With another blockbuster film to its credit, Disney and Lucasfilm’s The Last Jedi soared due in part to Mark Hamill’s portrayal of Luke Skywalker.
WARNING! Spoilers ahead! If you have not seen The Last Jedi, proceed with caution.
It all begins upon a heath.
There is darkness, interspersed with thunder, lightning, and the cackling of three witches who determine when they shall next meet, when “the hurlyburly’s done.”
This moment is the audience’s acquaintance with the Weird Sisters, their descriptor a derivation of the term “wyrd,” an Anglo-Saxon word for “fate.”
When removed from its proper context, the opening scene to William Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Macbeth is both jarring and nonsensical. The dialogue is sparse, the action, if any, seemingly without purpose.
As the play progresses, the introduction to the three witches proves vital: their fateful assembly is set alongside a battle involving the titular “hero,” Macbeth, Thane of Glamis, whose valiant actions will ultimately lead to a promotion. The mere mention of his name in this scene suggests the Witches’ direct connection to his demise. Their chanting of “fair is foul and foul is fair” speaks to the play’s paradoxical nature, one that shapes the audience’s eventual understanding of Macbeth’s very character: how we are to perceive him is to do so cautiously, as looks regarding his character may not be what they seem initially. At the onset, Macbeth stands as a noble who is loyal to his king, but when presented a vision of his future by the Witches—that he is slated to become King of Scotland himself—we find lurking beneath his valorous veneer a man of “vaulting” ambition who is willing to resort to regicide to claim the throne in a far more prompt fashion.
The opening scene, in its darkness and foreboding, pervades the rest of the play and how we ought to fathom what befalls a once trusted soldier and general to the Scottish cause.
Much like in Othello, the tragic hero, in this case, Macbeth, is spoken of profusely before he even utters a word (fittingly enough, his first words, “So foul and fair a day I have not seen,” echoes the Witches’ own lines, further linking them to Macbeth’s yet to be realized downfall). A severely wounded Sergeant delivers a report to King Duncan regarding Macbeth, whose sword, “smoking with bloody execution,” turns the tides of a battle that was seemingly lost until Macbeth and his trusted ally Banquo impose their will against the treacherous Macdonwald and the Norweyan forces. Macbeth, whose character is derived from Shakespeare’s perusal of The Holinshed Chronicles and Aristotle’s Poetics, is portrayed as bold, yet ruthless, determined, yet with a penchant for savagery, as he sets his vanquished enemy’s head upon a stake, although not before “unseaming him from the nave to the chaps.”
The concept of the three witches, minor characters who serve as a catalyst to Macbeth’s undoing, would later inspire Steven Spielberg’s 2003 re-envisioning of Phillip K. Dick’s Minority Report, a construct that demonstrates the universality of Shakespeare’s plays, even when such themes and concepts surface in science fiction, as they already had with one of George Lucas’s passion projects from the seventies (more on that later). In Spielberg’s film, the hive-minded visions of three Pre-Cognitives, twin brothers and their older sister, are utilized to prevent homicides before they even happen in a Washington, D.C. set in the mid-twenty first century. The film features John Anderton, head agent of the District’s Pre-Crime Division who is given his own vision of a murder he has yet to commit, but one he likely will exact in the end, given the premonition’s crux as a self-fulfilling prophecy, one that damns Anderton’s future in the same manner the Witches’ prophecies manipulate Macbeth’s future and impending doom. A key line from that film, “Nothing’s more destructive to the metaphysical fabric that binds us than the untimely murder of a human,” speaks not only to the foundation of Spielberg’s movie, but also to the tragedy, predicated on the murder of King Duncan by his own hands, that consumes Macbeth.
Spielberg and Brian De Palma, best known for Scarface, Carlito’s Way, and The Untouchables, each their own version of tragedy and deception, once sat in on a private viewing of a rough cut of George Lucas’s Star Wars. Begrudgingly, they agreed that their fellow contemporary’s film was a debacle. Thankfully, Lucas’s “space opera,” The Wizard of Oz set in “a galaxy far, far away,” would become a workable mess later refined in Paul Hirsch and Marcia Lucas’s crucial editing process, a story rooted in the stuff of Campbellian hero mythology, archetype, and drama of the Greek and Shakespearean traditions. The first of Lucas’s six films charts the rise and fall—a tragedy of Aristotelian order in the mold of Oedipus and Macbeth—of Anakin Skywalker, a troubled and flawed man whose final redemptive act, saving his son Luke from Emperor Palpatine’s attempt on his life, saw a peaceful end to an all-consuming affair with the Dark Side of the Force.
