A Response To Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s “A New Old Skywalker”

For anyone who isn’t aware, actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt (3rd Rock from the Sun, Hesher, Looper, Snowden, The Dark Knight Rises, etc) recently posted an article on Medium “defending” Rian Johnson‘s Star Wars film, The Last Jedi. The post expresses JGL’s feelings about the film and rebuts the negative backlash the film has gotten – specifically regarding the portrayal of Luke Skywalker.
Levitt prefaces the article by stating that yes he is friends with writer/director Rian Johnson and that he has been in every one of his films, but he insists the perspective from which he is writing is completely his own – even though there is a bias there that Levitt openly admits.
And in agreement with Levitt, yes, we do all have biases. It’s unavoidable as human beings.

I’d like to preface my response to Levitt’s ‘Skywalker manifesto’ (of sorts) by stating that I like Joseph Gordon-Levitt. I’ve met the guy, “worked” with him at one point very briefly and I think he’s a very good actor, a talented individual and overall a good person. One of my favorite roles of his is Hesher. If you haven’t seen that movie go watch it right now before you do anything else because it’s really brilliant – and oddly enough also stars Star Wars alum Natalie Portman.
But I digress, my own expressions to follow are not due to any negative feelings I have towards JGL himself, they are simply a response to his assertions about something very near and dear to my heart: Star Wars.

I’ve posted previously about the backlash the critics of The Last Jedi have been receiving. I won’t go in to that deeply here, since you can just go read it, but it is worth mentioning that those of us who don’t like The Last Jedi have been tagged & labeled as haters, whiny fanboys, racists, sexists, ignorant dumb-asses, etc etc etc. Sure there are some people who didn’t like the movie who fit in to those categories, but the majority of complaints I’ve seen (and have) about the film are well articulated, coherent explanations typically made by people who actively do not like the film for very valid and rational reasons.
Of course art is subjective, that’s not what’s being debated, but in regards to something like Star Wars there is a predominant history attached to it that makes all Star Wars films have a pre-existing understanding of the Universe in which they exist – especially when you’re dealing with characters that have already been so well established in previous films.

JGL expresses that The Last Jedi‘s portrayal of Luke is (and I’m paraphrasing) ‘bold’ and ‘different’. It’s what I’ve seen the film described as by a lot of its defenders and apologists, yet I don’t feel that this bold and different direction taken by Rian Johnson equated to a good film. In fact the choices he made as a writer are questionable as to his understanding of Star Wars as a whole and whether he wanted to actually make a Star Wars film or just take the source material given to him and completely deconstruct it in order to make it his own.
That may sound odd, as most directors take a story and make it their own by design, but in this instance it feels too much like Rian Johnson wanted to forego a lot of what makes Star Wars Star Wars and turn it on its head just to be ‘bold’ and ‘different’.
Pertaining to Luke Skywalker, Rian Johson has taken one of the most iconic characters in the history of cinema and broken him down to a shell of his former self. JGL reasons that it makes the character vastly more interesting because it makes him more ‘real’. Yes, I will agree with you that flaws make characters a lot more interesting and relate-able, however when you take a character like Luke who we last saw saving his father from the equivalent to ‘eternal damnation’, and closing that chapter in his life with a reconciling moment of peace when he saw Anakin, Ben & Yoda as force-ghosts on Endor, you expect a certain growth in Luke as a character. 30 years down the road you would not expect to see him run away from his problems, his family, his friends and his destiny. It was honestly quite jarring and ultimately degrading to see Luke as he was depicted in The Last Jedi.

JGL makes note that most people change when they get older, and yes, that’s completely true, but we’re not dealing with your grandpa here who has “seen better days” and reflects on missed opportunities or a life of regrets. We’re talking about Luke Skywalker, Jedi Knight. The ‘savior’ of the galaxy. This is a man who not only saved his family and friends, but saved his own father from the Dark Side of the Force. Risked everything because he felt the slightest glint of conflict within Vader and felt that he could bring him back to the good side. This is a man who was defined by his heroism and his virtue as an optimist who chose to see the good in the darkest of people.
Yet in The Last Jedi Luke has a ‘moment of weakness’ where he is going to literally murder his nephew because he sees a glint of darkness within him? Really? I just can’t make that leap with you. It doesn’t make sense to Luke’s character and ultimately it feels like very lazy writing. There are so many other reasons Luke could have chosen exile, but to make him do something so out-of-character for Luke is what has turned a lot of us off to this iteration of the character.

