Wednesday, December 26, 2018

What 'The Last Jedi' ACTUALLY Got Wrong About Luke Skywalker – Part Two

Note: if you haven’t read part one of this article series, I recommend you do so before continuing. 

Last time, we analyzed Luke's character and arc, figured out his main flaw, and where his story should have gone after the original trilogy. This time we'll be analyzing where his story actually went in The Last Jedi, why it didn't work for so many people, and some suggestions for how Luke's fall and redemption could have been done better. Spoiler warning for all Star Wars movies. 

In the last article, we established that, instead of a static hero who is only meant to save the world, Luke is a highly flawed figure who is meant to change and grow over the course of the franchise. He finds little sense in the Jedi principle of accepting one’s fate and the fates of those he cares about. He’s an outgoing, energetic, and restless character who responds to trauma by jumping in and helping. This leads him into all kinds of trouble over the course of the original trilogy and even puts him at risk of following the same path his father did. Although he ultimately manages to keep his feet on the good path, there’s still a lot he has to learn about the Force and about letting go. 

By examining his arc so far and comparing it to the most universally used character arc structure, we learned that Luke is still in the point of his life where he wants to have his cake and eat it too – to use the Force as a tool to get what he wants without the willingness to surrender to it. Promotional material released by the current Star Wars writing team proved that they were aware of this and hinted it would be a main theme in The Last Jedi. And by continuing to examine this structure, we discovered the next chapter of Luke’s life should finally force him to confront his misuse of the Force and misguided belief that intervening is always the answer–to either grow to a place of acceptance or refuse to surrender his control and end up sinking lower than ever before. 

Now that we have a thorough understanding of Luke, his themes, arc, and how the continuation of his story was advertised, it’s time to move on to the main event…

Luke in The Last Jedi: 

After a time of traveling and studying Jedi history and philosophy, Luke starts a Jedi academy. He learns that his nephew, Ben Solo, is struggling with the dark side of the Force. And because Luke believes in always intervening, especially to help those he cares about because Luke is filled with hubris and believes the Skywalkers have a superior bloodline, he agrees to take Ben on as a student. Things do not go as planned, however. After witnessing a vision of all the terrible things his nephew is capable of, Luke almost kills Ben in his sleep. And though he stops himself at the last second, Ben still sees what he was about to do, gets angry, and recruits some of the other students while killing the rest. Ben Solo becomes Kylo Ren. 

Luke is quite traumatized by this series of events. And because he reacts to trauma by jumping in and trying to fix things even when he’d be better off leaving things alone withdrawing and avoiding his responsibilities, Luke decides to go find an island where he can disappear from the people who know him. Because Luke is an extrovert who can’t stand being away from people for any length of time introvert who doesn’t want to be around people, he chooses a remote island with a low population and shuts himself away from the few who do live there. 

Rey comes to the island, but he refuses to help her. Now being a non-interventionist, Luke has finally embraced Jedi teachings about accepting others' fate rejected Jedi teachings. He’s angry at the Jedi because the fall of his father and the rise of the Emperor were largely due to their non-intervention hubris and interference. He believes it’s time for the Jedi to end. 

After Rey leaves, Yoda appears. He destroys a tree and collection of books that Luke doesn’t care about. Does care about? kind of cares about and encourages him to help Rey. Yoda was the most prominent Jedi master during the time of Anakin’s fall and the Emperor’s rise to power so it takes Luke some time to forgive and trust him enough to take his advice but the issue never comes up between them and Luke accepts his advice immediately. Luke Force-projects himself to another part of the galaxy to aid his friends in the fight against Kylo Ren. The projection ultimately kills him, but he dies finally learning the lesson he’s needed to learn all this time: that jumping in and intervening isn’t always the answer, and the Force should not be used simply as a power to protect people you care about from danger. that if you have the power to protect the people you care about, it’s always your responsibility to intervene when they’re in danger. 

Okay, well. A few things seem to be a bit off here. Let’s take a closer look at the various problems.

Problem #1: Luke’s personality and reactions have completely changed. 

