The Last Temptation of Luke Skywalker
The question of fidelity, of faithfulness, swirled around the reactions to and discussions of the most recent Star Wars film, The Last Jedi. Fans debated endlessly, as we did in our own roundtables, whether Rian Johnson's film was true to the legacy of the Star Wars series, and true in its portrayal of Luke Skywalker. Is the film a cynical subversion of everything the film series created by George Lucas stands for? Or is it the best one yet, primarily for its rejection of tradition and seeming embrace of "woke" culture? Rather than reinforce this crude dichotomy, we need to look at the specifics of the film and its place in the series to see what it is actually attempting to do.
Upon revisiting the film on Blu-ray disc, I found many of my reservations about The Last Jedi faded, not simply because it is a confidently made, enjoyable piece of blockbuster filmmaking, but because of the way The Last Jedi engages with the existing Star Wars films and paves the way for potential future stories while jettisoning the baggage of the past. It is difficult to assess such a film in the midst of our heated cultural context, where reactions to popular culture are usually about trying to sort it into "good" and "bad" categories, in order to decide their value as political tools in the culture wars. A person’s opinion on a piece of pop culture becomes a way to see if they are on the “right side.” Furthermore, Star Wars, which has always lent itself to varied political readings through its broad archetypal structures, is even more than that: over the last 40 years it has become a story with totemic value, that is, the story has value in how it serves as a mark of what a group believes in and about themselves. Thus, possession of the right take on the narrative serves as a marker of identity. It is mythic, nearly religious in its importance to many people.
This is why The Last Jedi is often spoken of in terms akin to heresy or revelation. The film is either a betrayal of the earlier ones or a new testament meant to erase and replace the old. To accuse someone or something of betrayal suggests that there is an orthodoxy or true belief, a standard by which one measures faithfulness. The challenge in answering the question of whether The Last Jedi is true, to its characters, to fan expectations, and to the legacy of George Lucas himself, is a question of what it means to be faithful in this context. Is it possible to hold adherence to the "true religion" of Star Wars? How does one distinguish between "fan service" and fidelity to the original films? While it might seem that Lucas’s original six films should simply serve as the official canon, the negative reactions to the prequels show that this alone is not a basis for determining fidelity. Furthermore, the retreading of the same ground, repeating the themes and narrative beats of the originals, was the basis for criticism of The Force Awakens. Clearly, it is not so easy to figure out what standard of fidelity should be.
This confusion over how one might claim the legacy of Star Wars for oneself opens up my own reading of The Last Jedi. As I see it, The Last Jedi is Rian Johnson's ultimate act of reverence to George Lucas's original six films. Through many of its seeming subversions of fan expectations, Johnson ensures the legacy of the Skywalker story as told in Lucas's six films is preserved, while holding open the door for anyone new to tell their own story set "A long time ago, in a galaxy, far, far, away....”
As a text, The Last Jedi is obsessed with the question of legacy and legitimacy. Much of the advertising of the film highlighted Kylo Ren's dark imperative to: “Let the past die. Kill it if you have to. That's the only way to become what you were meant to be.” At its best, this was interpreted by progressive fans as a stripping away of the "problematic" past of Star Wars, including the blood heredity of Force sensitivity confirmed in the prequels, and a replacement of the mostly white, male cast with a racially and gender diverse one that would point the way to the future. To others, this idea was a slap in the face; a suggestion that the very thing they had invested so much energy in was worthless or harmful.
The film also engages with the question of legacy in Rey's interactions with Luke Skywalker. Upon finding Luke at the end of The Force Awakens, Rey entreats the legendary Jedi Master to train her. However, Luke tosses away her request and the old lightsaber she brings him along with it; he has chosen exile and turned his back on the galaxy because he feels he has failed in allowing his nephew Ben Solo, now Kylo Ren, to fall to the Dark Side. It is further revealed that Luke himself played a role in driving Ben to the Dark Side. Sensing Ben's power and that the boy was coming under the influence of Snoke, Luke admits that he was momentarily tempted to kill the boy rather than risk another Darth Vader. Because he yielded too late, and because Ben saw his uncle standing over him with a lightsaber ignited to kill him, all Luke succeeded in doing was sending Ben straight into the arms of Snoke. This was the ultimate slap in the face to fans: their hero, Luke Skywalker, was a failure, one who never succeeded in rebuilding the Jedi Order or bringing peace to the galaxy.
Reading The Last Jedi simply as a critique of the series and Luke Skywalker, whether one evaluates that as a good or bad thing, seems to leave little room for a recovery of the value of the Skywalker legacy, nor does it allow us to cement Star Wars’ place among the pantheons of myth and legend. However, I want to look closer at what the film actually tells us about Luke Skywalker, and about the Force. In The Last Jedi's treatment of these two mythic elements, we learn much about what Johnson considers the Star Wars legacy and how the failure of Luke Skywalker brings about his triumph.
Looking at the interactions between Luke and Rey tells us a lot about the film’s attempt to re-attune us to what Lucas's original films were about and what they mean to people. By stripping away "their myth and look[ing] at their deeds," as Luke tells Rey about the Jedi, we can get a clearer understanding of how this film fits into the original six films’ exploration of goodness, evil, and the success and failure of the Jedi ideals. Luke says the Jedi failed, a shocking statement on first blush, but upon measuring it against Lucas’s own prequels, not an unfair one. It was the arrogance and short sightedness of the Jedi Order that allowed Darth Sidious to rise and for Anakin to fall.
