Of the myriad moments in The Last Jedi that have caused an uproar among the fandom, it is Luke Skywalker’s actions in Ben Solo’s hut that have proved the most divisive. Given the Rashomon treatment, we see the scene three times, with Luke withholding key information in the first telling – namely that he had ignited his lightsaber with the briefest view towards murdering his nephew.
Understandably, a sizable portion of fans feels betrayed by this moment, and that it is out of character for Luke, a man who saw the good in his fallen father when nobody else believed, the man who threw away his lightsaber while staring down pure evil, proudly declaring his allegiance and heritage as a Jedi. A figure of warmth and optimism would not, could not contemplate such a barbarous act… surely?
The Last Jedi is many things; among them it is a comment on Star Wars and Star Wars fandom itself – a concept that is already being explored more than adequately. It is also, within the narrative, an examination of what it means to be a Jedi, and what values that involves. Writer-director Rian Johnson, via Luke, is explicit in his view of the classic, prequel-era Jedi Knights: that they were heinously derelict in their duty and allowed Darth Sidious to create the Empire while exterminating their order, but is only an invitation to dig deeper into the film’s (and Luke’s) view on the differing ideologies of the saga’s other two key Jedi characters: Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda.
“Destroy the Sith, we must.”
The bifurcation of Kenobi’s and Yoda’s ideologies stems from their parallel experiences in the conclusion of Revenge of the Sith – one defeats his opponent and leaves him to die, the other fails and exiles himself. For the Jedi of the prequel era, whipping out your lightsaber and destroying things is almost always the first course of action, and Obi-Wan is largely emblematic of that, portrayed in those films as an almost ostentatious combatant whose flair with a lightsaber goes largely unmatched. His merciless dispatch of the acklay, his raising a saber towards Anakin before identifying him in the lift on the Invisible Hand, or even his using a lightsaber to resolve a bar fight in Mos Eisley, discretion be damned, is very much the Jedi way.
Even our first chronological introduction to the Jedi, in The Phantom Menace, is bracketed by the Neimoidians’ abject fear of them. They are basically policemen, doing the bidding of the state, and are unquestioningly pressed into service during the Clone Wars. “Guardians of peace and justice” indeed – funnily enough, two of the things the newly-christened Darth Vader believes he has brought to the galaxy after he has slaughtered those same Neimoidians (and friends). And so when confronted with the tragic aftermath of Order 66, the first course of action these classic Jedi take is a resolution to destroy their enemies through combat.
This is not incongruent with how we understand the Jedi in A New Hope – Leia refers to “General Kenobi”, Obi-Wan wears his service in the Clone Wars as a badge of honor, and he waxes lyrical about the lightsaber just as much as he does the Force itself. “This weapon is your life” was his exhortation to Luke’s father, and it wouldn’t be hard to imagine him imparting that same reverence to Luke. His only direct tutelage to Luke revolves around the use of the saber as an access point to understanding how to use the Force more broadly. “Let go your conscious self… and act on instinct” is the instruction, a preface for his later, post-mortem urgings to Luke during his assault on the Death Star, exhorting him to yet again “let go” and “use the Force” to (partially) guide your actions. There may be alternatives to fighting, but for Obi-Wan it is the typical resolution – even his stealthy infiltration of the Death Star must lead to violence in the form of a rematch duel with his fallen apprentice.
“Your weapons. You will not need them.”
That The Empire Strikes Back is a film that is all about inverting the expectations and rules of its predecessor should be news to no-one, but the depth to which that film is a refutation of everything that works for the heroes in A New Hope is sometimes missed, particularly in the nature of Luke’s training on Dagobah. Rather than a continuation of Kenobi’s interrupted tutelage, Yoda has to rebuild Luke’s mindset and undo much of what his predecessor has indulged – chiefly the need for action and instant decision, instead honing a sense of patience, control, and concentration. The Jedi training that Luke goes through, and which many viewers insist Rey needs, is less about using the Force to greater effect and more about developing a “the most serious mind” – something that Rey already has from years of hard, self-reliant living.
Luke hears and accepts this tutelage but in his heart of hearts he still wants the adventure, and more disturbingly he wants revenge against the monster who slew both his mentor and, apparently, his father – a dark motivation actively fostered by Kenobi, who later laments its scuppering in Return of the Jedi. The understanding of Yoda’s lesson is seen in that next film, where the influence of these two disparate teachers is blended into his approach to opposition. He offers Jabba peaceful resolution, and then brings fire and sword crashing down upon his enemy. So too with Vader and Palpatine, as he peacefully surrenders and then indulges in violence. In spite of declaring his willingness to die, he still cannot resist the impulse for action, and tries to murder Palpatine (cue the discussion about whether or not Vader saves his son two times in the film).
