“I was Luke Skywalker. Jedi Master. A legend.”
“The galaxy may need a legend.”
I’ve read plenty of complaints about The Last Jedi, but the most prolific – or, at least, what it all stems from – is the portrayal of Luke Skywalker. There have been some waiting since 1983 to hear Luke speak again. To bask in how strong with the Force he would have become – to witness the ultimate Jedi. When J.J. Abrams left us on a literal cliffhanger two years ago, with Rey holding out his original lightsaber, what was he gonna do? Take it? Ignite it, rediscovering the Force after all these years?
Nope. He threw it off a cliff and walked away. Two years of collective, global theorizing, and not one person guessed that Luke just wouldn’t want it. Why would he? It’s an absolutely brilliant action, one which works as a gag but is primarily character-building. This was Rian Johnson just getting it out the way early: this is not going to go the way you think.
The Force Awakens is about hyping up the legend of Luke Skywalker. Rian could have indulged in this. Luke could have ignited his old lightsaber. He could have taught Rey the ways of the Force immediately and left to go obliterate the First Order with his god-tier Force strength that fans had waited decades to see. But he didn’t, because, like it or not, that would have been boring. Fun in the moment? Sure. But it’s easy. To steal another of Luke’s quotes from this movie (as they are all incredibly poetic, quite honestly), it would have been a “cheap move.” Rian doesn’t want to keep us wrapped in The Force Awakens‘ snug blanket of safety – he wants to rip it off and set it on fire, in the nicest way possible.
What if this mythic legend is actually nothing of the sort? What if he feels crushed under the weight of his own reputation? What if, as humans often do, he has failed, and lives with regret? Does it make him a villain? How would he respond to that? How would Rey feel, as someone who has grown up hearing about this guy and wants to learn from him? It’s a nice twist on our expectations. And what better character to explore this with than the greatest hero in cinematic history: Luke Skywalker?
Reputations are not always a great thing. Really, they are almost always false. Your actions one time do not speak for your entire character, nor is the response of one or two people to you enough to form it. We are multifaceted, complex, messy, yet eternally cursed with relying on reputation and rumour to make up our opinions. They are not an accurate categorisation of who we are, but rather a bar, which we can either reach for or run away from. Even if you’ve got a fantastic reputation. On one hand, you could go – “oh, wow! I guess this means I’m amazing!” Or, you could say… “but I’m not great. I’m not the person everybody else thinks I am.”
That’s Luke. American cinema has held up the hero as the height of humanity ever since, well, we first met Luke Skywalker in 1977, but rarely do we see how being the hero affects them. What it’s like to live knowing that everybody’s counting on you because they think you’re some perfect guy, when you’re not! Let’s make that clear: not even fictional characters are perfect. Never think of characters as anything other than people. They look like us, they sound like us, because they are us. They’re just as flawed and silly as actual real humans. Luke may have blown up the Death Star, and he may have brought his father back from the Dark Side, but he’s not perfect. We saw that in the Original Trilogy: he’s stubborn, he’s a bit whiny, and he’s always looking into the horizon. Never here. Hm?
Nor is he a fully-fledged Jedi, a fact we tend to forget. He never completed his training with Yoda. Luke was left to build the New Jedi Order off of nothing but a few lessons from Yoda and Ben and what he could figure out for himself (sure, they stuck around as Force Ghosts, but they weren’t permanently on-call). When you think about Luke in that respect, and with his mountainous reputation in mind, you begin to get the pressure which Luke must have been under. Now imagine how it feels when one of your students – your nephew – starts acting out a bit. He thinks your dad, Darth Vader, Dark Lord of the Sith, was pretty cool. He’s been chatting with some dodgy old bloke called Snoke. And you can sense the Dark Side within him.
Do not pretend that your first thought would not simply be: “shit.” Do not pretend that you wouldn’t act a little irrationally. Whether the specific irrationality was a good character beat is up for debate – I love this film, but I don’t think that Luke would even consider killing his nephew in his sleep, even in his darkest moment. Not the guy who brought the literal Darth Vader back to the Light. I can buy it within the context described, but I reckon there’s a better option out there.
But I digress. Luke does exactly what the old Jedi Order did: he failed his student, inadvertently giving them justification for turning to the Dark Side. Luke fails. And that’s what’s really fucking important in The Last Jedi.
