George Lucas somewhat autistically based his original Star Wars storyline on a well-known piece of pop-critique by Joseph Campbell, with Luke Skywalker being the locus of the action and ultimate hero of the saga. He’s a little dimwitted but ultimately good, and he rises to becoming great, in every sense of the word. Unfortunately, The Last Jedi was written by people who spent more time learning about postmodern subversion techniques by frequenting fanfiction websites than they did studying literature or mythologies, so instead of Luke having matured into a wise old mentor figure, we’re left with this retarded Diogenes knock-off who’s apparently a moron.
In Which Luke Has to Remember What the Force Is
For some reason, Rian Johnson felt the need to include an arc for Luke’s character in The Last Jedi. Luke already had his arc over the course of the original trilogy; he started off as a naïve farm boy looking to make it big any way that he could, got embroiled in a galactic adventure after the death of his guardians, learned the ways of the force, and completed his heroic feats by defeating the Emperor and, more importantly, redeeming his father.
This isn’t to say that more stories couldn’t further elaborate or develop Luke’s character. Whole series of Expanded Universe novels through the 80s and 90s used Luke in various capacities—sometimes only tangentially, sometimes as a protagonist. And indeed, the origin of Luke’s character in The Last Jedi leaves a lot of unanswered questions that set him for what could have been an interesting arc, had the film given it space and priority enough to develop.
Luke begins his story some thirty years after the events of Return of the Jedi, during the climax of which he used the power of love to sacrifice himself in order to redeem his father, a genocidal psychopath, from the clutches of the Dark Side. He has retired to an obscure island to live out his days in seclusion and surviving off of giant fish and puppet-alien breastmilk, with apparently every intention of being left alone—despite counterintuitively leaving behind a map with some old friend of his in case anyone wanted to find him. That displays the sort of passive-aggressiveness that most audiences wouldn’t find fitting of Luke, and despite that map being the driving motivation for half of the events of the last film, we’ll just skip over that detail. The other thing we’ll skip over is the way he literally tosses over his shoulder the other driving motivation for the last film: his old lightsaber.
With this sort of opening, the audience is already primed for several important and interesting questions: Why did Luke abandon his Jedi Temple plans? Why did he run away into obscurity while the relationships of his friends deteriorated? Why has he abandoned the pursuit and encouragement of virtue throughout the galaxy? Why doesn’t he care about the tyrannical First Order having mysteriously toppled the Republic? In other words, what the hell is he doing? How did he go from the glorious heroic knight that cremated his redeemed father’s mostly-robotic cadaver to this angry old curmudgeon too apathetic to care about all of the things that motivated him as a young man?
This is what gives Luke an arc. Luke, most audiences were probably expecting, was going to be the old mentor figure that Obi-Wan fulfilled in A New Hope: a man who would offer spiritual and practical advice and teachings to turn Rey from the brash young upstart she was into the beginnings of a Jedi, so that she would go on to become the hero that the trilogy needs. Unfortunately, this expectation looks at Rey backwards, which also misjudges Luke’s importance. Rey, as we knew from The Force Awakens, doesn’t need any more training or advice, as Yoda himself seems to imply later in The Last Jedi. So what is the purpose of a mentor figure to a character who has no use of mentors? You reverse the relationship and make Luke the character in need of a mentor. Again. Even though that turns Luke from a fully-fledged hero who learns from his mistakes, conquers fear and vice, and saves the galaxy through self-sacrifice and courage into a cowardly dotard or cuts and runs at the first sign of danger, retreats to a remote region of space, and then leaves a map behind specifically so he can be discovered by anyone willing to talk sense into him.
It would have been perfectly fine for Luke to have an arc throughout The Last Jedi. There’s ample space for it in his character. The old expanded universe has him do all sorts of things after his adventures in Return of the Jedi, and since Disney had taken it upon themselves to throw all of that in the garbage, they were free to pick at its bones as they saw fit. It really makes you wonder why they didn’t. Instead, what we get is, yet again, another arc that goes nowhere.
It turns out that Luke is moody because he screwed up training Kylo Ren. He saw, allegedly, the Dark Side screwing around with his nephew’s soul—which, I might add, was a powerful soul. Very powerful. The most powerful. You have never seen a soul so powerful. And we know it’s powerful because Luke says as much and that’s that. So in the spur of the moment, Luke ignited his lightsaber to blow away his young nephew and in a microsecond reconsidered, but didn’t have the forethought to put his lightsaber away. In any case, his nephew woke up, understandably freaked out, blasted Luke’s entire Jedi Temple to smithereens and escaped to become a psychopathic lunatic that kills people and behaves like a rabid dog on a chain when he’s approaching thirty years old. We’ll pretend all of this makes sense, even though none of it does.