The Last Jedi depicts Luke as having completely abandoned everything and everyone because he had a ‘moment of weakness’? It’s this bizarre-o reality that’s been created where RJ (Rian Johnson) has made Luke in to something he would never become and thus makes him the antithesis of everything he has believed in his whole life. It’s the deconstruction of Luke Skywalker, but done in such a way that it’s unbelievable. Luke is not a regular person, he’s a Jedi Knight. He has seen and experienced things that give him such a broader perspective of the galaxy that it seems absurd to treat him like a regular Joe (no pun intended) and forego all of the backstory that already exists for him.
Luke could easily have been given flaws and been deconstructed as a character, but in such a better way. It’s really the way the story is told that makes people not enjoy this film. There are too many unbelievable moments that don’t ‘feel’ like Star Wars and Rian Johnson seems hell bent on literally ‘killing the past’ to move forward.

Another aspect that JGL touches on is ‘faith’. He mentions how to him TLJ is about not losing faith. I just didn’t see it that way. Luke has given up hope and abandoned everything he loved. He’s lost his faith in everything (including himself) and while JGL claims that by the end Luke has had his faith restored in the Jedi and even in himself, I disagree.
By the end of the film Luke seems reluctant to do what he must do. His rap session with Yoda was supposed to somehow give him insight as to how he fits in to the bigger picture and how is failures have been his greatest lesson to pass on, but ultimately Yoda just tells him “we are what they grow beyond”. It’s a far cry from the lessons Yoda taught Luke in The Empire Strikes Back on Dagobah and felt a little like gibberish to me, but somehow it motivates Luke to sacrifice himself to save Leia, Rey and what’s left of the Resistance.
I didn’t see this as Luke having his faith restored as much as him simply deciding that he’s a part of this whether he likes it or not and if he doesn’t do something that what’s left in this world that he cares about will be destroyed; his sister.

It doesn’t bother me that Luke dies at the end, but the reasoning for his death seems so trivial and trite that it has zero impact on me. The entire Force avatar shtick just falls flat in how it undermines the impact of the final confrontation between Ben and Luke. There are no stakes in the fight. Luke is not even there. It’s like he can’t even be bothered enough to show up, he has to phone it in. It just felt like a shocking reveal for the sake of a shocking reveal. There’s nothing there that really substantiates Luke’s “growth” within the film. He’s still on that island waiting to die, and so he shows up to save the day, but not as himself – as a shell of himself.
It might actually be considered a brilliant move if it wasn’t done for the wrong reasons. It just feels like RJ had no use for Luke within the story other than to be a roadblock for Rey. He doesn’t train her with any substantial lessons and ultimately pushes her away so she has to go and deal with everything on her own. Mind you this leads in to the entirety of Rey’s Mary Sue-ness and how someone with literally no training can go toe-to-toe with Snoke’s Praetorian Guards and Kylo himself. But I won’t get in to that as our focus here is Luke.

JGL goes on to say that The Last Jedi‘s depiction of Luke showcases Lucasfilm and Disney‘s willingness to take risks and reflects a certain respect for the audience. I have to disagree. I think what has been done with Star Wars in this new trilogy is nothing short of disrespectful to fans who have enjoyed this franchise for the past 40 years. It has taken everything we love about Star Wars and tossed it aside for the sake of shock and awe.
The Last Jedi‘s mantra continues to ring true well beyond the film’s ending; “Let the past die. Kill it if you have to”.
This statement embodies this new generation of Star Wars films. Sure they want to move beyond the Skywalker legacy, and they have to for the most part, but there are better ways to do it than by destroying the characters we know and love.

JGL mentions Han Solo in The Force Awakens and how he was right back where he started. How it felt like seeing an ‘old friend’. Now I get that The Force Awakens was essentially a re-telling of A New Hope, but Han is depicted as the same character he was when we first met him all those years ago. This does not show any real character growth and comes off as fan service. It’s a lack of imagination. You’ve taken Han Solo’s journey and completely disregarded his personal evolution from smuggler/narcissist to hero of the Rebellion, husband and father. When we meet Han in The Force Awakens we also learn that he’s basically been a dead beat dad who abandoned his family when things got tough – much like Luke.
As an aside, it seems that Leia is the only character with any backbone who was left to pick up the pieces when both of the men in her life abandoned her. While I don’t agree with the assumption that Lucasfilm is hell bent on pushing a feminist agenda with these new films, it does seem a bit suspect when the men in these stories are continually depicted as inept, weak and void of morality while the women are showcased as strong, intelligent and the only ones who seem capable of doing anything right.

