A New Old Skywalker
Recently, I went to see the new Star Wars. I know, I wanted to see it sooner, but I have babies. Anyway, getting home from the cinema, I was curious to see what people were saying about the movie, and what I discovered surprised me. While most critics and many fans loved it as much as I did, there was also a passionate contingent who decidedly didn’t.
I was intrigued. A lot of my favorite movies polarize audiences. Many, many voices had much to say, and I only got through reading a tiny speck of it, but right away, I noticed a recurring theme in the various objections. In fact, I noticed a number of recurring themes, and I’m tempted to write down my thoughts about several of them. But in the interest of brevity (and the likelihood that I actually manage to finish writing this), I’ll limit myself to this one:
What happened to Luke Skywalker?
Before I dive into what I think, forgive me for prefacing just a bit more. I should say, the writer and director of The Last Jedi, Rian Johnson, is a good friend of mine. I played the protagonist in two of his movies, Brick and Looper, and in fact, for the sake of some kind of brotherly streak, he gave me cameos in his other two movies, The Brothers Bloom, and this one. However, and this is important, I’m NOT speaking for him here. He doesn’t even know I’m writing this. I guess I should probably make sure it’s cool with him if I’m gonna post it publicly. I’ll worry about that later. But for now, I’m gonna repeat myself, because I want to be really clear, this is just my own opinion, and in no way do I carry any special authority on this movie. I’m probably biased in its favor, but then again, we’re all biased somehow, so there’s that.
I also wanna say, I’m not here to tell anybody they’re wrong. Personally, I don’t think it’s possible to be wrong when it comes to movies, or art, or literature, or whatever you wanna call it. In our ever more gamified culture, with endless awards shows, publicized box office figures, and the all-knowing Tomatometer, it seems conversations about movies are more and more often put into quantified terms of good and bad, best and worst, right and wrong. And then there’s the twitface-insta-fueled tribalism, people taking sides, pointing fingers and spitting venom at the other guys. There seems to be a lot of that going around right now from both lovers and haters of this movie. Dear oh dear, folks. This isn’t politics or sports. The fruit is in the subjectivity. If you feel differently than I do, I’m 100% cool with that. I think it’s often in these very differences of perspective that movies can be at their most enlightening, helping us learn something about each other and ourselves.
So, with all that said, I’ll ask again… What happened to Luke Skywalker?
The Luke Skywalker we meet in The Last Jedi is very different than the Luke Skywalker we remember from the original Star Wars movies. In the past, Luke was hopeful, an idealist, deeply driven to venture out into the galaxy, find his destiny, and do the right thing, no matter the cost. Now he’s apathetic, cynical even, hunkered down on an island and seemingly passionate about nothing but his own isolation. He’s wasting his talents on an eccentric day-to-day routine of laughable animal husbandry and death-defying spearfishing. When a young potential Jedi with profound aptitude, Rey, comes to find him seeking a mentor, he literally tosses her lightsaber over his shoulder into the dirt. And later, when facing said youngster in combat, he ends up on his knees, defeated.
And even worse than becoming personally weird and physically weak, he’s become morally questionable. The plot hinges on a moment from the recent past where Luke contemplates killing Ben Solo, his own nephew, in his sleep, sensing the young man’s attraction to the dark side of the Force, and fearful of the damage he might cause. I saw the point made several times that decades earlier, in Return of the Jedi, Luke is so righteous, so forgiving, he even refuses to kill the reprehensibly villainous Darth Vader. Clearly this is an enormous departure.
It makes sense that all of this might not feel very good. For so many of us, Luke is the epitome of a hero. He is what we strive to be. He’s also our access point into a world we love. We got to know Star Wars through the eyes of this character. And now, after all this time, we finally get to see him again, and he sorta sucks as a person. He’s disrespecting everything a Jedi is supposed to stand for. Ultimately it feels like he’s disrespecting us. Or, as some fans concluded, this just isn’t the real Luke Skywalker, but rather a bastardization perpetrated by bad storytelling or corporate interests.
And again, if that’s how you feel, more power to you. I think there’s a certain enjoyment to be had from taking a subversive stance against the biggest “Big Hollywood” movie of the year. And I know I couldn’t kill that buzz even if I wanted to. But if you’re feeling disappointed in the man Luke Skywalker has become in The Last Jedi, and maybe it’s getting in the way of you really loving the movie, and you’re kinda wishing you didn’t feel that way, because you want to love the movie… read on.
The way I see it, The Last Jedi takes two big risks in its depiction of Luke.
1) He’s different than he used to be.
