Joseph, you bring up some good points about character journeys and the story arc . However, the core of the original Star Wars trilogy is not really Luke Skywalker, but Darth Vader’s redemption, and the substance of those movies is based on Joseph Campbell’s groundbreaking work “Hero of a Thousand Faces.”
Luke Skywalker was the glitter that lassoed us into the story, but the real wisdom Luke learns in each movie comes from Obi Wan, Yoda, and finally Vader himself. Luke’s transformation is seen when he goes off by himself at the end of the Return of the Jedi and sees the ghostly apparition of his three great teachers. But his story arc is only completed in Episode 8.
Yoda’s death in The Empire Strikes Back is called back by the story line of the Last Jedi. Is it any wonder he highlights this movie with his scene with Luke? Because in this movie, it is Luke’s turn to pass on the force-endowed baton.
While I agree with the idea of Luke overcoming his own demons to sacrifice himself and save the day, I don’t feel it was done in a way that will inspire the new generation of fans.
It was more of a parlor show to gain time to help the rebels escape. There was far less substance in a hologram disappearing than the deaths of Obi Wan (saving the others and the plans to destroy the Death Star) or Darth Vader (protecting his son from Palpatine). I don’t think children across the universe would be as inspired by Luke’s projection faking out Kylo Ren versus one last Jedi light saber fight where he destroys the First Order’s overwhelming technological power by deflecting their laser blasts back at them, then finally ending with his mano a mano duel with Kylo Ren. (See Kevin Smith’s review. His thinking on how to make the sacrifice would be far more epic, and cover up some big plot holes: If he is merely an astral projection whereby Kylo Ren’s light saber goes through him with no physical signs of damage, how does Leia feel his kiss?)
Having said all that, I feel like the “Luke gets older and worse” narrative is quite limited, regardless of whether it was intended to further the plot. It shows more of a lack of depth by the writer, who did not work with a master like Kasdan on the script. The best Star Wars movie ever, The Empire Strikes Back, had input from two screenwriters, George Lucas and the director. The Last Jedi was directed and written by only one guy without the benefit of perspectives from people who would be Luke’s age.
There is a far deeper struggle that goes on as we age. Psychologist Erik Erikson made a huge breakthrough in the search to understand humans with his 8 stages of Psychosocial Development.
The key part of Luke’s life, which we don’t see between Return of the Jedi and The Last Jedi is a stage called “Generativity vs. Stagnation” and described as:
When people reach their 40s, they enter the time known as middle adulthood, which extends to the mid-60s. The social task of middle adulthood is generativity vs. stagnation. Generativity involves finding your life’s work and contributing to the development of others through activities such as volunteering, mentoring, and raising children. During this stage, middle-aged adults begin contributing to the next generation, often through childbirth and caring for others; they also engage in meaningful and productive work which contributes positively to society. Those who do not master this task may experience stagnation and feel as though they are not leaving a mark on the world in a meaningful way; they may have little connection with others and little interest in productivity and self-improvement.
The fact that Johnson has had no experience raising children severely limits his view on Luke’s actions during the period when Kylo Ren was at the Jedi school. No parent would attempt to kill their child in his sleep. Luke’s decision, regardless of how it was staged, was a huge and unnecessary break with everything we know about Luke and everything a loving parent would do. Kylo Ren could have just as easily destroyed the academy and left Luke heartbroken, without those soap opera reenactments by Kylo and Luke.
So, assuming Luke was heartbroken by his failure to save the academy, his last great opportunity for redemption should have come in the training of Rey. Instead, it was treated with disdain and left that huge plot hole of how Rey without any training is better than Kylo Ren in the first movie, and able to move not just an X-wing, but an entire avalanche to save the day. (Note: His rejection of the Jedi ways was a nice opportunity for a great scene with Yoda burning the ancient books, but it was one of those false directions that writers try to force into movies to surprise the audience at the end. News Flash: we know that Luke is far from being the last Jedi, as Rey is now super powerful and little kids across the galaxy will be waving their brooms imagining they are light sabers. Also, didn’t anyone notice those books in a drawer on the Millennium Falcon or was I hallucinating?)
Finally, in an era of gender equality, it’s great to have a female lead, but making her more gifted than Luke at a similar stage is a slap in the face to the entire concept of the force and Jedi training.
Everyone’s got to pay their dues.
Finally, we have to look at Luke at the moment he meets Rey. His is an old man and in the final psycho social stage called “Integrity vs Despair” which is described as:
From the mid-60s to the end of life, we are in the period of development known as late adulthood. Erikson’s task at this stage is called integrity vs. despair. He said that people in late adulthood reflect on their lives and feel either a sense of satisfaction or a sense of failure. People who feel proud of their accomplishments feel a sense of integrity, and they can look back on their lives with few regrets. However, people who are not successful at this stage may feel as if their life has been wasted. They focus on what “would have,” “should have,” and “could have” been. They face the end of their lives with feelings of bitterness, depression, and despair.
My dad is a perfect example of how people at this stage find redemption and satisfaction in the present. While he and I had a life’s worth of struggles that he regretted, when he became a grandfather, he was given a second chance at the age of 68. He took care of our kids almost every time my wife and I were away at work. He opened up emotionally in ways he never could with me, and I am forever grateful he had that opportunity, both for his sake and for the sake of my kids.
So even if Luke was in a state of despair, the inspiration of training and then saving Rey should have been the last great motivating force in his life. Using that principle, I’m sure it would have been just as possible to work in some comic moments (the feather used in the training scene was fantastic) as well as dramatic ones (maybe we learn that his heartbreak caused him to lose his abilities to use the force, and he struggles to overcome those emotions to regain his power in order to train Rey, giving us a bookend scene to The Empire Strikes Back, where he finally raises his old X-Wing out of the water.)