Kylo Ren’s Misunderstanding of “the Force” in Star Wars: The Force Awakens

The Light Side and the Dark Side of the Force doesn’t represent “good guys” versus “bad guys” … so why does Kylo Ren feel the need to do something “bad” in order to fight the temptation of the Light Side?

Since seeing Star Wars: The Force Awakens a couple weeks ago, I have come around to the idea that it’s a pretty good film. Sure, it has its flaws — not the least of which is an unforgivable resemblance to the plot of Episode IV: A New Hope — but overall it is an entertaining and effective reboot to the series.

One thing that has stuck with me, however, is the way in which The Force Awakens — or perhaps, just Kylo Ren — misinterprets what it means to use the different sides of the Force. One of the central themes of the movie was Kylo’s conflict between the Light Side and the Dark Side:

Kylo Ren: “Forgive me. I feel it again… the call from light. Supreme Leader senses it. Show me again the power of the darkness, and I’ll let nothing stand in our way. Show me, grandfather, and I will finish what you started.”

To quote Han Solo, that’s not how the Force works.

The conflict between the Light and Dark Sides of the Force is not one between “good” and “evil.” The Jedi and the Sith aren’t space-age Cops and Robbers. The various sides of the Force are merely a difference in how the Force is to be engaged, interacted with, and perceived. I understand Kylo Ren’s struggle, but there are two fundamental problems with the way his conflict is presented: 1) you can’t be “tempted” by the Light Side of the Force, and 2) committing “bad acts” doesn’t make you a Dark Sider.

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I. What is The Force?

In Episode IV, Obi-Wan Kenobi describes the Force this way: “Well, the Force is … an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together.” Yoda says essentially the same thing in Episode V, stating that, “Life creates it, makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us and binds us.” Even the Prequel Trilogy, for all its flaws, does a pretty good job of keeping the concepts surrounding the Force consistent.

But there is more to the Force than just this, as there are differing Jedi philosophies about the Force (such as the Living Force, or the Unifying Force) and the all-important “sides” of the Force. Here is where The Force Awakens seems to go astray.

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II. What is with the Light Side and Dark Side?

Everybody knows about the Jedi and the Sith, but those two orders (they are probably better described as religions) only represent two paths that Force-users can choose to follow in pursuing knowledge and mastery of the Force. The Jedi embrace what is known as the “Light Side” of the Force, but they in no way own a monopoly on it. In the same way, the Sith embrace the “Dark Side” of the Force, although not every Dark Side user should be considered a part of the very specific Sith religion.

What define the Jedi and Sith are not the labels assigned to the “sides” of the Force they use, but rather, the respective Codes.

Jedi Code

There is no emotion, there is peace.
There is no ignorance, there is knowledge.
There is no passion, there is serenity.
There is no chaos, there is harmony.
There is no death, there is the Force.

Sith Code

Peace is a lie, there is only passion.
Through passion, I gain strength.
Through strength, I gain power.
Through power, I gain victory.
Through victory, my chains are broken.
The Force shall free me.

Light Side users stress balance, peace, and tranquility, while Dark Side users allow themselves to use their passion to give them strength. Light Siders surrender themselves to the Force, while the Dark Siders try to break it and make it a beast of burden.

Even among the Jedi, however, there are differing attitudes toward the Force. The Jedi Council, led by Yoda, is extraordinarily traditional and dogmatic in his view about the Force. Yoda believed strongly in the schism between the Light and Dark sides of the Force. Contrast that with Qui-Gon Jinn, who in his short appearance in the Star Wars movies is the only person to mention the Living Force and who never mentioned the purported “sides” of the Force (in fact, Qui-Gon Jinn can literally be translated as “Spirit of the Living Force”).

Qui-Gon admonished his padawan Obi-Wan to “keep your concentration here and now where it belongs.” Later, he gave similar advice to young Anakin Skywalker before his pod race, saying “feel, don’t think. Use your instincts. May the Force be with you.” Qui-Gon is confident that “nothing happens by accident,” and has a relationship to the Force which seems to be a more pure, unadulterated faith as compared to the the Jedi Council.

Ultimately, by remaining so preternaturally present, it was Qui-Gon who found and identified “The Chosen One” and who was the first to accept the truth of the fact that the Sith had returned. Qui-Gon was also the first Force user in the Galaxy to become a Force Ghost — a feat that no Jedi or Sith had ever achieved. Ironically, the Jedi Council never saw fit to make Qui-Gon a Jedi Master. While that is presented to us in the movies as a fault of Qui-Gon (Yoda calls him “rebellious”), the benefit of hindsight seems to indicate that it was the Jedi Council that was flawed.

