Friday, February 26, 2016

STAR WARS: The Franchise Awakens - The Boy in the Black Mask

After Rey’s capture, EPISODE VII departs from its own story for a while to prepare a satisfactorily exciting spaceship finale, but the original story thread is maintained through her experiences in Kylo Ren’s custody. In fact, her original confrontation in his interrogation room is the scene that essentially embodies both the theme and title of the movie. It is in this scene that we see Rey’s true awakening to her connection to the Force.

We see something awakened in Kylo also in this scene. This is where we finally see him unmasked and realize that he’s not just a Darth Vader knockoff. He’s an honest-to-God cosplaying Vader wannabe.

"What do you guys think? Not enough black in the outfit?
I should probably get a cape and a helmet, right?"

This introduces the question of how Rey knows Kylo. Aside from her vision in Maz’s castle, Rey has never seen Kylo Ren before her capture. As far as we know from the rest of the film, she has no idea who or what he is. Yet, curiously, she characterizes him as a creature in a mask who has been pursuing her. This comment prompts him to unmask and reveal that he is nothing more than a confused young man playing Vader, but why does she believe he’s been pursuing her if she’s never seen him before?

The obvious answer is that she knows he’s leading the First Order and they have been pursuing her ever since she met up with Finn. That may be all she meant. But given what we saw in her vision (cross-referenced with some of my prior wild theories), it’s possible that Rey is somewhat familiar with Kylo and has run from him before. Kylo certainly seems to know Rey or at least know of her, since he immediately becomes more interested in capturing her than he was originally bent on finding BB-8. Could the vision have been literally showing us that Rey has encountered and eluded Kylo Ren before?

In any event, Rey doesn’t know who Kylo is any more than we do. She is as shocked as anyone to discover that, rather than being a disfigured monstrosity, Kylo is just a boy. His need to show her this is significant within the story. It’s obvious that Kylo wears the helmet both to intimidate his enemies and to reinforce his sense of identity. Kylo Ren is a persona that Ben Solo created to abandon his humanity, but something about Rey prompts Kylo to want to display that human side, to make himself vulnerable to her.

"You wanna hear some of my poetry?"

Kylo’s attempt to extract information about the map betrays an even more profound vulnerability. The awakening that Snoke previously mentioned was presumably referring to Rey, though we don’t know that for sure. What seems clear is that this is Rey’s true moment of awakening. Her vision was her first glimpse of a connection to the Force, but this moment is her first display of real power.

Kylo’s contact with Rey’s mind is interesting in a lot of ways. First, he sees that her perception goes way beyond what we saw in the vision. The ocean she used to envision as a child sounds like the one she discovers at the end of the film, right down to the island where she finds Luke Skywalker.

Learning this, we see that Rey hasn’t been awakened to the Force overnight, even though her power is just starting to manifest. The Force has been calling to her since she was young. It may even be that Luke Skywalker has been calling to her.

We get some hints about Kylo’s past here as well. In the novelization Han and Leia lament, as they do in the film, that Kylo had too much Vader in him, but the novel further explains that Snoke had been after Ben Solo since he was young. It suggests that Leia’s decision to send Ben away to Luke was an effort to save him after some earlier indiscretions demonstrated that he was having difficulty controlling his powers. Kylo tells Rey that she would have ended up disappointed in Han Solo as a father figure, suggesting that Han had failed Ben as a father prior to Ben’s fall from grace, possibly leading to his need to identify with his grandfather.

"I met a really nice girl today, Grandfather. It was a little weird at first,
but I think we really made a connection."

The most startling revelation for the characters comes when Kylo’s attempt to invade Rey’s mind inadvertently gives her insight into his own. Once Rey manages to drive him back and divine his deep-seated fear of never living up to the legacy of Darth Vader, Kylo retreats to seek Snoke’s guidance.

Kylo’s misguided regard for Rey is also evidenced here, in the fact that he chooses solely and exclusively to interrogate her. Poe was tortured conventionally in an effort to extract information, only to be interrogated by Kylo when those measures proved ineffective. Rey is shown a little more respect. This might mean Kylo secretly doesn’t wish to see her harmed, just like he felt the need to reveal himself and his humanity to her. It could also be that Kylo doesn’t think conventional interrogation will help, since his plan is to somehow extract the exact physical dimensions of the map from Rey’s brief memory of having seen it one time. But Kylo doesn’t even know that she has seen it, so there’s still the possibility that the map is simply an excuse and his new goal is simply to keep Rey prisoner.

