Star Wars: The Last Jedi is the longest but it also may be the densest of the franchise’s films. From the mind and eye of writer and director Rian Johnson, The Last Jedi builds on the seven films that came before but does so in a way that subvert expectations and gives the viewer things they have always wanted to see in ways that they didn’t imagine. There is so much happening in the two and a half hours of the film, there is such a drastic difference to the Luke that we saw in Return of the Jedi, and Johnson’s dialogue flows in a much more modern vernacular that too fairly judge the film, at minimum to viewings are necessary.
I will be perfectly frank that on the initial viewing, while I liked the film I had some strong reservations about what I had just seen. The characterization, comedy and dialogue gave me pause and while I could appreciate what he what Johnson was going for, it felt a little discordant to me. On the second viewing these discordant notes blended together much better and I was able to really notice just who complexly Johnson set up the various story-lines and plot elements throughout the film.
In my first in-depth written look at the film, I am going to largely leave aside issues of plot, visuals, music, and overall quality of the film and focus on what matters most too me, the characters.
Snoke: It turns out everyone’s Snoke theory sucked. The scene chewing big bad who we only saw in The Force Awakens as an oversized hologram, shows up in The Last Jedi as a rather empty robe. Serkis’ vocal and motion capture performances are solid and the CGI work to build Snoke looks very good. The dialogue for Snoke felt rather over the top and over-confident, overall the character comes off as a violently abusive paternal figure who treats his forces as wild dogs which he can beat at his whim and whom he thinks he has complete control over. His description of Hux to Kylo as a rabid cur seems particularly fitting and displays how he views all of his underlings.
I will say I expected the confrontation between Kylo, Rey and Snoke that we got on the film based on the behind the scenes videos we got involving Daisy and Adam training against multiple melee opponents, the only characters that fit were the Praetorian Guards. I thought it was a toss-up on whether the attempt would be successful or not. In the end despite what seems like rather enormous abilities in the Force, Snoke was unable to control the rabid dog that he had created in Kylo Ren and his abuse finally went too far.
I have zero issue with Snoke not having more of a back story in the film, but I do have some issue with Lucasfilm not filling in his back story and how he took over the First Order from the scraps of the Empire that escaped the Battle of Jakku. A story that gave some background on him and were we saw him being more of a badass either in the Force or strategically would have increased the scariness of the character in the film and added to the satisfaction and impressiveness of when Kylo eliminated him. The fact that there is almost no doubt we don’t get that story in a novel or comic down the road makes it feel like a wasted opportunity as it could have been done before the film without spoiling any element of the character in the film.
Hux: From unhinged facist in The Force Awakens, to comedic punching bag in The Last Jedi, Domhnall Gleeson gets to do a lot more in this film but the results are a mixed bag. For the humor in the film and balancing the drama, having Hux be comedic relief works as a tonal choice. But if we are thinking about Hux’s character and what it means for the two most prominent members of the First Order going into Episode IX, I think it did a disservice to the character and future storytelling.
Hux gets a number of really good moments, the sneering grin he gives Kylo after scoring a point with Snoke, the brief moment he contemplates killing an unconscious Kylo, but from beginning to end he is the butt of jokes. This becomes a real issue in the third act because neither the punching bag Hux nor the unhinged Kylo make what would appear to be competent leaders to head the First Order into Episode IX. Treating Hux just a fraction more seriously as a character throughout the film would have meshed better with his portrayal in the Phasma novel and also serve the story much better going forward. Instead what we get is a character who is the spiritual brother of LEGO Star Wars’ Imperial officer Durpin.
Phasma: I’ll say this about Gwendoline Christie’s Captain Phasma, at least we got to see a little under the mask this time. Once again Phasma’s role is to go down like the Brooklyn Brawler against an up and coming superstar. There really isn’t much to say, Phasma got a novel and a comic leading into The Last Jedi but her impact in the film was rather minimal. She performs the role of the classic film villain who constructs an overly elaborate way to eliminate the hero only to have the hero escape and send her to her doom. She should have just blasted Finn and Rose and have been done with it.
It did strike me as a little odd that a blaster didn’t do anything but one swing of the riot baton exploded her helmet. On the bright side she looked cool and the brief moments of the fight had some of the coolest visuals in the film, the way the fire and action reflected off of her armor.
