I really enjoyed Star Wars: The Last Jedi. I’m not entirely sure I love the film yet, but I found myself writing a lot in response to it. For the sake of feedback or jolting some exchange, I present some of what I’ve written. Obviously there will be spoilers, and before I start I’ll introduce (in order) the topics I write about.
- Space Opera Narrative vs. Technological and Material World-Building
- The Last Jedi and Interweaving through Past and Present
- Some More on Rey, or What’s Up with the Cave?
- The Temptation of Luke: Why Would He Even Start to Murder Kylo?
Space Opera Narrative vs. Technological and Material World-Building
Star Wars: The Last Jedi begins with the evacuation of a Resistance base. It is the only Resistance base under control by General Leia. They quickly move equipment off-world before the bombardment by a dreadnought. This is the kind of scenario that might play out in TIE Fighter, with a couple of embellishments added. It is breathless excitement for me.
The Resistance fleet sends Poe to try to parley. It is a distraction tactic. When it doesn’t work, Poe attempts to destroy the surface guns of the dreadnought to prepare for a bombing run. There is some tension – Leia tries to countermand Poe’s ordering of a bomb run, but the bombers fly anyway. The dreadnought is destroyed, but so are all the bombers and the crew on them. The fleet escapes.
Not for long though. In the crosstalk between Snoke and Hux, it sounds like the First Order has a way to track the Resistance through hyperspace. So – all too soon – they arrive and attack the fleet, with the action punctuated by the command module being struck, Leia floating to safety through use of the Force, and the fleet getting out of range with limited fuel remaining. An hours-long chase ensues: the Resistance doesn’t have enough fuel to jump more than once, and they won’t jump as long as they’re being tracked.
I described this scenario in some detail because I think it’s the weakest part of this new film. There aren’t any obvious contradictions or holes in the plot here: for every “why didn’t” there is – at least possibly – an in-universe answer or resolution. But there are a lot of alternative possibilities that rely on some understanding of how technology works in Star Wars. The fan-lore, the technical explanations in other media, assumptions about how the world ought to work – all these filter into the Star Wars film experience for seasoned fans. The extended appartus puts The Last Jedi‘s central scenario in the uncomfortable place of being almost sci-fi (with a suitable expected level of consistency for how things work in this universe) while being pure space opera (the tension matters more than the material cause).
For example, scene-setting dialogue establishes that the fleet is almost out of fuel. The idea of fuel seems strange in Star Wars. It raises lots of questions for the viewer expecting the world to be materially consistent. How are ships powered? There’s a scene in The Empire Strikes Back where Han and Leia crowd over a panel trying to plot potential destinations they can make on their current energy supply. After some discussion, Han says, “Bespin. It’s pretty far, but I think we can make it.” Far – he could mean the distance to a “safe port somewhere around here.” Nowhere is fuel directly suggested, but it seems clear that they can’t go that far. All of the discussion seems structured to put the Millennium Falcon where Han wouldn’t necessarily choose first: the Tibanna mining base of his former friend. A merely implied travel constraint set up the encounter between Han, Leia, and Lando that would structure the second half of the film.
No such implication was given in Last Jedi. “Fuel” suggests a more definite material constraint. Poe sends Finn and Rose out on a mission to find the one person who could help them disable the hyperdrive detector on Snoke’s ship; what if they had instead been sent on a fuel run? Surely finding a barge of fuel would be easier than trying to find the only slicer ever who could cut through a Star Destroyer’s security without being detected.
The idea of hyperdriving out and back raises another point. It appears that Finn and Rose, Rey, and Chewie all have some control on where they exit hyperspace. It’s not like they all come out of hyperspace right on top of the First Order fleet. Couldn’t the First Order do the same thing and do a small hyperjump ahead to gain on the fleet? Couldn’t the Resistance have jumped closer to the planet?
Another constraint I’ve often seen in the days since The Last Jedi‘s release: not to diminish the sacrifice of the Resistance command ship, but couldn’t the ship or other ships have been used to hyper-ram enemy fleets before?
