Apr 17, 2018
Rey vs. Jaylah: Who's the better heroine?
This month, Star Wars: The Force Awakens reached cable TV and I had an opportunity to sit down and watch it again. I suppose I wanted to give it another look, to see if it was indeed as bad an experience as I remember. Short answer? Yes. Force Awakens is a sub-standard film, which surprised me, because I was honestly expecting to like it. What was equally surprising was the film I fully expected to hate, yet found myself enjoying. I had no intention of seeing this movie, not after the bad taste Into Darkness left in my mouth, not after I heard Fast and Furious director Justin Lin had been chosen to helm it. And especially not after that atrocious trailer. But my friend and fellow Star Trek fan saw the film and he said that it was worth a look.
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What the hell? I thought. And my gawd, I was shocked at how good a time I had with it. What was the film (as if the name of this article weren’t enough of a clue)?
Star Trek Beyond is a fun film. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel or anything, but it is a good time. The cast delivers, the script gives everyone a moment to shine, Idris Elba is a terrific villain, Justin Lin does a wonderful job in directing (and apologies to the man for any disparaging comments I made regarding his being “that Fast and Furious director”), and I was especially impressed with Sofia Boutella’s Jaylah.
And while I was watching Beyond, and Jaylah in particular, I couldn’t help but compare and contrast her to Rey from The Force Awakens. I found the similarities telling. They’re both young women stranded on planets, living in old vessels, possessing multi-lingual skills as well as a mechanical aptitude. And they both use staves.
But while I think there are many commonalities, it’s the differences that, to my mind, make Jaylah a far superior character to Rey. So, you may ask, what are these differences? Let’s compare, shall we?
Let me preface this by saying there will be spoilers; those are unavoidable. Also, there will be times I stray, so that I may descend into a prolonged criticism of The Force Awakens. So if it seems there are times I get off topic, I do apologize. Fortunately, I will have someone on hand to help me stay on target.
So, where to begin? Let’s start with the least important aspect: the respective looks of the two characters. Jaylah is sporting an exotic alien appearance that’s quite striking, along with a pretty bad-ass leather and spandex ensemble…
…whereas Rey is wandering around in her Tusken Raider knockoff rags.
And I have to give it to Rey here. She looks like a true refugee, someone living a subsistence-level existence on a harsh planet (I only wish they could have shown her headgear more). One could make the argument that Jaylah is wearing something from the USS Franklin’s stores, as we do see Spock wearing an alternate outfit, and Scotty sporting an awesome leather jacket. But somehow, I don’t think space biker outfits are normally part of Starfleet wardrobes.
…Okay, maybe Jaylah is wearing the outfit of the person who owned that motorcycle. Still, surprisingly (surprising to me, anyway), the first point goes to Rey.
Savor it, Force Awakens fans.
Second, we come to the aforementioned weapon of choice the two ladies sport: the staff. Rey’s is serviceable. However, Jaylah’s doubles as a gun.
Yeah, the staff gun is not only cooler, it also makes more sense. Perhaps firearms are outlawed on planet Jakku, but for a young woman living alone on a planet of opportunistic scavengers, I think it would be not only prudent but imperative that Rey should be packing a ranged weapon of some sort. Even farm boys know to carry a boom stick out in the wilderness.
Now, I will say that as far as melee weapons go, Rey probably does have an edge; it has maybe an extra 2” of reach. But this ain’t Dungeons & Dragons: it’s Star Wars, and the only melee weapon worth a damn is a lightsaber…
…Okay, almost the only melee weapon worth a damn. I’ll give points to JJ Abrams: that Stormtrooper was pretty bad-ass. Anyway, points to Jaylah this round.
Moving on, there was something about both films that interested me: the use of language.
Bear with me, Red Leader, I’ve got a point here. In the Star Trek film, pains were taken to pay attention to how people were able to communicate. The person who asks for help from the Federation can’t speak English, and she uses a translator throughout the film, with an English speaking voice superimposed over her alien tongue. In another part of the film, Uhura is surprised when Krall can speak English. And when Scotty is rescued by Jaylah, she’s initially speaking an alien language, but then switches to English when she hears Scotty speak, and he’s surprised she can speak it (props to writers Pegg and Jung for having Boutella’s dialogue sound like her English was imperfect; little things matter). The point is, language and communication are important plot elements, and they’re handled well in Beyond.
Now where Star Wars is concerned, you hear a lot of languages being spoken, and it was important once to have on hand a protocol droid just in case one had to communicate. Fortunately (he said, voice dripping with sarcasm) in The Force Awakens, every time someone speaks a different language, someone is on hand who understands what’s being said. And guess who understands every single language within earshot? Rey, that’s who. She even understands gawd-damn droid.
