Wednesday, December 13, 2017

How I See Luke on the Eve of The Last Jedi

I've watched Star Wars way too many times to not go see The Last Jedi tomorrow night, despite my wife's pleas to get more sleep after a rash of 24 on 24 off shifts courtesy of my last month in the Army. Is that unwise? Yup. Am I doing it anyway? I got the ticket in my car, yeah, I'm gonna go see it. And that's definitely because of my unabashed fanboyism for Luke Skywalker, who I think is one of the most under-appreciated characters in all of cinema, particular in the wake of the Prequels. I was one of the people who, upon learning the Luke had abandoned everyone he had ever loved, was not surprised to a degree I found shocking. Luke, the hero, abandoning everyone? I found myself able to believe it, because of the character I'd gotten to know from obsessively watching Star Wars way too many times would totally do that.

When we first encounter Luke, he's just a farmboy on Tatooine. Most of his friends have left the dustball and Luke's feeling justifiably angry at his aunt and uncle for stifling him and not letting him ask questions about his father or the rest of his past. Then Ben Kenobi reveals that his father was actually a warrior, a bad-ass, someone who died by treachery, and that Luke had potential, just like his father, if only he would leave his family behind. Interestingly, Luke does the exact opposite of his father Anakin: he refuses. Yes, Luke would like to leave and go on his grand adventure, but in the end he's a farmer, like his uncle. 

Luke's support, his rock, is gone, burned up in front of his eyes. Just try and imagine that for a moment. People have needed years of therapy for far, far less. Luke, however, copes by choosing to make another rock: to be like his father and be a Jedi. He adopts Ben as a surrogate father and they're off to save the princess that he has a crush on. But then that black monster that he hates for betraying and killing his father kills Ben too. But there isn't time to process that either, because now the people that he's left with are in danger and Luke can't stand still.

Hi Biggs!

Bye Biggs!
So, let's count: Luke has lost not one, not two, not three, but FOUR friends and family members in the space of about two weeks, give or take. And he's one of two X-Wing pilots to escape the Death Star. Most protagonists crack after watching one person go down, nevermind four of the most important people in your life. But Luke keeps going. He has to, otherwise literally everyone else dies. And then someone's pinning a medal on him and he's got a new family and quite honestly it's a marvel that Luke didn't wind up a basket case by the end of A New Hope. 

Skip forward two years. Luke's become a confident commander of his own unit of pilots, named in honor of the people who brought him the Death Star plans so he could blow it up. Ben shows up from beyond the grave and tells Luke to go to Dagobah, so he can learn from a real Jedi master. Luke doesn't even get the opportunity to jump at the chance cause of the wampa, but then the Empire shows up and he loses practically all of Rogue Squadron in the escape at Hoth. Once again, Luke keeps going. 

I have to mention the cave in particular in my sketch of Luke's personality, because it's here where the first crack in Luke's seemingly impregnable armor shows up. Luke wonders if he's turning into Vader. It's not an idle thing to wonder, either: with all the death and destruction Luke has seen in two very short years he's become a very different person from that whiny 19 year old we knew at the beginning of A New Hope. Is Luke losing touch? Is he becoming what he hated from the start: a killing machine that only deals in death? Being in the military has a tendency to dull spiritual sensitivity and it's only fair to wonder if you can ever go back to what you were after seeing as much death as Luke has in such a short amount of time.

But all this soul searching has to come to an end quickly, because Luke realizes his friends are in danger and thus goes off to save them, his mentors' reservations be damned. And that's where the rug really gets pulled out from under him. Not only did Ben lie to him, but the monster that Luke was so afraid of turning into is his father. The greatest killer in the entire galaxy is his father. And right after that Ben refuses to help Luke (something I think he was more than capable of doing) and the very people Luke was trying to save have to come and get him.

