The Monster Movie Tropes of Kylo Ren

Image result for kylo ren 

J.J. Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan have repeatedly said that their goal with the Force Awakens was visual storytelling. One method of visual storytelling is to use established visual tropes to give a certain feel to a scene or evoke a certain response from the audience. J.J. Abrams appears to have used a number of tropes from monster movies and horror films for Kylo Ren.  The scene that features these tropes most prominently is the scene where Kylo and Rey first meet on Takodana. The music and the sound effects play a role in adding to the imagery so this article will delve into the auditory as well as the visual components of the scene. 

The scene starts with Rey alone in the forest.  There’s a reason the trope Don’t Go in the Woods exists. Forests are a classic horror setting both because they tap into ancient fears of the wilderness and the dangers that exist beyond the boundaries of civilization. Also the foliage and often uneven terrain allow for good visual obstruction which taps into fears of what’s lurking just out of sight.  The Blair Witch Project (1999) is a good example (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blair_Witch).  

Rey is jittery and she hears distant noises of battle.  There is no music here. John Williams knows when to hold the music back so that the sound effects can take center stage.  Hearing spooky sounds but not being able to locate the source despite frantically looking around for it is another common horror trope.  Good horror and monster fiction writers don’t reveal the “monster” immediately, they build up to it, because ultimately the imagination of the audience is always more frightening than anything the storyteller could show on screen.  The build up can be done by using sounds to suggest that the monster is there just out of sight or it can be done with unrelated sounds (animal noises if the character is in the woods, or something going bump in the night if indoors) only to have the monster appear suddenly.  The movie Signs (2002) went with the former (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Signs_(film)). 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FDY43_tAZt0

Then Rey enters a narrow rocky gulch.  The music starts up again as soft high pitched strings creating an air of tension. Narrow corridors (such as hallways, caves, mines, or tombs) are another classic horror locale because they offer nowhere to hide and prey on a sense of claustrophobia.  J.J. Abrams uses some ominous shots of the rocky corridor to build a sense of confinement. 

Rey taps into another trope here by walking backwards down the corridor.  Monster movies and horror films like to have protagonists walk backwards for several reasons. It can allow the character to walk right up to something awful without seeing it.  It can be used to create suspense by showing the monster behind the character without them realizing it. It can also be used for comedy by having two characters back into each other and scare themselves (Shaggy and Scooby-doo perfected this to an art form).  J. J. Abrams uses it here mostly to show Rey’s frightened expression and create a further sense of confinement as she backs down the gulch.  

Kylo then appears suddenly and ignites his lightsaber.  His appearance is framed a bit like a jump scare where the monster will appear suddenly and is often accompanied by a loud noise.  In this case the noise is the saber igniting. Also the music suddenly becomes much louder when he appears, blaring out the secondary theme for Kylo.     

Rey then scrambles to get away while Kylo stalks after her slowly.  Monsters rarely run: mummies shamble, Frankenstein’s monster lurches, zombies shuffle, serial killers stalk, etc. If a character is supposed to be frightening or intimidating they often will chase after someone slowly rather than running after them. If they were to run after their victim it gives the impression that perhaps their victim could outrun them.  By having the monster stalk their prey slowly it gives the impression of inescapable inevitability. The monster will catch them eventually, no matter how fast they run. The music continues to play Kylo’s secondary theme. There are multiple ways to use music to create a sense of increasing drama or tension. One of them is for the music to get louder, which is what John Williams does with Kylo’s theme as he stalks closer to Rey.  

Rey continues to back away and fires her blaster at Kylo to no effect.  Of course monsters are rarely easy to kill. Vampires have to be staked through the heart and werewolves can only be killed by a silver bullet.  All other injuries are shrugged off, if the terrified victim can even manage to shoot straight. When paired with a pursuit, the inability of the victim to harm the monster plays into the sense inevitability of their capture.    The Mummy (1999) (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Mummy_(1999_film)), though heavy on comedic action adventure, was written in homage to classic horror films and uses many of these monster movie tropes: The heroine backs away, the mummy appears suddenly and then stalks her slowly, and when the mummy is shot it is only a temporary setback for him. 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w1C_kzh6yiY 

When Kylo catches up to Rey he uses the Force to freeze her in place.  While Kylo is the one holding Rey in place rather than a reaction on her part the visual imagery is strikingly similar to scenes in horror films where a character is frozen with fear. 