Kylo seems to be more interested in Rey than Snoke is. When Kylo reports his failure to overpower Rey, the Supreme Leader is more annoyed than anything else. After announcing his disgust with Kylo, he demands that the girl be brought before him. But he still doesn’t appear to be interested in her; he’s more concerned with teaching Kylo an object lesson about the power of the Dark Side. This might give us some insight into Snoke’s actual abilities. Despite Kylo’s insistence that Snoke is wise (not powerful), we don’t see any evidence that Snoke is anything more than a master manipulator. The presence of another Force user would actually be a threat to him in this case, since Kylo is the only Force user that he is capable of controlling.

Rey vindicates Kylo’s admiration and Snoke’s concern later on. Having gotten a glimpse of how the Force can be used to touch minds, she decides to experiment on the stormtrooper keeping watch over her. This stormtrooper is playfully nicknamed JB-007 because he is played by Bond actor Daniel Craig, making an unconfirmed cameo in the film. Sources behind the scenes have stated that it was Craig while he himself has denied it , but the internet has decided it was Craig and the stormtrooper sounds like Craig, so that’s good enough for me.

After an initially clumsy effort, Rey begins to let go and trust in the Force, commanding it well enough to influence her guard to release her and hand over his weapon so she can make her escape. This is a defining moment for her character, not just because she is proactively getting in touch with her innate power and developing some discipline as to how to use it, but also because she is demonstrating that she is fully capable of rescuing herself.

This arc in the story has allowed us to get a better understanding of Kylo and Rey. We see who they are as individuals, but also the interesting dynamic that will begin to define their relationship with each other. The obvious contrasts become clear, but so do some interesting similarities. Again they appear to counter-balance and complement each other, two necessary halves of a whole state of being.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

STAR WARS: The Franchise Awakens - Children of the Force

This is an excellent time to explore the roles and names of Rey and Kylo Ren. Kylo’s name seems to be at least partially derivative of the names Skywalker and Han Solo, containing many of the letters and sounds you find in those names. Kylo Ren is also a sort of phonetic inversion of Han Solo. But is that all it is?

I thought about certain mythological archetypes, such as the Norse mythology. Rey could easily be a variation on Freya while Kylo would be a variant of Loki. This even works when we see the wizened figure of an older Luke Skywalker, grey-bearded and cloaked in grey like the classical image of Odin that inspired the look of literature’s quintessential wizard, Gandalf the Grey.

He also matches the classical image of a homeless guy.

But the roles that Rey and Ren play seem to be more based on the balance of Yin and Yang, Kylo representing the masculine Yang while Rey represents the feminine Yin. An interesting observation here is that the Yin is – while considered to be passive – associated with the dark while the more active Yang is associated with the light. It should be noted here that these are not designations of evil and good. The dark and the light together compose the Tao, which, in the words of Joseph Campell (and practically those of George Lucas), “inhabits every created thing.” 

In the novelization of EPSIODE VII, Snoke tells Kylo that he is a creation of both the darkness and the light (presumably because he is descended from Princess Leia and Darth Vader). This is analogous to his grandfather, Anakin, who was, as far as I can tell from the prequels, the son of a good woman, Shmi Skywalker, and an evil Sith Lord, either Darth Sidious or Darth Plagueis (either of whom would be using magical means to inseminate her).

"Now that I'm Master of the Dark Side, I can finally make babies without
ever having to touch a woman! WORTH IT!"

Anakin and Kylo are children of darkness and light this way, just as Luke Skywalker was, being the son of Padme Amidala and Anakin Skywalker. Whether this lineage creates a predominance of darkness or light is difficult to say. If we look at this from a historical perspective, the mother figure has typically been the “good” parent while the “evil” tendencies came from the father. Shmi was a simple slave who was immaculately impregnated by the Dark Side, making the Skywalker side of Anakin the source of his goodness of character. 

"You were impregnated with a magical miracle baby and left behind to live the life of a slave?
You'd think that'd be the kind of thing I should look into, but I've got this trade dispute to sort out."

