Star Wars Episode 8: Rey Retires Early (Spoilers)

The beginning of Star Wars Episode 8 is going to surprise quite a few fans. It goes like this: having arrived at the secret island where Luke Skywalker has been hiding, Rey, the hero of Episode 7, will give Luke his lightsaber back. After that they’ll have tea, chat about Midi-Chlorians for a bit and then Rey will say her goodbyes and leave. Yup, she will exit the plot and go off with Chewie to fly around the galaxy in a cool spaceship. But why do something as drastic as this, just when Star Wars was slowly catching up with the 21st century by casting a woman as one of the heroes of the film? Because Rey knows nothing could be more boring than having to go through the motions of becoming a hero – we all saw Luke Skywalker do it and given that Episode 7 was basically Episode 4, they might as well not bother making 8 & 9 and just copy/paste the new characters on top of the old ones in 5 & 6. It’ll save us all the cinema ticket price.

In Episodes 4 – 6 we saw Luke Skywalker go through the motions/plot devices of the Hero’s Quest, a supposedly “archetypal” story structure that 20th century mythologist Jospeh Campbell came up with. Campbell argued that this “fundamental” story has existed in cultures around the world for millenia. He thought it was the story of all time. In brief it is the story of a character who is called to do something great – drop a magic ring in a volcano, kill Voldemort, kill Darth Vader etc. Firstly they get some mentoring so they can learn the tricks of the trade (often killing), then they’re given a talisman to help them on their quest (often a weapon), then they leave the safety of their home and trek off into the unknown. There they will be tested by a range of foes and challenges (usually fights) until eventually they have to face the big baddy in order to triumph (usually an even bigger fight). Meanwhile, they’ll rescue a damsel in distress, resolve their father issues, and return home victorious. Luke Skywalker went through this exact process because George Lucas was good mates with Joseph Campbell and so based Episodes 4 – 6 off of Campbell’s research.

A few other hallmarks of the Hero’s Quest include the fact that heroes are basically always men – women are either trophies to be won or seductresses to be conquered (or a bit of both). However, with the introduction of Rey in Episode 7 the masculinist/sexist bent of the Hero’s Quest has been challenged (as it has in other films such as Mad Max). This is progress: Rey has been given the chance to play a role that was previously reserved for men. She’ll now get to fight with giant lasers and move things without touching them. This is awesome and as Laurie Penny makes clear it’s ace that new, diverse characters are finally being invited to the hero’s table – this represents a big cultural change in the stories of our times.

But the Hero’s Quest is still the Hero’s Quest – an overly-simplistic, totalising monomyth concocted by Campbell and retroactively applied to hundreds of older stories. It’s easy to claim something conforms to the Hero’s Quest as the structure is so broad and vague – someone gets asked to do something, they’re challenged, things happen and then more things happen (these things usually always involve violence). But it’s blind to cultural sensitivities and nuances, and up until only recently it was reserved for cis, white men. And Rey knows this. Rey knows she hasn’t spent years living by herself on a desert planet just so she can endure an unimaginative, oft-repeated plot structure – one where she finds a mentor, gets trained, fights foes, resolves her mother issues, and returns home the hero (yawn). She doesn’t want  a story that’s so historically mired in sexism, patriarchy, appropriation and the values of capitalism (especially ruthless individualism). “Sod that for a packet of biscuits” thinks Rey, she wants a story that transcends these tired clichés and prejudices. So you can have your lightsaber back Luke, Rey’s got a different narrative to live.

The Hero’s Quest in brief!

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Spoilers)

I’ve finally seen it, the new Star Wars, and boy did it deliver – loadsa aliens, giant space ships, cute robots, a female protagonist that isn’t forced to wear a bikini and pastries, a character of colour in a lead role, amazing explosions, lightsabers, an awesome baddy and an average plot. It did what it said on the tin and gave a whole new generation of kids an endless supply line of plastic toys to get at Christmas. So here’s a quick review in which I highlight some of the hits and misses, big spoilers ahead (also for Scream 4).