Take for example his extroversion. In Episode IV, deleted scenes, and the film's novelization, Luke is so desperate to be around people, he neglects his chores and almost runs over an old woman just to get to his “friends” faster. And these “friends” don’t even like him, which they make quite clear. But he is desperate to be around them anyway because social contact is that necessary for him. Now he can suddenly spend over a decade in complete isolation? The most disappointing thing about this creative decision is how unnecessary it is. Even the new, canon EU novels have extroverts who go into hiding on remote planets: they pick heavily populated planets that are removed enough from the rest of the galaxy that the population there hasn't heard of them, and/or they socialize under a fake name. So why have Luke act out of character when he doesn’t have to? 

The Luke we got to know in the original trilogy had a specific personality. He was energetic, hasty, the type to blurt out an ill-timed statement before thinking it through. An impatient, whiny, naïve, good-natured, optimistic, boy-next-door type. While I understand he’s older now and jaded, there are still ways of portraying him that retain that same personality. I think we’ve all met impatient, restless old men. Men who whine unnecessarily loudly about aches and pains, and about how young people just don’t do things the right way and THIS is how you’re ACTUALLY supposed to do it. Men who tell long, meandering stories no one wants to hear, about how they’re not as young as they used to be and the world wasn’t like it was back in the good old days. When I picture an older Luke Skywalker, I always end up imagining someone like Mr. Hippo from the Five Night’s At Freddy’s games – someone so busy talking he fails to realize how unwelcome his speeches are, how no one shares his enthusiasm about whatever topic he’s currently fixated on. Someone who, through their long years, has clearly been through some things, but still somehow has that extroverted apple-pie innocence that inadvertently becomes annoying. 

When watching The Last Jedi, there’s very little about Luke I recognize. He has two basic “voices.” The first is his generic wise teacher “voice” where he provides exposition and explains the history of the Jedi to Rey. The second is his jaded “voice”–this is a man who’s seen more terrible things than he’d like. A man whose experiences have taught him to be skeptical and has no time for people like the Jedi. A man with a snarky comeback every time a young kid like Rey does something he thinks is stupid. A man with the courage to face his evil nephew–“See ya ‘round, kid,” he says with a wink, brushing the dust off his shoulder and swaggering off. You know, it doesn’t feel like Luke and yet…something about it feels familiar but...I can’t quite put my finger on –

Oh. Oh.

If you’re familiar with the Star Wars fandom, you’ll know there’s been an ongoing war between Han and Luke fans. It’s not like you have to hate Han to be a fan of Luke or anything. But there seems to be a consensus in the fandom that Luke makes for a poor protagonist and Han should have been the hero instead. Luke was the main character of the original trilogy, yet Han was the face of most of the merchandise. Mark Hamill was the lead actor, yet Harrison Ford became the household name. Unusually for a protagonist, the Luke fandom is rather small. Han's is unending. Those of us Luke fans that do exist are passionate and write as much meta as we can about what a great character he is. Many of us even consider him to be the feminist icon of the franchise. George Lucas was (possibly unknowingly) being quite progressive in choosing Luke over the more traditionally masculine Han as the hero. But rather than embrace this, we’ve had to watch the majority of the fandom minimize his character, sometimes throwing homophobic and misogynistic slurs at him, criticizing Lucas’s decision to make “pathetic, wussy” Luke the hero instead of the snarky, cool, macho (and therefore more deserving) Han. The REAL reason people like Star Wars is because of Han, they say. If it was just Luke, no one would care to watch it.

Well, it looks like the hardcore Han fans have been proven right. A Star Wars film where Luke doesn’t speak a single line but has Han teaming up with the new kids can be very successful. But once Han is dead, we have to make up for his absence in the next film by erasing Luke’s personality and turning him into a pseudo-Han. Ever since TLJ came out, do you know how many articles I’ve seen by Han Solo fans that say, good news, guys, we’re finally allowed to like Luke now because he’s FINALLY cool?

