When I first reviewed Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, it had just opened for wide release. This was a magical time, just less than a month ago, when I couldn’t imagine what anyone could possibly have to complain about in J.J. Abrams’ fan-pleasing entry to one of pop culture’s most beloved franchises. After viewing the film three times in the theater (possibly the first time I’ve done that for a movie since 2004’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou), my enthusiasm hasn’t wavered a bit. I’m proud that it ended up ranking on our Top Films of 2015 list & personally would place it behind only Empire Strikes Back as one of the best in the franchise. Boy, was I wrong about the complaints, though. From what I can tell, the world (or at least the world online) has forgotten how to have fun at the movies & has devolved mostly into whiny nitpicking & self-assigned superiority. Despite the critical response to The Force Awakens remaining largely positive, the volume & variety of complaints surrounding the film have become absolutely overwhelming. There are many common quibbles I disagree with (it too closely resembles A New Hope, its central villain is too “emo” to be threatening, etc.), but for the sake of brevity I’d like to address just one complaint against the film that I find dubious: the idea that its protagonist, Rey, gets “too good, too fast” in her use of the Force.
The last thing the world needs right now is another lengthy think piece about The Force Awakens so I’ll try to keep it brief here. It’d be possible to address the complaints against Rey’s Force abilities from the POV that a slowburner about a young space wizard spending hours of screen time learning to play laser swords might not be the most exciting plot for an action-packed space opera. It’s also possible that there’s a hint of sexism afoot in these complaints about Rey, since no one seemed super-miffed about how quickly Luke could block laser blasts blindfolded in A New Hope. I’d like to offer a much simpler explanation for Rey’s sudden talent with the ancient art of the Force besides streamlining the plot, however: her talent was a lot more gradual than most people realize. The scene most people seem to gripe with concerning Rey’s abilities is an interrogation room battle with Kylo Ren when she seemingly discovers her Force abilities, then immediately dominates her professionally-trained opponent in a mental tug of war. It’s my contention that Rey had already been “using the Force” long before she entered that interrogation room; she just didn’t have a name for something she had been doing by instinct.
For concrete evidence for Rey using the Force before the interrogation scene, just look to all of her instances of “luck” & “coincidence”. Rey is introduced as having a unique talent for scavenging for minuscule parts in gigantic ships, but is it a purely human talent that drives these needle-in-the-haystack searches? Perhaps not. Even more convincing is the scene where Rey first flies the Millennium Falcon. She is familiar with the individual parts of ships from her daily scavenging & can talk shop with the best of them (most notably Han Solo), but knowing & doing are two separate endeavors. When Rey takes the controls of the Millennium Falcon (a ship she derides as some nameless junker) she flies it recklessly in a panic, repeating “I can do this, I can do this” to herself & barely getting by on rudimentary skills & “luck”. When she devises a plan on how to utilize Finn’s gun (which is locked in a downward position) by executing a flawless maneuver that positions the ship upside down, a switch seemingly flips in her head. She looks confident, determined, and the wild nature of piloting smooths out. Finn asks her, “How did you do that?” and she responds, “I don’t know. I’ve flown before, but . . .” in an exasperated tone. This is a line of questioning is repeated later in the film when she escapes Kylo Ren’s interrogation by using the Force (supposedly for the first time) and when asked to explain how, she responds, “I can’t explain it & you wouldn’t believe me.”
I believe there is a pattern there. Rey is instinctually using the Force in the Millennium Falcon scene without knowing what she’s doing exactly. It’s a pattern repeated when she first uses a laser blaster. She misses her first shot, looking frazzled, then throws on her determined Force Face (a great body language detail from actor Daisy Ridley) & never misses again, offing a storm trooper every time she pulls the trigger. It’s also echoed in the scene where she accidentally releases the alien beasts Han Solo is smuggling. She mistakenly opens the wrong blast doors on her first try, but when she has to save Finn from the wicked things’ tentacles she calmly executes the correct blast door at the exact correct time, joking “That was lucky.” I disagree with Rey (even though she was speaking in jest). It wasn’t lucky; it was the Force. I could kind of pinpoint a few more of Rey’s instant “talents” & lucky “coincidences” that could possibly be attributed to the Force (happening to run into Finn in the first place, innate understanding of obscure languages, the ability to fight off multiple men at once, moving a gigantic metal grate with her bare hands, etc.), but you’d have to squint at those examples the right way to make them work. I’m at the very least confident that the Falcon flight, the laser blaster, and the blast doors are concrete examples of Rey using the Force by instinct.
I don’t think that Rey’s Force abilities being introduced gradually instead of suddenly makes or breaks The Force Awakens as a good or a bad movie. There’s so much going on in the film that makes it a worthwhile slice of sci-fi fantasy entertainment otherwise. If nothing else, watching animatronic cutie patootie BB-8 roll & bleep its way through danger is alone worth the price of admission. I do, however, firmly believe that Rey’s gradual use of the Force through instinct was an intentional choice made by director J.J. Abrams & screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan. Long before Rey Jedi mind tricks her way out of the interrogation room & even before she receives visions by touching the Skywalker family lightsaber, her unknowing use of the Force is referenced by none other than Supreme Leader Snoke himself. Snoke asks Kylo Ren, “There has been an Awakening. Can you feel it?” (For the record, Ren can.) If a fictional, spooky projection of an evil wizard can sense that Rey is using the Force sight unseen, why can’t the film’s detractors, who have the benefit of watching her every step? Sometimes it’s fun to complain, I guess, whether or not the film or the character deserves the scrutiny.