Spoiler Alert: If you still haven’t seen SW:TFA and don’t want it spoiled, don’t read on.
I finally watched Star Wars: The Force Awakens for the second time, on video at home. My initial analysis remains unchanged. But I noticed a few things this time around, and in the light of several months’ distance and discussion–not to mention having seen the trailer for Star Wars: Rogue One (or Rouge One, as it seems to be trending on Twitter) earlier that day.
Much of my secondary reaction was nit-picking. For example: Luke had better have a darn good explanation for sitting out the destruction of The Republic and nearly the Resistance. Who does he think he is, Yoda? Seriously, why wait until all your resources are gone to try and do something about an evil that even manages to out-evil the Empire? Second: If Rey is such an awesome mechanic and pilot, and even worked for/with the junkyard master to fix up the Millennium Falcon, why does she have to scavenge? Also, why do tie fighters only have a rear gunner when Finn is flying in one?
The First Order has got to be one of the most incompetent organizations around; they even make the Empire look efficient. If you’re trying to capture a droid intact, why on earth would your first resort always be air strikes? And I know they have to look evil, but what is the point of slaughtering everyone at every camp you raid? If people realize they have nothing to lose by resisting, then you’ll always meet resistance. Why not instead give people the reassurance that surrender and cooperation is a valid option, and then reward those who truly cooperate and help you get what you want?
And why are they so afraid of The Republic? They had what, four planets? The New Order clearly has enough resources to build a planet of their own, implying that they have a lot of planets under their control, so how did The Republic manage to stand up against them for so long?
Don’t even get me started on Starkiller Base. There are so many things wrong with that concept that I don’t want to go there.
But in spite of all that (and many other things) I still liked it. I still like Rey, Finn, and Poe. It was good to see Han, Chewie, and Leia in action again. Though the bit about Han always wanting to borrow Chewie’s bowcaster got old fast the second time around. They’ve been together how long? And he’s just now realizing how cool it is? Is there some reason why he can’t get one of his own?
But in light of some of the recent commentary around both this movie and the upcoming Rogue One, there’s something else I want to look at: Rey as the feminist hero some people have been waiting for.
There is no denying that she’s a strong female character who can look out for herself. They maybe even tip their hand a bit too much trying to point that out, though their turning some tropes on their heads was fun. And while she gets much–if not most–of the screen time among all the characters, she’s not the hero of this movie in any measurable sense. She and Finn really share the credit for getting BB-8 back to the Resistance. Both of them look the future in the face and try to run. But that’s where the similarities end.
Sure, she’s the one in love with the idea of the Resistance. She’s the one who initially saves BB-8 (but it’s Finn who knows its value and what to do with it). And she is clearly quite disappointed when Finn decides he’s had enough and wants to get out. She tries to talk him out of it. And not five minutes later, when Rey finds out she has some great destiny, she runs too. And though in running she helps BB-8 avoid capture, she effectively takes herself out of the rest of the conflict. Sure, she escapes on her own and eventually rescues Finn. Yes, she learns to embrace her Force-user destiny, but mainly for self-preservation. And while she is clearly a strong candidate to be a Jedi, it’s never really explained why it’s her that goes to find Luke Skywalker–or at least, why her alone. At that point she has done nothing to directly aid the Resistance and has only proven herself someone who gets captured.
Finn, on the other hand, when he sees people in danger, continually runs to help, even when he’s trying to get away from it. He comes back when the First Order attacks Maz’s complex, hoping to warn people. He fights (though his duel with the storm trooper was entirely unnecessary and rather dumb). And though he’s supposedly deathly afraid of the First Order, he volunteers to help the Resistance attack Starkiller Base in order to get a chance to rescue Rey. He’s the one with knowledge and experience that makes it possible for the Resistance to defeat the First Order and stay alive to continue fighting. If there’s a hero to the movie, it’s Finn. Rey may be the Resistance’s hope for the future, but it’s Finn that keeps that hope alive for now. And he’s the one who stands up to Kylo Ren long enough for Rey to recover–and injures and weakens Kylo Ren further in the process.
So Rey gets more attention in the movie, but her actual contribution is negligible. Sure, she’s strong and capable. She’s loyal. She’s got Force powers, and she’s able to learn quickly “on the job”. She has a lot of potential as a character. And she even still gets to maintain her femininity. But she’s not the hero of this movie in any real plot sense. Her value comes more from what she doesn’t do. She doesn’t sell BB-8. She doesn’t completely abandon everyone in her headlong flight from destiny. She doesn’t give Kylo Ren what he wants. She doesn’t let him turn her or kill her. And she doesn’t turn down the invitation to go find Luke. But she could have done all of that and the Resistance still would have been wiped out.
Finn’s contribution was absolutely essential in the critical path of the movie. He rescued Poe Dameron, who later proved instrumental in destroying Starkiller Base. He had important knowledge about Starkiller Base that provided the Resistance with a chance. He recognized and capitalized on the opportunity to use Captain Phasma to get the shield down. Anything else he did after that was icing on the cake. He single-handedly saved the Resistance.
I certainly don’t object to Rey’s character. I think a strong female character in an action movie is just fine, so long as it makes sense (River Tam punching guys twice her size and making them fly backward ten feet doesn’t make sense). It may even be overdue. And it may be that over the run of the plot arc Rey ends up being more critical to their overall success than Finn. If not, and she only plays her part in the ensemble effort I’m absolutely cool with that. I’m fine with her character.
And it’s because of what she doesn’t do in the movie that I’m inclined to give the writers the benefit of the doubt that she wasn’t meant to be some over-the-top feminist icon or that the movie wasn’t supposed to send a strong feminist message. That would have been if she’d singlehandedly saved the day without Finn or Poe. And that wouldn’t have been Star Wars, either, because Star Wars was always about the ensemble solving problems through their own contributions.
Now it looks like Rogue One will have a female main character who will be the hero. But that could be premature, too, as we do see an ensemble of characters forming around her. Will Rogue One take the next step toward being the Feminist Star Wars movie? Who knows? I think it would be a mistake if they do, but if it simply includes a diversity of characters because “why not?” and in order to appeal to a broader viewer base…well, what’s wrong with that?
If every one of the new Star Wars franchise movies focuses on a female main character I think that, too, will get old fast, and probably reveal an underlying Message that may turn people off. But simply having strong female characters is nothing new to Star Wars. Leia was always in there kicking butt alongside the men, even if she wasn’t the main focus. Padme had her moments.
So I think the “too many women!” crowd are over-reacting, just like the “Huh?! A black stormtrooper!” crowd was wrong, too. And one movie does not a precedence make. Let’s actually see Rogue One before we decide what they are or aren’t trying to do.
But in the mean time, there’s a clear winner in The Force Awakens that I haven’t mentioned yet and should: The special effects and visuals. We saw a lot of space opera settings in a short amount of time, and every one of them felt right. The tech had the right Star Wars feel. The sets felt like home, even when they were places we’d never seen before. The battle scenes had a realistic feel and weren’t incomprehensible or overwhelming. It’s no accident that, with few exceptions, people are debating over the characters rather than whether or not this felt like Star Wars. Abrams nailed the setting. There were a few questionable choices, but on the whole, I didn’t question what I was seeing, not even the second time around. If anything, I think I liked the settings more than I did with the prequels.
I could have done with less action, but it is what it is. This is a movie of its time, and therefore subject to current prejudices. But yes, I’ll probably be in line to watch the next two movies–to see what they do with Rogue One, and to see where they go next with Rey, Finn, and Poe.