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Caution–Major spoiler alert for Star Wars: The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi
Basically every blockbuster movie dealing with iconic items from popular culture nowadays is faced with an ever more critical audience eager to analyse even the tiniest details and that loves to speculate about what may come. When Star Wars: Episode VII–The Force Awakens (2015, J. J. Abrams) hit theaters, fans were left with a multitude of questions, and responded accordingly with an abundance of so-called ‘fan theories’. One of the many questions concerned the parentage of Force Awakens‘s new protagonist, Rey. As far as themes and questions of parental identity are concerned, Star Wars is arguably the ‘ultimate’ franchise, so in a way these fan theories about Rey’s parents seemed appropriate in the larger context of things.
The amount of information given by Force Awakens about Rey’s parentage was scarce, to say the least. It essentially boiled down to this: when she was a child, Rey was left by her parents on the planet of Jakku, probably somewhere around Niima Outpost, where she got picked up by Unkar Plutt. We learn this from Rey’s flashback sequence on Takodana, where she came in contact with the iconic Skywalker lightsaber:
Rey looks down at a child version of herself, shouting ‘Come back!’ at a departing spaceship. Note that nowhere in this scene it is explicitly mentioned that she is shouting this at her parents. Linking the departing spaceship with Rey’s parents isn’t an implausible connection, though, especially as Rey briefly mentions her abandonment by her parents when she first comes into contact with BB-8. Ultimately, Episode VII left the question of Rey’s parents wide open, burdening the future instalments of the saga with answering this particular question.
In the months that followed Force Awakens, fans speculated about the identity of Rey’s parents. The most frequent theories that came up were those talking about the possibilities of Rey Skywalker (either the offspring of Luke, or a sister to Ben Solo), or Rey Kenobi. I never really found the latter theory convincing, since that would have implied that Obi-Wan broke his Jedi vow of chastity presumably somewhere during the rise of the Empire, as that is the chronology required for Rey to be his grandchild (assuming her to be his direct child is ridiculous, as in-story chronology states that she is born in 15 ABY/After the Battle of Yavin, i.e. 15 years after Obi-Wan’s death). In the animated series The Clone Wars (2008-2014, George Lucas), Obi-Wan indeed struggles with romantic feelings for Satine Kryze, but he eventually takes the rational high ground (pun intended) by focusing on his career as a Jedi. While I found the concept of Rey being Han and Leia’s daughter intriguing, I thought they couldn’t really back that up with the fact that both characters never really acted like parents reunited with their long-lost child in any of the scenes they shared with Rey. Sure, this can be explained in terms of the dramatic effect of a potential later reveal in the saga, but since these movies are really conceived as a ‘trilogy’, it would seem strange to establish Han and Leia as Rey’s parents in the second instalment when they’ve already met in the first one without any emotional indications of a potential parentage. This worked for Vader and Luke in the original trilogy, since neither of them actually met in A New Hope (1977, George Lucas), and also because of the fact that Vader never saw his child(ren) being born, whereas we know Rey’s parents actually dropped her off on Jakku. For a definitive answer, we had to wait for The Last Jedi (2017, Rian Johnson).
Again: major spoiler alert! If you haven’t seen The Last Jedi yet, I suggest you bookmark this page and revisit it when you’re all caught up.
In The Last Jedi, Rey shares a telepathic connection with Kylo Ren. At first, I thought Johnson was suggesting a brother/sister relationship between the two, as many fans undoubtedly anticipated. As the plot unfolded, however, it became more and more clear that Johnson took the ‘let the past die’ adage very seriously by breaking with certain Star Wars conventions (e.g. in his inclusion of flashbacks of Luke and Ben, whereas usual Star Wars films tend to avoid flashbacks in favor of more linear storytelling), which, as I mentioned in my review, I think is a good thing. Eventually, it was Kylo who explained to Rey that her parents were actual nobodies that traded her away for money.
To many people (including me), this was a huge twist, I think. I really like it, actually, and I believe it works in the context of the Star Wars universe. The Star Wars universe is a vast one, transcending the boundaries of one family, albeit a powerful and cardinal one. Lucas’s original vision of the Star Wars galaxy was that of a so-called ‘used universe’, or a universe that doesn’t rely on the use of shiny futuristic gadgets, but instead is stylized by old or ‘dirty’ (as Will Brooker calls it in his book on the saga, as part of the BFI Film Classics series) paraphernalia, equipment and imagery. The Star Wars universe is not just the one with the Jedi and the fancy lightsabers, but it is also (and maybe even primarily) the one with the space traders, the crime cartels, the bounty hunters and the corrupt intergalactic space ports. This is also the reason why I’m a big fan of the Canto Bight scenes, as I feel they effectively portray the darkness that the universe in essence is rife with, in a way not unlike the one found in the former Star Wars Expanded Universe.
By having Rey’s parents be actual nobodies, Johnson seems to be rejecting the symbolic character that has always permeated the Star Wars franchise in favour of a more unexpected and ‘freeing’ way of storytelling. Both the original and prequel trilogies are actually quite parallel in terms of narrative structure, and with Abrams’s Force Awakens, it seemed as if the sequel trilogy would take the same route. I admit it took some getting used to Johnson’s radically different approach, but in the end, I honestly think Star Wars is better off doing things the Johnson way. Johnson seems to put a large emphasis on expanding the scope (and stakes) of the franchise (especially with his amazing final scene), and in this sense, his outcome for Rey’s parental story arc seems not only effective, but also quite meaningful.
I don’t think that Rey’s seemingly non-mythological origin takes away any of the heroic qualities that Force Awakens ascribed to her character. Instead, I think it really adds to them. Rey doesn’t need any hereditary powers or a strong bloodline to be the badass character that she is. She’s strong with the Force all on her own. She’s acquired a particular set of skills by herself, and surpasses Anakin and Luke when she resists the dark temptation that determined the fate of the former, as well as the destructive cynicism that filled the mind of the latter. It also gives her more of an incentive to prove herself in her position as an integral part of the galaxy’s destiny.
I’m a fan of how Johnson handled the question, but it also raises a possible problem, or what’s perhaps better described as an improbability, which is the way in which the Skywalker lightsaber seemed to have a particular liking to Rey in The Force Awakens, while neglecting Kylo Ren who should in fact be the ‘heir’ to the weapon in the first place. A counterpoint could be made here, suggesting that the lightsaber has been used by non-Skywalker members throughout the saga (Han in Empire Strikes Back [1980, Irvin Kerschner], and Finn in The Force Awakens). However, in neither of these instances were the characters thrust into a trippy flashback sequence. I guess this is what you get when you have multiple directors with different points of view work on different entries in the same trilogy. Yes, I am aware that George Lucas didn’t direct Empire Strikes Back (1980, Irvin Kerschner) nor Return of the Jedi (1983, Richard Marquand), but, as an official advisor, he was still a heavy presence on set.
All of this being said, I do think it’s possible that the upcoming and as of yet untitled Episode IX (2019, J. J. Abrams) might reveal that Kylo was lying, to add a more traditional layer to Rey’s fate. This wouldn’t exactly feel out-of-place in a franchise where playing with the concept of parenthood is one of the trademark characteristics, but it would definitely take away from the amount of meaning that Johnson tried to instill in his entry into the saga. I honestly hope Episode IX either puts Johnson’s solution in a fitting context, or simply acknowledges its unique originality by not diving into the question any further. Ironically enough, Abrams now has to deal with problematic story features that he seemed to have avoided in Force Awakens, and one can only hope that Episode IX finds an appropriate way to deal with Johnson’s unique idea.