Having given my spoiler-free review of The Last Jedi, it’s time to break down the movie bit by bit into what I thought it was all about and what I liked and didn’t like. As I have encountered criticisms of the film online I’ve “special-editioned” this post you’re about to read, adding more commentary and defense to bolster it.
In his book Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche appropriates Zarathustra, the great historical founder of the transformative Persian religion Zoroastrianism, to explore his own philosophy. Nietzsche identifies Zarathustra as the source of the simplistic and dangerous view that the world is dualistically divided into two principles, an absolute good and an absolute evil that are at war with each other. Nietzsche sees this sort of dualism as having become dominant in Western philosophy and theology for two thousand years. In order to challenge it, Nietzsche tells the tale of Zarathustra’s return ten years after his initial teaching. He’s back with a new message to overturn the old one.
Eventually Nietzsche’s Zarathustra finds himself some disciples. After a while he gives this speech sending them away, which was on my mind throughout Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi:
Alone I go now, my disciples! You too must go away now, and alone. Thus I will it.
Verily, I counsel you: go away from me and guard yourselves against Zarathustra! And better still: be ashamed of Zarathustra! Perhaps Zarathustra has deceived you.
The man of understanding must be able not only to love his enemies, but also to hate his friends.
One repays a teacher badly if one always remains only a student. And why would you not pluck at my wreath?
You revere me; but what if your reverence should some day collapse? Be careful lest a statue fall and kill you!
You say you believe in Zarathustra? But what does Zarathustra matter? You are my believers: but what do any believers matter?
You had not yet sought yourselves: then you found me. Thus do all believers: that is why all belief is worth so little.
Now I bid you lose me and find yourselves; and only when you have all denied me will I return to you.
Verily, with different eyes, my brothers, shall I then seek my lost ones; with a different love shall I then love you.
And once more you shall have become my friends and children of one hope: then will I be with you for the third time, that I may celebrate the Great Midday with you.
And this is the Great Midday, when the human stands in the middle of its path between beast and Ubermensch and celebrates its way to evening as its highest hope: for it is the way to a new morning.
Then will the one who goes under bless himself, that he may be the one who goes over; and the sun of his understanding will stand at midday for him.
“Dead are all Gods: now we want the Ubermensch to live”–may this be at the Great Midday our ultimate will!
With a few tweaks this bit of poetry could have been put in the mouth of Luke Skywalker and it would have fit with what he, and Yoda and General Organa, actually have to say and do in The Last Jedi.
In the traditional hero’s journey, the young hero both learns from and loses the guidance of an older mentor. It’s in losing the mentor that the young hero needs to learn that they can figure things out on their own without their mentor. In this movie, there is a beautiful reversal, Luke, Leia, and even Yoda all figure out from the mentor’s perspective that at a certain point their charges can figure things out without them.
And the evil Supreme Leader, Snoke, falls because he cannot see that his own disciple is capable of figuring out things without him. Some people are complaining that Snoke was too powerful to be defeated with Kylo Ren’s cheap trick. But this is because they have apparently not really internalized and belief the truth of Luke’s (and basically all of tragic literature’s) warnings about the dangers of hubris. Pride really does come before a fall. That’s a truth, not trick.
Complaints that Snoke was an underdeveloped and wasted character also miss the point. Just as Obi-Wan in the original Star Wars trilogy was there to play the archetypal role of guiding the young hero Luke through his first steps into a larger world, Snoke was there to invert the archetype. Kylo Ren is taking an inverse journey on the Dark Side to the one Luke took on the Light Side. Kylo Ren is also taking the alternative path that was available to Darth Vader and killing his cruel master. Snoke is not well developed because he does not need to be. We already know his character type. We know what he does and how he thinks. He is a mere variation on Palpatine set in place so that we can see how Kylo Ren’s opposite choice to Darth Vader plays out. It’s a “What If?” variation. What if Darth Vader killed the Emperor and took his place as he tried to plot with Luke to do in Empire Strikes Back?