There’s usually an “out” for speculations like this, an explanation that can work in the universe either based on something known (ideal) or on what’s still unknown. Perhaps a quick fuel run isn’t practical because a fuel ship would be vulnerable to a fighter attack, because capital ships can’t fuel that quickly, or something else. Perhaps point-to-point micro-hyperdrive jumping isn’t practical for larger ships, the First Order worries about losing tracking if both fleets jump simultaneously, or hyperdriving close to a planet (as the Millennium Falcon did in TFA) is impractical for large ships. Perhaps hyper-ramming doesn’t actually do all that much damage considering the tremendous cost (and limited utility) of larger ships. Perhaps a strategy built around hyper-ramming would only be feasible for a group who had lots of ships and very few people – a kamikaze-like situation that would cause damage but not ultimately grant logistic advantages. (The Resistance has few people and fewer ships, so that’s a no-go.)
All of that explaining and counterexplaining pushes this central scenario of The Last Jedi into a strange position. It is a space opera; it has a lot of technology that explains how the material world works. The space opera situation is elegant and classical drama: Leia, Poe, and the Resistance have hours to contemplate their doom, to test their resolve and hope, to learn how to trust one’s commander when it seems in Poe’s eyes that only plucky heroics will save the day. However, the situation also tempts many viewers to approach the situation in a meta-Poe-like way, pointing out not just the futility of waiting but the improbability of the situation itself. The material assumptions the film asks of people steeped in the Star Wars extended canon are many. If the situation were materially tighter or if Star Wars were not set in such a technologically-tantalizing setting, the mismatch between story and world-building would be resolved.
So that’s one stress-point for The Last Jedi. The material considerations compete with the narrative for attention. It is not a big problem for me, since I’m used to reading narratives that bend plausibility or that build worlds that don’t strongly correspond with real life. Medieval romance, like Star Wars, isn’t a great place to expect consistent and clear causes and effects. However, it is one point where the core films potentially clash with expectations set in the expanded universe that X technology work in Y fashion. I didn’t take issue, but I did notice that.
The Last Jedi and Interweaving through Past and Present
The Last Jedi succeeds in creating an interwoven narrative that binds present and past moments in the Star Wars canon without merely repeating them as The Force Awakens tende dto do.
Rey and Luke’s interactions begin by taking the gravitas at the end of The Force Awakens and adding a bit of levity: Rey offers Luke the lightsaber. Luke inspects it and tosses it aside. This first scene establishes Luke’s seeming disinterest or nonchalance in his past. The lightsaber of his father, one lost with his arm in Cloud City, reappears with a mysterious stranger. She claims to be from the Resistance and at first Luke takes this at face value. He ignores her while going about his daily routine and deflects her appeals.
Luke’s first gesture suggests disinterest, but his evasions also look like avoidance, or a determined effort to suppress his interest. He doesn’t want to talk about the Resistance. He doesn’t want to acknowledge Leia or the Resistance. He doesn’t want to talk about the Jedi. When Luke boards the Millennium Falcon, the disinterest is shown to be defensive. He sees the cockpit. Then he encounters R2D2, who must make an appeal to Luke because he says (paraphrasing) that he’ll never join the Resistance. Then R2D2 gives Luke what he calls a low blow: he replays the message from Leia to “General Kenobi” seen at the beginning of episode IV.
This moment shows The Last Jedi using one of its principal techniques effectively. In entrelacement or interweaving, multiple distinct stories are interlaced into a larger narrative. The entire story involves interweaving the stories of several character groups together: the Resistance (Poe, Finn, Rose, Leia), the Jedi (Luke, Rey), and the First Order (Kylo, Snoke, Hux). Luke re-seeing the message from Leia invites interweaving across time, as Luke becomes aligned with his younger self who had resisted the call to adventure only to be drawn into it after R2D2 ran away, he met Obi Wan, and the Empire killed his adoptive parents. So then (resisting the call only to be drawn to it), thus now. He is also drawn into the position of Obi Wan himself, who had gone from being a General in the Clone Wars to being an old hermit who had gone into hiding. Both had lost padawans to the Dark Side – Anakin and Kylo. Both helped their last students on the path to being a Jedi before dying themselves, though in Luke’s case that’s foreshadowing.
