Two common, but contrasting complaints about The Last Jedi are that it undermines Luke and transfers his accomplishments and story to Rey or that it focuses on Luke and Kylo’s struggles while Rey is reduced to an observer. The two claims appear contradictory and tend to be advocated by separate people. However, the two are not actually mutually exclusive and The Last Jedi does in fact give Luke’s story to Rey while also depriving her of a place in it.
It’s little secret The Last Jedi leans heavily on audience expectations. Indeed, the very fact it makes a point of subverting our expectations is lauded by its champions as much as it’s reviled by its detractors. As such, the movie’s narrative is driven more by audience expectations than the characters. Indeed, the movie is written with the expectation the audience will have certain assumptions coming in. The very first scene is emblematic of this conceit. We, like Rey, do not expect Luke to nonchalantly toss the saber and walk wordlessly away and are shocked when he does.
Most people coming out of The Force Awakens thought Rey would be Luke’s daughter or, at the very least, somehow related to the Skywalkers. The Last Jedi is fully aware of this and repeatedly acts as though such a resolution is forthcoming, but always swerves away (Luke and Rey’s conversation in the tree and the mirror cave). That is until the throne room scene when Kylo declares Rey’s parents unimportant. Yet Rey has not shown any indication she cares if her parents were notable in either The Force Awakens or The Last Jedi; that is only what we, the audience, expect. The movie even tacitly acknowledges this when Kylo’s revelation has no apparent effect on Rey for the rest of the story.
The consequence of a plot driven more by subverting audience expectations is the nominal protagonist is subverted out of her own story. As the movie is still part of the Skywalker Saga, it remains driven by the dynamics of that family. Yet, as Kylo tells her, the Skywalker story is not hers which makes Rey an observer. By reducing Rey to an observer, the movie strips her of any of her own motivations and characterization and she becomes a vehicle for the audience.
Ironically, this is where the movie completely abandons subversion by necessity. Her actions are not driven by the needs of the character, but by the needs of the movie and what the audience expects her to do as the protagonist in a Star Wars movie. Rey desires to become a Jedi because she’s the Jedi character rather than any personal motivation. Despite having killed her first father figure scarcely a few days before, Rey comes to believe Kylo’s view because that’s what the movie needs her to do. She leaves Luke to attempt to turn Kylo, which is exactly what we expect from her because that’s what Luke did in the Original Trilogy. Of course, she rejects Kylo’s offer because she’s the light side hero. In the end, Rey is reduced to nothing more than a marionette moved from scene to scene for no other purpose than exploring the Skywalker family’s drama.
It is precisely where it fails to subvert expectations that the film manages to destroy Luke’s character even while turning Rey into an empty shell for the audience to project into. When Rey confronts Luke after the hut scene, she’s angry on Kylo’s behalf because, well, actually we don’t really know why. Since we don’t experience what Rey experienced when she touched Kylo’s finger, we’re left to come up with our own reasons to empathize with Kylo as we’re clearly meant to. Thus, we end up with a character trying to shame Luke into coming with her to ‘save’ Kylo despite having no identifiable motivation to do so herself.
It is also during Rey’s confrontation with Luke that the latter reveals he precipitated his nephew’s fall when he entered Ben’s mind after sensing darkness during training (forget igniting the saber for a moment, Luke is already committing a major violation against Ben by entering his mind without permission) and then instinctively igniting his saber after seeing it was worse than he feared. In this sequence, Luke has repeated similar mistakes as the ones he made in The Empire Strikes Back and learned nothing from his experiences or Yoda’s teachings.
In the climax of Return of the Jedi, Luke realizes he’s on the verge of falling and throws away his lightsaber in a rejection of the emotion and violence that threatens to push him over the edge. By throwing away his weapon, Luke is acknowledging Yoda’s lesson at the cave in The Empire Strikes Back. The greatest threat lies within himself and continuing the fight will only allow the dark side to win. The Last Jedi depicts Luke completely forgetting his lessons from the Original Trilogy. Much like the cave, he brings his weapon into his nephew’s hut which precipitates the latter’s fall.
To make matters worse, Luke and the movie blame the Jedi for Anakin and Ben’s fall and Luke abandons the galaxy in order to end what he sees as the Jedi’s flawed philosophy. The problem is Luke’s mistake was his own and resulted from abandoning the very lessons he learned during the Original Trilogy! Worse, there is nothing in the movie that ties the Jedi philosophy to Ben’s fall. The result is Luke makes one mistake rooted in his own personal flaws, gives up and leaves the galaxy to face the consequences. Forget legendary heroes, these aren’t even the actions we’d expect from a responsible adult!
When Rey gives him another chance to take responsibility for his mistakes, Luke again refuses. Frustrated, Rey takes it upon herself to do it for him. Luke begs her not to go and is actually correct that it won’t go the way she expects. However, Rey suffers no real consequences and we’re left with the impression Luke is wrong.
In keeping with Rey’s lack of impact on the story, it is not Rey, but Yoda that gets Luke to realize his mistake. (1) Yoda admonishes Luke for not passing on what he’s learned, including his failures (note Luke is treated not like a peer, but a student by Yoda) and impresses on Luke that they can’t lose Rey like he lost Ben. Despite this, Luke doesn’t do a thing to help Rey at her lowest point in the throne room and she overcomes it on her own. In fact, the two never interact again in The Last Jedi; we’re left with the central conflict of the movie – Rey and Luke – completely unresolved. Yet, the movie still makes a point of showing Luke giving Rey his (impersonal) blessing to be his successor, thus transferring his mantle as the last Jedi to her. The movie then proceeds to kill Luke without him ever actually mentoring Rey or even addressing the fact she physically assaulted him and left on bad terms in their last meeting.
The movie ends with Rey taking on the task of restoring the Jedi Order, which Luke was given in Return of the Jedi. Not only did Luke fail at this, but he failed to impart anything of value to Rey. Luke’s only accomplishment of the last thirty years was literally collecting books so Rey could abscond with them before he could burn them. At the same time, we’re left without any identifiable reason Rey would become a Jedi or restore the Order and no idea why she’d succeed where Luke failed (or where Luke even went wrong as a teacher).
Rey’s main character arc in The Last Jedi is realizing she’s the hero the galaxy needs, not Luke or Ben. By the end of the movie, she has taken up the mantle of galactic savior opposing Anakin’s only grandchild. Along the way, she has inherited Anakin’s lightsaber and the Falcon, repeated Luke’s arc from the Original Trilogy and become the last Jedi tasked with restarting the order. In addition to finding her place in the galaxy, Rey’s main personal motivation over two movies – finding her family – has been effectively tied up and she has no personal stake in the Skywalker family drama. Her only failures – convincing Luke to come with her and Kylo to turn – had nothing to do with her flaws nor did they cost her anything. It’s only the middle movie and Rey has literally nowhere left to go as a character except stop the fallen Skywalker and then reestablish the Jedi Order. In other words, the only thing left for Rey to do is be a better Luke Skywalker than Luke Skywalker despite the fact that she has no personal motivation to do so.
- Rey has virtually no impact on Luke over the course of TLJ. Luke decides to teach her his three lessons because Artoo showed him a recording of Leia. Later, he nearly goes with Rey because he reconnects with the Force and senses his sister. In the movie’s climax, it’s again his sister he helps. One wonders how much time and lives would have been saved if Leia had just gone herself.