She should be dead, but seeing how the only other big name First Order members are Kylo and Hux, and neither of them seem particularly competent as military commanders, maybe she has a role in Episode IX if she miraculously survives.
DJ: One of the biggest names added to the cast for this film was Benicio Del Toro. This is tough because this is an actor I really enjoy but a performance that sets my teeth on edge. If you thought Han Solo was cynical and self-interested when we met him in A New Hope, then DJ turns that self-interested and brutally realist eye up to eleven. DJ comes into the story as a character of convenience that falls into Rose and Finn’s lap when they are trying to find a specific slicer in the casino on Canto Bight. They are arrested over a parking dispute and end up in jail with DJ. Who is sitting in the shadows and listening to their conversation. This introduction of DJ as an eavesdropper is important because it sets up another act of eavesdropping he commits later aboard the Libertine when he overhears Rose and Finn talking to Poe about the Resistance evacuation by shuttle. This information DJ in turn trades to the First Order in exchange for his freedom and money, leaving Rose and Finn and the Resistance to their rather dismal looking fates.
DJ serves and important devil to the angel that is Rose on Finn’s shoulders. The cynicism about the galaxy, fear of the First Order and scepticism about the odds of the Resistance is a sentiment that would have made a lot of sense to the Finn we knew from The Force Awakens, the fact that DJ’s siren song of doucebaggery is not a temptation for Finn is an important note within Finn’s character development.
You could argue that DJ and much of Canto Bight could have been excised and Rose could have been given good but not great slicing skills and she be forced to try to do the job because of the countdown clock element to the film’s plot, but the character works well enough that I think it is a beneficial add to the story. My issue is in the performance by Del Toro that adds the severe seemingly electrocution inspired stuttering. This stuttering takes the character in too absurdist a direction for me and feels more like Britt Leach’s Reg in The Great Outdoors than a human character I would expect in the Star Wars saga. It is a big swing and a miss in terms of delivery for me.
Kylo Ren: If there is one character who I absolutely love in this film it is Kylo. I was impressed with Adam Driver’s performance in The Force Awakens in the brief moments he had the mask off, but in this film he took it to an entire different level. There is an absolute passion and ferocity to his performance that feels like a young Brando to me. I hate Kylo Ren and don’t want to see Ben Solo redeemed but I would love to watch loads more of him on-screen. This is a master class in how you get an audience engaged with a villain.
Kylo begins the movie and emotional wreck after the defeat at Starkiller Base and he is berated and humiliated by Snoke. It is in the moment on the elevator away from this audience with the Supreme Leader that he smashes his helmet, the mask that hid is emotions and true self from the world. In shattering he is taking a step forward and reforming himself. But even after this pivotal moment that really sets his arc in the film in motion, he cannot bring himself to fire on and kill his mother.
This hint of light within Kylo is brilliantly used to set up the Force conversations between Kylo and Rey which the audience is thus primed to believe could lead to Ben’s redemption. On subsequent watches you can see that in some point during these conversations Kylo realizes what is happening and really begins to use them to manipulate Rey. The look he gives her when she arrives aboard the Supremacy in an escape pod is clear.
We then get to see Kylo in the role of Vader, taking Rey to his Emperor. It is interesting that we see Kylo repeat his line that he used just before killing Han during the big reveal and his killing of Snoke. This moment also pays off another great set up by Rian earlier in the film, when Luke is confessing his actions towards Ben to Rey he talks about not being able to sense the level of evil within Ben until it was too late. This is a clue to the audience that Ben could shield his true self even from the Jedi Master Luke Skywalker, in this moment we learn that he could do the same thing to Supreme Leader Snoke. This is huge for the character and despite all of his emotional instability and flaws there is a a part of him that is strong and in control.
His pleas to Rey to join him in the aftermath of the Throne Room battle are clear echoes of Anakin Skywalker and his attempts to convince Padme to follow him down the dark path. Like Padme, Rey is not able or willing to make that choice. This moment shows the desperation and fragility that still exists within Kylo.