When he abandons his good self he abandons also the Skywalker name, taking the traditional Darth title of a Sith Lord. This is later broken when Anakin’s son, also bearing the Skywalker name, appeals to the last remaining goodness in him – which is derived and associated solely with his connection to the Skywalker line – and Anakin overcomes the Darth Vader persona to become both a self-redeemer and (it would seem) a world-redeemer. 

"Sorry about enslaving the universe and killing and torturing everyone you love, but I saved you
from that psychopath after I gave you to him on a silver platter, so what say we call it even?"

Anakin’s children were conceived with Padme, whose name is derived from the Sanskrit mantra Om Mani Padme Hum, meaning “the jewel is in the Lotus”. Padme means “lotus”, the sacred flower borne by the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, who looks down on all sentient creatures with compassion.  Padme is responsible (genetically or symbolically) for Luke and Leia’s compassionate nature, so again we see the good side of them being inherited from the mother’s side.

So what about Kylo? His darkness is arguably inherited from his mother’s side because she passes the blood of Darth Vader on to him. Han is good, if not completely noble or perfect, so Kylo doesn’t get his bad nature from his father. This is further evidenced in the fact that Kylo abandons his family name, Solo, and takes a new title in order to complete his transition to the Dark Side. But his grandfather’s evil is not only a generation removed, but it is in some sense an illusion. Kylo’s perception of Darth Vader and what he was trying to accomplish is antithetical to the redemption of the character we witness in EPISODE VI. Some outside force (or inner delusion) is driving Kylo to re-capture the mantle of Darth Vader, but he is not directly inheriting this imperative from either of his parents. Given this, he has inherited both good and evil from his mother’s side, which is exactly what the Yang represents. He is the aggressive male component of the whole, but there is also light in him. 

Rey is not passive, but we see the compassion in her character. We don’t know her lineage, but there is a suggestion that there is some darkness to her as well. The name Rey could be a derivative of the word “ray”, possibly indicating that her purpose is to enlighten, which is precisely the purpose of the Bodhisattva. But where does she come from? Raised alone on the unforgiving world of Jakku, Rey is far from serene. She is aggressive and has been conditioned to be so. There is darkness in her, which manifests in her initial confrontation with Finn, then later in her refusal to accept the Force at Maz Kanata’s, and finally culminates in her duel with Kylo Ren at the end of the film. Who were her parents, then? Who was her mother? The answers to those questions would give us a better idea of her role in the story.

Some theories cite similarities in Rey’s musical theme in the score and Luke’s original theme in EPISODE IV, which could be construed as a hint that she is in some way connected to the Skywalker line. The similarity could also be explained as a thematic connection between her role in this film and Luke’s role in EPISODE IV rather than a literal in-story relation between the two characters. Even more interesting are snippets of the Imperial March from EPISODE V playing backwards in parts of Rey’s theme, connecting her more to Darth Vader. Is this a hidden hint at a relationship between Rey and Vader? And since the theme is inverted, are we meant to infer that Rey is like Vader or that she is his opposite?

In any event, Rey and Ren both have roots in darkness and light, neither of them fully representing either principle. Kylo appears to come from the light but choose darkness while Rey comes out of the darkness to choose the light. This is the necessary balance of the Tao, which requires the existence of both. The reason the Jedi and the Sith are always worrying about the balance of the Force is because they’re always trying to wipe each other out. How can there be balance if only one side of the argument still exists?

Going back to the final image of Luke as a grey old wizard at the close of the film, that look isn’t just suggestive of an Odin or a Gandalf type of figure. It also plays into something mentioned in the novelization. Just as he did with the novelization of the first film, Alan Dean Foster opened this book with a quote from the mysterious Journal of the Whills, stating that the difference between the dark and the light is only made right through the resolving of the grey “through refined Jedi sight”. This too hints that the key to “balancing” the Force is not the destruction of either side, but an acceptance of both. Perhaps Rey and Ren, each in some way representing both, are not meant to fight each other, but instead find some way to peacefully coexist.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Sunday, February 7, 2016

STAR WARS: The Franchise Awakens - Story Under Construction

The fact that Rey has such a profound spiritual experience under Maz Kanata’s bar is even more interesting in light of the fact that Maz’s castle is constructed on the site of an ancient battle between the Jedi and the Sith (according Pablo Hidalgo’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens: The Visual Dictionary). Timothy Zahn surmised in his novel Heir to the Empire that perhaps Yoda had battled a Dark Jedi on Dagobah in the exact spot where Luke had his vision, explaining why that area was otherwise inexplicably strong with the Dark Side of the Force. 

