“That’s Not How the Force Works!” – Looking at the Force in The Force Awakens

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The Force has become a rather divisive topic for Star Wars fans. Because of its nebulous nature that’s cribbed and sampled from a number of different mystic and religious beliefs, interpretations of its limits and abilities range across a wide spectrum. It’s especially difficult because of the different ways the Force was handled between the trilogies, with The Phantom Menace introducing midi-chlorians and their symbiotic relationship with cells into the mix while The Empire Strikes Back speaks solely of an omnipresent energy field.

We’re not going to go into all of that, of course. We could write several weeks’ worth of articles about the Force and its ins-and-outs across all of the films, The Clone Wars and Star Wars Rebels. What we are going to do is zero in on the most recent film in the saga and the source for the fantastic quote that gave this article its title. The Force Awakens is very much a throwback film, taking the Star Wars franchise back to its roots, and its portrayal of the Force is no different.

The Force Awakens gives us a back-to-basics look at the Force, with the few practitioners of it being shrouded in mystery and myth, and the extent and even nature of their abilities left open to interpretation. One of the first characters we see on screen, Lor San Tekka, is a member of what supplementary materials call the Church of the Force, an organization that, aside from the name, we know almost nothing about except that they are devoted to keeping the ideals of the Jedi alive even when the Order has been scattered and largely destroyed. It’s an interesting thought and idea, that even those not sensitive to the Force still seek to serve it.

The first actual Force-practitioner we see is, of course, the film’s dark and troubled poster boy: Kylo Ren. The first thing we see him do using the Force is to freeze a blaster bolt in mid-air along with rooting the pilot who fired it to where he stands, then hold the former in place while releasing the latter, only releasing the bolt when he is well out of the way and his conversation is over. The interesting thing to us is not just what he does, but how he does it. Kylo stays calm and collected throughout, only his gestures and lightsaber strokes carrying the typical over-the-top theatricality we might associate with the users of the dark side.

Kylo also does not use any of the prototypical dark side abilities. While those of a dark persuasion use the Force to directly harm others, from Vader’s strangulations to the Emperor’s gouts of lightning, Kylo doesn’t do any of that. He freezes people in place, violates their mind and knocks them unconscious with a mere gesture, but never once does he directly kill or even physically harm someone with the Force. If we had to guess the reason why, it would be that Kylo has never learned those things. He is using techniques more typical of Jedi: telekinesis, the mind trick, but using them in such a violent and (pardon the pun) forceful way that it can only be born of the dark side.

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Perhaps that’s what Snoke means at the end of the film when he says that he will complete Kylo’s training. Kylo has the rage, the inner darkness, but none of the tutelage needed to truly ascend, or descend, to the level of his grandfather. He relies on perverted versions of the Jedi techniques that he likely learned in his youth from Luke Skywalker: he turns a skill that would allow him to levitate a rock and using it to pin someone in place, frozen and helpless; rather than brushing across someone’s mind and gently persuading or suggesting, he barges through both conscious and subconscious and forces them to give him what he wants.

And throughout it all, he never loses his Jedi sense of calm and composure. It’s only when a spanner is thrown into the works, and then a second and a third, that he begins to fracture. The events of the film bring Kylo almost to his knees, full of conflicting emotions and wracked by doubts. By the time we reach the climactic fight on the crumbling Starkiller Base, he’s completely flown off of the handle and is resorting to pounding his own wounds berserker-style in order to keep his focus and inflame his rage. Of course, he had just jumped off of the slippery slope by gutting his own father and taken a bowcaster bolt to the side, but that’s neither here nor there.

While there are other Force-sensitives in the film, Leia and Maz Kanata being the two main ones (Finn is unconfirmed and Snoke is still up in the air), the only other out and out Force user in the film is the mysterious Rey. Rey is an intriguing character because she’s the first person in the saga since Luke in The Empire Strikes Back that we’ve seen blossom from latent Force sensitivity into wielding a lightsaber within the scope of one film. Her usage of the Force is raw and instinctual, to the point that even she is unaware of the power she wields until very late in the game.

Rey is ruled by her emotions. Her fear of being left alone and losing the only friends she has ever had, her awe and terror when she flies the Millennium Falcon for the first time, her anger at Kylo for killing the man she came to see as a father and seriously wounding Finn, her joy when she sees Takodana’s greenery, we could go on. She’s far from the ideal Jedi candidate in a traditional sense, undisciplined and rather old to begin her training. But her dogged survival on Jakku, and her exploits through the movie, show that the Force is with her long before she pulls Luke’s lightsaber out of the snow.