Luke is a more haunted version of Obi Wan. Obi Wan feels wise in a classical sense. He obscures the identity of Luke’s father by separating him and Vader. He feels comfortable playing mind games with Stormtroopers and going into dives to negotiate passage with smugglers. His conversation with Vader feels resolute: “Only a master of evil, Darth” – “If you strike me down I will become more powerful than you can imagine.” Obi Wan’s wisdom is a completed process. The Last Jedi is more ambitious with Luke: the film shows Luke in the process of coming to terms with his failure. The film ends with Luke finally facing twin suns, such as he may have once faced on Tatooine. One seems at sunset, the other at sunrise. Luke, like Obi Wan, has passed the torch.
Luke’s training of Rey meanwhile invites more comparisons to Yoda. But first, a brief aside to people who claim Rey’s training was insubstantial: Luke practiced lightsaber once with Obi Wan and never with Yoda. It’s not like any of the original films are flush with training scenes or montages. Instead, what few scenes are shown each illustrate something about the Force to the viewers and to the trainees. In Luke’s training, each scene might be mapped out as follows:
|Obi Wan trains Luke to fight with the lightsaber||Luke defends himself with the blast shield down||The Force can help one do the improbable, or sense beyond sight what to do|
|Yoda teaches Luke about the Force while riding him||Luke does physical exercise while listening to Yoda, asking questions about the nature of the Force||The Dark Side is seductive, Jedi are calmer and more passive; The Force gives strength by feeling its flow|
|Yoda encourages Luke to enter a cave with the Dark Side||Luke faces a vision of Darth Vader, who once beheaded appears to have Luke’s own face||The Force may enable people to confront their own fear, or to experience it. To paraphrase Yoda, the Force brings to someone what they take with them|
|Yoda encourages Luke to lift objects like rocks and his starfighter||Luke fails to lift the starfighter but Yoda succeeds||The Force binds all; belief matters more than size or physical strength|
|Yoda encourages Luke to feel the Force flow||Luke sees his friends in trouble in Cloud City||The Force can show the present or future, connecting one to one’s friends|
|Luke leaves Yoda and Ben||Yoda and Ben admonish Luke to remember his lessons||The Force needs extensive training to master; Luke will be prone to the “quick and easy path” (the Dark Side)|
Most of the scenes’ lessons have to do with the scope of the Force (it connects all things) and with the conflict between the Light Side and the Dark Side. Luke’s training of Rey is not a copy of Yoda’s approach, but it addresses a similar scope of concerns, delineating how the Force should work:
|Luke has Rey meditate and reach out to the Force||Rey learns to reach out and sees a lot about the cycles of life and death; Luke learns Rey is so curious she doesn’t even avoid a perilous hole below them||The Force is the tension between elements of the universe, a kind of flow that binds everything. The Force is not used like a warrior’s tool but taken in and experienced|
|Luke talks to Rey about the Jedi and the Sith||Rey learns more about the conflict between Luke and Kylo||The Force tends towards balance, but the Jedi and the Sith are both imperfect guardians of that balance. Any organization of Force-users may be prone to hubris|
|Rey practices with her stick and then a lightsaber as Luke watches||Rey gains greater comfort in combat while also learning how dangerous a lightsaber is, as she shears a rock off a cliff||The Force may aid in combat, but Rey may still need to learn how to use it more precisely, given her surprise at the rock falling|
|Rey enters the hole||Rey seeks a vision of her parents but instead finds versions or echoes of herself repeating endlessly||The “darkness” of the cave does not give a direct answer, but rather – literally – self-reflection, an ego-centric model that can only cast her question back at her endlessly|
|Rey confronts Luke to gain the full story of what happened between him and Kylo||Rey learns that Luke was tempted to kill Kylo because of fears Kylo had already turned, before learning too late that he had given in to despair; he saw the boy’s fearful eyes and his sense of betrayal||The Force was fallible and even masters could fail|
|Yoda confronts Luke as he attempts to burn a sacred tree down.||In jest, Yoda burns down the tree for Luke and tells him that he should have learned from his failure and helped Rey.||“The greatest teacher, failure is” – perhaps the Force should not be closed off just because of a fear of failure|
The scenes need to cover less about the Force in the eyes of the audience because by now they’ve had 40 years of instruction in it. What’s added feels like it could have been drawn from Knights of the Old Republic or a number of other Extended Universe media: the idea of balance, failure, and many spots in between the good-and-evil narrative of the Force.