Is it any wonder then, that a year later when Return of the Jedi picks up, Luke is Force Choking opponents without a thought, wearing all black in the middle of a searing desert, and trying as hard as he can to stick with his friends so he can feel something other than the burning anger that he has against Obi-Wan and Yoda, the two who strung him along and lied to him so they could turn him into a killing machine to point at his father? Turns out his "family" was just priming him to be what he never wanted to be in the first place. At this point Luke just wants real family. He's lost so much and the thought of killing his father is too far for him. Luke's lost enough family. He doesn't need to lose more.

Which is why Vader threatening his new-found sister is such an interesting twist for Luke. Here's something new, something that actually gets Luke truly angry: corrupting someone's soul. It's a bit much to put on a person who's already had enough stress to last him for a lifetime in three years. What were you doing at 22? Probably not trying to kill your father for threatening your twin sister. Hopefully not. But Luke finally gives into rage built up over the course of three years of constant war, lies, and death. And right after that he loses his father. 

But the most interesting thing to me in this sketch is Luke's declaration when he spares his father. "I am a Jedi, like my father before me." Anyone who's watched the Prequels knows what a joke this statement is. Luke is nothing like any Jedi with the exception of Qui-Gon, and even that comparison's thin. He's not an indoctrinated brainwashed machine wearing fleshy clothes, he's a young man that's got all the attachments that no Jedi in their right mind would even think of cultivating. And like his father? Even less so! Luke's choices put him in a camp that his father could only dream of being in. Luke's declaration is inherently flawed. He doesn't understand what makes him so special but associates himself with a group that would have thrown him into the nuthouse sooner than admit him to their little exclusive club of pricks. But Luke doesn't catch this problem and no one can really correct him on it. 

No, Lucas: replacing Sebastian Shaw was not OK.

But that's not the real problem. Luke ascribes his father's eventual salvation, not to his relationship with his son, but to the power of the Force, to being a Jedi. Don't believe me? Let's look at the next thirty years in brief. We know that Luke was present at the battle of Jakku, where he was pulling Star Destroyers out of orbit, an act with a scope unheard of in canon and, while approached, not rivaled in the EU (to the best of my knowledge). We're not talking about Starkiller's cop-out, which was a damaged and sinking Star Destroyer, but shutting down and pull ing out of the sky a fully operational gigantic engine of death. That's one year post-ROTJ.

Luke continues on to grab as much information as he can about the Jedi Order. He's hardly present to his old friends, who miss him and wish he'd come home. But Luke's found his answer, hasn't he? The Jedi must come back, he owes Yoda and Ben that much. So when Leia brings her son, who's been messed with by Snoke since conception, to Luke he assumes he can deal with it. He converted Darth Vader, after all, how hard can it be?

After all this time, it all ends the same way it began for Luke: in fire and death. Only this time it's definitely his fault. Luke got arrogant and didn't respect his nephew's formidable power and it got a lot of people killed. Luke had formed a new family of Jedi. He sought them out and trained them and poured everything he had into their hearts, only to lose them in exactly the same way that he lost his Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru. Coming full circle, Luke realizes what a waste thirty years has been. Thirty years of advancement and adventure, his whole life and its meaning, is gone. He had abandoned the only people who had actually meant anything to him, Han and Leia and Chewie, and it ended in fire and death. And it's entirely his fault. At the end of it all he's not even a 19 year old boy who just lost his aunt and uncle, but an old man who wasted his life on a wild goose chase. He's just an old fool who's done no good for anyone, anywhere.

Yeah, I'd leave for parts unknown too. I wouldn't want to look my sister and brother-in-law and friend in the face and admit that I'd screwed up after all those years, I'd want to leave and try to clear my head. Maybe somewhere there's answers to help me figure out who I'm supposed to be now.

Because, ultimately, power means nothing to Luke, only relationship holds any sway over him. But you can't relate to anyone if you don't know who you are. And I highly doubt Luke has a clue, even now, who he is in the wake of Ben Solo becoming Kylo Ren.
More after I've watched the movie. We'll see if Johnson is thinking anything close to what I am.

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