Okay, the movie’s still fresh, and I’m still aggressively avoiding spoilers — so much so, that I’m even abbreviating down the full title of this blog post. Maybe a long time ahead in an internet close, close at hand, I’ll edit it back into full words. But for now, suffice to say that if you read ahead, know that I’ll be discussing plot content including SIGNIFICANT spoiler content from the film. You have been warned!
Still reading? This post’s full title is “Star Wars VIII: Luke the Baptist.”
I think there’s a (rough) comparison to make here. Some of it is almost wholly artificial: John the Baptist lives in the desert and eats locusts and wild honey. Luke lives on a deserted planet and eats local fish and blue milk from some sort of sea cow. Both men are out of favor with the Empires of their day, seen as troublesome figures encouraging religion in the common folk.
Other parts are deeper, though. Perhaps the greatest spiritual strength of John the Baptist was his awareness that he himself was not the Messiah. He understood that he needed one yet to come.
Half of this understanding has settled in to Luke Skywalker by The Last Jedi: Luke (in scenes revealed as backstory information, drawn slowly out of Luke himself as Rey insists on answers) has been wracked by the realization that he is a failed master, and not a legendary hero. He is not the Force’s Messiah.
This, incidentally, seems to be one of the greatest complaints of fans: that their childhood hero is behaving less, well, heroically.
I think time will tell on this, though, because in releasing the heroism of Luke, the film re-embraces his humanity. We see once more the farm boy who dreamed of making a difference, whose hope was slapped hard by a galaxy that contains true brokenness. This Luke’s heart took a blow from that, and so he found a place to fade out of the galaxy — a sky with twin suns like his native Tatooine, but over seas full of more water than his moisture-farming Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru would have ever seen in their lifetimes. The suddenly-godlike cloaked Jedi Master from those early scenes in Jabba’s realm in Return of the Jedi is gone.
And we get to watch him come to understand the second half of the spiritual wisdom that he is not the Messiah, and it is an incredible lesson.
A standout — and delightfully surprising — scene helps convey this … and involves, of all things, the return of a Jedi. When Luke tries to burn down the past (it is to be noted that burning down all the past is how Kylo Ren embraces the Dark Side in this film), Master Yoda returns. When Luke dares Yoda to try to stop him, Yoda instead reaches into creation from whatever beyond Force-Ghosts live in and ignites the ancient Jedi tree with a lightning bolt. (Patrick Swayze eat your heart out.) Incidentally, this is a return to the chuckling maniac muppet we loved in Return of the Jedi, both in medium and in character. Gone is the fretful CGI war-commander of the prequel trilogy and the Clone Wars animated series; this Yoda is full of lightness and joy — things we understood intuitively in the originals to be the true fruits of a deep relationship with the Light Side of the Force (rather than, say, the sexual renunciation and eschewing of relational love in the prequels).
Luke is able to become the student again. And Yoda, understanding that Luke has lived too long with the pressure of being The Last Jedi, trying to make the square pegs of the past fit in the round holes of a strange present, releases him from that responsibility: Luke need not guard everything. He doesn’t have to be the savior. There’s a wonderful line to the effect of “Young Rey already has with her more wisdom than there is in that tree.” (This could be a paraphrase of words Luke never utters to Rey: “I need to be baptized by you, and yet you come to me?”).
I’ll have to parse the exact line once the script is more readily available, but there’s an ironic tease here as well: Luke doesn’t know that Rey has stolen (or claimed as a rightful inheritance) the ancient books — Rey does have some intuitive, intrinsic wisdom … but Yoda also acknowledges that the books have some as well (again, I’ll have to look up exact quotes later).
To the extent that Rey is being set up as a messianic figure — whether it’s the great Liberator of the Rebellion’s hopes, or (finally) the one who will bring balance to the Force per the prophecy of the prequels (which would be both a lovely irony to layer over all the frenetically earnest hand-wringing of Episodes I and II about young Anakin Skywalker, and surely a terribly controversial choice for lovers of Darth Vader’s position as apex-villain for the franchise — Luke’s scene with Yoda in The Last Jedi allows him to shift more fully into that John-the-Baptist wisdom: he, Luke, is not the Messiah.