But again, I digress, the problems with The Last Jedi are many. From awful jokes, huge plot holes and useless characters to a complete lack of regard for what came before, the film feels like a glorified fan film that lacks the heart and soul of what has always made Star Wars so universally loved. I understand JGL’s desire to defend his friend’s film, but I don’t think his bias allows him the objectivity to really see this movie’s flaws. Of course people can enjoy the film (and many do) but the consistent vitriol towards those of us who don’t is extremely tiring and borderline abusive.

If you love The Last Jedi, great, more power to you. I, and many others, do not. And we have very real and very legitimate reasons for not liking it, so the next time you see someone comment on why they do not like the movie, before you react with a knee-jerk response take a moment to listen to what they’re saying and try to understand why. You might just find that they have a point and it may change your perception of something you refuse to accept is flawed in any way.

Ultimately these movies are entertainment. Products created to make money and to tell stories. But Star Wars is also something more. It’s a part of who a lot of us are. We grew up with Star Wars and it shaped and molded us as human beings. It’s also part of our history and our culture as a whole. It defines a lot of us who grew up in the 70’s and 80’s.
So when someone takes that part of us and manipulates it and casts it aside in favor of telling their story, a lot of us have a tendency to go on the defensive because it feels like an attack.
The Last Jedi feels like an attack. It feels like someone decided that everything I know and love about the original Star Wars isn’t worth the paper it’s written on and so they’re going to take it and flush it down the toilet in favor of something ‘bold’ and ‘different’ to ‘shake things up’.
It feels a little like a betrayal. That’s why I, and so many others, want to speak out about how we feel. It’s important to us that our voices are heard and that the people who made this film understand why it’s not universally loved as so many seem to think it should be.

I respect Joseph Gordon-Levitt and don’t want this to come across as an attack on him, because it’s not. It’s merely a rebuttal to what he has stated and why it doesn’t change how I feel about The Last Jedi.
Again, you can enjoy the film – no one is stopping you from that. We all have personal reasons why we like or don’t like things and sometimes it feels very personal when someone has an opposing perspective, but we should all remember that at the end of the day we’re all just human beings flying through space on a hunk of rock. We’re all here for a finite amount of time and everything we love and cherish will someday be gone.
I say that to say, life is too short for hate. We can disagree on the things we enjoy, but let’s not forget that when it comes right down to it, we’re just human beings trying to make sense of this crazy world. Star Wars may be an important part of our lives, but it’s not the reason we’re here.

In the words of Yoda, “luminous beings are we, not this crude matter”.

May the Force be with you all.

1 Comment

  1. – Luke’s character isn’t running and hiding, he’s doing something he regards as heroic by thinking of something bigger than himself. He desperately wants to go save his friends, it’s killing him, but he believes that letting the Jedi fade away is more important to the galaxy. (Now you can argue that him feeling the Jedi teachings and legends are responsible for this and wanting to let the light rise for a new source so this won’t happen again is clouded by his shame about failing Kylo. But it’s not him just being a scared coward hiding)

    – Additionally, HE DOESN’T TRY TO KILL BEN. Compared to Return of the Jedi, when he lashes out and almost kills Vader (and only stops by chance because Vader’s hand reminds him of himself), he’s actually grown much further into an optimist who abhors violence. In the same way wanting to protect Leia caused him to be tempted by the dark, wanting to protect his students causes him to be tempted for a split second. But he overcomes it instantly. The only problem is that that split second cost him everything.

    – And finally, calling the final confrontation ‘it’s like he can’t even be bothered to show up’ is such a profound misreading of that scene. The fact he has no way off that island aside… it’s his pacifism and defeating Ben without violence that’s what’s so meaningful about it. It says more at a character level than a lightsaber battle ever could. (Remember that Luke throws his lightsaber away rather than kill Vader, in hopes of there being good left in him. So why is there no complaint that part of his character is being ignored when calling for him to kill Ben?) The growth in Luke is, after listening to Yoda and realising he’s been too extreme in his disdain for legends, he re-embraces the idea of himself as a legend and gives his life through tremendous exertion through the Force to let them escape and re-ignite his own legend. Kylo even sets up the power required to attempt such a feat earlier with “you couldn’t be doing this, the effort would tear you apart”.

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