Of course, they would never do anything like that in the movies.

That would be ridiculous.

This concept that Maz’s castle was once a stronghold in a war between the Jedi and the Sith supports this same idea. Maz is very attuned to the Force, so the site of her centuries-standing sanctuary may have been specifically chosen as an act of Force-balanced Feng Shui.

Mission accomplished, Maz...

Rey’s spiritual dilemma is quickly and violently metamorphosed into an all too real physical dilemma. The fracturing of Rey’s perceptions, hopes, and dreams is accompanied by a literal breakdown of events in the story. As Rey feels her universe crumbling around her, in another star system the First Order is launching its most destructive attack on the Republic. 

General Hux gives a rousing propaganda speech to an impressive looking assembly of First Order troops. Immediately following this is the launch of their new super weapon, a weapon that sucks power from the sun to unleash unimaginable devastation. This first wildly successful test of the weapon destroys five Republic planets (because in Episode IV they only destroyed one planet, and more is always better).


The background provided in the Visual Dictionary about Hux gives us some insight into this scene. Hux is the son of an Imperial officer, raised to believe the propaganda the Empire disseminated about its manifest destiny over the galaxy. It’s interesting to note that many of the First Order and Resistance fighters in the film are young enough not to have actually witnessed the events of the previous war. Instead they are children of that conflict whose understanding of it is only supplied through the context of what their parents have told them about it.

Like many of the First Order’s agents, Hux has no real battle experience. He believes that simulation training is sufficient to make good soldiers, mostly because he himself has been largely trained merely through the use of battle simulations. We begin to see very early on that this is not the case. In Greg Rucka’s Before the Awakening, we see that FN-2187 was the top of his class, showing remarkable skill and battle instincts in simulations, but the mission on Jakku was his first engagement and the real horror of war immediately prompted him to reject all he had been taught.

But Hux still believes in a clean, easy, and decisive resolution to the conflict with the Republic. He’s super-keen on the use of the Starkiller weapon because it offers the First Order the opportunity to destroy their enemies remotely, without having to get their hands dirty with the harsh business of a real war.

And Hux’s strategy appears to be working. The first shot takes out the host system where the Republic’s new Senate is gathered as well as the bulk of the Republic’s fleet, seemingly crushing any potential opposition. He somehow believes that this will conquer the galaxy for them automatically, when it actually threatens to de-stabilize the galaxy even further and make it that much harder to bring all those systems back together under a single system of rule.

Descriptions of the Starkiller device suggest that it can destroy a star system by targeting the star itself (a capability suggested in the name of the weapon, which is also an homage to early drafts of the STAR WARS script that originally identified Luke Skywalker as Luke Starkiller). What we see in the movie is a little more direct, though: Starkiller base appears to fire missiles across space that target the individual planets in the Hosnian system. This may have seemed more visually satisfying when shooting the movie, but comes off as just a silly way to one-up the original film by blowing up even more planets. The destruction of a sun and its surrounding planets would have been a much more profound and terrifying idea, but the movie makes it look like they’re just randomly blowing stuff up. It doesn’t help that we have no idea what is blowing up or why, and everything has to be explained after the fact so that we understand the story we’re watching.

This sequence is meant to put the chocolate in the peanut butter and bring the entire movie together so that all the story elements overlap in a meaningful way, but it all happens so quickly and arbitrarily that it plays a little clumsy.

Within what seems like moments of their arrival, Finn makes arrangements to join the Crimson Corsair’s pirate crew and escape to the Outer Rim while Rey discovers her Jedi destiny in the basement below. The First Order and the Resistance have been separately informed of BB-8’s presence in the bar, leading you to wonder why they don’t just keep the droid hidden since it’s so readily recognizable to everyone in the universe.

Maybe sending a "one of a kind" droid on a super secret mission
wasn't the best idea in the world.