2) Not only is he different, he’s changed for the worse.
As for the first risk, he didn’t have to be different. He’s one of the most iconic movie characters ever. A safer bet would have been to bring him back and make him just like he always was. This is what The Force Awakens did exceedingly well. For example, the Han Solo we meet in that movie is pretty much the same charmingly roguish character we loved in the original trilogy. Yes, he’s gotten older, had a kid, but it hardly seems to have changed him much. And that was fine by me. Seeing him again after so many years felt like a sweet reunion with an old friend. So, why not do the same for Luke?
Leaving Luke unchanged would have been a huge missed opportunity. Think about how rare this is. A trilogy of movies is made with a young protagonist played by an actor in his 20s. Then, no fewer than 40 YEARS LATER (A New Hope came out in 1977) this actor gets to play the same character as an older man. I don’t know how many times that has ever happened in the history of movies. Has it ever happened?
This gives the filmmaker and the actor an extraordinary opportunity to tell a story about one of the most universal truths in human experience — getting older. We all get older, and those of us who are lucky enough to survive our youth all face the joys, the terrors, the puzzles, the pitfalls, the surprises, and the inevitabilities that come along with doing so. Re-meeting our beloved protagonist decades after we last saw him, only to learn that the passing years have changed some of his most fundamental qualities, I’ll admit, it’s almost hard to see. But in that glaring contrast between the Luke of old and the new Old Luke, The Last Jedi offers a uniquely fascinating portrayal of a man’s life marching inescapably forward.
Time changes us. Go talk to anybody in their sixties and ask if they feel very different than they did in their twenties. The look on their face will almost surely speak volumes. As do so many such looks from Mark Hamill in what I feel is a beautifully nuanced and heartfelt performance.
The second big risk I mentioned was that Luke has not only changed, he’s changed for the worse. But to me, the obvious response here is that movie characters are usually better when they’re flawed. Speaking as an actor, when I’m considering whether or not I want to play a certain character, I’m always looking for a healthy balance of virtues and shortcomings. Otherwise, it doesn’t feel real. No one is a perfect hero or a perfect villain, we’re more complicated than that, every one of us. Flawless characters feel thin. And forgive me if I blaspheme, but the young Luke Skywalker always did feel just a little light to me, which is why it was so cool this time around to see him fill out into a more imperfect human being.
A flawed main character is one of the main distinctions between a story with substance and a gratuitous spectacle. It’s often through a character overcoming their flaws that a movie can really say something. Yes, when the movie begins, Luke has grown cynical. He’s lost faith in what it means to be a Jedi. He’s let fear of the Dark Side of the Force corner him into isolation and inaction. But he needs to start there, so that he can overcome this grave deficit.
To me, this is a story about not losing faith: faith in the outside world, faith in your allies as well as your enemies, in the future as well as the past, in the next generation that will take your place, and yes, faith in your own damn self. Luke has made mistakes that had terrible consequences, and his regret is so strong that he wants to give up. We need to see that despair, hidden under a crusty front of indifference, so that when he finally decides to put himself out there and make the ultimate sacrifice, it means something. It means more than just stalling the First Order to let the remainder of the Resistance escape. Our protagonist has arrived at the end of his journey. He’s re-found his faith, both in the past and the future of the Jedi Order, and even more importantly, in himself. Again, it’s in that glaring contrast between a journey’s beginnings and its end where we find a story’s meaning.
And so, speaking of faith, I’ll end on a bit of a meta note here. It feels to me like a good chunk of the backlash against The Last Jedi is about exactly that. Star Wars has a certain sanctity for a great many of us, and it’s understandable why current circumstances might rattle a fan’s faith. The ultimate authority in this world, its auteur, George Lucas, has recently passed the torch onto the next generation. The new owner of Lucasfilm is a massive media conglomerate. But I think the new Luke Skywalker of Episode VIII gives us good reason to feel reassured.
That a big Hollywood studio would take such risks on such a big property — again, to present their central hero in a drastically different light than ever before, to unflinchingly deliver the ominous message that even the most pure-hearted idealists can struggle through darkness and doubt — these are not the kinds of decisions that get made when short-term profitability is prioritized above all else. These are risks taken in the interest of building a world that is not only good for selling popcorn and action figures this year, but that thrives in the long-run on a bed of literary substance and artistic dignity. As a fan, I take it as a sign of respect that the movie was not only a good time, but a provocative challenge. A lot of studios and filmmakers don’t think so highly of their audiences. In the end, to me, The Last Jedi demonstrates not only that we can still have faith in Star Wars, but that Star Wars still has faith in us.