The Many Sides of Kylo Ren

Since Star Wars: The Force Awakened opened, I’ve been keeping a close eye on the criticism from the fan base. And I found it odd that Kylo Ren was actually the character that the most criticism surrounded. Not to say everyone hated him, but in every scene that he played a part, there was something that irked them about the character.

While I agreed with some fans in feeling a bit conflicted about him on my first viewing after, four viewings, I’m actually finding myself appreciating this character more and more. While Rey is still my favorite character of the movie, he’s quickly becoming my second favorite, which will no doubt strike some fans as being a bit odd.

Which is why I’m writing this piece, which I intend to be not just a defense piece about why I think his character, and Adam Driver’s performance of him, should be held up as one of the best elements of Star Wars cinema, but also a piece to explain exactly what you might be missing if you’ve only seen this film once.

So once again, if you haven’t seen this movie yet, stop here and come back once you have.

***OBLIGITORY SPOILER WARNING – ADMIT ONLY IF YOU ARE CARRYING YOUR TICKET STUB***

First of all, I’d like to say that I understand the criticism, or at least some of it. I understand that many see him as another whiney emo figure ala Anakin Skywalker. I understand that many long for the mystery that Darth Vader provided when at the end of A New Hope, we still had no idea who the heck that guy was. The fact that he lifts his helmet, and he’s pretty and young, that might drive people the wrong way. Certainly, pretty and young people can’t be filled with evil and hatred, right?

Also, I understand the criticism about the hair. Especially about the hair. I mean come on, nobody can maintain that perfect of a perm under a helmet.

The Complex Face of Terror

©Lucasfilm 2015

The Force Awakens suffers from a heavy editing hand. Because of how quick we’re shunted from event to event, we have very little time to languish in a scene, to watch the emotions play on an actor’s face, the subtleties of the surprisingly well constructed script, and to understand the ramifications of the characters’ actions. Kylo Ren is arguably the most complex character of this movie once you start to see those subtlties.

Kylo Ren appears to represent the modern zeitgeist of fear, just as Darth Vader was a zeitgeist villain of the 70’s. Vader was an emotionless killer for an oppressive government, following the orders of “The Man,” which happens to be two old and rather oppressive men (Tarkin and Palpatine). He represented the terrible things that a powerful government or corporation could do, and the terror that absolute power can wreak on an unsuspecting universe.

(Photo: David James/Lucasfilm Ltd.)

However, our fears today are represented in the face of the young and disillusioned. The unstable youth who’s own internal conflicts allow him to be seduced into violence, terror, and chaos. The bullied child who rains gunfire down on his school. The disillusioned and lost young man who finds himself killing dozens of innocents in a theatre. The angry youth who are seduced by powerful political and spiritual leaders into terrorism. The reality of these situations is far more nuanced than the popular media or even our own biases are willing to admit, as being young and angry does not necessarily translate into violence.

What we fear is instability and the unpredictable nature of violence in today’s age. Any person could strike with terror at any point, at any moment, and with incredible fury. Kylo Ren appears to be boiling under the surface at all times, with a calm demeanor that is only disturbing, especially as we see random outbursts of violence and destruction.

Yet just as the situations behind the individuals of terror is far more nuanced and complicated than just young + angry, so does Kylo Ren’s situation appear much more nuanced the more we learn of him. We learn through Leia that she knew that he was being seduced into a radical religion by a powerful figure. Yet, she refused to tell Han because she feared his reaction, refused to confront him about it, and instead sent him away to Uncle Luke’s academy. To be fair to Han and Leia, that’s a horrible place to be as a first time parent. But still, I believe Ben started to fall as soon as his parents indicated their rejection, their despair, and their inability to help him.

And let’s not forget that Ben is the son of a heroes from a golden age, who became heroes and lived partially by chance. Han, Leia, Chewie, Luke, they are held up to this incredible standard, and you bet that Ben would be expected to exceed his parent’s capabilities. In many ways, he represents the challenged generation of millennials of today, who look at the parents who struggled in their 20’s and then found success in the economic boom of the 90’s. And these kids are now expected to exceed their parents, as generations do, but amongst rising student debts, rising underemployment, and an unstable job market. War time generally heralds progress, whereas peace time heralds encourages conservative values and cautious stability.

Kylo turns to the dark side, towards the example of his grandfather, though through a lens warped by the machinations of Supreme Leader Snoke. While his parents succeeded in war time, they struggle to adapt to peacetime. While they returned to what they did best after Ben turned, I can only imagine that these two were too busy with the New Republic to lead a typical family life. Han yearns for the glory days while Leia struggles to retain her relevance as the New Republic pulls in younger blood. As the First Order rises, the New Republic regards her warnings as the ramblings of an old paranoid war veteran, not the wise Rebel leader she was before. Yet Vader not only found power and success during peacetime, but also found respect. Thus, he dips his helmet in the ashes of his grandfather and pleads with burned visage of Vader, hoping to be guided towards the power he needs. And could we really blame him? We saw the events as they actually transpired, but certainly he did not. He’s hearing them from multiple sides, and presumably trusting the side that promises power.

