I’ve been critical of the Star Wars Sequel Trilogy (Episodes 7–9) for a while now, and trust me when I say I wish I didn’t have to be. I wanted to love these Sequels; I was excited for them like I’ve never been excited for a movie before in my life. I loved Force Awakens, even if it was a sub-par unofficial remake of A New Hope. But The Last Jedi killed the Sequels, and I can actually pinpoint the scene that killed the Sequel Trilogy: Luke Skywalker tossing away his father’s lightsaber.
First, a summary of the scene. Rey of Jakku (the main hero of the Sequels) approaches Luke Skywalker with this fifty year old lightsaber in her hand, intent on returning it to him. Luke takes this weapon, the weapon his own father used during the Clone Wars, with the scene focusing on his artificial hand, reminding audiences of the last time Luke held this lightsaber. The camera then focuses on Luke’s upper body, his face clearly annoyed, with the music no longer playing. Luke then TOSSES THIS OLD LIGHTSABER OVER HIS SHOULDER WITHOUT A THOUGHT and walks past Rey without uttering so much as a single word. Cue audience laughter.
This scene is awful for a wide variety of reasons, but there’s around threethat explain why THIS scene killed the Sequel Trilogy. Why don’t we start with the first? But to do that, we need to go back to Episode 7, The Force Awakens.
The Force Awakens ends with the encounter between Rey and Luke. Rey arrives on this awe inspiring world called Ach-To, a world of rocky islands surrounded by a near endless ocean. She lands the Millenium Falcon on one of the bigger islands and climbs these rocky steps upward. The music starts swelling up as she approaches this hooded figure turned away from her. There’s this palpable sense of awe and wonder as the figure slowly turns around, revealing the man of the hour: Luke Skywalker. He takes down his hood, staring in shock at the girl in front of him.The Theme of the Force, the most iconic piece of music from the franchise, starts playing. She slowly takes out the lightsaber and holds it out for him, her hand shaking somewhat. He has this indescribable look of doubt on his minds; who knows what he’s thinking? Rey’s face goes from pleading to more confident as she holds out the lightsaber for Luke to take. The Force theme swells up triumphantly as the camera pans out, rotating between Rey and Luke, two heroes from two eras. End scene, end movie.
There’s so many emotions in this scene: the joy of seeing Luke again after thirty long years, the mystery of why he’s alone on this island, and the suspense of what he’ll do about Rey. Will he train her? Will he pass down the teachings of the Jedi? We had to wait two damn years before we could get our answer.
WE WAITED TWO DAMN YEARS JUST TO WATCH LUKE TOSS HIS FATHER’S LIGHTSABER AWAY LIKE IT WAS NOTHING!
This brings us to the first reason why this scene killed the Sequels: the scene created a dissonance between Force Awakens and Last Jedi. Forgetting the production errors between both scenes (the weather, for one. In Force Awakens, the weather is cloudy, yet in Last Jedi it’s sunny), the dissonance is between the emotions both scenes inspire.
If you watch both scenes back to back, you’ll notice this dissonance. The scene in Force Awakens is full of awe and wonder, inviting the viewer to imagine what happens next. Then comes The Last Jedi, and suddenly this awe and wonder is completely undone for a gag. It’s like “oh yeah, this is a big moment, it’s one of those moments where… whoop! Never mind, you laugh now! It’s comedy!”
This is known as Bathos: where a dramatic scene is interrupted for a joke. It is the very essence of anticlimax, and if done poorly, can ruin what would otherwise have been a movie defining moment. The key phrase here is “if done poorly;” done well, and you’ll have made a good scene better and more memorable. Some comedy movies, like Guardians of the Galaxy, derive their comedy from Bathos.
The problem is what kind of scene you’re interrupting with Bathos; not all scenes carry the same emotions, after all. And in this case, Bathos was most certainly not needed. This was supposed to be a quiet scene, a moment for two characters to interact with one another. Further, this was SUPPOSED to be a pivotal scene to help establish the link between the past (Luke) and the present (Rey) of Star Wars. And it was all ruined for a JOKE.
Many of my fellow fans have proposed hundreds of ways to redo this scene, but my favorite has to be Ivan Ortega’s version. In his edit, Luke Skywalker merely whispers “this is no longer my weapon; it calls to you now” then he quietly and meekly returns the lightsaber to Rey. A short, subtle passing of the torch that actually keeps the spirit of the ending of TFA intact (Luke’s crestfallen, doubtful face as he gazes on his father’s lightsaber.)
In any case, the scene at least demonstrates Rian Johnson’s intentions with the character: to show Luke as a jaded, bitter old man. Therein lays the second problem with the scene: it sets up a Luke that is completely alien to every conception of the character held for over forty years.
That is not to say that Rian Johnson had an obligation to keep Luke as that same bright eyed, positive Jedi Knight from Return of the Jedi; it is only natural, after all, for a person to completely change in thirty years. In fact, it’d be sad for Luke to remain the same person he was at 50 that he was at 20, just as it would be for literally anyone else. The problem isn’t having Luke be jaded and bitter; the problem is that such a change needs to be justified. And truth be told, the movie does NOT justify this change in a satisfactory way.
