Okay, so in the chaos of finishing final papers and working at my jobs, I ended up not writing 1,700 words a day for my imminent novel. I will admit, being busy (which I was) became mixed with both some discomfort at how personal and emotional my writing was getting, how uncomfortable I was with other elements of the text that were unfolding, and how unsure I was (am) that I could ever add any sort of structure or plot twist that would make the strange storyline that’s unfolding, in my eyes, a viable novel, or novel-like production. I am not dropping my “Post Nano-wrimo” project, but I took a very Un-Nano-wrimo-like break and will probably return to the original project in a couple of days. The reason I write today is because I finally saw The Last Jedi and, as someone who contemplates the villainy of villains, the inherent evil-ness of characters and how we regard the bad guy, how we treat the monster, so-called, I found myself (as I was to a lesser degree in The Force Awakens) incredibly drawn to Kylo Ren. And that’s all I’ll say in the first paragraph, before I add more details about the film. I think it goes without saying that if you still haven’t seen The Last Jedi and you’re averse to spoilers, DON’T READ THIS. It will probably be necessary to reveal spoilers while delving into an analysis of Kylo. But I want to talk, I think, about reading Kylo as a monster –or not—and what that does to our conception of the monster.
So if you’re still reading right now, I’m going to assume you already saw The Last Jedi, (or, don’t plan on seeing it, or, even more inconceivably, are comfortable with knowing what happens in the story). Kylo Ren, formerly Ben Solo, is the son of Leia Organa and Han Solo, a son with a strong proclivity for the Force who studied under Luke Skywalker until a series of events took the darkness that was already within Kylo (according to Luke) and turned him into an almost full-fledged “Bad Guy,” an apprentice of the undoubtedly monstrous Supreme Leader Snoke, who plots evil machinations to eradicate the Resistance and run his own (presumably fascist) First Order. And we’ll stop there; I think that’s enough background.
Now, I hesitate to dive into the frenzy of categorization when it’s not necessarily needed, but I think we can use a sort of “continuum of monstrosity” to, perhaps, begin to categorize these Star Wars “bad guys.” I’m sure the continuum will also be arguable and problematic, but I’d like to start by situating Kylo Ren on that continuum, because that might shine a light, to me, on what fascinates me about him. If I could draw effectively here, I would. Anyway, let’s start by imagining this continuum as a line (that’s how it began to appear in my head), which is an admittedly (literally) one dimensional way to compare Star Wars monsters, but which is how I’m conceiving the comparison, nonetheless. Let’s say that the left-hand side of the line is “non-monstrous” and the right-hand side of the line is “monstrous.” Or should we use the left as “good” and the right as “evil?” Do we always associate monstrosity with evil? I’m not sure about that. For our purposes here, we’ll assume that the monster has some severely misanthropic, evil tendencies to prey on other vulnerable lives, or, in the spirit of Star Wars, gives himself completely over to the Dark Side/First Order, and uses violence and other questionable methods for the purpose of obtaining raw power and eradicating the Rebellion/Resistance. That’s kind of what the right-hand side of the continuum represents. The left -hand side is the opposite of that; in Star Wars theology, that’s “good,” “non-monstrous” (no scars on the face or horrible disfigurement, incidentally), and the Resistance, headed by the very regal-looking Leia Organa.
Snoke is clearly on the far right of this continuum. There is really no “human” in him, and his monstrous exteriority underscores this point. He is conceived to look as monstrous as possible (even more monstrous than the heavily scarred Palpatine, for example), and there’s nothing sympathetic about him. He violates every natural law in his effort to expand the First Order and eradicate the Resistance, at all costs, and he’s not connected to anyone or anything remotely non-monstrous; we don’t know what his family lineage is, and he’s never had a relationship that doesn’t involve domination and control. So, in Star Wars, we could situate Supreme Leader Snoke as the ultimate monster, the villain that, insofar as we currently know, doesn’t demand, require, or subtly request any of our sympathy. Nobody is fighting for Supreme Leader Snoke’s soul, trying to turn him toward the “good” or the so-called “Light Side.” He is not lost, because he was never “found,” never “was” as a non-monstrous entity. He reifies the classically conceived boundaries between good and evil that Star Wars so beautifully constructs and then manipulates and problematizes with its plot lines.