HIT – Better Than Scream 4: Ok, what does a slasher series from the 90s have to do with a space opera? Well, over a decade after Scream 3 was released we were given another outing of a guy in a ghost mask killing teens. It did what franchise rebooting films should do and had the surviving members of the original films return as well as introduce a whole new cast of preppy, spunky high schoolers all waiting to get killed off one by one. But despite the tagline “new decade, new rules” it actually proved to be pretty old-fashioned, sure there was the odd smartphone and facebook reference but the monochrome and hetero cast just didn’t ring true for the 21st century and it spent far too long paying tribute to the old films that it didn’t do anything new (save for the killer twist at the end, that was ace). The nail in the coffin was killing off the entire new cast and leaving behind the original trio…again. It also wasn’t very scary. Fortunately, Star Wars didn’t make this mistake – whilst it brought back the old cast it also gave us a new, awesome one and even went as far as offing one of the old members. This is a good way to keep old fans but get plenty of new ones. Although Episode 8 could backtrack on all this if it becomes all about Luke Skywalker again (yawn).

MISS – Conflict Needs Tension: I’m often told that all good stories need conflict – a character wants something but then something else blocks their desire, namely an obstacle, and this creates conflict. We then watch as the character tries to overcome the obstacle. Will they find BB-8? Will Finn survive her kidnapping? Will they find BB-8 again? But it’s quite easy to create conflict, as simple as DESIRE + OBSTACLE. However, if we want the audience to be hooked by a conflict we need to feel genuine tension, we need to feel the stakes are high, and that the character really might not get what they want. This is where the final part of Episode 7 got a little dull – the whole Starkiller Base (basically a very big Deathstar) wasn’t very believable in the first place, it’s silly solar powered laser was just silly and the way it could just blow up planets was boring. So, despite the Starkiller Base being a very big obstacle I was never convinced it was an actual threat. Sure there was conflict: DESIRE (Rebels want to survive) + OBSTACLE (Starkiller is going to blow up Rebels), but I’d seen this before in Episode 4 and the ease with which a few Rebel spaceships and well-placed bombs destroyed the whole Starkiller anyway was just a let down. Yeah, it was one giant conflict but it lacked tension, I mean, did we ever think they could fail? And seriously J. J Abrams, why not invent a new plot device rather than rehash all the old ones…desert planet, cute droid carrying secret message, baddy in mask, big spherical laser firing spaceship thing etc.

HIT – Into The Grey Zone: Star Wars is known for it’s really simple plots – Good v. Evil, Light v. Dark, Jedi v. Sith, etc (“kindergarten mythmaking” as a review in the FT put it). It presents two opposing poles and has characters take sides, you’re either a goody-goody or a baddy-baddy. But this time things were a little more nuanced as the film took a look at that place between the poles, namely the ‘grey zone’ – where moral ambiguities abound. Take Finn for starters – he starts out life as your average Stormtrooper – just hopping from planet to planet taking other people’s orders and killing innocent villagers. But when the lasers start firing and the people start dying (including his Stormtrooper mates) it all gets a little much for him. He takes off his mask to reveal a human underneath and then decides to join with the goodies. In Finn’s character the normally faceless Stormtroopers are humanised and we come to realise they’re flawed and fallible, and it isn’t just as simple as Good v. Bad. Next comes Kilo Ren (the best character!) – Leia and Hans’ son who has turned to the Dark Side and got himself a cool, new lightsaber (and a hilarious twitter account). In his character we see a genuine internal struggle between good and bad, we see someone hovering in the middle, with an emotional and unstable core that could tip either way. Unfortunately it tips towards the Dark Side. But this brings me on to my biggest complaint…