J.J. and Kasdan could have turned him into what is simply a faceless terrorist by keeping his mask on. He’d be a direct copy of Vader, just re-tooled with the essence of radicalism and fascism to be a more modern equivalent. But by revealing his identity, and his face, we are forced to consider his motivations, his story, his challenges, and we are forced to reconcile that the heroes we loved so much are no less human than we are. We are forced to understand the harsh reality of war: that sometimes peace is harder. And it is these themes, presented by subtle lines of dialogue, expressions, and quick actions, that makes Kylo Ren much more complex and much more interesting than many allow him to be.

The Dark and the Light in One

If Kylo Ren was nothing but an archetype, carefully crafted to represent the challenge of the modern age, only those with nothing else better to do than to write a literary criticism of a space opera would care. Oh yeah, that’s me. Star Wars fans need more, and that’s where we get into speculation fuel.

Kylo Ren (among other things) is proof to me that the boundaries between Light and Dark may not be as stark as we once thought. I still wonder about the supposed prophecy that may or may not have come out of the Journal of the Whills, that a young and powerful force user would emerge to bring balance to the Force. We’ve now seen an overabundance of Light side and an overabundance of Dark side, and seen that victory for either side results in failure. If Anakin brought balance to the Force, it was by destroying taking the Jedi down and letting the Sith rise. If Luke brought balance to the Force, it was by challenging and ending the long reign of the Sith.

And yet we see another rise in the Light, through Luke’s academy, only for it to be knocked down by a Dark-wielding son of Leia (Skywalker). Notice too that all of these balancing events include a Skywalker as the driving force behind it. It seems to me that the Skywalkers are destined to be constantly bringing balance to the Force, and Kylo Ren is just the next stage of this balance. It makes me wonder if Rey is indeed the child of Luke Skywalker, what kind of balance she may or may not bring. Luke, seeing his academy pulled to rubble again, might finally understand the balance that the Force desires. And thus, his quest to find the first Jedi temple, to find their original purpose, their original inspiration, and to find an unfiltered view of the Force.

There is a scene within the novelization of TFA, which Snoke tells Kylo Ren that he glad to get a student who was perfectly crafted from both the Light and the Dark. He tells him that it makes Ren stronger, presumably because he is fueled by the conflict that bubbles beneath the surface. The Visual Dictionary confirms that Kylo Ren is able to use both Light side and Dark side powers, a curiously binary view of Force ability.

We’ve also seen Luke wield both Light and Dark side powers. In ROTJ, he shows up black garb, force chokes two Gamorreans, and proceeds to kill dozens of Jabba’s minions, all in the service of finding his friends. This is an emotional mission that’s all about attachment, not very Jedi-like at all. That said, it’s not exactly like Luke is being Sithy here.

And of course Anakin Skywalker has waaayyy too much dark side in him, more than he can control, which is why he can be manipulated so easily by Palpatine. Sounds pretty similar to Kylo, right? I wonder if the Skywalkers are doomed with wielding a balance of Light and Dark inside themselves, and that their movements to the Light or Dark pulls the galaxy along with them. It would add more credence to the reasoning behind Luke’s disappearance, if he wanted to see how the galaxy would react to his inaction. Well, apparently it responds by replacing him.

All of this Dark vs. Light side talk makes me think of the essence of terrorism, strict and warped dogmatic beliefs. Maybe the boundary between Light and Dark is a bit fuzzier than we’d like to admit. I know that George’s original ideas included talking about a “grey side” of the Force in eps 7, 8 and 9. Although J.J. and Kasdan reportedly threw out his ideas, at least reportedly according to George, I have to believe that they at least took some inspiration from his general concepts. I’d be greatly interested in seeing Luke and possibly Rey trying to bring real balance to the Force, perhaps move towards a Grey side so as to restore true balance with their own inner peace.

The Murder of Han Solo

And of course we couldn’t talk about Kylo Ren without mentioning his purpose in this movie, to get Harrison Ford out of his obligation to the Star Wars universe. I kid of course, but this scene is beautifully written and beautifully performed and beautifully choreographed. It is the perfect culmination of both Han’s journey and Kylo Ren’s.

Han Solo, running away from “the fight” and his family issues for so long, finally comes to grips with Leia and is tasked with confronting his demons once and for all. He has to bring his son back, both for his own sanity and the sanity of his beloved wife. To return without him would mean a return to the shallow life of failure and escalating debt that he led after Kylo Ren’s conversion.