This was absolutely the right choice for the saga. It’s time for the main villain not to be the virtually omniscient and omnipotent, uncomplicatedly evil puppet master that Palpatine was. It’s time for one of our young characters struggling with the complexities of the Light and Dark sides of the Force to be the responsible evil in the universe. It was time for Anakin’s grandson to take the path he was first too cowed and then too virtuous to take himself. With Luke gone, except perhaps as a force ghost, and Snoke gone, in Episode IX the path is clear for Kylo Ren and Rey to supersede their mentors and figure out their own story.
The throne room confrontation scene wound up not being a lazy repetition of the wonderful Return of the Jedi ones but instead an equally perfect counterpart to it that took everything we knew from that scene and built on it in new directions. Since the Return of the Jedi throne room sequence is burned deep in my soul from childhood, I could not have been happier to see everything in the throne room be so gripping and exciting and resonate both thematically and emotionally. The light saber fight that was part of it was quite possibly the most viscerally engaging in the whole series. The creativity and menace of the light saber weapons used against Kylo Ren and Rey was absolutely delicious. It was part of an overdue return to Star Wars quality imaginativeness that was present at various points in the film.
I am also bewildered that people are angry that we didn’t learn Snoke’s origin–as though that supposed mystery was important. It’s not some betrayal of Star Wars traditions to leave it opaque. In the original trilogy no one cared we didn’t know the Emperor’s origin. I also have no resonance with complaints that it violates the Sith Rule of Two to have Snoke be a powerful Sith who emerged without explanation and that somehow this undermines the ability of the story to work for numerous reasons:
(1) One of the points of this movie was that people can use the Force without belonging to either the Jedi or Sith orders.
(2) Nowhere in the movies do Snoke or Kylo Ren ever identify as Sith.
(3) Even if they did identify as Rule-Following Sith–the Emperor and Vader are dead and it’s been thirty years. So that’s plenty of time for two new Sith to emerge and become quite powerful without the limit being exceeded.
(4) The Dark Side users are evil. It’s not inconceivable they don’t follow each other’s rules.
(5) The Sith Rule of Two was not always a Sith rule according to the EU. It’s malleable.
(6) Even if Snoke was a Rule-Following Sith he may have been dutifully developing his Dark Side powers without claiming Sithhood until a spot opened up.
(7) Star Wars stories have never revolved structurally around some key mystery being solved. They’re not detective movies for fans to unpuzzle.
Why anyone centered their expectations of this story on the idea that it would turn on Snoke’s origins or Rey’s parents’ reveal is beyond me. Vader’s Empire revelation that he was Luke’s father was not the answer to a mystery. It was a surprise that complicated the narrative and made it more thematically and emotionally complex. Going back to that well and making Rey a Skywalker wasn’t the way to advance this story. It was the way to make this story profoundly derivative. It’s not a betrayal of the spirit of Star Wars to make her a nobody and Snoke’s origin of no consequence. It is a return to Star Wars of a focus on actual good surprising thematically coherent storytelling driving the plot. The last thing I wanted was this to be more obsession with bloodlines. I had already been disappointed that The Force Awakens had gone and made Kylo Ren a Skywalker. It worked out okay, given how Rian Johnson took things, but it would have been sheer bludgeoning of redundancy if yet another Force user was revealed to just be part of the same blest bloodline. The film’s egalitarian theme that Rey comes from nothing is wholly more appropriate and more in keeping with the way both Anakin and Luke were each originally presented. It’s fitting that this time she stays someone with inconsequential parentage. To do otherwise wouldn’t have been a twist but a retread. And to return to the theme that the Force is something accessible to someone from lowly origins and stay there this time finally reaffirms the message of the original Star Wars movie before things got complicated in Empire Strikes Back.
People might have been misled in these regards by Mystery Box JJ Abrams helming the first movie and thought that everything he didn’t explain must be a mystery we must decode. To that all I can say is that this is why I can’t stand JJ Abrams and didn’t like what he pulled with The Force Awakens—he sets up mysteries he does not have an actual resolution in mind for. After the movie when I complained that the film didn’t have a satisfying conclusion, my complaint was that it didn’t have a satisfying conclusion and we could be certain Abrams had none in mind for the future. This was all on Johnson to advance the story. And he did the right thing in not following through on Abrams teases but instead throwing them away like Luke’s light saber and focusing on characters and themes logically progressing. I wasn’t crazy with the corner that Abrams and Kasdan had written Johnson into, but given the mess he was handed he made something coherent and satisfying and that did justice to Luke, where Abrams had irritatingly left him looking like a coward for no good reason.
