‘The Last Jedi’: Why Kylo Ren Is the Anakin We Needed
The first time I watched the original Star Wars trilogy (which was not that long ago in a galaxy not far away), all I wanted was to know more about Darth Vader and his origins. With the prequels, we got that story, and it was (for most fans) a reminder to be careful what you wish for. Sometimes it’s better to leave certain things a mystery. But what really I wanted explored was, of course, more about the conflict that turned Anakin to the Dark Side.
What we got in the prequels was very occasionally satisfying in this regard. But it took three movies and a lot of filler (and several terrible choices) to get there. Perhaps the best thing about The Last Jedi (and to some degree The Force Awakens before it) is that we were able to see Kylo’s Anakin-esque turn, but without devoting the movies entirely to him. The Last Jedi gives us the conflict of Ben Solo vs Kylo Ren in several key ways, but with an effective brevity. We see his personal connection to Rey (like Padmé for Anakin), the betrayal of a teacher who feared his power (Luke Skywalker, like Obi Wan), and the cultivation of his power by a dark force (Snoke, standing in for Palpatine).
Yes, there’s repetition here, but Rian Johnson’s script makes it feel fresh. Kylo is Darth Vader’s grandson, devoted fanboy, and shadow. But Adam Driver’s skill at making Kylo’s petulant rage a compelling arc cannot be overstated, particularly in the way the story leaned into the hurt from Luke’s betrayal (feeling abandoned by his own kin because of something dark and strange within him). It’s a balance that, bless him, Hayden Christensen never got right with Anakin in the prequels. Maybe in that case it was also the script, or too much time devoted to that one story, but the few scenes we have here between Kylo and Rey (as well as a brief flashback to Ben and Luke, and Kylo’s connection to his mother that leads to a hesitation to deploy a bomb on her) are more effective than all of the prequels combined in explaining Kylo’s conscience.
What makes all of this work even better is that The Last Jedi is not afraid to make Kylo and Rey’s relationship into, briefly, a kind of Wuthering Heights in space. Kylo is the dark, brooding figure wandering the moors in the rain, a Bad Boy of the highest degree who just might be saved by the only woman with whom he is vulnerable. “You’re not alone.” “Neither are you.” :Swoon forever:
Their relationship doesn’t have to be romantic though. It’s their connection, platonic or otherwise, that matters. Kylo and Rey are both special, they understand each other through access to a shared power, and while Rey continues to seek out mentors who might help her better hone her skills, Kylo offers that to her as a partnership. After Snoke’s death, Kylo is ready to take his place in the same way that Rey could step up to fulfill a destiny Luke turned from. But this time, they could work together and unit the Force. Do it Rey!!!
This seems to be around the time that Rey starts calculating how many people Kylo has actually killed, including his own father. Or it could be that she senses that in killing Snoke, his craving for power has only grown, in addition to how adept he is at manipulating it. His way of uniting the Force might be just to continue to subjugate, and how long would Rey’s influence last? Did she see that future the way he saw hers? In that moment, she decides that the war for his soul is lost, just like Luke did.
It’s that slight, yet again, that makes Ben fully turn to the Dark Side, now on a mission to claim power and destroy all who oppose him. It’s an affecting moment, but in a latter confrontation with (hologram) Luke, we see how his emotions and rage continue fuel him beyond reason. He’s not able to remain cold and calculating to satiate his dark impulses; he’s still a hurt, scared boy who is cloaking all of that in a desperate bid for vengeance. Like Anakin, he’s allowed it to consume him and shut out all those who might be able to bring him back.
Though The Last Jedi only briefly flirts with Rey’s attraction to the Dark Side (mostly to get some questions answered), and plays a little bit with our expectation of heroes and villains in characters like Holdo and DJ, it is at its best in exploring the conflict within Kylo Ren. His hesitation at killing Leia, and his hurt over Luke’s actions, help paint a portrait of a broken young man, one we want to like and believe can still be good. The fact that I was willing to pretty much forgive how he killed Han Solo in The Force Awakens once Kylo and Rey started Force-chatting is indicative of how expertly his character was put on a path to redemption before the turn — making it all the more potent. It’s what I wanted to get from Darth Vader’s backstory, especially since that was set up as being so rich in mythology (remember how he was essentially immaculately conceived?)
Destiny shapes the Star Wars stories, but everyone still has a choice. The way The Last Jedi introduced Kylo Ren’s choices, and the pride that kept him from using the Force for good, was analogous to Anakin in every way except his beginnings. Given everything, he only wanted to keep it for himself.