I am going to skip Palpatine on this continuum (I don’t feel I “know” him as well) and go to Darth Vader (Anakin Skywalker), and then to Kylo Ren (Ben Solo). I think my parenthetical additions here are important; these two “bad guys” with quintessentially bad-guy names, signifiers that harken thoughts of evil and possible monstrosity, once had other names, an apt indicator of their aforementioned humanity. Even before we knew Darth Vader’s back story in the original three films, we knew he’d formerly been Anakin Skywalker when he uttered the classic admonition to Luke: “I am your father”; his previous “humanity” was, I think, built into the story arc before it was revealed to the viewer. In the prequels, we see him as the incredibly human, loveable little Anakin before he grows up into a rash, cocky teen, and then, through a series of events, turns into Western culture’s ultimate symbol of villainy, if not inherent evil. Which is to say, that before he’s redeemed, which of course he is eventually, I picture him, in a sense, in the middle of this continuum. Prior to his redemption, he might be construed as completely monstrous, but we have some understanding, after watching the first six films, of his previous humanity; his monstrosity happened because of a fall, the rather quick descent from a state of morality to a state of (complete) immorality, and so we all kind of sense that there might be a degree of the “non-monstrous” in him, even if the temporality of the Star Wars movies complicates our understanding of the character (we see him as monster, then redeemed monster, then “human”). The fact remains, though, that despite Vader’s transition from “human” – so-called –to complete monstrosity, to non-monster again (through redemption) –again a sequence that is kind of temporally jumbled but exists throughout the first six films in some order—when he falls, he completely falls. Or, we might say, when he turns, he turns wholly. My argument is, then, I suppose, that there is no non-monster in Vader for large parts of the film; he is consumed by power and the destruction of lives that are vulnerable to his machinations. I do not perceive any conflict in his mind; he acts quickly when he makes decisions to kill, and he has absolutely no concern for the welfare of anyone else.
This, I think, is where Kylo Ren differs from Vader. We do not know, yet, what Kylo Ren was like prior to his turn toward darkness –toward the First Order—but we know he studied under Luke Skywalker and awoke one day to see Luke standing over him with a lightsaber – Luke says because he sensed a darkness in Kylo (Ben) and was tempted to kill him. Based on Luke’s telling of the story, then, we assume, at that point, a Ben Solo who already had a strong proclivity toward darkness and aggression (the latter is a very anti-Jedi, pro-Dark-Side trait) sees the master he trusted posed to murder him, and makes a decision to completely turn to the Dark Side – a decision that is manifest through his actions: his allegiance to Snoke, the killing of his father, Han, and his manipulation of Rey, to name a few. Through all of The Force Awakens and basically all of The Last Jedi, he demonstrates his chosen allegiance to the First Order – the bad guys – through deeds, and through words, if not through psychic interiority. Which is to say, that in these films, we are lead to believe that even after his decision to turn to the First Order (the modern equivalent of the Dark Side) Kylo’s interiority does not match his exteriority; the movie wants us to understand that he’s incredibly conflicted over all of the actions he’s taking and that, by the film’s conclusion, he still has inner conflict about completely working for the First Order, killing mercilessly, and fighting the Resistance. Through Kylo’s interiority, he appears to be located closer to the left-hand side of this imaginary continuum, because his conscience seems to suggest the presence of some non-monstrosity; if he has a conscience and regrets his acts, but convinces himself that he has to take certain actions, then surely he is not entirely evil, or entirely monstrous. Adam Driver’s facial expressions evoke this truth perfectly at points in The Last Jedi. He has this look of—how do I put it—noble guilt on him, a sort of doubt that makes his so-called humanity, or his conscience, shine through his actions, even as he’s deciding what kind of person he wants to be. Of course, this look is deceptive because at the conclusion of the film, his turn is complete. But we are tempted to see him as more of a non-monster, to situate him on the left-hand side of the scale, because of his affect and his general inner conflict, his conflicted interiority.
It is the conflicted interiority of the monster – of Kylo Ren – that most interests me. For how do we say, after he has killed his father (The Force Awakens), killed Snoke (a bad guy, but his leader and thus sort of evil mentor), manipulated and emotionally abused Rey – how do we say that Kylo Ren is not a monster? How do we say that the uncertain, conflicted kid that he appears to be throughout much of The Last Jedi isn’t evil (if we can equate monstrosity with evil) because he experienced inner conflict, when his ultimate goal at the conclusion of The Last Jedi is a presumably violent imperialist dominion with Rey, a dominion that will turn her, too, toward evil instead of good and continue to target the Resistance for destruction? The argument has been made to me, before –and it’s one worth considering—that those who most understand and feel the wrong they’re doing but do it anyway are entirely worthy of the monstrous title. And this makes, I think, a bit of sense; if one can peer into one’s soul, one’s psyche, whatever it is, feel a deep, gnawing discomfort at doing something, see the inherent wrong in the action, and still do it, one is monstrous.