The lessons offer an important revision to the binary. These points might be called “shades of gray” in the eyes of someone to whom the binary is important. To the long list of forces and tensions that Rey names off, life and death are a principal binary that can begin to organize them; the Force is far more capacious than that. The Force appears to be a system that encourages balance, that ebbs and flows around it, but it’s also one that doesn’t need Jedi or Sith to be the light or the dark, the ebb or the flow.
Rey’s scenes of individual exploration are important in beginning to probe these boundaries. When she chooses to go into the hole herself and investigate, she runs into a prismatic illusion that seems to multiply her body infinitely. She snaps, and each echo of her snaps with a slight delay, indicating a kind of progression rather than a strict mirror image. The eerie simulacra feel like they might move individually at any moment to imperil her, but they never do. Instead, she probes to the center of the mystery, reaching a place Luke had warned her about. It might grant her a vision of what she wishes. When she asks to see her parents, it shows nothing back. The answer is ambiguous: are her parents nothing? Dead? Or did the promised power fail?
That operative ambiguity (whether the mirror cave in fact works) meets a basic question (who are Rey’s parents)? This and other lessons about the Force are all tested by Rey’s interactions with Kylo Ren. Kylo is in many ways her dark side counterpart, someone who leaves a large trail of bodies behind him to convince himself that he’s the sort of person who leaves trails of bodies around. The film goes back and forth between Kylo and Rey, shot by shot. The psychic link is deep enough that they can converse, but (as dialogue attests) not so deep that they can see where they are consistently.
Early on Kylo seems to test the limits of what he’s experiencing. He also taunts Rey by suggesting that Luke isn’t telling the whole truth about how their confrontation went down. This creates in Rey a conflict, as she learns that Kylo feels he was betrayed by Luke and simultaneously experiences firsthand the conflict within Kylo. She begins to believe that she can bring Kylo back to the light, and seeks to resolve the failure that Luke had failed to confront himself. Rey leaves with Chewie on the Falcon and comes to Kylo in an escape pod. Luke had refused the call to aid the Resistance or meet Kylo, so Rey does instead.
Another moment of temporal interweaving: Rey does just what Luke had done on Endor. For Luke in Return of the Jedi the decision to turn himself in to Vader had practical benefits: Luke would no longer jeopardize the Rebels by being in their presence and he could try to convert Darth Vader. Rey and Kylo, like Luke and Vader, have a conversation together that doesn’t resolve itself in a conversion. Both pairs confront their leader – Snoke or the Emperor. Both Snoke and the Emperor die by the intervention of their apprentice – Snoke is pierced in half by Rey-Luke-Anakin’s lightsaber amid a monologue rich in dramatic irony; the Emperor is thrown down a shaft. If The Last Jedi merely repeated what happened in Return of the Jedi, Kylo would turn against Snoke because he was redeemed.
