[Needless to say, here be spoilers…]
In the light of recent Oscar nominations, I think it would be a good time to talk a little bit about The Last Jedi. Whilst it received four nominations for technical aspects, it didn’t get put forward for anything to do with performance, screenplay or narrative. Although I agree that there were perhaps some more deserving films on this front, such as the incredible Get Out and The Shape of the Water, I do think it’s a crying shame that one person, in particular, was not recognised for outstanding achievement. I’m talking about Mark Hamill.
Let’s take it back a few frames. The Last Jedi has been one of the most divisive Star Wars movies ever made. In fact, it may even be one of the most divisive movies of all time. Fans, critics and everyone inbetween seem to be conflicted, with criticism levelled at its disregard of the central mysteries established in The Force Awakens as well as its complicated plotlines, which subverted many audience expectations of hero narrative. There has been both praise and condemnation of its feminist messages (as there unfortunately always is), coupled with sheer outrage at the character decisions made about one of the most iconic Star Wars characters of all time: Luke Skywalker. Whilst there have already been several eloquent defences of this complex and culturally significant film, I want to add my own, but not as a film critic. I want to speak as someone who witnessed a deep, personal, emotional journey not just for the characters on screen, but for the actors behind them.
Hamill has been an idol of mine for many years. For me, Luke Skywalker was one of the best parts of the original Star Wars. Although I was always in love with the villains as a kid (and who really can boast being a bigger villain than Darth Vader?), Luke Skywalker was perhaps the most inspiring hero-figure I could have wished for. Whilst some fans found the roguish, anti-hero Han Solo more entertaining and down-to-earth (show me the damn money!), for me, it was always Hamill’s Luke that held the three films together. He portrayed and owned an incredible journey from naive farm-boy to self-sacrificial saviour, willing to endure the most terrifying torture imaginable rather than compromise his beliefs. Hamill brought a unique stamp to the role. While not all liked it, few could argue that it was something unique: iconoclastic heroism that still remembered its roots: “I’m Luke Skywalker, I’m here to rescue you”. Luke embodied the mythic archetype of the Nobody who becomes Somebody whilst always hitting the off-beat. A farmer’s boy raised on a shit-hole who one day, with the guidance of a teacher to unlock his potential, rose to become a hero and save the Galaxy. I guess I connected with that dream more than I ever realised at the time. I saw myself in this young, naive person who came from nothing, someone who dreamed they could become somebody heroic. As a kid, I arrogantly believed I had all the pre-requisites. I even loved milk.
Mark Hamill said on the Graham Norton Show, following the release of The Last Jedi in 2017: ‘Back then [when the original Star Wars was being filmed], I though that every movie I did would become a pop-culture phenomenon.’ People in the audience laughed, and so did he, but you can tell he isn’t joking. He was young, and had the arrogance of youth. I’d argue there was a certain arrogance in the Luke of the original trilogy too – even at the end in Return of the Jedi. Luke’s near-flippant defiance of the Emperor seems almost ridiculous when we consider both the cost in lives to the Rebellion his game represents, and the potential waste of his training from Yoda and Ben Kenobi as the last member of the Jedi order. Despite his belief that there is ‘still good’ in his father, it could be interpreted that his entire final stand is nothing more than impetuousness, a refusal to bow to anyone no matter the cost. Of course, many fans do not see it that way. Luke’s faith in the Jedi, and all they stood for, and his commitment to die for that cause just to prove the way of Light is the right path, was nothing short of a Messianic act.
We are asked to believe, in The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, that Luke has lost faith. His failure to create a new Jedi order, his loss of Ben Solo to the Dark Side, and his own inflated legend-status have worn him down – he no longer uses or connects to the Force. Many have complained about this direction, saying that this angle reverses the lessons Luke learned in the original trilogy, and makes the ending of Return of the Jedi redundant. Even Hamill argued against it and is purported to have disagreed with Rian Johnson about several elements (although subsequently he expressed his regret at voicing the concerns in public and said Rian Johnson’s vision was ‘a great one’.) Nothing to me could be more realistic to me than a legendary, rigorously righteous hero becoming cynical and misanthropic in later life. There’s a recent Nolan quote which you will all know too well that illustrates this point: ‘You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.’ Heroes are not meant to go home. This is one of the oldest archetypes in the book. Heroes love war, they come alive in chaos, and when it’s all over, they stagnate and rot, corrupt and lose themselves. Luke hasn’t lost himself as dearly as this. In many respects, his self-imposed exile to Ahch-To, and from use of the Force, is like a return to his boyhood on the desert planet Tatooine. He’s even back on the milk. But, he has forgone his identity as the Jedi Master Luke Skywalker. He is no longer a hero. He is no longer sought after and starring. He is cynical and carries the scars of the past. He will not even look at his old lightsaber, tossing it over his shoulder as though it’s a worthless trinket. The pain is still too near.