If the action is bad enough, of course, because I’d argue we all do this some of the time. I think there’s something to be said for that argument, though I’m still not certain I buy it without considering other factors. If we look at monsters with conflicted interiorities – monsters who know what they’re doing is wrong, who feel discomfort and guilt, and who ultimately take evil actions despite their conflict – it makes sense, to me, to look at what motivates their behavior. Without knowing Kylo’s entire history, I see him as a very bruised, very hurt sort of kid, despite the fact that Luke said that Kylo already had darkness “within him,” before he witnessed his master standing over him, poised to kill him. I see a very large difference between the monster who hurts, who feels pain constantly, and the monster who does not. But then, perhaps, when we look at cinematic and literary depictions of monstrosity, all monsters hurt, and hurt often fuels the monster. Perhaps the monsters that are the most “far gone” are the least conscientious – have the least access to, or understanding of, that hurt. I am not a psychologist; I cannot begin to speculate these things, really. And yet, what happens in the interiority of the bad-guy, potential monster, and how that influences our tendency to categorize him, is very interesting to me.
What I would ultimately conclude is that I want to like Kylo Ren. Perhaps, then, this desire to like him causes me to make excuses for him. Perhaps, moreover, the film wants me to like Kylo Ren, because his interior, sort of psychic monologues with Rey make him seem awfully similar to her, our heroine, and his sympathetic back story just strengthens these feelings. Why, then, are we meant to like Kylo Ren? Why are we meant to see his humanity? Perhaps future installments of Star Wars will answer the question. I’m not sure.
My biggest problem, when I write these pieces, is ultimately why does it matter? Why do we need to label someone as “monstrous” or “non-monstrous” at all? Is there not some heavy-handed judgment involved in doing so, perhaps even while lacking an understanding of the person and his or her background, and, more importantly, is it just a semantics game, or a desire to categorize that which does not need categorization? And then, is the monster “evil” and what do I mean when I think things like, “he appears very human in this scene?” What does it mean to be “human,” and need that be part of an oppositional binary that stands counter to the monster? I do not know, but I wonder all of these things.
I feel some of these points need to be developed for a later post, since this one has already gotten quite long. The bottom line is, I like Kylo Ren, and I think we’re supposed to. Whether or not that’s problematic is another question completely. Suffice it to say, I look forward to more character development in future Star Wars films.
11 thoughts on “Contemplating Kylo Ren”
Kalie, I really like when you write about Star Wars because it offers a fresh perspective, one that is not wedded to the universe in the way…okay I am going to be honest here…that I am. I spend so much time in this stuff that it is not only necessary to pull myself out, but also necessary to get perspectives from people who do not live and breath it the way I do. So, to say the least, I was happy to see you wrote this piece (Finals and Jobs be damned!)
My probably unnecessary opening out of the way, I found this particular line you wrote absolutely fascinating: “What I would ultimately conclude is that I want to like Kylo Ren.” I certainly do not fault you for wanting to like him (for declaring that you do like him later on) but I cannot help but wonder, having watched The Last Jedi a handful of times now (and The Force Awakens countless times) if Kylo Ren actually wants us to like him.
I am not sure I have the words to truly explain what I mean, but I will try to capture the essence of my point. It begins with Adam Driver who, in my opinion, through his acting, is lightyears beyond his peers in this film. While there is good acting to go around, in a film with campy jokes and porgs, Driver dives into his role as Kylo, essentially method-acting the hell out of the character. No scene involving Ren was wasted, in my opinion, because Driver knows precisely how to capture the audiences attention in every frame he appears as Ren. The raw emotions on his face, his body language, his pacing, the way he delivers lines, the way he looks at others when they speak to him…everything is just crisp and so damn good (which, I think, adds to the intrigue and the reason we – you and I both – are deeply fascinated by him).
