WARNING STAR WARS SPOILERS GO WAY NO NOOBS ALLOWED!
No spoilers until after the “MORE” break so go ‘way now!
I was thinking about posting this as “Adam Vance,” since it’s science-fiction related, but it really is in my tone of voice, and yeah I want more people to read it than Adam will reach!
Caveat: I was 14 years old in 1977, so yeah, that was the most magical age at which a kid could see Star Wars way back then. It was also the summer of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, so yeah, that was basically what every middle class suburban kid did all summer – go see those two movies, over and over. So I have that special connection to the Star Wars stories that only one generation could ever have.
I haven’t been a “fanboy” of anything since I was a kid. I was a huge “Trekkie” (I know, snobs, I know), even doing the news letter for our local fan club, Starbase 36 (because Nevada was the 36th state). But I was always more interested in creating my own worlds than living ever more deeply in someone else’s.
So I cast a critical eye on the new Star Wars film, unfiltered by any frenzied desire to “make it so” (I know, I know!) that it be good. And it was…okay. It was serviceable. Better than prequels 1 and 2, but not better than Revenge of the Sith. And for me, the biggest problem was the character development of Kylo Ren.
What?!?!? Am I serious? Yeah. Because I think the storytelling in Sith was stronger. Mostly of course because Tom Stoppard was brought in for the 2005 release, to add the dialogue that clearly drew a parallel between W. and the Emperor/Sith – “you’re either with us or against us,” etc. More to the point, I felt that the turn, literal as in story point, and figurative, as in the turn to the Dark Side, was more clearly delineated, more justified, and properly placed in sequence.
Anakin Skywalker was always a bit of a psychopath, let’s face it. He cared about his mother, sure, but so did Norman Bates. He cared about Padme, but more because he couldn’t face how he would feel if he lost her, than how she would feel, you know, dying.
“I won’t lose you the way I lost my mother.” That’s all me me me, what I lose if you die. It wasn’t the work of a mastermind to turn him to the Dark Side. He’d already slaughtered the Sand People, and his “father figures” in the Jedi were always disappointing him by withholding their approval, so by the time that Palpatine maneuvered him into choosing – Let Mace Windoo kill me, and stay on the Light Side, or save me, and turn to the Dark Side, to “save Padme.”
Of course it was never about “saving” Padme, but about “not losing” her, though of course the Emperor is crafty enough to cast it as a noble action. And once Anakin made the decision that his own happiness (or at least avoidance of pain) was more important than the Jedi or the Republic, you saw that turn to the Dark Side. His eyes got all snakey and you knew that he had broken, that there was no going back, at least not until his own son turned him decades later. Then it was off to kill the younglings.
But I never felt like Kylo Ren registered as a Dark Side character, or on the cusp of becoming one. Or why he was conflicted. I get that many mysteries are being left to future movies, but it was all too vague – something happened during his training with Luke, somehow he ended up with the Order, he’s conflicted and hasn’t chosen the Dark Side quite yet.
I don’t think it’s Adam Driver’s fault – watching Girls, you could see him being driven mad by his love/hate relationship with Lena Dunham’s character. He can do insanely conflicted. But I didn’t feel him doing that in this movie, and I blame the script.
In the first Star Wars movie, wisely I think, Lucas stuck to the classic “hero’s journey” trope – callow youth v. evil wizard and henchman. There was no hint that Darth Vader was anything but the “bad guy.” That’s why it was so powerful at the end of the second movie in the “I am your father” scene. Vader’s turn only comes in the third movie, when the physical presence and object lesson of Luke and his determination/suffering at the hands of the Emperor have the power to turn him back away from the Dark Side, even if it kills him in the process. [EDIT: And of course the Emperor is why he “lost” Padme, so his action is as much motivated by his hate for Palpatine…]
If the first “new” movie had just given us Kylo Ren, Bad Guy, with some hint as to how he’d started out good, and “something happened” to turn him, which was the hint we had about Vader in the first movie, it might have come out better. If they’d saved killing Han for the next movie, after we’d seen more character development in Kylo Ren, and more motivation. John Boyega as the reluctant storm trooper was given more struggle and emotional material to work with than the Bad Guy was. (Maybe Harrison Ford said, I’ll do one movie and that’s it, and left them no choice?)
