SPOILER ALERT – Plot points of the original Star Wars Trilogy and The Force Awakens discussed below.
A key point of comparison and contrast between A New Hope and The Force Awakens is their respective villains. The similarities are clear and deliberate. Both A New Hope‘s Darth Vader and The Force Awakens‘ Kylo Ren are masked figures dressed all in black. Both movies feature a emotionally fraught relationship between a father and a son, on opposite sides of the conflict (although we don’t discover that relationship in the first trilogy until much later). Kylo Ren is even presented as having explicitly patterned himself after Darth Vader, his grandfather.
Despite all these echoes of the original, the differences are, if anything, even more striking and intentional. Perhaps the most consistent complaint I’ve heard about the new movie is how Ren suffers by comparison to Vader. Vader, according to this point of view, is strong, threatening and terrifying, while Ren is weak, whiny and angst-ridden. This, I think, misses the point of the differences. A New Hope is presented from the point of view of the son; and Darth Vader is the scary, abusive father figure, an evil demigod, with seemingly unlimited powers. The Force Awakens is from the viewpoint of the parent; and Kylo Ren is the prodigal son, harmful to others, tormented by his own inner darkness, under the sway of a false mentor, and squandering his talents and potential on misguided obsessions.
Maybe you have to be a parent to appreciate it, but it definitely spoke to me. When you look at your own child you see both dreams and nightmares of the future. Will he or she grow up to be the kind, loving, generous person you see in your brighter visions? Or will your child be one of the people who fails to outgrow the childhood vices of rage, selfishness and lack of empathy, and who indulges them with the full powers of adulthood? Han Solo, in this movie, is every horrified father on the evening news, unable to not still love the son who just committed some unimaginable, irreparable crime.
Don’t get me wrong, Darth is both cooler and deadlier, but conceptually, both movies are exploring interesting ground. In many ways Kylo Ren represents the delayed fulfillment of the failed promise of the prequels, to explore a believable “Portrait of the Villain as a Young Man.” He’s certainly a more interesting portrait of a person torn between the Dark and the Light sides of the Force than the young Anakin.