But moving beyond Driver’s acting abilities alone, if we couple all of this with the actual words and deeps of Kylo Ren, I do not actually believe, in my heart, that Kylo Ren gives a flipping damn if we like him because he isn’t out to impress any of us. Kylo Ren, it seems, has one very clear motivation: do whatever it takes to be MORE of Kylo Ren and less of Ben Solo. He is certainly conflicted in this, admitting to his deceased grandfather that he feels the pull of the Light, hesitating o kill his father before actually killing his father, and we see him not only hesitate but choose not to kill his mother. But beyond these and other moments, I don’t actually see Ren as yearning for redemption as others have suggested, but is continuously moving towards shedding himself of the “chains” that weigh him down (In a very real sense, Kylo Ren is the physical embodiement of the Sith Code even though he isn’t a Sith per se). After all, even Anakin hesitates at times on his journey to the Dark Side, the difference here being that we haven’t witnessed Ben’s journey in the same way. In fact, I think this makes Kylo Ren even more monstrous – why did he wants to kill his father? Well, who the hell really knows!?!?! But he DOES kill his father, and that he does it is pretty damn brutal for us to watch.
And so, the more I experience Kylo Ren, the more I interact with him as a character and contemplate him, the more and more I come to believe that Kylo Ren has embraced the role of “monster.” He might be flawed in ways, he might be conflicted, but everything I see and hear lends itself to a character who has decided that his fate is to be the villain. While others – Rey in particular, and Leia to a degree, and fans for sure – are trying to find a way out for Ben Solo, I am not convinced that Ben Solo wants to return. We are accustomed to villains being redeemed in Star Wars, and if they are to be redeemed we want to find a reason for redemption, something that we believe lays within that will drawn them back from the edge. But the “conflict” can cut both ways, and while on the one hand it can be used to return one from the darkness (see: Darth Vader/Anakin) for another it can go in a different direction. In Kylo Ren, that is what I see – a man who is conflicted and is digging in more and more, showing us continuously that while he IS conflicted, he has no interest in redemption. He has accepted his fate, so why can’t we?
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I don’t think Kylo cares if we like him, either. I think the filmmakers want us to empathize with him, but I don’t think Kylo cares if we like him. I would have said, initially, that he was looking for the approval of members of the First Order – Snoke, at least – but of course that theory flies out the window by the end of the movie. Still, he kills Snoke after Snoke sort of beats him down emotionally, tells him he’s not evil enough (in other words, perhaps) and so again, I do wonder if he reacts a lot from hurt. In his idolization of Vader (wearing Vader’s helmet in the beginning scene, carrying it with him in one part of the narrative) he seems, how do I put this, “young” to me, kind of like an awkward inversion of a kid wearing a Superman cape or something. Nonetheless, Snoke treats him as perhaps more naive and incompetent than he is; Snoke’s treatment of him at the beginning of the film could thus be very much influencing my view.
But I think the crux of your argument, what I kind of inferred, is that you don’t think Kylo is that different from Vader (along with arguing adamantly that he won’t be redeemed and that he is a monster). I wouldn’t disagree with any of these points, per se.
I know, first of all, that different people are theorizing Kylo’s fate differently. Perhaps cynically, my tendency is to look outside the narrative and toward Disney’s intentions when predicting this. I think they want to shock us and deviate from the original Canon, so I think you’re likely right; I imagine he may not be redeemed.
I like your concluding line; “He has accepted his fate, so why can’t we?” I would say, moreover, that he actively works to construct his fate. I don’t think it’s fate – something that’s just meant to be – but a large, looming goal for him. What I forgot to write in this piece, but what I think is interesting, is that most of us see the bad in ourselves and actively try to be good, to eradicate what we don’t like. Kylo sees the good in himself and resists that, actively tries to be “bad.” It’s almost as if his conscience is this pesky entity to him, nagging at him and holding him back, something that is a part of him and not a part of him. I agree that by the end of the Last Jedi, it looks like he’s made his choice, although – while I would tend to agree he won’t be redeemed – I wouldn’t put it beyond the writers to offer us a sort of plot twist that reverses his direction. I don’t think this will happen, but I can’t discount the possibility.
I would probably tend to agree with you, then, that he is a monster, although I still like him, for a lot of reasons. I can’t say “I see the human in him,” as a counter-argument because I don’t really know what that phrase means when I say it, and whether or not it counters his monstrous state.