The real world reason Luke was alone on a planet of his own and skipping out on the galaxy in its time of great need was, the writers actually explained, that in the process of writing The Force Awakens they kept finding that every time they tried having Luke appear for the first time they realized that he completely drew all the attention away from the new characters they were trying to introduce because they felt like everyone would become much more interested in what Luke was doing. Rather than taking that as a clue that they should just center Episode VII on Luke, Han, and Leia and introduce the next generation leads as side characters, they just shoved Luke entirely out of the picture and onto his own planet even though it made Luke look like an out-of-character coward.
Going into this movie, what was done was done, as far as I was concerned. I wasn’t going to hate it for The Force Awakens’ terrible choices. I was going to see if Rian Johnson could rationalize Luke’s situation satisfyingly. And to my relief and surprise, he did an admirable job.
The Temptation of Luke Skywalker
I’m sure George Lucas must have been proud as I was to see Rian Johnson’s homage to Kurosawa’s Rashômon in his telling of how Luke Skywalker lost Ben Solo to the Dark Side. Like in Rashômon we see the same event not in actual flashback as it actually happened but from the perspectives of multiple storytellers where the images we see change with the storytelling. First it’s Luke’s telling in which he self-servingly omits the fact that he had raised a light saber over Ben’s sleeping body when Ben aggressed against him. Then we learn Kylo Ren’s side of the story wherein he’s confronted by an aggressive Luke Skywalker uncomplicatedly trying to murder him. Finally we learn Luke’s revised version of the story in which he has, in a moment of terror, contemplated striking Ben but quickly come to his senses and is standing there in shame with the light saber out when he notices too late a terrified Ben Solo reaching for his light saber in self-defense with Luke trying and failing to stop him in time.
It’s a gloriously honest and human moment. After all Obi-Wan’s retconning, self-serving relativist pablum in the previous moments about the truth being all a matter of point of view, it was delightful to see Luke struggling with the truth and dealing with the honest facts about how good people can justifiably interpret the same event in opposite ways based on what is the ambiguous information in front of them at the moment—with sometimes tragic results.
This continued the long, slow march of the Star Wars universe away from A New Hope’s childishly simple and misleading black and white/light and dark mythology. Empire Strikes Back complicated things when Luke had to deal with the shock of the embodiment of evil in his world being revealed to be none other than the same father who had been the ideal role model he’d yearned to emulate his whole life. In Return of the Jedi he movingly refused to accept Yoda’s absolutist judgment that Vader was simply evil and there was nothing to do but kill him. Luke opted to believe in the power of love and the Light to reach his father. He insisted on still believing the man he’d idealized was still there in his father. His pacifistic, self-sacrificial, commitment to loving rather than fighting his father was finally what reached Anakin.
In the prequels we then learned about just how wrongly Yoda had treated Anakin all along. It wasn’t just in Return of the Jedi that he thought hostility was the only way to deal with him; along with Mace Windu he mistrusted Anakin from the time he was a child, on through his appointment to be a liaison to the Supreme Chancellor. And Yoda’s personal advice to him in Revenge of the Sith was profoundly cold and thoughtless. Yoda was a dogmatist about the Jedi ways, pushing a harmfully extreme doctrine of the renunciation of all attachments. He didn’t trust or want to cultivate Anakin’s power and he didn’t teach Anakin how to healthily love. Disappointed audiences that wanted mythically perfect Jedi were disappointed with the prequels for this, but I applauded it. The Jedi were responsible for losing Anakin to the Dark Side because Lucas was telling a thematically and emotionally realistic story with important insights, beneath all the computer graphics and wooden direction. (For my full take on this, read my article, Why Anakin’s Conversion to the Dark Side Made Sense.)
So in The Last Jedi I was delighted that Luke was self-critical enough to figure out how he was responsible for his mistakes and how his Order was responsible for its mistakes. I was so happy to learn that Yoda finally got it too. Yoda learned from Luke. Yoda gets it that Rey is like Luke and she not only can, but has to, figure things out on her own. There are things she can discover that Yoda and Luke, products of earlier eras, can’t get.