No. Rey and Kylo fight against the praetorian guard in glorious battle. Then the situation is resolved and Rey assumes the conversion was successful: Kylo can now stop the Resistance fleet from being bombarded to pieces. Instead, Kylo takes a step back to a moment in The Empire Strikes Back, asking Rey to join him just as Vader asked Luke to join him. The throne. The power. Rey may have misread the scene. I know I did. What she and I saw wasn’t a redemption narrative. No, we’re seeing Kylo kill the second father-figure in two films. (Just for reference, Rey hasn’t killed any of her father figures.) Perhaps we’re seeing the death of the old Dark Side and the creation of the new. Perhaps we’re seeing the now-canon version of a Sith apprentice killing their lord and becoming a new Sith Lord. If so, it’s the first time this has happened in film – usually the Sith apprentices die before they can do this. So even on this basic level Kylo demonstrates an additional way the Force can work: death and rebirth without conversion.
Then Kylo tries to tempt Rey by saying he knows who her parents are. Again, this calls back to The Empire Strikes Back, where Vader reveals that he is Luke’s father. (People who knew German were way ahead on that count – they could at least guess that Vader was someone’s daddy, or at least a Freudian father-figure.) In the larger context of this scene is all the speculation about who Rey’s parents were: her Force-memory in TFA that she was left on Rakku with scavengers; her affinity with Anakin’s and Luke’s lightsaber; her affinity with Kylo. There are dynastic associations going on.
Kylo contradicts these associations. Rey is from nothing. Her parents are dead. They were worth little. Kylo’s gambit seems like a rhetorical failure; I don’t see how this realization would compel Rey to think that being with Kylo would be a benefit. Beyond that, there’s also some question of whether and to what extent it’s true. This is a series where Obi Wan lied to Luke about his parents, or told the truth from a certain point of view. Is Kylo himself lying, or (as seen with Snoke himself in his final scene) seeing the truth from a certain point of view? Is Rey an heir to the Force without necessarily being part of a lineage of Jedi that includes Anakin, Luke, Leia, and Kylo?
The questions raised are interesting because they leave a lot open about Rey’s precise place in this story. The Force doesn’t fall neatly into a narrative of good versus evil or family member versus fellow family member. What place it does fall into isn’t clear yet, but the promise for a third film and an answer to that question is clear. Rey fails to convert Kylo, and Kylo fails to convert Rey, so what will this failure engender in the larger intergalactic conflict?
In the final strands of The Last Jedi comes a third interwoven narrative, one that brings to a head the conflicts of the Resistance fleet, Luke’s lingering doubts, and Rey’s own path. If A New Hope weren’t already taken, it might feel like an apt title for the ends of this film. I’ll follow that strand from Luke’s perspective first to resolve the development of the Force.
As the Resistance is hunkered down in their base on-planet behind a stout wall, the First Order comes with a laser battering ram. The lines of battle are drawn on a planet that looks superficially like Hoth, except that the planet is salty and not icy. As Leia waits for the battle to start, Luke comes to her. His hair is shorter like in the flashbacks, as if he has prepared for battle again. He gives Leia a token and they have a conversation that resolves a lot of issues between them and Kylo. Leia has already forgiven him.
Then Luke goes out to confront the First Order. Kylo directs them to bombard Luke’s spot. A large cloud of ash and smoke obscures the spot Luke was in, a common motif. (Luke of course has survived.) Then Kylo goes down to duel Luke alone. This hearkens back to Obi Wan’s duel with Vader – master and student. Kylo is on the offensive, trying to get a killing hit in. Luke is more defensive, but gets in a good move or two of his own. Luke taunts Kylo, telling him that his understanding of the Force is entirely wrong. Luke reminds Kylo that each person he kills will stick with him, a reminder of the long consequences of guilt and remorse. Kylo gains the upper hand and slashes through Luke.
Luke perhaps should collapse like Snoke did earlier or like Darth Maul did in The Phantom Menace: the upper and lower halves ought to separate. But Luke stays standing. Kylo tries to stab him again. Nothing. Luke is an apparition. To sharp-eyed observers (like my wife), that’s why he left no saltclouds as he stepped.