I would like to add that I perhaps downplay the conflict Anakin experiences when turning to the Dark Side while highlighting Kylo’s. I think that’s an important point. I honestly need to watch the Prequels to refresh my memory on how his fall happens, specifically. But I don’t think the prequels emphasize Anakin trying to overcome his own “goodness” and choosing bad to avoid his conscience. I don’t remember him seeming as bothered by his own proclivity toward goodness, or as intent on “working” toward being evil. For example, killing the Jedi children is a sudden act of rage; I don’t see anything holding him back in that scene. But again, I need to re-watch the prequels to really formulate an opinion on how similar Anakin’s fall was or was not from Kylo’s, and of course we have only a fragmented glimpse of Kylo’s fall at this point.
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Your last paragraph (in your comment) really got me thinking more about Anakin and his turn to the Dark Side. You are right, Anakin’s doesn’t try to overcome his own “goodness” while choosing to avoid his conscience. In fact, he is actively aware that he SHOULD be acting better than he is, and keeps making really poor choices (IE – killing the Tusken Raiders and admitting he shouldn’t have done it; knowing he shouldn’t have executed Count Dooku; crying out “what have I done?!?” after attacking Mace Windu). It isn’t that Anakin is trying to be bad, it is that he has spiraled out of control to the point where he can’t stop himself anymore (This is a larger topic that could be discussed, and I wrote a paper about Anakin’s shame when I was in graduate school…perhaps I should try and publish it).
Anywho, all of that is to say that I don’t see Ben Solo-turned-Kylo Ren going down the same path Anakin did. Instead, they have each taken different pathways to the same destination: the Dark Side. I think this is a good thing, something fresh that allows them to be connected (not only by blood) but in the sense that they journey to the Dark Side, but diverge based on reasons and motivations.
Having arrived at the Dark Side in the forms of Darth Vader and Kylo Ren, both (I believe) could be considered “monstrous” at that point. Again, this is for similar reasons (you make a great point about the scar on their faces!) but also because they literally act the part of monsters in their own ways. It is not Anakin who murders children, but it is Darth Vader who does it, a pretty monstrous thing to do. It is not Ben Solo who murders Lor San Tekka, it is Kylo Ren. This is not to say (as I already mentioned) that conflict doesn’t exist within either one (Luke notes that he can sense the conflict in Vader; we see the conflict in Ren and hear him admit it) but that the conflict is not what defines them. What defines them is what they have accepted themselves as: monsters who are willing to act monstrous. Which just brings me back to my original point: I think Kylo Ren has accepted his fate, a fate he desires and has actively worked towards (a goal he set for himself as you rightly note). And I can’t help but ask again, if he has accepted it, hell if that is what he wants and has worked towards, then why do we so badly want him to return from that Dark abyss?
Luke acknowledges that no one is ever truly gone, and it is pretty obvious Kylo Ren knows this. The thing is, he is actively working to destroy every last bit of “Ben Solo” within him, and while he might never succeed 100%, he sure seems to be doing a damn good job so far.
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You should totally publish the paper on Anakin’s shame. It sounds fascinating, and you are nothing if not a Star Wars expert.
You map out, in a lot of detail here, the divergent versions of the two characters’ fall. While I think you’ve convinced me that yes, we can construe both of them as monstrous, I find their different paths toward the monstrous abyss incredibly interesting (your other point), and both movies’ narratives about what “makes the monster” – if we assume external forces were at play with Ben/Kylo. I think, for me, the fall of each character is worth re-visiting.
Another good point you emphasized: I think it is interesting and important to distinguish that the sort of monstrous double of the original character is entirely distinct/different, that, for example, Darth and not Anakin murders the Jedi children. I compare this distinction to, say, the dual role Count Dracula plays in Coppola’s Dracula (I don’t know if you’ve seen it). Basically, I don’t see such a distinction between Dracula the monster and Dracula the “person” in that movie, so the stark division between the good and monstrous versions of characters (the splitting in two, sort of) in the Star Wars films interests me more now.
Michael will thank you for this conversation, I think, because now I feel like I need to see the Last Jedi again – and maybe more than just the Last Jedi. I’m becoming really intrigued by the difference between the Star Wars monster and the typical Horror monster. The contrast and its significance definitely warrants further consideration.
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I have been sitting on the paper for a long time…a long, long time. Perhaps I will research some places to send it (and pray I remember how to appropriately cite).
I am sure Mike is going to be thrilled to hear that you want to watch some more Star Wars, especially if it means you’ll be writing more about it. Like I said, it is good to read a fresh perspective, and I always feel like you teach me something with your analysis. That being said…
…I have never watched Coppola’s Dracula but now I am intrigued (if a bit hesitant since I am a wuss, much like Mike in his early horror days). I suppose I can strengthen my resolve to watch it, although I tend to decide to do something and then forget to do it (you might have to keep reminding me through Mike).