A lot is made of how religious Star Wars is. Well The Last Jedi was its Enlightenment moment. Yoda came back, like Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, to reject the old dogma that he was so responsible for promulgating in the first place. Yoda now has the humanistic hope that Rey has the source of guidance within her and that she does not need thousand year old books that few actually read anyway to guide her. And the old Jedi mistake that Luke turned out to have fallen into was the classic moral dualist’s mistake: the idea that the dark side was so dangerous that it had to be eradicated completely—even violently. The historic mistake of dualistic morality that Nietzsche saw was the way that it turns us violently on ourselves and others in a destructively zealous fear of anything remotely evil or disorderly within ourselves or others.
The common religious attack on our “primitive” drives and emotions, the feeling that our bodies and desires are evil and untrustworthy and must be punished into submission, and the authoritarian attempt to try to control everything around us, setting out to purge all the imperfect as evildoers—these are all the Dark Side of morality that troubled Nietzsche and his Zarathustra. These are the things that finally trouble Luke and Rian Johnson’s Yoda. I see the next logical step, in Episode IX, to be Rey and Kylo Ren figuring out that the true balance of the Force is a matter of figuring out how to be constructive with both the Light and the Dark in human nature rather than trying to snuff the one or the other out in the name of Order, in the process giving rise to Evil. In The Last Jedi, we see great exploration of the idea that the Light and the Dark inevitably balance each other, that wherever one is strong the other rises to match it. Kylo’s rise in Darkness seems to have led to Rey’s rise as his Light counterpart. They’re even equally matched in power as beautifully illustrated when their fight over Luke’s light saber symbolically pulls it apart, representing the futility of the attempts of either the Light or the Dark to ever win out finally over the other.
It’s the violent attack on human imperfection and disorderliness and on evil itself that makes good people evil. Luke’s tragic moment of weakness and evil, with all its horrible consequences, was about this fundamental truth. It was a profound choice. It was a deeply humanistic lesson. And it paired beautifully well with the profound anti-resentment theme in Rose’s admonitions to Finn along the lines that we should not win by destroying what we hate but by protecting what we love. These moments felt acutely timely in 2017.
Speaking of Rose–my wife caught a wonderful inversion. When Rose tells us that we’re going to be seeing the worst people in the galaxy, instead of it being the shady-looking scummy, villainous aliens hived at the Cantina, we’re flashed to the impeccably well-dressed and groomed wealthy aliens of Canto Bight, who are at a casino that represents capitalistic speculation. What represents the glitzy sleaze of the wealthy better than a casino? Since this script was written sometime between 2014 and 2015 it’s probably serendipity and intention that accounts for the casino representing the wealthy overlords while we find ourselves living under the Trump Presidency, but it still is timely.
But I digress. Back to Luke, some people are, understandably, complaining that Luke’s brief contemplation of murdering of Kylo Ren is a betrayal of Luke’s character since at the end of the Return of the Jedi he was the embodiment of belief in redemption. For him to fail in this way was to undermine the character’s defining strength. I understand this response viscerally. As a child I literally had my first impactful exposure to the concept of pacifistic, self-sacrificial, redemptive love from Luke Skywalker. I watched Return of the Jedi countless times and it had an enormous impact on me long before even Jesus did.
But that’s what’s profound here. Luke’s hubris is connected precisely to his strength. In his galaxy—and, fatefully, in his own mind—Luke got built up as big as he is in our minds. And that’s why he failed. He was a human being and not a mythic character. He was the same guy who, in Return of the Jedi itself, did get baited by both the Emperor and Vader at various points into losing his temper and trying to destroy Vader. He had gone so far as to chop off Vader’s hand before he got a hold of himself after the Emperor gleefully cackled, praised him, and encouraged him to finish the job. At that moment he had gotten a hold of himself and done the brave and pacifistic and self-sacrificial and redemptive thing. But just a moment before he had failed. He had the ability to fail within him. (We all do.) But he had defined himself by his triumphant courageous moment instead. (As we often do.) And he overestimated himself ever thereafter. Luke’s most famous strength was precisely the logical thing for the story to find him overestimating in his tragic hubris.