MISS: Why Bother Being Bad? I just don’t get why anyone would choose to join the First Order (basically the Empire Mark 2) – firstly, the life of a Stormtrooper looks exceptionally dull especially if they have to wear their helmets all the time. As for Force users, those on the Dark Side end up working for complete psychopaths but unlike bankers they don’t even get fancy apartments in London as compensation. So what’s the point, what’s the appeal, save power, but what’s the point of power if you don’t get to indulge in it? What possible motive could so many people have for just going around destroying everything? Don’t they even want to inhabit the planets they defeat and build elaborate temples, casinos and amusement parks? What do they even eat? We all know that villains are way more interesting than heroes but villains need back stories too and whilst Kilo Ren got one all the others were just cardboard cut-outs. Who the heck are Hux and Snope for starters? Maybe Episode 8 will answer these questions but as for Episode 7, I just didn’t think the baddies had credible motives for all that destruction. Baddies are human/alien after all and it’s always fun to know why they are the way they are.

So, all in all, I’d say it was a Hiss or a Mit…not quite as great as it could have been but still very fun.  The new Star Wars team really must learn the important lesson of Scream 4 – pay homage to the original movies but give us something new as well. In Episode 7 this came in the guise of Rey and Finn, two new and exciting characters, but the plot also needed a reboot, an even bigger Death Star simply will not do. And now for lots of thumb twiddling until 2017…

“Luke, Use The Patriarchy…”

Light sabres, Tie Fighters and Jabba the Hutt – it’s all a bit phallocentric (willy orientated). Yup, the Star Wars films are just one of many Hollywood franchises that promote patriarchy and under-represent women. And the reason for this isn’t just that Hollywood is full of sexist men with limited imaginations but it’s also because George Lucas based the plot of the original trilogy on one of the most enduringly sexist story structures – the Hero’s Quest.

This story structure was explored and popularised by the mythologist Joseph Campbell in the mid 1900s. In brief, the quest is as follows: a young, male hero is called to action, he leaves home, learns new skills from (usually male) mentors, begins his quest, faces trials, proves his heroism, overcomes the dark father figure and eventually triumphs. Women tend to be tokenised as nasty seductresses in need of vanquishing or pretty trophies in need of saving. Campbell examined cultures around the world and throughout history and argued that this structure kept repeating itself hence the title of his book The Hero With A Thousand Faces – yup, 1000s of male heroes doing their phallocentric thing (probably with swords or giant laser sticks). Campbell adds in a bit of Jung, Freud and fairytale analysis – suggesting that these characters are manifestations of our psyche (as if we all have lots of little libidinous armed men running around our heads). He deigned the Hero’s Quest an archetypal story structure and called it a monomyth – a monolithic mythic structure because he’s it’s such a big deal.

George Lucas, good friends with Joseph Campbell, based the first three Star Wars films on this structure – Luke is the hero, Yoda is his mentor, his call to action is the death of his foster parents, he rescues a princess, he fights a lot and there’s even the dark father figure who is both vanquished and made peace with. Of course, the twist was that the princess turned out to be the hero’s sister, so instead of the girl Luke got a bit of fame (and a metallic right hand).

However, one thing both Lucas and Campbell appear to forget to do is contextualise the Hero’s Quest. Rather than just assume it is some universal manifestation of the human subconscious in story form what if it’s such a pervasive story because it’s constantly used to justify the patriarchal conventions that many societies depend on. So many societies are run by and for men and it seems quite natural that this phallocentric (it’s a great word) bent appears in their stories, novels, movies and TV programmes. As is ever the case if we want to understand the human condition – and in this case it’s the recurrence of masculinist story structures – we need to contextualise it.

But there may be hope. Watching the trailer for the next Star Wars film, The Force Awakens, reveals characters of colour and female characters having lead roles (as well as being able to use The Force). Maybe the all-white boys club is finally coming to an end and the patriarchy is going the way of Darth Vader and the Old Republic. Of course, there will always be those who want to grab their phalli light sabres and defend oppressive traditions but it’s time the next generation taught them a lesson. The lesson being that it’s not the princess who needs saving it’s the hero – saving from the clutches of an oppressive, violent and creatively dull (so dull it rewrites the same story over and over again, 1000 faces…more like 1000 yawns) patriarchal system.