Somehow, she’s able to interpret those chirps and whistles into coherent dialogue. A single beep, and she hears the name of the planet where the Resistance is located. Okay, yeah, it’s science fiction, but there’s good science fiction and bad, and this just feels like the latter. Worse, it feels like lazy writing. Then again, this entire movie is a study in lazy wr—
…Right. Okay, I’ll try and focus. I get it; she lives on a planet with a variety of races doing business in the salvage industry. But in cases like this, they should either have some protocol droids around facilitating business, or have everybody use a standard language. Or there’s the third option, the “cityspeak” pidgin language Gaff uses in Blade Runner.
But no, apparently Rey’s time on Notooine has turned her into a multilingual savant whose skills include not only droid, but Wookie as well. Ask anybody who’s bi- or multi-lingual: it takes a lot of time, effort, and practice to become fluent in another language, and those are languages that human beings speak.
Now you might say the Force is somehow giving her this ability to understand all these language, but if so, then there should be some dialogue hinting to the fact that what she’s able to do is strange. Have Finn say, “I never met anyone who spoke droid before,” or have Han Solo be surprised that she can understand Chewbacca, suggesting that not a lot of humans speak Wookie. Otherwise, Rey’s linguistic talents are bullshit.
This goes to my next point: the overall skill sets of the two characters. Both have some degree of mechanical aptitude, and I’m fine with that; Jaylah lives inside a ship, Rey salvages ships for a living. Both can fight, and this is fine as well; it’s obvious in their respective harsh environments they need to be able to take care of themselves. The linguistics thing I addressed. This brings me to Rey’s piloting abilities.
Remember when this guy piloted the Millennium Falcon through the guts of the second Death Star?
Pretty bad-ass, right? The dialogue set up between Lando and Han in an earlier scene implied the con artiste and card sharp was a talented pilot, and one assumes navigating the guts of a half-constructed space station feat was pretty tough to do, and that it called for a good pilot with a keen eye and a deft hand. But hey, that’s no longer the case. Turns out anybody can pilot a YT class light freighter through tight spaces like that, even young women barely out of their teens who have lived half their lives on desert planets. Lando was familiar with the Falcon, and it still got clipped. Rey had never flown the Millennium Falcon before, and it came out with a scratch.
Her list of abilities is near-endless; she can even use the Force to compel a Stormtrooper to turn her loose, without anyone even telling her she can do that. And then she beats the “Sith Lord” in a fight with a weapon she’s never held before. You might be saying the Force is helping her. I say it’s JJ Abrams trying to capture every feel-good moment from the first trilogy and cram it into one film.
Rey’s skill set is just one of a litany of flaws in The Force Awakens, a film that relies too heavily on nost—
Sorry. Sorry. Anyway, points go to Jaylah, whose skill set is at least reasonable and logical, rather than, Rey who’s a Mary Sue. Yeah, you heard me.
I’ve been criticized before for using the term “Mary Sue”. I have been called ignorant. I have been called sexist. I have been goaded into flame wars, which I have avoided; I’m not a twelve year old. In the end, my assertion still stands, and Rey is an improbably gifted character who becomes less interesting as a result. Jaylah, on the other hand, is skilled, but no more and no less competent than the other protagonists we see in Beyond.
I don’t want my heroes to be perfect. I don’t want them to be multi-talented Swiss Army people. This is why during Grant Morrison’s run on Batman, the character became less and less interesting.
Bats became the nigh-infallible Bat-God, always one step ahead of his enemies with a plethora of skills that after a while stretched credibility to the breaking point. But at least to some extent, I could buy into Batman’s talents, because by that point Batman was roughly 35 years old. Skills and talents, like languages, take time to master; quite often said skills and talents must be taught if one is to achieve some level of competency. Who taught Rey this vast array of abilities? The impression I get is she spent all her free time salvaging, and living a hand-to-mouth existence. When is she getting the time to learn her plethora of languages and boning up on her miraculous piloting skills?
Who’s to blame for Rey? Perhaps it’s because of late, we’ve seen a rash of uber-competent action heroes, from James Bond, to Angelina Jolie’s Salt, to Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne, to Tom Cruise’s Jack Reacher. Perhaps producers and directors think movie audiences want their heroes to all be Batman, or they lack the patience to watch a hero grow from wide-eyed farm boy to Jedi Knight over the course of three movies and instead want said hero to have the whole package from the get-go. Me, I blame video games. And hip-hop. And this whole social media thing. Hang on a minute, I have to go tell a bunch of punk kids to get the hell off my lawn.
