Star Wars Episode Eight: Course Correction

So let’s pick up where we left off last week. The Star Wars character Rey has had some Mary Sue elements stuck into her character but that’s not the end of the story. I really feel that The Force Awakens suffered for these elements but I have to stress that they weren’t the sole reason or even the biggest reason I felt the movie was subpar. The holes left in Rey’s character exist for one of two reasons, in so far as I can tell.

The first is that the film didn’t have enough room to squeeze in all the kind of narrative support that make the wish fulfillment aspects of Rey’s character function within the larger story framework. The story is chock full of characters to be introduced, situations to be sorted out and story to be imparted. The whole film moves so fast that none of this information really gets examined deeply. This is a bad habit I see in a lot of recent movies, and Disney movies in particular, where filmmakers just throw a character archetype or well known plot on screen and expect the audience to fill in the blanks while the story glosses over the lacking character and plot development in favor of more spectacle. The studio wanted a blockbuster show and the other, more important stuff, got cut.

Now spectacle isn’t bad but Star Wars, for better or worse, hasn’t ever been exclusively spectacle. And furthermore, the archetype of a character without power suddenly unlocking hidden power – Rey’s archetype – clashes badly with the established Star Wars lore. For the first time we’ve gotten a Star Wars film that feels like it was made to be a blockbuster, and that’s sad. Understandable, given the investment Disney made in the movie, but disappointing none the less. So one reason Rey may not have gotten the development she needed was studio mandate. That’s lame, but it’s part of showbiz.

The second reason for Rey’s off balance character development is even more speculative. There’s a possibility that the film is setting up a story arc where Rey’s burst in power is a result of the Dark Side, the fast, easy and seductive half of the Force. With a quick burst of power fueled by her anger and the Dark Side much of what Rey does can be explained away. This doesn’t have any more support than the prevailing interpretation of the story, that Rey is just an absurdly powerful and fast learning Jedi, but it would better explain things in conjunction with the lore than the idea that Rey has amnesia and has forgotten previous Jedi training.

Of course, the biggest problem with this theory is that it doesn’t have support, the problem that the whole movie has to start with. In truth, it has less support than others, since Rey never actually shows any signs of Dark Side influence when using the Force. But it could have been the intent and, more importantly, it brings me to the question of how the poor writing around Rey’s character could be salvaged.

The first is if Episode Eight runs with the idea I just laid out. If we find Luke training Rey hard to cure her of a taste for the Dark Side it would go a long way to show that the existing Star Wars lore is being respected and open up opportunities for a lot of interesting ways for Rey’s character to go. She currently doesn’t have a clear direction for character development or arcs so by giving her an ongoing struggle with the Dark Side the writers would both do her character a real favor and take advantage of the opportunity to explore themes the franchise has dabbled with previously but never delved into in any meaningful way.

Another entirely viable option would be to make the next film primarily about Finn. He felt more like the main character of the first film, with his broken indoctrination and significant streak of cowardice giving way to new ways of seeing the world and the start of real personal courage. If Rey moves back out of the spotlight some the lack of polish in her character is less jarring. That doesn’t really solve the problems in her writing as such but if the film is constructed in such a way as to make the problems irrelevant then it still does some good work.

The third possibility is to give Rey a new and very personal challenge. The fact that she is never significantly set back through the course of the film is the greatest weakness of the character. Unfortunately, the writing of The Force Awakens severely crippled Kylo Ren’s ability to serve as a good antagonist in future films and I can’t see any new meeting between Rey and Ren having the dramatic weight necessary to be that setback. Hopefully the Knights of Ren that were hinted at will provide some of that needed threat so that Rey’s character can really shine.

The big lesson here is that even bad writing can be redeemed, most of the time. The real question for the typical writer is, would it be worth the time? All three of the solutions I suggested for Rey’s character problems require a certain amount of narrative gymnastics to function. Most writers find themselves better served by drawing what lessons can be had from bad writing and moving on, as the resources of Disney probably aren’t backing your less than stellar outing (and it probably doesn’t have Star Wars level brand recognition, either). The hard truth is, while a weak writing project doesn’t doom you as a writer, it can doom the ideas you invested in it.

At least until you can adapt those ideas into a new form for a later project.

Unless your Disney playing with Star Wars. At this point, nothing can really kill that project. But I’m still hoping they draw lessons from it and make it better.

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