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On letting go of Luke Skywalker


“You hated it, obviously,” came the snarking email from one of my best friends. “Because you are not seven years old anymore.”

 Earlier, I’d sent him a quick note (“Ok saw it”) to let him know I’d finally seen The Last Jedi and it was safe to talk about it without worrying about spoilers. 

I didn’t hate it, not even close. While horrendously flawed in places, The Last Jedi is easily the best Star Wars movie since Return of the Jedi. But my friend was right about one thing: I’m not seven years old anymore. And the great virtue of The Last Jedi is that it is the film that has finally allowed me to make peace with the Star Wars franchise, for the first time in 40 years. And in a weird way, it’s also allowed me to make peace with myself.


It’s hard -- sorry, impossible -- to overstate the effect Star Wars had on me as a boy. I saw Star Wars when I was seven, and spent the next three years in an all-consuming daydream of X-Wings and lightsabers and stormtroopers and droids and Luke and Han and Leia and all the rest of it. And I’m not in the slightest bit unique in this; it was pretty much how it was for all of my friends. The first three movies are basically the data points of our common childhood -- boyhood, prepubescence, adolescence. George Lucas knew exactly what he was doing when he put Carrie Fisher in a bikini in the third film.

And then there was nothing. Lucas had talked about making nine films, but after Jedi, the series basically went into a state of suspended animation. The films got taken over by toys and books and other ephemera, which was absolutely fine because it meant there was nothing to overwrite the movies that had installed themselves as as the machine language of our common mental operating system.  The Star Wars Trilogy was about as perfect a cultural moment as you’re going to find in this galaxy, and leaving it alone was probably for the best.

But Lucas couldn’t leave it alone. Getting his hands on new digital technologies, he started mucking about with the original films, adding footage and special effects and changing key scenes. In retrospect, the Greedo-shooting-first fiasco was an early indication that the man had seriously, and literally, lost the plot. And then came the rolling disaster of the prequels, the takeover of Lucasfilm by Disney, and the rebooting of the franchise with The Force Awakens (which is total garbage) and the extended universe story of Rogue One (which is a watchable mess.)

The pattern was the same each time: anticipation followed by letdown, then rationalization. Repeat for each new movie, except with each iteration of the pattern the anticipation was less intense, the letdown less disappointing, the rationalizations less convoluted. After all, the films were selling lots of tickets, the toys were everywhere, the extended universe kept getting bigger. At a certain point it became easier just to chalk it up to getting older. I had more or less decided not to bother going to see The Last Jedi. But then I did, mostly because I wanted to earn the right to dump on it with my friends.


There’s a scene in Star Wars that kicks off the second act of the film. Luke has raced home to save his aunt and uncle from the stormtroopers, only to arrive to find the farmhouse torched, their charred bodies lying smoking on the ground. He goes back to meet Ben, and says “I want to learn the ways of the Force and become a Jedi like my father.” Mark Hamill is looking up at the camera as he says it, and there’s a pleading, but also ever so slightly excited look on his face.

Boom. At that point the heart of every kid in the theatre went: Boom. The hero has started his journey, and every boy watching suddenly is Luke Skywalker. It doesn’t stay that way, because over the arc of the trilogy, everyone ultimately identifies with either Luke or Han: they are a dreamer or they are a cynic; they want to save the galaxy, or they want to get the girl. Lots of people became Han guys. I was always, always, always, a Luke guy.

Which is why I didn’t realize just what exactly I’d been missing from Star Wars all these years, until The Last Jedi. The moment Luke speaks for the first time -- that boom again. Despite the grey hair and the salt and pepper beard, he sounds pretty much the same. Keep in mind: while Harrison Ford went on to become a huge star, Mark Hamill had a much quieter career. We simply haven’t heard his voice for 35 years.

The Luke Skywalker of The Last Jedi is not the idealistic dreamer of the first movie, nor is he the confident Jedi master of the third. He’s tired and grouchy, wants nothing to do with the galaxy and its problems, and certainly wants nothing to do with the Force. There’s been a lot of press about this, mostly because Mark Hamill has made it clear that he and TLJ writer/director Rian Johnson had long arguments over the direction of the character. You can find interview clips of Hamill saying that Luke would never turn his back on his friends, would never give up trying to save the galaxy. And a lot of people have chimed in, agreeing with Hamill and arguing that no matter what is supposed to have happened to Luke between RotJ and TLJ, nothing could justify the self-imposed island exile.

Really? I mean, come on. It’s been 35 years, and Luke has been fighting pretty much the entire time. How many of his friends have died? How many people has he killed? And that’s just what is obvious, before we find out that, in turning his sister’s son Ben Solo into Darth Vader wannabe Kylo Ren, he has recapitulated Obi-Wan Kenobi’s failure with Anakin, and started the whole sins-of-the-father cycle all over again.

At long last it seems that Luke, and only Luke, has grasped the basic fact of the Star Wars saga: the Skywalkers aren’t here to save the galaxy; the galaxy needs saving from the Skywalkers. Looking back on his life, and forward to what is in store for his friends, Luke can see only conflict and chaos, death and destruction, with his family at the heart of it. And so he’s retreated to an island, cut himself off from the force, and is curating the museum of Jedi history while waiting to die.  He’s tired the way Aragorn and Frodo and Legolas are tired at the end of Lord of the Rings -- the sheer exhaustion of the struggle that never ends, against an evil that cannot be vanquished because it is part of the fabric of the universe. 


We would all have a much better sense of this if George Lucas hadn’t made the disastrous and almost unforgivable mistake of trying to re-engineer the story around the redemption of Anakin Skywalker. The Star Wars saga always was, and should have remained, Luke’s journey. The table was set for an epic story about youth and idealism, aging and betrayal, discipline and mentorship, love and -- this above all -- friendship.

What we’ll have to settle for is what Rian Johnson has managed to kludge together out of the bits and pieces he was given. He’s taken every inch of narrative elbow room available and made the most of it. The decisions he made for how to complete Luke’s arc are close to perfect, because what comes to Luke comes to us all, eventually. Age, frustration, failure, loss. It’s called living a life. It is to Mark Hamill’s credit as an actor that he delivers on all fronts. 

At one point in TLJ when Luke is sulking, just like the old days, and threatening to destroy at tree that houses some sacred Jedi texts. And then, just like the old days, the shimmery Force-ghost of Yoda appears. “Young Skywalker,” he croaks, with a bit of a laugh. “Missed you I have.” Then he starts lecturing Luke once again about always having his eyes on the future, never with his mind on where he was, on what he was doing.

I almost started crying. I hadn’t realized until that point just how much I had missed Luke Skywalker. But thinking about it after, I realised it wasn’t Luke Skywalker that I have been missing all these years. Who I really miss is the seven year old boy I once was. He was a wide eyed dreamer, innocent and sweet, and he wanted to grow up and save the galaxy. For a brief moment in the theatre, I was with that boy again, and it made me happy. 

It’s hard to make really close, deep friends after high school. Similarly, it is hard to allow yourself to be completely consumed by the culture once you reach adulthood. Star Wars was something unique: a cultural artifact that took over an entire generation of kids, serving as the mortar that sealed and strengthened our friendships. I mean, we still get together and argue about the movies for crying out loud. 

But for the first time in forty years, I don’t need anything from the Star Wars universe. I’m not seven years old anymore. Luke Skywalker is gone. It’s time to move on.