I’m going to start this off by saying this is going to be an incredibly geek-centric writing. I think it’s applicable to a lot of things, but it’s being fueled in large part by some of the debate around the newest STAR WARS film, “The Last Jedi.” You can expect spoilers for that movie, also, so don’t say I didn’t warn you!
It’s been roughly a month since the latest film from the galaxy far, far away landed in theatres near, nearby. As is easily predictable, there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth among “fans” on the internet. I put that in quotes because there seems to be a sub-culture of movie-goers who call themselves fans, but who seem to take an inordinate amount of pride in expressing their hatred for the product. I’m sure this sort of thing has always existed, but the internet has given them a broader platform and a louder microphone. But that’s a subject for a different day.
Today, I’ve been thinking about one of the chief complaints coming from this group: The characterization of Luke Skywalker in the film. In this movie, the character is a curmudgeon, living in a self-imposed exile and fully intending to stay that way. This is – or more correctly, appears to be – contrary to his characterization from the original films. The original films showed the character change from an idealistic kid to a skilled soldier to a self-confident warrior. But throughout that arc, one trait he had was his optimism: I’m going to save the princess, I’m going to help my friends, I’m going to redeem my father.
This is the crux of the issue, though, in my opinion. In-character, everything that Skywalker did in the original films was for himself. He wanted to leave home. He wanted to help his friends. He wanted to save his father from what he perceived as the twisting of the Emperor. Never in any of those adventures did he say “I have to do this to save the galaxy!” And that’s what he’s being called on to do in the new film. That’s what he says he won’t do. He’s told he has to redeem his nephew not for the sake of redemption, but for the sake of galaxy. And he says, point-blank, that’s not who he is. The rest of the universe sees him as a legend, and when he started to believe that, that was his hubris, and his failure that created this monster in the first place. Saving the galaxy was never his quest.
Stepping out of the fictional word and into the world of the writer, the quest is the story to be looked at. The original films were all about the progression of this character. And his story was told. If they brought the character back to have him save the day, then all the complaints that swirled around the previous film – “The Force Awakens” – would be realized: rehashing the previous movies. Luke Skywalker, the hero on Joseph Campbell’s journey, doesn’t exist anymore. That story was told. This is a new story, and the character of Rey is on that journey. Skywalker has moved on to the role of the mentor, not the hero. From a story-telling point of view, he quite literally can NOT be the person to save the day, any more than Luke’s mentor, Obi-Wan, could have killed Darth Vader in the original film. It simply doesn’t work.
The legendary actor who portrays Skywalker, Mark Hamill, came out and expressed his own concerns over the portrayal of the character in this film. I admire him for speaking up, because so many actors are hesitant to say anything that isn’t complete, full-throated support for their projects. It’s a business, after all, and if you talk bad about your employers, you’re likely going to find yourself out of work. Hamill pulled back on his statements, though, saying how he felt differently after seeing the final product. Some people have taken this to mean he was threatened or paid to change his story. I have a tendency to take people at face value unless they give me a reason not to.
I don’t know Mr. Hamill, I’ve never met him, so this is pure speculation on my part, but I think his issues may have stemmed from the same thing that plagued his fictional counterpart. I think he began to see the character as the legend. Luke would never abandon the quest, would never leave the galaxy in peril, would never go off into hiding. But as they pointedly discuss in the film, that’s the legend, not the reality. I think Mark Hamill feels protective of this character, has taken custody of the character, and wants to make sure he’s handled respectfully. I think, like many of us, he has built up the character to an image in his own mind, and this movie has done to that image the same thing that has happened in the film itself – dissolved the myth and legend and left the man, or character, revealed for the flawed, “real” person he is. Strange as it is to say that about a fictional character, I think that’s what this film has done.
Maybe the true issue is that this is too deep to be dealt with in a STAR WARS film. I don’t know how to phrase this without being insulting, but perhaps writer/director Rian Johnson wrote something that’s simply smarter than the universe he was writing for. STAR WARS has always been a sword-and-sorcery fantasy film, the good guys on white horse versus the bad guys in black armor to save the princess trapped in the castle. The fact that there are ray guns and laser swords is just window dressing. But Johnson completely deconstructed the story of the Hero’s Journey and rebuilt it, using familiar pieces in different places that has rattled the foundations a number of the fans of the films have built up in their heads. Personally, I think it’s a brilliant move. I think it’s the right character progression, and avoids stagnation of story.
And that’s only his take on one iconic character.