George Lucas’s rights to Star Wars were eventually purchased in 2012 by Disney for $4 billion, a number eclipsed most recently with the collective successes of The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, Episodes VII and VIII in an eventual nine-part saga, and the anthology film Rogue One, a precursor to the events detailed in A New Hope, a title Lucas’s space epic received after plans were established to craft a trilogy, one that was fortified with the storied follow-up, The Empire Strikes Back, a film that still remains the best in the series. To a degree, that “new hope” ended up being the essence of both the original and sequel trilogies, the one and only Luke Skywalker, now portrayed five separate times by Mark Hamill, his best performance coming in The Last Jedi, a moisture farmer shed of his innocence and whinging ways to manifest a brooding, fallen-on-hard times master who ultimately failed to “pass on what he has learned” in a manner to benefit the resurgence of the Jedi Order. But like Vader before him, there is redemption awaiting the older, albeit jaded, son of Anakin Skywalker, as Rian Johnson’s most recent venture suggests.
For the fabled Luke Skywalker, his story begins thirty years beyond the initial fall of the Empire, atop the cliffs of a remote island, shrouded in mystery, despair, and uncertainty, much like Yoda was in the Dagobah System, awaiting a prospective apprentice only three decades or so before.
In The Force Awakens, Luke, as the film’s opening crawl dictates, pervades the entirety of the film despite mere moments of screen time at the film’s end, and no dialogue spoken in between. When audiences last saw him at the end of Return of the Jedi, he successfully turned his father away from the seductive allure of the Dark Side and proved instrumental in permitting Anakin to betray his master, Darth Sidious, and bring the Empire to its crippling end. Now, at the beginning of the film, he is pronounced to be in hiding with his sister Leia in pursuit along with the First Order, risen from the ashes of the fallen Empire, a group led by his nephew and former apprentice Ben Solo, rebranded as Kylo Ren, a young man controlled by the Sith Lord Snoke, Supreme Leader of the aforementioned First Order.
Poe Dameron, a Resistance pilot, acquires a portion of a map that will lead the former Rebellion to Luke, hopefully before the First Order does.
JJ Abrams’s film, penned by Lawrence Kasdan, who wrote the script for Empire, is laced with callbacks to the original trilogy, a movie that races to the audience’s long-awaited reunion with Luke, whose disappearance remains an enigma, even to those closest to him.
To Rey, a scavenger girl from Jakku, Skywalker is a myth.
To Han Solo, his once compatriot, Luke is a harbinger of anguish. We learn that Luke failed to succeed in training Ben the same way Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda prevailed with him, indirectly leading him to the Dark Side. Despite this, Luke proved to Han that the Force and the Jedi were real and palpable, a belief he scoffed at in conversation with Ben Kenobi aboard the Millennium Falcon in A New Hope. By his tone, Han desperately alludes to Rey that Luke remains a friend, albeit one who remains remorseful and tortured.
— The Ringer (@ringer) December 25, 2017
Likely, it is Luke’s failure to train Ben that divides Leia, general of the Resistance, and Han, who now hops about the galaxy, having returned to his smuggling ways. But that is not to say Luke is no longer revered: on the contrary, Leia understands his importance to the Resistance. We long for Luke’s return as much as Leia does. We want to know what he is up to, what occurred between him and his nephew that triggered his exile. We further want to understand: why does his reclaimed lightsaber, once his father’s, call to Rey? Why does a powered down R2-D2, out of commission since Luke’s departure, spark to life upon Rey’s arrival to the Resistance’s headquarters? Is Rey the next Jedi apprentice, the last glimmer of hope the Rebellion was anticipating the way Luke was after the construction of the Empire’s first Death Star? Will Luke be so willing to train her? How are Rey and Luke connected? What is the meaning behind his look of wonder when Rey eventually finds him and offers up his lightsaber at the conclusion of The Force Awakens?
