WARNING: Heavy spoilers for The Last Jedi and Looper to come.
The ogre you might be
At one point in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, the audience is subjected to what some feel is a betrayal of the character Luke Skywalker, Jedi Knight, destroyer of the Death Star (twice), and hero of the Rebellion. During a flashback sequence, in the dead of the night, a seasoned Master Luke can be glimpsed, a flash of anger in his eyes, about to murder a young Ben Solo who has no choice but to use his own lightsaber against his master. Luke looks like a monster. A lightsaber-wielding ogre. This is Ben’s recollection of the moment, and the audience just doesn’t know what to think. After all, since the beginning of the movie, everything shown leads us to believe Luke is nothing but the shadow of his former self: he threw his lightsaber out, he refused to help Rey, he told her that everything she heard was inflated by legends, (and he’s milking that weird Cow-giraffe that looks at you funny when he does that). Everything is upside down, so it’s possible Luke might have attempted to kill his own nephew?
Rian Johnson has never been one to bow down to canon and established legends. His reinvention of the sci-fi film-noir, Looper, was already a prefiguration of what was to become of some key characters in The Last Jedi. In time-bending Looper, Bruce Willis delivers one of his best performances in decades, completely against what you’re accustomed to seeing him do. I grew up watching some of his action movies, killing bad guys, saving the day. (Official Christmas movie for many geeks out there, Die Hard comes to mind of course.) In Looper, Bruce Willis is an ogre who kills children.
I am in awe of what Director Rian Johnson has him do. It is heartbreaking.
Joe believes that some kid in the past is about to become the mob boss Rainmaker, the man responsible for the death of his wife. He goes back in time before it ever happens. Convinced that the future will repeat itself again and again, Joe decides to kill three young children, because one of them might become the Rainmaker. The scene where Bruce Willis kills the first kid is brutal. It’s a tough watch. And, even though some clever editing helps you figure it out rather than show you the outcome, it’s clear: Bruce Willis, hero of your teenage years, just killed a child in a sci-fi movie. It’s clear that Rian Johnson knows what he’s doing; he’s channeling your care and identification for Bruce Willis.
The Last Jedi knows who you think Luke Skywalker is, and plays against this expectation in a way that feels true to the character. Johnson takes Bruce Willis and Luke where he believes most powerful guys are taken, once they experience doubt, compromise, and the understanding that the next generation will ultimately better them and erase them. What really takes people by surprise is the fact that, in a pulpy sci-fi world, Johnson is ready to tackle a truth that lies at the core of male frailty: old, powerful men, who once thought themselves good, stumble and become the ogres they once fought. The reason Ben is swayed by the dark side is that Luke, in doubting Ben, even for a second, is tempted to kill him. Once a member of your family falls, you might fall with them. This is the danger of family members tearing each other down.
The child you once were
There’s no way around it: Bruce Willis’ Joe and The Last Jedi’s Luke, at some point, are would-be child-killers. Though you know them as the young, scrappy and driven hot heads they once were, if threatened by a stronger youngling they fear is dangerous, they may kill him. This is part of one of Johnson’s deeper understanding of the estranged father’s condition, the one that towers over you; who scares you as much as he is scared himself by your incarnation of his mortality. This fear ultimately blinds you to the person you once were, and make you act purely selfishly, against your child’s best interest.
What surprised most of the audience was that Johnson is taking the figure of the young hero male far enough that they may encounter their young selves and let fear and hate consume them.
Many people feel that The Last Jedi hits you hard and then builds you anew. I felt the same way with Looper. That’s because Luke and Joe carry within them the same ability to be a monster and a hero. When Joseph Gordon Levitt’s timeline differs from Bruce Willis’ there is a possibility for redemption, because he finally looks at himself and sees the monster he could be, and the good guy he could ultimately become, through his relationship with others.
Luke’s problem at the beginning of The Last Jedi is that he looks at Rey and fails to understand that she is also like young Ben or his own young self, filled with hope, wonderment, lust for discovery, power, and a will to do good that needs to be nurtured. When Luke speaks of this raw power he perceives in Rey and that he saw once before, he remembers Ben, but he forgets himself. He forgets that he went down that path, and came back a better person. He forgets his training, and risks losing Rey.
Johnson takes you inside the cavern for most of the film and reveals that your shadow is made of darkness, but that your reflection is the bouncing back of light. During most of the movie, Luke is his own shadow, until he confronts himself and literally builds a better version of himself for the climax.
That’s part of the intrinsic falsely iconoclastic quality of both movies: Johnson loves Sci-fi, and he loves Star Wars. He loves them so much, that he’s ready to push their respective heroes to the limit of their egotistical motivations to sublimate them. Luke and Joe aren’t inherently good because it’s who they are. Luke and Joe must live up to the image that people—children—have of them in order to embrace it and incarnate it. They must understand their mistakes as part of themselves, and part of their potential to do good.
In both The Last Jedi and Looper, the reminder of your inner light is often carried through the youth you once were, and the kids that you’re fostering. Rey is helping Luke understand who Ben can be and who Luke can be again. Emily Blunt’s Sara and her son help Joe become the better version of himself and end the madness of his own sense of preservation.
Sara herself suffers because of the belief that she’s not enough of a mother for her psychic son. Her alienation is so rough that her son believes she’s not her real mother. Rey lives through a similar path. At some point, she believes she failed Luke, and that she must live up to his potential. Both Sara and Rey become role models for Luke and Joe once they embrace their inner strengths and their sense of self-sacrifice. That’s what it takes to be a parent to The Rainmaker or a surrogate mother to Ben Solo. That’s what both characters teach to Luke and Joe. This is why force projection plays such a key role in The Last Jedi. Once your kid believes that even a shred of the projected image of well-meaning protector is true, you better live up to it yourself. This is the beauty of family members raising each other up.
The parent you must become
Death for Joe and Luke is inevitable, but it’s with the understanding that the torch must be passed on; that both egoistical individuals finally embrace fatherhood, and ultimately, some form of immortality. I can’t tell you how satisfying I found it when Sarah told Cid (little Rainmaker) that everything was going to be alright, and when Luke kissed Leia on the forehead (and winked at C3PO). Tears might have dropped by the gallon. This felt like the encapsulation of Luke and Sara’s potential. The reminder that Luke’s character is someone who looks at you and can tell you:
“There’s good in you. I know that, because I doubted myself as well.”
Luke and Joe end their journey the same way. In understanding their past-and future mistakes, they embrace who they once were, and pass on the sword to the next generation: Joe sacrifices himself to save the kid from becoming a monster while Luke sacrifices himself to help save the resistance. When Luke remembers the ray of light in him he remembers the good in Ben and in himself.
Joe closes his loop. Luke goes back to the Force.
Both look at their surrogate sons, and both come to understand the only thing to do is to finally fade away.