After Kylo Force-freezes Rey, he threatens her, reads her mind and discovers that she has seen the map. The music here transitions from rapid strings meant to evok tension to a soft ominous bass melody.  The melody transitions into Kylo’s theme and crescendos as he threatens Rey with the saber. While Kylo reads Rey’s mind the music is rapid strings, used to evok tension, over an ominous version of Kylo’s theme. 

Kylo then knocks Rey out with the Force, and abducts her. It is here we come to the trope that is perhaps the most frequently misidentified trope in the Saga.  Some people saw the way that Kylo was carrying Rey draped across his arms and mistakenly believed that this was a use of the Bridal Carry trope, so called because the visual this trope describes connotes a man carrying his bride over the threshold and thus suggests that the two characters are either in a romantic relationship or destined for one. This event has often been cited as being evidence of romantic subtext between Rey and Kylo.  However this interpretation neglects one favorite ploy of horror tropes. Horror films love taking things that are normally seen as innocent, funny, or even romantic and corrupting them into something sinister. This is why horror films make use of things like creepy children, creepy dolls, and monstrous clowns. The trope that J.J. Abrams used for Kylo’s abduction of Rey is one such corruption. 

To understand the corruption it helps to understand the implications of the Bridal Carry Trope.  The tradition of a husband carrying his wife across the threshold began because it was believed that if the bride stumbled while crossing the threshold that it would bring bad luck on the couple.  In carrying his bride across the threshold the husband is ensuring that no such bad luck has a chance of striking. So the act of a man carrying a woman in this way has both romantic and protective overtones.  Pop culture picked up on both the romantic and protective overtones. The result is that this trope is not only used to broadcast romance but is also frequently used in rescues, typically when the hero rescues his current or future love interest. 

Image result for superman and lois lane Image result for tarzan rescues jane

Now how do you make this trope sinister?  Well, what’s the opposite of a rescue? An abduction. Movies that feature a monster abducting a woman will frequently make use of a trope that looks similar to a bridal carry but with much more malevolent implications. A husband carries his bride into their new home with the intent of protecting her.  A “monster” abducts a woman carries her off to his lair with ill intent. TV Tropes refers to this trope as “the Rape of the Sabine Woman” (https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/TouchOfTheMonster). The name is a reference a story (of debatable historical accuracy) about the abduction of the women of Sabine by the men of ancient Rome.   Note that the trope refers specifically to the pose of the monster and the woman he is carrying. 

When the visuals of the two tropes are compared the difference is clear. In the Bridal Carry Trope the girl is usually conscious and often has her arms around the man’s neck. If she’s unconscious, the intent of the carrier is to assist and protect her, and her head is supported against the man’s chest or shoulder, signaling that he cares about her comfort and welfare. Her body is usually rotated toward him, including when unconscious, representing her explicit or implicit consent to the carry.

When the Rape of the Sabine Woman trope is used the girl is not awake and willing but unconscious and a victim of forcible abduction. Notably, too, the girl subject to the abduction is held differently than the girl in a Bridal Carry. The girl’s limbs are limp and her head hangs unsupported, connoting a lack of intimacy between the girl and her abductor and a certain callous disregard on the part of the monster for the girl’s comfort and well-being. Her body is often rotated away from him, representing revulsion and lack of consent. While the monster’s motivation for abducting the girl may be because he is lonely and craving companionship, this isn’t a trope that is used to foreshadow romance between abductor and victim. 

Note this Rape of the Sabine Woman trope does not simply mean that the one carrying the woman is monstrous in appearance. For example this is what a monster carrying a girl in an actual Bridal Carry (from “The Shape of Water” (2017) (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Shape_of_Water) looks like:


Note that the woman’s head is supported and that her body is turned towards the creature carrying her. 

This is Kylo carrying Rey:

 

Note that Rey is unconscious, her head is unsupported, her body is rotated away from Kylo, and her arm hangs limp.  This was not intended to be a romantic Bridal Carry trope. This has all the hallmarks of the Rape of the Sabine Woman trope and was intended to be a continuation of the horror and monster movie tropes that led up to it.