One of the profound things about all this for me is that the film is the film demonstrates from within itself how traditions need to grow rather than ossify and how they must be open to revision rather than dogmatic. Star Wars is here modeling the revision of a mythic tradition from within itself. It’s not just like a Nietzsche coming along and putting words in Zarathustra’s mouth for him. It would be like Zoroastrians rewriting Zoroastrianism or Christians telling a new story where Jesus himself fails in order to signal to Christians that their tradition is not perfect and can’t be relied on to be so but must be ever renewed with new and better ideas. Star Wars is exploiting its own most mythic figure to critique how mythologizing getting in the way of circumspection.
And Luke’s lapse with Ben Solo was not a total erasure of Luke’s belief in redemption, but a tragic moment of weakness in the face of a plausible temptation (given the dangers the Dark Side represented in his mind). We may define ourselves by one deed. But just as it was a mistake for Luke, and us, to interpret him as only his moment of throwing away his light saber and taking the Emperor’s lightning, it is wrong to define him only as his moment of raising his light saber. (Nietzsche’s Zarathustra’s “Pale Criminal” sequence is worth reading in this connection.) The Rashômon-esque tellings of Luke’s confrontation with Ben Solo capture this exquisitely. Which moment we interpret as defining an encounter or a character is a matter of perspective and inevitably involves some amplification of the aspects we take as most salient and deemphasis of others we don’t want to deal with that would make everything more complicated. Both Luke and Kylo in their initial tellings only wanted to define the encounter by the moment of it that made them the most sympathetic. In Luke’s retelling, he emphasizes the shameful part that had really come to characterize it all in his mind and which had sent him into exile.
Right after the humanistic attack on the dangers of stifling traditionalism were made clearest in the story came a scene where Snoke borrows direct language attributed to the New Testament God, calling Kylo Ren his “good and faithful servant”. That looked to me like a subtly subversive stab at the tyrannical side of the biblical God, comparing Snoke to him. But I’m an atheist critical of biblical religion, so maybe I’m just reading that implication of that choice in. It could have been just an instance of his hubris using godlike language. Hubris that he was about to pay for.
Episodes VII and VIII now work very nicely thematically in terms of what we have been seeing in release order, not just in story order. The last Star Wars saga movies that we had seen were all about the fall of the Jedi and the fall of a sympathetic hero to the Dark Side. There’s a fascinating parallel that now emerges. Instead of moving on from those movies into Episodes IV-VI this works on some level like an alternative storyline that, in VII, picks up after III. We know how Anakin actually went as Vader. Now we’re resetting the table and exploring what would have happened if Anakin had gone differently–a Kylo Ren route wise enough to overthrow his malignant overlord but stay on the Dark Side. What if Obi-Wan and Yoda had been more introspective with Luke? Now Luke can play the Obi-Wan and Yoda role and correct their mistakes instead of repeating them. This is a really nice way to work with the parallelism that is such an ingrained structural part of Lucas’s storytelling. In three generations we’re seeing three distinct variations on how the same basic pressures act on three generations of heroes and their mentors and two generations of villains, and how they respond the same and differently and what they learn generation to generation. With The Last Jedi the saga is deepening. Retroactively, it’s even improving The Force Awakens, as I held out hope it might after I was so let down by that movie.
The theme of leaders training and giving way to their successors was also prominent in Leia’s journey. I was relieved she actually got things to do this time out besides being a dour, mourning mother, ex-wife, and fairly irrelevant general. She still seems ponderous and worn out in this movie. But it works much better. She’s still brimming with neither the vigorous passionate intensity of young Princess Leia nor with the irreverent and ribald humor of Carrie Fisher in her real last years. Instead though she commands reverence for her resilience through countless battles and losses that she’s endured and which show all over her face. She’s a compelling leader, a wise mentor, and a comforting eminent presence. I think she could have done better than (and eventually does better than) slap Poe Dameron across the face but I liked the way that the film explored her relationship with him in general. He represents the daredevil who always does things his own cocky way instead of the reasonable way like Han was. There’s a poignancy and sweetness in the way she and Laura Dern’s character want to train him to overcome his rashness and dismissiveness of others’ opinions, while not wanting him to lose his endearing roguishness or his leadership qualities.