This, too, offers a new start. Most literally, Kylo’s efforts are thwarted again and the remnants of the Resistance get away. Less obviously, Luke is able to admonish Kylo on his trust in order. He may have beat his former master in battle, but he is far from being the master of his own destiny, or of understanding the necessity of the many forces under the umbrella of the Force. He doesn’t get what Rey seems to get intuitively. Finally, Luke is able to offer some correction for his failures. In his final scene, he watches one sun set while another rises. In contrast to A New Hope’s multiple sunsets, he does not look outward with wistful purpose. He looks out with peace. The spark of Rey rises; his sun sets. He disappears with the Force, a move that filled with necessity and purpose.
The Force is the principle of entrelacement in action within its universe. It connects disparate moments, brings ends and beginnings. It ones all.
Some More on Rey, or What’s Up with the Cave?
I want to return to Rey in the hole or the cave. She begins to peer into it during Luke’s first lesson. Luke is struck by Rey looking towards the hole eagerly. She didn’t even hesitate, he mentions in disbelief. This is a place dark and portentous, which holds the potential to give someone what they want. So a few scenes later, Rey enters the hole and the cave.
The scene is baffling. EW sums this up as the scene being symbolic.i I’ll lightly edit my own initial assessment:
When she chooses to go into the hole herself and investigate, she encounters a prismatic illusion that seems to multiply her body infinitely. She snaps, and each echo of her snaps with a slight delay, indicating a kind of progression rather than a strict mirror image. The eerie simulacra feel like they might move individually at any moment to imperil her, perhaps an expectation borne from films where the reflection suddenly deviates and reaches out. There is no deviation. Instead, she probes to the end of the mystery, reaching a place Luke had warned her about. It might grant her a vision of what she wishes. When she asks to see her parents, it shows nothing back. The answer is ambiguous: are her parents nothing? Dead? Or did the promised power fail? That operative ambiguity (whether a thing in fact works) meets a basic question (who are Rey’s parents)?
First, “symbolic” feels like it’s an answer only because the literal event doesn’t explain much. I’m going to draw a few associations, but these are weakly grounded with no confirmation in the film.
To the extent that this scene is a portent, or a sign of what could come, the scene seems even less clear than in The Empire Strikes Back. At least in Luke’s cave scene, the literal level showed an event that would happen: Luke and Vader would have a duel. The core point of confusion was what it meant to see Luke’s face in Vader’s mask. Like father, like son, as the film would later develop? Expecting combat and responding with anger would make Luke like Vader? These are answers connecting the context to the symbol in search of various causes and messages.
What can be connected in The Last Jedi? At the literal level, we have seemingly endless reflections. Rey reaches the end, and it’s just her. So far, this fits the director Rian Johnson’s account of the scene:
The idea is this island has incredible light and the first Jedi temple up top, and then it has an incredible darkness that’s balanced down underneath in the cave. In this search for identity, which is her whole thing, she finds all these various versions of ‘Who am I’ going off into infinity, all the possibilities of her. She comes to the end, looking for identity from somebody, looking for an answer, and it’s just her.ii
The search for identity is one key here. Rey came to this planet to find Luke, to figure out what is happening to her as her Force powers develop. More immediately, within this cave she’s asking about her parents, an answer that may help her explain who she is. Parental identification is one way we figure out our own identities.
So what does seeing many different versions of herself mean? There are a few competing ideas of identity-formation here. One is existential, beginning from the insight that at the end of her reflections it’s just her. She herself has to determine what the purpose of her own life is, what her identity is. No one but herself can answer that question, which is why the dark cave provided so much help. Just as an existential answer might begin with a baffling world and then turn to the authenticity and judgment of a thinking subject to answer the question, Rey and the audience experience bafflement only to turn to themselves to try to answer the question.
Murky. This answer would indicate what we already know: it’s up to Rey to answer the mystery for herself. She knows or ought to know. Rey’s scene with Kylo in the throne room confirms this knowledge. Rey reaches the same answer Kylo did: her parents are junkers who traded her away and died.