“Pass on what you have learned. Strength. Mastery. But weakness. Folly. Failure, also – yes, failure, most of all. The greatest teacher, failure is.”
I sympathised with the fans who wanted to see Luke Skywalker in his glory again, cutting down Stormtroopers left and right with his green lightsaber, so they could relive the wonder of their childhoods. I still preferred what we got, but I understood where they were coming from. Now, having seen the film a third time today, I don’t. I really, really don’t, and I honestly think that would have been shit. It would have been uninspiring. I absolutely do not buy into the criticism that this Luke is too depressing, that it’s an insult to the character’s legacy and even Mark Hamill himself. If you just hear what Hamill originally heard – this Luke is depressed, wasting away on an island, waiting to die so the Jedi can finally end – then, sure, it’s a bit… *um.* That’s why he initially reacted so badly, telling Rian Johnson he “fundamentally disagreed with virtually every decision” he had made, which many fans have latched onto as confirmation that even the man behind Luke hates what Lucasfilm has done to him. They conveniently forget that Hamill said his phrasing was “inartful” and has changed his mind.
Those fans are forgetting that, when you’ve hit rock bottom, the only way is up. And Luke really has hit rock bottom. The walrus tit milk doesn’t look particularly appetising, nor does the big plastic fish Luke catches using his fairly impractical spear. Ahch-To is wet and cold. He’s only got PORGS for company, along with some weird nuns. Not to mention the chronic depression.
But, slowly, Luke changes. He can’t quite resist going aboard the Millennium Falcon once more, for what could be the first time in decades. His face lights up when he meets R2-D2 again. He still agrees to train Rey, after the beautiful touch of R2 showing him Leia’s “help me Obi-Wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope” message for the first time in almost forty years. Despite going to burn the Force Tree down, containing all the original Jedi texts, he hesitates. When Yoda strikes it down, he attempts to run in and save them. He inadvertently reveals that he has actually read them, even though they weren’t “page-turners.” The Yoda and Luke scene is one of my all-time favourite Star Wars moments, but it also hints at us that Luke perhaps isn’t so doom-and-gloom as he’s led us to believe. He says he came to Ahch-To to die, but he didn’t kill himself. He says the Jedi need to end, but he still read all the original textbooks, and he still sought out the first ever Jedi Temple. Do those sound like the actions of a man who has truly lost all hope?
No. A little kernel of it always remained, because that’s who Luke Skywalker is: ever the optimist, looking toward the horizon. And as the story moves on, that kernel grows and burns as brightly as that binary sunset from so long ago. Once Yoda returns to impart his wisdom, everything clicks for Luke. One failure should not reduce him to despair – it should propel him to hope. And it does.
Luke makes his grand return, astral projecting himself across the galaxy so that he can save the Rebellion one last time and make a mockery of the First Order’s apparent might. Just like Rey did, he finally started believing in the legend of Luke Skywalker.
That’s the thing about myths, legends, reputations. They are not us unless we want them to be. They are the bar, that we can either reach for or run away from. Luke has spent too long running away from his legend, his story. It was time for him to reach for it. To Force-grab it, and wield it with glorious purpose like one would a lightsaber. That is why The Last Jedi is a breathtakingly human film about hope, and an absolutely brilliant message for us: no matter how badly we fail, we can still do good. And if the greatest hero the world has ever known can fail, then it’s OK for you to as well.
And what of that legend? As we see in the final scene, it’s already spreading out across the stars, reaching children on far-off planets, who retell it in wonder and awe. When Episode IX picks up, the story of how Luke Skywalker showed up the First Order will have burned through the cosmos, inspiring the downtrodden once more. Kylo Ren was wrong when he said we should “let the past die,” just as Luke was wrong to want to burn down the tree. The past is valuable, but only when it’s giving us a place to move forward to.
Really, the fans crying out about this movie did get exactly what they wanted. Luke may not have been in the cockpit of an X-Wing or duelling the enemy with his lightsaber, but he’s doing something far more important: giving the galaxy hope again.
I don’t know about you, but I think that’s a brilliant way to revere, to honour, and to say goodbye to Luke Skywalker.