Editor’s Note: This piece contains MAJOR SPOILERS for Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
Ever since the first trailer’s release late last year, one image from Star Wars: The Force Awakens has captured the public imagination like no other. Staggering through a snow-ridden woodland, Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren, this trilogy’s answer to Darth Vader, ignited a crossguard lightsaber and became immediately iconic in the process. Imagine the surprise then, when JJ Abrams and co-writer Lawrence Kasdan delivered not an all-powerful Sith Lord to be feared, but a pitiful coward with daddy issues. Instead of Darth Vader 2.0, Ren is endlessly tempted by the light and as petulant as your typical adolescent. He is, without hyperbole, the most fascinating new character of The Force Awakens and the absolute best villain this series has ever had.
He is as much a prisoner as those he keeps in the new Starkiller Base.
Kylo Ren was not always known by this moniker; before the helmet he was Ben Solo, the son of Han Solo and Leia Organa. When they sent him to train with Luke Skywalker, he turned to the dark side out of resentment for his deserting parents. He was not always the menace introduced to us here, and he still possesses a wealth of goodness. The light still calls to him, just as it does to Jedi newcomer Rey (Daisy Ridley), but his dedication to his new life brings tragic results. That is why he wears the mask: not out of necessity like Vader, but rather as a barrier to the Light drawing him in. He employs iconic Star Wars imagery (that of formidable attire and lightsabers) to define a false identity. Ren may see these as the inevitable consummation of his true self, but they are merely apparatus to divert him away from goodness. He is as much a prisoner as those he keeps in the new Starkiller Base.
On his mission to destroy the First Order’s monstrous base, Han confronts his son in a final attempt to rediscover the Ben he once knew. As the star that powers the contraption’s mighty destructive power begins to die and the light all but disappears from the scene, only Ren’s unruly red lightsaber makes him visible. Tears in his eyes and after much hesitation, Ben consummates his transition to Ren and kills his own father. The light has literally left him; he is now resigned to the dark side.
At the death of his biological father, Ren commits himself to another, malevolent one. Supreme Leader Snoke gave the petty, furious Ren an opportunity to harness this rage. In the absence of a positive authority figure, the still-developing Ren found solace in the most unhealthy of role models. In Han and Leia’s decision to send him away, they opened the door for Ren to search for someone who would accept him. In his eyes, they were not assisting him on his journey of the force. It was a betrayal; one that required a retaliation. If his parents wouldn’t accept him, perhaps Snoke would. Now endlessly eager to please his new master, Ren plays out a childish rivalry with Domhnall Gleeson’s General Hux.
Hux, the natural successor to Snoke, is frustrated by Ren and his lack of conformity to his management of the First Order. They are like siblings desperate to beat the other to the affection of their father (in this case metaphorical). This would explain Ren’s distraught reaction when Hux sees him without the mask that now defines him. Hux is witnessing the true nature of his rival, and that infuriates the insecure Ren.
His insecurity is born of his parent’s perceived treachery and an innate inability to live up to Vader’s legacy. The remarkably Force-sensitive Rey reveals this in her supposed interrogation from Ren, when she counters the torture with a cutting revelation that “You are terrified you will never live up to Darth Vader.” You get the sense that Ren has been as yet unchallenged in his mastery of the Force. His arrogance (that which also led to a third Death Star despite the less-than-satisfactory success rate) has finally come to be challenged and it terrifies him.
In many ways, both Ren and The Force Awakens are defined by their predecessors.
In many ways, both Ren and The Force Awakens are defined by their predecessors. Ren’s anger at his parents manifests itself in his genocidal actions to others, whilst Force Awakens perhaps stays too slavishly to the plot structure of A New Hope. Both desire to escape the legacy of what has come before and walk a new trail, though they are constantly tempted to go the other way. The symbolic culmination of this uneasy relationship between past and present arrives in the film’s pivotal moment, the heart-breaking fall of Han.
From the searingly beautiful cinematography to the outstanding practical effects, from the lovable heroes to this year’s most thematic and dramatically layered villain, there is much to love about Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The tragedy of Kylo Ren, his foolish adoration of a false idol and his turn to evil, is a wonder to behold.
Rian Johnson’s Episode XIII can’t come fast enough…