While Star Wars: The Force Awakens is busy kicking over all the box office records it can find, one of the most important ones is being overlooked: The Force Awakens is an action packed, nostalgic, cleverly written, beautifully directed, lovingly assembled, record breaking blockbuster... with a strong willed, well written, capable yet vulnerable, critically praised female lead!
Some minor spoilers will follow later. I will let you know when they are getting closer.
Everyone I know who is a Star Wars fan has this checklist (whether literal or just in their heads) of all the thing a new addition to the beloved franchise should contain: x-wings, lightsabers, humor, drama, compelling villain, etc. And relatively few of them have had many complaints about J. J. Abrams' contribution to the galaxy far, far away. And not all reviews have been positive; there are a few critics of the now 292 who have managed to bring the Star Wars: The Force Awakens Tomatometer down to a shameful 95% fresh score on Rotten Tomatoes. Stephanie Zacharek of Time Magazine had this to say about the film: "But somewhere along the way, Abrams begins delivering everything we expect, as opposed to those nebulous wonders we didn’t know we wanted." Are you sure, Steph?
J. J. Abrams just gave the world one of the best female leads in an action movie of all time!... who isn't Katniss Everdeen. This is a moment worth contemplating. Think about it... Marvel has been dragging their feet for over a decade trying to wait until the moment is just right to throw a female lead into the mix of their money printing superhero franchise. They are too busy taking all the risks with a raccoon, a tree, and now a wizard. When is Captain Marvel coming? 2019? I can't even remember the date, because it is so far out. Black Widow certainly isn't going to front-run her own film any time soon. Remember when Hope van Dyne said out loud what everyone in the theatre was thinking in her Ant-Man post-credits scene? "It's about damn time." How about DC? Sure, they have a Wonder Woman movie on the way. And they are going to beat Marvel to the punch in the female lead department. But DC has spent the last 4 decades flipping the Superman/Batman coin to try and start a lasting franchise.
So what about The Force Awakens? What did that film do that is so special?
Here come the spoilers! You have been warned.
J. J. Abrams stepped out of the box quite a bit in this film, and he should be commended for that. But at first glance it might be difficult to notice where he stepped out. Admittedly much of the story, plot points, and even dialogue of The Force Awakens harken back to (or flat out copy) the original trilogy. Some love the nostalgia, while others (Scott) felt like it was too much. My view is simply this... Everything is Star Wars: The Force Awakens is there to service the new cast. The first film in the trilogy can afford to play a lot of safe cards if the result is being able to introduce and develop a great new host of characters.
And the new cast is fantastic! There is no getting around it. They have turned a lot of heads. I am very confident that Daisy, Ridley, John Bodega, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, and many others will be household names in the next few months. And even the "legacy cast" (Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill) in both the marketing campaign and the film itself were there to bring the nostalgia but then introduce the new characters... to pass the baton. The characters are all clever and unique. Not one of them is a repeat of another character from a past trilogy. Rey is not the new Leia or a female Luke Skywalker. Kylo Ren is not Vader 2.0. Ok, maybe Poe Dameron is a cross between Han Solo and Wedge Antilles, but we can discuss that later.
But the spotlight has to go to Rey. She is a wonderful new character the likes of which we have never seen on film (certainly not on this scale of a blockbuster). She is not just a female lead too; her personality is very different than what is commonly projected by Hollywood as a female character. Star Wars: The Force Awakens could have just settled on passing the Bechdel Test, which it did. But the Bechdel Test is not even a good barometer to test the quality of characters, or their prominence in the story. So The Force Awakens transcends the test and becomes legendary. This movie introduced something truly new that will hopefully change the way films are made forever. And the word apparently is getting out. According to Scott Mendelson at Forbes the opening weekend audience was 58% male and 42% female.
No, I'm not saying that good female action leads have never existed in film... Alien, Salt, Hunger Games, Underworld, Mad Max: Fury Road, etc. But Star Wars is definitely the next step in the right direction. While Furiosa was a compelling warrior, there wasn't a lot of room for her to develop into a well rounded character. And Katniss is pretty good as the leader of a revolution, but she can't seem to find her way out of the awkward love triangle that she is always at the center of. I think Rey is every bit as much a great character as she is a force to be reckoned with (pun intended).
So who is Rey?
Rey is nice. She is a genuinely nice character. There are numerous moments where she is given the opportunity to be a punk, or whiney, or rude, or snarky, but she doesn't. Now she is no pushover, and she doesn't back down from a fight. But she looks for the good in people. One of my favorite moments in the movie was when Finn told her the truth about being a stormtrooper. I was sitting in the theatre ready to roll my eyes at the typical cheerleader drama queen response that was sure to follow (you know, like most of Uhura's screen time in Star Trek: Into Darkness), BUT IT NEVER CAME!!!!! Instead she was able to see through to who Finn truly was and why he would lie about where he was from. And she still pleaded in tears, "please don't go."
Rey is competent. She is more than capable of handling herself in a fight. She is also rather handy with some wrenches and a tool belt. She finds solutions in difficult situations, and even impresses Han Solo with her knowledge of starships. When Fin and her are trying to escape she keeps breaking free from his grasp. He is just trying to be a gentleman and protect her. But then they are both thrown 30, or so, feet by an explosion, and Fin is knocked unconscious. Rey comes over to him as he comes to and helps him to his feet... and the crowd goes wild!
Rey is damaged. She has pain, and it is not silly or misplaced. It is real and relatable. People know what is like to be walked out on, if not by parents then by others. No explanation. No mailing address. And it took it's toll. She was stuck on a decrepit planet with a false hope of being reunited with her lost loved ones. It crippled her ability to move on in life.
Rey... is... a... JEDI!!!!!!! It is so cool seeing a young lady begin her training as a Jedi Knight. I can't wait to see her grow and develop as a warrior under the tutelage of the legendary Luke Skywalker.
I also want to point out that, while there is room for a possible love story to blossom in the future, it is left on a pleasantly ambiguous note at the close of the film. Nothing was rushed at all. She did, however, kiss him... on the head... while he was unconscious. So I don't think that counts as a romantic moment. Although, it was a very sweet reverse Sleeping Beauty kind of moment.
So, did you love the new cast? Do you think Rey is awesome? Let me know what you think, and "may the force be with you."
Read Scott Mendelson's Forbes full article on the opening weekend box office for Star Wars: The Force Awakens here... http://www.forbes.com/sites/scottmendelson/2015/12/21/star-wars-the-force-awakens-box-office-247m-opening-weekend-528m-worldwide/
Read Stephanie Zachary's Time Magazine full review of Star Wars: The Force Awakens here... http://time.com/4150168/review-star-wars-the-force-awakens/