There are many things that wholeheartedly suck about the backlash faced by Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Its director, Rian Johnson, has faced an endless barrage of abuse and death threats since the film premiered. Various actors involved, most notably Kelly Marie Tran, have been subjected to the vilest harassment. What should be a simple fandom and critical conversation has become a festering pile of rot that has poisoned everything around it. To even tweet about The Last Jedi in any capacity is to inevitably find your mentions full of uninvited creeps who just can’t wait to tell you how much the film sucked. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a fandom that’s so exclusively concerned with hating the thing they claim to love so much. One of the lesser but still impactful downsides of this mess is how it’s left the film’s discourse unable to evolve as it naturally would. There’s so much in The Last Jedi that I could spend hours talking about - the lush cinematography, the way the film has its roots in classic cinema, the metatextual approach to the material, and so on - but there’s one element I wish to focus on today: Luke Skywalker himself, and the performance of Mark Hamill.
George Lucas never cared all that much about directing his actors. This problem was one of the major missteps of the prequels and left a number of actors lost at sea in desperate need of directorial guidance (most notably Hayden Christensen). The original trilogy benefitted from Lucas only directing one of them but most of the great actor moments in that trio of films came more from charm than skill. Hamill’s work in the original trilogy is strong but he never felt like the undeniable star of those films when compared to Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher. His guileless country boy act grated just enough to feel realistic, although most of his acting work feels rooted in those old-school action-adventure serials that inspired Lucas in the first place: Not necessarily bad but getting the job done.
Hamill fares far better in The Last Jedi with Johnson, a man who actually cares about the people who inhabit his films, giving him the appropriate direction. He’s got motivations beyond the basic structure of the hero’s journey, but he also has the shadow of history - his own, Luke’s and that of the franchise - looming overhead. Fans waited a long time to see Luke Skywalker, Jedi Master, and what we got was a broken man with a bleak sense of humour and a seeming allergy to heroism.
Luke was a hero, but he was also a hothead whose ego could surpass Han Solo’s at the best of times. To be a hero requires at least a smidgen of narcissism. How else would you have the nerve to position yourself as someone to be adored and trusted? That’s not an emotion that comes from pure selflessness. The Jedi were priest-like masters of zen and justice, or they were in an abstract sense. For all the prequels’ faults, they drive home the unsettling reality that these almighty figures of worshipful heroism were either utterly ineffectual in stopping the rise of the Galactic Empire, or in some way complicit through sheer inaction. The heroes failed, and Luke fails too. He falls to his own hubris, not just in the way he almost killed his own nephew but in the quickness with which he threw in the towel and embraced pointless solitude. Luke is too proud to admit that he’s human, and too selfish to get on with living afterwards.
Hamill embodies the precise level of weariness needed to make Luke seem weighed down by his own disappointment. There’s a hint of vanity in his hermit life, particularly in the way Hamill’s eyes roll subtly whenever he’s confronted by Rey’s eager hopefulness. For a man who has become better known in his acting career for his voice work, it’s a delight to see the expressiveness of his face. Anyone who’s heard Hamill as The Joker is aware of the incredible elasticity of his voice. With the slightest inflection in tone or emphasis, Hamill can twist from clown-like glee to gut-wrenchingly terrifying. Seeing that dexterity in action for Hamill on-screen offers new delights and a reminder of just how bloody good he can be with the right direction and material.
It’s clear that Hamill has lived with this figure every day for the majority of his life. He knows how much he means and how he’s transcended most notions of character to become an indomitable icon, one of immense power and influence in pop culture circles. He was the new hope, he was the Jedi who helped them return to their previous might. Skywalker was the hero anyone could be, and, like many young white male heroes of this mould, he was positioned as such to the fans. Luke’s failure to achieve that is supposed to hurt, and it does. Hamill makes it ache so beautifully with every forlorn glance and slump of the shoulders. He curls in on himself like an embarrassed animal, then brusquely tries to shake off Rey’s stubborn dedication by, to use the proper term, being a dick.
Some criticized the film for leaning too heavily on the comedic aspects, but cranky jokester Luke is one of its finest achievements. This is exactly how a self-imposed recluse with a battered ego could act. He has most certainly talked to himself for long periods of time in the past, and he’s clearly held long, thoughtful conversations with porgs on more than one occasion. The loneliness makes you forget the pain, if only for a little while, and Hamill has the perfect timing to make this sad, futile jokes land. This is humour as a shield, albeit one riddled with holes.
Luke’s final scenes are pure satisfaction. Finally, the master has returned to his place and embraced his failure. Being told that failure is okay, and a necessary part of life often feels like the weak platitudes of a workplace training scheme, to be followed by ‘trust exercises’ and an encouragement circle. Nobody wants to cloak their failures in pseudo-positivity, especially if you’re like Luke and said failures have cost you everything. What makes Luke and Hamill’s climactic moment so intensely fulfilling is that failure’s scar is evident but it’s still healing. We see Luke being the sarcastic uncle to Ben/Kylo that he would have been if everything had worked out okay, and we see the sly genius of the master who would have trained him to greatness in another reality. That little mimic of dusting off his shoulder, the stuff that gif dreams are made of, isn’t just a brutal smack-down: It’s growth.
In a just world, Hamill would have received a slew of awards for his work in The Last Jedi, or at least the offer of more varied dramatic work in the future beyond voice work and T.V. guest spots. If this is the last that we’ll see of Luke Skywalker in the franchise, then I am at peace. What I never could have previously foresee as his story is now the only logical narrative I can imagine. It sucks to find out your heroes are human, but it’s in that brittle humanity where great stories thrive.
(Gif from Giphy.)