Things also looked structurally like they decided to make The Force Awakens Han’s movie to shine, The Last Jedi Luke’s, and Episode IX was to be Leia’s. It’s really sad that that’s not going to happen now. Everything seemed positioned for her to be the most important original trilogy character, with both Han and Luke dead and her son’s character arc due to reach its conclusion. I wonder if we’ll ever know what might have been.
One last note on Leia in The Last Jedi: when she was blown out of the starship, initially my heart sank and I got really angry fearing that they were going to dispense with her character so soon and so unceremoniously in the new trilogy. I was also really confused because if they were killing her anyway it didn’t make much sense to have Kylo Ren back out of being the one to do it. Then when she saved herself by using the Force I didn’t respond with immediate emotional excitement. It was definitely a contrived enough conceit that I had to process what I thought of it cognitively and decide if I could buy it or not. What made me happy about it was that she finally did something real with her Force powers. I had been pretty bitter that they had presented them as largely undeveloped in the previous movies.
On the rewatch of the film I loved the poetry of the image. I also quite a bit like the hint that Leia has developed her powers with The Force but in an unconventional, non-Jedi way, that is meaningful and powerful too. It’s a secret component of her stoic resilience, her calm that’s replaced her frequent anger in the first two films of the original trilogy, and apparent depth of love. I like the idea that she’s in tune enough with the Force that she’s braced to handle the incoming fire, both emotionally and physically. She’s so poised and placid in that beautiful shot of her face as the threat is coming in and she’s apparently reading her son’s mind to determine what he’ll do. Maybe she’s even communicating with him at that moment. Projecting her passive peacefulness to him as a plea to not kill his mother. I like thinking that she’s so in the Force in that moment, in a quiet and invisible way that we only get to realize was there because of how the scene ends where her use of the Force has to suddenly be visible to save her life. Maybe I’m just rationalizing what was, in effect, a kind of awkward plot work around to open up Poe’s conflict with Vice Admiral Holdo. But the sequence was striking enough, beautiful enough, and plausible enough given that Leia has known she’s strong with the Force for thirty years, that I think it’s defensible and more enjoyable to give the scene the charitable reading that makes it work. And I’m glad Johnson had the guts to go with brave choices like that one. I would rather a Star Wars so ambitious it sometimes fails than one that was too unambitious.
The Man, The Myth, The Jedi
Finally, Luke’s return at the end of the movie was truly wonderful. It was the best of surprises, one that played on so many levels with the audience’s expectations and curiosities and executed the central themes of the movie superbly.
As soon as Leia says that hope has left the galaxy, I turned to my wife and said, “That means Luke’s about to walk in the room, right?” And sure enough! Right on cue. Mr. New Hope himself was there to save the day.
And the Luke Skywalker fan inside of me could not have been happier or more relieved that Luke was not going to be shunted aside for the next generation and the climax of the film. Yes, I had been satisfied that he had gotten to be more than just Rey’s Yoda and then moved on from. It was justifiable to leave him burning the Jedi Temple and having shown character growth of his own in the movie. It was already too much to ask for, given the normal formula for these things.
But then there he was, the great movie hero of my childhood out from hiding for another light saber duel. How powerful must he have become in the intervening thirty years? The last we saw him he was just figuring out his powers. The dream of a new Luke Skywalker movie for thirty years was for me the dream of seeing just how powerful a Jedi a mature Luke Skywalker would be. I couldn’t wait to find out. And Kylo Ren’s fear of him indicated he was afraid to find out.
And with all the firepower of a firing line of AT-ATs directed at Luke he amazingly is unscathed. Wow, Luke is even more powerful than we have ever seen a Jedi be! He’s grown as powerful as we could possibly fantasize. He’s basically a god now!
And then Kylo comes down to duel with him and Luke is so nimble and confident. And he’s doing what I expected, he’s apologizing. But he’s also now doing something unexpected. He’s trash talking. He’s warning Kylo Ren that if he strikes him down in anger he’ll never get him out of his head. He’s in complete control. Then oh my god, the light saber goes right through Luke! Now he’s going to be in Kylo’s head for sure after he pulled that trick!
