* A single paragraph late in this essay contains potential spoilers for The Last Jedi. This paragraph is clearly indicated, and can be skipped if you prefer. *
The Luke shown in the poster for The Last Jedi is, in many ways, a shocking subversion of the Luke of the popular imagination. His expression doesn’t speak of steely determination and resolve as much as it conveys vengeance and judgement. Here, he is cast in the part of the angry God of the Old Testament, his magnificent beard adding to the impression that the bright young hero of the original trilogy has evolved into a weary and vengeful figure of authority. Nothing about this new Luke seems benign, and the severity of his expression becomes all the more striking when contrasted with the face of his nephew. Kylo’s expression is oddly neutral, and if it conveys anything at all it is contemplation and doubt. Of the two faces that dominate the composition, Luke’s is clearly the one to be feared.
While he might possess the face of an angry God, Luke is probably more likely to end up resembling a biblical prophet or patriarch. He is a prophet in the sense that he operates as part of a divine order, believing himself to follow the will of the Force (which is, of course, analogous to God in the mythology of Star Wars) – he is subject to visions, and is an integral part of the fulfilment of an ancient prophecy. Equally, Luke is also a patriarch in that he is the most senior male line figure in House Skywalker, being the child of a union between Anakin Skywalker, the divine child of a virgin birth, and Padme Amidala, a Queen of Naboo. Luke is a figure of immense power and possesses an illustrious heritage, but he is also a single player in a greater plan that is unimaginably larger than he is. Going by his declaration that “it’s so much bigger”, it would seem no one is more conscious of this than Luke himself. The trailer for The Last Jedi paints a picture of a man overwhelmed by the crushing weight of his own destiny, close to spiritual defeat on account of the great burden he carries on his shoulders.
Russell Crowe as Noah, and Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker
To get more specific, I find it fruitful to point out that one image of Luke shown at the panel for The Last Jedi is strikingly reminiscent of Russell Crowe as Noah in Darren Aronofsky’s 2014 film of the same name. According to his Twitter feed, Rian Johnson watched and admired Noah when it came out in March 2014, a few months before he was announced as the writer and director of what was then Star Wars: Episode VIII. I have no idea if Rian treated Noah as a conscious influence on The Last Jedi, but I find there to be some potentially interesting parallels going on, some of which have intriguing story implications that I believe it will be well worth discussing. Full spoilers for Aronofsky’s Noah (beyond ‘the boat makes it’) follow.
Noah, like all of Aronofsky’s films, is about single-minded obsession – inspired by a divine vision, Noah becomes fixated on enacting God’s will to the point where he seems like a madman, with the strength of his conviction even bringing him to the point where he believes that mankind is doomed to end due to its descent into corruption and its apparent rejection of God. The force of Noah’s conviction brings him to the brink of murdering his newborn twin granddaughters, whose very existence he is convinced contravenes God’s will. Noah initially believes it is only his weakness as a mortal man that causes him to stay his hand and spare the babies, and becomes convinced that he has failed God. In a state of despair, he succumbs to drunkenness and distances himself from his family. Only at the very end of the film does Noah seem to achieve peace, reconciling with his family and receiving the divine blessing of a rainbow.
Here, I see the parallel being that Luke, like Noah, is motivated by a profound conviction that he perceives to be in line with some higher purpose. The words “I only know one truth. It’s time for the Jedi to end” tell us that this is a man with a firm idea of the way things should be. Like Noah, Luke is in despair over the state of things – Noah is adamant that mankind must be allowed to die out, and Luke is equally convinced that the Jedi need to end. Noah believed that mankind had to die for the good of the earth, which men were destroying to fulfil their own selfish, short-sighted needs and desires (Noah is as much a film about environmentalism and our mandate as guardians of nature as it is about the Bible). And while we don’t yet understand why Luke is convinced that the Jedi need to end, I would bet on him believing that some greater good will come from it, irrespective of the personal grief and anguish he must endure to see the mission through.
Russell Crowe as Noah, and Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker
Noah was a highly controversial film upon its release for many reasons, not least because it turned the traditionally dull and stodgy world of the Old Testament into a heightened fantasia filled with warmongering clans and swaggering rock monsters (if you haven’t already guessed, I’m very fond of Noah and recommend watching it). However, it was probably most controversial because of how achingly human and morally ambiguous its portrayal of Noah was. We are used to seeing biblical figures revered, with traditional depictions downplaying their doubts and humanity in favour of stressing their perfect obedience to God’s will. Noah shocked people precisely because it is highly ambivalent on the question of whether its title character is a hero or a villain. The film stresses the horror of the masses who were left to drown while Noah and his family sealed themselves inside their ark, surrounded by the screams and moans of the dying for days. But most intriguingly, it also emphasises how Noah terrorises and alienates his own family.
In the film, Noah has three sons, but only the two eldest are given proper characterisations and stories. The older son Shem is the golden boy who is obedient to his father’s will, while middle son Ham is sullen and rebellious. When both boys are children, Noah’s family adopts a young girl named Ila, who is the only survivor of a slaughtered clan. Ila is barren on account of an injury she sustained during the attack on her clan as a child, but later becomes able to conceive on account of the intervention of Noah’s wife Naameh and his grandfather Methuselah. Shem and Ila have sex just before the deluge begins, and she miraculously conceives twin girls – the children Noah will later believe he has to kill to prevent the continuation of mankind. Ham, by contrast, is less lucky – desperate to have a mate of his own, he disobeys his father by befriending a young girl named Na’el, hoping to take her on board the ark as his wife. Noah deliberately leaves Na’el behind to die as the deluge builds and Ham is never able to forgive his father. Disgusted with Noah, Ham leaves his family at the end of the film to strike out on his own and establish his own tribe. (While most of these plot strands are conceits of the film, it is biblical that Ham fell into disfavour with Noah, with his descendants being cursed.)