Through this blending, Luke triumphs. He wins the duel, but he will not fight the Emperor (albeit, before he understands what the Emperor can do). His collective experience brings him to his final victory, which leads him to be venerated throughout the galaxy, but the point remains that the resolution is overall still one of violence – Palpatine hurled into the chasm, the Death Star II obliterated. What would, or must, happen, if that cycle continues?
“What’s in there?”
“Only what you take with you.”
In The Last Jedi we see get our first true Star Wars flashback, one that has driven a wedge through the fanbase, but whose content has its forebears in the existing films. Luke senses an evil presence and goes to confront it with his lightsaber by his side, and when he sees the totality of that evil, he draws his weapon first. He acts on instinct and lets the Force tell him what to do, to partially guide his actions. The other part is determined by the future that Luke sees in Ben Solo’s mind, the destruction of everything he has built and everything he loves. We hear the distinctive ignition of Kylo Ren’s crossguard saber, suggesting that Luke sees beyond the immediate destruction of his own training temple, and into the dramatic events of The Force Awakens, potentially including the murder of Han Solo. He sees a future, and rejects it, much as he does when he contrasts his broken, beaten, robotic father with his own prosthetic hand on the Death Star II.
This isn’t just about “sometimes people make mistakes” or making Luke fallible just to make things interesting, it’s about presenting him with a new scenario, the most difficult one he has been faced with in his life, and him trying to make a decision then. The Last Jedi is, in all three plot strands, about the possible virtue of inaction, and the importance of context to inform decisions — Luke’s maturity and experience afford him the wisdom to recognize the error almost as swiftly as he makes it, but it’s a classic Star Wars self-fulfilling prophecy. His drawn saber breaks the levees for Ben Solo’s turn to the dark side. The decision isn’t easy either: if he does nothing, when does the time bomb Snoke has set in Ben’s mind go off? When does the future he has seen come to pass? Again, this contrast of methodologies provides its own challenges: do you let the Force and your instincts guide you into action, or do you accept what is going on and have faith that the future is always in motion? That something else might happen if I do nothing now? Is that the domain of heroes? Is there a right way out of that scenario?
“I can’t understand how we got by those troops. I thought we were dead!”
“The Force can have a strong influence on the weak-minded.”
Having been betrayed by trusting the Force, and having put his faith in the problem-solving power of a lightsaber, Luke denies himself both, deeply ashamed of what has transpired. This is deeper than just a refusal to leap back into action – his derisory comment about wading into combat against the First Order with a “laser sword”, as well as his casual dismissal of that particular lightsaber with its most checkered past represents a wholesale dismissal of violence. One of the great action heroes of cinema kills, in this latest film, one fish. And raps Rey on the knuckles twice. Once with a leaf, the other time in defense. This is a fairly remarkable reversal, but he is of course occupying that same placid space as Yoda, toying mentally with the young charge who has intruded on his hermetic life, and focusing on philosophy and ideology rather than practical skills.
But Luke is not Yoda; he can’t be. He cannot simply trust Rey to resolve the issue of evil ailing the galaxy; she does not have that same impetus of destiny, no father or cousin or brother to redeem. It isn’t time for her to learn the lessons he learned on Cloud City, because those lessons don’t apply. Perhaps also, he is still disturbed by the way he was manipulated by his first mentor into violent confrontation with his enemy (from a certain point of view). Rey and her generation of Rebels will have a war to wage, but he can still do something, and demonstrate a better way that doesn’t involve nearly killing his father, nearly murdering the Emperor in cold blood, and blowing something up (yet again). And as Yoda himself wryly observes, Luke is still that boy looking to the horizon, wanting the adventure and to confront villainy head-on. And so we get Luke’s Crait gambit, confounding and thwarting the forces of evil with not bloodshed or destruction but with spectacular deception. “A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defense. Never for attack.” If the prequels retrospectively made Yoda’s comment grand hypocrisy, Johnson has put it truly into practice, as even in Return of the Jedi it is pure, basic, human compassion that triumphs rather than the power of the Force.
This isn’t to say that Luke has rejected Obi-Wan entirely. The reverence and appreciation he has for his first master is evidenced on Crait, in his final, most dramatic demonstration of the power of the Force: it’s the biggest Jedi Mind Trick ever. That feat which is his introduction to the practical application of the Force is here writ large, turned into a show of such brilliant psychological theatricality, from the doctoring of his appearance to look like the younger self that Ben felt so threatened by to the usage of his father’s weapon, diverting his demented nephew’s unmatched rage to save his sister and her compatriots. Johnson has said that the film is about choosing what of the past you take with you and what you leave behind — Luke leaves behind the “Knight” part of being a Jedi, takes Obi-Wan’s guile and ingenuity, and transforms it through the prism of Yoda’s non-violence to halt the march of oppression and evil at the expense of his own mortal life. Far from assassinating Luke’s character, Johnson has made him one of the most unique, genuine, and inspiring fictional heroes of all time. That elegant weapon, the lightsaber, is not his life. He does not need it.