Star Wars: The Last Jedi is a beautiful, thrilling movie with terrific performances—especially from Mark Hamill—and well-written dialogue. That’s the good news. The bad news is that The Last Jedi is also a troubling cultural event, accomplishing the destruction of an iconic, heroic character precisely on the foundations of his erstwhile heroism. The Last Jedi demythologizes Luke Skywalker in order to deconstruct the cultural achievements of the original Star Wars trilogy and clear the way for a new Star Wars more palatable to our growing cynicism.
When Star Wars: A New Hope came out in 1977, it signaled a new era in popular filmmaking. Star Wars replaced the Hollywood cynicism that had helped to mire the 70s in a thick malaise and an enervating anomie. Luke Skywalker’s youthful idealism and stirring heroism were a rebuke to the big-screen anti-heroes that typify films of the decade. Movies could once again become the means for connecting moviegoers with deep, mythic, and religious longings, rather than denying that those longings have any basis or realistic chance of consummation.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi remakes Luke Skywalker into the type of movie hero his younger self had supplanted. In doing so, it flatters our own growing cynicism and feeds our self-indulgent hunger for every hero to be unmasked as a hypocrite and every virtue to be deconstructed in the name of a therapeutic egalitarianism and a “You think you’re better than me?” relativism.
In order to see how The Last Jedi accomplishes the subversion of Luke Skywalker, you need to understand his relationship to his friends and to his mentors. Luke’s call to adventure in A New Hope comes in response to Princess Leia’s plea to Obi-Wan Kenobi: “This is our most desperate hour. Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi; you’re our only hope,” combined with Obi-Wan’s insistence that he himself is “too old for this kind of thing.” Luke is drawn into the galactic conflict by his desire to save this woman in need and to serve the noble cause of the rebellion against the evil Empire.
In The Empire Strikes Back, as a Jedi pupil, Luke diverges from his mentors Yoda and Obi-Wan Kenobi in two critically important respects. First, after Luke has a Force premonition in which he sees Han Solo and Leia in peril, he leaves to help them, his Jedi training incomplete, despite the pleas of Yoda and Obi-Wan. Second, Luke insists, especially against Obi-Wan, that there is still good in Darth Vader.
In the first case, Obi-Wan and Yoda put the cause of the Light side of the Force ahead of concrete persons. They seem bent on repeating the very aloofness and complacency of the Jedi which, from the Star Wars prequels, we know were among the causes of the downfall of the Jedi Order and the Old Republic. Luke chooses to put care for particular persons over abstract causes, and thereby rebukes the corruptions of the old Jedi Order—this even though he never completely rejects the Jedi, as shown by his obvious devotion to his aged teachers throughout.
In the second case, Obi-Wan and Yoda are blind to the very way in which the Light will triumph over the Dark in the end—perhaps the way in which the Light must always triumph over the Dark. Luke and the Emperor tell each other outright what they think the root of the other’s downfall will be. Luke says, “Your overconfidence is your weakness,” to which the Emperor replies, “Your faith in your friends is yours.” When Vader turns on the Emperor, it is out of love and care for his son. Luke’s aptitude for personal love and friendship is what saves the day. His confidence that his father is not some inhuman monster, but rather a human person capable of redemption, is the key to his victory over the Emperor, not his ability or willingness to kill Vader.
The Last Jedi cleverly undermines Luke Skywalker. The movie offers Luke another beautiful young woman dressed in white who pleads for his help. Instead of responding heroically, as A New Hope Luke did, this Luke tells Rey that neither she nor the galaxy needs Luke Skywalker.
Why does this older Luke refuse Rey’s plea? Because, it turns out, after the events of Return of the Jedi, Luke had tried to train another generation of Jedi, including the talented son of Han and Leia, Ben Solo. Ben, Luke perceived, had begun to turn to the Dark Side. Going to confront him about it, Luke pauses to peer into a sleeping Ben’s mind, and is horrified at how far gone Ben already is. In what Luke later calls an act of instinct, he ignites his lightsaber with a fleeting thought of killing his nephew right then and there. The moment passes, but not before Ben wakes up and reacts out of self-defense, beginning his transformation into the villainous Kylo Ren. Horrified and traumatized by his failures, Luke goes into exile, cuts himself off from the Force, and determines to live out his days in solitude, where he won’t be able to unleash any more Kylo Rens on the galaxy.
This backstory is unconvincing. The very thing that distinguished Luke from the old-school Jedi Obi-Wan and Yoda was his ability to see the potential for redemption in even the darkest of figures. That his “instinctual” reaction to Ben Solo’s corruption would be the desire to murder him eviscerates Luke’s character, making him prone to exactly the same failing of the Jedi that he supposedly conquered in Return of the Jedi.
If Luke differs from Yoda and Obi-Wan in two ways in the original trilogy—his belief in the potential for redemption and his putting persons above abstract causes—in The Last Jedi, this difference is subverted. Luke fails to see Ben Solo as redeemable for that one moment, and an embittered Luke refuses to aid Rey (and Leia) in her need. As it is, what the viewer is left with is the overwhelming sense that director Rian Johnson did not understand that Luke had already rejected the failings of the Jedi in important ways—or that he has deliberately ignored that rejection for the sake of Johnson’s desire to critique authority and elitism.
What form does this critique take? For the Luke of The Last Jedi, the Jedi were hypocritical and proud; their blindness led to the rise of Emperor Palpatine and the overthrow of the Republic, and in their vanity they identify the Light side of the Force with their institutionalized Jedi Order. In The Last Jedi, Rey is shown wielding mature Force powers without the benefit of any Jedi instruction or discipline; she apparently needs no master. Watch closely, and she can be seen absconding with the ancient Jedi texts, thereby acknowledging her need for some kind of instruction. But this instruction need not come from any person, and there seems to be no necessity for her to conform to anything greater than herself; as Leia tells Rey at the end of The Last Jedi, the two women have everything they need “right here.”
Whereas the original trilogy was about the hero’s journey—and indeed about the hero’s need for a journey—The Last Jedi shows that Rey needs no journey other than to reach into herself. Luke’s arduous journey toward maturity and excellence depicted in the original trilogy, which entailed renunciation, asceticism, and suffering, is ultimately unmasked as just another instance of Jedi hypocrisy and vanity that needs to be deconstructed. This may flatter several of our contemporary fantasies about egalitarianism and relativism and stroke our skepticism about authority, but any grown-up ought to know that the most difficult tasks of human life require difficult personal efforts, suffering, and even conversion.
In a period of cultural and political decline, the deconstruction of Luke Skywalker’s heroism and the denial of the discipline that real moral excellence and wisdom require are exactly the opposite of what we need.