I’m not going to get into the moral relativism of Jedi versus Sith in this article, although the implications of the competing religions and philosophies are clear. Jedi can lie, manipulate, and use mind control just as well as Sith can, and are constantly back-tracking their absolute beliefs with wishy-washy statements when it suits them.

Obi-Wan Kenobi: Your father… was seduced by the Dark Side of the Force. He ceased to be the Jedi Anakin Skywalker and “became” Darth Vader. When that happened, the good man who was your father was destroyed. So, what I told you was true… from a certain point of view.

Many years earlier, Darth Sidious discussed the many similarities between the Jedi and the Sith with Anakin Skywalker. He explained, “Good is a point of view, Anakin. The Sith and the Jedi are similar in almost every way, including their quest for greater power.”

The similarities between the Jedi and the Sith, and the conflict between two dogmatic points of view on the Force, are illustrated perfectly in the final confrontation between Obi-Wan and Anakin. It is Obi-Wan who, before the fight, Obi-Wan admonishes Anakin, and says “only a Sith deals in absolutes.” It is Anakin who remembers his teachings and says “from my point of view, it is the Jedi who are evil.” And ultimately, at the end, it is Obi-Wan who tells Anakin, “I loved you,” an emotion clearly not permitted in the Jedi Code.

The Light and Dark sides of the Force have to do with how you access the Force, how you treat the Force, and how you let the Force flow through you, not whether you are a good guy or a bad guy. But use of the Dark Side comes at a steep price – a price one would only be willing to pay if they were “tempted” to leave behind a purposeful commitment to the righteousness and limitations of the light.

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III. The Temptation of the Dark Side

You cannot be “seduced” by nothing … you must be seduced by something. And in all of these cases, the seduction is the promise of greater power. Seduce (n): to lead astray usually by persuasion or false promises. The temptation of the Dark Side is always phrased in similar terms by Jedi throughout the series:

Obi-Wan Kenobi: A young Jedi named Darth Vader … betrayed and murdered your father. Now the Jedi are all but extinct. Vader was seduced by the dark side of the Force.

Luke Skywalker: “Is the dark side stronger?”

Yoda: “No, no, no. Quicker, easier, more seductive.”

The problem with giving yourself to the Dark Side is that it consumes you, and burns you up like a candle. The Force is powerful, and it appears (from the Star Wars movies, the non-canon books, etc.) that it is not the “sides” of the Force that matter, but the importance of barriers and controls that Force users set up for themselves. Only though the peace, meditation, serenity, and harmony of the Jedi Code can someone who has become all-powerful through mastery of the Force not be corrupted.

This is a concept that we find in countless stories and real life disciplines — the greater power, the greater the necessary discipline. It is the lack of those self-imposed barriers that causes the Dark Side users to become corrupt and evil over time.

For Anakin Skywalker, the seduction of the Dark Side took place because he was led to believe that it was the only way to save his wife Padme. He was consumed by darkness, and anger, and fear, and those feelings caused him to abandon his discipline and be “seduced”. The beautiful tragedy of Anakin Skywalker is that he was never an ill-intentioned or “evil” person, but his love was incompatible with the rigid Jedi Order.

Anakin believed in democracy, although be believed it would take a wise person to enforce it (“Well, then they should be made to do [what’s in the best interest of all the people]”). Anakin would do anything for love, and he would do that (“I am becoming more powerful than any Jedi has ever dreamed of, and I’m doing it for you. To protect you … And together, you and I can rule the galaxy! We can make things the way we want them to be!”) And ultimately, he risks everything that he had created and earned through years of terrible war when he discovered he had a son (“Luke, you can destroy the Emperor. He has foreseen this. It is your destiny! Join me, and together, we can rule the galaxy as father and son!”).

Ultimately, Anakin/Vader is redeemed because of love, and because characters that people care about in cinema are multi-faceted. He was not cursed forever by the Dark Side because he had done bad things. Anakin had trapped himself into the Dark Side just like he had trapped himself inside of his mechanical suit. Without Padme, or the Jedi Order that he had abandoned, there was nothing left for him to live for except his attempts to maintain relative peace in the Galaxy.

Luke: I’ll not leave you here. I’ve got to save you.
Anakin: You already have, Luke.