Quiet, lone note on THE LAST JEDI: @HamillHimself was a source of rare energy. A burning torch. Reminding all of his incredible humor, creativity, power and verve as a performer. His reprisal as the amazing LUKE SKYWALKER burns in my memory always. Thank you. ☀️ pic.twitter.com/XBZfQG8TZi
— Marc Sessler (@MarcSesslerNFL) January 3, 2018
Like Macbeth and Othello before him, Luke is spoken about, alluded to, and pursued incessantly before we even meet him for the first time. Like the witches’ presence in Macbeth, Luke’s ominous disappearance drives the spirit and feel of Episode VII in much the same way Carrie Fisher’s death elegiacally influences however it is The Last Jedi and the yet to be titled Episode IX draw to a close.
What we learn is that Rian Johnson, writer and director of The Last Jedi, has positioned Luke as the saga’s next tragic figure, a hero broken by irreconcilable failure and blinding hubris, the makeup of nearly every Greek and Shakespearean tragic hero. What we further gather is (a) Johnson’s vision for Luke went against every belief Mark Hamill had in mind for his character and (b) Luke is singlehandedly the most crucial component of the most recent installment to the Star Wars franchise, audience’s feelings be damned.
As Shakespeare previously envisioned for the likes of his Othello, Macbeth, and Hamlet, George Lucas’s Anakin Skywalker, and eventually his son Luke, are inspired by the formula and characteristics of a tragic hero prescribed in Aristotle’s Poetics.
Upon accepting Rey’s offering of the lightsaber he once wielded in Cloud City in his first desperate encounter with Vader, Luke apathetically discards the weapon Obi-Wan once gave such tremendous weight to in his hut on Tatooine, tossing it over his shoulder without much contemplation. Two years of audience anticipation leads to a moment none could have predicted: he refuses to “pass on what he has learned” to Rey, initially realizing in her another potential failure akin to his ineptitude with Ben Solo, not hope. In fact, failure—either the inability to see the growing threat of a Sith reemergence to misconstruing an ancient prophecy and allowing a slew of Jedi to succumb to the Dark Side—has essentially become a Jedi trademark, a distinction Luke can no longer bear to harbor. Beyond that, Luke has already created so much pain in the lives of others—in his sister and best friend—that reuniting with them would be equal parts moot and fruitless.
— The New Yorker (@NewYorker) December 23, 2017
Everything we believed about Luke is wrong (or, at the very least, misunderstood), and despite this, we presume a vision and arc for Luke that is as fulfilling and eye-opening as it is tragic, yet necessary to Rey’s growth and rebirth of the Rebellion. How we perceive Luke resonates and develops from the very moment he casts off his lightsaber in a fashion that is far truer to a newer Luke, one that even casts off his former self of the original trilogy, a beloved character (albeit, a whiny one–lest we forget his plea “But I wanted to go the Tosche Station to pick up some power converters!”–and, at least initially, a Marty Stu and relative retread in A New Hope in the mold of Rey’s Mary Sue trope that fans reportedly reviled in The Force Awakens) who so many of us grew accustomed to since his arc seemingly ended with Return of the Jedi.
Luke, already having failed Ben Solo, is a reluctant master, wishing Rey would not disrupt his hermetic life of solitude, closed off entirely from the Force and, by extension, his sister and the Resistance. The ramifications of these designs illustrate just how withered and removed from his former optimism Luke is. He proves to be quite snarky, too, considering he uses his daily routine on Ahch-To in an attempt to ward off Rey, though it is her persistence that ultimately draws Luke back to the Force and, later, the Resistance’s futile cause that needs Luke, who ultimately delivers in grand fashion despite prior, heavy reluctance.
As we discover, Luke’s X-Wing fighter is submerged in the waters adjacent to his island perch on Ahch-To, his only purpose to die as the titular last Jedi, never to be found, a sad truth regarding what our fallen, beloved hero has dwindled to.
Only thing is, Luke is fated to encounter and engage Rey in some yet to be spelled out manner. Whether he likes it or not, the Force has forged a path to bring Luke back into the fold, yet another wrinkle that lends subtlety to the body of the Force itself, all but retconning Lucas’s prequel’s foolish ideal for the “binding energy that surrounds us.”
In The Force Awakens, Rey’s appearance aboard the Millennium Falcon thrusts Han Solo back into the Resistance’s cause the same way it does for Luke when he first re-embarks aboard the “piece of junk” he once criticized so long ago (yet another brilliant moment Rian Johnson spins in The Last Jedi), although it takes far more urging for the flawed Jedi Master to bring himself back into the fight: Chewbacca’s breaking down the door to his hovel, the discovery of Han’s death, R2’s presence when he eventually boards the Falcon, and R2’s transmission of Leia’s frantic message that brought Obi-Wan out of exile, a poignant set piece in The Last Jedi that initiates Luke’s involvement in training Rey and re-engaging with the Resistance, even if the pain of failing Ben remains all too blistering.
