This review contains spoilers.
In 1997, when I was eight years old, my father took me and my sisters to see the first three Star Wars movies, which were being rolled out in U.S. theaters in January, February, and March of that year to mark the franchise’s 20th anniversary. After each viewing, he would take us out for milk shakes and question us about the film’s themes. “What does the Force mean to you?” he’d ask. “What is the difference between the dark side and the light?”
My father was 18 for the premiere of the first film, 21 for the second, and 24 for the third. Looking back now, I see that he was guiding us through a sacred passage, full of lessons for young Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) that he had absorbed when he was the same age as the character and now hoped to pass on to us. And yet, as a young girl, I was jealous that Luke, and not his twin sister, Leia (Carrie Fisher), got to tap into the Force, train as a Jedi, and destroy Darth Vader, leader of the evil Galactic Empire.
Now that I’ve been a mentor as well as a student, Star Wars: The Last Jedi—the eighth episode in the nine-film saga—resonates with me on both ends of the spectrum. With the previous installment, The Force Awakens (2015), I thrilled to Daisy Ridley’s portrayal of Rey, a rebel sensitive to the Force who speaks to a new generation of young women as Luke spoke to earlier generations of young men. But what’s most interesting to me about The Last Jedi is Luke’s return as the mentor rather than the student, grappling with his failure in this new role, and later aspiring to be the wise and patient teacher that the Jedi masters Yoda and Obi-Wan Kenobi were for him.
As the film begins, Rey is disappointed to find that Master Luke Skywalker, the purported “last Jedi” in the galaxy, has no intention of leaving the island where he’s been hiding out for years. He refuses to join the fight against the First Order, the sinister regime that rose from the ashes of the original Empire, or to train her, insisting that the ways of the Jedi should die with him. Rey reminds him too much of his talented nephew, Ben Solo, who trained as a Jedi with Luke but turned to the dark side, became the villainous Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), and killed his own father, Han Solo (Harrison Ford), in the previous episode. Luke’s perspective makes more sense as the story unfolds, though the lesson is a difficult one: even masters make mistakes, and even teachers have much to learn.
The mentor-student dynamic runs through all the Star Wars films, and in The Last Jedi, writer-director Rian Johnson draws three distinct parallels to earlier episodes. Luke’s relationship with Rey recalls his earlier one with Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness). In the original Star Wars (1977)—later repositioned as the fourth episode of the cycle, A New Hope—Princess Leia tries to contact the reclusive old man through a holographic recording inside the droid R2-D2. “Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi,” she says. “You’re my only hope.” In The Last Jedi, set three years later, Leia sends Rey on a similar mission to find her reclusive brother, whom she considers the last hope for her rebel army as the First Order closes in. Luke agrees to help only after R2-D2 plays him the same holograph of Leia that he watched with Obi-Wan when he was about Rey’s age. Hearing Leia’s words again reminds him that he now occupies the same role as Obi-Wan, gray beard and all.
Johnson also connects Luke’s failed mentoring of Ben/Kylo in The Last Jedi to Obi-Wan’s failed mentoring of Luke and Leia’s father, Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen), in the first three episodes. In the third, Revenge of the Sith (2005), Anakin attacks a Jedi temple and kills everyone inside; the scene is mirrored by a flashback in The Last Jedi that shows Ben Solo setting fire to the Jedi temple where Luke has been training him. Like Obi-Wan, Luke believes himself responsible for his former student’s corruption and decides to confront him in battle. “If you strike me down, I will become more powerful than you can possibly imagine,” Obi-Wan tells Anakin, now the villainous Darth Vader, at the end of A New Hope. Luke puts his own spin on the line at the climax of The Last Jedi, telling Kylo, “If you strike me down in anger, I will always be with you, just like your father.”
Finally, Johnson nods to episode five, The Empire Strikes Back (1980), in which the wizened Yoda (Frank Oz) agrees to train Luke. In The Last Jedi, Luke asks Rey what she knows about the Force, and she describes it as a power Jedis use to control people and make things float, like rocks. Luke explains that the Force is really the energy that connects all living things in the galaxy. Borrowing lines from Yoda and Obi-Wan, he teaches Rey how to feel the Force within and around her.
Luke lacks his mentors’ patience and inner peace; he abandons the lesson when he decides that Rey is too quickly drawn to the darkness brewing beneath the island. But when Luke confronts Kylo later, he announces that he is not, in fact, the last Jedi. (“There is another,” Yoda whispered to the spirit of Obi-Wan in The Empire Strikes Back.) Luke may not have mentored Rey as well as Obi-Wan and Yoda mentored him, but perhaps, as The Last Jedi suggests, Rey already has everything she needs. v