In the cut Snoke-Kylo scene that I mentioned earlier, Snoke lays out the idea that Darth Vader was a perfect Sith Lord up until he falls to sentiment, to the power of the Light, and kills Palpatine to save his son. In Snoke’s mind, the best outcome would have been for son to kill father and to join Palpatine as his father’s replacement. But ultimately, as Luke was unwilling to convert, father should have killed his son. Vader falls as a Sith Lord when he kills Palpatine, letting Luke destroy everything the Sith had accomplished, letting the Jedi restore what was lost, and is inevitably punished by death. In order for Kylo to get his Sith card, he needs to resist the power of the Light and kill his father.

I almost wonder if this scene laid the plan a bit too perfectly, almost spoiling Han’s death before it happens, and if anything, tainting the scene with the inevitability that is Snoke’s suggestion. This scene is brilliant in that there is that brief hope that Kylo Ren won’t kill Han. That scene doesn’t work without seeing the conflict in this man’s face a few times before. This scene doesn’t work if we consider him nothing but a creature in a mask, as Rey calls him. She lifts the mask to show his face to disarm her, to show her that he is just a young man, and to try to show that he is not a monster, but a man with motivations and logic and emotions and a life. The culmination of seeing his actions, seeing his terrible mask and voice, seeing his young and pretty face, seeing the conflict within him, all come together in a scene in which he sheds tears in front of his father, telling him that he is being torn apart by pain.

Ultimately, Ren is right, in this moment at least. It was too late. He was already too seduced by the darkness, too committed to Snoke’s cause to stop now. He was going to complete his journey, because without it, he had nothing else to hold on to.

If you’ve only watched the movie once or twice, I challenge you to pay close attention to Adam Driver’s face after Han falls off the gangplank. Look at the mix of emotions that Adam Driver goes through. You can see that Kylo Ren expects something, is waiting for something, and yet he seems depressed that it never comes. I feel like it was a brilliant editing decision to cut this scene right next to Leia reeling from Han’s death. You can tell that he feels it too. He expects power and peace within the darkness, but only feels emptiness and sadness, along with the conflicting emotions of Light and Dark flooding within him, once again.

Yet when I see this scene, I can’t help but be reminded of Luke’s journey. That both Luke and Ben Skywalker face the same exact test: Face your father and choose independence and power or sentiment and family. This scene is a reversal of that final scene in Return of the Jedi as Luke chose the path of the Light. Kylo Ren instead choses to follow the orders of the Sith Master, chose the path of the Dark, and slew his father. In addition, their chosen path is almost immediately rewarded with pain. Luke gets a blast of Emperor arcs and Ren gets shot in the gut, beat up by two people with one lightsaber, and slashed in the face.

Regardless, Ren’s choice did not bring him the peace or power that he was looking for. As a result, I wonder what the ramifications of this scene will be for him. Will he finally start to realize that Snoke is full of Sith? That’s he’s been leading him down the wrong path? Will he consider the fact that a young girl full of Light-side energy beat him as proof that the Dark side isn’t quite what he thought it was? I don’t think we’ll see this resolved until at least Episode 9, but I hope that Kylo Ren is on the path towards redemption, not death.

In Defense of the Finn and Rey Battle

One of the most commonly quoted criticisms of The Force Awakens is the final lightsaber duel between Kylo Ren, Finn, and eventually Rey. Many are saying, “What the hell, Kylo Ren is a trained Jedi/Sith, yet he gets his ass beat by a Stormtrooper and a girl who just “awakened” her force powers? WTF mate? Well, the obvious response is that Ren did get shot with a bowcaster that is more akin to a rocket launcher than a blaster. But I know that’s too easy of a response.

©Lucasfilm 2015

So let’s talk about Finn for a sec. First Order Stormtroopers are NOT Imperial Stormtroopers. Imperial Stormtroopers were mostly volunteer recruits, not clones. The moment Palpatine took power, he disbanded the Clone Army, mostly because he didn’t trust them after he’d used them against the existing powers that be. First Order Stormtroopers are, but Hux’s admission, bred and trained for battle for their entire lives, both with blasters and with those weird rotatey baton things they have. But also consider that the First Order was created and lead by a guy who’s passionately dedicated to killing Skywalker and destroying any attempt at a Jedi academy. Because of this First Order Stormtroopers would also be trained in knowing how to deal with force users and specifically a lightsaber, in the event that they were to encounter a Skywalker.