— The Ringer (@ringer) December 22, 2017
Indicative of any tragic hero is his hamartia, the tragic flaw that leads to the hero’s demise. In Luke’s case, he spells his imperfection out for Rey and the audience: his hubris, pride in the Skywalker legacy that he would not fail to restore the Jedi Order, is his undoing.
Worse yet is Luke’s downfall and its impact on him and those closest to him, something he cannot even be truthful about when discussing his training of Ben Solo with Rey, a moment the audience visits on three separate occasions in The Last Jedi.
Sensing the Dark Side inside Ben, a presence unlike anything he has previously fathomed, Luke confronts Ben, only to be defeated, a Jedi Temple razed and burned to its foundation. Snoke had seemingly gotten to Ben’s core and there was nothing Luke could do to combat Snoke’s influence in much the same way Palpatine coerced Anakin, a pairing Yoda and Obi-Wan could not halt, let alone comprehend.
— The Ringer (@ringer) December 18, 2017
Later, Rey connects through the Force to communicate with Kylo Ren, a character given depth and complexity by Rian Johnson and the actor who masterfully portrays him, Adam Driver. This riveting device delivers a level to the Force we have never seen before, shedding it of the midochlorian nonsense that plagued the prequels, reinvigorating the Force with a broader sense of mythos and gravitas that defined its mysterious presence in the original trilogy. Through their communique, we learn that Luke intended to murder Kylo Ren as he slept, akin to Sidious’s stealing his master’s secrets to murder a slumbering Darth Plagueis, only this time, a master was aiming to slay his apprentice.
When confronting Luke about this incident in a violent, yet compelling exchange with him, Rey is able to glean from her instructor that Luke did, in fact, intend to kill Ben, but the impulse was fleeting, something his freshly ignited green lightsaber could not possibly conceal as he stood above a startled Ben Solo, now suddenly driven to exact immediate revenge on Luke, seemingly “betrayed” again by a father figure—Han, as Luke tells Rey, was reluctant to surrender his son to Jedi training—although nothing like what he experiences with a manipulative Snoke that he is ultimately able to subvert and kill in the most gripping scene from The Last Jedi. Alas, Luke was forced to live with the consequence of this decision as Ben jostled him back with a turbulent Force push, later laying waste to what Luke attempted to construct from the ground up: a newly established, yet fragile Jedi Order, pieced together by an all too proud Luke Skywalker, blinded helplessly by crippling hubris.
The decision to kill Ben before he grew too powerful to contain was of his own free will, a trait of the tragic hero prescribed by Aristotle, a choice that also serves as Luke’s peripeteia, the reversal of fortune that demonstrates to Luke that reconstructing the Jedi Order all by himself is a sheer impossibility, no matter what hopes Yoda and Obi-Wan previously vested in him.
— Atoz ❄️?? (@AtozSWBF) December 31, 2017
While the original trilogy is arguably Han Solo and Harrison Ford’s tour de force, a prospect that landed Ford another film franchise with Indiana Jones, Mark Hamill delivers a performance and vision as Luke Skywalker that makes the conclusion of The Force Awakens, featuring one of the most important camera shots in the entirety of the Star Wars saga (very much akin to Lucas’s binary sunset on Tatooine in A New Hope), and The Last Jedi all his own. We watched Luke grow from a petulant farmboy to a novice Jedi who sacrifices his training to save his friends and, eventually, a Jedi Knight capable of defeating Vader, redeeming his father, and refusing to bend to Palpatine’s will. Since Return of the Jedi, Hamill wowed audiences and gamers with his tremendous voice talent as the Joker, only to impress us further with his best big screen performance in The Last Jedi, a character Rian Johnson clearly toiled endlessly with to give him his proper due, a broken man whose final hour gives us some of the best material in a Star Wars moviegoing experience.
