THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING REY: Star Wars’ Exceptionalism Problem

Caution: here be spoilers for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, so I suggest only reading once you have seen the film.

Upon leaving a screening of The Force Awakens in 2015, you would be forgiven for having one question on your mind: who exactly *is* Rey?

Our new heroine for the revived, sequel era of Star Wars launched by JJ Abrams through the Disney-purchased LucasFilm, Rey was deemed by that film to be ‘special’. Abandoned mysteriously on the desert planet Jakku by parents she always expected to return for her, Rey is then cosmically bound to the Skywalker saga she ends up stumbling, with escaped Imperial Stormtrooper Finn, into the middle of. She feels connected to the lightsaber of the missing Luke Skywalker, which even gives her a vision of all kinds of backstory arcanum. By the end, she is tentatively wielding the weapon of a Jedi, without truly understanding the context. The Force Awakens fully establishes Rey as *important* with a capital I.

Then comes along The Last Jedi, written and directed by Rian Johnson, who almost immediately rips all of that away. Luke doesn’t think all that much of the lightsaber Rey reverently holds out to him on Ahch-To island. Arch villain Kylo Ren, the only one of our main new characters to actually *be* a Skywalker by blood, tells her what he believes she already knows – her parents were nobody, that she is no one special. Ren uses that as his basis, in The Last Jedi, to encourage her to join the Dark Side as his queen. If she is nobody special, like all of the fascist goons who joylessly work for the First Order and the Empire before it, Rey will become compliant. Exceptionalism corrupts. Belief that you have cosmic significance can breed dangerous traits. Yet Johnson doesn’t truly believe that. He believes precisely the opposite. You don’t have to be exceptional, to be special, to be significant.

The Rise of Skywalker, the concluding part of the Star Wars sequel saga, challenges that. It definitely proves that Star Wars, and perhaps popular culture, has an exceptionalism problem as we enter a new decade.

When you look back at the Original Trilogy of Star Wars films, George Lucas had a different approach on the meaning behind Luke Skywalker’s destiny.

Luke begins as an effective nobody, the orphaned nephew of simple traders on the barren world of Tatooine, albeit a young man with dreams of adventure and meaning in a teeming galaxy beyond. “If there’s a bright center to the universe, you’re on the planet that it’s farthest from” he moans in A New Hope, looking out at binary suns longing for excitement. Rey has a similar origin story; living on a remote desert planet, scavenging where Luke trades on behalf of his aunt and uncle, but her longing is different. She longs for the parents she lost, looking back where Luke wants to look forward, and escape the dull life he has. The Force Awakens establishes Rey as someone whose destiny is behind her, whereas Lucas sets up Luke as a character who will actively go forth and *find* that destiny.

This is key because A New Hope doesn’t necessarily establish Luke’s lineage as anything special. There are no hints that his father is Darth Vader. We learn backstory from Obi-Wan Kenobi, that Luke’s father had more the dashing life he fantasises about than he first believed. “He was the best star pilot in the galaxy, and a cunning warrior. And he was a good friend”. This simply provides Luke with a legacy to live up to, which makes sense when he is in the X-Wing taking out the Death Star – he has already *become* his father, or one aspect of what Anakin is.

A New Hope doesn’t have Luke finding reverent artefacts and channelling visions that suggest he has a destiny, that only starts to appear in The Empire Strikes Back, and at a point which makes sense on his mythic journey. Rey, almost from the beginning of The Force Awakens, is presumed to be special by sheer virtue that a mystery exists in her past, particularly given she sees this linked to a Force vision she has when she touches Luke’s lightsaber.

The prevailing theory at the time was that Rey was probably Luke’s daughter. This was before The Last Jedi establishes Luke as an old hermit, a version of Ben Kenobi except one who has lost faith in the Jedi and the Force, whereas JJ Abrams almost certainly imagined Luke on Ahch-To as a Jedi Master in a temple discovering Sith legends and such. Was Rey originally going to be a literal Skywalker, the cousin of Ben Solo? Possibly. It’s hard to say. It would have perhaps been too easy a revelation for that central mystery but would, at the same time, have been much more elegant than her being Emperor Palpatine’s granddaughter, born of parents the Prequel Trilogy—where we saw Palpatine become the Emperor—made absolutely zero mention of existing. Rey’s destiny feels manufactured in order to fit a paradigm which Star Wars has become somewhat trapped by.