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Witness her deft dodging of the rathtar tentacles aboard Han’s ship, where she’s able to avoid every sweep of their slimy appendages without them brushing her. She also picks up a blaster borrowed from Han and, after taking the safety off, is able to gun down stormtroopers despite having fought with a staff or her bare hands her entire life. She also manages to fly the Falcon rather deftly while completely on her own, something only the far-more-experienced Chewbacca and Han have been able to do in the past.

And of course, all of this happens before her formal “awakening” when she hears the lightsaber calling to her from the basement of Maz’s castle. That isn’t where she somehow becomes Force-sensitive, as we’ve seen she has evidence of the Force’s presence all over her actions in the film. Touching the lightsaber, though, gives her a vision of both the lightsaber’s history and some of her own, and Maz explains to her that the Force is calling her. It isn’t content to have her stand on the sidelines anymore, she must take a more active role.

And active Rey does become. She successfully repels Kylo’s intrusion into her mind, then turns it around and probes into his mind, stripping away his layers of calm and exposing the raw nerves beneath. After that, she manages to mind-trick a stormtrooper, scaling back the overwhelming mental pressure that Kylo had used on her and getting the hapless soldier to do as she wishes without much effort. But the climax of her growth into the Force is her fight against Kylo, taking his grandfather’s/uncle’s lightsaber from under his nose and then dueling him, spending much of the battle running away until she, at long last, fully acknowledges and opens herself to the Force and proceeds to beat the wounded, conflicted Kylo down.

Kylo and Rey are very interesting mirror images of each other. Rey is completely untrained, largely ruled by her emotions, but her naïveté means that she gives herself to the Force, lets it guide her. Kylo is much more fearsome while in control of himself, but once that control is threatened and his confidence shaken, he crumbles. The stunned, broken look he turns up at Rey after she defeats him and scars his face should tell you much about where the movie leaves him. While Rey is about as confident and collected as she has ever been, spearheading the search for Luke Skywalker, Kylo is a broken, shivering wreck who needs Snoke and Hux to save him from being left behind on Starkiller Base.

It’s going to be very interesting to see where both characters go from here. Rey will be under Luke’s tutelage, Kylo presumably under Snoke’s. Both of them will likely emerge as more polished Force users, more capable and willing to use their abilities. But how Rey struggles with her emotions, and Kylo fights against his own inner insecurities, will be fascinating to see develop. As far as launching points to a new era of storytelling, and as a new generation of Force users come into focus, here’s hoping Episode VIII will dive into the Force’s workings in a new way, letting us see the training from both sides.

5 comments

  1. Bria says:

    I really have to disagree with your analysis of Kylo violating people’s minds. I don’t even see that as being close to the typical Jedi Mind Trick. Given that we see Poe (and to a less extent Rey) in physical pain from having their minds violated by Kylo, I’d definitely classify that as using the Force to directly harm others.

    • I don’t disagree, it’s definitely the most prototypical dark side usage of the Force he does. What it reminded me the most of what the en masse Jedi mind trick Anakin, Obi-Wan and Mace perform on Cad Bane in TCW. You can visibly see the overwhelming pressure put to bear on the person.

      But where a mind trick, even one like that, is still persuading someone to do something or say something or even believe something, just for a moment, Kylo Ren just Kool-Aid-Mans his way through someone’s mind, grabs the knowledge he’s looking for and then knocks them out.

      It’s a similar sort of mental technique, but it’s used in an entirely different (and much darker) way. The Jedi use it to gently influence, Kylo doesn’t bother even asking. And from what Snoke and Kylo say, this is basically his specialty.

      • Bria says:

        In which case, I think our disagreement is as to *what* it is. I see it more as ‘Kylo is taking what he wants’ (lol) while you see it more as (if I’m understanding you correctly) as ‘Kylo is making them give him what he wants’ which may seem like semantics but in the context… yeah, haha. Interesting piece though!

      • Mike Cooper Mike Cooper says:

        This would be clearer if we’d actually seen Poe, f.e., say “the map is in my droid”, versus Kylo just pulling that from his mind. But we can say that he seemed to actually see the map in Rey’s mind; enough so that I think the goal with her was less coercion than extraction. But either way I do think the idea of it as a brute-force mind trick can still apply.

  2. John says:

    This is a great thought piece. I think the point about Rey’s powers being linked to her emotions is an interesting one – she certainly runs through quite the emotional gamut in this movie, and Daisy Ridley pulls it off wonderfully.

    However, I’d also note that in the two scenes where she most demonstrates her Force ability (the mind-trick of the Stormtrooper and the latter part of her lightsaber fight with Kylo) she seems to undergo some sort of Jedi-like moment of calm prior to her maximum effort. I think this contrasts pretty sharply with Kylo, who, as you note, has a veneer of calm but becomes more and more openly emotional as he approaches maximum effort. In that sense, I think that Rey (untrained as she is) still more closely approximates the Jedi ideal than Kylo does.

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