Hi, Matthew. Sorry for the late response, but I didn’t come across your article until today.
The Last Jedi is far from a perfect movie, but I am an ardent defender of many of the things it tried to do, especially with Luke’s character.
That said, I can’t agree with some of the defenses that Bryan Young puts forth in his comparison of the film to The Last Temptation of Christ, and I think you were right to address some of those points.
My take on The Last Jedi is that it is a deconstruction, but only in the sense that it is attempting to instill shades of gray into a story that has largely only had a stark black and white presentation.
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The world is rarely black and white. Sometimes heroes have to make hard choices, and that’s what Johnson did with Luke Skywalker. He placed him in a situation where he had to make a hard choice.
I’ve heard a lot of people say it was uncharacteristic of Luke to draw his blade, even for a split second, with the intention of killing Ben. The evidence they cite is Luke’s unwillingness to kill Vader at the end of Return of the Jedi.
But those situations are not true parallels. When Luke stands over Ben — faced not with a sense of temptation but a sense of responsibility —what he is facing is essentially the classic Baby Hitler ethical dilemma.
Would you kill Baby Hitler if it would prevent the Holocaust? What if we’re not talking about a Baby Hitler, but about a teenaged Hitler who is already showing signs of dark and troubling behavior?
When Luke faces the decision of killing Vader, millions are already dead because of Vader’s actions. Killing Vader will not bring those people back to life. There’s not even a guarantee that killing Vader will put an end to the war, because Luke has got the Emperor sitting there talking into his ear, telling him that to kill Vader would be to succumb to the Dark Side, and that the end result will be that he, Luke, will just take Vader’s place by the Emperor’s side.
The situation with Ben is different. The war hasn’t happened yet. If he kills Ben, Luke can prevent billions of deaths.
It’s the difference between killing Hitler before the Holocaust as a preventative measure, or killing him at the end of the war as a punitive measure. These are very different acts, and they carry different moral weight.
Now, you argue that Luke is such a compassionate Christ-like figure that he would never strike Ben down. And he doesn’t do that.
But would he raise his blade against Ben, even for a second? I’m sure you would still say no, but I’m not convinced.
Luke had a vision. He saw the future that Kylo would bring about, and that vision was accurate. Yoda has talked many times over the course of the saga about the future being hard to see because it is always in motion, but the truth is that the Skywalkers have a deeper connection to the Force than most Jedi, and we have not seen a single example of a Skywalker having a Force vision that has not come true.
Luke has every reason to believe that the vision he sees is set in stone. So I don’t judge him harshly for igniting his blade just for a second, in an attempt to prevent that vision from coming to pass. If anything, it’s heroic that he prevented himself from going through with it.
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But Luke does more than just raise his blade against Ben. He also retreats into isolation and abandons the galaxy just when they need him most.
However, I think that even this behavior, once you take into account Luke’s perspective, is justifiable.
In his article comparing the film to The Last Temptation of Christ, Mr. Young agrees that Luke’s forced isolation is selfish, but he asks, hasn’t Luke earned the right to be a little selfish? Hasn’t he given the galaxy enough? Doesn’t he deserve some time off?
I think Young’s characterization here is way off. From Luke’s perspective, he wasn’t abandoning the galaxy. He was trying to save it— from himself. Luke is the one who inflicted Kylo Ren on the galaxy, and he is afraid of what other evils his further involvement may bring.
In other words, his actions may have been unheroic, but his intentions were not.
This thinking is wrong, and Rey eventually convinces Luke of that, and he redeems himself. But again, I don’t judge Luke too harshly for this.
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A few more points:
(1) I agree that Luke’s isolation is a story contrivance designed to kill off the old in order to make room for the new. I don’t have a problem with that, though, because I do think that making room for the new was necessary for this new trilogy.
(2) I will point out that you are mistaken in calling it Johnson’s contrivance. Luke’s isolation is a fact that was established by J.J. Abrams in the previous film.
(3) I disagree that there was no scene where Luke passes the torch to Rey. I think his agreeing to train her is what constitutes the passing of the torch.
(4) I disagree with your claim that Rey did not change Luke. I believe she played an integral role. Yoda could have appeared to Luke at any time within the previous 10 years, but he didn’t appear until after Rey showed up. Rey represents hope, and I don’t think Luke would have been receptive to Yoda’s message prior to meeting Rey. It was both Rey and Yoda who brought Luke out of his funk.
(5) I strongly disagree that there was nothing at stake for Luke at the Battle of Crait. As you yourself argue, Luke is a person who cares about doing the right thing. For a time, he deluded himself into thinking that meant hiding himself away, but he dissuades himself of that notion by the end of the film. Luke’s compassion alone means there is something at stake.
(6) I also have to strongly disagree about Luke’s final act not being sacrificial. It is established earlier in the film that Force connections across large distances require a great deal of energy, when Snoke tells Rey and Kylo that he is responsible for their shared connection. To suggest that Luke’s final act was not sacrificial is to suggest that Luke wouldn’t have known how much energy such a projection would take out of him. But Luke is a powerful Jedi with great mastery over the Force. I find it impossible to believe that he wouldn’t have known such a thing.
(7) There may be a path to redemption open to Kylo Ren, but that path NEVER ran through Luke. After Luke’s betrayal, there is no one in the galaxy that Kylo hates more than Luke. Just the sight of Luke was enough to send Kylo into a rage. Luke knows all of this. It doesn’t mean he has given up on Kylo being redeemed, it just means he has given up on the idea that he is the one who can bring Kylo back. And in that final interaction between them, Luke is not without compassion. He acknowledges that he failed Kylo, and he apologizes to him for it.
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In closing, I am seeing a trend lately of people insisting that heroes should not be placed in situations where they have to make hard choices.
We saw it at the end of Man of Steel, when Superman had to choose between killing Zod and letting an innocent family be murdered. A lot of people were outraged that Superman would kill, even when it was justified.
We see it all the time in Batman stories. Batman has a rule against killing. But in a realistic setting, he sometimes would face the decisions that many police officers face every day — do they kill the bad guy, or do they risk innocent lives?
In the comics, Batman always manages to save all the good guys without ever killing the bad guys. But that’s plot armor. It’s easy for him not to break his one rule when the writers never put him in a situation where it might be necessary to do so.
The Last Jedi put Luke into a position of having to make a hard choice, when what many fans wanted was for him never to be put into that situation in the first place.