Saturday, January 30, 2016

Character Profile: Rey

In Star Wars: The Force Awakens, newcomer Daisy Ridley portrays Rey, the main hero of the new stories. Rey is smart but sweet, and independent without being masculine. One of the things I think I enjoyed most about Daisy Ridley's performance as Rey, is that she was easy to like and identify with as a leading character. In many ways, she seems like the perfect combination of Emma Watson and Pirates of the Caribbean era Kiera Knightley. She exhibits Watson's girl-next-door charm, wit, quick-thinking, resourcefulness, and independence, while also embodying Knightley-type ferocity, survival skills, athleticism, and occasional pluckiness. She's petite, fierce, and fun.

Looking at the idolized "strong female characters" of recent years, Rey is the character who finally hit the bullseye for me. Yes, we've always had Angelina Jolie to equalize and even conquer male counterparts, but how many people can really identify with Jolie? Even in her most down-to-earth roles, her dusky femme fatale aura and star-power grossly overshadow her relatability. More recently the world of feminism bowed to Elsa of Frozen, which still missed the mark for me because Elsa's independence and embrace of her true self are entirely destructive. Even by the movie's end she still hasn't really learned the importance of asking for or accepting help, having found it all within herself. A smattering of other movies and actresses demonstrate female strength as being as macho as possible, once again missing the mark.

Rey is not a smoldering and curvy Jolie-type butt-kicker, but nor is she a helpless damsel in distress, or a dark and tortured woman. If it seems like this makes Rey boring, that's certainly not the case-- she's just more normal, and much easier to understand. In fact, my only real beef with Rey is that she seems too perfect. She's tough but not macho, kind yet not weak, she seems to be a perfect judge of character, she never questions her mission, she's quick in a jam, she has a thorough understanding of mechanics, grasps the power of the force pretty quickly, and her biggest flaw is that she's too loyal, and would hop a ship back to the wasteland Jakku at the earliest opportunity to wait for the family that will never return.

Like Princess Leia before her, Rey is not waiting on a man to rescue her, and she does pretty well rescuing herself most of the time. However, Rey also doesn't give the impression that to accept help, or maybe eventually fall in love, would be a betrayal of her being. For all that independence, when she does need help, it's not shown as weakness. In fact, when Rey and Finn are reunited after Rey's capture, her acceptance of Finn and Han's dedication to saving her is a tender moment showing that her heart is growing to accept friendship.

In many ways, The Force Awakens sets up Rey to be the absolute equal and opposite of Kylo Ren. The two are about the same age, and neither has complete training in the ways of the force, but both are already powerful in their seemingly natural force-sensitivity. Ren has had training that is incomplete, yet he has a firm grasp of telekinesis and mind probing. Rey, having had no training, quickly masters mind-control tricks, resistance of mind-probing, and summoning a lightsaber-- all by lucky experimentation. By the time the credits roll, Kylo Ren has returned to his master to complete his training, and Rey has found her master to presumably begin her own. Both are under the tutelage of more powerful force-users, and eventually Rey and Ren will meet again to pit their powers against one another.

As the main hero of the new saga, Rey has an intriguing and mysterious appeal. Earlier, I mentioned that in many ways she seems a little too perfect, but I'm confident that eventually, Rey will be tempted by the Dark Side and be forced to reckon with her own potential to cross over to the Dark Side, deepening her character. There is also the question of Rey's parentage, which is currently a hot point of fan speculation, wherein the inevitable revelation of why Rey was abandoned on Jakku will create even more character-building moments. Until that time however, Rey's progress as the protagonist promises to be an engaging ride.

