Star Wars: The Last Jedi: The Case for Luke Skywalker

The Case for Luke Skywalker

Star Wars: The Last Jedi is one of the most divisive movies in film history. Even six years later, it is still the subject of debate among Star Wars fans. What sets The Last Jedi apart though, is the large gap between the critical acclaim (91% Rotten Tomatoes score) and the fans’ disdain (42% Rotten Tomatoes score).

While there are certainly elements of the film that weren’t perfect (A kiss during an explosion that nearly dooms the rebellion?!), there’s one common critique that is absolutely fundamental to what Star Wars is. The critique is that Luke Skywalker’s character was horribly mishandled. However, with enough film knowledge and geek references, the case for Luke becomes hard to dispute. Fans, maybe the critics were on to something here?

Setting the stage

There’s a few things that need to be established before we dive into Luke in The Last Jedi. The first is the legacy of the Jedi itself. In a Star Wars roundtable, Dave Filoni explains the object of the Jedi’s failure during the prequel era: compassion. The Jedi had become cold, bureaucratic hypocrites that set themselves up for failure. Qui-Gon Jinn, Filoni explains, was the last vestige of the love and care that Anakin needed (even though Obi-Wan defeated Maul in The Phantom Menace, the Jedi lost ‘the duel of the fates’ when Qui-Gon died).

Luke Skywalker became the next pinnacle of a truly compassionate Jedi, and was the only one who could redeem his father. Ahsoka exposed the right side of Anakin’s face in Rebels, Obi-Wan exposed his left side in Obi-Wan Kenobi, but only Luke could fully unmask Vader. It was Luke’s compassion and familial connection that ultimately made this possible. Therefore, when Luke seemed to almost kill his nephew for what he might do, then try to hide away forever, it felt like a betrayal of who Luke fundamentally is. At least, “from a certain point of view.” Cut to:

The Rashomon effect

Rashomon, the 1950 film by Akira Kurasawa, was a major inspiration for George Lucas’ Star Wars, as were many Samurai films of that era. ‘The Rashomon effect’ is a narrative style in which multiple descriptions of a crime are never revealed objectively. Instead, the audience must compare differing eye-witness accounts and decide the truth for themselves. This is the scenario set up around Luke’s actions, with his own account against Kylo Ren’s.

A comic book series called The Rise of Kylo Ren seems to place more of the blame on Snoke’s seduction of Ben. However, Star Wars Timelines seems to imply it was Ben that destroyed the temple himself, that very night. From here, we have little choice but to speculate, and therein lies the division among fans. To simply call that storytelling method ‘bad’ seems to do a disservice to the rich history of movies that gave rise to Star Wars, and to a poignant narrative style.

Considering the obscure reference, it could feel like Luke played his story down, and Kylo Ren gave us the ‘truth.’ But who is the more reliable witness, the ashamed Jedi master, or the brazen apprentice fallen to the dark side? It’s still a difficult thing to reconcile. So, let’s try and look at the situation on a larger time scale.

Luke after the fall of the Empire

One of Luke’s first tasks after the empire fell was to rebuild the Jedi order, and that started with training his sister (shown as a flashback in The Rise of Skywalker). When Luke started this process, he embodied the compassionate Jedi. He’d allow marriage and children, won’t be ruled by politics, etc. But then… Leia has a vision and concludes that to save her unborn son, Ben, she has to abandon her role as a Jedi. In that moment, Luke saw that even in the best case scenario, compassion seems to splinter the path of a Jedi. But is he going to give up? Of course not!

Luke tries to train Grogu in The Book of Boba Fett, but just like with Leia, Grogu chooses compassion over Jedi. Twice, such a decision stumps Luke. No matter! The Jedi are the best heroes the Galaxy can conjure up. They are the arbiters of good, of the light side of the force, and compassion must be good, right? Enter attachment, the yang to compassion’s yin.

When Ben comes of age, Luke is the Jedi. He struggles with Ben the way Obi-Wan struggled with Anakin. It’s undeniable that Snoke has been seducing Ben in the dark side from afar. But, what is Luke gonna do, not train him? That’s his family, and he wants to pass down his legacy. All the while, he sees the power and darkness buried in Ben, all the while convincing himself that if he could redeem Anakin, he can keep Ben in the light.

