Sunday, 27 December 2015

MaRey Sue

Much of what I might want to say about The Force Awakens doesn't particularly deviate from a large amount of commentary already written: it's fun, frequently well-written, and features plenty of charm from both the new characters and Harrison Ford. Much of the designs tread well the line between nostalgic and new, the action sequences feel very Star Wars - which isn't as easy to do as it sounds considering the differences not just in technology but in filmography in general that have taken place over the last 28 years. Kylo Ren's backstory makes him a much, much more interesting villain than Darth Maul (though Gwendoline Christie is unforgivably underused). BB-8 is adorable, and so obviously Abrams saying "this is how you make a cute character for the kids, George" it's wonderful. Throughout the film he reminded me of our cat; there can be no higher praise. Abrams has also cannily emulated one of the original trilogy's nicest aspects, which is the sensation that this is just one story taking place in a galaxy teeming with life and other tales. Plus, obviously, the gender/racial balance is a massive improvement not just on the original trilogy, but no small number of contemporary films, and has annoyed all the right people.

(Seriously; people are furious about Abrams making a point of seeking out non-white talent, because apparently widening a recruitment pool means getting worse candidates, or something. Also, there's much squawking about women being Stormtroopers, because women don't have the levels of physical resilience to become US Marines which apparently has some relevance in a universe where cybernetics and DNA manipulation are things.)

On the other hand, the plot is derivative well past the point of self-parody. Maybe, with Abrams having got this first film out of his system, Episode VIII might tread newer ground, but obviously that won't help here.  I'll come back to this problem later, but for now I wanted to sketch out some more of my issues.

(Spoilers below).

I confess that my biggest problem with the film is decidedly idiosyncratic: I was really disappointed that we learned so little about the political developments of the last thirty years. I totally understand that a) there's precious little of this in the original trilogy, b) when Lucas introduced politics to the prequels it was utterly awful, and c) Abrams has already demonstrated with the Trek reboot that politics are a supreme irrelevance unless they directly cause interesting problems for our characters. Still, I think the miraculous Rebel triumph at Endor deserved more follow through than someone saying "There's  a New Republic now", especially since by halfway through the film there, you know, basically isn't. Just ignoring how Jedi changed the game-board until you get around to restoring it feels cheap, and that's before you realise that, just as he did with Trek, an entire planet (more than one in fact) has been blown to pieces with the death of millions or more likely billions of people so that our heroes can look sad.

It also makes the New Republic look like a horrendous bunch of chumps. They had a plan in place to neutralise the first Death Star that, had Leia not been captured, could have been put in place before Alderaan exploded, albeit one that almost certainly would've failed without Luke and the Falcon. The second Death Star was served a dose of exploding up before it was even finished. How the hell did the New Republic completely fail to notice Starkiller base being built?  And, oh Gods, Starfricking Killfricking Basefrick. Did we not have enough of these superweapons in the EU?  Can we really not think of other ways the Empire might manage a comeback without somehow building something more impressive than Palpatine himself managed at the ultimate height of the Empire's power and influence? It shouldn't be hard; Timothy Zahn managed quite handily, and the total dismissal of his Thrawn trilogy to just recycle A New Hope and the bits of Return of the Jedi that recycled A New Hope feels like a real opportunity missed.

That's the generalities out of the way; it's a film pushing four stars as a continuation of the series, but as its own slice of uncomplicated fun, it's probably the best Star Wars film ever, and its hard to imagine children for whom this is their first taste of Lucas' universe will end up finding the earlier films preferable.

Let's move on to what I really want to talk about, though, which is Rey. Specifically, the accusations of her being a Mary Sue. Discussing this is rather complicated by nobody apparently being able to agree on what a Mary Sue is, which means a lot of time has been spent bickering about whether or not Rey actually qualifies as such, rather than discussing whether the problem people have identified is actually really there or not. Like those who endlessly argue as to whether stories have ended with a deus ex machina or some other form of shitty writing, I'm not inclined to wade into a definition war, even though I recognise that given the gendered nature of the complaint, it's not unreasonable to argue getting this term wrong is less ultimately harmless than, say, misunderstanding ludonarrative dissonance.