More on Kylo Ren

     With new heroes should also come new villains to match them, and for this, The Force Awakens presents Kylo Ren. Ren's origins are hinted at and then exposed relatively early in the film, so I don't consider it a spoiler to share that he is actually the estranged son of Han and Leia, and that his choice to follow the dark side was hugely significant to Luke's disappearance. Ren is a different kind of villain, especially for Star Wars. Although the prequels show the transformation of Anakin into Darth Vader, the original trilogy did not labor to explain Vader, and the audience simply knew him as the bad guy who remained unsympathetic until The Return of the Jedi. However, Ren seems to struggle to stay on the dark side of the force. He periodically speaks to Vader's charred helmet and confesses wrestling against "the call to the light," while vowing to finish what his grandfather started. It is not entirely clear what Ren believes it is that his grandfather started, unless it's the annihilation of the Jedi.

     From a story-telling perspective, revealing Ren's hesitations and showing the face under the mask is bold, but risky, as it creates various connections to the person that we're meant to perceive as the villain. Knowing that Kylo Ren is actually Ben Solo is the first emotional connection that the audience will make to the character. There's a sort of obligation to hope that Han and Leia's son could surely be swayed to goodness, even before Leia gives a classic Skywalker line about knowing there is still good in him. Once Ren removes his mask, the audience can no longer deny that there is a flesh and blood young man under it all, which is the second connection. When the audience can look into his eyes and study his face, he becomes less of a force of evil, and more of a person, which gives the character the potential to be sympathetic. The third and final connection is that the audience already knows that Ren occasionally wrestles with his path, so there is still a glimmer of hope, even after his most heinous act, that he may come back around. Perhaps it is only a vain hope that wants this to be true because he is a Solo, and the son a hero should be redeemable. One of Star Wars' most prominent themes is the power of love and family, and Kylo Ren is not only a Solo, but also a Skywalker, and that is a compelling argument to root for his redemption.

       The casting of Adam Driver as Kylo Ren works excellently here, even if he doesn't look like the son of Han and Leia, or much like a scary villain. Particularly effective is the design of Ren's costume. Unlike Darth Vader's armored suit and more akin to Darth Maul's samurai-inspired attire, Ren's costume excellently compliments his fluid motions, giving him a sort of medieval assassin look. This imagery is probably enhanced by the classic sword design of Ren's lightsaber. Even Ren's fighting style is different than we've seen before, from a Sith or Jedi, which further emphasizes his dominant presence.

     Ren does not need his mask for any of the medical reasons that Anakin had, but he wears it to mimic his grandfather Vader. While this imitation may be to make himself as symbolic as Vader, later moments make one wonder if the purpose of Ren's mask is merely intimidation to compensate for his being young and having incomplete training. Several Ren scenes reveal underlying juvenile instability that are highly reminiscent of Anakin circa episode III. Though Ren's tantrums are played for comedy more than an attempt at unsettling the audience, he has much of his grandfather in him. Considering that Kylo Ren's training is incomplete, his abilities in wielding the force are certainly impressive, having already mastered skills that we've never seen onscreen before. Yet despite having considerable power and the favor of Supreme Commander Snoke, there is no doubt of General Hux's derision towards Ren. Unlike Vader and Grand Moff Tarkin, who seemed to share a mutual respect, General Hux and Kylo Ren have a mutual dislike, and seem engaged in a power-play against one another and only tolerate one another because Supreme Commander Snoke has use for each of them.

     Neither Kylo Ren nor his master Supreme Commander Snoke carry a Darth title. While it is possible that Snoke will indeed be a Sith lord with a Darth title, it is clear that Snoke is experienced in the dark side, with or without the formal title. There is also the possibility that Kylo Ren's incomplete training accounts for his lack of recognized Sith rank, and that this will be bestowed in future installments. But then again, maybe not. Rey and Ren both have a fairly functional use of the force without complete training, so it is possible that this new generation will take a more unconventional approach to the force. Also interesting, Ren leads a company of followers known as the Knights of Ren, though at this point it is uncertain who these followers are in terms of origins or motives, or what their powers are. However, if they all were once pupils of Luke's who turned evil, the fact that Ren is leading them in a group breaks the ancient Sith "rule of two" which states that there is always no more or less than a master and an apprentice. This is significant to the moderate to hard-core fans because it may have serious implications on the future direction of the Sith and Jedi orders, and therefore the story. Judging by Ren's attempt to tempt Rey to become his apprentice, it seems a safe bet that the cycle of the apprentice overthrowing the master is still active, but if Sith conventions are being broken, there could be other reasons entirely for Ren's attempt to convert Rey.

