SPOILERS for Star Wars: The Force Awakens follow.
Let me start by saying that, on the whole, I loved Star Wars: The Force Awakens. J.J. Abrams’ new film returns the series to its adventuresome roots, introduces a entire cast of wonderful new characters, and left me more excited about the franchise than I ever have been.
However, while I enjoyed the movie on the whole, there were a couple of things that that didn’t entirely work for me. One of them had to do with Rey.
I’ve been a fan of Rey, played wonderfully by Daisy Ridley, since the first photo of the character was revealed. Her design alone, a kind of mix of classic Star Wars and a Miyazaki heroine, instantly conveyed the sense of adventure Abrams and the Lucasfilm team were looking to reignite with Episode VII. The trailer footage of her scavenging through the ruins of a downed Star Destroyer only made me more curious about who this character is, and what her story would be. By the time the credits were rolling, I was ready to applaud Abrams and the Disney marketing team for so expertly misdirecting curious viewers into believe that it would be Finn who took up Anakin Skywalker’s lightsaber to become the Jedi hero of the new trilogy, only to flip the script and have Rey Forcefully take over that role for herself.
The common complaint about Rey in The Force Awakens is that she transitions too quickly from desert scavenger to skilled wielder of the Force. Her ability to use the Force to summon a lightsaber to her could be attributed to a rush of adrenaline and emotion. Her ability to defend herself against the more experienced and trained Kylo Ren could be excused by the fact that Kylo was badly wounded, and possibly exhausted from having already been in combat with Finn, not to mention that Rey showed some hand to hand combat skills with her staff earlier on in the film.
It all really comes down to one scene that I, and many others, were still chewing on after leaving the theater. That scene is Rey’s escape from Kylo’s torture chamber, in which she accomplishes her goal by using the Jedi mind trick first performed by Obi-Wan Kenobi in the original Star Wars. It’s exactly the kind of callback that Abrams is known, if not notorious, for including in his franchise films. The problem is that having Rey suddenly know, without training, how to use this very specific Jedi skill threatens the credibility of the narrative for the sake of a joke. After all, Luke Skywalker took years to truly master the Force and become real Jedi, and a major theme being explored in the ongoing Marvel Comics Star Wars series is just what a terrible Jedi Luke was in those first few years following the destruction of the Death Star.
At least that’s how it feels at first. However, the more I thought about it, the more things began to take proper shape around it. First, the idea that someone needs to be trained to use the Force is patently false. There are several other characters in Star Wars canon who used the Force without training. Luke himself used the Force to blow up the Death Star after a single session deflecting blaster bolts with Obi-Wan. Anakin was using a kind of Force precognition to compete in pod racing long before Qui-Gon Jinn found him on Tatooine. Leia, as far as we know, has never received proper instruction in the Force, yet is still able to sense others through the Force, and has been shown in the Princess Leia and Shattered Empire comic book miniseries to have Force visions. It isn’t exclusive to the Skywalker family tree either, as Ezra Bridger from Star Wars Rebels used the Force to survive on the streets of Lothal without even realizing it.
Of course, we don’t know for certain that Rey didn’t have at least some training. There’s much about her childhood, from before she was abandoned on Jakku, that’s still unclear. If speculation about Rey actually being a Skywalker, and perhaps having spent some time with Luke while he was training the next generation of Jedi, ends up being true, then perhaps her sudden skillfulness is the result of her previous knowledge of the Force being unlocked, “Awakened” if you will, by her contact with Anakin’s lightsaber and with Kylo Ren’s mind. Even if she didn’t have any previous Jedi training, it’s clear that she dug into the mind of Kylo Ren, who did. Perhaps she picked up a few tricks along the way.
In the end, even if future films do illuminate it further, the Jedi mind trick scene still doesn’t work for me. In the moment, it puts too much burden on the audience to apply justification for a sudden character progression that should be explained clearly on screen. Even if there is meant to be some mystery about it, the mystery should be presented more deliberately so that its clear the scene isn’t just the result of Abrams underappreciating the time it takes to acquire proficiency with the Force, or any kind other kind of skill. That said, it does still help to know that there is some explanation to be found, if you know where to look.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens is now playing in theaters.