Dracula aside, I am glad I peaked your interest with the way I distinguish between Anakin and Vader. I think the tendency is to conflate the two, particularly after Anakin is given the title of Darth and the name Vader. For a short time, we still “see” Anakin Skywalker but the individual gracing the screen is actually a newly minted Sith Lord, a Sith Lord who only a short time later in Revenge of the Sith will end up in his iconic armor (or tomb, if one wants to be a bit more tragic). It is why I actually really like the scene where the children are in the throne room: they believe they see Anakin, but it is actually Darth Vader who stands before them. Their savior is their doom (talk about a metaphor for the entire Jedi Order and galaxy!).
Something else about the Vader – Kylo connection/distinction that I think is rather interesting is that in the Original Trilogy, Vader never intentionally takes his mask off in a way that allows the viewer to see what he looks like. We must consistently imagine his appearance. That we DO see the back of his head (grotesque as it is) in The Empire Strikes Back is entirely by accident. It is just enough to make us WANT to see more but we are not allowed to see more. By contrast, in The Force Awakens, we are initially presented with a man in a mask – Kylo – who will take his mask off precisely because Rey calls him a “creature in a mask.” All of a sudden, we get to see what Kylo Ren looks like under the mask – we get to see the real Kylo Ren. What a move by Abrams! In a flash, he injects humanity into the “creature”!!! Later, when Han tells him to remove the mask (and calls him by his real name AND tells him he wants to see the face of his son) we are again experience a “humanizing” effect. BUT HE ISN’T WHO WE THINK HE IS!!!! The man we see isn’t Ben Solo, it is Kylo Ren! It is – and I am TOTALLY spitballing here – a direct narrative reversal of of what happens in Revenge of the Sith:
Anakin, who we know quite well, becomes Vader but he isn’t in the mask yet so while we “see” Anakin it is actually a Sith Lord.
Kylo, who wears his own iconic mask, removes it and we are allowed to see what the Knight of Ren actually looks like, but this is all a narrative trick to make us think he is human and not monstrous.
I hope I explained that well and it makes sense. Like I said, I am spitballing (and for now will pause to catch my breath!).
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This completely makes sense, although I feel I’d have to read it again to fully process the details of the argument.
To me, it’s the film equivalent of a text vs. subtext issue. Your argument actually gives Abrams and the Force Awakens a lot more legitimacy than some Star Wars Fans grant it, because the argument acknowledges the film’s inherent complexity – the deceptive overt text (Ren’s “humanity) which leads us away from the subtext beneath the surface (that if we watch closely enough, he’s really quite monstrous). Which creates the question: what is the reason for this distinction (between the deceptive message and the underlying truth), a distinction that produces some ambiguity or narrative ellipses about how we categorize Ren (sympathetic vs. non-sympathetic, monster vs. human, etc), at least before analyzing the film more closely?
I find this deception effective, too, because Ren’s decision to pursue evil after killing Snoke and the Praetorian Guards was, while not a complete shock, a surprise to me (but, again, I’m not as heavily immersed in the Star Wars body of work as some.)
I have a paper formulating in my head about the distinction between the essential “good” self and its fallen “evil” double in Star Wars, vs. the disruptive horror monster who may (emphasis on may) break those distinctions down by more freely moving back and forth between typical conceptions of the good and evil, the human and the monstrous. As I told Michael, I have a conference proposal to write by January 6th, and this distinction might produce a good paper topic. I hope you will let me quote you when I provide the Star Wars background! I would definitely be borrowing from your analysis.
It all makes me wonder how the concept of “the fall,” which is so clearly elucidated in Star Wars films, manifests in fallen horror monsters.
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I do believe Abrams layered far more meaning into TFA than he is otherwise given credit for. Admittedly, I was skeptical of the film at first because of how derivative it is, mirroring A New Hope with similar character types and themes. But, as is my MO, the more I allow something to marinate, the more I allow something to sit with me, the more I can see what may be hidden beneath the surface. And, in this case, I have started to see that more and more and more with Kylo Ren and his words/deeds in The Force Awakens.