     Kylo Ren's path to fully embracing the Dark Side is still ahead, but it is clear that Ren may yet follow in his grandfather's footsteps, though perhaps not in the way that he may intend to. Ren's struggle against the "call to the light" lays a hope that however dark Ren may become, he may indeed, like Vader before him, come back to the light. The road to this hopeful end is certain to be a long one, but with the story only just beginning, it is sure to be an interesting and heartbreaking journey.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Be still my heart....

     The franchise that defines science fiction as we know it is in new hands, with new faces, and a new story. Last time the name Star Wars appeared on a theater screen, the tragic result was The Revenge of the Sith. The movies that were icons of movie history and paragons of the sci-fi genre suddenly shared their golden name with a trilogy worthy of the Razzie Awards. With a new studio, new director, and a complete divorce from the volumes of literature based in the galaxy far far away, could the franchise ever be restored to its former glory? With baited breath, that is the question that all the fans have been asking.

Could Star Wars be good again? 

The answer is... yes. Finally, yes. In the words of the first spoken lines of the movie, "This will begin to make things right." 

     Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a distant echo of A New Hope, with new heroes and enemies, a few familiar faces, but still the same heartfelt story in its soul, following in many of the same steps as the very first Star Wars movie that began it all. The Force Awakens is at once a new story and an old one, a reborn conflict and yet a continuation of a familiar one. The newly introduced heroes mingle seamlessly with the classic names, and the new faces of evil are but a new generation of the Empire.  

     The original Star Wars changed movies, but not entirely because of revolutionary special effects; plenty of movies with more ground-breaking technology have come since. Star Wars, amidst its innovative effects and bold setting, managed to touch people in a very personal way, despite being set a long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. Worlds named Tatooine, Yavin IV, and the moon of Endor somehow felt familiar, and people like Luke Skywalker, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Han Solo felt like friends. The fantastic stories were miraculously relatable, because at the core of Star Wars is a story that appeals to every dreamer who wants to believe that they are part of something bigger; something noble that has no chance of succeeding, but will anyway. That is the heart of the epic known as Star Wars-- that ordinary people with ordinary fears step up and triumph against extraordinary odds.

     In this new installment to the story, a new epic begins with equally identifiable characters, bringing back some of the old as well. Taking Luke's place as the nobody-turned-hero is Rey, a scavenger on a desert planet. Her origins are mysterious, seemingly unknown even to herself, but she waits patiently for her family to come back for her and rescue her from the desolate wasteland where she has made her home in the ruins of an AT-AT. As such, the young woman is no stranger to sweat, sand, greasy mechanic work, and defending herself from the scum and ruffians of Jakku. But like Luke Skywalker before her, her destiny is completely redirected (or possibly fulfilled?) by a chance encounter with a special droid.

     Continuing in the tradition that George Lucas began, most of The Force Awakens features a cast of relative unknowns, which allows the audience to enjoy this adventure with a clean slate, mostly free of expectations from any of the actors. Daisy Ridley as Rey is engaging, relatable, and ultimately just likable. Ridley brings a range of expression, humor, ferocity, and dignity to the character of Rey without being overly macho or appearing weak. Even in her scrappiness, she has an essence about her that is noble and dignified, while avoiding being aristocratic or entitled. Rey is a post-modern Princess Leia, with admirable moxie and independence, yet still exhibits real emotions and fears, and could use a hand every now and then. She's not untouchable or made of stone, but she's no pushover. Ridley's telling facial expressions and intensely expressive eyes contribute to a strong performance that brings Rey to life. Her story grabs your attention so fully that you can't help but feel invested in the same way that audiences were enthralled with Luke's journey from farmboy to Jedi so many years ago. Rey is a sweet and attractive leading character, which is explored further in a separate post.