Despite Hamill’s conflict with Johnson’s vision for Luke Skywalker, he proved the consummate professional and endured in order to provide us a nuanced, flawed, and emotionally driven character whose arc was as complete and fulfilling as we have ever witnessed and enjoyed in the collective saga. With Luke, we do not suffer through another benevolent and patient Jedi Master grooming a young padawan; rather, we are granted a fractured Jedi Master still in need of growth (evidenced in Yoda’s delightful cameo, marked by the anagnorisis of Luke’s realizing that failure is one of life’s greatest teaching tools, learners outgrow their masters, and the notion that looking toward the horizon proves futile when what truly matters is the moment, beneath one’s nose, in the immediate present) and urging (evinced by his brilliant exchanges with Rey on Ahch-To) in order to manifest into the Luke Skywalker we all deserved in the film’s third act, proving that even the most gifted of teachers can stand to learn a thing or two in the twilight of their careers.
In two of the film’s better moments, Luke provides insight into the Force, both directly and indirectly: he tells Rey the Force is a binding energy that needs no singular entity to harness it, thereby rendering the Jedi vain and unnecessary to the overall construct of the Force, and by essentially allowing Rey to enter the cavern that harnesses the Dark Side on the island, he unknowingly teaches Rey that the Dark Side provides no answers, only doling out loneliness and discouragement to those who seek it.
When Rey abandons Luke and her training in an attempt to confront Kylo Ren and foster the good within him, one of the richer lessons Rey derives from Luke’s past relationship with Vader, we know there is no way off the island, let alone planet, for Luke. There is no callback to Yoda’s lifting an X-Wing from the water, and even if there were, no amount of tutelage with the Force could render his ship useful enough to save the Rebellion on Crait, which provokes Luke’s shining moment at film’s end.
LUKE SKYWALKER vs. KYLO REN – 16 Bit #TheLastJedi[part 2] pic.twitter.com/dRt1lqz2yc
— Star Wars Stuff (@starwarstuff) January 1, 2018
When no ally of the Resistance answers Leia’s call for aid, in comes Luke, or at least, an astral projection of him (yet another awesomely demonstrative capacity of the Force concocted by Rian Johnson) to deliver one of the saga’s most poignant lines: while setting a pair of golden dice from the Falcon in Leia’s hand, Luke remarks, “No one is ever really gone,” a line engrafted with added weight given Carrie Fisher’s passing and Hamill’s off-screen friendship with her. Then, in squaring off with Kylo Ren, a welcome diversion for the tatters of the Resistance to escape (fitting that they reunite aboard the Falcon at movie’s end, an assembly that includes Rey’s first meeting with Poe, her touching reunion with Finn, and the discovery that Rey salvaged the sacred Jedi texts that Yoda supposedly burned, giving added credence to his line that “the girl has everything she needs”), Luke boldly sacrifices himself—he dies, likely given the exhaustive effort to project himself across the galaxy, all to spark the Rebellion, but more importantly, save his sister one last time—but not before telling his failed apprentice that being struck down will allow Luke to forever reign in his heart, the same as his father, a tremendous release of Luke giving up his physical self to the greater good of the Resistance and his family and friends who comprise it.
As Luke physically dies (no doubt he will return as a Force ghost to advise Rey in Episode IX), Rian Johnson musters one of the richest visuals of the film: two suns set on Ahch-To as his body vanishes, a moment that brings Luke full circle from the farmboy pining to leave Tatooine to the Jedi Master who gives himself to the Force, and, ultimately, the cause of a Rebellion that a young Luke once yearned to support.
— The Ringer (@ringer) December 24, 2017
Clearly, fans were less than enthused by The Last Jedi, citing the poor execution of Leia’s first time using the Force, humor that allegedly misfired, and a bloated sequence with Finn and Rose, a newly introduced character, on Canto Bight. Some even took issue with Luke’s portrayal, which, given fuller introspection, is actually the most compelling portion of the film, especially given the richer depths and motives Rian Johnson gave to his character. Even with several of the greatest moments and devices in the saga’s history triumphantly appearing in The Last Jedi—including Kylo Ren’s characterization, the bond forged between Rey and Kylo Ren, and every moment in Snoke’s throne room, capped off by an enthralling fight sequence and Vice Admiral Holdo’s hyperspace sacrifice that breathtakingly splits Snoke’s flagship in two—Rian Johnson brought his greatest effort to cultivating Luke’s character.
— The Ringer (@ringer) December 24, 2017
While this film cannot fully be appreciated until the Abrams/Johnson trilogy concludes, at present, The Last Jedi, with Luke Skywalker at the forefront, is certainly a welcome addition to the saga and its richly compelling lore.