Monday, December 18, 2017

Luke Skywalker takes us on an emotional journey in STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI

Warning: I'm going to be discussing everything about Star Wars: The Last Jedi here. Consider this your Spoiler Alert.

As one of the authors of THE MAKING OF STAR WARS: EPISODE VIII, I was curious to see how much of the film Brian Michael Scully and I correctly guessed now that the film is in release. Turns out we nailed it, all of it. Don't bother to check, just take my word for it.

I'm led to believe that most boys growing up tended to dream about being Han Solo more than they did Luke. Han was the cool guy, the hot shot pilot who got the girl and always had a witty line to say. His cocky aloofness was apparently far more appealing than Luke's pureheart earnestness.

I was one of the kids who wanted to be Luke Skywalker.

After a film's worth of build-up we finally get to know the modern version of Luke Skywalker in writer/director Rian Johnson's THE LAST JEDI as Rey arrives at the first Jedi Temple to ask for his help. Arm outstretched, she delivers his lightsaber, his father's lightsaber. Luke takes it, studies it for a moment... and then chucks it over his shoulder.

This is not going to go the way we think.

There are a lot of plot threads winding through THE LAST JEDI (too many, to be honest), but the most consequential and controversial is the Luke/Rey thread, as the young would-be Jedi learns what drove Luke into exile and why he's none too eager to come out of it. After Rey ignores his first few admonishments to go away, he tells her, "I came here to die."

I don't think that claim entirely holds up under scrutiny, but I'll come back to that in a moment.

We already knew that Luke disappeared after Kylo Ren went bad, killed all of his students and destroyed Luke's Jedi Academy. What we didn't know was the confrontation that set this off. Luke visited the young Ben Solo as he slept and looked into his mind. He discovered that the darkness in him was greater than he feared, too great to be stopped at that point. In a moment of impulse, he ignited his lightsaber, ready to end his threat now. It was a reaction he almost immediately reconsidered, but Ben awoke, saw this and attacked Luke. By the time Luke woke up, his students were dead.

So Luke's guilt is three-fold:

1) He feels he should have caught Ben's turn to the Dark Side sooner.

2) He shouldn't have momentarily considered killing him.

3) He shouldn't have FAILED to kill him.

And yes, 2 and 3 set off a logic feedback loop. That's part of the issue.

Also, let's consider the fact that Luke was the guy who still believed there was enough good still in conflict with Darth Vader that he could be salvaged. How dark must Kylo Ren's soul be for Luke to think even for a second that he was beyond saving?

I suspect that when Luke went looking for the first Jedi Temple, it was with the intent of using that ancient knowledge to figure out where he went wrong so badly that he allowed the rise of another Vader. He needed to understand what he could do differently to keep his students safe from the Dark Side. Clearly, what he learned about the Jedi and the Force was that this susceptibility was less of a bug than a feature. That would have to be what drove him to see the Jedi legacy as one of failure, and one that the galaxy would be better off without.

It's not the future we envisioned for Luke when we left him in RETURN OF THE JEDI. Having defeated the Emperor and redeemed his father, his Jedi ascension came with the promise that he would be the one to restore the Jedi without making the mistakes of the past. This was only further reinforced by the prequels, which deliberately showed the old Jedi as stiff and formal, almost rigidly constrained by their own dogma. Luke was to be a new breed, possibly more spiritual and less orthodox.

Luke represented the hope of a new post-war generation, ready to move past the mistakes of its parents and ready to begin a new golden age. Only now, another fascist faction has risen, democracy has been destroyed and all the mistakes that older generation were supposed to have put in the past are now the responsibility of the younger generation to fix anew.

Oh, wait. NOW I totally relate to what sent Luke out to that island. And if I was Rey, I'd be all over him like, "Are you kidding me, dude! Get off your ass and fix this mess you made! It can't be ALL on the next generation!"

I actually understand the reaction from fans who feel that THE LAST JEDI undermines Luke's entire story. The original six films paint a picture of an archaic Jedi Order that needed to evolve in order to survive. Luke was the redemption of all of that, to the degree that it's the entire point of the six-film arc. TLJ tells us, "Yeah, that's not true at all."

I'll be honest. I'm still processing that. The movie doesn't let Luke off the hook by having Rey open his eyes to the good of the Jedi. A surprise visit from Yoda serves only to reinforce Luke's perspective that the Jedi cannot go on as they used to. It's very easy to take from this film the idea that the galaxy would be no worse off than if Luke Skywalker had never been born.

It's hard to watch Luke become a cautionary tale of his own, but Mark Hamill plays the broken Jedi Master perfectly. In his early scenes, Luke seems to have gone a bit loopy in isolation and even when he gives in to offer Rey insight into the Force, he's far from the serene mentor we might have hoped he be. (In one interesting bit of potential foreshadowing, he notes with fear that she didn't even hesitate about diving into a reserve of Dark Side power. Is there darkness in Rey? Or will she learn it's possible to wield the Dark Side without being corrupted by it?)

While it's taking apart our expectations of Jedi Master Luke Skywalker, THE LAST JEDI works to subvert our assumptions of what a STAR WARS film should be. In a shocking late film twist, Supreme Leader Snoke meets his end during a confrontation between Rey and Kylo Ren, when Ren betrays his master and murders him. Snoke seemed poised to fill the void left by the Emperor and so long as he lived, there was reasonable hope for Kylo Ren's redemption. In one of the film's most delicious ironies, Ren kills his dark master and THAT is the thing that conclusively shows he's too far gone to be saved.