     If Rey is the poster hero for Star Wars now, the orbicular droid BB-8 is undoubtedly the Happy Meal toy. In all seriousness, after having BB-8 bobbing around onscreen, C-3PO and R2-D2 seem comparatively lackluster and somewhat dull by the time they appear. BB-8's spheroid build allows for the droid to be expressive, humorous, and feisty in ways that make R2-D2 look almost stiff. BB-8's attachment to Poe Dameron is not unlike a loyal dog and his master, which is certainly endearing for a sidekick. BB-8 refers to Poe (through beeps and bleeps) as his master, and Poe in turn, calls BB-8 "buddy." Like C-3PO and R2-D2 before him, BB-8 serves mostly comic ends with a few useful moments.

     Speaking of comedy, one of the strongest points for The Force Awakens is probably the excellent comedic timing, which is most often delivered by John Boyega's Finn. Though Finn's origins are dark and his entrance into the story is not exactly bumbling (meaning not like a certain Gungan from a previous film), Finn repeatedly delivers the lighter moments of the movie. Boyega's execution of the character Finn is not only entertaining, but refreshing. While Rey is something of a nobody (though, like Skywalker, is likely to have important parentage), Finn is not much better. Finn is a rogue storm trooper who makes a dramatic escape from the clutches of the First Order, having been kidnapped for the First Order when he was too young to remember anything else about his family or home. Amidst many comedic moments, Finn has more to him than just being the movie's clown. He is a man of conviction and chivalry with moments of vulnerability and fear, but ultimately a good man trying to be on the right side and lend some assistance to a decidedly non-distressed damsel.

     With new heroes should also come new villains to match them, and for this, The Force Awakens presents Kylo Ren. Ren's origins are hinted at and then exposed relatively early in the film, so I don't consider it a spoiler to share that he is actually the estranged son of Han and Leia, and that his choice to follow the dark side was hugely significant to Luke's disappearance. Ren is a different kind of villain, especially for Star Wars. Although the prequels show the transformation of Anakin into Darth Vader, the original trilogy did not labor to explain Vader, and the audience simply knew him as the bad guy, who remained unsympathetic until The Return of the Jedi. However, Ren seems to struggle to stay on the dark side of the force. He periodically speaks to Vader's charred helmet and confesses wrestling against "the call to the light," while vowing to finish what his grandfather started.

     Just as Darth Vader had the Emperor as his master, and Grand Moff Tarkin as the military commander alongside him in A New Hope, Kylo Ren is under the mastery of the cadaverous Supreme Commander Snoke, and must cooperate with General Hux. Who Snoke is or how he rose to prominence is currently a favorite point of fan speculation on the internet at the moment, but not pertinent at this point in the saga. Snoke operates as the overlord who has some kind of force power, though we don't know the extent of it. General Hux functions in the same type of capacity of Grand Moff Tarkin, though younger, and possibly even more ruthless. While Tarkin did not hesitate to blow up the planet Alderaan with the Death Star, General Hux eliminates no less than five planets from a long range, without so much as a wince of moral inclination. Hux, unashamedly modeled after Adolf Hitler, is power-hungry. Ren is dedicated to fulfilling what he believes his grandfather Darth Vader started, though it is uncertain what that means other than wiping out the Jedi. Snoke's motives and goals are unknown. We can safely assume something along the lines of ruling the galaxy and training dark force-wielders, but beyond that, only further movies will tell.

     New characters abound in The Force Awakens, but the now-aged heroes of Star Wars' past are not forgotten. The overarching plot of The Force Awakens centers on finding Luke Skywalker, but it is Han Solo and Chewie who feature most prominently onscreen with the new cast. Han and Chewie are apparently back to their old ways of swindling and double-crossing, having left the glory days of the Rebellion far behind. Even the celebrated Millennium Falcon has been rusting away in a junkyard after being stolen from Han years earlier. Rey and Finn immediately recognize Han Solo's name, but he is resigned to living as a has-been. He's not the hero of the Rebellion anymore or the famed Millennium Falcon smuggler, but a general who stopped being a general long ago. Sparingly used expository dialogue explain Han's regression from Rebellion leader to smuggler, and while his name may still be known, he sees himself as the man who used to be Han Solo.

