Star Wars: The Last Jedi makes a firm statement about the role of the Jedi as a force for good. In an interview with EW, Mark Hamill called Luke Skywalker ”someone who was the symbol of hope and optimism in the original films,” and The Last Jedi plays with this idea. In the trailers for Episode VIII, Luke was presented as far from optimistic as a former hero could get, a broken curmudgeon who thought that the Jedi needed to die. Now that the movie is out, we have a definitive look at who Luke is to the Sequel Trilogy, and what The Last Jedi’s portrayal of his optimism means for the saga.
The Last Jedi’s title turned out to be an epic misdirection. While Luke did believe that the Jedi had to die while he was in exile on Ahch-To, he learned that his own guilt was blinding him to the hope represented by Rey. In a powerful conversation with Yoda, Luke learned that failure is part of the Jedi journey and that his exile did not have to be the end for the light side of the Force. The way his return and death were treated in The Last Jedi shows that the Star Wars franchise is not interested in subverting Luke, or in trying to prove that his philosophy was wrong. Instead, the movie shows how even the greatest heroes must continue to grow and learn until their dying day.
Throughout the film, the Skywalker name is still treated like a beacon of hope despite what Luke or his bloodline have done. Rogue One showed us heroes who murdered allies, and the violent Partisan splinter group that believed in the basic tenants of the Rebellion. It made me wonder whether we would see the heroes of the Rebellion in the same light. A commonly cited fan theory suggested that the idea of balance in the Force means equal amounts of good and evil, but this always felt to me to be incompatible with the triumph of the Rebellion’s victory in Return of the Jedi. Would Luke be shown as fallible and morally vague?
It turns out that the answer for Luke is both yes and no. Writer-director Rian Johnson’s story sends him to a dark place. It would not surprise me to learn that one of the strongest points of contention between Johnson and Hamill, who was initially concerned about Luke’s portrayal in the film, was the moment in which Luke stands over Ben Solo with a lightsaber, considering killing his nephew. But that’s the beginning of the story of the Sequel Trilogy, not the ending.
Luke is a legend in The Force Awakens. Both Rey and Finn refer to him as a myth, someone whose whereabouts are important enough to turn the tide of their own adventure. The First Order is gaining strength, but Luke is the secret weapon of the Resistance, and they push forward in the hope that they’ll find the Jedi Master. Despite being absent from most of the film, Luke manages to inspire Rey to trust in the Force through his legend – and with a little help from his old lightsaber. When Finn is faced with insurmountable odds at Starkiller Base, he decides to trust in the Force – even if he doesn’t actually know how the Force works. Luke’s ability to change the course of people’s lives for the better is pivotal to the story of the Sequel Trilogy despite the Jedi’s own insecurities and flaws.
The Last Jedi lays down several arguments for why fighting for the light side might not be all it’s cracked up to be: Luke blames his own hubris for Kylo Ren’s downfall, and trailers suggested that Rey might reject the ideas of the old Jedi Order in favor of embracing both the dark and the light. Star Wars usually takes a firm stance between the two sides, down to the colors of the characters’ costumes, and I hoped that The Last Jedi would continue to do the same instead of opening up a third path that dilutes the evil of the dark side and weakens the goodness of the light. To portray Rey as a Jedi more “gray” than the ones before would weaken her character, suggesting that she does not truly fit into the story of the Original Trilogy but is instead a means to criticize the Jedi of the past. Fortunately, the movie’s conclusion rejects the argument for a “grayer” Jedi: Rey does not join Kylo Ren, Luke does not forgive Ren for his crimes, and Luke compromises with, but does not entirely reject, Yoda’s own irreverent opinions of the Prequel era Jedi Order.
This makes it especially significant that Rey notices that Luke cut himself off from the Force entirely. Even while speaking of balance, he is in fact disconnected from the cosmic energy entirely. Luke had not fallen to the dark side on Ahch-To; he had fallen out of the Force, outside of the balance he was supposedly preaching. When he returns, it’s with a powerful light side ability. The ability to project his image convincingly onto another planet is not one we’ve seen in Star Wars before, but it fits firmly into the light side of the Force: it’s not aggressive, and in fact can only effect some physical things. Instead, it’s thematically an extension of the mind trick, an ability that warps people’s senses. Like the first Force trick Obi-Wan ever showed him, Luke’s last act is one of gentle misdirection.
Before I saw The Last Jedi, I wondered: Does Luke as a symbol of hope imply that Kylo will be redeemed? Or that Rey will bring back the Jedi? Turns out the latter is true, but not necessarily the former. Kylo Ren is evil enough, consciously choosing the dark side when offered an opportunity to turn back to the light, that he may be beyond redemption. Luke must learn to look beyond Kylo, a person who is also too consumed with his own emotions to see the bigger picture. Both Luke and Rey have to learn that Kylo’s choices are not their burden. With a wink, Luke disappears from Kylo’s life, while Rey shuts a metaphorical door on their Force connection.
Hamill compared Luke’s sadness over Ben’s fall and the rise of the First Order to his own reflections on the hippie era. In an interview with Rolling Stone, he said, “It was a movement that largely didn’t work. I thought about that. Back in the day, I thought, by the time we get into power, there will be no more wars…” This certainly matches the Luke we see in most of the film. His belief in his own powers as a means of bringing eternal peace to the galaxy proves to be a misguided one. Again, it’s Yoda who reminds Luke that he is just as responsible for the present as he is the future – that without fixing things in the now, he can’t possibly hope to create a better life for his friends. Luke needs to do the work, and because he is a powerful Jedi, death won’t be the end of his fight. His last words in The Last Jedi suggest that he might see Kylo again as a Force ghost.
His death isn’t the end for the Jedi, either, since Rey chooses the light side and may carry on Luke’s legacy in her own way, as she interprets the ancient Jedi texts she stole from Ahch-To. The Last Jedi flirts with the idea that the division between the light and dark is itself incorrect, but in the end it debunks that idea entirely. Luke and the Jedi still symbolize hope for the galaxy through the light side, their choices, and their mistakes.