This means we go into the final chapter with the First Order led by a dangerously unstable man-baby. Twice in the final battle he's shown to be unhinged, as when he orders all ships to pursue the Millennium Falcon and then later when he has every gun trained on Luke Skywalker. The First Order isn't in for the most considered leadership and it almost makes one wonder if Ren's eventual downfall will come as the result of a coup.

And to be clear, I never thought Snoke was going to be revealed to have some secret connection to past characters or anything of that sort. I'm glad he didn't turn out to be some kind of Emperor clone or anything else that would have made this universe smaller. Some fans may be upset he got taken off the board so early... I'm ecstatic!

By the same token, the film resolves the mystery of Rey's parents in the only way that would have really made sense - they were nobodies who sold her for booze money and who are buried out in the desert. As someone tired of the "Chosen One" trope and "small universe syndrome" I'm thrilled she didn't turn out to be a former student of Luke's who had her memory wiped, or a secret daughter of Han and Leia, or Luke's daughter, or any other theory that fans built up over the last two years. She's no one, and that gives her more impact than any lineage they could have tied her to.

Not everything works here. As much as I like Finn his entire subplot does little but go in circles. He and Rose have a fun rapport, but by the time their story's resolved it ends up changing nothing about the main narrative. Benicio del Toro brings an interesting energy to his part, and the diversion lets Rian Johnson get in an interesting layer about war profiteers in the STAR WARS universe, but in a movie that's two and a half hours long, this extra baggage brings down the pace a bit.

Leia's storyline is a little more interesting, as the First Order pursues the Resistance, Leia's capital ship finds itself in a slow speed chase. One attack kills most of the leadership and leaves Leia in a coma, prompting her replacement (played by Laura Dern) to clash with Poe. This story is a little more engaging, mostly because it provokes some growth in Poe. It also pays off in one of the most stunning visuals of the new trilogy when the enemy flagship is taken out. I've seen nitpicks of the "science" here, but STAR WARS is the last franchise you should try to bring any kind of science realism to.

Carrie Fisher's final appearance as Leia is as emotional as you'd expect. In one wonderful sequence she appears to have been killed after being sucked into space, only for her Force abilities to manifest long enough for her to propel herself back to the ship. I still feel it was a major missed opportunity to apparently not have Leia explore her Force abilities at all in the intervening years, but this one moment mitigated that slightly. (And, had Carrie lived, possibly could have set up an advancement of that storyline in Episode IX.)

Adam Driver continues to do incredible work as Kylo Ren. We're basically getting the Anakin arc done right this time, and that plays well against our expectations. We keep expecting the redemptive moment even as the film tells us twice that this only can end with his death. I'm looking forward to seeing him go full-on megalomaniac in the third film, and especially how that'll force Daisy Ridley to raise her game even more to match him.

It's remarkable how much the new characters have already taken over this franchise. Chewie, R2-D2 and C-3PO are all present but even more in the background than THE FORCE AWAKENS would have led us to expect. Chewie gets some of the film's better moments, though, including his interactions with the Porg creatures on Luke's island and a late-movie moment where he flies to the rescue. As dark as this film gets, all it took is the Falcon riding in, Rey in the gunner's chair, and the Falcon theme from the first film blaring for me to feel like I was 8 again.

(The only thing that could have topped it would have been if - when Ren orders all ships after the Falcon - Luke's X-Wing had flown to the rescue and taken ALL of them out. And yes, I wouldn't have objected to a little more fan service in the vein of "Luke Skywalker, Jedi badass.")

All of this leads to something I was sure we'd see by the end of this trilogy, if not this movie: the death of Luke Skywalker. After using the Force to project his image across the galaxy to confront Kylo Ren and give the Resistance a chance to flee, Luke looks across the ocean at twin setting suns, reacts with wonder to something he sees, and vanishes into the Force like Obi-Wan and Yoda before him.

It's a beautiful image, one that brings us full circle with the young dreamer who stared over the horizon 40 years ago as one of John Williams's most affecting scores played. Luke departs this world believing that nothing he devoted his life to truly mattered, that it will be up to Rey to learn from his mistakes and become the new hope he was believed to be. He leaves knowing that there's nothing he can do to save Kylo Ren from himself.

It's a terrible thing for that dreamer to be faced with - a galaxy made worse despite his own best intentions. And yet, despite that, we're told that he was at peace as he went. The trauma that drove him into exile was so profound that he cut himself off from the Force. I'm going to presume that was the reason that Yoda never made a Force Ghost visit until now. Is there still room for Luke to be wrong about what he asserted to Rey? Did his life, despite its failures, still have purpose?

I like to think so, and I'll chose to believe that when he reengaged with the Force, this time with his new insight that it didn't belong to just the Jedi, he gained a deeper understanding of his place in all of this. There was no guilt, no regret to anchor him any longer, and that was the peace that he united with as he became one with the Force.

THE LAST JEDI eschews many conventions and remainders of the past, to the point many fans have seen it as hostile to THE FORCE AWAKENS and the original films. "Let the past die," Kylo Ren says, "Kill it if you have to." We need not assume that because the franchise is moving beyond its beginnings that it's fully denouncing them. I admit, the most reasonable reading of Luke's story allows for that interpretation.

But this is not the last word on STAR WARS, and even though this is no longer his story, I will be surprised if EPISODE IX doesn't bring at least one visit from Luke, and in a way that unifies all the trilogies and shows us that no matter how derisively Luke refers to himself as a "legend," that title is well-earned.


  1. Nailed it! My only question is a lot of reviews make it sound like this is the last we will see of Carrie Fisher. I wonder if J.J. has something in his magic box. Nobody wants to see a digital version of Carrie. As cool as it was to see her use the force, I do wonder if it would have rang truer to let her go.

  2. interesting, I'd expected this piece to be more critical but you didn't head there. Good work!