The Reinvention of Luke Skywalker

Star Wars: The Last Jedi Still 27 - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Mark Hamill goes to new depths in 'Star Wars: The Last Jedi.'

[Warning: This story contains spoilers for Star Wars: The Last Jedi]

Star War: The Last Jedi delivers a Luke Skywalker unlike the galaxy has never seen.

Gone is his resolve and his youthful idealism, replaced by bitter, jaded cynicism found only in those who have seen their idealism crumble like so much plaster over the passage of years. Once upon a time, Mark Hamill's Luke stood as a symbol of hope: for characters inhabiting the Star Wars universe, and for fans of the series. In The Last Jedi, he’s a cautionary tale for allowing your own hype to go straight to your head. Hope shouldn’t have an ego. Neither should a Jedi, for that matter.

Maybe that’s unfair. Luke, after all, is pretty much the savior of the Rebellion and of every free person in the galaxy at risk of subjugation under the heel of the Galactic Empire. Anybody would end up with an overinflated sense of self after putting that kind of notch on their belt, and besides that: We like Luke. For a percentage of The Last Jedi’s audience, seeing Luke grizzled on the outside, battered on the inside, cuts deep. His pessimism clangs against the optimism he taught us growing up on the original Star Wars trilogy; tracing the change in his spirit between Return of the Jedi and The Last Jedi demonstrates a harsh lesson of growing up, or better put, growing old.

Luke is a survivor of a sort. He doesn’t know it until he reunites with Chewbacca, Rey’s companion on her journey to Ahch-To, but he has outlived Han Solo, one of his dearest friends; he has outlived his own students following the tragic incident that turned his favorite pupil, Han's and Leia’s son Ben Solo, to the dark side. In a manner of speaking, Luke has outlived the Rebellion, too, which as The Last Jedi opens is stumbling forward on its last legs while the First Order closes in with cannons ready and fuel tanks stocked. Describing his lifestyle as a form of self-imposed exile only scratches the surface of where life has led Luke.

His fate is worse than that by far. He isn’t just a hermit. He’s a witness to the end of everything he knew, loved and fought for, which signifies a very specific and very lonesome kind of pain. He isn’t alone on his island home on Ahch-To in the strictest sense possible — he’s surrounded by porgs and by neighboring caretakers of the first Jedi temple, cradled in the island’s embrace — but spiritually, emotionally, he’s in an alienated state. During his studies with Rey, she realizes that he’s cut himself off from the Force, too, which is perhaps the most dramatic demonstration of his fostered isolation. Disentangling from your loved ones and from people who rely on you for hope is a drastic enough gesture, but Luke has essentially turned his back on his fundamental belief structure. He has abandoned his faith.

But Luke’s narrative in The Last Jedi isn’t entirely doom and gloom. There’s a bright spot illuminating his path, a palliative light to redeem him and relieve him of his anguish: Rey, who, while green as a practitioner of the Force, understands the empathy and humanity central to Jedi tenets. There’s a lot going on in The Last Jedi plot wise, but one of the ideas pushing it forward is succession. Its plot and its purpose hinge on the series’ old guard passing the torch to its new protagonists. Leia grooms Poe for leadership, teaching him the value and necessity of patience (as well as sacrifice). Snoke tries, to his peril, to goad Kylo into becoming the next great Sith lord. And Luke, with determined prodding from Chewie, R2-D2, and especially Rey, hands down his wisdom, wrought by failure, to Rey. He accepts his role as her mentor and recovers a piece of his soul in the process. He accepts her ascension as a Jedi, too, and through this act of validation he’s able to find peace at last.

We ache as we watch Luke’s send-off scene in The Last Jedi, but the ache is well earned. Unlike Han’s death in The Force Awakens, a hollow echo of Obi-wan’s demise in A New Hope, Luke’s passing here is an appropriate capstone to his journey throughout the Star Wars saga. He has finally reconciled his conflict with himself and with the Jedi, and passed on fully into legend alongside his erstwhile master, Yoda (who puts in an appearance on Ahch-To to teach Luke one last lesson in what it means to be a Jedi).

If we begin our viewing experience with The Last Jedi aggrieved to see Luke brought so low by his vanity and his fear, we walk away from the film with affirmation that he’s still the hero we always knew him to be.