It’s not just his extroversion or his general personality that’s been changed. The way Luke responds to trauma is the exact opposite as before. When faced with trauma, Luke reacts by charging into the situation, attempting to make things better until he succeeds or is prevented from trying anymore. Not only is this how he reacts to trauma, it’s always been his biggest flaw and the main thrust of his character arc. But he goes through a traumatic experience with Kylo and suddenly he reacts by shutting himself off from everything, never trying to do anything ever again? How we react to trauma is deeply ingrained into us. It’s extremely rare for it to change, if it’s even possible for it to change at all. If it did change, it would have to be due to something deeply traumatic – something worse than he’s ever experienced before. But, to be honest…

Problem #2: Luke’s trauma isn’t enough to warrant such a change

Sure, it’s a tough thing when a villain catches you about to kill them and then uses their resulting anger to harm other people (especially when the villain in question is someone you’re related to). But is this really the worst thing Luke has been through? He’s seen the deaths of two mentors, a best friend, a father, and he even discovered the crispy corpses of his legal guardians in the ruins of his childhood home – all of which took place when he was much younger and inexperienced. He took part in a war at a young age, almost died several times, and almost watched his best friends get killed due to his own mistakes. His own mentor showed over and over he didn’t believe in him. The father he looked up to for years turned out to be an evil villain who wanted to kill him. He was electrocuted over and over by the most powerful Sith in the galaxy. And Luke went through all of this while consistently dealing with the trauma through intervention. But this one event with his nephew–being caught almost doing something and having Ben turn into Kylo as a result – is the one thing that will suddenly transform his entire personality and reactions? 

Problem #3: Viewers can’t relate to Luke’s mistake. 

Let’s talk about what is perhaps the most highly criticized aspect of the film: the fact that Luke almost killed Kylo when he foresaw what his nephew was capable of. As many fans of the film have pointed out, he did something similar in Episode VI, when he began fighting Darth Vader – his father who he was trying to redeem – in response to a threat to his sister. So, if everyone was fine with it in the original trilogy, why did it upset so many people in Episode VIII?

There are many differences between the moment with Vader and the moment with Kylo. First, Vader was the authority figure. He was the powerful and abusive father figure while Luke was the young, inexperienced, and vulnerable son. It makes sense that a young man would act rash in such a terrifying situation. Second, Vader is an imposing, dangerous figure, and the films spend a lot of time displaying the heartlessness he shows other people. Even Luke first gets to know him as a terrifying villain before he finds out Vader is his father. The idea of redeeming Vader rather than defeating him is a new one, and neither Luke nor the audience know if it’s even possible. It makes sense for Luke to momentarily give up that idea and decide he needs to defend his sister from this dangerous villain instead. 

Whereas, when Luke makes the big mistake explored in Episode VIII, Luke was the authority figure with power and experience and his young nephew was the one lying vulnerable, troubled and lost.  Plus, Kylo Ren is not nearly as intimidating as his grandfather. Luke thinks of him as a family member he loves and wants to help. And most of the fanbase views Kylo as either a poor baby who needs to be saved from Snoke’s evil influence or as a pathetic wannabe punk who will never be as “cool” as Darth Vader. Although there is a bad seed in him and a vision shows he’s capable of great treachery, most of the evil in him at that point was mere potential – and potential that Luke, as his teacher and uncle, was in the perfect position to avert without violence. Luke knew this. So why would he feel so desperate in that moment that he would lose sight of everything and go full attack mode? 

While it’s not impossible for Luke to react that way (he is a very hasty person), it would take a lot of care and time to root the audience in the moment and in Luke's mind for them to buy it. Instead we got a couple second-long flashbacks with voice overs explaining what happened. This is a great example of telling instead of showing. We’re just supposed to take the filmmakers’ word for it that, whatever Luke saw in his vision of Kylo, it was enough to overpower his love for his nephew, his experience as a teacher, and the responsibility he feels toward his sister and best friend to take care of their son. But here’s the thing: audiences don’t want to take someone’s word for it. They want to feel, to experience. Especially when it comes to one of the biggest turning points in the life of a character they’ve known for decades. 

Problem #4: Luke’s motivations were needlessly changed. 