It is followed with another huge moment from the character where after he recovers from the attack on the ship, Kylo awakes to the presence of Hux and uses the Force to dominate Hux and force his recognition as the new Supreme Leader. This is huge, Kylo has made his choice, he has killed his master and now he has seized the throne. If you remember the fact that from the beginning of the film we learn that the First Order would control all the major systems in the galaxy within three weeks and the Resistance was down to 400 fighters, then you are left with the inescapable conclusion that the galaxy is his. He will be the new Emperor.
This is where the one issue I have with Kylo’s characterization of the film comes in. Aboard his command shuttle we see Kylo absolutely lose his mind when he sees the Falcon and again when he sees Luke. After having spent the film showing both the flaws of Kylo and adding to them these new strengths, I can’t help but think the way Rian constructed these moments undercut the character growth. If they were dialed back some it would have lost some of the humor but I think it would have served the character better going into Episode IX. To reiterate what I said about Hux, this undermines the level of competency that is important to feel coming from the main antagonists as they move forward in the story. It doesn’t undo the character which I think was terrific in the film but it feels like a discordant note.
I am back on board with the direction of the character once Kylo is engaged in the one on one battle with Luke, he is dismissive of any attempt for others to redeem him. He has made his choice. Yet he is still so angry and stuck in the past with Luke that he cannot make the simple observations about Luke and particularly the lightsaber that should tell the rational part of his brain that this is a Jedi con until it is too late and the Resistance has had enough time to escape.
The closing moment with the gold dice from the Falcon evaporating in his hand is a beautiful shot and a punctuation on his defeat by Luke and another reminder of his father.
Rose: The majority of Kelly Marie Tran’s work in this film is acting across from John Boyega. Tran is a revelation in this film, both her on-screen chemistry with Boyega and for her genuine performance. Our first glimpse of Rose is in absolute grief, tears over the loss of her sister Paige in the battle over D’Qar. But even in her pain and tears she is sitting by the escape pod and doing her duty preventing deserters. This gives us a look at her sense of duty and her strength of character right off the bat. We also in this scene get a sense of hero-worship from her for Finn, which tells us just how quickly word of his deeds has spread through the Resistance and just how hungry this small band of rebels is for heroes and victories to celebrate and build their confidence in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. This moment also serves to give Finn a chance to see how others view him which is important for his sense of self, if others think you are a hero, it is a little bit easier to act like one.
Rose gives voice to small folk of the galaxy who are exploited by both the wealthy and the powerful as well as the First Order. She is competent as an engineer, as a pilot and is assertive. One of the best little moments for her character is as she and Finn are explaining their plan to Poe and Finn keeps talking over her and stepping in front of her until she asserts herself. Much like Leia in the film she doesn’t really have a character arc of her own, she has a little bit more of coming into her own but it isn’t a big arc. That being said she is a fun and really enjoyable character to meet who is essential to Finn’s arc and sets up a new character for a bigger role in Episode IX.
Finn: John Boyega gets the big side plot in the film, a mission that fails in just about every department except serving the characters. Finn has been unconscious and in a bacta healing suit since the events of The Force Awakens when he bravely and stupidly thought he could defeat Kylo Ren in a lightsaber duel. The Finn we met in TFA was a character who went from caring about only himself and escape to one who grew to care about his new friends Poe and then Rey and was willing to risk the entire Resistance for a chance to save Rey’s life. His first word in this film upon waking up is “Rey.” This choice makes clear to the audience what is at the top of Finn’s mind and motivating his character in this story. His devotion to his friend, may be platonic or romantic, we just haven’t seen their relationship develop enough by this point to know which way it might go, but it is clear there is a deep connection between two characters who have grown up in isolating environments, Rey in the wastes of Jakku and Finn among the Spartan and depersonalized First Order.
Leia explains to Finn about the binary beacon that she shares with Rey and as soon as Leia is injured Finn picks it up and when the hope seems lost for the Resistance fleet he attempts to board an escape pod and escape. This is where Rose is introduced and it mirrors the moment in Maz’s castle where Rey tried to convince Finn to stay. In that moment he was so afraid of the First Order that his own survival meant more to him than his new friend’s. In The Last Jedi he has moved beyond this care for his personal survival but is similarly scared and fixated on his friend’s safety. Rose short circuits his escape attempt and forces him to explain to her and the audience what is really motivating him. She begins the awakening in him of a sense of duty beyond both himself and Rey, they go to Poe explain how the ship is being tracked and begins to launch the plot that sends them to Canto Bight.
