The Empire Strikes Back vs The Last Jedi
Continuing the comparison of Luke’s and Rey’s respective journeys, I should preface that I’m not a fan of the new trilogy (or any of the existing new movies). They’re endemic of today’s blockbuster: lots of action, and the protagonist is usually brilliant just because the story needs them to be. There’s no character development. There’s no relatability. There’s no journey.
People might point at other characters to suggest they can be the same, e.g. Superman is perfect. He’s not. In Superman (1978), Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) outsmarts him and puts a big kryptonite necklace on him. Does Superman (Christopher Reeve) just shrug it off? No. Miss Teschmacher (Valerie Perrine) has to save him. Lois dies because Superman can’t be in two places at once. In Superman II (1980), his pride sees him make a mistake and put the Earth at risk. Zod (Terrence Stamp), Ursa (Sarah Douglas), and Non (Jack O’Halloran) are too strong for him. Does he defeat them because he finds some previously untapped well of strength and ability? No – he has to outsmart them into losing their powers.
Nobody is born perfect. Nobody is born super-skilled. Even prodigies have to work at their skills. Even John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) had to be trained as a Green Beret. Even Superman had to learn to use his abilities.
Nowadays, too many characters are jacked-up video-game characters playing in God-mode.
The protagonist meets their mentor.
The reveal of Yoda (the voice of Frank Oz) as a Jedi Master is firstly a test of Luke’s (Mark Hamill’s) character (Luke fails, constantly exhibiting impulsiveness and impatience). Yoda expresses for us what we need to fear: Luke’s journey could see him succumb to the Dark Side of the Force. It’s wonderful foreshadowing and foreboding that there’s danger in Luke’s undertaking.
When Rey (Daisy Ridley) meets Luke, it’s not about preconceptions. It’s about subverting audience expectations. Everybody has patiently waited for Luke’s appearance, and it turns out he’s not the noble, heroic, thoughtful Jedi Master we expected. He’s turned into an embittered prick. This doesn’t matter to Rey. It’s not a lesson for her to learn. It’s aimed at us – but I’ll get back to this later.
The protagonist trains
Luke shows potential with the Force. He almost lifts his X-Wing out of the swamp (but gives up), he goes into the cave and fails because he brings in his aggression, and the vision of his friends suffering disrupts his meditation and causes him to drop Yoda, R2 (Kenny Baker), and the rocks he is levitating.
This shows us that using the Force isn’t an easy thing. You can’t just do it because you’re Force capable, or just because the Force is strong with you. You need to learn. You need to master the skills – as you would with any skill-set. Already, Luke is far more accomplished than he was in A New Hope, but he still has a long, long way to go. His failures show us he’s flawed. Is he too flawed to be our hero? Well, we’re taking that journey with him to find out.
In The Last Jedi (2017), Luke refuses to genuinely teach Rey. She practices with the lightsaber – this is the only real training we see her do. She later defeats Luke in armed combat. In the deleted scenes, she Force-runs at super-speed down a cliff. ‘You can’t mention deleted scenes!’ you might cry. ‘They’re deleted!’ I mention the deleted scenes because it shows the way (director) Rian Johnson envisioned Rey – superhuman, and yet with no explanation (just as in The Force Awakens ) as to how she keeps picking up these specific skills.
I did hear somebody suggest that Rey was able to download them from Kylo (Adam Driver) when he tried to probe her mind. Well, as Han Solo said, ‘That’s not how the Force works!’ We’re now eight movies into this saga, which is a bit late to be retconning how things operate (and particularly something as pivotal to this universe as the Force).
The protagonist confronts the antagonist.
Luke wants to leave Dagobah to rescue Han (Harrison Ford), Leia (Carrie Fisher), and the others. He has developed abilities – although not to Yoda’s satisfaction. He is still very much a work in progress. Yoda and Obi Wan (Alec Guiness) caution he’s not ready, that his training is incomplete, and that he is particularly vulnerable to temptation. Luke – true to his impulsive nature – goes anyway.
We probably all hoped Luke would surprise us and defeat Vader (David Prowse/James Earl Jones). That’s what you do: root for the hero, and particularly an underdog. But Darth Vader handles Luke with insulting ease, showing how far Luke still has to come – if he survives. He impresses Vader once, with a Force jump to avoid being frozen. When Luke strikes Vader, Vader is angered, stops toying with Luke, presses his assault and cuts off Luke’s hand. Now it’s not (just) about rooting for Luke to resist the Dark Side, but to escape alive.