But the two scenes in which Kylo Ren’s character, and his character’s conflict, needed to be seen, the one where he interrogates Rey and the one where he kills his own father, didn’t have “it.” Driver seems fascinated by Rey as he tries to pull shit out of her, but…there’s nobody in there writhing, nobody seeing the good in someone else as a mirror to his own badness. Hayden Christensen wasn’t the world’s greatest actor, but he could play angry and selfish like nobody’s business (See also: Shattered Glass). And the sudden appearance of Rey’s “Force” powers should have been punched home with a look of revelation on Driver’s face, the discovery that could have echoed Darth Vader’s probing of Luke’s mind and the discovery of “…a sister!”
There was a tossed off reference from Kylo Ren to a storm trooper after her escape, that Rey’s powers were multiplying every minute, but where did that come from? That never happened before! How many times did Luke fail to lift shit on Dagobah before he mastered the Force? It was like she won the lottery or something. Luke couldn’t manipulate minds until the beginning of the third movie – she was doing it before the end of the first. Again, there was no sense of the classic “trial” that has to be endured to acquire great powers.
The original movies hammered home the “Journey to the Dark Side.” In the prequels, the journey took three films for Anakin to go bad. In the originals, Darth Vader’s journey back out of the Dark Side took three films. In the new movie, it took less than one, and we never saw it. There was no pain in Driver’s face when he kills his father – not even the psychopath’s “the pain this will cause me” pain. And I wanted to see that turn, the way we saw it with Anakin, that sense of black satisfaction that the choice was made, that enslaving himself to the Emperor freed him of conflict. He just looks blank.
Darth Vader/Anakin had what Kylo Ren is missing – motive. Yes, the motive is in shadow all through the original three films. But there were two reasons that we just “accepted” that the turn had happened previously, without needing to know why.
First, The Mask. That’s archetypal. The man in the mask isn’t the person living a normal life with normal motivations. We accept things we’re told about someone whose face we never see, because there’s nothing to see to contradict it. I think it was a mistake for Kylo Ren to take off the mask in this film.
Second, James Earl Jones. That voice! The ability to toss off a Shakespearian cadence to the villainy, and then, at the end, to shade it, to add the conflict. Adam Driver’s young. He’s talented. But, you know. James Earl Jones!
If you lose the mask, and the Shakespearean master actor, then you need something else. Kylo Ren’s motive for turning isn’t given. He had loving parents, they didn’t die, obviously Luke fucked up during his training, as we see from the pain on Luke’s face at the end of the movie when he’s confronted with “doing it all over again” with Rey as his new pupil, but… We need something, some more hint about the compelling reason he turned, before he kills his father. Back to Joseph Campbell, back to Greek tragedy; the awful secret is revealed, then everyone gets killed because of it. What is Kylo Ren’s tragic flaw? If nobody else knows it, Adam Driver needs to know it, so he can project it, but if it hasn’t been written yet or shared with him yet, what can he do?
And the “new Emperor,” Snoke, doesn’t have what the old Emperor had – that politician’s charm, that ability to manipulate minds, that slithering capacity. In the original movies, you see the way that he interacts with Vader, how he fucks with Vader, turning him to turn Luke, all so that at the end Luke would Kill Vader, so the Emperor would have a “new young apprentice, one far younger and more powerful” than Vader, just as Anakin/Vader had in his turn destroyed Count Dooku.
The relationship between Snoke and Kylo Ren is almost…collegial. Like any other office, Kylo Ren is only one subordinate among many – why, he can’t even kill the uppity Admiral! There’s no sense that he’s being well and truly manipulated the way Palpatine worked Vader, no sense that events are being structured by a “foreseeing” malevolent power to push him down the intended road.
Okay, okay, right, it’s only the first part of what’s really a three part movie. And yet, it’s got to function as a stand alone movie. (And also…really? ANOTHER Death Star?) And that means not punching above the weight that a first act can sustain – killing a father is some serious Act III shit.
That’s it! See you after the holidays!