The thing about this plotting and character-decision that rings so true for me is that this is exactly what happened to Hamill. Once, he was the centre of attention, a super-star hero, one of the most well-known faces on Earth – bar China and a few other countries where Star Wars wasn’t aired until recently. He – from humble beginnings – had become a hero. Exactly like Luke Skywalker. From that point on, he expected, perhaps like Luke Skywalker did, that success would follow success, that his legacy would continue on. But it didn’t. He left the limelight, instead transitioning predominantly to voice-work (at which he was exemplary, it should be noted – his performance as The Joker stands against Nicholson and Ledger’s easily). He admits candidly he became disillusioned with Hollywood, with the industry, with everything. In other words, he became cynical.
I’d go so far to say that Hamill was fed up of being Luke Skywalker. Fed up of being called upon for endless conventions, to be goggled at by adoring fans who only saw him as a character and not a human being. Luke Skywalker had made him and broken him. Who can blame him for feeling angry? Anyone would be. You can feel this pain in Luke’s speech in The Last Jedi, where he extols the consequences – moral, spiritual, and emotional – of being a ‘legend’. He confesses his own arrogance to Rey, that he saw all the danger of what he was doing but couldn’t stop himself anyway. This speech is surely one of the greatest performances of 2017, a raw, fourth-wall breaking moment where Hamill finally gets to confess the truth of how he really feels and who he really is. Luke Skywalker is a lie, an accident, he is not really The Legend we believe. Hamill delivers a speech that de-constructs millennia of hero-worship in a way that makes it seem as though this issue has burned at the core of him his whole life. Only an actor of his caliber could carry such an awesome and important speech.
But that isn’t the end of the story. Whilst The Last Jedi de-constructs toxic masculinity with a deft hand, subverting our aggressive ‘kill those we hate’ narratives with beautiful pathos, it does not abandon the concept of heroism or heroic identity entirely as some have supposed. In fact, it lovingly, jubilantly affirms it. On the Graham Norton Show, Mark Hamill explained: ‘[Carrie Fisher] said to me: “I will always be Princess Leia, and you will always be Luke Skywalker. Get used to it!” She was always way ahead of me in these things’, and I think that’s a perfect encapsulation not only of his journey as an actor and a human being, from frustration and disappointment to a kind of acceptance of who he is and the community he will forever be a part of, but also a perfect encapsulation of what The Last Jedi is really about. Hamill displays an incredible gift for comedy, lighting up a room and satirising his flaws, and I think this demonstrates a move away from taking himself seriously to something truly humble and life-affirming. Luke tells Rey, when he is training her on Achc-To, that the Force ‘Does not belong to you’ – because it belongs to everything. To me, this mirrors the beautiful revelation that Luke Skywalker and Star Wars is for everyone. Mark Hamill has realised that just as Carrie Fisher said, whether he likes it or not, he will always be Luke, and Luke will always be for everyone. He is part of something bigger than himself. And he is the hero. It doesn’t matter how much time passes or what people say, he will always be Luke Skywalker. And it’s not such a bad thing.
At the nadir in The Last Jedi, when all hope seems lost, Luke returns to save the Resistance on Crait. He faces down an army, a cavalcade of AT-ATs, and the newly crowned Kylo-Ren, but he does it non-violently, projecting an illusionary image to the other side of the Galaxy in an incredible demonstration of Force-power we have never seen hitherto in the series. He buys the Resistance just enough time to escape while he distracts Kylo with the promise of a one-on-one duel. This is surely the epitome of Luke’s character. He would not violently kill the Emperor or Vader in Return of the Jedi; he had learned the lessons of violently confronting Vader in Empire Strikes Back. And in The Last Jedi, he does not kill Kylo Ren (though he was once tempted too – as he was with Vader – because he sensed the darkness in him growing). Instead, he chooses to rescue those he loves and once again use the Force for good. During his exchange with Kylo, he echoes his old role-model Ben Kenobi, telling Kylo that he will be with him forever should Kylo kill him. At the end, the exertion of projecting this illusion kills Luke, using up too much of his strength. He becomes one with the Force, but just before his death, sees twin-suns shining on the horizon, the twin-suns of Tatootine, a complete close of the cycle – returning to our very first image of Luke, that of the farm-boy beneath those suns.
It’s difficult for me to think of a more fitting farewell to the screen for this heroic icon of popular culture (although he may return as a Force-ghost the final trilogy instalment). He mirrors his master and role-model before him, dying the honourable death of a true ‘true’ Jedi; he returns to his point of origin symbolically completing the cycle of life and birth; he re-affirms his status as a hero and icon, and upholds the character-defining pacifist ideology that is his hallmark. His passing is at once grandiose, like the denouement of an ancient Greek mythological hero or Arthurian Knight, but with its own flavour of subtle humility that Mark Hamill effortlessly captures. When people talk about the arc of Luke Skywalker, they do so without acknowledging the man behind all that. Luke’s journey is as much Hamill’s as it is his. The two are intertwined. And that’s the whole point of The Last Jedi. Hamill is a hero: he is Luke and Luke is Hamill. His performance in The Last Jedi is the culmination of thirty years of learning and experience and growth. Let’s acknowledge the beauty of that, and be glad we lived to see it.