When Rey leaves Ach-To, she has undergone zero development. Luke hasn’t taught her anything. She hasn’t developed her abilities. She hasn’t gotten wiser. If she’s developed in any way, it’s due to her bizarrely convenient expositional link with Kylo (but she hasn’t). It’s Luke who’s had to learn from her. People will revel in that as if it’s brilliant – the master learns from the apprentice.
But none of it makes sense because it’s Yoda who’s ultimately the catalyst for Luke’s change-of-mind. Rey didn’t bring Yoda. Yoda just comes of his own accord. Why didn’t he do that previously? You would’ve thought there would’ve been plenty of need. In A New Hope, we saw Obi Wan affected by the destruction of Alderaan. Why didn’t Yoda or Obi Wan come to Luke in The Force Awakens when the Starkiller base was destroying the entire New Republic? Or during any other key moment?
As for Rey, she has already defeated Kylo in The Force Awakens. While he was injured during that battle, she now beats him when he is at full health. It accomplishes nothing. It doesn’t change her, as Luke meeting Vader changed him. It doesn’t change Kylo. We just continue this same flat line.
The protagonist learns about their identity.
Darth Vader revealing himself as Luke’s father recontextualizes everything we’ve known to this point: why Yoda and Obi Wan were so concerned about Luke, why Luke is so Force capable, why the Emperor wants him so desperately, and why Luke is so important to the fight against the Empire – or, if he’s turned, why he’s so important to the Empire’s continuing tyranny. It’s not just random that he’s stumbled into this story. He was Yoda’s and Obi Wan’s hope. Lots of things now make sense, gain gravitas, and raise stakes.
Rey is revealed as being nobody. Now I acknowledge that they might change this in Episode IX (the hideously recently titled The Rise of Skywalker), although I’d argue the third movie is a little late to be paying off on these things. But as she is nobody, that just means that the Resistance has lucked out to an insane extreme that BB8 just happened to come into the possession of a Force-prodigy who comes ready-made with all these wonderful Force skills that it took other Jedis (and Sith) years to develop (as evidenced by not only Luke’s journey, but Anakin’s, and all the Jedi apprentices in the Prequels).
Some argue that the reveal she is nobody – not connected to any family – is cool. That’s fine. Anakin was once nobody. But again – and as mentioned before – in The Last Jedi it’s about surprising the audience. We’re two movies into this franchise speculating who she might be, only to be told, nope, she’s nobody. And we’re all, Okay – wow. That’s original.
But story beats should also be aimed at developing the character and furthering the story, just as Luke learning Darth Vader was his father did. That was a game-changer. Did Rey learning she’s nobody affect her, the other characters, or the story in any way? No. Does it really seem such a wow moment now then?
The protagonist has to deal with their failure.
The Empire Strikes Back ends on a melancholy, wistful note. Luke has to deal with all this new information, the loss of his hand, and the loss of his best friend. He’s down, but he’s not defeated. As he and Leia stare out the window at the departing Millennium Falcon, there’s still a sense of hope. They’ve regrouped. They’ll be back to fight the Empire. They’re still a chance.
In The Last Jedi, the Resistance has suffered catastrophic losses to their fleet and personnel. The handful of survivors regroup on the Millennium Falcon. Is there a sense of melancholy? Is there a sense of wistfulness? No, there’s a sense of attraction between Finn and Rose, and Rey and Poe – this is what the story decides to explore as its conclusion: romance. Oh, but wait, Rey took the Jedi books, which mean … well, given she’s expressing spontaneous Jedi skills and that Yoda himself declaimed the books, they mean nothing.
The Empire Strikes Back moves us and fills us with anticipation. Will Han Solo survive? What will happen when Luke goes back to complete his training? Will he face Darth Vader again? How will the Rebellion overthrow the Empire? Etc.
And The Rise of Skywalker? What will happen between Rey and Kylo? Well, I don’t really care at this point – they’ve faced one another twice. Where do you expect to take that relationship? Will Rey overthrow … well, who? Snoke has been killed, and she had a chance to stick a lightsaber in Kylo’s head and didn’t. Hux is too inept to be a threat. They’re bringing Emperor Palpatine back (but more on that next week). And will Rey and Poe’s romance blossom? Well, it’s hard to invest in something that’s only existed for three seconds.
So we have to go into a story with little planning and foreshadowing.
Oh, the joy.
Next Week: Star Wars: Return of the Jedi vs The Rise of Skywalker