How does Rey speak Wookiee?
A closer look at why Rey's language abilities did or didn't work for me in The Force Awakens
Every morning I go for a walk around the neighborhood. It's good exercise and I go out very early so it's peaceful and quiet and a good time to think. And sometimes an idea or a question gets stuck in my head and I can't get rid of it until I get home and write it out of my brain. Today that question was, how does Rey know how to speak Wookie?
In The Force Awakens when Rey and Finn first meet Han and Chewie, Chewie growls, Rey responds and Finn says, “You can understand that thing?” And this doesn't work for me. Recently I've been writing a thing about plot holes. What makes a plot hole, the different kinds of plot holes, and what is and isn't a plot hole. It wouldn't be a plot hole for us to be introduced to a character and told or shown that this character has a particular skill, however them having that skill should mesh with what we already know about them. If a character is a pilot, we'd expect them to know how to fly. If they were a Jedi we'd expect them to know how to use the force. Those skills are in line with what we know about their characters. I haven't decided if this is a plot hole, but that's not important right now, cause the effect is the same. I'm momentarily pulled out of the film and my suspension of disbelief has been tampered with.
We should start by asking why did they make Rey speak Wookie? Well, if Han is going to die later in the movie, Rey needs to be able to communicate with Chewie, her driver for the rest of the trilogy. As I said before, it wouldn't be unusual for a character to demonstrate a skill that we didn't know they had. We didn't know Vader could force choke someone before he did it. We didn't know that Obi-wan could mindtrick someone, or even what mindtrick was, before he did it. We also didn't know that Kylo was strong with the force before he held Poe's shot in place. So what makes this different?
Well, the scenes with Vader's force choke and Obi-wan's mindtrick don't happen until after Obi-wan has a chance to do a bit of world building. This universe has a magic system called the Force. Jedi are trained to use this magic system. Both Obi-wan and Darth Vader were Jedi, therefore, when we see them use these abilities later you don't question it. They're both trained Jedi, of course they can do these things.
And when it comes to Kylo. I think this is an example of the golden rule of writing, which is to show, don't tell. It's a lot more effective for them to show us he's strong with the Force, rather than tell us he's strong with the Force. Based on what we've seen in the previous movies, we know that this character is a force user and a strong one at that. Poe's reaction to seeing his blaster bolt suspended in midair is how we in the audience should feel at this moment.
So let's go back to Rey. They show us that she can speak Wookiee, so why doesn't this work? After a good bit of pondering I think there are two reasons. First, Wookiee or more specifically, Shyriiwook, doesn't seem to be a language skill that would have a lot of use. Think about it. Chronologically, how many wookiees, other than chewie, have we seen since the battle on Kashyyk? There's some in Solo and Rebels, but there's none in the original trilogy and none in the sequels either. So why would she learn to speak Wookiee? How would she learn to speak Wookiee? We can say where, because she hasn't left Jakku, but we didn't see any Wookiees on Jakku. This is not a skill that it makes sense for her to have.
Speaking of Solo. Han knowing how to speak Wookiee doesn't work for me there either. When we first met Han and Chewie in the Cantina, we didn't know anything about them or their history, but they're partners so it made sense that they would understand each other. How else are they supposed to work together? But in Solo they're meeting for the first time, and so the same questions we ask about Rey apply here as well. How and why does Han know how to speak Wookiee?
The second reason why I think that this scene doesn't work is because Finn doesn't understand Chewie and highlights that he doesn't Chewie. This could have been smoothed over, if he had said nothing. We wouldn't be given the time to think about it, but instead Finn says, “You can understand that thing?” which establishes that Rey can speak Wookiwe and that he can't, but it also reinforces the idea that this is not a common skill. To further demonstrate what I'm getting at here, we can contrast this with an earlier scene and a later scene from the same movie.
After Rey rescues BB-8 from the scavenger Teedo, she and the little droid have a conversation, and it never occurred to me once to ask, how or why does she know how to speak Binary? Take a moment and remember that when we first met Luke, he didn't speak Binary. Well, there's no one else in this scene to point out that it might be an unusual skill. Later when Finn is trying to get BB-8 to tell Rey where the base is, he specifically says, “I don't speak that.” But he says that there and not here. He says that when she's already been talking with BB-8 for some time, because of course she can. Also, we've already seen that Rey knows her way around machines and she immediately recognizes that BB-8 has a bent antenna, and begins to fix it. So she's probably familiar with droids as well. Even if we don't consider how prevalent droids are in the Star Wars universe, as opposed to Wookiees, they've already done enough in this scene for me not to think about her ability to speak Binary.
And then there's this lady, who responds to Chewie while patching him up. How does she speak Wookiee? Well nobody is there to say, "You can understand that thing?" and we didn't see a montage of her daily life. We don't have enough information about her to say why it wouldn't make sense. She's a blank slate. All we know about her is that she's a nurse that understands Wookiee. And that's fine.
For some additional perspective, I want to talk about a similar scene from a different movie, where I think a character getting a new, uncommon skill actually works really well. In Sicario 2, Benecio Del Toro, playing Alejandro is escorting a drug lord's kidnapped daughter across the Mexican desert. They need food, water and a place to hide, so when they happen across a farmer they approach him to ask for help. Seeing that Alejandro is armed the farmer is frightened and lifts his hands, despite Alejandro saying they aren't with the cartel. The farmer then makes it clear that he is deaf and Alejandro starts signing to him. Sign language is not an uncommon thing for us to see, however it is not a skill that one would expect the average person to have without a reason. So the farmer asks Alejandro exactly what I'm thinking. "How does Alejandro know how to sign?
He replies, “My daughter”.
The farmer says, “She's deaf?” And my heart sank at this moment because I knew the answer.
Alejandro answers, “She was.”
Now immediately after I finished the movie I was thinking about this scene and I thought, "Why did they do that?" The farmer could have easily just not have been deaf and we could have skipped all that. But after pondering this question for a bit, I think it's actually a brilliant little bit of development. Alejandro gets a new skill which we didn't know that he had. His reason for this skill is justified while also reminding us of his character's tragic past. We see this skill plus his tragic past forge an immediate personal connection between Alejandro and a stranger. The farmer agrees to take them in and we know that he won't betray them.
Can you see the difference between these two scenes? In both instances the writers add a new skill to our characters to serve a point in the plot. Alejandro needs help from a scared and suspicious stranger. Rey needs to communicate with her future chauffeur. This is something they might have been able to fix in just 2 or 3 seconds.. Which is the same amount of time they spend establishing that she can speak Wookiee in the actual movie. To make this work, all they would have had to do was have a brief shot of her speaking to a Wookiee on Jakku. We wouldn't even need to hear them to understand the implication that she can speak to them. It could have easily been two or three seconds in the montage of her daily life before BB-8 and Finn show up. Then when she runs into Chewbacca, just like with Vader and Obi-wan, these questions don't even occur to you. "Of course she can speak Wookiee, we saw her doing it earlier." And earlier it works because if it's shown as part of her daily routine we can infer that she deals with this Wookiee quite often and it would make sense for her to learn how to communicate with them. This is pretty much the explanation that they use in the visual dictionary where they say Rey learned to speak Wookiee when dealing with off world traders. But that's in the book, and not in the movie.
And since it's not in the movie, part of my brain isn't engaged with what's going on in this scene because it's still trying to figure out how and why Rey knows how to speak Wookiee. And since my brain is wondering how Rey knows things, where did she learn to be such a great pilot? Well that's a good question for another time.