On Canto Bight we see just how insulated the First Order has kept its forces, Finn is completely entranced by the sights of the Casino, the siren song of shiny things has captured him and he would be lost to it if not for Rose pulling him back to reality.
We see continued exploration of Finn’s character in his interactions with DJ who exposes the truth of how the customers of Canto Bight make their money, selling weapons to both sides of the war and profiting no matter who wins. His advice is not to join and to run away. This is a call back to the Finn we saw on Jakku and Takodana, but we can see the growth of Finn’s character because he fairly easily dismisses this in each interaction with DJ.
As they end their mission aboard the Supremacy and are captured, we see Finn who finally has a chance to face his past directly and deal with the demons represented by his former boss Captain Phasma. Their duel allows Finn to come to terms with his past and exact some measure of closure with Phasma. This allows the character to face his fears and survive. This is another important step for his growth.
The final big moment for Finn is one of my favorite moments of the movie because Rian cleverly weaves the character arcs of Poe and Finn together. The same moment Poe is learning his lesson to call off the attack to save as many of his troops as he can, Finn is learning the lesson that he must be willing to sacrifice himself to protect more than just himself and those he has a personal relationship with. He is willing to fly down the throat of the First Order’s battering ram cannon in an attempt to destroy it to save the Resistance most of whom he doesn’t know. Both Finn and Poe make choices in this moment that are true and correct for their character arcs.
The film and John’s performance really sell that he is about to die, but thankfully Rose intervenes and saves his life and wiser than both Finn and Poe, tells the audience that we won’t win by destroying what we hate but by protecting what we love closing with a kiss and passing out.
Finn gets a beautiful reunion with Rey and they hug for a long time, but the final shot of Finn isn’t with Rey but grabbing a blanket to wrap Rose in as she recovers aboard the Falcon. It is a tender and protective moment for a character that has come to embody the best of the male virtues of bravery, sacrifice and protection by the end of the film.
Leia: In her final performance, Carrie Fisher has a handful of huge moments but it is hard to separate her death from one’s emotions when viewing the film. They had completed filming with Carrie and had performed an even larger role for her character in Episode IX, so we are left without a proper resolution for the character.
In the film Leia has a huge moment when the Raddus is attacked and she is ejected into open space. Leia displays her first use of Force telekinesis on-screen, pulling herself back aboard the ship. It is an important reminder to fans that had she chose a different path, Leia had the potential to be a Jedi on the level of her brother and perhaps if she had chosen that path she would have been the one to teach Ben and maybe, just maybe she could have kept him from Snoke’s poisonous embrace.
Aside from her spacewalk, Leia gets a huge emotional moment with Luke on Crait, a strong relationship almost surrogate mother relationship with Poe and a very fun scene at towards the end wielding a blaster rifle that made this fan smile ear to ear. Leia doesn’t really have an arc in the film, she is who she is, a survivor, a rebel, a princess, born to lead and inspire. She is both forgiving and firm with Poe in the film, there is a genuine affection between the two characters. She is pushing him to see beyond his narrow viewport and to see on a strategic scale. She knows that material is replaceable but the key to the Resistance is the people. Carrie’s daughter echoes this sentiment as Lt. Connix during the evacuation of D’Qar, Holdo echoes it later, and finally Leia finally gets it to sink in with Poe at Crait. She also has a key moment during the escape on Crait passing the torch of leadership to Poe, everyone still looks to her, but Han is gone, Holdo is gone, and Luke is seemingly on his way to death, Leia knows a new generation needs to lead and needs a new leader to follow to fight the First Order. It seems likely we would have seen more of this transition in Episode IX had Carrie not died.
With Luke or Mark, however you want to look at the scene, Leia and Carrie get the on-screen goodbye that works both for the film’s plot, the characters and is cathartic for the audience. They both nail the scene and it is a reunion and a farewell that we never got between Han and Luke.
I won’t say much critical of Carrie’s performance except that there were times that her dialogue came off as much cleaner, clearer and sounded more like her younger self, particularly the scene telling the Resistance to follow Poe. Unfortunately at other times her vocal quality felt more muddled, but on the whole it was a larger and more effective performance than in The Force Awakens.