As he's a character who believes it’s always right to jump in and get involved, it already makes sense that Luke would take on his nephew to train him and try to save him from Snoke’s influence. But the filmmakers decided Luke needed a different motivation. In The Last Jedi, Luke reveals the real reason he helped his nephew was because of “hubris” and a belief that the Skywalker bloodline is superior.

Problem #5: Luke’s outlook is inconsistent. 

All throughout the film, Luke blames himself for contradictory things. He’s angry at himself for not being able to save Ben. He’s angry at himself for having the “hubris” to try to save Ben (how is it hubris to want to save your own nephew anyway?). He blames himself for letting Ben gain so much power and wishes he had recognized the darkness in Ben so he could have stopped him. But…he did try to stop him. He did recognize the darkness and considered murdering Ben in his sleep. And he is also angry at himself for that. So he’s angry at himself for trying to save Ben and for not saving him, for not doing anything to stop Kylo and for trying to stop Kylo. I mean, people do sometimes blame themselves for contradictory things when they’re upset. But the film never treats it as a contradiction. I’m honestly not sure if the filmmakers even noticed the contradiction existed. 

In fact, Luke expresses contradictory beliefs all throughout the film. At one point, he says Snoke is to blame for Kylo going to the dark side. But at another, he claims Leia is in denial about her son because she believes Snoke is to blame for him going to the dark rather than him going on his own. During his famous scene with Leia, Luke tells her he can’t save Kylo because he’s too far gone. Leia nods and assures him she’s already accepted her son is gone. Suddenly Luke turns it around and says, “No one is ever really gone.” Okay? Make up your mind? I get that he’s partially referring to Han in that scene, but still, does he want her to let go of hope for her son or not? Luke, what do you actually believe about anything? 

Problem #6: Luke’s reasons for hating the Jedi are illogical. 

I’m still trying to figure out why Luke wants the Jedi to end. The reasons he gives are: 

a. Because the Force exists whether the Jedi exist or not (that’s no reason to end them…) 
b. They had hubris (he keeps saying that word…)
c. They let the Emperor rise to power. 
d. They let Anakin go to the dark side. 

So…apparently the Jedi need to end because they made some mistakes long ago, before he was born…all of which he fixed at the end of Episode VI. So why do they need to end now that he’s the only one and has the power to shape the ideology as he wants? And as far as I can tell, none of the Jedi’s mistakes have any bearing on the universe’s current problems. The current problems are all due to Snoke (who we know nothing about) and the First Order–a human political movement that formed because they idealized the “law and order” of the fallen Empire. Not even Luke’s mistake with Kylo has much to do with the Jedi, so why is Luke so bitter at them now? 

To make things worse, if the filmmakers needed to have Luke rebel against the Jedi, there was a much easier way, as Jedi philosophy has always been in direct opposition to Luke’s goals. As I discussed in my previous article, the Jedi believe in accepting fate – in being swept up by the Force to find peace rather than trying to control it – even if it means accepting the loss of people you care about. Luke believes that non-intervention is evil and that the Force should always be used as a tool to help those he loves. The disparity between these two outlooks is something Luke has never faced…and in this movie, he still doesn’t face it – even though his plotline is literally about him rebelling against the Jedi. Instead, Luke acts like the Jedi’s mistakes were due to them intervening too much and, as a response, he has decided to become a non-interventionist himself. Which leads me to…

Problem #7: Luke’s rebellion against the Jedi makes him act like a Jedi. 

Let’s look at the Jedi’s mistakes that Luke is so angry about. What caused them? Well, Anakin went evil because the Jedi refused to take him seriously or train him properly. Then they refused to help when he was concerned about his wife, causing him to turn to the dark side for help instead. And what about the Emperor? Palpatine came to power because the Jedi did nothing as he was climbing the political ladder. And when he revealed his true intentions, they responded by going into hiding. True, there was a huge target on their backs, but still. The mistakes they made were largely due to their non-intervention and dismissal of a young Force user. And Luke is fixing those mistakes by…repeating them?

