Star Wars: The Last Jedi makes a firm statement about the role of the Jedi as a force for good. In an interview with EW, Mark Hamill called Luke Skywalker ”someone who was the symbol of hope and optimism in the original films,” and The Last Jedi plays with this idea. In the trailers for Episode VIII, Luke was presented as far from optimistic as a former hero could get, a broken curmudgeon who thought that the Jedi needed to die. Now that the movie is out, we have a definitive look at who Luke is to the Sequel Trilogy, and what The Last Jedi’s portrayal of his optimism means for the saga.
The Last Jedi’s title turned out to be an epic misdirection. While Luke did believe that the Jedi had to die while he was in exile on Ahch-To, he learned that his own guilt was blinding him to the hope represented by Rey. In a powerful conversation with Yoda, Luke learned that failure is part of the Jedi journey and that his exile did not have to be the end for the light side of the Force. The way his return and death were treated in The Last Jedi shows that the Star Wars franchise is not interested in subverting Luke, or in trying to prove that his philosophy was wrong. Instead, the movie shows how even the greatest heroes must continue to grow and learn until their dying day.
Throughout the film, the Skywalker name is still treated like a beacon of hope despite what Luke or his bloodline have done. Rogue One showed us heroes who murdered allies, and the violent Partisan splinter group that believed in the basic tenants of the Rebellion. It made me wonder whether we would see the heroes of the Rebellion in the same light. A commonly cited fan theory suggested that the idea of balance in the Force means equal amounts of good and evil, but this always felt to me to be incompatible with the triumph of the Rebellion’s victory in Return of the Jedi. Would Luke be shown as fallible and morally vague?
It turns out that the answer for Luke is both yes and no. Writer-director Rian Johnson’s story sends him to a dark place. It would not surprise me to learn that one of the strongest points of contention between Johnson and Hamill, who was initially concerned about Luke’s portrayal in the film, was the moment in which Luke stands over Ben Solo with a lightsaber, considering killing his nephew. But that’s the beginning of the story of the Sequel Trilogy, not the ending.
Near the end of the film, Luke projects a vision of himself across the galaxy in order to distract his nephew, Kylo Ren, so the Resistance can escape. It’s Luke’s final heroic act before his death, creating a legend to inspire the galaxy. But, of course, Luke’s projection doesn’t look the way he does in the rest of the movie. He’s younger, with a shorter haircut, new outfit and, most surprisingly, his father’s old lightsaber, last seen in the possession of Rey. A lightsaber that was destroyed just a few scenes earlier.
“We as an audience saw that,” Johnson explained. “The truth is, we see the lightsaber split in half [but] Kylo sees a blinding flash of light and is knocked unconscious, and then Rey takes the lightsaber away before he wakes up. So if you really want to dig into it and get an explanation, you can say that he doesn’t 100 percent know what happened to the lightsaber.”
That… makes a lot of sense actually. But what about the rest of it? The haircut, the new duds? Johnson continues:
“[Luke] is basically tailoring this projection to have maximum effect on Kylo. He knows that Kylo’s Achilles heel is his rage, and so that’s why he kind of makes himself look younger, the way Kylo would’ve last seen him in their confrontation at the temple, and that’s why he decided to bring Kylo’s grandfather’s lightsaber down there—the lightsaber that Kylo screamed at Rey, ‘That’s mine, that belongs to me.’”
That, again, makes a lot of sense and is a conclusion many filmgoers came to on their own. But hearing Johnson explain it gives it a bit more authority.The Last Jedi is one of the best movies in the Star Wars franchise, for much the same reason The Empire Strikes Back is one of the best. Where the first movie in a trilogy is a thrilling adventure — 2015’s The Force Awakens mirrors A New Hope almost beat-for-beat in that respect — the second complicates the saga by introducing doubt, failure, and sadness.
That often upsets fans. There is tension between the narrative demands of a second film and making a Star Wars movie that does big business, sells toys, and makes fans happy. But adding darkness infuses a well-done second film with depth that endures over the long term.
Fans are indeed upset with many of director Rian Johnson’s choices in The Last Jedi, as Vox’s Todd VanDerWerff has documented in detail. (Likewise, The Empire Strikes Back faced a backlash of its own.) And it is often the choices that complicate franchise canon and characters that have stirred up the most anger.
My criticism is different, though, and something I haven’t seen articulated in reviews of the film. In almost every case, I thought Johnson didn’t go far enough. He feints and flirts with deeper, darker themes, but again and again, loses his nerve before the tone and trajectory of the saga are seriously threatened.