Warning: SPOILERS for Star Wars: The Last Jedi ahead
For all the controversy it stirred up, Rian Johnson’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi ended on the right, albeit tragic, note: Luke Skywalker returns from the brink of nihilism and “walk[s] out with a laser sword" to take on the First Order. Sadly, his herculean intergalactic projection efforts take a toll, and the Jedi Master joins his esteemed colleagues in the Force. Some fans didn’t want Luke to die, and his story arc wasn’t quite what Mark Hamill had in mind for the iconic hero, either. Nevertheless, it’s a poignant end to one of the most revered champions of Hollywood’s blockbuster age and isn't without great significance or purpose.
Luke leaves behind a lasting legacy and inspires the next generation of Star Wars characters and fans – a fitting eulogy for the man who brought Darth Vader back to the good side. His sacrifice gives the overall story some wiggle room around the Skywalker dynasty. And, as a childhood icon to many (myself included), Luke's death pushes the war-weary galaxy forward, fanning the flame for countless would-be champions and beginning the heroic cycle anew.
Star Wars Parallels
While building his original trilogy, George Lucas started with archetypal story structures from Joseph Campbell’s warrior’s quest, as taken from The Hero with a Thousand Faces. He then pulled from cinema that influenced him, such as Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai and Hidden Fortress and serials like Flash Gordon, among others. And, while mixed-bag in execution, the prequels successfully expanded the fable (some would say too much), exploring the backgrounds of our favorite characters. The Clone Wars and Star Wars Rebels later fleshed out these characters and ideas, elaborating on and smoothing them out as only episodic TV can.
When Disney bought the rights to Star Wars and announced a new trilogy, recreating or even breaking the wheel was an inevitable consequence of moving forward: Luke, Leia, Han, and Chewbacca were, to put it bluntly, past their action-hero prime. Sure, old-school fans (myself included) relished the idea of watching them save the galaxy once again. But each new age demands their own icons. Not everyone has seen the original trilogy, and even those who watch it now aren't necessarily connected to it in the same way as those weaned on it. Ending an aging hero’s run is the logical extension of the hero’s journey, wherein the pupil becomes the master and passes on what he has learned. Plus, it's basic marketing logic: hook your audience when they're young (it certainly worked for OT fans).
J.J. Abrams’ Episode VII: The Force Awakens took guff for rehashing A New Hope, at times beat for beat. However, its job was reminding older fans why they loved the classic stories while attracting scores of new fans, which it achieved admirably to the tune of over 2 billion dollars at the box office. It succeeded by meshing the saga’s classic heroes with their younger counterparts, Rey, Finn, and Poe; Abrams ignited the torch and left numerous dangling threads for Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi to interpret while setting up the eventual baton-pass to Rey and company.
One of the most significant motifs running through Episode VIII is the changing of the guard – whether through violent means (Kylo Ren’s efforts to “kill it [the past], if you have to”) or peaceful ones (Yoda’s poignant adage about students 'growing beyond' their teachers). Sure, it would’ve been amazing if Luke tugged on his Jedi tunic, whipped out his lightsaber, and kicked the First Order across the quadrant – which he sort of did (and still might, thanks to Yoda’s surprising new skills). But the First Order isn’t the Empire, despite their elaborate stylings, and the audience isn’t watching the good-vs-evil world Lucas built back in 1977 (before subsequently dismantling it in the prequels); bad guys are, well, complicated and good guys aren't always the best.
Rian Johnson understood Lucas' move to gray-up his world, recognizing Luke’s great power as a myth-builder and deconstructor. In order for the Star Wars to rise from the ashes of its past, the Skywalker dynasty had to go down in glorious flames.
- Star Wars 9 / Star Wars: Episode IX (2019) release date: Dec 20, 2019
- Star Wars 8/Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017) release date: Dec 15, 2017