Luke is unknowingly embracing Jedi teachings by choosing to do nothing. Which…could work if it had been intentional. If someone pointed out to Luke (or he realized himself) that, by trying to run away from his identity as a Jedi, he’s inadvertently becoming just like them, I think it would have been an interesting thing to see him work through his own hypocrisy. Instead, Luke calls the Jedi hypocrites. And the film, while ultimately disagreeing with his choice of non-intervention, still treats it as a consistent rejection of Jedi principles. Again, the filmmakers don’t seem to notice any discrepancy.  

Problem #8: Luke’s change of heart makes no sense. 

Of course, the most important moment in a story about a hero’s fall from grace is when he comes back to the light. Luke’s change of heart, however, occurs during one brief (and rather bizarre) scene. 

The scene starts with Yoda destroying the tree and books. Luke was going to destroy them himself but had second thoughts. Then Yoda appeared and did the job for him. I’m not sure what the point of this was, other than to show that Luke’s feelings toward Jedi history is more complicated than he lets on (and even the purpose of conveying that is a bit…fuzzy?). But how are we supposed to relate to Luke and feel the deep feelings he’s experiencing when we know so little about the tree, the books, and his history with either? And honestly, why did Luke need to see the books destroyed to regain faith? Especially since his bad decisions started when he lost faith in the religion the books are about? 

“Time it is for you to look past a pile of old books,” Yoda says. But what’s that supposed to mean? It’d be one thing if Luke was such a bookworm that he was just too busy reading to be of any help. But that isn’t the case. It wasn’t until this moment that Luke showed he even cared about the books. So…what does…destroying them…prove? 

Anyway, as the tree and books burn, Luke is too distracted by the fiery ruin in front of him to think about the bigger picture of Rey and her importance to the galaxy’s future. Yoda, however, states the opposite. “Skywalker, still looking to the horizon. Never here, now–the need in front of your nose.” 

In the end, it’s a single adage – “The greatest teacher failure is” – that changes Luke’s entire perspective. Even though many other people he loves have given him much more motivation than that to change his mind with no results. What’s more, the adage comes from Yoda, one of the most prominent Jedi at the time of Anakin’s fall and the Emperor’s rise to power. He's the character that Luke has, you know, basically been blaming and hating during the entirety of this movie. And he just…accepts Yoda’s advice immediately. No questions asked, no confrontation or conversations about the stuff Yoda did that Luke is mad about. Seriously, why would the grudge he holds against Yoda just magically disappear like that? Why were his concerns about Yoda’s responsibility in past events not addressed? 

I also wonder if Yoda would even realistically disapprove of Luke’s choices, or if he just does so for plot convenience. He was the one out of all the Jedi that was arguably most against attachment and intervention. Yoda is the one who distrusted Kid!Anakin just because Anakin was worried about his mother and wanted to help her. He was the one who told Adult!Anakin not to try to save Padme and learn to let go instead. He went into hiding when Palpatine rose to power and initially refused to train Luke when the galaxy was desperate for a hero. And he advised Luke to not go rescue his friends when they were possibly dying, telling him to instead focus on his training. But now that Luke has become like him, finally accepting he can’t control the Force to save others, suddenly Yoda’s all gung-ho for intervention and rescuing people we’re attached to? 

Problem #9: Luke’s character arc accidentally became a circle. 

At the beginning of Luke’s character arc, he’s a foolish boy who believes that jumping in and helping others is always the correct thing to do. But at the end of his character arc, now that he’s older and wiser, he finally sees that jumping in and helping others is…always the right thing to do. In other words, Luke ultimately “matures” by re-embracing the "lie" he believed in the beginning. The film’s themes and how Luke relates to them have been completely reversed. Which brings me to perhaps the most important point, and the one which permeates all others…

Problem #10: The filmmakers don’t understand what the Jedi believe.

…Or they do and just don’t care.

George Lucas was a student of comparative religion who was particularly fascinated with Buddhism and Christianity. As such, the Jedi religion he created is essentially a mix of eastern philosophies such as peace, non-intervention, and non-attachment and Christian ideals such as submitting to God’s will regardless of whether His will lines up with our own personal goals. Because of this, the main goals of a Jedi are to learn to be still and calm, to not intervene even if they want to, and to not form attachments that will tempt them to misuse the Force as a tool. True, the Jedi did help people, but only when the tide of the force swept them into a situation where it was clear that’s what It wanted them to–not because they had personal attachments to the people in need of help. This distinction has always been important. 