The Luke in The Last Jedi is pretty much the antithesis of who he was in Return of the Jedi: not only is he bitter and idle, but he’s disconnected himself from EVERYONE who ever cared about him. This is no longer the man who risked his life for the chance to redeem his father, nor is he the man who dropped everything for the sake of saving his friends from impending doom; this is a man who’s holed himself up on the most remote corner of the Galaxy to die a meaningless, anonymous death.
A Luke Skywalker who’s become his own antithesis is not as unbelievable as some would have you believe; trauma can change a person, after all. But this trauma has to AT LEAST be hinted at so that we can get some idea of what broke this wonderful person, this hero to untold millions. With this scene, the movie put on itself the obligation to dedicate parts of its plot (convoluted as it already was) to explain how Luke became this… less than ideal character. Therein lays the fundamental problem with this scene: there was no explanation possible that could satisfy the audience without placing all sympathy on Luke, a character which this movie does NOT want us sympathizing with.
The movie goes on to explain both what happened to Luke, as well as how Kylo Ren fell to the Dark Side; to make a long story short, Luke sensed darkness in Ben Solo, drew his lightsaber on his sleeping nephew for a quick second without thinking, and then Ben saw his uncle holding a lightsaber over him and simply defended himself. Then Ben Solo went on to slaughter the rest of Luke’s apprentices, but that’s glossed over AT BEST. The point is, Luke’s responsible for Kylo Ren’s fall. Because of that, Luke exiled himself to Ach-To to die.
In his twenties, Luke had a problem with his impulses. He abandoned his training to try and save his friends from a trap laid by the Empire, IN SPITE of Yoda’s pleas to stay and trust that his friends would be fine. In Return of the Jedi, he impulsively attacked Vader after the latter made it clear he would be going after Leia and turning her to the Dark Side of the Force once he’s done with Luke. It is not entirely out of character for Luke to act on instinct, and for such actions to bring consequences. Just a problem: this shows that Luke learned NOTHING from his mistakes.
“But that just ties to the themes of Last Jedi!” I hear the defenders of the movie cry out. And they’re right, it does tie to the fully artificial theme of learning from failure; unfortunately, it also demonstrates how clueless the movie is about not just its themes, but of the history of its own franchise.
Luke had ALREADY experienced a failure in his life: his duel against Vader in Bespin. His impulsiveness led him to a fight he had no shot at winning, and all he accomplished was losing his hand. But come Return of the Jedi and we see that Luke LEARNED: he’s more cool headed now, more empathetic, willing to give his opponents plenty of chances to surrender and enter dialogue.
So why would THAT Luke Skywalker just give up on himself because of one mistake? Why would that Luke Skywalker not try to dedicate the rest of his life to amending his mistake, to atone for what he had done? The answer to that question will not be easy to hear.
The third reason why this scene killed the Sequels is thus: it cements the cynical and nihilistic tone of the trilogy towards the franchise’s past.
The Original Trilogy was, at its core, hopeful. It was the story of a young man who learned he had a special heritage, was then thrust into a war he at first had no personal stake in, but then grew to become a hero. It’s the classic Hero’s Journey, point for point. It’s what gave the Original Trilogy part of its charm.
Actually, if I may, I’d like to add a parenthesis to help make a point. There is one scene in the original Star Wars that helped sell the franchise and set it apart as something more than just a flashy movie; coincidentally, this scene also has Luke in it. You know the scene I’m talking about.
This scene may well be the most emotionally poignant scene in cinematic history; at the very least, it is for Star Wars in its entirety. In fact this is my second favorite scene in the franchise. Everything about it resonates to this eternal conflict within us; the desire for more. It’s the desire to leave our tiny little towns and see what’s out there in the world, to leave our nine to fives in order to snatch that fame we’ve wanted forever, or to do something that will change the world. But this desire is shackled by the quiet resignation that it’s just not happening. Maybe you won’t be leaving Anytown USA for Los Angeles or New York or whatever. Maybe you won’t be the next Leo DiCaprio or Jennifer Lawrence or whatever. Maybe you’re only meant to be a nobody. You’re stuck where you are, so learn to like it and maybe you’ll be happy.
And the rest of A New Hope is Luke being thrust out of this small, quiet life and onto the adventure of a lifetime. He goes from being the no-name whiny farmboy from the desert to the hero of the Galaxy and the Rebellion. The rest of the Original Trilogy is all about him maturing as a person, learning to control his powers and using them for good. The Luke from A New Hope would have been trounced by Vader; the Luke in Return of the Jedi threw his weapon away as a demonstration of how he’s NOT a killer.
The OT was a timeless story, but it’s easy to forget it was also timely. The late 70’s were a bitter, cynical time: the US President was shown to be corrupt as all hell, the US lost the Vietnam War for all intents and purposes, and everything seemed so pointless. Cities like New York were cesspools of crime and corruption, long having lost their cosmopolitan charm. It was a time where “heroes” were cowboy cops who were unafraid to kill and bend the rules to suit their needs. Star Wars (both the original movie and the OT) was a direct defiance to that zeitgeist because it dared to remind audiences that hope exists.