I’m not sure any of this is going to make sense, but I’m of the opinion that Abrams deceives us with Kylo Ren because he simply can. This isn’t an entirely satisfying response but I wouldn’t be surprised if Abrams injects humanity into Ren at points I’m TFA because he knew by doing so we would desire that humanity to fully return. We know Ren identifies with Vader, but WE also know Vader’s whole story and how it ended. Vader was redeemed, there was humanity in him and Luke helped bring that out. Well, we know there is humanity in Kylo Ren – we know what he looks like, who his parents are, his first name! – so of course we would think “damn, there is a possibility here, if Vader could come back so can Kylo! Ben Solo can return!!!” When Han approaches his son, when the young man admits to Han that he wants to be “rid of this pain” and asks for Han’s help, it is all meant to deceive because while he might actually be conflicted, the action he takes – patricide – is his actual goal. Everything we see and hear was a ruse, he wasn’t conflicted because he wanted to return to the Light (to his humanity as Ben Solo), he wanted to go deeper into the Dark!!!!
I’m sure if I spend more time thinking about this I can say all of that in a much more thorough way (perhaps I will write a post on this topic) but I do want to circle back to this: I think all of the deception is to just double-down on the fact that Kylo Ren is demanding that we see him as a monster. He is digging into his role and WE can’t see to accept that he has embraced the part. There is humanity there, why is he choosing to flee from it we ask? Well, it isn’t even an issue for him: he is fleeing from it because he wants to do it. “I’m the bad guy!!!!” he keeps declaring sooooo why can’t we accept it?
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I have been thinking, for a while now, about the question you pose: why we can’t accept Kylo’s fall. Frankly, every answer I came up with was not really an “answer” at all, but raised more questions.
People want to “ship” him with Rey, (Michael’s insight) but why? That only points toward the fact that we can’t regard him as completely and distinctly evil. We WANT him to be with Rey instead of shuddering at the thought (or, some people do). We love redemption, of course, as human beings and Americans, but that doesn’t seem like a sufficient response, either.
I tend to think we want to see Kylo Ren as “good” because we see ourselves as good, and we must see some Kylo in ourselves.
I keep thinking of Julia Kristeva’s theory that “the abject” is the “Not-I,” something we see as distinctly different/wholly unique from ourselves. I think we tend to regard true villains as the “Not-I,” too (and as abject, sometimes in body), because we consider ourselves basically good people. We are, as humans, flawed individuals trying to overcome our “badness” (weaknesses) and be “good,” simply stated, rather than humans with potential for good who are trying to be bad (like Kylo), or people who just like to tear shit up for fun (i.e. the Joker).
By the end of Revenge of the Sith, I think we’re totally ready for Vader to enter the “Not-I” role, which he already has (a sort of evil “other”), but that state of being is crystallized when his body becomes more machinery than human body. Part of me, rather than mourn, thinks, A-HA, there’s Vader. Now I’m excited! It may be fucked up, but it’s true. He’s an enticing bad guy. So we’re not always yearning for our characters to be good, or at least I’m not; what, then, is different about Kylo Ren?
He’s interestingly different from Snoke, who is wholly villainous (as I said in my post) and wholly “abject.” The grossness of Snoke’s body symbolizes our perception of him as wholly “Not-I,” and as viewers we’re comfortable with that. Ren’s scar — abject, torn flesh sealed over and healed — may suggest something else entirely.
Michael, who hasn’t jumped in on this post yet, made the point that we saw Vader in his completely villainous state first, so we’re more willing to accept him as villainous. But we never saw Kylo Ren as a “good guy” either, so what’s the difference?
I think both directors, to an extent, are manipulating the viewer by presenting this dual portrait of Ren, this sort of facade of humanity that, if you peer deeper (like you did) doesn’t really exist. Maybe we are all just victims to their manipulation. Which may be problematic itself. Maybe he is our son because he’s Han and Leia’s son. I don’t know.
I think, though, after talking about it more, on an emotional/affective level, I still hope for his redemption. From the standpoint of argumentation and innovative film-making, I’m not as sure it would be the best move.
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[…] lot here but if you’re still craving a little more The Last Jedi action, you should read this incredible piece Kalie wrote about Kylo Ren. BONUS! She and Jeff pretty much wrote a second essay in the comment section. […]
[…] on Star Wars with Kalie too, well you are in luck. Kalie’s written this brilliant piece – “Contemplating Kylo Ren” – where she considers the monstrous in Star Wars through the lens of Kylo Ren in The Last Jedi. […]
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[…] Contemplating Kylo Ren […]