was stolen from his parents as a child, given a number, and raised to fight for the New Order. His first job was sanitation, but he worked hard and finally had the chance to go on his first raid with Kylo Ren himself. But what does this teach Finn? He was taught to fight, but when put in a situation where the orders involve killing innocent families, Finn can’t stomach it. But what else does he have? He has empathy for others and a big heart, which simply cannot survive in the New Order. His faith in who he is is shaken, and he struggles to understand his place in the world.
What Finn learns in the first ten or so minutes of the movie is that the one thing he was brought up and trained to do, no longer fits. Who is he really? He knows he’s not the killing machine the New Order wants, because he cares too much and his empathy for others puts him in danger if he stays with the New Order.
Poe’s capture provides him with a chance to escape and start over. Saving Poe’s life was brave, possibly stupid, and terrifying for Finn, but he understood that this decision meant there could be no return. He either throws his lot with Rey, Poe, and the others, or seek death. The New Order terrifies him because of his past, and his desire to run from its tyranny makes sense. But the truth is, even when given the chance to leave for the outer rim, he can’t because he cares too much for his newly found friends.
Finn’s heart is his driving motivation and makes him who he is. He’s not the best fighter in the world, nor is his survival skills all that great, but he never had to survive in hostile conditions like Rey, so he never had to perfect these skills. He has a different skill set from Rey, and although he grew up around other stormtroopers in training, Finn remarks on how alone he was. Both of them were alone, but in very different ways. Both had to be resilient in the face of uncomfortable circumstances, and both had to learn to accept help from others. Both realize that they don’t have to do it all alone, and there are others out there like them who will stand by their side.
A lot of people may wish to be like Rey — the survivor who can quickly learn and adapt. A Lara Croft of sorts really, but there’s only a certain amount of people who adapt well and learn quickly. They’re the people that the average schmo would love to hate if they weren’t so dang nice. Most folks are more like Finn — more mundane, more average, and more likely to fail than succeed. Both types of people exist in our world and both have their roles in the great journey of life. Learning how to work together and support one another can be difficult, but as Rey and Finn teach us, it’s not only possible but an imperative for survival. We don’t have to do it all alone.
First of all, nice fairly in-depth review, though I don’t completely agree with everything you said. I do appreciate the two character analyses. I myself thought that Rey was a bit of a Mary Sue since she can do so many things, including fly even though she hated the thought of ditching her vigilant post, and so I really liked your take on her weaknesses. I still think she’s in the gray area because Mary Sues often have a minor, understandable weakness or two. I also appreciate that you mention how well the movie captures the emotion of characters, although it sounds a bit anime-y, capturing everyone’s reactions. But now that you’ve mentioned it, I do recall that characters’ reactions were expressed and in a tasteful manner
The reason I appreciate these things are because I’m a big Star Wars fan and wanted to like this movie a lot but left disappointed, for reasons I couldn’t quite piece together immediately. Sure, there were a lot of little things that bugged me, but I convinced myself those were nit-picky. I still hold to my lack of enthusiasm, but your review at least eased the sting. And don’t get me wrong, I’m still excited for the next one.
Your feelings on the movie are valid. Not everyone liked it and that’s okay. I just don’t agree with Rey being a Mary Sue as her weaknesses in my opinion were not minor — they hurt her and her friends and escalated things to dangerous levels more than once. That’s definitely not a minor weakness. Her faults are glaring; they almost get her and her friends killed. She also can’t do everything at first — she has to learn and grow in some areas. Her backstory does a great job of making an effective case of why she’s able to survive dangerous situations, so the set-up was solid. Because let’s be honest, she had a lot more training than Luke did when it came to survival in dangerous situations, and sure, Luke was just as quick of a learner and able to master most things easily, but his cushy home with his aunt and uncle wouldn’t have provided him with nearly the same skill set as Rey. Yet I don’t see folks calling him a Mary Sue when he’s able to do surprising feats in a short amount of time. Or Anakin — he’s the child prodigy who could do anything, far more than what Rey can do, and I don’t see folks calling him a Mary Sue either.
I made the argument that the skills she uses throughout the movie is all based on her survival skills, with which she is incredibly good at, and the movie kept her in situations where those skills would aid her the most. Outside of these arenas, she’s not really at her peak. She can’t do what General Leia does, nor is she even the best pilot. She flies well enough to get the job done, but she can’t do what Poe does. Her knowledge of ships is based entirely on her survival skills, where she needed to understand how to fly them to get to scavenging places and how they worked so she knew what was best to take from wrecks. Also, guy protagonists are rarely held to the same litmus test as women protagonists. I’ve been meaning to do further analysis on the use of Mary Sues actually, because often it seems that women protagonists are held against this standard of what folks think a women should be and act, and if she doesn’t hold enough of what is desirable feminine qualities and skills (if she is too masculine in her skills), she’s without a doubt called a Mary Sue. But guy protagonists (Jason Bourne, Captain America, Neo from Matrix for starters) aren’t hold to this same high standard and rarely called Mary Sues mostly because their skillset is seen as fitting and right for a guy and alarms people less than when they see a similar skillset in women.
Calling her a Mary Sue just because she’s good in the fighting/survival arenas of life just feels like a cop-out to me. That’s just my thoughts on Mary Sues. We may not agree on it, and that’s fine.
Oh, I agree with you that male protagonists are rarely called Mary Sues, and for sure Jason Bourne and Neo (and Paul from Dune, though I’m not so sure with Captain America) are prime examples of them, but just because male characters aren’t called out on it doesn’t make a female character not guilty of it. And I highly disagree that Anakin was a Mary Sue. Mary Sues are close to perfect with some understandable flaws to throw you off and like them more without them rubbing off as a perfect being, but they are also a character that the creator is pushing for you to love. You could argue that the creator wanted the audience to love Anakin, but I don’t think that is the case. If it is, then he (Lucas) failed as miserably as he failed with the whole prequel trilogy. That isn’t out of the realm of possibility since he failed majorly with all of that mess, but I don’t think it’s the case because the audience knows what Anakin becomes by the very nature of the order in which the material is presented. Anakin becomes the bad guy, and audiences aren’t typically pushed to like the bad guy. So while Anakin is skilled in a ridiculous amount of areas, I disagree with him being a Mary Sue because he’s so blatantly unlikeable.
I’d give you in return that Luke may be a bit of a Mary Sue, on the other hand. The only issue I take with that is that he isn’t brilliantly skilled. He can barely hold his own in a fight, and he’s basically only really good with piloting. He falls for simple, obvious tricks at least two, major, notable times (Cloud City and Jabba’s Palace). These could be seen as minor flaws, like how I see Rey’s, which contribute to him being a Mary Sue; I just don’t see them as minor enough nor him as skilled enough for the claim.
As for the movie itself, I liked it better when it was called A New Hope. 😉 That doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy it at all.
I enjoyed reading the analysis. Good writing. K