Finn screams Rey’s name and runs after her but is unable to get to her before she is taken aboard Kylo’s shuttle. A more general abduction trope is used here.  Often when a female character is abducted their love interest is made to watch helplessly while they are being taken. Andrew Lloyd Weber’s The Phantom of the Opera uses this trope when the Phantom abducts Christine during his opera while Christine’s fiance, Raoul, looks on. The Mummy (1999) uses this trope when the mummy takes Evy while Rick is unable to help her.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_BoTMImN_Ao   

 

Much has been made about the music here and how it resembles the opening to Tchaikowsky’s Romeo and Juliet. Some have used the claimed similarity as evidence that the scene is meant to be seen in a romantic light. Let’s take a closer look at that particular phrase of the score. First we note that the opening phrase for the Overture to Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet begins on G, goes down to B, up to C, up to D, down to A, down to G, and finally up to C.  

romeo and juliet

The much obsessed over horn cue from “The Abduction” goes from F sharp, up to G, up to A, up to B flat, then back down to A. 

the cue

The only similarity is that both contain a half step up followed by a whole step up.  The rest of the melody diverges.  

It’s also important to put the cue in its proper context.  There are three methods that film composers often use to create an increasing sense of drama/excitement/suspense: 1) Have the music get faster, 2) Have the music get louder, 3) Have the melody work its way up the scale.  Williams does the third and a bit of the second in “The Abduction.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IUs88IY1A00

At 1:19 a brief cue from Rey’s theme is stated in D minor.  The music then goes through a transitional phrase that works its way up the scale until 1:39 where Rey’s theme is stated in full an octave higher.  The point of the transition is to create a drawn out sense of increasing drama and suspense as Rey is carried away. The horn cue is part of this transition. The ascending half step followed by a whole step is part of a brief ascending scale, a phase commonly used in these sorts of transitions.  

If the purpose of borrowing a phrase from another work is to hint at a similarity between the plots of those two works the borrowed music must be recognizable to the audience watching the movie. For example Steven Spielberg wanted to use “When You Wish Upon a Star” at the end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). Notice that John Williams uses the first two phrases of “when you wish upon a star” in the reference. You can hear the cue at 4:25 here:

Given that “Romeo and Juliet” isn’t a piece of music that Williams would expect the average moviegoer to recognize (especially from just 3 notes), the fact that the cue in question varies from the “Romeo and Juliet” theme for 40% of the cue, and given that the cue is part of a larger transition used to take Rey’s theme from a lower octave to a higher octave its most likely that the similarity of the three notes between the two pieces is purely coincidence. 

Two pieces of music having three notes in sequence that share the same intervals isn’t a terribly rare thing.  Both the Star Wars Main theme and the theme for Gondor (2:33 here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=afY_Srf4xjk) from the Lord of the Rings feature a rising fifth followed by a whole step downward.  Does that mean John Williams should sue Howard Shore for copyright infringement? Of course not, because beyond those opening notes the pieces are entirely different. Both Rose’s theme (featured in the Rebellion is Reborn https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vP0nEO6q8iI) and the Main theme from Galaxy Quest (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RFdTgHBnlxM) feature a rising fourth followed by a rising whole step.  Is John Williams trying to say that Rose is an earth actress that was abducted by friendly aliens hoping she would save the day in the Star Wars universe? Of course not, that would be absurd.  You can play this game all day.    

If John Williams (or J.J. Abrams for that matter) had intended to use the music to cast Kylo Ren in a romantic or even just a gentler light, they missed a golden opportunity: The scene where Kylo takes off his mask.  The audience’s expectations have already been subverted by Kylo taking off his mask to reveal he isn’t horribly scarred like Vader or demonic looking Maul. If J.J. Abrams or John Williams wanted to cast him in a different light this is the place to do it.  Play a new theme for him, right after he takes off the mask, that is gentler than his other themes and the audience will pick up from the music that they are supposed to see him in a new light here. That isn’t what J.J. or John Williams did though. There is very little music at all (an effect generally used to create unease in the audience) and the sound effects are ominous.  Obviously, despite seeing his face we aren’t meant to interpret his character differently in this scene.  

That we aren’t supposed to see Kylo differently in the interrogation scene than in the forest is further underscored by the fact that several other common monster tropes show up in the interrogation scene. One is for monsters to tie up the woman they recently abducted or strap her down to a table. 

 

Another is for monsters to invade their would be victim’s personal space.  People tend to feel threatened when other people enter their personal space without permission.  By having the monster get very close to another character and visibly show that character’s distress the audience sympathizes with the threat that the character obviously feels which builds suspense. 

    

Given that Kylo’s helmet will be repaired at some point during the Rise of Skywalker it will be interesting to see if J.J. Abrams once again makes Kylo a “creature in a mask” and makes use of monster tropes in his scenes.  It’s also possible that these tropes could be further extended to the Knights of Ren.

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