This article originally appeared on Den of Geek UK.
The following contains major plot spoilers for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Here’s our usual Jedi squirrel as a reminder. Scroll below him at your peril…
The weight of history hangs heavily over Star Wars: The Force Awakens. How can it possibly match up to the original trilogy, in particular the groundbreaking 1977 movie that became such a phenomenon? Is the Star Wars universe in safe hands now that George Lucas has gone?
How fitting, then, that the weight of history also hangs heavily over The Force Awakens‘ villains. Consider Kylo Ren, brilliantly played by Adam Driver. With his cloak and mask, he’s the imposing figurehead of the First Order, a new fascist military organization modelled on the now defunct Galactic Empire. Look at how it tries to revive the old regime’s past glories: the rank-and-file Stormtroopers, the old ship designs dusted off and given a fresh lick of paint.
Ren may be the son of Leia and Han, but he’s actively chosen a far murkier role model: the archetypal Dark Father – Lord Vader himself. Having rejected his family name, Ben Solo, he’s taken on the surname of the mysterious Knights of Ren; and, seemingly inspired by Vader’s imposing garb, taken to wearing a cloak and voice-distorting mask (note how Vader wore a mask because he had to; for Ren, it’s a foppish affectation).
In public, Kylo Ren’s a merciless and brutal warrior, and powerful with it: his command of the Dark Side of the Force is such that he can stop a laser bolt in mid-air. But a different character emerges in private: a petulant and hot-tempered young man whose obsession with Darth Vader is such that he keeps the Sith Lord’s helmet – seemingly plucked straight from his funeral pyre on Endor – as a prized relic.
Yet try as he might to emulate the presence of Lord Vader, Ren lacks his chosen hero’s poise and restraint. Sure, Vader had a tendency to kill his underlings (“You’ve failed me for the last time…”), but look at how Ren behaves in The Force Awakens – when a First Order lackey appears with some bad news, Ren responds by smashing up an entire room with his lightsaber. Where Vader was all cool, efficient resolve, Ren is more hormonal teenager.
From this point on, it becomes increasingly clear that Kylo Ren isn’t your typical movie villain. He’s impulsive, angry, even wounded. We soon learn that he’s conflicted between his desire to please his master, the sepulchral Supreme Commander Snoke, and the faint glimmer of the Light side of the Force that still remains within him.
Ren’s self-built lightsaber gives a further insight into his troubled state of mind. With its crossguard and crimson hue, Ren’s lightsaber is a fearsome looking thing, but closer inspection reveals that it’s cobbled together and splutters unstably. It’s the weapon of a character with power but lacking the maturity or grounding to fully control it.
Kylo Ren’s character fits with The Force Awakens‘ theme about a new generation reacting to the events of the last. Rey and Finn are two youngsters – possibly in their teens, most certainly no older than their early 20s – who are trying to work out their own place in the world. They’ve grown up hearing about the tales of Luke Skywalker and Han Solo, and now they have their chance to make their own mark on history. All kids of a certain age have to reconcile history – their upbringing, their parents’ beliefs and traits – with their own desires and hopes for the future. The Force Awakens cleverly weaves that rite of passage into its own sci-fi fantasy context.
It’s worth noting that both Rey and Finn, in their own way, initially reject the call of fate – Finn tries to get a lift to the Outer Rim from a couple of mercenaries, while Rey literally flees from a vision triggered by Luke’s old lightsaber. No one said that growing up and facing your destiny was easy.
The Force Awakens‘ themes chime with its wider cultural narrative: it exists in the shadow of the multimedia empire that George Lucas created in the 1970s. Just as Jurassic World acknowledged the existence of the original Jurassic Park movie with a post-modern wink (Jake Johnson’s an avid collector of 90s JP memorabilia), so The Force Awakens is unabashed that it has to justify its place in a universe where Luke, Han and Leia’s exploits are already legendary.
With acts like that to follow, it’s little surprise that Kylo Ren’s motivational factor isn’t so much a blind lust for power but to assert himself as a villain worthy of Darth Vader’s old mantle. Murdering his own father in cold blood isn’t just a moment of psychopathy, but of a confused young man rebelling against his parents’ generation and choosing a darker path offered by Snoke.
Ren has fallen in with a bad crowd, and because this is Star Wars, that means the results are a bit more dramatic than setting fire to bins and getting drunk at the school disco.
It’s worth sparing a thought, too, for General Hux, brilliantly played by Domhnall Gleeson. While Grand Moff Tarkin is never mentioned by name, Hux’s garb and gaunt visage seem to invite us to make the comparison. But just look at the difference between the two characters: Hux does a good line in spittle-flecked speeches to his troops, but he’s far from the flinty, imperious presence embodied by the late Peter Cushing. In fact, he’s more of a petty middle-manager – a kind of space-faring David Brent.
When Kylo Ren chooses to arrest Rey and leave the information-carrying droid BB-8 on the planet Takodana, Hux uses this tactical error as an opportunity to make Hux look foolish in front of Snoke. It’s here that Hux’s nature snaps into focus: he’s the one grasping for power, and desperate to appear competent in front of Snoke – this generation’s Palpatine-like puppetmaster.
By The Force Awakens‘ end, its central characters have chosen their paths. Rey’s jetted off in the Millennium Falcon to meet Luke Skywalker. Finn has opted to stay and fight with the Resistance. General Hux and Captain Phasma (whose presence in The Force Awakens is disappointingly brief) have presumably survived the destruction of the Starkiller base and shaken its dust off their boots.
Kylo Ren’s fate, meanwhile, still hangs in the balance. His despicable crime appears to mean that he’s fully embraced the Dark Side, and Snoke’s command that he “complete his training” suggests that he’ll emerge in Episode VIII as an even more powerful and intimidating villain. Perhaps by then he’ll have taken control of his anger management issues, which would itself mean his command of the Force (not to mention his lightsaber building) would improve even further as a result.
Or does that glimmer of goodness still linger within him somewhere? Ren knows that he’s distantly related to Darth Vader, but his pledge to finish what the Sith Lord started (to paraphrase his line from the film) seems to indicate that he’s unaware that Vader ultimately turned back towards the light.
It’s just possible that redemption still awaits Kylo Ren, if only he’d realise how poorly chosen his heroes are. If there’s a take-away message in The Force Awakens, it’s that you should follow your own path rather than the one set out for you by the past.
Or, put even more simply: choose your role models carefully, kids.