     Harrison Ford's amusing but appropriately deadpan performance perfectly hits the mark of bringing the character back, while simultaneously carrying a tone of bleak melancholy in the sweet nostalgia. This is both the Han we know and love, and a Han who has been through more than we know. The combination of our familiarity with Han's past self, and the introduction to this new side of him culminate to provide the movie's most poignant moments. Han has always been one who is willing to risk his life for his friends, going in with guns blazing, scorning the idea of possible outcomes. While elements of this young rogue still emerge, Han is also a father, and that has changed him. His heart has been broken, and his defense is to try to be the pilot we met in the Mos Eisley cantina decades ago, even though he can never be that man again. One particularly tender moment involving Han in his father role reveals just how much he has changed as he calmly walks into a battle that he knows he will not win with guns. Ford dons his Solo persona with ease and effortlessness, managing to bring layers of depth to the beloved character while maintaining fidelity to the past. One would never have imagined that Han Solo would take the Obi-Wan role as the mentor in this new addition to the story, but he carries this charge with humor and grace in 100% Han Solo style.

     Moving to the more technical side of things, The Force Awakens brings legendary composer John Williams to the revived franchise, carrying his always-elegant and personal touch to the diverse moments of the movie. Williams wields the power of sentimentality, tension, and heartbreak with a master's wand. Of particular note is an especially tense moment when Rey uses the force in a showdown with Kylo Ren, and as she recognizes her power, a familiar theme that evokes the most heroic moments of the original films swells to the surface, imbuing the moment with nostalgic inspiration. These moments that hearken back to themes from the original scores are the strongest and most memorable musical moments, which is both a compliment and a slight criticism. While the new music for The Force Awakens is fitting and enjoyable, few tracks stand out as particularly distinct. However, just as I expect the next movie to break from following the formula for A New Hope, I expect the next movie to introduce strong new themes.

     Analysis is my personal forte, and truthfully there's just too much in The Force Awakens to get through it all in a reasonable post that you will actually finish reading. There is significant symbolism tied up in the Millennium Falcon, questions raised about the mysterious Supreme Leader Snoke, speculation about Rey's parentage, comments about cinematography, thoughts about the technology advancements, and so on. For all this, there are very few flaws that I can reasonably point out, and even fewer that can't be explained away with little effort. While it's true that The Force Awakens has a few moments that are just a bit convenient (Rey and Finn just bumping into Han Solo in space, Poe Dameron's flight to the rescue at the crucial moment, how Ren escaped the Starkiller base without Star Trek's beaming technology), one has to remember that this is still Star Wars, and those moments have always been part of the movies. If you're looking for realism, Star Wars isn't where you should be looking to begin with. In the way of other flaws, the superfluous use of Captain Phasma comes to mind. One assumes that she will return in future movies to play a greater role, but for the moment, Phasma is disappointing, and whether or not she comes back makes little difference.

     Star Wars: The Force Awakens returns not only Star Wars, but sci-fi itself, to the heights of greatness that loyalists have always believed it was capable of. Great science fiction should first and foremost be great fiction, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens achieves that with dazzling style that is both warmly familiar and curiously novel. The movie has been narrowly criticized for essentially borrowing the skeleton plot of A New Hope and retelling the story, but I can think of no better formula for starting over, especially since the current trajectory for later movies makes it practically and artistically improbable to mimic the rest of the original trilogy. The Force Awakens is a continuation and a new start; a task that director JJ Abrams shoulders with great respect to the old stories, and delicate vision for the new generation. The lightsaber has successfully been handed off, and now we wait with reinvigorated anticipation to return once again to the galaxy far far away.