The OT promised and reminded movie goers that darkness and evil can (and will) be defeated. That the young have a place in the world, that they can take charge and help bring forth the change needed to create a better, fairer world.
The Sequel Trilogy took that message and sullied it, because nothing that happened in the OT mattered anymore. The sacrifices of Anakin and Luke Skywalker no longer mattered; the entire Galactic Civil War didn’t matter. The Empire was back and stronger than before, the New Republic kept its head in the sand instead of doing anything, and the last Jedi (who was once the New Hope for the Galaxy) has hidden himself away to die a pointless death. The Sequels don’t touch on this, but the new Expanded Universe makes it amply clear that the sacrifices of the Rebellion ultimately led to a New Republic that was as corrupt as the old one, but twice as inept.
And Luke Skywalker, the hero of the Galaxy, has given up. He didn’t even try to help, and when offered the chance to do SOMETHING, he merely huffed and wordlessly told the new generation to get fucked.
This ultimately turns the Sequels into a story of the New Generation fixing the mistakes of the old. Now that’s not a bad storyline per se, but it comes at the cost of nullifying and destroying a story that, for three decades, had been inspiring people to become better versions of themselves. When you stop and think about it, each of the OT’s heroes gets humiliated in order to bring up the New Heroes, especially Rey. Han Solo becomes a deadbeat father so as to give Kylo Ren an excuse to become a school shooter, and then he dies so Rey can have the Millenium Falcon. Leia gets incapacitated and falls to a coma just so Poe can have a conflict that makes him a better leader. And Luke? He gets turned into the biggest loser in the Galaxy just so Rey can seem better by comparison. The man didn’t even TRAIN her and already by movie’s end she was stronger and better than he had ever been.
You know what the problem is with the Sequels? When you get down to it and read it from a subtextual point of view, you not only see a garbled mess, you see a story that’s completely disconnected from what came before. Episodes 1, 2, and 3 were about how Liberty dies and gives rise to Fascism; how the populace can easily be manipulated through fear to give up their freedoms and applaud the rise of tyranny if the tyrants can guarantee safety. Episodes 4, 5, and 6 are all about how tyranny can be defeated if we’re willing to sacrifice for it, to dirty our hands for a cause greater than ourselves. If the Prequels are a cautionary tale on the dangers of how easily Fascism can rise, the Original Trilogy is the fable that teaches us that Fascism and darkness CAN and WILL be defeated; that we don’t surrender to the darkness, but rather, that we fight it. But Episodes 7 and 8 are about how evil rises anyway, that fighting Fascism is pointless because it’ll just keep coming back, and the achievements of the past generation amount to a mosquito’s turd.
So what’s the point? What’s the point in re-watching the Original Trilogy if everything that happens in those movies is going to be undone in the most soul crushing way? What does anyone gain from watching Luke go from being the Hero of the Galaxy, to a bitter old man who won’t even lift a finger for his own goddamn sister? Watching your hero in their prime just makes their eventual fall all the more bitter; I can’t even watch the grand finale of Return of the Jedi without thinking “most of these guys are gonna die miserable failures.”
Nothing. Matters. That’s the message of the Sequels, and that was the core message of Luke tossing his father’s lightsaber over the shoulder like nothing. It didn’t have to be like this, but it is how it went. So thanks, Disney. Thanks, Kathleen Kennedy. Thanks, Rian Johnson. Thank you all for destroying one of my heroes growing up and letting me know the Saga that has inspired me and countless others was, ultimately, a pointless affair.
But if I may end on a hopeful note: I’ve not lost my love for Star Wars. Quite the opposite, really; my anger at The Last Jedi and the Sequels as a whole has reignited in me a passion I once thought long passed. The awful cynicism and nihilism of the Sequels has made me realize just how much the Original Trilogy has helped to shape who I am today; how these movies sparked my imagination and in their own way paved my path to become a writer. In the end, re-watching the Prequels and the Originals made me realize what a breathtaking Saga George Lucas created, and it also inspired me to make my own story, which I hope will one day be successful.
At the end of the day, we’re ALL Luke Skywalker. What made Luke such an enduring character was his personality: his bright-eyed idealism, his unwavering faith in his friends, and his uncompromising morals. At age 19 and with barely a few days of Jedi training, with no personal stake on the matter, Luke Skywalker hopped on an X-Wing to help the Rebellion destroy the Death Star. Four years later, Luke faced the Emperor of the Galaxy not with the intent to kill him, but with the intent of helping his father go back to the Light. Luke wasn’t awesome because he had a laser sword and could move rocks with his minds; he was awesome because at the end of the day, he was optimism made flesh. We ALL want to be Luke, to be that guy/girl/whatever who can face down evil and come out stronger than ever. We all want to be the person who’ll stand tall in the face of evil and affirm our commitment to good. That’s the REAL Luke Skywalker, and he’d never toss a lightsaber over his shoulder if someone came asking for his help. And we all hope that neither would we.