So the audience is presented with Luke’s arc. All he has to do is redeem Kylo Ren, or at the very least, present to Kylo the same sacrifice that Luke presented to his father, or more similarly, that Obi-Wan presented to Darth Vader in the first film. “Strike me down, and I’ll become more powerful than you can possibly imagine,” you can already hear coming out of Luke’s mouth during the climactic finale between the redeemed hermit and his old fallen student. Of course, that doesn’t happen—instead, the audience is treated to an out of place quip that Rian Johnson has tried to make a thing: some kind of smug “you’re totally wrong haha and the audience knows it, too!” throw-away line that doesn’t seem to fit Luke’s character. By the time he fights his nephew, we’re past the point of caring.
Naturally, Luke’s arc culminates in neither his nephew’s redemption nor Luke’s own retribution. Instead, Luke claims to offer Rey, who is still on his dumb island, three lessons. She gets two: one in which he tickles her finger and laughs at her—fittingly—and one in which he explains the history of the Jedi Order even though we’re not sure how he knows about any of what happened during the Prequels. That’s fine. Remember that meanwhile, she’s using the Force to Skype call her autistic emo school-shooter boyfriend who happens also to be Luke’s disgraced nephew. When he finds out about this, she beats him up, tells him that Kylo Ren turning to the Dark Side wasn’t his fault—which he agrees with—and that he can’t be the one to redeem him—which he agrees with—and that she can redeem him—which he says is crazy—and that she’s going to go off and redeem him all by herself—which he says is crazy—and that he’s welcome to join her-which he says is crazy—and then she leaves, rash, horny, and so full of pride that you can almost taste the Dark Side’s influence, were it not for the movie constantly shoving down your throat how much of a savior she is. Luke is left back alone on his rock with his porgs, just as he wanted it in the first place.
Next time we see him, he decides to burn down some old tree that he hides some books inside of. Why? Good question. The Jedi religion is fucking retarded, apparently, and that’s all there is to it. But at the last minute, he relents. Maybe, he considers, Jedi knowledge is actually worth preserving, even though the Jedi themselves grew arrogant and strayed from the Way in their later degenerate years. Maybe burning it all is a bad idea. After all, Master Yoda had told him to pass on what he had learned some thirty years ago, and what else are books if not the passage of knowledge onto future generations. Maybe exterminating a library of ancient texts is a fucking godawful idea that shouldn’t be considered and maybe Luke was having another moment like he was having with Kylo Ren those years ago: jumping to conclusions without really thinking things through because he’s only slightly retarded.
Don’t worry about it, Yoda says to him. Seriously. A translucent Yoda puppet summons some lightning, burns the books and the tree, and then takes the time to tell Luke that teachers are supposed to teach their students to fail. Failure is important. Etcetera. Or something. Let’s be clear: teachers are supposed to set high bars for their students such that the students learn to deal with failing to reach them. Also, teachers are supposed to teach their students how to avoid the pitfalls that they themselves fell victim to when they were students. None of this means that teachers are supposed to teach failure. Failure is not something that is taught, it is something that happens. Teachers are supposed to teach what happens before that and what happens afterward. In short: Yoda behaves like a moron, too.
As a side note, none of this actually matters, because we find out at the end of the film that Rey had already carried off those Jedi texts anyway. So Yoda burning the tree that houses them doesn’t seem to mean anything. Which means, so it would seem, Rey isn’t just a belligerent lunatic that beats up unarmed old men, she also steals their stuff. And she’s the good guy. Fitting for her origin as an orphaned scavenger, but not so much for the savior of the universe and the alleged Jedi that Luke comes to recognize her as.
Luke’s arc culminates with his returning to the action. He faces his old student on the salt-flats attempting to buy time for the Resistance, which he does. But he’s projecting himself there via Skype call, so Kylo’s made a complete fool of and Luke’s being there to deliver himself into the retributive arms of poetic justice is undermined. Luke doesn’t get an Obi-Wan moment, much less a Return of the Jedi moment, and instead becomes one with the force back on his comfortable rock in the middle of nowhere that sort of resembles his mother’s basement. Even his mechanical hand disappears.