A second option focuses more on the mirror itself. The mirror stage is a psychological concept developed by Jacques Lacan in the mid-20th century. I’ll explain the best I can, but make apologies for any simplifications or errors; I’m not a Lacanian psychologist. At first, the mirror stage involved a young child who sees their reflection in the mirror and associates that image with their self. The child may experience mastery at seeing themselves for the first time and being able to control the reflection. However, that mastery is imaginary, challenged by comparison to an omnipotent Other, usually the Mother. Lacan later hypothesized that this relationship was structural, or embedded within people across their lives. To a subject, the self was fragmentary and part of the Imaginary order. A subject strives to become the fully-realized self shown in the mirror, while also being drawn to the Others that highlight the subject’s lacks by comparison.
Rey experiences the reflective part of the mirror stage in the absence of a parental figure. Instead of finding parental figures in Han, Luke, or even Kylo, Rey finds only herself. The result is fragile mastery, fragile because it lacks the resolution of a definite answer.
A third option is that Rey is being shown all of her possible selves. These selves are not strictly reflections but are rather echoes across time and space. The vision is baffling because there is nothing to indicate where those echoes came from or what will happen from them. They are mute of portent; the Dark Side gives no easy answers.
The Last Jedi didn’t give confirmation for any of these options. The first option has the most support, mainly because the question of who her parents are does receive some answer later in the film. The answer and how Rey understands the answer are really up to Rey.
Next to that, the second question goes pretty far into the weeds but does give some material for further reflection (lol): there may be something deep within Rey’s character that reflects her self without really defining or answering her self.
Unlike the cave scene in ESB though, there is no good enough answer that at least associates literally with another scene. It’s unclear whether any scene in Episode IX will hearken back to this point either. If the symbolism is ultimately unanswered, then it may remain either an ambiguous scene or one where the symbolism never coalesces: either structurally murky or accidentally murky.
I want to tie that to Rey’s character in itself. I’ve heard many complaints that Rey isn’t a character who develops. One version of this points out her lack of lightsaber training alongside her skill with the lightsaber. This is another example of someone asking for material consistency in a series not as interested with showing every element of training: Luke trains with a lightsaber in one scene and still has an extensive fight with Darth Vader. We can presume Luke had other practice. Similarly, Rey has one scene of training and practice; can we not similarly presume that she’s had other practice or aptitude?
I think discussions like that miss the point of characterization. A book, film, or other narrative doesn’t have to show how one develops literal skills. The training montage motif is often cliché precisely because it tries to represent an arduous process by erasing the time that makes it arduous; the training works better when it’s either the focus (Rey’s scenes with Luke, Luke’s scenes with Yoda, touching more of the grit of training) or set aside (no need to wave around a lighsaber for 5 minutes; that’s not the focus anyway). How Rey gets good with a lightsaber or learns to pilot a freighter isn’t interesting; there are a number of possible answers, and it’d be weak writing to include them merely to answer the question.
Others claim that Rey’s basic disposition doesn’t change much, that Rey is the straight character who changes less than those around her. I agree with this claim: Kylo has more moments of change and development than Rey. So does Finn and (in this film) Poe.
However, I don’t see how this is a problem. Luke doesn’t change that much either. His changes in the first film mainly equate to changes in circumstance: from farm boy to veteran pilot who’s lost friends in battle. In the second film, he changes because of what he’s learned about the Force and his father. In the third film, he again changes mainly in what he learns and how he responds. He learns about his sister and tells off Obi Wan for keeping his father’s true identity hidden. He shows more of himself in his fight with Vader and the Emperor. However, his impulsive turn to fight Vader in anger and then to throw away his lightsaber isn’t necessarily developed. Luke’s development is on the level of event and response, but not much budges him from his position as hero.
Other major characters in the original trilogy change more, both in terms of status and priorities. Han the smuggler becomes a Rebel general, going from criminal to hero. He learns to stick with his friends rather than the highest bidder. Over time he warms to Leia and becomes more dependable, shedding his earlier vulnerabilities. Lando is a duplicitous host who turns out to betray his friends to the Empire. He soon learns to make amends for this betrayal, and by ROTJ works exceptionally hard to make amends and rescue Lando. These are examples of characters who overcome their reluctances and weaknesses to become good people. Luke was already a good person; he just needed to go through a lot of shit, and perhaps he acquires or shows some wisdom along the way.
