As ordinary human beings, we tend to have these emotions called desires. We yearn for many things, and it’s certain that we will only ever have a fraction of them. Among what we can have, anything truly valuable—anything about which we are genuinely proud—is the result of a long struggle, fraught with uncertainty. Just as likely, we might waste our efforts on something futile, or tire of fighting the doubts of ourselves and others and give up. We have ‘flaws’ that foil our otherwise watertight plans for perpetual happiness. On the rare occasions we get something we desire, we usually find it isn’t exactly what we thought it would be.
All half-decent characters in fiction are driven forward by what they want and frustrated by flaws and obstacles which hold them back, and a happy ending is when they get what they wanted and overcome the obstacles and their flaws. If this all seems very basic you’ll have to forgive me, because it’s easy to forget these basic things when you’ve been given the task of reanimating the corpse of a major franchise.
At the beginning of The Force Awakens, Rey is in a much lower place than Luke was at the beginning of A New Hope; Luke has a loving family and a place in the world, Rey lives alone in shack in the company of an ever dwindling ration of instant muffin powder. Luke’s desire to leave the safety of his village for adventure in a galaxy which is far beyond him seems boyish and selfish, and in the pursuit of it he becomes whiny. His desires and his flaws are both familiar to us, belonging as they do to every third farmboy in the history of the fictional universe.
Everyone in the Ordinary World, which is most of us, wants to be a part of the Special World. When Luke says he wants to join the Rebellion, or that he wants to become a Jedi, we say: “me too.” That we can empathize with and share a character’s desires is what allows us to share their adventure as if it were our own, and escape to the Special World for that same liminal period the hero himself does.
In musical theater and the animated films of Disney, the act of conveying what motivates a character is practically a science, and goes by the name of the “I Want” song. No one who saw The Lion King is unclear about what it is that Simba wants. The best “I Want” songs, of which the Lion King example is one, also allude to the personal flaws and external obstacles that will prevent our hero from getting what they want. The “I Want” song in A New Hope is when Luke is discussing his future with his uncle, a scene which culminates in the brilliant binary sunset. Luke’s dreams appear to be slipping away from him, like the fading light of the suns.
Because Rey’s situation is so low at the beginning of The Force Awakens, we are presumably to take it as a given that she wants a better life. She lives alone, though—if she had such a desire, who would she relate it to? Perhaps to Morph Ball Samus? Who knows. Should J.J. have simply ripped off—I mean, paid homage to—the binary sunset scene? It wouldn’t have meant anything if he had, without first addressing Rey’s desires. The fact is that Rey is never shown to really want any of the things she is handed, throughout the movie, in conveyor-belt like fashion. This is neither the arc of a hero nor a particularly relatable process for anyone short of a trust fund child. Perhaps that is realistic, given the likelihood of her having noble blood.
I’ve only seen the movie once, a few days ago, but I didn’t sleep through it. I’m not discounting the possibility that there were some offhand comments about what she wanted, but that alone is inadequate to make an impression. When a character’s desires are competently conveyed, they suffer when those desires are frustrated, and they are excited when their fulfillment seems close at hand. They despair when they lose something in their pursuit. Luke goes through all of this.
When a human character enters the Special World, it amazes them, and by extension us. These beats were absent from Rey. She fixes Han Solo’s spaceship for him. She knows all about it, you see. This pattern continues and, if it were not for the overwhelmingly human presence of Finn, might have drained the blood out of the movie.
The mysterious provenance of Rey’s hyper-competence is an easy target, and has been touched upon before by other commentators as a weakness of the film. There’s really nothing to say about her five-minute Force clinic except that it was almost as silly and demeaning of the previously numinous Force as midichlorians were. Much about Rey’s character is ex nihilo. Luke compares hitting the exhaust port to blasting womp-rats from a speeder back home, so his confidence at approaching this task is understandable. Even so, he requires supernatural aid when, in the end, it isn’t as easy as he thought it would be. To the extent that Luke is extraordinary, we understand why, and we see him as a normal person with access to special powers.
Rey is a special person with access to special powers. We assume she taught herself martial arts, a feat which usually requires a master, because she does not need other people’s help. Her flaws—chief among them Wrath—do not ever become an obstacle for her. I don’t believe another character even attempts to take her down a peg, as Han Solo does to occasionally overbearing and haughty Leia. It never occurs to them to do so. Why would it?
Many have complained of The Force Awakens as formulaic and derivative of A New Hope. I don’t believe this is the case, and I offer the hero Rey as the evidence. The Force Awakens is actually an inversion of A New Hope, and of many similar movies with everyman protagonists. It is not that difficult to make a hero identifiable, to give them human emotions, flaws, and motivations, and to make sure all the signposts on the Hero’s Journey are struck. Lucas’s sincere devotion to these tropes, and to making them as fun as possible, is what makes A New Hope successful. All of this material and expertise was available to a project like The Force Awakens. If they wanted Rey to seem human, they would have done so.
Rey is who she is because she isn’t an ordinary human being, but rather a semi-divine warrior akin to Gilgamesh. Her singular name invokes the sun. Her personality is eerily reminiscent of Achilles. She is handed everything because divine children receive special gifts simply due to their status, as when Hephaestus forged Achilles’ arms for him because his goddess mother pleaded for it.
The world of Star Wars has become ordinary to us, and that makes it inadequate as a mystical Special World. Rey, as a descendant of the gods, brings the Special World to Star Wars. That is why Han Solo is amazed by her, rather than the opposite. That we might be tempted to find her perfection obnoxious is also built-in: the men of Ur were largely sick of Gilgamesh for the same reason.
So you see, it’s actually genius. The Force Awakens understands we’ve grown tired of regular people and their boring struggles to fulfill their dreams, and delivers us a god. All hail Rey.
But you know, even Gilgamesh wept.