On Characters: Star Wars - The Force Awakens

Let's be clear about a number of key points from the start. Movie characters—especially in action movies like Star Wars—are infinitely less complex than the characters we can create and groom in short stories and novels. This is not because script writers and directors are superficial and simple-minded, but because different rules apply when you're writing a blockbuster movie script [1]. This is even more so when you consider that the writers of this particular script were writing for none other than the Star Wars franchise. No pressure whatsoever!

The movie has cleaned up at the box office, and generally received fine reviews. The thing about movie critics is that they tend to herd towards one of two extremes in these cases. Either they fall victim to their intellectual superiority—perceived or real—resulting in scathing reviews, or they succumb to the adventure and grandeur of the universe and go overboard in their praise like fantasy novel eating teenagers. In this case they appear to have gone for the latter. This funny review by Chuck Wendig is a good example, while this one by the Hollywood Reporter is more to the point in my view, and finally this from the Opinionator is also good. 

Don't get me wrong. I liked the movie and was greatly entertained. When the next one comes out, you can find me in the cinema on opening night, although I won't be sporting a storm-trooper suit. My main gripe is with the two main characters and adversaries; Rey and Kylo Ren. I understand the need for Hollywood writers to be politically correct, especially when it comes to sexism and racism, and it is not a surprise the main character is a women flanked by a black side-kick. The white male, in case you didn't notice, is not exactly popular at the moment. I am fine with that, and would even argue it is long overdue, but Daisey Ridley's character, in particular, suffers as a result.

Is there anything Rey can't do?

Rey can be summed up easily. She is an attractive and athletic young woman, she knows how to fight, she knows how to build stuff, she knows her way around a space ship as well as Han Solo, she is a crack pilot, and she apparently manages to jump-start her Jedi career in two minutes during an interrogation by Kylo Ren [2]. In short, she's perfect. Her vulnerability is tied to a pretty thin back story about her family leaving when she was a child, and her sense of duty in waiting for them on a desolate desert planet. This is never a convincing yoke, however, and is easily dispensed by advice from a spec wielding and yellow headed sage, also a woman of course, convincing Rey that her sense of belonging lies ahead, and not in the past. Job done as they say.

It is fairly easy to fall in love with Rey which, incidentally, is exactly what me and the rest of the male audience are supposed to do. If if you were hitched to Rey, you could merrily devote all your time to do whatever you wanted, with little care of pecuniary matters, safe in the knowledge that she would take care of everything. Of course, the real morale is that she doesn't need a man, because she is superior to even the best specimen in every way. The key problem here, I think, is that it makes Rey a poor role model. Women can have all the CEO and board positions they want in my view—honestly, all power to them—but young woman today go to exorbitant lengths in the name of equality between sexes to do everything, preferably better than men, and at twice the speed. It is predictable, but also disappointing, that a new Star Wars movie confirms this theme. This is a matter of strong opinion, but I would argue women have already beaten men, and have morphed into their own worst enemy. Admittedly, this is a pet peeve of mine, and perhaps not relevant here, but I still think it is a problem. These characters are easy to create and love in a Star Wars movie, but they don't exist or work well in real life, and that is a point of vulnerability in terms of identification.  

Moving beyond her fit as a role model, the main problem is that her ability to do everything gets boring over time. For example, it is a big flaw in the plot, I think, that she manages to gain Jedi skills as quickly as she doe and with such effectiveness, which brings us to our villain, Kylo Ren. 

Nothing more than a frustrated teenager

In his review of the Force Awakens (linked above), Frank Bruni opines that daddy complexes remains one of the most powerful catalysts for character creations in movies and fiction. Kylo Ren is a great example, but it is never really convincing in my view. We are given little information on what happened to Kylo and his parents—Han Solo and Leia—to push him towards the dark side, and Kylo's relationship with his master—the oversized Gollum hologram—gives few hints either. This creates a problem in the context of the denouement where Kylo kills his father, and makes, one has to assume, the irreversible transition to the dark side. That scene simply wasn't convincing to me, and seemed more like a script writer's attempt to effectively and clinically remove a character—Harrison Ford is not getting any younger you know—than a statement to the nastiness of Kylo Ren. Part of the reason I felt this, was undoubtedly that Kylo, at this stage in the movie, had already been schooled by Rey, and as a result his status as a villain was already been irreversibly compromised. 

It is a pity, because it starts so well for him. The initial appearance where he stops Poe's blaster beam in mid-air and "predicts" that Finn likely will defect from the First Orders' ranks is a grand entry. It would have been nice too, for example, if he had been given the opportunity, like Darth Wader did, to jedi-choke the general that seems to be challening him several times, even in front of their master. Instead, the whole things falls apart during his interrogation of Rey. Here, his jedi mind tricks not only fail to pry the secrets from her, but he is also overpowered by Rey's sudden realisation, apparently, that she had jedi skills all along. The removal of the mask revealing a boyish un-menancing face doesn't help, and from this point it all goes down-hill for him. 

The final light-sabre battle is tainted by what has preceeded it. Nevermind that we know Rey shouldn't really be able to convincingly wield a jedi-weapon, we know she has superior mind tricks to Ren. Indeed, the whole thing about Finn bravely trying to help Rey is all laughable at this point, because she has already established herself as vastly superior to the two other men in the story. It will take some feat to restore Ren's villain status in the next movies, if indeed that is the intention. I would probably just skip him and create a new Sith Lord or something. 

What's the lesson for fiction writers then?

Balance between characters is important, especially if they're adversaries. Rey is a hugely likeable character, and could work quite well in another setting, but as a hero she makes life very difficult for any anti-hero. I think this would be the case even in a novel or a short story. In the three first Star Wars movies, Luke is arguablylucky not to be killed by Dart Wader, and it is only in the beginning of The Jedi Returns that he enters the scene as a fully fledged jedi. I am sure, the intention is the same with Rey, but she has already mobbed the floor with Ren, leaving with little more to do there, and that is a pity. 


[1] - You did read Save the Cat didn't you?

[2] - Although presumably, she needs more training to become the finished article.