To say that The Last Jedi has divided audiences is putting it very mildly indeed. Critics have fallen over themselves to praise it while a petition calling for it to be struck from official Star Wars canon has gained over 80,000 signatures and counting. I sit somewhere in the middle but I was fundamentally disappointed by the handling of Rey’s arc.
(I have only seen the film twice so please forgive any inaccuracies, they are inevitably related to attempting to block out the sight of Kylo Ren shirtless with every bit of mental energy I posses. Maybe being truly strong with the Force means adding more clothes onto emo Neo Nazis).
So it’s hello discourse, my old friend, and my two credits (that’s Star Wars speak for cents) on Rey’s role in Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
As someone who involuntarily sobbed with joy when Rey summoned Luke’s lightsaber, wielding it with a look of fear that hardens into resilience, I can safely say that I feel a very personal investment in her journey. Unfortunately, in The Last Jedi Rey’s search for her own identity is very much defined by the characters we see her interact with the most: grumpy hermit Luke Skywalker and My Chemical Romance fan Kylo Ren. They both happen to be men.
While Rey is reunited with the Resistance at the very end of the film, her story in The Last Jedi is overwhelmingly dominated by her relationships with Luke and Kylo, her perception of their conflict and the emotional labour she is forced to do to support their narrative journeys. It’s her responsibility to bring Luke back to his senses from a place of cynicism and isolation, persuade him to train her, work through his Kylo/Ben Solo guilt and bring him back with her to help the Resistance. Ever since Luke solemnly announced that “It’s time for the Jedi to end” in the teaser trailer it was clear that Rey would not be welcomed with open arms and Jedi Training 101. In a literal throwaway gag Luke hurls the lightsaber so pleadingly offered to him by Rey over his shoulder and shuts himself away. Using Leia’s name won’t sway him so Rey stubbornly stumps around after him. Eventually, after realising she’s no ordinary Resistance Fed Ex courier, he reluctantly gives her some lessons. However, it still feels as though Rey’s journey towards self discovery is fundamentally focused on his issues. The relationship would feel more balanced if a stronger, more nurturing bond of teacher and padawan was established and if the parallels between them that were established in The Force Awakens were fleshed out further. But as it is, Rey’s arc gets bogged down by Luke’s guilt over his moment of weakness when he considered murdering young Ben Solo. She is held back by his inability to move forward.
Rey’s time with Luke is interspersed with a series of unwanted Force FaceTime calls with Kylo Ren and his emotional struggles also become her burden to carry. While Rey is initially hostile she gradually becomes more sympathetic towards him and the loneliness she senses in him and herself. After reaching out and “touching” his hand via Force Vision (reader, I nearly puked) she comes to believe with absolute certainty that he will turn away from the Dark Side and be Ben Solo once more. Despite having seen him murder the father she always longed for and slice Finn’s back with a lightsaber Rey spends a significant amount of time appealing to the good she sees. She seeks out and surrenders herself to the First Order, putting herself in mortal danger, and promises that she’ll help him. She stays true despite Snoke torturing her and of course, he doesn’t turn. He claims to know the truth about her parentage, telling her as she cries that they were junk traders who sold her as a child for drinking money. “You come from nothing. You’re nothing. But not to me”.
Of course no matter how much Rey tries Kylo does not turn and it’s Force Ghost Yoda, not Rey, that finally enlightens Luke. Rey’s efforts feel essentially wasted. Seeing her place so much emotional investment in these men only to be disappointed may make for a more complex portrayal of good vs evil than Star Wars has offered before and we obviously learn about characters via their responses to others’ actions. However, it’s disheartening for the girls and young women who look up to her. Rey’s search for her own identity is so defined by her responses to the conflict between Luke and Kylo that it’s almost lost. The Lynchian interlude in which Rey enters the cave searching for answers is quickly eclipsed by her hand touch with Kylo and the subsequent confrontation with Luke which is again focused on Luke vs Kylo fallout. Sure, Rey’s arrival on the island is ultimately the catalyst which reconnects Luke to the Force but there’s no emotional resolution between the two of them. She doesn’t even get to witness the final battle between Luke and Kylo which has shaped her story throughout.
The reveal of Rey’s parentage, obviously a pivotal moment in her arc, is a cruel act of manipulation by Kylo Ren. Obviously he’s a villain, albeit a complex one, and cruelty is part of the villainous package. But it’s especially troubling to me that he’s granted this when his interactions with Rey are so reminiscent of real life abusive behaviour and many fans interpret their relationship as romantic.
In The Force Awakens Kylo kidnaps and tortures Rey, invading her mind and telling her “You know I can take whatever I want”. Regardless of the fact that the connection in The Last Jedi was engineered by Snoke, having Kylo repeatedly appear in Rey’s mind against her will acts as a continuation of this violation. The sexualised undertone to their interactions (the hand touch, the shirtless scene which Rey is explicitly uncomfortable with) coupled with language that could’ve come straight from the mouth of a real life abuser left me feeling immensely uneasy. “You’re nothing. But not to me” is a line many fans seem to swoon over but the implication here is that he’s the only person who’ll ever see her as anything other than worthless. Romantic it ain’t, my dudes.
Of course Rey refuses his plea and is soon reunited with Finn, who saw her as special long before she picked up a lightsaber, and Leia who entrusted her with the crucial mission to find Luke. Poe knows exactly who she is and appreciates how important she is to the Resistance before they’ve even met. It’s a huge relief to finally see Rey surrounded by people who value her after spending the majority of the film reaching out to those who don’t, but it felt a little too late. Rey literally closes the door on her relationship with Kylo at the end of the film, and perhaps her experiences in The Last Jedi will establish her as a character who has learnt to stand alone. But I can’t help feeling, after waiting two years to see Rey from Jakku, Nothing from Nowhere, that we barely saw her at all.