There is a problem, of course. Luke doesn’t seem to have learned anything. However, unlike Poe or Finn, whose arcs are robbed of meaning by the insane actions of their female foils, and unlike Rey or Kylo, whose shared arc lacks any significant consequences for their mistakes, Luke’s arc is resolved by a purely arbitrary decision to completely change his behavior. Luke’s decision to return to the Resistance seems to have been decided by two things: R2-D2 playing, and I’m not making this up, the same hologram message of Leia begging Obi-Wan for help back in A New Hope, and whatever Rey was talking about when she held him up with his own lightsaber. After five or more years on that desolate rock ignoring everything, all it took for him to help out his friends was a dumb speech by a violent Jedi-wannabe and an idiotic insertion of blatant fanservice.
About the only thing that seems to resemble a message in this arc comes from the mouth of that absurd little puppet-Yoda, phrased again in Orwellian doublespeak that insults the IQ of any reasonably-minded audience: success is failure. Not, failure leads to success, but rather, failure is success. If you’re a teacher, teach your students to fail—not how to deal with it when it happens. Actively seek out failure for the sake of it. And if you’re a student, do what you can in order to fail. Failure is treated as a virtue and success is treated purely as an accident, a complete reversal of how these two things are related to each other in a sensible world ordered according to knowable principles. But The Last Jedi does not depict a sensible world. It depicts a liberal-progressive one that’s completely absurd and, as we enter in to the last section of this analysis, one that is irreconcilable with the rest of the Star Wars universe.
In Which the Audience Has to LET IT GO, LET EVERYTHING GO!!!!
This section marks the penultimate of the analysis I had prepared for The Last Jedi, as the final portion (part five) will deal with a summary and restatement of the film’s themes and a broader look at how these impact general audiences and what they say about contemporary moviemaking. But to tie it all together—to tie Poe’s and Finn’s un-excellent adventures, Rey’s and Kylo’s cringe-worthy Zutara fanfiction, and Luke’s anti-Hero’s Journey narrative—is the broader fabric of the Star Wars universe.
All stories have to take place somewhere. The setting of a given narrative allows the story not only to take place, but it grants the story particular rules according to which the action, conflict, and resolution make sense. Meaning, although derived from action and resolution, is only possible in settings—or worlds—that have discernable and understandable rules. It is the coherence of these rules, and from that, the coherence of a character’s actions with his origins in these rules, that define a given story’s sense of realism.
Realism in a work of fiction does not necessarily mean how well a story resembles our reality. The world of The Lord of the Rings can be considered realistic because it’s believable enough within the limits set by Tolkien; actions have consequences, characters have arcs that complement their origins, and everything happens more or less for a reason. No sensible critic would make the mistake of calling The Lord of the Rings unrealistic because it happens also to feature giant monsters, a metaphor that can turn characters invisible, and the fact that the ultimate villain is a giant flaming eye on top of a distant tower. Critiques of a story’s realism on the basis of how it resembles our world are usually the product of people who simply don’t know what stories are in the first place.
That being said, Star Wars depicted, by and large, a sensible world. It gained depth and character as the films came out, first with the Original Trilogy and then with the Prequels, elaborating upon not only detailed plot-important specifics such as the rise and fall of various political factions and the existence of different planets, but also by developing the very obvious and fairytale-like moral framework that the story operated around: the Force. The Light Side and the Dark Side correspond very obviously to the concepts of virtue and vice, or even more basic than that, good and evil. Light Side users are good guys, and Dark Side users are bad guys. Light Side users want to preserve an underlying balance that allows the Force to remain stable, and the Dark Side users want to indulge in self-centered and prideful manipulation of the Force in order to suit their own ends. Selflessness, virtue, and love on one side, while selfishness, vice, and pride on the other. End of story. This all coincides with nearly every coherent system of morality on the planet, so it’s pretty easy to understand.
Not so fast, say the fans! Pre-Disney-buyout, the Expanded Universe offered up all sorts of other explanations for the relationship that the Force had to the Dark and the Light Sides. The Force must be kept in balance, Obi-Wan and Yoda insist to Luke during his years of training. That must imply, the fans eventually concluded, that the existence of the Dark and the existence of the Light must be kept in balance. Anakin brought balance to the Force, they seem to believe, when he went around the galaxy wiping out all the Jedi. After all, there were only two Sith hanging around, but thousands of Jedi, and that’s not balanced at all! This is how you ended up getting entire theories about Grey Jedi, which were pursuers of moral equivalence that ignored the dogmatic teachings of the Jedi Code in order to seek… something, really, because everyone seems to have their own idea as to what the hell a Grey Jedi even is.