Rey’s journey similarly is one of changing status, and going from naivety to becoming a hero. She is a scavenger who gets caught up in the intergalactic conflict. She joins the Resistance. She searches for and finds Luke. She is tempted by the Dark Side by the cave, Snoke, and Kylo, but resists each time. There’s not much change in priority, but the main hero usually doesn’t have that in Star Wars. That would require an anti-hero, or at least a hero with a more complicated story.
What’s this connection back to the cave scene then? The cave scenes promise what has not been shown in writing or acting for Luke or Rey: psychological complexity. Luke fighting and yelling at Darth Vader in ESB shows horror and disgust, not temptation. Rey with Snoke and Kylo shows anger and gritty resolve, not temptation. Each cave scene shows to complicate the seeming monological layer of what literally happens to each character. ESB teases the possibility of inadvertent temptation. Even with his noble intentions, Luke might fall to the dark side. He might identify with what he is most horrified by. Rey may get lost in the question of who she is, of the repetition of all of her selves, and go to any lengths to answer it.
If the later scene is structurally murky, then the implications of the cave scene will make more sense after seeing the sum total of Rey’s actions. The promise of psychological complexity peeks through in scenes about Rey’s parentage and what drives Rey, though perhaps the full impact of the cave scene will be realized in the third film. (Luke has another parallel: seeing Sebastian Shaw’s face for the first time provides some resolution to the cave scene. The image of the father is not Luke, and by then Luke has successfully resisted temptation.) If the scene is accidentally murky, then the complaints about Rey are (at least in part) valid: the writers had to baffle the audience and Rey to make her seem deep.
The Temptation of Luke: Why Would He Even Start to Murder Kylo?
If Luke successfully resisted temptation in ESB and ROTJ, he briefly falls prey to it before AFW. In a series of flashbacks, Rey learns that Kylo attacked Luke, then that Luke tried to kill Kylo in his sleep, and then that Luke was tempted to kill Kylo but was caught by Kylo right when he’d decided not to. Why would Luke be so tempted to kill Kylo that he approaches Kylo in his sleep and draws his lightsaber?
I ask that question because a lot of other people have asked it as well. I just described how Luke’s status throughout the trilogy was mostly consistent. His greatest potential for change happens in ROTJ, where (fringe theories aside) Luke resists the Dark Side. Luke is the goody two-shoes of the Star Wars universe. Why would he even think of killing one of his own students? Why would he be an almost-murderer?
Star Wars has a history of murder used to demonstrate the depravity of evil characters. Anakin’s killing of the younglings feels like it seals the deal of his fall to the dark side, a genocide of an entire generation of to-be Jedi. The original trilogy has no children leaping to memory, but the destruction of Alderaan makes Grand Moff Tarkin into a more ruthless and cold villain than even Darth Vader, who gets off with periodic murders-by-asphyxiation of his command staff.
The more recent films vacillate more on that point. Kylo kills his dad but not his mom, so he’s definitely depraved but conflicted and (in my wife’s words) needs a hug. Snoke, Hux, and the First Order are certainly evil, destroying entire systems and firing on unarmed transports with impunity. (Okay, no vacillation there.) In Rogue One Cassian Andor kills a Rebel about to be captured, perhaps out of mercy or perhaps out of callous defensiveness. Saw Gerrera is complicated, an outcast rebel who has no compunctions against violence.
Against even those examples, Luke’s temptation could be seen as a betrayal of his more golden outlook. No, he didn’t murder Kylo, and in the end he decided against it, but it is meaningful that he saw such darkness in Kylo that he was tempted to.
There are two dominant responses. The first would be to accept the event as-is and then to think through the implications for Luke’s character. The second would be to reject the characterization and prefer instead that Luke had gone in a different direction. I take the first approach: I have to seriously consider why Luke would first try to kill his student and then hide for years while ruing the original error.