Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015) directed by J.J Abrams, starring Harrison Ford, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, and Adam Driver
Significant Element: Kylo Ren
This contains spoilers
Whenever anyone mentions the word ‘villain’ in a cinematic context, one of the first characters that comes to mind is Darth Vader. He is the epitome of a classic villain, a character of a dark spirited nature, with redeemable qualities and emotional connections. Arguably Star Wars Episode V contains the greatest twist in film, revealing Darth Vader to be Luke Skywalkers father. Not only did this instantly change the audiences perspective of the antagonist but worked as a perfect device to make us question character motives, and has had such an influence on cinema to the point where such a twist has been replicated hundreds of times that it is now becoming a cliche. While the prequel trilogy is often criticised, one thing that it did successfully create was variety. It didn’t focus on copying Darth Vader in its villains, but instead developed incredibly unique characters of differing powers and abilities, many of which are still memorable. So as Episode VII comes into cinemas, it is only going to be natural for audiences to draw links between the villains of new and those of the old, and whether ‘The Force Awakens’ is able to effectively challenge the evil of Darth Vader.
Simply put. No. It cannot. Admittedly, Star Wars has never been the massive franchise to me that it has been to others. I had never fully watched a film till late 2013, and even then, my reception was mixed. Yes it was fine, a good, humorous and often intriguing time. But for me it lacked the gritty detail, never fully developing its own potential. However, as every viewer would say, Darth Vader made an impression. He radiated with a stench of pure evil, intolerant and stern. His famous costuming symbolised a black hole, initially devouring any bright light. Darth Vader was villainy at its best, and as I watched ‘that twist’, even as I knew it was coming, Darth Vader become an even more intricate and interesting character, someone of immense status. So as I viewed ‘The Force Awakens’ amongst the hype which had built up over the last 3 months, feeling anticipation that I rarely do for blockbuster films these days, I wondered whether Empire was right in calling Kylo Ren (the films primary antagonist), the greatest villain in Star Wars history, “more interesting” than Darth Vader. And sadly I was disappointed. And it wasn’t even disappointment, it was anger, because Ren is a pathetic excuse of a villain, he is a result of mainstream film making and current norms at its worst.
Again simply put (fitting when discussing a character which lacks any unique detail and is possessed by predictable qualities), Kylo Ren is an attempt at an anti-hero. We all knew he would be, but to see it so awfully executed is a punch in the face to movie goers. You see Kylo Ren is only ever seen in one of three “personalities”, each more flawed than the other, each failing to dig beneath the surface. Overall you get an impression that Ren is a violent person, someone who has either been hurt in the past, or became desensitised to pain.
This is obviously clear in the first of these ‘personalities’ as we see Ren as a fighter, as the warrior he has become since joining the Dark Side. While his action sequences are few, they certainly show the extent to his power, and thats a really important aspect to Ren. To summarise a few of these incidents, it is important to identify how J.J Abrams was successful in highlighting an initial perception of Kylo Ren. The opening few sequences as he commands his troops and talks to Max Von Sydows characters oozes with distinctive tension, and the audience gains the impression he is not someone to mess around with. The moment he stopped the blast mid air made me smile, because I felt like this could be a powerful character with an interesting backstory. I wanted to know how and why he learnt these abilities and what made him choose the Dark Side. For Ren, the idea of absolute dominance is his more tantalising feature. Because it is his power that leads to his inner conflict, to his messed up perspective on what is right and what is wrong. Throughout the film characters reference Rens need to wisely select who he fights for, who he gives his power to. It is this seduction by differing factions that give him the potential to be a really intriguing character study, someone that may be able to bolster Star War’s political insight and discussions, dissecting the struggle of morality. But what eventuates is that Ren simply becomes only symbolic of power, yes he has issues and parts of his character background are interesting, but these are only somewhat explored, and his reasoning for choosing his relevant sides is given little notice. Kylo Ren who has the potential for greatness in the themes and ideas that he as a character could explore, the discussion of morality, what leads someone to kill their own father, the pressures of leadership, simply becomes secondary to creating a figure that is ‘cool’. In name of shock, twist and action, Ren as a character lacks existence for much of the film.
As I have pointed out, however, there are some small indications of Ren’s greater potential as a character with the portrayal of his inner conflict. The seduction between the dark and the light, and even between opposing ‘dark’ factions, is a central element within the film, or could have been if it had been developed more. The only instances in which these ideas become prevalent is when we see Ren being the whining, little brat he is, having multiple tantrums, which is all done for comedic value, for example when the two stormtroopers turn and just walk off. It feels like Ren as a character is less important to the storytellers than he is as a checklist. Firstly it was for this idea of symbolising power or an opposing force, and now its for humour and an attempt at an emotional response. As we learn Ren is really Ben Solo, Han and Leia’s son, we begin to be more invested in him, but this never goes anywhere. Maybe we will learn in future films the true reason Ren resents his parents, but why introduce such an idea if you cannot develop it. We see slithers of such ideals with Rens confrontation with his father, but of course other elements over shadowed this and nothing felt as effective or impacting as it could have. All the dialogue is spoken about in general terms, which for me has been my greatest criticism of the franchise as a whole. As the two speak, we gain entry into Ren’s third personality, the vulnerable side. It is such an expression that truly makes you question the villainy of Ren, question what made him do such things, and while I hope we do see more of it further on, I ask, do we want to? Ren killing Han pushed the limits in many ways. I would be interested to meet anyone who feels like Ren is redeemable now or could become an anti-hero. Why should I invest more time into a character and his redemption after such a depiction. Until Kylo Ren is given the development he need, I am done with him.
In all, Ren is a mess. He suffers from little character development and a lack of specific over who he truly is. His symbolic nature overshadows the ability of him to be unique and a proper contributing force in this universe, and his actions, again not narrative focussed, are damaging to the entire concept. The ode in costuming to Darth Vader is nice. But wow. When he took off his mask and revealed his curly, smooth hair. All the sinister nature went out the door. Kylo became truly who he was. A selfish, annoying, and spoilt teenager.
So all honesty, Kylo Ren was an incredible disappointment. Sad, especially when the film was very good and could have excellent if it wasn’t for its contingent of underwhelming villains.