And that knowledge lets Luke step into the fullness of the role by which he carries the film’s powerful conclusion: Luke Skywalker, Prophet of the Force.
The prophets of Abrahamic traditions speak truth to power. They accept risk and consequences because truth is more important. And when Luke steps into final battle, it is truth that he wields, both as the foundation he stands on and as his weapon. The foundation is his ability to accept responsibility for his actions and declare them plainly, laying bare his shame before no less than the combined might of the First Order attack force: “I have failed you.” The weapon is his statement, “Every word of what you’ve just said is a lie.”
There is an irony here, of course: Luke himself is something of a lie — he isn’t really there. But Yoda’s lightning bolt has already told audiences, “You don’t know all of what the Force makes possible.” And here Luke shows us more.
There are clues for the wise, and especially in retrospect. Luke’s impossible survival of hellish cannon fire. Luke’s refusal to cross blades with Kylo, instead dodging every swing. And, of course, the Lightsaber: Luke wields a weapon we just watched explode: the blue Jedi’s blade on the hilt wielded by Anakin Skywalker, then Luke Skywalker, before it was lost in Cloud City in The Empire Strikes Back, to be found a generation later in The Force Awakens. But the film keeps its pacing just fast enough, and wraps us in enough hope that Luke has arrived to save the day, that we are pulled along, wanting to believe, which allows the reveal to astonish and delight us like the magician’s trick it is.
It also means that Luke’s final action is that of John the Baptist: The voice of one crying out in the wilderness, make straight a highway for the Lord. Not only does Luke’s voice create (through stalling) time for the last spark of the resistance to find a “highway” to safety (thereby fulfilling the salvation explained by Rose to Finn in a parallel scene: “That’s how we’ll win: not by destroying what we hate, but by saving what we love!”), but he is, of course, still in the wilderness of his secluded planet.
But perhaps the most fun moment for the comparison is when Kylo Ren sneers at Luke, asking “Have you come to turn me back to the Light?” This moment allows Mark Hamill to make full use of a decades-long career in voice acting. He pours more sound and power into a single word than many actors seem to do in a career in film: “No.”
That “No” includes an acceptance that he, Luke, will not be the one who saves the galaxy — not in its largest scale, and not in the angry young man before him: Ben Solo, Kylo Ren. Luke has arrived at the spiritual wisdom that he is not the Messiah. Some fans who always thought he was are outraged … which might well be extra strength for the comparison, although the stark scriptures around John’s ministry never mention that particular reaction. Some of us are thrilled.
There’s a pretty incredible deeper complexity at play in that last stand-off as well. Luke takes on the appearance of heroism — he shall be the lone figure facing down massed evil on the horizon line.
In a way, this is Luke’s ultimate self-sacrifice: this man has finally released his need to be a hero, and has learned what Yoda once tried to teach him: “Adventure! Excitement! A Jedi craves not these things.” Yet Luke’s final act must be to play the part that is expected.
Kylo Ren swallows the bait. Poe Dameron wrestles with the pageantry, in a sequence of somewhat-forced anguish (we’ve got the emotional force and intensity of Richard Dreyfuss shouting “This means something! This is important!” in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, here), finally arriving at the more-mature leadership awareness that a leader’s job here (as all the women have been making time to teach him) is not to watch the cowboys, but rather to save the people. And Luke allows himself to be used as what he has realized he is not — as potent a sacrifice at the end of this film as it was at the end of The Dark Knight, because we know, after all, that heroes can die … but when they allow their reputations to, that’s really something.
And so, as the stories of Luke Skywalker, Jedi Knight — true, from a certain point of view — begin to echo throughout the galaxy, we can watch Luke come to his rest in peace, executed by the effort it took to project his image across space. And the twin suns set over the sea for a man who dreamed of adventures in a desert, and found them, only to realize that the most challenging battle he would wage was for peace in his own heart. At the end, like Kenobi, he can release this life and enter the next.
You could call it a Passion and crucifixion, complete with scoffing and mockery. You could call the conclusion an Ascension. But I see in Luke’s journey a release from the pretense at godhood … and because of that he can help make known the light that IS coming into his world.