So let's just get straight into it: Rey is a character who can somehow understand both Wookie and the beeps of Astromech - the latter a feat unmatched by any human character in the original trilogy - who's an exceptionally capable engineer, a phenomenal pilot, and able enough with a weapon she'd never so much as seen hours earlier to beat a dark Jedi. Much of the discussion as to whether this list of virtues qualifies Rey to be a Mary Sue revolves around whether it implies Abrams has written himself as a young woman and inserted himself into the narrative. As I've said, though, this isn't really a particularly interesting question. What interests me is whether one could Rey as a Mary Sue without actually knowing who the author was.  Death of the Author isn't the cure-all its sometimes portrayed as, but it's quite useful here: if the only defence against "Mary Sueism" regarding Rey is that Abrams is a man, that seems fairly weak tea.

Fortunately, we can mount a much stronger defence. Much of this, in fact, is blindingly obvious, worth describing only to demonstrate how tenuous the whole line of criticism is. Indeed, a large part of the defence is so obvious it's already been all over Twitter. Luke was also a crack shot uber-gifted pilot who obliterated the Death Star twenty minutes after first being shown the proton torpedo button with his eyes closed. Han was a crack shot uber-gifted pilot who comprehends a bare minimum of three languages, and who got a princess to fall in love with him. This is not a world of meaningfully flawed heroes and complicated character interplay. I suppose one could be kind and suggest that the vast majority of people criticising Rey are doing it in part because they saw the original trilogy as kids when they couldn't be expected to process broadly-sketched characters, but a) I seriously doubt that's all there is to it, and b) it's still a stupid position to take. The best you can argue here is that at least some lip-service is paid as to why Luke is a great pilot and crack shot - a combination of his father's reflexes and plenty of time flying around/defending himself against Sand People on Tatooine. Rey's history between her parent's departure and swiping pieces of junk from broken remnants of the Imperial war machine is a total blank slate. And apparently, it's now suddenly super-important that we learn when in that decades-long stretch she learned to fly, fix and become trilingual.

Except, of course, it isn't.  Much of these objections can be waved away by the obvious fact that the Force = awesome. What, we're supposed to believe Rey didn't get the chance to fly things around Jakku because she didn't have Luke's access to the kind of high-end blingmobiles one gets on a moisture farm? Luke's uncle was so poor he had to accept beaten-up droids that were obviously stolen just so he could understand his own farm equipment. And that set-up is supposed to satisfactorily explain how Skywalker got to be the best pilot in the Rebel Alliance within half an hour of clambering into his first X-Wing? Luke is awesome because the Force is awesome. Rey is awesome because the Force is awesome.  This concludes the explanations of awesomeness. And anyone who refuses to see why being shot with a fucking artillery piece might have made Ren somewhat easier to best than he would have otherwise (he probably was still trying to process what he just did to his Dad too, actually) is simply someone looking for trouble.

But it's more than just all that. Consider what Rey has been doing for all those years; she's been living on a planet that's essentially a graveyard for Imperial and Alliance vehicles. She's literally grown up around AT-ATs and X-Wings and Star Destroyers. The iconography of the original series was her playground. Of course she knows what a hydrospanner is. Of course she grasps what the Force is and how it works faster than Luke did. Of course she can understand the languages introduced in the original trilogy [1]. The tale of the war between the Empire and the Rebel Alliance is simply part of her, down to her bones.

Which means, at long last, that Rey might actually represent Abrams after all. But only in so much as she represents all of us, sitting amidst the icons of the past, waiting for the moment for the story to begin once again.

[1] One could also argue that the Force gives one a preternatural ability to understand languages if not, as Yoda rater convincingly demonstrates, to speak them.

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