As Rey is running through the woods (to where, exactly?), the First Order starts blowing up planets from Starkiller base at the exact moment Kylo Ren arrives on Takodana with a squadron of stormtroopers, hell-bent on keeping the map to Luke Skywalker from falling into the right hands even though the assault on the Hosnian system is intended to remove the Resistance threat altogether.

While all of this is going on, Maz gives Finn the lightsaber, because now that they are under attack he has abandoned his effort to escape in order to insure his friends’ safety. Finn lightsaber fights one of his former squad-mates, who comes at him with an electric riot stick. The internet playfully dubbed this character TR8R due to the fact that he screams “TRAITOR!” at Finn very dramatically. His actual designation is FN-2199. In Before the Awakening, FN-2199 – or Nines, as he is nicknamed by his teammates – served on the same fire team as FN-2187 during training, but was distinctly more vicious than the rest. His enmity with Finn is a bit more personal since they actually served together.

Some people have complained about Finn’s ability to use a lightsaber, but as we see from observing Nines in this scene and as is explained in Before the Awakening, the First Order stormtroopers are trained to fight with melee weapons.

"And for today's lesson, just in case you ever have to battle a Jedi,
we're going to teach you how to fight with sticks."

The fact that Maz has Luke’s lost lightsaber is barely discussed in the movie, mostly because whenever people stand still for two long things just start blowing up around them. Han asks her how she got it and she assures him that’s a story for another time (presumably the sequel). 

There is a rich alternate history of this lightsaber provided in the expanded canon that, if any of it were to contribute to the new canon, could give us an even more tragic back story about how Maz has it and how it eventually finds its way back to Luke. In Timothy Zahn’s The Last Command, the third and final installment of the Thrawn trilogy, the lightsaber and Luke’s severed hand were recovered by the Empire, the hand being used to create an evil clone of Luke. This evil clone (who for some reason is named Luuke) dueled with Luke using his original lightsaber. During the duel Luke was actually saved by Mara Jade, a former Imperial agent the Emperor had brainwashed into wanting to kill Luke. Finally satisfying this last command by killing Luke’s clone, Mara was freed of the Emperor’s influence and claimed the lightsaber as her own.

Above is a Mara montage, including moments from the books, 
a truly embarrassing 
collectible statue that is so focused on her back side that it's almost impossible 
to find a picture of what the front of it looks like, and finally what I assume is 
a fan-created image of Mara if she were played by Summer Glau

In the expanded history, Mara trained to become a Jedi, eventually falling in love with Luke and even marrying him, only to be killed by – wait for it – Han and Leia’s son, who had been trained by Luke to become a Jedi but was seduced by the Dark Side of the Force. So the reemergence of this lightsaber could have even more ominous undertones if any of these ideas were mined from the old expanded canon for use in the new trilogy.

Han and Finn fight ground troops while Rey confronts Kylo Ren in the woods. BB-8 escapes, so Kylo decides to take Rey instead and abandon his pursuit of the droid. In light of Kylo’s stated purpose, this action makes no sense. It becomes evident later on, at least in part, that once Kylo discovers Rey, he is no longer interested in his original goal of finding the droid to find Skywalker (or keep other people from finding him, or something). He is now much more interested in Rey.

Just because everything in the movie needs to be happening right at this minute, the Resistance also shows up to defend Han and Finn from the stormtroopers. And just because absolutely everything has to be happening at this very second, the X-wing squadron that engages the First Order is commanded by none other than Poe Dameron, who I guess is still alive for some reason.

"Thanks for completing my mission, Finn. I would have helped, but after
we crashed I had to head back to base to get a clean jumpsuit."

Don’t get me wrong: I love Poe Dameron and I’m glad he didn’t die on Jakku, but in a scene where we’ve already been confronted with so many unexplained story coincidences and such a profound shift in narrative flow, reintroducing a character who had been presumed dead is just a little too much to be chucking into the movie all at once.

And I love this sequence, too, I’m not saying that the action bothers me. JJ Abrams in a master scene-builder in the way that Steven Spielberg was a master at building an exciting visual sequence. But like Spielberg, Abrams is not always coherent in his understanding of the world in which the scene is taking place. Having all these elements converge this quickly at this single point in the story makes the universe it’s happening in seem very small. As a matter of construction, it also creates a congested point of confusion where a lot of new information is thrown at us and the story shifts dramatically into being about something else entirely from what we have thus far been told is the premise of the film.