Holdo: One of my all time favorite cinematic experiences is seeing Jurassic Park in Montpelier, Vermont with my Mom. For a kid that loved dinosaurs it was a transcendent experience to see some come to life on the screen like that. Laura Dern plays no small part in selling that experience in her role as Ellie in that film. Going into the film I had not yet read the novel, Leia: Princess of Alderaan which is the first canonical introduction for Dern’s character Amilyn Holdo who was a childhood friend of Leia and when we meet her in the film is a Vice Admiral in the Resistance. Seeing reaction from folks who read the book, they were very excited by Holdo and the comparison heard most was to Luna Lovegood of the Harry Potter franchise. On the negative side I really didn’t love the look of the character based on the still promotional shots they had released, we never really saw her in a trailer before the film’s release so I wasn’t sure how it would look on-screen.
So Dern has me in her corner going into the film and I am genuinely curious and hopeful for the character based on early reactions. On the bright side the design of the character worked a lot better in the flow of the film than it looked in the set photos. Overall however, the character didn’t do much for me in the film. I think lots of folks expected her to be an antagonist in the film within the Resistance for Poe to contend against, but she was much more of a Leia fill in than anything else. The Resistance storyline in the film begins with conflict between Poe and Leia because of Poe’s decision-making and lack of leadership, this storyline is continued once Leia is incapacitated with Holdo stepping into Leia’s shoes.
Some have criticized the fact that Holdo does not reveal her plan to Poe. This is a plan she clearly has talked to Leia about which involves running the Resistance fleet as close to a planet as they can and then abandoning ship aboard shuttles under the noses of the First Order and surviving to fight another day. In response folks have pushed back that there is no reason for an Admiral to tell a mere Captain (Poe being mere scenes before demoted from Commander by Leia) her plan. Both these arguments miss the mark for me as a viewer. Holdo and her command crew are a completely new leadership to the decapitated Resistance crew aboard the Raddus. Emotions are high with the loss, Leia’s fate is still in Limbo and Holdo sweeps in and takes command. Now in a large and standardized military this sort of change in command may not be a huge issue, but the Resistance is an extremely small guerrilla force, many of whom joined out of personal loyalty or inspiration by the singular figure of General Leia. Holdo could have asserted her superiority to Poe without unnecessarily antagonizing him. If you note how he approaches her, he waits until after the meeting to challenge her, when there are only a few of her bridge staff around. This is a move that while he is sceptical of her is deferential to her position. Her response is to slap him down about his demotion and to be dismissive. She should have been looking gain him as an ally to help ease the transition and relations with the crew of the Raddus. He is the highest ranking starfighter that we know about in the crew and given his position as Leia’s protegé and his martial skills, he is no doubt held in high esteem by the crew. It feels like diverting the character’s logical choices in order to serve the story by creating conflict.
The other disappointing thing about the character is that I got almost nothing of what folks were saying about the Luna Lovegood aspects of the character. Sure she wasn’t wearing a military uniform and had her hair dyed, but other than that she seemed pretty bland. One note Dern’s performance is that “May the Force be with you” line she seems to break character a bit, like an SNL cast member who cant help but laughing at a line. Not the worst thing in the world and in a funny kind of way, it is a bit endearing.
Holdo does get to go out with a heroic act and a rather big bang, but on the whole not a terribly memorable character.
Poe: Oscar Isaac as Poe, much like John, Daisy and Adam is a dynamic actor and really draws the viewers in to care about his character. The Poe we meet at the beginning of this film has just gotten done blowing up an entire planet and about as invincible and irrationally confident as any person in the galaxy. The downside of this characterization is that Rian follows JJ’s mistake with Poe and makes him too good of a pilot. We have literally never seen a pilot on-screen as good as Poe, no Jedi, no Sith, no one. For fans that have looked at the sequel trilogy and tried to find a Mary Sue, it really is Poe and not Rey that should draw the eye.