The destruction of Luke’s Jedi temple

Rey’s vision in The Force Awakens, when allowing a bit of room for interpretation, suggests The Knights of Ren were behind the Temple’s destruction. Rey’s path into the vision is a hallway of the Death Star. It’s therefore logical to conclude that by the night of the ‘Rashomon’ confrontation, carrying out this attack was Ben’s big fork in the road, not simply a retaliation against Luke’s attempted murder.

Even if Ben was having doubts, the attack on Luke’s temple was likely already planned. Ben, like Anakin, was a tool manipulated in order to destroy the Jedi.

So Luke, being able to sense this, goes to confront Ben about it. Then, he’s hit with the vision: His temple destroyed, the Empire returns, multiple planets decimated, Han dead, Leia dead, all at the hands of Ben. And it starts tonight. The manipulation within this vision was temporarily clouded by fear and anger. This harkens back to Vader and Palpatine’s taunts in Return of the Jedi.

This is where the idea that ‘the real Luke’ would never raise a saber to Ben falls apart. There’s a big difference between redemption and prevention. He redeemed Vader for doing bad things to people he didn’t know and couldn’t have prevented. But with Ben? Luke did everything he could for years, and Ben was still going to destroy everything he built and everyone he loved.

Luke felt he had no choice as a Jedi but to act, as Obi-Wan did with Anakin on Mustafar. “I will do what I must…” to not get caught on the sidelines of a tragedy he could prevent. In other words, he felt he had to be the hero. He wanted to be the hero again. Just like in the original trilogies, always leaping to the horizon.

Repeating the past

In an instant, Luke realizes his part in the story. The way he looks down, his lightsaber hovering over Ben, is the EXACT same shot composition as in Return of the Jedi, after Luke cuts off his father’s hand in anger, and nearly kills him. Remember, when Vader threatened to turn Leia to the dark side in Return of the Jedi? Luke’s love for his sister nearly made him kill his father. The mistake so many fans find out of character is a mistake he’s already made in the past!

This time, however, there’s no Palpatine to turn to in defiance. Just a memory, a dark plot, and a crushing regret. Even with Palpatine (seemingly) gone, the stakes have been raised for Luke.

Luke’s love for Ben upheld his faith that he wouldn’t turn to the dark side. He thought of himself and Ben as exceptions. All in one moment, standing over his frightened nephew, he saw the results not of Ben’s evil, but his own hubris. His love for Ben; love that led to his training, and his sense of duty as a Jedi to stop Ben from repeating the cycle, was the final act to start him down the worst path. What is that if not epic, ultimate tragedy? The dark side took advantage of Luke’s desire to do good, and twisted it to create evil. To remain in the light is a constant battle, even for Luke.

Compassion has consequences for Jedi

In the aftermath of Ben’s fall to the dark side, Luke scours the galaxy alone, looking for answers. Eventually, it dawns on him. He made the same mistake Yoda did. He hubristically believed that his wisdom and heroics could keep evil in check. Yoda’s failure took the path of bureaucracy, and allowed the Jedi to become soldiers (and use child soldiers). Luke, however, fell victim to his own love for his family, much like Anakin. Like father, like son.

Regardless of what’s at that core of failure, be it selfish love or dirty politics, it doesn’t change the fact that the Jedi, despite preaching that they can, cannot dictate the will of the force. In fact, they often struggle to uphold the will of the force without causing chaos on a galactic scale. Light side or dark side, it’s all still a battle for control, as stated in the film’s subplot by DJ, played by Benicio Del Toro.

Luke realizes that it wasn’t just Palpatine that turned Anakin, but the years of alienation and coldness from the Jedi order that primed him for corruption- the desire to control the chosen one. The desire to be different was the very best in Luke. Tragically, his love and dedication became a desire to dictate Ben’s destiny, and the final push for Ben to fall to the dark side. Luke’s greatest strength became his greatest weakness. He created the next Vader. And the cycle continues. “The legacy of the Jedi is failure.” Devastating.