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IV. Where The Force Awakens Misunderstands the Force

The concept that only the Dark Side can “seduce” you away from proper discipline is turned on its head in The Force Awakens. The quote at the open of this article is the best one (“I feel it again… the call from light… Show me, grandfather, and I will finish what you started.”) although there are more throughout the movie:

Supreme Leader Snoke: Even the Knights of Ren have never faced such a test.
Kylo Ren: By the grace of your training I will not be seduced.
Supreme Leader Snoke: We shall see, Kylo Ren. We shall see.

Since The Force Awakens came out, fans have debated Kylo Ren’s bona fides. At this point, through his dialogue and otherwise, it appears that Kylo is a Darth Vader fanboy who, for whatever reason, wants to finish his grandfather’s mission. The dialogue from the movie is supported by statements by J.J. Abrams himself, who was asked about Kylo Ren’s relationship with Vader in this video for IGN: “Kylo Ren idolizes Darth Vader, not Anakin Skywalker. He idolizes what Vader represents and what Vader was trying to do. And the idea that Vader didn’t succeed, if you look at it from Ren’s point of view, he was seduced by the enemy and failed because of that seduction. So the idea is that Ren wants to complete the thing that Vader started.”

On the surface, that mission seems clear. But throughout the movie, Kylo is seen struggling with internal conflict and about a pull to the Light Side of the Force. Here is where things don’t make sense (yet).

Han Solo: Snoke is using you for your power. When he gets what he wants, he’ll crush you. You know it’s true.
Kylo Ren: It’s too late.
Han Solo: No, it’s not. Leave here with me. Come home. We miss you.
Kylo Ren: I’m being torn apart. I want to be free of this pain. I know what I have to do but I don’t know if I have the strength to do it. Will you help me?

This boils down to three essential questions.

  1. What is Vader’s mission that he is trying to finish?
  2. Why does Kylo believe he needs to remain a Dark Side user to complete Vader’s mission?
  3. What purpose is served by killing Han Solo? 

Does Kylo interpret Vader’s mission as to do something politically (i.e. unite the Universe)? If so, there’s no reason why Kylo needs to be part of the First Order or a Dark Side user to do that. He could become an extremely strong Jedi and join the Resistance and restore order to the galaxy in that way, alongside his family.

Does Kylo interpret Vader’s mission as specifically helping the remnants of the Empire? If so, again, he could do that without being a Dark Side user. Does Kylo interpret Vader’s mission as becoming a powerful Sith Lord? Well, that’s a really boring storyline, if so.

But in both of those cases above — if Kylo Ren was a villain who simply chose to be “a bad guy” because he thinks that’s what Grandpa would have wanted — then he made a voluntary choice to follow in the literal and specific Dark Side footsteps of Vader. It would be highly unsatisfying if Kylo Ren’s entire internal conflict simply turned out to be regret at a bad choice that he could choose to rectify at any given time.

Which brings us back to Kylo Ren killing Han Solo. If Kylo Ren regrets his choice to follow Vader, there appears to be nothing stopping him from going back to Han and Leia and his family. If he doesn’t regret his choice, and is fully committed to following Vader, what purpose does killing Han Solo serve anyway? Kylo says, “I’m being torn apart. I want to be free of this pain.”

I’ve had people tell me that by killing Han Solo, Kylo would no longer be tempted to go back to the Resistance, which is just stupid, because I’m pretty sure patricide weighs pretty heavily on people’s consciences too (not to mention Leia is still around).

Ultimately, those factual questions of First Order v. Resistance skirt the major overall problem: that Kylo Ren (or Disney) doesn’t seem to understand that “doing bad things” is not the same as being a user of the Dark Side of the Force, and that the Light Side of the Force has no power to “tempt” people. Dark Side users don’t run around stealing candy from babies or killing indiscriminately to earn “bad guy points.” They merely access the Force differently, in different ways, with different results.

Of course, none of the above forecloses the possibility that it is Kylo Ren who is mistaken, and not the Star Wars franchise. Perhaps Kylo — who is portrayed throughout The Force Awakens as petulant and incompetent for someone with his level of training — doesn’t understand the nuances of the Force either, and is under a mistaken impression (or one imbued upon him by Snoke) that bad acts = bad guy = Dark Side.

Kylo Ren: “Forgive me. I feel it again… the call from light. Supreme Leader senses it. Show me again the power of the darkness, and I’ll let nothing stand in our way. Show me, grandfather, and I will finish what you started.”

See you in 2017.