Yet despite that, Finn remains on the defensive for the entire fight. He does not hold his own, he does not advancing blows, he is merely blocking for his life. Within the novelization, this scene is explained through Ren’s head as he immerses himself in the thrill of the challenge. He feeds off the battle, purposefully wanting to keep it going so as to distract himself from the pain and sorrow he felt as a result of his father’s death. It is only when Finn manages to land a glancing blow on his shoulder, that Ren finally moves into overdrive and ends the battle immediately, nearly bisecting Finn at the spine. Kylo could have ended that battle all along, but he chose to enjoy the challenge, mostly because he needs the adrenaline of beating on his wound and of the fight in general to keep him grounded after feeling the rush of pain with his father’s death.

Also, I think people drastically overstate Kylo Ren’s abilities. In my mind, it seems like he learned a couple of neat tricks and has been spamming them ever since because it keeps people afraid of messing with him. His lightsaber technique is messy, as if he is flailing a greatsword, rather than wielding a katana or rapier with grace and agility like a true trained Jedi. His blows are giant sweeping slashes and overhand blows that are easily telegraphed. A fighter with any moderate amount of skill in sword fighting would be perfectly fine in a duel. Personally, I feel like Kylo didn’t learn all that much from Luke because he was too busy getting seduced by Snoke and trying to “fight the pull of the light.”

©Lucasfilm 2015

Finally, let’s talk about Rey. First of all, did you see her kick ass with that staff? This girl is able to take care of herself pretty well. Sure, she’s not of Jedi ability, but she can damn well swing a stick like nobody’s business. And while the movie doesn’t explain it all that well, and neither does the novelization, to be honest, I believe Rey’s awakening started the moment that she found herself in Ren’s head. She found the key to her powers which had been lost so long ago in that moment within Ren’s head, and started testing her powers ever since. The novelization does make this a bit clearer by showing that Ren actually runs into a wall within her head, he gets stuck, and then Rey finds herself suddenly within his head, looking at his memories. She didn’t mean to be there, but she ended up there. When looking through his head, there’s no doubt that bells started to chime in her own head as she started to recognize the stuff that she presumably saw at the academy. Or even see Ren’s capabilities in his own head and adapt them.

The biggest difference between a Light side user and a Dark side user, as is seemingly confirmed in this movie, is their relationship to the force. The Light side user gives her body and mind to the Force, letting it guide her movements and actions. This gives the Light side wielder a much faster reaction time than a normal non-force user. The Dark Side user instead wields the Force like a weapon, clutching it to his will and forcing it to do his bidding. This allows for incredible power as you literally have control over the unlimited potential of the Force, but the wielder’s power is limited by his personal abilities, force of will, and confidence. Darth Maul, Palpatine, and Dooku were all good examples of this, yet they all fell primarily due to hubris. Kylo Ren is a mess both inside and out. He’s been wounded, he’s emotional because of his father’s death, he’s conflicted within his own conviction. There’s no way that he could control the Force in such a condition. Like I said, he learned a few tricks and spammed them, but he’d never had to encounter someone else wielding a lightsaber against him, especially not one with some force ability behind her.

Yet the novelization and a leaked screenplay imply that Rey dives into the Dark side a little bit in that final confrontation. She taps into the Force, kicks his ass, chops him up a bit, and then as she stands above him, she thinks of how easy it would be to kill him and end it once and for all. A dark voice calls to her, a voice that sounds like Snoke in the audiobook, and tells her to kill him, just as Palpatine told Luke to kill Vader and stand by his side. She stops, hesitates, is repulsed by the intruding thought, and then the ground splits between them, symbolizing that she chose one side and he, the other. A simple decision to kill or not to kill is what separates them.

So Now What Do You Think?

Hopefully, this gave some perspective on this fairly complicated villain. Once again, I feel like all the information I’ve provided is there, it’s in the movie, you just have to see it a few times to get it and open your mind to the possibilities. If you’ve gotten this far in this article, you must have some opinions of your own.

And to clarify from the Rey article I wrote last time, yes I have heard the alternate theory that Kylo Ren just couldn’t kill Rey in the academy for some reason and dropped her off at Jakku so Snoke wouldn’t find out about his failure. It’s an interesting theory that has some merit, especially given the seemingly chronological events of the Force vision Rey has, but I’m not quite sure what I think about it. That would seem rather out of character for him, and also an odd choice for him to drop her off at the planet most known for the destruction of the Empire he longs for, and on a planet with a known leader of a Jedi-wannabe religion on it. Not to mention, I find the idea of him strangely unable to kill a Force child, yet kill every other force sensitive child, but choosing to drop her off on a random planet instead of bringing her to Snoke, rather awkward, especially given the presence of the other Knights of Ren in that scene.

Anyway, let me know what your opinions of Kylo Ren are. Do you agree with my assessment? Are you still unsatisfied? Sound off below.