"Now let's all re-convene on a forest planet for the
obligatory third-act war room scene."

The STAR WARS story has always been a fast, forward-moving action adventure serial, so it’s not outside the spirit of the saga to suddenly take the story to a new place and confront the characters with new challenges. The segue in this case just feels a little sloppy here.

Compounding the narrative congestion is the arrival of a Resistance troop transport carrying General Leia Organa. With her arrival, the character dynamic of the story has officially transitioned from what we saw at the beginning to a whole new sensibility. The story began with Finn, Poe, and Rey, narrowing the scope down to Finn and Rey after Poe was apparently killed in the crash on Jakku. The plot threading was clear and clean at that point, following them as they fled the planet and were captured by Han Solo. From that point on the linear progression of the story was less clear. Outside the story, we know that Han is shoe-horned in to connect this movie back to the original film and give audiences something familiar to anchor them to the story. Unfortunately, the story was working just fine with the new characters, so bringing in Han and his adventures with the rathtars and the Guavian Death Gang kind of just takes you out of the story and breaks its momentum.

They could have cut this scene, but nobody wanted to tell
these guys that they wouldn't be in the movie.

From the point where they go to Takodana, the story structure is completely re-worked into being a completely different movie. Rey’s capture and Finn’s need to rescue her follow the original thread, but everything and everyone around them are now solely concerned with something else. And there’s nothing wrong with that, because we’ve established that there is a larger world with a lot more at stake than what’s going on with them, but the problem is the scope and stakes defined for that larger story are not the same as they were at the beginning of the movie. The movie began with a race between the First Order and the Resistance to find a means of locating Luke Skywalker, based on the assumption that Luke can somehow tip the balance in their galactic struggle. The opening crawl tells us that Leia sent Poe to Lor for that purpose, a task then passed on to BB-8, who recruited Rey and Finn to help complete that task. Even Han is begrudgingly brought into the story under the assumption that he will help them in their adventure, but instead of helping them Han basically takes them into another story and the original story sort of evaporates for a while. Not altogether and not all at once, but for a while you just have to accept that you’re watching a different movie and wait patiently for the movie you’ve been watching to pick back up again at some point.

For now, the story revolves around Han’s reunion with Leia. We don’t know exactly how long they’ve been apart, but many years, it would seem. It is not unbelievable that Leia chose to accompany her troops, since she knew Han would be there and clearly wanted to speak with them. It’s not even unbelievable that Poe Dameron is alive and is somehow back with the Resistance instead of out looking for BB-8. Poe made his way back to the Resistance after escaping Jakku, and the events of the story unfolded so quickly that it wasn’t necessary to go after the droid at all. Not only did it become apparent that BB-8 was on Takodana, but the discovery of a greater threat has taken precedence over the search for BB-8 and even the search for Luke Skywalker.

None of these individual story elements represent a problem. They’re all legitimate aspects of the story and they don’t challenge your suspension of disbelief. The problem is that they’re all heaped on too close together and that delivery does challenge your immersion in the story. It’s not a problem with the material, it’s just a little sloppy construction. 

But this movie had a lot to accomplish. A little sloppy construction can be forgiven when you’re trying to tell a story this big, especially in a medium as immediate and condensed as a movie. In fact, a few bumps along the way are to be expected.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

STAR WARS: The Franchise Awakens - The Knights of Wren

Here’s another interesting interpretation of Rey’s vision. Continuing with the idea that the Imperial research facility on Jakku was an extension of the Inquisitors’ experiments on Force-sensitive children, there’s a much more obvious possibility as to who Kylo and the Knights of Ren are fighting: They are fighting the Inquisitors themselves. 

Just imagine the figure on the left looking a little more like the one on the right.

This scenario assumes a number of direct connections between concepts introduced in the Rebels cartoon and the back story of Episode VII. The first assumption is that, as suggested earlier, the Jakku facility is engaged in experimenting on Force-sensitive children and Rey is one of them. The facility is guarded by Inquisitors, so Jedi intervention is called for.

I'm just sayin', that is basically the same guy as the one in Rey's vision.
He's even making the same face.