And that’s why Luke was the protagonist. They purposely chose someone who never gives up, never sits still, never stops loving, and never stops trying to save those he cares about. They chose him so that he could face the conflict between his own ideals and those of the Jedi. So that his journey could eventually teach him the dangers of his outlook on life and show him how to create goodness through non-attachment, non-intervention, and peace. However, none of these ideas are touched upon in The Last Jedi. In fact, the film treats the Jedi quite simplistically, as if they were just cool warriors who saved the day a lot but made some mistakes along the way, and now, because Luke is angry, he’s going to pretend like they were all bad and go mope in his room for awhile. There’s no exploration of what the Jedi actually stood for, the parts of their ideology he’s always struggled with, or – once Luke “finds himself” again – how he now relates to this religion he holds dear, even though so many aspects of it conflict with who he is and what he wants to do. During his downfall, Luke ends up embracing every philosophy the Jedi have been wanting him to embrace this whole time, and the film portrays it as a rebellion against Jedi thought. And when he goes back to his old nature – which has always been at odds with Jedi philosophy – the film treats it as if he’s finally come back to his religion.

I understand that stories about non-intervention and non-attachment are not nearly as exciting or marketable as the typical hero narrative. Western audiences love stories about action, and controlling one’s own destiny. But you can’t take a fictional religion that’s been established over six movies and unceremoniously change it to something more marketable, hoping no one will notice. It’s fine to disagree with Jedi teaching. It’s fine to have the characters disagree with Jedi teaching. I certainly don’t agree with Jedi teaching and personally have always wanted to see a Star Wars hero rebel against the Jedi to the end while still remaining a good guy. But if you’re going to make a Star Wars film that disagrees with Jedi teaching, you must do so by confronting their ideas honestly. Represent it accurately and explore nuance. Don’t portray ideals that are opposite to theirs and pretend it’s what they’ve believed this whole time. 

In Conclusion: 

So, what did The Last Jedi ACTUALLY get wrong about Luke Skywalker? Everything from his general personality, to his motivations, flaws, reactions to trauma, character arc, and the moral lesson he’s meant to learn is all retconned to be the exact opposite of what they once were. And while disagreeing with the original themes is fine, this film does it in the most irresponsible way possible. Key scenes in Luke's plotline are told instead of shown, inconsistencies are overlooked, hypocrisy goes unnoticed, and time that could have been spent exploring important aspects of Luke’s character is instead spent on secondary plotlines that viewers ended up disliking anyway. What’s more, most of the problems with his portrayal could have been easily fixed with small, simple changes, making the film’s lazy approach even more frustrating. 

Not every problem in the movie is Rian Johnson’s fault. In many ways, JJ Abrams set him up for failure by forcing him to tackle hard questions about the original trilogy characters at an inopportune time – right smack in the middle of the new trilogy, when all of the new characters’ storylines are taking off in important ways. What’s more, Abrams was the one who decided to start the trilogy long after Luke had gone into hiding, forcing Johnson to explain Luke’s backstory via ineffective flashbacks. Still, the amount of inconsistencies in this movie surprise me. Rian Johnson is typically noted for his attention to detail. Freeze frame any scene in one of his films and you can find symbolism, sly references, and easter eggs galore. So how did he miss so much this time? And, if he was such a huge fan of the original trilogy growing up, why are there so many aspects of it he doesn’t seem to grasp? And considering how closely he worked with the novel writers, why did his film stray so far from the themes and character arc they teased in the film’s promotional material? 

I’m not sure what happened behind the scenes that caused The Last Jedi to go so wrong. But the good news is Luke’s story isn’t over yet. Rumors indicate that Luke will appear in Episode IX as a Force ghost. And while Episode VIII did leave a bad taste in my mouth, I still want to keep an open mind. I look forward to seeing what’s in store for Luke in the future. 

What did you think of Luke in The Last Jedi? And what do you hope for his character in future movies? Let us know in the comments! 


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