The first time I saw Star Wars: The Last Jedi, I wasn’t quite sure what I’d witnessed. The film was so dense and so emotional, I knew that I had to see it at least a second time before I could be sure.
I’ve seen it 16 times now and am completely ready to hold it up as one of the best Star Wars films ever made. One of my favorite parts of the film was Luke Skywalker's arc. It was everything I expected and nothing I expected all at once. It pays so much honor to what has come before in Star Wars and gives us a launching pad for Episode IX.
I decided to try to put into words what it was that made Luke's arc so special for me.
To do that, we have to go back to what the central question of The Force Awakens is. And to do that, we have to go back and look at The Empire Strikes Back. Taken together, it's apparent that there wasn't anywhere else for Luke to go in The Last Jedi.
The entire premise of The Empire Strikes Back revolves around the idea that Luke Skywalker can sense Han and Leia in danger before we as an audience even know that's a possibility. He senses it from across the galaxy and takes off to save them. He drops everything, against the advice of his masters. Just as his father did in the middle chapter of his trilogy.
Bearing this in mind, the biggest question I had leaving The Force Awakens had nothing to do with Rey or Snoke, but why had Luke Skywalker let Han Solo die?
Luke was the central mystery of the entire film. The opening sentence of the crawl is "Luke Skywalker has vanished." The closing shot is Rey on Ahch-To having found the exiled master. Because of this, I don't think there was anything else that could have been done with Luke Skywalker that would have made sense. There were slight variations that could have been made, sure, but the broad strokes of what Johnson gave us are pretty much inevitable. I expected Luke to toss the saber the first time I saw the film. That was his finishing move in Return of the Jedi, I would have expected him to not be thrilled to be handed a lightsaber again. Him tossing the saber to the porgs was fine with me, but I was furious the first time I heard him say, "Where's Han?"
How could he not know? But I stopped myself before I let this anger wash over me. If Luke didn't know about Han, there had to be a reason for it.
My patience paid off in what I found one of the most heartfelt and stunning moments in the film: when Rey realizes that Luke has cut himself off from the Force.
Here we have the single most powerful Force user in the galaxy cutting himself off of every instinct he has for fear he'll do the galaxy more harm than good. From Luke's perspective, this abstinence of the Force is heroic. Another Jedi purge at the hands of a Dark Side user has become impossible because of his sacrifice.
This is Luke’s perception of his actions. But this is also one of the central themes of The Last Jedi: that we can all perceive the exact same thing in a different way.
I'm not just talking about the Rashomon sequence, but the vision Rey and Kylo shared and discussed on the elevator. They saw the same thing and came to different conclusions about what the outcome would be. Snoke does the same thing, sensing Ben's resolve to kill his true enemy, his arrogance blinding him from the fact that Ben's true enemy was really Snoke.
Master Yoda once said, "Always in motion is the future," and I think this plays into every vision of the future a Force wielder had ever seen.
But let's talk about that Rashomon sequence.
This sequence is what made Luke so heartbreaking the more I see it, in the best ways. In case anyone is unfamiliar, Rashomon is a groundbreaking 1950 samurai film by Akira Kurosawa. Kurosawa has always been an intense influence on Star Wars, from Hidden Fortress and Seven Samurai to Kagemusha and Stray Dog. Rashomon tells the tale of a rape and murder in a meadow from three different perspectives. The film never offers us an objective truth on what happened; it merely lets the narrators be as reliable or unreliable as our point of view allows.
Our first glimpse of the Rashomon triptych in The Last Jedi comes when Luke explains that he'd sensed the Dark Side in Ben. Luke went to confront his nephew about this darkness and it didn't go well. No sabers were in play, but Ben still tore the building down around Luke's head. This is how Luke wishes the confrontation would have gone, if at all. The second version is from Ben's perspective. Naturally, he's the hero of this version. Luke practically has Sith eyes and his green lightsaber is almost a sickly yellow. From Ben's point of view, Luke arrives to murder him. There is no question in his mind.
The third time, we're given Luke's version. This is a blend of the two previous versions with plenty of shades of gray. This is the version of the story I think I believe. And it's the one I think is truest to Luke's character, too.
Luke goes to check on Ben and the darkness growing inside him. This wellness check is already filled with self-doubt. Luke, like every creative or heroic person I've ever known, suffers from 'impostor syndrome,' an inability to appreciate one's own accomplishments and a fear of being exposed as a fraud. Obi-Wan felt this himself, why wouldn't Luke suffer from it as well?
Here, Luke sees a darkness greater than anything he could have ever imagined and a future where all of his loved ones are killed and the Jedi order he cared about burned to the ground.
What happened the last time he was confronted with an image like this? The last time this happened, he was in the Death Star Throne Room and Vader taunted him with the threat of Leia turning to the Dark Side and Luke lost control. He ignited his saber out of instinct and fought with rage and anger. But he pulled himself back from doing the thing he swore he wouldn't do: kill his own father. Then he tosses his lightsaber and says, essentially, "kill me if you have to, but I'll die like a Jedi."
Then Luke goes to Ben Solo's hut and sees that future all over again. And, as before, his saber ignites. This is startling to him. He's instantly ashamed of himself and must deal with the consequence of that split-second consideration. We know he would never kill his nephew. But Ben doesn't.
I’ve heard it argued that Luke would never consider this again, but facing the Dark side of yourself isn't a "one time and it's over thing." It's a constant. We learn and we grow but we have to constantly reevaluate the darkness in every step of our lives. And this is where Luke decided it was ultimately the right thing for the Galaxy to end the Jedi and quit the Force. He knew these cycles of violence were inevitable between good and evil jockeying for power. The constant, in Luke's view, was the Jedi. Their failure. Their hypocrisy. Their hubris. If the Jedi had been taken off the playing field, there would have been no Vader. Or Kylo Ren.
Instead of doubling down and training new Jedi to take down his nephew and the Knights of Ren, Luke simply ended the cycle. Violence begets violence and Luke would no longer participate.
This is what I love about the end of the movie. Luke finally learned from his mistakes. He could stick to his non-violence, but still set an example that would ignite the galaxy. Like a true Jedi Master, he would use the Force for knowledge and defense. Never for attack. This is part of why his saber never touches Ben's during the fight.
Luke had lost the understanding of the value of the Legend of Luke Skywalker, but Rey helped him find it again. And he could once again believe in himself. And the Jedi.
From my perspective, given Luke's inaction in The Force Awakens, this is the only thing that could have been done with him. And it's why I've embraced this arc so much.
I love it.
Some fans didn’t, and that’s okay. They're still fans. But this essay is about the Luke I saw up there on the big screen and why he made perfect sense to me. Every time I've seen his end, with the binary sunset, echoing his first moments on Tatooine in Revenge of the Sith and his angsty teen years in A New Hope, I’ve cried. It's a perfect capstone to his character, given the turn the universe and canon took and I hope this can help you look at it with new eyes.