Warning: there will be spoilers for The Last Jedi in this article.
In Star Wars: The Last Jedi, the treatment of Luke Skywalker’s character might be one of the most hotly debated aspects of this overwhelmingly critically acclaimed film.
On Twitter, I went on an exploration of this and I’ll be presenting it here. I’ve cleaned it up a bit and clarified, though. If you want to see the original thread on twitter, you can do so here.
So, here we go:
Rewatch The Empire Strikes Back and I think it’s apparent that there was no other choice for Luke Skywalker in The Last Jedi, given the events of The Force Awakens. The entire premise of The Empire Strikes Back is that Luke Skywalker can sense Han and Leia in danger before it happens across the galaxy and drops everything to save them.
Which makes the biggest question in The Force Awakens, to me, “Why didn’t Luke save Han?” Not Snoke, not Rey’s parents, nothing. Why did Luke Skywalker let Han Solo die?
Luke is the central mystery of The Force Awakens. The opening sentence of the crawl is “Luke Skywalker has vanished.” The closing shot is Rey having found him. The film is begging us to ask these questions about Luke. Why are we getting sidetracked by Snoke and Rey’s parents?
Because of Empire and The Force Awakens, I don’t think Rian Johnson COULD have done anything else with Luke Skywalker and have it make sense. There were slight variations that could have been made, sure, but the broad strokes of what Johnson gave us are pretty much inevitable. I expected Luke to toss the saber the first time I saw the film. That’s his thing. I’ve been on the “Luke is turning to non-violence” bandwagon for a while. But I was furious the first time I heard him say, “Where’s Han?” BUT! I realized there had to be a reason for it… My patience paid off in what I find one of the most heartfelt and stunning moments in the film: when Rey realizes that Luke has cut himself off from the Force.
Here we have the single most powerful Force user in the galaxy forced to cut himself off of every instinct he has for fear he’ll do the galaxy more harm than good. From Luke’s perspective, this abstinence of the Force is heroic. Another Jedi purge becomes impossible. The perspective of the audience hasn’t been as sympathetic. But this is also one of the central themes of The Last Jedi: that we can all perceive the exact same thing in a different way.
I’m not just talking about the Rashomon sequence (which I thought was brilliant filmmaking), but the vision Rey and Kylo shared and discussed on the elevator. They saw the same thing and came to different conclusions about what that outcome would be.
“Always in motion is the future,” Master Yoda would say.
But let’s talk about the Rashomon sequence. Because, to me, this is what made Luke the LEAST Luke and the MOST Luke and the more I watch it, the more heartbreaking it is to me in the best ways. In case anyone is unfamiliar, Rashomon is a groundbreaking 1950 samurai film by Akira Kurosawa, who has always been an intense influence on Star Wars. It tells the tale of a murder in a meadow from three different perspectives. The film never offers us an objective truth on what happened, merely lets the narrators be as reliable or unreliable as our point of view allows.
Our first glimpse of the “Rashomon” triptych in The Last Jedi comes when Luke explains that he’d sensed the Dark Side in Ben. He went to confront him about it and it didn’t go well. No sabers were in play. This is how Luke WISHES it would have gone, if at all. The second version is from Ben’s perspective. Naturally, he’s the hero of this version. Luke practically has Sith eyes and his green lightsaber is almost a sickly yellow. From Ben’s POV, Luke arrives to murder him absolutely. There is no question in his mind. And then, the third time, we’re given Luke’s version. A blend of the two with plenty of shades of gray. And, for my money, the version of the story I believe. And it’s the one I think truest to Luke’s character, too.
Luke goes to check on Ben and the darkness growing inside him. This wellness check is already filled with self-doubt. Luke, like every creative or heroic person I’ve ever known, suffers from impostor syndrome. Just like Obi-Wan’s.
And here he sees a darkness greater than anything he could have ever imagined. And a future where all of his loved ones are killed and the Jedi order he cared about burned to the ground. What happened the last time he was confronted with an image of this? The last time this happened, he was in the Death Star Throne Room and Vader taunted him with this vision of the future and he lost control. He ignited his saber out of instinct and fought. With rage and anger. But he pulled himself back from doing the thing he swore he wouldn’t do: kill his own father. Then he tosses his lightsaber and says, essentially, “kill me if you have to, but I’ll die like a Jedi.”
Now, he goes to Ben’s hut and sees that future all over again. And, as before, his saber ignites. And this is startling to him. He’s instantly ashamed of himself and must deal with the consequence of that split-second consideration. We know he’d NEVER kill his nephew. Ben doesn’t. Some have said that Luke wouldn’t consider this again, but facing the Dark side of yourself isn’t a “one time and it’s over thing.” It’s a constant. We learn and we grow and we constantly have to reevaluate that.
And here’s where Luke decided it was ultimately the right thing for the Galaxy to end the Jedi and quit the Force. Because these cycles of violence will happen between good and evil jockeying for power. And the constant in Luke’s view was the Jedi.
Their failure. Hypocrisy. Hubris. If they were off the playing field, there would be no Vader. Or Kylo Ren. So instead of doubling down and training NEW Jedi to take down his nephew, he simply ends the cycle. VIolence begets violence and Luke would no longer participate.
And that’s why I love the end of the movie. Luke finally learned from his mistakes. He could stick to his non-violence, but still set an example that would ignite the galaxy. Which is why his saber never touches Ben’s during the fight. It’s 100% evasion. He had lost the understanding of the value of the Legend of Luke Skywalker, but Rey helped him find it again. And he could once again believe in himself. And the Jedi.
From my perspective, given Luke’s inaction in The Force Awakens, this is the ONLY thing that could have been done with him. And why I’ve embraced the arc so much. I love it. You don’t have to like it, but this is the Luke I saw up there. And when he has his heroic moment on Crait and binary sunset… It’s a perfect capstone to his character, given the turn the universe and canon took.