Luke’s journey was from lowly farmhand to Princess rescuing fighter pilot, ultimately through to Force-wielding knight of an ancient order who, by Return of the Jedi, rejects the sinful temptations of an all-powerful darkness. He is special only because his father was, in the sense that using the Force was in his bloodline. Anakin Skywalker, let’s not forget, was immaculately conceived, as his mother Shmi recounts to Qui-Gon Jinn in The Phantom Menace. “There was no father. I carried him, I gave birth, I raised him. I can’t explain what happened”.

The suggestion is overt – Anakin becomes the anti-Christ, an inversion of the Judeo-Christian myth of the son of God, destined to fulfill ancient prophecy about bringing ‘balance’ to the Force – unifying good and evil into a tangible reality. The Jedi and Sith are simply incarnations of that duality. The story of Star Wars is that the Sith almost always win, but the Jedi end up surviving. In the recurrent Armageddon of all three films, Satan only wins once, at the end of Revenge of the Sith, and it ends up only being temporary.

In this sense, the only real character in Star Wars who is truly a mystical construct is Anakin, and it’s one of the reasons the prequels don’t work as cleanly as a piece of myth-making as the original films. The prequels are about establishing and carrying through a pre-determined destiny the audience are aware of – Anakin will become Darth Vader – whereas A New Hope did not establish directly that Luke would become a Jedi. Empire sets him on that course.

Rey, however, in The Force Awakens, is assumed to have a connection to the Jedi, or the Sith (but probably the Jedi) and treats her as such. Her exceptionalism is baked into her DNA and it’s why The Last Jedi feels like such a jarring turn for her arc, as it attempts to demystify her in the context of carrying forward Johnson’s message about the dangers of taking exceptionalism for granted. “The Empire, your parents, the Resistance, the Sith, the Jedi… let the past die. Kill it, if you have to. That’s the only way to become what you are meant to be”. That’s what Ren tells her and it’s the broader message. It’s not exceptionalism that corrupts, it’s nostalgia.

This ties into some of what I talked about in my review of The Rise of Skywalker, and how that film feels the need to give fans a comforting surfeit of traditional Star Wars tropes in order to end the series, when the braver choice would have been to carry through on Johnson’s gauntlet – not have Rey be anyone tied into a magical, mystical family destiny, one caught in the battle between good and evil, and rather a desert rat who through her own spirit and guile *chooses* to reject the Dark Side, imbue the goodness of the Force, and use it to bring Ben Solo back from the dark path encoded into his very bloodline.

When Rey christens herself as a ‘Skywalker’ in that final scene, it would have had far deeper metaphorical import had she been the first of a whole new generation of spirited people who believe the Force can be used for good, akin to the new line of Slayers being awoken at the end of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, allowing Buffy the freedom to not have the weight of the world as the ‘Chosen One’ (which Anakin was referred to) on her shoulders. Rey would have become a literal ‘sky walker’, as opposed to just appropriating a tainted lineage which in the end didn’t exactly do Luke or Leia much good. Neither were able to save Ben from committing atrocities. Both lost loved ones. Neither truly seemed to learn the lessons of the past, hence why the same cycle repeated.

Rey being special ends up reinforcing the idea that you either must be gifted, or born of a powerful lineage, or from wealth and privilege, to truly have meaning and an effect on the world. That kind of thinking has brought us gangster Presidents (both in the East and West), corrupt billionaires, indulged Royal Princes embroiled in disturbing scandal and powerful conglomerate boards and trusts who refuse to do anything about planet-threatening crises, whether from the climate or the rise of fascism.

This isn’t to say The Rise of Skywalker sets out to convey an illiberal message, indeed it very much underscores the power of working together as *people* rather than armies or established groups to fight fascism, but Rey being part of a bigger whole ends up unintentionally indulging a trait of exceptionalism in fiction which means white middle-aged billionaires save the world as opposed to the kid who cleans the Canto Bight stables at the end of The Last Jedi.

My hope is that whatever form Star Wars ends up taking now the Skywalker saga is over, it no longer relies on special people channeling special powers to give future generations the heroes they aspire to be, and works to suggest that true exceptionalism, truly being special, is about what you put in as opposed to what you simply expect to be given or find from the legacy of your past.

Author of books: Myth-Building in Modern Media / Star Trek, History and Us | Writer of words on film/TV/culture | Rotten Tomatoes approved critic: Twitter: @ajblackwriter | Podcast chief: @wmadethis | Occasionally go outside.

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  • As much as I enjoy your coverage of blockbusters, I’d be more interested in reading your take on more original cinema and independent movies, I want to read your analysis and breakdowns of them. Star Wars, marvel, franchises etc pieces are ten a penny, I want to read about films that aren’t getting the coverage that the big boys do.

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