Star Wars: The Force Awakens is not perfect, but one thing that it got entirely right was the depiction of the two leads. Their stories are nearly subversive, entirely reflective of the world we live in, and a celebration of a new fandom eager to explore the gritty, lived-in world of a galaxy far, far away.
FN-2187, or Finn, as he is christened by the roguish pilot Poe, is not your average Stormtrooper. In the search for Poe and BB-8, his unit lands on Jakku, where Finn is baptized in blood and the screams of innocents as they are shot down without mercy. The battle illuminates who Poe is as a man and as a Stormtrooper, and he doesn’t say a word. For the first time in the series, heart is given to what has always been known as the forces of evil. When the film begins, Finn isn’t interested in being a hero, or saving lives, or dying on a lightsaber for others. He wants out. He wants to run. He is motivated by the selfishness of survival. Like Han Solo before him, all he cares about is getting away before the people in his life decide he’s more useful dead.
The new movie is all about reflections from the past – ripples in the water that have floated down and found new waters to disturb. Finn has aspects of Han Solo in his choices. He knows that he doesn’t want to hurt anyone. He knows that doing so goes against his morals, but he’s not exactly a shining beacon of good. He is centered on smart aleck replies, witty comebacks, and doing what he must to continue living. He is a survivor first. John Boyega plays him with equal parts comedic timing and a sense of those rippling waters running deep. Finn feels real; he feels like a product of the First Order. He feels like a man pulled away from his family and raised in the dark side, only to find his own way to the light on his own.
He has two moments of awakening that set the tone for who he is and the potential of what he will become. The first is when he refuses to shoot the unarmed villagers at the start of the movie. The second is when he decides that running is unacceptable. He could go off to the far reaches of the galaxy and be untouched by the war that is terrorizing the people, but he realizes after a fight with Luke’s old lightsaber that he is already embroiled in it. The war is his war – mainly because of his imprinting on the movie’s hero and newest member of the light side of the force, Rey. Rey becomes his everything, his focus, and she is what truly begins his journey towards being a hero.
Rey is also a reflection, though she seems more a likeness of both Luke and Leia, rather than just the titular character of the previous trilogy. She has Luke’s potential to be more, to be the greatness the galaxy needs, but she also has Leia’s determination, willpower, and ability to figure things the hell out long before the boys do. She shares their heart and their goodness.
Unlike Luke, she is not looking for greatness in the seat of a fighter plane. She doesn’t want to join the rebel alliance because her friends have, or because she needs to feed her hubris by becoming a hero. Her goal, her only focus, is staying alive long enough to see the return of a family who abandoned her a decade prior.
If Rey is selfish, it is in only believing that her family is out there looking for her. If she shows her age, it is only in naivety and the belief that, after years to the contrary, they are coming back. Despite being left to an inhospitable planet, where scavenging the bones of broken Imperial Starcruisers is her only source of survival, Rey maintains her love. Rey is defined by her love. As lonely and as hardened by the world she is determined to survive, she maintains a heart, a helpfulness, an awareness of those who are suffering and she reacts.
When BB-8 is caught in a net, she doesn’t hesitate. She goes to the droid’s rescue immediately. She knows that no creature deserves a fate they did not choose. She does not have to contemplate the consequences for long, even when selling the droid could mean months’ worth of food rations. She should, by all rights, be more whiny and selfish than Luke – she has the backstory to condone such complaining. She did not grow up on a farm with two parental figures who ensured that she had everything she ever needed. She grew up hungry, scrappy, and desperate for family. This lends itself to a quiet resourcefulness and a skittishness away from potential hero moments that could pull her farther away from Jakku and the family she might find there, but in no way affects her kindness or her ability to get the job done.
Rey is also defined by her loneliness in ways that are manifested through self-reliance. Throughout the film, she is genuinely helped only once – when she and Finn manage to steal the festering pile of junk known as the Millennium Falcon. Though she has never flown a ship like it before, she manages to figure it out on her own. Her help comes in the form of Finn, who solves his own uncertainty with the technology in order to fight the pilots chasing them and provide a clean escape from the planet he wants nothing more than to put behind him. Separately, but working in tandem – and in a neat chase scene that Star Wars has never really done before – they both manage to figure out how to survive once more.
Beyond that moment, Rey takes care of herself throughout the majority of the film.
Fixing the Millennium Falcon comes down to her. Escaping Han’s ship after aliens and smugglers decide to create havoc was because of her quick thinking. After being captured by Rylo, she finds her personal awakening – she finds the force. No one guides her to it the way they did Anakin and Luke. She digs deep within herself and she yanks the power out, once again in order to survive – to protect the rebel alliance. She starts mastering the force, wielding it to aid in her escape, and she does all this in the space of a few days. Her fear of not being on Jakku when her family returns for her shifts to a certainty of what she must do and who she must be in the new order the galaxy has thrust upon her. And, in what is potentially one of the most stunning scenes visually, she faces the First Order’s prodigal son in the snowy woods of the Death Star 5.0 without anyone to save her.
With Luke’s lightsaber in hand, she fights. She does what no one before her has attempted. She battles to bring down Rylo before he ends her. She uses the force, still untrained and untested, but centered in a way that none of the male protagonists ever showed, and she wields her blade against the dark side. And she wins. Relying on herself is enough to save the day.
Her arc, however, does not die with self-reliance. In the midst of the drama and awakening, she finds a family. She finds BB-8, Finn, Han, and Chewie. She finds Leia and the alliance. She finds what she was looking on Jakku – only this family will always come back for her, as proven by Finn’s inability to leave her to her fate. Finn even lies in order to search her out because, for the first time since stripping away the armor and the old life it represented in the desert of Jakku, he has found a reason to fight. Finn reaches out – he claims Rey as someone worth fighting for; Rey does the same in the final fight scene. She is no longer alone. This culminates during the final moments of the film in her reaching out to someone else for probably the first time in her life. She extends her lightsaber-clad hand to the one person who can help her fight the First Order: Luke. Every moment of Rey on screen was a build up of her learning to trust, to realize that some people do come back, and that hope can be as simple as reaching out.
Rey and Finn are definitely a reflection of the characters that made the original trilogy so good, but they also stand on their own in ways that surpass them. Rey is the hero the franchise needed. She is equal parts love, determination, intelligence, badassery, and resourcefulness. Her dialogue with Finn and Han was mostly funny, quick, and full of memorable one-liners, but it was also touching, revealing, and based in the human beats that have redefined Star Wars and a new era of the fight between light and dark.
These are the characters that will inspire a new generation to reach for the stars, and the writers could not have picked two better heroes.