Warning, spoilers ahead. Serious spoilers ahead. Turn back now. You have been warned. My dutiful caveat is given.
One day writers will learn that just because you’re dealing with high myth you do not get to write vapid shit and call it a plot. Simply because one is dabbling with archetypal imagery in a way that’s both obviously comforting in its familiarity and strangely unnerving in its alienness you don’t get to make the argument “because magic.” It’s weak sauce and any who cares to think about it for half a second will come to that conclusion.
That said, The Force Awakens was a cluster-fuck of potent imagery and poor writing, meaningful mythology suffering from the story’s lack of clarity in one major arc.
But let’s begin with what the film got right and then look at how it broke down into a turd.
At the end of Return of the Jedi we have the completion of the Campbellian Trope. The Hero’s love conquers the evil king and redeems the misguided knight, the old regime topples and a new regime–one in keeping with nature–emerges or is reborn. A clear mythic parallel is the establishment of Camelot, with Luke being Merlin while Han and Leia are Arthur and Guinevere.
As we come into the new movie, it’s evident that Luke will have left society, and that Han’s son will be a patricidal maniac. This is because that’s what happens to Arthur: Merlin leaves him and Mordred wants to murder him. This is Han Solo’s movie, this is the end of his story and that’s fine because that gets handled well. What doesn’t get handled is the start of the Heroine’s Journey, the beginning of Rey’s story.
On Jakku we see Rey working as a slave or a menial servant, someone who collects scrap metal, scrubs it, and exchanges her find for food. The paymaster likes to screw her over, despite the risks she takes to collect useful scrap. She’s a tinker and a pilot, and she helps BB-8 (an automaton with a secret–familiar, yeah?)
She meets a defector from the First Order–the fascist, well-equipped, and still poorly dressed remnants of the Empire–whom she defeats in combat. This is the first ass she’ll kick in a long line of asses throughout the film. It should be noted that this is where her story starts to break down….
Rey will be the Chosen One, the one the Force selects as its vessel to bring Balance to the cosmos. She is the new Sorcerer’s Apprentice and that’s groovy because women can be Jedi Knights and should be Jedi Knights. But instead of being Force-sensitive, she’s some sort of ninja who can be in two places at once. She can tactically outwit a conditioned, trained-since-childhood Stormtrooper in a fight-or-flight scenario and, later, this line of flawed thinking will be used to break the plot altogether.
At this point, instead of a physical confrontation between Rey and Fin–a moment initiated because the two notice one another at almost the same time–there was a chance for Rey to show a degree of prescience, to reveal her Force-sensitive nature in a passive yet meaningful way, without having to exert physical dominion over others. Subtlety was required, but the writers hit the scene with a sledge-hammer in the guise of a physics-defying disappearing act. Instead of being clever, she’s brash. Instead of being witty, she’s provocative. She’s not subtle at all and that’s not good in a sorceress.
When Rey discovers Luke’s lightsaber, the parallel to Pandora should be clear. The parallel to the secreting of Excalibur by Guinevere isn’t so clear, but there’s a film for that. The vision she receives corresponds to the woes of the world–the knowledge of the future as problem and answer–while the lightsaber symbolizes hope. It’s semiotically meaningful, though her encounter with the wizened female Yoda-counterpart makes little sense. If the innkeeper were Force-sensitive then her possession of the lightsaber, her wisdom and longevity, would make perfect sense as would her being there for Rey’s revelation.
But no… She finds Luke’s lightsaber, she touches it, and she gets the acid trip everyone wants. Prior to this there is no reason to assume that this girl should be a Jedi. We have seen nothing of the Force in her actions prior. Sure, she does the ninja trick, but ninjas do the ninja trick sans magic, so where’s the Force in that? She’s a crack pilot, but so is Han Solo and he’s not even a Force-sensitive, let alone a Force-wielder. There’s no warm-up, no lead-in, nothing to let us know that this a natural if frightening thing for her to experience. (Also, given the previous scenes in the franchise where the Force grants a vision, I can honestly say this was handled in a ham-fisted fashion.)
I’m going to let Rey’s sudden mastery of mental manipulation slide. I’ll give her the Jedi mind trick, though I’m not happy about it.
Now let’s examine that lightsaber duel with Kylo Ren. HOW? How is this even possible? Kylo Ren arguably has years of training, has built his own lightsaber, understands the Force much better than some neophyte, yet for Rey these things come naturally. And this, boys and girls, is the text-book definition of a Mary Sue.
This scene could have been salvaged with a bit of thought. If Rey had been given some menial, mindless chore on Jakku–beating sheets with a stick, beating vermin with a stick, chasing off scrap poachers with a stick–that would have been analogous to lightsaber dueling, she could have surprised Ren with an unconventional move (after he, of course, taunted and mocked her for being untrained.) But as it stands, somehow “goodness” and “rightness” make up for years of training, years of work, years of determination. Even though Han Solo chides at one point, “That’s not how the Force works!” that’s how it works this time around.
There is no good reason why Kylo Ren shouldn’t have mopped the floor with Rey. She may be the Chosen One of the Force, but she has no legitimate excuse to be anything but detrimental to herself with a lightsaber in her hand because we’ve seen no reason to suspect she’d be anything other than clumsy.
But the Force. And Good wins. And strong female lead.
Give me a strong female lead. But respect her enough as a character to make her real. Don’t make her “Super Boob.” Make her a girl discovering her hidden talents, using what she’s learned to gain new skills that serve a greater purpose. Rey is plopped down in front of us, an abandoned girl from a backwater planet, yet by film’s end almost a fully-formed Jedi in her own right. And that makes no sense. She doesn’t discover anything about herself from her heroism, she just does these amazing things and she wins. How she does them is as much a mystery to her as it is to us and that’s what breaks the film, her character, and the understood innate subtlety of the Force.