That being said Poe and a really good arc in this film, that showed him growing significantly. Poe made continual mistakes in the films that undoubtedly cost many lives. Continuing the bombing attack against the dreadnought was a clear mistake. Though Leia could have undoubtedly ordered the bombers back to the fleet herself and their tight formation seems like a recipe for disaster given their ordinance. But when it came to the mutiny, this likely delayed the launch of the shuttles to Crait, which means if the shuttles had left earlier it is possible they could have gotten closer to the planet before DJ betrayed them to the First Order. So no matter how you cut it, his actions no doubt cost lives in the film. At the same time, he shows his devotion to Leia and the cause throughout the film. The intimacy with which he stands over her while she is unconscious and how receptive to her guidance and how playful he is with her at times is really charming.
The big moment on Crait for Poe is calling off the speeder attack on the First Order walkers and cannon. His group is getting picked off quickly and before they are all killed he orders them to peel off and head back to the base. Finally learning the truth that this battle was lost before it even began and the real object is for the Resistance to find a way to survive. He builds on this moment by recognizing what Luke was doing in facing down the First Order and helps find the way for the Resistance to escape. Proving himself at the end of the film and letting the audience see in him the qualities that Leia had seen all along.
Rey: I do not envy Daisy Ridley her job in this movie. Rey in this movie spends two-thirds of the film in a super vulnerable emotional state. She is scared, confused, isolated and when she finds the Legendary Luke Skywalker, well the adage is true, you should never meet your heroes. It is a very tough acting performance to pull off and Daisy does a very solid job with it. But the nature of the story makes her arc less fun than following Poe or Finn and less dark and delicious than what Adam gets to do with Kylo.
Despite her purpose in looking for Luke for the Resistance, the motivating force for her character is the dual internal struggle she faces dealing with her past and the difficulty she is having understanding and controlling the new and very powerful Force powers she has discovered. Luke even without opening himself to the Force can see past her reasons and forces her to confront the truth of her feelings.
The toughest part of the character arc for most viewers to accept is her warming to Kylo. Having seen him in cold blood murder his father and attempt to torture information out of her, she slowly begins to believe there is good in him and hope that he could turn to the light and betray Snoke and the First Order. I think Rian and the actors do a good job through the repeated Force chats where they are basically forced to have uncomfortable conversation after uncomfortable conversation. There is an intimacy that is built despite the fact that she really doesn’t want to be there until the much later in the relationship when she feels shut out and rejected by Luke and is desperate for some guidance and help.
In an echo of The Empire Strikes Back we see Rey certain when she should be unsure and rushing off away from Luke and Ach-to, her training incomplete on a mission that could doom her and her friends. This reinforces both the idealism and recklessness of youth, but also reinforces the resolve and bravery of Rey’s character. Foolhardy as she may be her arc then moves into something very similar to Luke’s in Return of the Jedi, we even see similar elevator scenes leading to the Throne Room and the meeting with Snoke.
Again Rey’s steely spine in facing Snoke and her inability to resist his mind probes shows both how brave she is and yet how relatively untrained she is. She gets to share with Kylo one of the best fight scenes in all of Star Wars as they take out the Praetorian Guards, and Daisy really sells the surprise, hurt and disappointment when Kylo refuses to step back into the light. She learns quickly from her lesson and tries to take back Anakin’s blue saber from him and they Force tug of war over it before it explode and the ship is hit by Holdo and they are both knocked down.
Rey escapes while Kylo is unconscious and returns to the Falcon and takes the lower gun turret during the attack on Crait blasting TIEs out of the sky. We get to see her exhilarating in the action of the battle moments after such a heavy scene. Interestingly she doesn’t get to see Luke’s final sacrifice but feels the last moments of his life through the Force. She gets her big hero moment moving the rocks that allow the surviving Resistance members to escape aboard the Falcon. We get our last moment in the film of her connection with Kylo as he makes contact and she literally closes the Falcon’s ramp door on him, figuratively closing the door on their relationship and her hopes of redeeming him.
She gets a fun meet cute with Poe, followed by a tender conversation with Leia but it is the look that she gives Finn as he takes care of Rose that is a subtle and beautiful bit of characterization that sets Rey and Poe firmly on the friendship not romance path and sets up multiple potential relationship dynamics going into Episode IX.
In the end we got an emotional front heavy performance, that teased potential darkness but really did that more for Luke and Kylo’s benefits than the audience ever believing it was going to happen.