Of course, Luke’s statement explicitly acknowledges the importance of the prequels in establishing the legacy of Star Wars (he calls the character Darth Sidious, not Emperor Palpatine, for instance), and how subsequent entries in the series colour our view of the earlier films. It is very easy to forget what the original film was, how simple in structure and open-ended in world-building it was. Further, one must consider how the legacy of each subsequent film, including the first sequel, The Empire Strikes Back, inevitably changed how we read the earlier ones. This is what makes what the The Last Jedi is doing so frightening to some. It’s easy to say that sequels don't need to taint one's appreciation of an original, but it is ultimately impossible to read a text in isolation. No text can stand alone.
In his essay on "Odysseus's Scar," literary critic Erich Auerbach wrote about the difference between the Greek mode of epic storytelling, a mode where the characters, setting, and events stand in an eternal present to the narration, and the mode of the ancient Hebrew scriptures, where the power of the story relies upon its moral, religious, and psychological aspects; the biblical tales, Auerbach shows, lack the rich detail of Homer, but their stripped down nature actually makes them more personal and realistic, not less. To discover the value of the scriptures, the reader must read them as true to their own situation, must internalize and enter into their world. For example, Odysseus is little changed in character or motivation over the course of his journeys, from the Trojan War to his return home; but to consider the story of Abraham, or of King David, requires reflection on the stories in relation to our own lives and consideration of the changes the characters undergo. If we did not believe that Abraham might actually sacrifice Isaac, the story would lack its power.
I believe that in The Last Jedi, we are given Star Wars not as a stable, archetypal myth in the Greek mode, but as a story of flawed and passionate characters in the Biblical mode. Luke himself must learn the lessons that we are to understand for ourselves, in relation to the film itself. The film begs for this kind of metatextual interpretation, even going so far as to have Luke give us a lesson on what the Force is. He asks Rey, what is the Force? Her answer, "It's a power Jedi have that lets them control people and... make things float." His answer, "Every word in that sentence was wrong." Well, on the face of it that seems ridiculous; that is how the Force is manifested in many of the prior films, but Luke's subsequent lesson is that Rey’s understanding was far too simplistic: the Force doesn't belong to anyone, it's the power that binds the galaxy together, reminds us of Yoda's teaching in The Empire Strikes Back. It's not a radical re-writing, but a reminder of what the Force really is.
Thus, the Force, and even the fate of Luke Skywalker, who does end up taking up the mantle of legend once more, instructs us on how to relate to the film. A film that gave us a Luke who simply behaved and acted the same as he appeared at the end of the original trilogy would be a film that would be untrue to the emotional arc of the films as a whole. The Luke of The Last Jedi is instead a Luke as an aged King Arthur. In the Morte d'Arthur and Tennyson's Idylls of the King, Arthur, perhaps the most important figure in British myth, is presented as failing in the very ideals he stands for: chivalry and honour. His kingdom in threatened by Mordred, the child of his own incestuous error. In trying to undo the damage he created Arthur must pass into legend in order to secure the legacy of what he actually values. In defeating Mordred he is dealt a mortal wound. Excalibur is cast into the lake and Arthur passes from Britain.
Likewise, Luke Skywalker returns to become a symbol of what the Jedi can be, not to give credence to the notion that the Jedi are the cure, but as an embodiment of the ideals of the Force as that which connects everything in the galaxy together. Like those Britons who await the coming Arthur once again, Star Wars fans can likely anticipate Luke will return in spirit at some point, but intervention in the history of the galaxy now passes to the next generations. Luke serves, as he does at the end of the film in the stories of the stable children, as that which we look back upon to give hope.
The films final scenes speak to this reading, confirming the film as bringing an end to the saga thus far, while leaving the future open. We have the elements of Star Wars returned to their bare bones, with the surviving Rebels and Jedi (embodied in Rey with the intact Jedi texts) on the Millennium Falcon. And then, finally, we have the most unconventional Star Wars ending yet, one that moves me more than it has any right to, with the concluding scene of the children in the stable and the Force-using child staring at the stars. Star Wars is over. Long live Star Wars.
If this were the final Star Wars film, I would be satisfied. Obviously, it won't be. (I’m not addressing here the way this film simultaneously serves Disney’s commercial need to continue Star Wars indefinitely.) But as a metatextual consideration of its own mythic underpinnings, The Last Jedi serves to both affirm the past and open up a future that doesn't rely upon slavish repetition, something we might have seen had each film in this new series followed the mold of The Force Awakens. While Kylo Ren is still at large, it will be very difficult to redeem him at this point, him having killed his father, fan-favourite Han Solo, and rejected redemption at the hands of Luke and Rey. Thus, the literal legacy of the Skywalkers is fulfilled in Luke's return and passing. He secures his place as a legend, and yet, the future of Star Wars will lie elsewhere.
What I’m saying is that Johnson is in a strange way more reverent of Lucas's six films than someone who merely wants to continue and repeat the stories of Lucas’s original six films. To do so would be to rob them of their specialness by insisting that they can be repeated indefinitely. Something repeatable is in the end less special. It becomes less revered. It becomes rote and tired. Johnson’s film suggests that the characters of Lucas’s six films deserve a mythic ending, and for us to treat them as worthy and capable of growth and passing. The Skywalker saga is not continuing, and rather than being a rejection of their importance, The Last Jedi instead posits that the stories of those films pass into myth and legend.
In this reading, faithfulness to the spirit of a mythic text requires one to let them come to an end. Not in a violent killing and rejection of the past, per Kylo Ren, but by allowing ourselves to be reminded of their core value as stories that guide us and bind us together. Star Wars, The Last Jedi reminds us, is one of those stories.