Here’s where things get tricky: Did Luke send Kylo Ren to Jakku or is Kylo acting on his own (or someone else’s orders)? In the vision Kylo appears to be saving Rey from one of the Inquisitors, so whoever sent him, he seems to have good intentions. But are the Knights of Ren his apprentices or his fellow Jedi? For this scenario, let’s assume neither. In the vision, the Knights of Ren all have awesome helmets and are definitely following Kylo’s lead, but he’s the only one who seems to have a lightsaber. So who are they?

These guys?

Drawing once more from the canon established by Rebels, I think the Knights of Ren may be Mandalorian. Why would I think that? For starters, they all wear armor and helmets that have a very Mandalorian kind of style. They all have weapons both ranged and melee, but none of them appear to have a lightsaber, so there is no reason to assume they’re Jedi or Sith. They look more like mercenaries. But that doesn’t necessarily make the Mandalorian connection. One possible connection suggested in the Rebels show is the Mandalorian clan from which the rebel munitions expert Sabine is descended. She is part of Clan Wren, which is itself part of House Vizsla. The head of House Vizsla founded the Death Watch movement, a violent faction that actually overthrew the Mandalorian government until Vizsla was killed by Darth Maul, at which point Maul took control of Mandalore and command of the Death Watch. Clan Wren was a warrior Mandalorian clan that fought with the Death Watch, and it would seem, indirectly came to serve Darth Maul. Could the Knights of Ren be descended in some way from Clan Wren? 

The final fate of Death Watch is unclear, except that they don’t seem to be around in the Rebels time period. The remaining warrior clans think of Death Watch as traitors, but the remaining clans are also loyal to the Empire. This suggests that any surviving remnants of Clan Wren would have no allegiance to the Empire. They also may have some Force training or at least be open to serving a powerful Force wielder since they served Darth Maul.

"I met this great group of guys, Grandfather. I think you'd really like them.
They're all about the helmets. We're basically a helmet club."

The Knights of Ren may be descended from the Death Watch itself, who in their own way were also rebels against the Empire. In this scenario it’s possible that at some point Kylo assumed a similar role to Darth Maul and became leader of the remnants of the Death Watch. Kylo Ren is, as the movie suggests, more of a title indicating his leadership of the Knights of Ren than a name.

Here’s an even more convoluted interesting idea: The Knights of Ren are descended from a splinter group that broke away from Darth Maul’s Shadow Collective (the re-branded Death Watch) and fought alongside Obi-Wan Kenobi. That group was led by Pre Vizsla’s former lieutenant Bo-Katan Kryze. Bo-Katan was the sister of Satine Kryze, who was Obi-Wan Kenobi’s lover. Bo-Katan broke from the Death Watch after Darth Maul took over. 

Could the Knights of Ren be descended from the Mandalorians who abandoned Death Watch to fight with Obi-Wan Kenobi? In Rebels, Sabine says that her mother was with Death Watch. This might be true if her mother were Bo-Katan. Nothing is known about Sabine’s father, but could he have been Obi-Wan Kenobi? Sabine could have been the offspring of Obi-Wan and Satine, who was obviously in the same house as Bo-Katan. In that case Sabine may have assumed her mother was Death Watch even though in reality she didn’t know her mother. Sabine was raised in an Imperial Academy, so she was probably taken from her family the same way Finn would later be abducted as a child to serve the First Order.

I also have it on good authority that Jack the Ripper was, in fact, the Loch Ness Monster.

Sabine’s questionable lineage aside, it is fun to consider the Knights of Ren as a direct extension of the group that broke away from the Shadow Collective and fought with Kenobi. That would give the Knights of Ren a historical reason to ally themselves later on with Obi-Wan’s last apprentice, Luke Skywalker. That link would afford Ben Solo the opportunity to join the Knights of Ren and become their leader.

I could stand to see a lot more of this kind of thing.
In this scenario, as in one of my previous wild theories, Rey escapes the research facility when the Knights of Ren attack, and is subsequently left on Jakku. Kylo would potentially know that a female test subject had escaped the facility, but wouldn’t have had any definite imperative to track her down. Hearing years later about a girl on Jakku who inexplicably helped a resistance droid and a First Order defector steal a map that leads to Luke Skywalker might cause Kylo to wonder if this were the same girl. This might also have been reason enough for Kylo to say “it is you” when confirming Rey’s power over the Force at the end of the film.

Just a thought.