By the time you read this, The Last Jedi will be well on its way toward making major profit for Disney and further cementing the status of Star Wars as a cultural phenomenon, the likes of which we’ve seldom seen. Whether the film is any good is the purview of others (or perhaps entirely left to the judgment of individuals?), but early reviews from critics and citizens, to judge from Rotten Tomatoes, is divided. Some clearly feel that the radical new directions explored in this movie boldly tread new ground, and should be lauded. Others feel that the filmmakers fundamentally misread the characters, especially that of Luke Skywalker, and are making strategic mistakes in pursuit of new audiences less beholden to the old calculus. It’s the Luke angle I want to focus on, though the movie has many other elements we could dissect (or disagree with). For many fans, Luke’s actions seem just plain out of character. Here’s the thing, though: despite outward appearances to the contrary, the new characterization of Luke Skywalker actually hews close to the original vision of the character, going all the way back to its origin. This is still “The Hero’s Journey”…it just looks different now than it used to.
To explain that, we need to go all the way back to 1977 and the original Star Wars movie (now called A New Hope). Lucas was explicit in many interviews in those days that he based his hero Luke Skywalker on an in-vogue concept from academic studies of mythology. A then-professor named Joseph Campbell believed cultures around the world shared enough experiences and had similar myths because humanity had something of a “collective unconsciousness” to it (there’s actually a Sigmund Freud connection here, if you want to dig deeply enough), and Lucas bought into this theory completely. To believe it, there is really only ONE kind of hero. There is really only ONE kind of myth (Campbell called it the monomyth), and every story adheres to it.
The result was Luke Skywalker. Not just a prototypical hero, but the embodiment of all heroes, as seen in countless myths, legends, and tales for centuries. As Campbell explains it, “the hero’s journey” is one that can be seen as encompassing a few (now perhaps passe) concepts: adventure, crisis, victory, and transformation. Another classification points instead to separation, initiation, and return. Again, this isn’t some Monday morning quarterbacking; Lucas himself talked about Campbell as an inspiration for Luke.
It’s easy to see those phases in the original Star Wars trilogy (and perhaps in microcosm form in the very first Star Wars movie). Luke left Tatooine, experienced his inadequate training versus Vader, won in the end, and became the last Jedi standing.
One could see the same phases playing out, in smaller format, in the New Hope movie itself: Luke becoming bigger than himself, winning over insurmountable odds, and becoming a transformed man as a result.
[WARNING: Spoilers follow for the rest of the article and in the comments]
In this context, Star Wars fans likely expected Luke Skywalker to emerge in the sequel movies as a larger-than-life presence capable of not only meeting, but indeed exceeding every expectation placed upon him. Here would be a Jedi warrior capable of wiping out the enemy with a mere flick of the wrist, almost without effort. Indeed, the very point of the traditional “hero’s journey” story arc is to experience the catharsis that comes from watching your older, wiser protagonist triumph. There is a reason most action-adventure movies feel similar to each other: they work, at least when artfully constructed. In short, fans came into The Last Jedi expecting Luke to kick some serious ass. It’s safe to guess many fans imagined a two-hour tour de force of lightsaber duels, telekinesis, and mind control.
Although they get some of that for 30 seconds late in the game, fans will otherwise find that the movie frustrates, and even subverts, the normal expectation. In fact, confounding expectations seems to be the director’s prime directive. Many of the tentative story arcs of The Force Awakens are cast aside here, or replaced with other relationships. Nothing plays out the way we thought it would. It starts early with Luke’s reaction to the lightsaber brought by Rey, and doesn’t let up for the entire movie. Having twists and turns is fine, but what happens when they occur at the expense of established rules of the game? The Force can apparently do some things we never knew about before…is that a cheat?
Many fans on social media are lamenting, in particular, the choices made by Luke. Count me as an early lamenter as well. This is the same guy who ditched his all-important training because he saw a fuzzy “maybe” future where his not-yet-sister was going to be tortured and die, yet who now is paralyzed by one thirty-second decision a dozen years ago? It doesn’t seem like the same character at first glance, and this is likely what actor Mark Hamill was talking about when he disagreed early on with the script:
I got in trouble, because I was quoted as saying to [director] Rian that I fundamentally disagree with everything you decided about Luke, and it was inartfully phrased. What I was, was surprised at how he saw Luke. And it took me a while to get around to his way of thinking, but once I was there it was a thrilling experience.
To engage the apparent discrepancy within the logic of the movie, we need to do something a film has difficulty communicating: empathize with someone who has been alone for many years and realize that his introspections will have taken him to a different place than we can achieve in mere minutes. In short, this is not the same Luke because he’s been a hermit for years, and that’s going to change a man. There’s no blood-stained volleyball named Wilson here, but the effect is roughly the same: he’s older, wiser, and not at all on the same wavelength as someone who joined his mental conversation just twelve minutes ago.
More importantly, there is absolutely a way to map his choices and actions onto that hero’s journey framework mentioned earlier. And that makes him STILL the hero.
One classification calls for a hero to experience adventure, crisis, victory, and transformation. In a movie like A New Hope, they happen in roughly equal measures, with screen time more or less divided equally among them. If we consider the Luke arc in Last Jedi, there is conceivably a way to map those onto his story:
- Adventure: all of episodes 4-6
- Crisis: exile on Ahch-To
- Victory: tricking Kylo Ren
- Transformation: transition from the material world at the finale
The transformation was very much like a Buddhist achievement of nirvana–the state of total mind, with no need of corporeality any longer. Luke didn’t “die” or “leave”… he morphed. This feels very different from other Jedi masters who went on to become Force Ghosts–even Obi Wan, who disappeared within his clothes, but without the mysticism that surrounds Luke’s transformation. Significantly, final nirvana actually means escape from the cycle of rebirth in Buddhism; here, that seems to mean allegorically that the Star Wars films are done recycling the same material.
There are other elements of the hero’s journey that map onto Last Jedi. The hero needs a mentor, and lo and behold, we are graced with a visit from Yoda, the embodiment of a mentor (albeit one with a cackling sense of humor).
The hero has to transform mentally, which can be seen in his turn away from exile and re-engaging the Force. He has to atone, which we see in his ultimate sacrifice. And he has to help, which he most certainly does, at just the right time for the struggling Rebellion.
Perhaps the most important realization to make is that Luke’s story does not unfold in equal parts. His “adventure” was in the prior movies. His “victory” and “transformation” are quick, and part of the climax of the movie. It’s his “crisis” phase that eats up the majority of the film, and because this is unusual and new to focus so much attention on just one element of the journey, it may seem jarring to audiences.
The other way to conceive of a hero’s journey, mentioned earlier, is to track separation, initiation, and return. On one hand, of course, Luke never actually returns. But he does spiritually and in all ways that matter (certainly emotionally). His initiation is the heart-achingly-perfect scene with Yoda–he does all the growing he needs to do right there. That leaves separation, which defines the majority of the movie.
From multiple angles, therefore, The Last Jedi still portrays Luke Skywalker as our protagonist on the Hero’s Journey. He may not feel like the hero we walked in the door expecting to see, but Luke is still, at the end of the day, the hero we needed. The fact that his crisis, victory, and transformation are cerebral rather than physical is the unexpected part, but that should not stop us from appreciating the accomplishment.
It may, in fact, be a sign of the times. Audiences today may not react as positively to an expected (or perhaps: cliche) hero. They may need one with more layers, more complexity, and more surprises. Cinema is not as naive as it was in 1977 any longer, so perhaps it’s appropriate that our heroes evolve with the times.