Luke: Mark Hamill gives what is easily his best live action performance in The Last Jedi. We have waited so long to see Luke again on the big screen and the brief glimpse of him at the end of The Force Awakens only heightened expectations and desires to learn more about Luke and see him again. Probably nothing in the film has been as controversial as the reality of Luke Skywalker that we are asked to accept. For myself on first viewing I did not have any issues with the characterization of Luke except for the revelation about his attempted murder of Ben Solo. To me that was a choice that makes sense for the character that Rian created in The Last Jedi but doesn’t make sense for the character that viewers had last seen on Endor 34 years ago. There was simply too little storytelling showing how the Luke of Return of the Jedi could become the Luke in that hut with Ben. It is hard because of the realities of the time gap between the film but there needed to be some runway laid for that story beat and I just don’t feel that Rian and Lucasfilm accomplished that to make it a believable character choice. I accept that this is the choice they made and it is easier to accept with each viewing but this is still a major hangup I have with the film.
It makes sense based on that choice that the Luke we meet is the Luke we meet. This is a great hero who in a single moment seemingly ruined everything, destroying his life, his nephew’s life, his sister’s life, his brother-in-law’s life, cost many of his student’s their lives and setting up the Dark Side to rise and the First Order to undo much of what he and his friends fought and died for. That is a lot of guilt to carry and it makes sense that it would break anyone, even the mighty Luke Skywalker. There are flashes of the old Luke throughout the early part of the movie, seeing Chewie, asking about Han, seeing Artoo, feeling guilt about Leia, stepping aboard the Falcon and ultimately accepting to train Rey even if it is only to try to scare her away. Gradually his walls are wearing down. But he is still broken, his reaction to seeing the Force communion between Rey and Kylo is violent, destroying the hut and cutting the connection, which leads to his brief fight with Rey. Again he has failed as a teacher and his student flees.
It is at this moment Luke at his lowest that he goes to burn the Force tree and the sacred Jedi texts he thinks are within. It is this moment that Yoda appears to Luke with the right words and acts at the moment, there are few people who Luke will listen to at this point, but with Yoda he is still that young man who promised to finish his training. He listens and accepts Yoda’s words about the lessons of failure.
At this point in the film Rian delivered me two moments that I had most wanted for Luke but did in it a way that was both true to his story and fulfilled that desire. It was a pretty neat trick to pull off. The first was the reunion and apology with Leia, which was so well done. I address it a little more below in the section about Leia, but needless to say Mark absolutely nailed the performance here. Then we get to see Luke the hero take center stage again, the Resistance fighters led by Poe act as audience avatars as we sit stunned as Luke walks out to face down the forces of the First Order alone.
Even at first when you think Luke is actually there you realize that Luke must know he is going to die, the odds are simply too much to overcome as Luke even comments to Rey when they first meet and she expects him to face down the First Order single-handedly with his “laser sword.” On my first watch the first clue I had that this was a vision was the lightsaber, it was the wrong color my brain was shouting to me. Then you notice the beard and hair are too dark and maybe on subsequent viewings you notice how the salt doesn’t move beneath Luke’s feet. Once it is revealed that Luke is a projection, much of the work Rian did establishing the potential costs of the Kylo/Rey connection i.e. the fact that if she was doing it, it would kill her pay off. The fact that he set up physical interaction with the rain landing on Kylo and Kylo and Rey touching pay off. But the big payoff is when we return to the island after the confrontation and see the strain on Luke, his collapse, pulling himself back onto the rock before seeing the twin sunset and becoming one with the Force.
During the duel Luke’s dialogue and behavior has a much more playful quality to it. There is a little of the mischievous Yoda in there but there is also the optimistic and hopeful farmboy. It works because I think it is much more similar to Mark’s own personality than if they tried to make the character overly serious in these moments.
I can’t think of a more beautiful way for Luke Skywalker to die. He fulfills the truest essence of what it means to be a Jedi, he sacrifices himself to protect others, he uses his skills in defense and not attack. He doesn’t attack Kylo, he is passive and receptive during their “duel,” he isn’t trying to redeem but he is still trying to apologize and teach the boy. His final act is an act of love that saves his sister, Rey and the few embers of hope that remain in the galaxy.
In the end there is much to unravel in this film and it will be fodder for years of discussion but these are my feelings and impressions on the main characters of The Last Jedi after three viewings, thanks for reading and may the Force be with you.