This is, of course, insane. Treating the Dark and Light Sides of the Force as tangibly real concepts that must balance one another out is to give them moral equivalence, but everything we see in the original six Star Wars films contradicts such a view. Works achieved through the use of Dark Side manipulation result in hideous transformations (clue: that means it’s probably bad) and mass murder (clue: that means it’s probably bad), while the means used to accomplish these feats tend to involve relying on fear to manipulate people (clue: that means it’s probably bad) and the use of violent coercion when that fails (clue: that means it’s probably bad). In other words, the Dark Side of the Force services only the individual’s will to power, and always at the expense of the mutual interests that the individual shares with his surroundings and community. The Dark Side is not interested in neighborliness; it is interested only in domination, and by any means necessary.
The long and short of all this is that a man who draws power specifically from the degree he dominates others cannot be held in moral equivalence as counterbalancing the man who draws power from the degree to which he maintains the natural pre-existing order to the universe. You might as well say that Genghis Kahn was every bit as much of a good person as your typical Buddhist monk.
The new Star Wars films, beginning with The Force Awakens, however, began to flirt with this absurd interpretation of the Star Wars universe’s moral fabric. The Dark Side, Kylo Ren explains during one of his bizarre monologues from The Force Awakens, is an active presence rather than a defiling and corrupting means of using the Force. That’s at least passable, as Kylo’s character could very easily have been led astray from a proper understanding of the Force by the Sith lord he was taking direction from at the time. But flirting with absurd fan theories like Grey Jedi didn’t bode well for the franchise.
The Last Jedi, predictably, takes it up a notch and essentially states all of the abovementioned erroneous fan-theorizing nonsense flat out. The Dark Side and the Light Side need each other and when enough powerful Force users have turned to the Dark Side, the Force creates powerful users on the Light Side through some kind of mystical Gaia-like voodoo to balance the equation out. Even though that doesn’t make any sense given that enabling the birth of powerful Force-sensitive people doesn’t guarantee that one way or the other that they’ll be virtuous. So the Force auto-balancing a ratio of evil people to good ones seems like it would only further destabilize the intrinsic order of the universe that the Force is supposed to maintain.
In any case, the Force lapses into incoherency. The Dark Side, the movie implies isn’t a manifestation of wrongdoing and evil, but simply a use of the Force alternative to the Light Side, which was dogmatically policed by the Jedi Order during its height. If this sounds like a familiar sentence, that’s because it is: Palpatine said almost exactly the same words to Anakin, a confused and emotionally unstable but otherwise upstanding and heroic Jedi Knight, in order to seduce him into evil and precipitate his fall. Good and evil don’t really exist, they’re just alternative ways of looking at different actions, such as mass murder, or Anakin’s slaughtering children, or Kylo’s ruthless execution of an unarmed old man in The Force Awakens.
The Dark Side, which draws its power very evidently from evil, is not a means of using the Force that any virtuous character in Star Wars should tolerate, since it disturbs the greater order and balance of the universe through its manipulations and intent to harm. We don’t tolerate murderers, rapists, and thieves in the real world because they disrupt the greater harmony of our social order; we ostracize them out of the community, lock them up, or execute them. We don’t stand around trying to find ways to compromise good moral actions with evil ones; the toleration of evil simply leads to the outright undermining of good entirely. This requires, of course, an ability to distinguish the actor from the action, and to understand that the evil a man does, although indicative of his nature, does not determine his nature, since redemption is always possible, but we’ll address that more in part five of this analysis. The important part to note about all of this is that the Star Wars universe, as evidenced by the Prequels, functioned pretty much the same way. Up until The Last Jedi, anyway.
As I’ve stated before, The Last Jedi undermines all of that. It’s okay to bludgeon people to get what you want, or to threaten them. Theft is perfectly fine. All that Jedi dogma about selflessness and doing good, upholding your communities and peers, and being wary of prideful arrogance and envy—that was just the ramblings of a corrupt class of warrior monks who wanted to maintain their power, so we’re better off just throwing it all away. Let go of the past, as Kylo says, in one of his most fittingly villainous moments in the film: literally everyone before us has been wrong, but we’re the correct ones for having abandoned the understanding of the world shaped by the reasoning and wisdom of those who came before us. Why Luke and Kylo are ultimately enemies is anyone’s guess, given that they at least share this one fundamental arrogance in the film, and it’s treated as though it’s Kylo’s one redeeming quality.
And there we have it. The Force doesn’t make any sense anymore, which is just as well given that the entire universe of Star Wars has ceased to follow its own rules. Luke’s death served no particular end and his life, apparently, was ultimately fruitless—he defeated evil only to make it come back again by his own idiotic hand. In the last part of this analysis, I’ll return to the themes presented in each of these arcs and how they correspond to the downward trend of moral vice that has been encouraged and amplified by our contemporary consumer culture.