Lots of spoilers ahead.
Once upon a time, there was a princess who was trapped in a dark tower by an evil usurper, and forced into an evil destiny. Our plucky princess manages to escape the tower with the evil usurper’s men in hot pursuit. Fortunately, she stumbles on a prince in disguise, who first helps her escape and then plans to destroy the dark tower. However, the prince is captured, so the princess gathers the help of some companions they met on the way and they go to the dark tower to free the prince. Meanwhile, though, the prince has already gotten free, and our heroes all meet up. They confront the usurper, with the princess holding him off just long enough for the prince to claim the magical weapon showing him to be the rightful heir to the throne. He defeats the usurper, but the princess has been magically wounded, and has fallen into a deep sleep. So, the prince goes on a quest to find a wizard in a far off land, who might be able to break the spell on the princess…
Star Wars: The Force Awakens has been criticized for adhering too closely to the plot(s) of the original trilogy, and although the film certainly has flaws (relying far too heavily on implausible coincidence, for example), the critique that it’s too similar to the original trilogy is unfair.
The film wisely focuses more on reflecting the themes of the original trilogy, and the plot just flows from that as a natural consequence. And, indeed, this attention to theme over plot point is one of the main reasons TFA succeeds where the prequels failed, and will eventually, I think, be seen to have improved on both A New Hope and Return of the Jedi.
Take, for example, the central mystery of the film: No, it’s not to whom Kylo Ren is related; that’s revealed pretty early on, and no one over the age of twelve should have been surprised. Nor is it the death of Han Solo — again, that’s telegraphed pretty clearly throughout the film. Instead, the mystery is laid out in the first scene where Lor San Tekka says to him, “I know where you come from, before you called yourself Kylo Ren.” Throughout the film, the mystery of his name before he changed it to Kylo Ren isn’t revealed until the climactic scene, in which Han Solo’s shout of “Ben!” begins the end of the film.
Let’s consider that name for a second. It’s incredibly improbable for these characters that they would name their son “Ben.” Leia literally never met Ben Kenobi, and Han Solo’s interactions with him seem to have been limited to a business deal and scoffing at the idea of the Force. Given all the time they spent fighting with others in the rebellion, Obi Wan Kenobi would have had very little impact on their lives, whereas naming their son after Luke, Lando, Chewie, basically important to Leia on Alderaan, or heck, even Akbar or Wicket W. Warrick would make more sense than “Ben.” That name was not chosen because it made sense for the characters or the plot, but rather because it fits a larger thematic purpose.
So, what does all of this have to do with Rey? When we shift the focus to the thematic elements, we no longer see a film that recycles the plot of A New Hope, but rather a film that draws from a deeper well, that of the Disney princess. Although she may not literally be a princess (though with her mysterious past, she may be), thematically she fulfills the traditional role in the Disney film, though in this case with the gender roles frequently inverted. Heck, her name even means “queen.”
Rey and Finn together play out the plotline of the Disney princess film, with Rey in the role of Prince Charming, and Finn in the role of the princess. This, in part, goes to explain why Rey is, frankly, such a boring Mary Sue character — just like a traditional prince, she has to be attractive, charming, virtuous, skilled with a sword, have a faithful sidekick and a noble steed, etc. Presumably, her character will become more fleshed out in the next two films, as this film focuses on Finn, the next presumably on Poe Dameron, with Rey completing her arc in the third film (and I think we can expect a similar focus on original trilogy characters, with this film being Han’s, the next two focusing on Leia, then Luke, or visa-versa). But for now, her character does not have to be fleshed out, because her job is to be the stranger with the mysterious past.
Once upon a time A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, there was a princess who Finn was trapped in a dark tower Starkiller Base by an evil usurper Kylo Ren, and forced into an evil destiny. Our plucky princess Finn manages to escape the tower Starkiller Base with the evil usurper’s men Stormtroopers in hot pursuit. Fortunately, she Finn stumbles on a prince in disguise Rey, who first helps her Finn escape and then plans to destroy the dark tower Starkiller Base. However, the prince Rey is captured, so the princess Finn gathers the help of some companions they met on the way and they go to the dark tower Starkiller Base to free the prince Rey. Meanwhile, though, the prince Rey has already gotten free, and our heroes all meet up. They confront the usurper Kylo Ren, with the princess Finn holding him off just long enough for the prince Rey to claim the magical weapon light saber showing him her to be the rightful heir to the throne. He Rey defeats the usurper Kylo Ren, but the princess Finn has been magically wounded, and has fallen into a deep sleep coma. So, the prince Rey goes on a quest to find a wizard Luke Skywalker in a far off land, who might be able to break the spell on the princess teach her to heal Finn…
By drawing on this well, that of the folkloric princess (in Disney form), The Force Awakens offers us thematic hints at the future of the series. The film is clearly self-aware of the gender swap in the princess role addressing it in comic moments, such as the exclamation “Stop taking my hand!” and C3PO correcting himself in calling Leia “Princess” rather than “General.” Nevertheless, it never devolves into a pandering “Grrl Power” attitude, instead allowing Rey and Finn to have feminine and masculine strengths, respectively. In particular, Rey on Jakku evokes the princess waiting to be rescued by her family, but the depiction of her is not of helpless passivity, but rather resolute steadfastness. We see that she was a little girl who is surviving in the (literal) wreckage of war, and each mark on the wall is a mark of strength, not passivity.
By the end, prince(ss) Rey has learned that she is waiting not to be rescued, but to find someone to rescue. Just as Leia had to awaken Han Solo from the carbonite, and Prince Charming had to awaken Sleeping Beauty, Rey now has to awaken Finn — and as the Force awakens, unite these two traditions.