Luke’s hardest mission yet

Luke saw the power of love, but like Anakin, love made him act rashly, even though he didn’t follow through. This balancing act of loving and letting go, now championed by Dave Filoni and Rian Johnson, is at the heart of what Star Wars fundamentally is. Think of it this way: Remember Yoda’s sage words, “Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering?” This slippery slope also applies to love, which can lead to attachment, and then control.

To quote Ellie from Jurassic Park (like a total nerd), “You never have control, that’s the illusion!” Luke learned this lesson about love and control the hard way, the way Anakin learned about fear.

This is why Luke hides. It’s not as simple as giving up, it was an act of faith. Isolation was his toughest mission yet. To let go of control, guard the Jedi’s knowledge against those who would misuse it, and let the will of the Force act on its own. When the Force finally acts… he’s found by Palpatine’s granddaughter, begging him to reclaim his father’s saber? The saber he lost (along with his hand) by naively leaping into a trap?

What is that if not the biggest red flag the universe could give him? Still, he teaches Rey what he can, because his worst fears are coming true. Ben killed Han. Does that seem like someone who’s truly given up? If so, this is where his final lesson from Yoda comes in.

Even Jedi get old

Yoda’s exile on Dagobah ‘rhymes’ with Luke’s, as does Obi-Wan’s exile on Tatooine. However, being nearly 900 years old, Yoda had the wisdom to let go of his guilt rather quickly. Yoda doesn’t reach out to Obi Wan, Ezra or Ahsoka, or train Luke  because he loved them, but because the force compelled him.

It’s the same way the Force itself compelled Rey on her journey, rather than a mentor, like we’ve seen previously. Luke, understandably, is still scarred by his failure. Even so, like Yoda, he imparts the wisdom he’s gained in words and warnings, not saber lessons.

The same way Yoda advises against Luke confronting Vader, Luke says to Rey, “This is not going to go the way you think!” He’s no longer the hero in this story, but the teacher with a long history of triumphs and mistakes, like Yoda or Obi-Wan.

Ultimately, Yoda shows Luke that it’s okay to abandon “the sacred Jedi texts” and any conception of what the Jedi should be, and allow the Force to evolve. “We are what they grow beyond.” By accepting that, Luke can truly move forward, no longer plagued by the constant stress of needing to be the hero.

Passing the torch

Yoda’s final lesson allows Luke to finally break free of his guilt, and conduct his final act through the Force. He couldn’t fight Kylo like Obi Wan fought Anakin on Mustafar. He knew it would just continue the cycle. That duty was no longer his. Instead, Luke unleashes an act of strength the likes of which we’ve never seen in Star Wars: a Force projection, and a message to Ben that he cannot be defeated with a lightsaber. It’s an act that precisely echoes the sacrifice of Obi Wan in A New Hope.

With that, Luke becomes the epitome of the full journey of a Jedi. He experiences the Anakin-esque, ‘chosen one’ responsibility in the original trilogy. He becomes a Grand Master like Yoda. Then, he experiences that personal, guilt-ridden failure that Obi-Wan and Ahsoka faced, as well as the massive structural failure Yoda faced.

Then, through the force, he is able to forgive himself the way they did (most recently with Ahsoka). Finally, he gets back into the action to sacrifice himself, disappearing like both Yoda and Obi-Wan did. His channelling of all the Jedi before him lends credibility to Rey’s journey, being called by the Force rather than a master, and allowing her to channel all the Jedi to defeat the lord of the Sith (for real this time).

Life is not about being perfect, or about being the hero forever. Growth is not always linear. That is a powerful lesson to teach, especially today, and it was done so with incredible attention to the thematic threads of legacy, family, redemption, love and letting go, that connect all of Star Wars together. If not this essay, time will surely vindicate Rian Johnson, Luke Skywalker, and the legacy of The Last Jedi.

Do you agree with the thoughts on The Last Jedi? Or do you disagree with the arguments being made here? Let us know in the comments below with your thoughts!

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