Then it’s beautifully revealed that Luke was never there physically the whole time. We had been set up to learn about astral projection powers of the Force sensitive characters when Snoke manipulated Kylo Ren and Rey into communicating with each other. Now it turns out that’s what Luke was doing too. An ingenious twist fairly laid out in advance with a technique introduced and used in a believable way for a significant and memorable chunk of the film.
Luke’s projection of himself was as leaner and with darker beard. We should have known. That’s how he survived all those blasts from the AT-AT’s. That’s why even his clothes had magically been unperturbed.
Luke decided to embrace and use his powers as a legend, to give hope to the resistance and to confuse Kylo Ren. Having shamefully failed to live up to his reputation, he decided to stop trying to live up to it and instead use it. He pretended to be a god. And we, assuming you were like me, were coaxed to believe he was one for a moment. We were coaxed to believe he could do what he scoffed at the idea of doing early in the film—take on the New Order all by himself like an unstoppable god. (When he’s initially done that scoffing, I felt personally punctured. The child within me had said, “but you’re Luke Skywalker“. The entire film of The Force Awakens and the two years waiting for The Last Jedi we had all assumed that of course had Luke been there things, he could do something to stop the New Order.
But Luke was right. He was not a god. The myth of the super hero film, of the hero’s journey—perhaps even of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra’s Ubermensch?—is that we just need a god or a superhuman to come along and fix our problems for us. Luke had great powers in the end, but they were the powers to project himself as larger than life and to thereby inspire us, not the powers to be larger than life.
The filmmakers used Luke’s outsized power in our imaginations to have him present himself as a god and have us buy it as much as Kylo Ren did. And Kylo Ren’s confusion is coupled with our disillusionment about Luke’s powers. Luke’s power is as a symbol, as the idea of a godlike human who’s really there to get in our heads and teach us something about ourselves. But he’s not real. What he represents is not even literally real. The world is not one waiting for lone heroes to come and save the day. We’re not supposed to be Luke Skywalker. We can’t be Luke Skywalker. Even Luke Skywalker can’t be Luke Skywalker. Even Luke Skywalker failed to live up to his own legend and flawlessly revive the Jedi. His power is to project an idea to us with every ounce of intense human effort he has. And then leave it with us.
And he sacrifices himself in the process. Now as the twin sunsets set on the horizon, now representing his death and no longer the future he was always focused on, the Force theme plays and he merges with the Force, disappearing and leaving the mortal cloak he wore to be blown away.
The whole scene is also a beautiful moment of growth for Luke that pays off Empire Strikes Back where Yoda insists that Luke’s problem is that he is never able to concentrate on the present and keep his mind on what he is doing but is always looking off to the horizon (something Yoda has reminded us about earlier in the movie). Here Luke’s great final heroic act is one of intense concentration on what he is doing in the present, eyes closed, not looking at the horizon.
The meta-commentary on the value and limits of myths and religious traditions in all of this was just breathtakingly done here. The interplay between idea and reality and between image and reality that goes on in Luke’s astral projection scenes are so pregnant with connotations that, as in all great art, they can powerfully convey numerous genuine meanings the more you think the whole sequence through. Beyond what I have worked out here, I have had satisfying different realizations flitting into my head ever since I saw the movie.
Using my generation’s arguably most potent mythical character, Johnson managed to compellingly meditate on what mythic characters—and real life people we raise to mythic status—can and cannot give us without breaking the fourth wall in some glaring way. It works within the story that Luke is a mythic figure. It’s compelling that he has this godlike stature among the people in this universe—even though he was, after all, human all too human. He was the perfect person in both their world and ours to send the message (among others): be inspired by but don’t idolize mere human beings or they’ll screw with your mind.
Join my Facebook Star Wars forum! Take my philosophy classes. You can even study Nietzsche in depth with me. For another moral philosopher’s take on the movie, check out Marcus Arvan’s, which points out a theme that The Last Jedi culminates that I had been missing in the previous two trilogies. Read the articles below for more of my thoughts on Star Wars:
The Force Awakens Is A Lazy Cop Out (Spoiler-Free Review)
The Last Jedi (Spoiler Free Review)
Star Wars: The Feminism Awakens? (Episode I)
Don’t Diminish Princess Leia To Praise Rey
On The Uses And Abuses of Han Solo in The Force Awakens (Spoilers)
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