So if it isn’t already obvious, Jaylah (remember Jaylah? This article was about Jaylah, too) wins this round. With the technical aspects out of the way, let’s delve into the character of the… um…characters. What motivates Rey and Jaylah? Primarily, it’s fear. In the latter’s case, the source is Beyond’s antagonist, Krall:
He and his followers killed Jaylah’s parents, and she’s trapped on a planet full of what she rightfully sees are homicidal maniacs, the principal one being essentially a space vampire. This inspires Jaylah to want to leave the planet, and to have James T. Kirk “fix her house” and make it fly.
However, in Rey’s case, she’s been abandoned on Notooine, with the fate of her parents/guardians a mystery. As a result, she stays on Notooine in the hopes they’ll return for her.
This… is stupid. Okay, space is big, I get that. It’s immense beyond the comprehension of most laymen. When astronomers and space scientists throw around terms like “thousands of light years”, the true conception of the distances discussed are largely lost on us. Still, I can grasp how difficult it would be to find two people in a place the size of a galaxy and hope that perhaps it would be easier if they came back for me. The problem with that thinking is hoping that 1) they’re able to come back for me, and 2) they want to come back for me. So Rey is banking on her parents returning for her, even though she’s been waiting for about a decade. By then, I would assume that number one is no longer the case, and her parents need her to come looking for them (or worse, they’re dead), or if number two no longer applies, then fuck ‘em, time to move on, get your ass off Notooine, and use your mad mechanical/piloting skills to get a job on a passing ship.
What keeps Rey rooted to Notooine? A fear of change, and of disrupting the status quo. She’s grown comfortable in her position as orphan victim living in the sci-fi equivalent of a cardboard box, and that flies in stark contrast to Jaylah, or even fellow Force Awakens hero Finn, who sees fear as an impetus to improve their lots.
Jaylah is her own person, in that when it comes to Star Trek, she’s a unique figure. We’ve seen non-Starfleet personnel play key roles in various stories over the years, such as Alfrie Woodard’s Lily in First Contact, Gillian in The Voyage Home, or David Marcus in Wrath of Khan and Search For Spock. But their roles are largely passive, acting in many cases as observers, or people in need of rescue, or to serve in some single key capacity (i.e. Gillian’s knowledge regarding the frequency of the whales’ transmitters). In Jaylah’s case, she saves Scotty from marauders and helps Kirk and Company in rescuing the remnants of the Enterprise crew from Krall’s compound, making her instrumental to the plot. In the third act, she aids the gang in setting up the transmitter to destroy Krall’s swarm.
As for Rey, let’s be honest: she’s a Luke Skywalker stand-in, right down to the astromech droid sidekick. Worse, she’s less than Luke Skywalker, vast skill set notwithstanding. Luke Skywalker wanted off his desert wasteland of a planet; he wanted to move on and up, believing he could be more than just a moisture farmer. And on the Death Star, he pushes Han into rescuing Leia. Rey, however, was quite content to wallow in her personal pity party, living a subsistence-level existence; she was a victim and was comfortable in that role. Rey is a passive character, forced by either a person or circumstance from scene to scene. Even by movie’s end, she seems to search out Skywalker not because she wants to, but because she has no idea what this Force thing is, and is likely shocked she’s discovered a skill set she can’t master on her own and wants someone to explain it to her (although frankly, she seemed to be doing just fine without a teacher). Or just as likely, Leia told her to go, and Rey meekly agreed.
And while Jaylah must be talked into aiding Kirk and Company into rescuing the Enterprise crew, the final decision is hers to make. Jaylah is a proactive, self-assured, fully realized character compared to Rey’s sad shortcomings.
So in the end, when all is said and done, Jaylah wins hands down.
Star Trek Beyond is not without its flaws, but I can say with confidence its shortcomings do not lie in its characters. Kirk and Company, Krall, and especially Jaylah are well thought out and the actors deliver solid performances. However, where Star Wars: The Force Awakens is concerned, one cannot say the same.
Po and Finn are good characters, and both Oscar Isaac and John Boyega do the best with what they’re given. But the rest of the cast, especially Daisy Ridley as Rey, are sorely lacking. If JJ Abrams had spent a little more effort on giving us an original, well-crafted story instead of trusting everything to nostalgia, and if he had focused on giving us a host of new heroes we could appreciate, perhaps he would have made a film that will stand the test of time. Instead, to my mind, it’s possible in years to come Rey will join the likes of Jar Jar Binks as characters most Star Wars fans would like to forget.