Now, none of this means that there are direct or deliberate parallels here. I am not saying that Luke has a wife or children (it is my belief that he has neither), but it’s clear that Luke does at least have a surrogate son in his nephew Ben Solo – the boy he helped to raise and served as a teacher to. Ben, mirroring Ham’s feelings towards his father, seems angry with Luke (as he was with Han), clearly bearing bitterness towards him for what he considers to be some past sin or failing. Also like Ham, Ben turns his back on his family after what he perceives to be a personal betrayal, setting out to establish his own order as he denies and defies both his father (Han) and his father figure (Luke). Rey, like Ila, is an orphan who’s integrated into a family and a destiny that she was not born to. Ila and Rey also both embody hope, promising a new future on the horizon – just before he leaves his family behind, Ham tells Ila “I’m glad that it begins again with you”.
In Aronofsky’s film, Noah’s monstrous nature comes out most strongly in his treatment of his own flesh and blood – he is never more terrifying than when he is holding a knife over two squirming babies. But this, ironically, is also what brings out Noah’s core of enduring humanity, since his instinctual love for the children means he cannot help but be merciful towards them – instead of cutting their throats, he leans down to kiss them. While Noah is clearly the protagonist of the film, he is not the figure who represents hope or a future for mankind – instead, this is the role assumed by his rebellious and disobedient children. As a viewer, it is much easier to relate to the alienation and fear of Noah’s family than it is to connect to the fervent zeal and nihilism of Noah himself. This spin, of course, is one of the main reasons why the film proved so controversial and unsettling – while the Bible is very much on the side of the wise and revered patriarchs and prophets, vilifying and condemning disobedient and defiant sons, modern filmmakers are more keen on dismantling myths and examining what it actually means to be righteous.
‘Sacrifice of Isaac’ by Rembrandt
* POTENTIAL SPOILERS FOR THE LAST JEDI FEATURE IN THE NEXT PARAGRAPH *
Star Wars has a well-established tradition of following young heroes who are tasked with compensating for the misdeeds and mistakes of previous generations. In the Force strand of the plot of The Last Jedi – the aspect of the story represented so powerfully by the poster – I am expecting to see a Luke who considers himself subject to the requirements of a power higher than himself. I see this conviction being what propels Luke to pursue the end of the Jedi, and – if the rumours are to be believed – call for his own nephew’s murder. Just as Noah condemned all of mankind to die and Abraham prepared his son Isaac as a blood sacrifice, with both men convinced they were enacting the will of God, Luke will believe that his personal attachments will need to be overcome to serve a higher purpose by returning to a pure and incorrupt manifestation of the Force. If Luke does believe that Kylo Ren has to be killed to fulfil this mandate, the weight of that responsibility will likely bear more heavily on him than it will Rey, his belief in its necessity testament to the strength of his trust in his interpretation of the Force. Rey’s refusal to go along with the idea, by contrast, will demonstrate that her faith is less secure – and I would bet on us (the audience) being given reason to empathise more strongly with Rey’s doubt than Luke’s zeal.
* SPOILERS END *
However, in grand Star Wars tradition, I don’t expect this seemingly hopeless Luke – a man who appears to believe in the end of things – to be portrayed as a figure of unerring righteousness, or indeed some ultimate fulfilment of Luke’s destiny. Just as Aronofsky’s Noah upset people’s expectations of what a Bible film should be by portraying a biblical patriarch as profoundly flawed and sometimes even frightening, I expect to see The Last Jedi take its biggest risk by making eternal golden boy Luke Skywalker a forbidding figure of judgement who the younger generation ultimately have to prove wrong with their rebellion and defiance. While I don’t see Luke becoming an outright villain, I find it very plausible that he will be shown to have become misguided on account of his single-minded obsession with the Force and what he understands to be its destiny. I expect Kylo Ren to be similarly afflicted by quasi-religious zeal, with one of the most crucial questions of The Last Jedi being which character – Luke or Kylo – will be the first to accept that their static and unyielding dogma is flawed. As for who will introduce the light of hope to the picture, the poster makes it clear that this person will be Rey – the only reprieve from the vivid red that dominates the poster emanates from her.
If I had to identify flaws in Aronofsky’s film, it would be that the young characters – romantic leads Shem and Ila, and traitorous son Ham – are thinly characterised, serving as little more than symbols and essentially functioning as illustrations of the ramifications of Noah’s choices. They do not seem like true individuals, and while they are sympathetic they are not our protagonists – inevitably, Aronofsky is most interested in telling the story of Noah himself. I expect The Last Jedi to have a very different spin by focusing instead on the young characters (namely, Rey and Kylo Ren), mainly because it is not enslaved to the patriarchal mythology of the Old Testament and the allure of its totemic central figures. Luke Skywalker is a modern-day legend to many and is the hero of countless people’s childhoods, but the point of the sequel trilogy is to establish new heroes and fresh myths, not to wheel out old characters so they can repeat journeys they already made as youths.
The sequel trilogy – with Rey at its centre – is about a young woman fulfilling her heroic destiny, and Daisy Ridley herself has said that in The Last Jedi Rey “kind of gets to take some control over what’s going on” – she will be the propulsive force driving the story, rather than the passive canvas on which other people’s journeys play out. While a film like Noah can’t help but be fixated on its monumental subject, the focus of the new mythology being established with the sequel trilogy is Rey herself and how she will bring hope to the galaxy. That need not involve supplanting the Skywalkers or bringing their line to an end, but it will – in all likelihood – involve discovering a fresh concept of the Force and grappling with what it means to follow it.