Thinking About Luke Skywalker, "The Last Jedi", One Year Later
The brouhaha that continues to surround Star Wars: The Last Jedi makes the idea of even thinking about it a drag. Which is a shame. Because I contend that when it’s between you and your screen, The Last Jedi remains an exciting film to ponder on. Hence the spirited debates. Most particularly where Luke Skywalker is concerned. An elder Jedi Master Luke Skywalker was always going to be the trickiest thing to nail in The Last Jedi. As far as I’m concerned, writer/director Rian Johnson was wholly reverential to Luke Skywalker and the idea of the Jedi.
It’s strange to think that Luke’s cinematic lifespan was only six years. 1977 to 1983. But in the intervening 34 years, the iconoclasm of Star Wars remained so vital that Skywalker more solidly planted himself in the realm of a collective consciousness, one fuelled mostly by books, comic books, video games, etc.. He was deified and became this power fantasy over the years. And so we went into Star Wars Episode VIII expecting a deity. So did young Rey. So when Luke scoffed at Rey “What do you expect me to do, face down the whole First Order with a laser sword?”, her indignation was our own. Well of course you’re supposed to face down the whole First Order with a laser sword. And it’s called a lightsabre.
So yeah, what we got instead of a god was a man. A man haunted by the mistake of igniting his weapon against his deeply troubled nephew Ben Solo, thus setting the unbalanced young adept on the course to becoming Kylo Ren, the most feared mass murderer since his own father Darth Vader.
The son of a tyrant has now become the unwitting father of another one. So this grumpy old man cut himself off from the Force, because to hell with it; to hell with the cycle of violence, to hell with being a cog in the war machine. This dispirited response to violence is kind of antithetical to the notion of “Star Wars”, isn’t it? As Mark Hamill said in an interview regarding his incredulity at Luke Skywalker’s character in The Last Jedi: “A Jedi doesn’t give up! A Jedi is tenacious.” I know what he means by that, but to my mind that statement conjures a sad image of two caged animals fighting until one of them drops dead.
But just what the hell is a Jedi? What do we expect from them? Do we just crave the vicarious power fantasy of the iridescent blade that can slice through anything, the powers that can kill you dead a hundred different ways? Think about when young Jedi-in-training Rey, armed and clearly murderous, charges the evil Supreme Leader Snoke. “You have the spirit of a true Jedi!” Snoke cackles in response. That’s not just an empty taunt. It’s a pronouncement to clue us in to something deeply amiss because the obviously evil ugly old villain thinks that’s what a Jedi is. In one of the film’s many surprises, it turns out to be Kylo Ren who slays the evil Supreme Leader. But far from ending the conflict, Ren becomes another Supreme Leader, another cog in the war machine.
This is where Johnson’s ingenious solution to the Jedi’s conundrum comes into play. The conundrum being our insatiable hunger for spectacle and action vs the film’s anti-violence thematic integrity. Johnson’s solution is to make a godly, epic spectacle of Luke Skywalker’s pacifism during the climactic showdown on the planet Crait; a planet, which, interestingly enough, bleeds red mist during spectacularly violent battles. This is an important visual. Kylo Ren, enraged beyond belief at the mere site of his former master, ignites his red blade and swings wildly at Luke, creating vivid crimson mists with his fury. Luke leaves no such bloody traces, because he’s there to provide a distraction that will save his sister Leia and the rest of the rebellion, not strike down an enemy. And yes, it’s also a clever little hint that Luke’s presence isn’t physical but ghostly, a luminous projection from galaxies away. It works on a few levels, this one little detail that’s so easy to miss.
But Luke’s gargantuan Jedi mind trick has a real basis in the martial art Akido, which is essentially about defending yourself without injuring your opponent. Star Wars has always liberally borrowed from Eastern philosophies, but Rian Johnson goes beyond words and makes a visual feast out of it. Frankly, coolly evading fatal blows has never looked so elegant in Star Wars. I’m a little bummed that that element has been mostly ignored, to be quite honest. Can you think of any other popular action movies where the warrior’s pacifism is so beautifully photographed and acted?
On the other hand, I get that fans were upset they were denied a physical conflict between Luke Skywalker and Kylo Ren. Disappointment was my immediate reaction too. But we’ve got to ask ourselves why we crave a physical conflict. In the original trilogy, every time Luke raised his blade to kill it either resulted in defeat or his corruption. So whenever someone froths at the mouth that The Last Jedi is a betrayal of everything that Star Wars stands for, I can’t help but think that The Last Jedi’s climax is the one and so far only time a Star Wars movie splendidly gave life to Yoda’s wise words: “A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defence, never for attack” and “Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.” Hell, just think of the end of the climax of Return of the Jedi, when Luke throws away his lightsabre and proudly declares, “I am a Jedi. Like my father before me.”
JJ Abrams is returning to direct the final instalment of this trilogy. If young Rey ends the movie as just another slayer with cool powers and the fancy light blade, then maybe Luke Skywalker really was the last jedi.