- Here’s my question: why do we love Luke Skywalker?? He certainly has no “save the cat” moment, and he basically doesn’t have a “moment of humanity” either. He’s never especially kind, or especially funny (he does make some mild wisecracks), etc. I’m running a checklist on the movie right now and he does pretty bad: We hear that he has special skills, and they’ll come in handy at the end, but we never get to see him demonstrate them onscreen in the first half. He doesn’t have much of a metaphor family or default argument tactic (other than ineffective sputtering) and his default personality is petulant whining! And yet we love him intensely!
- Obviously the big reason is that we strongly identify with his frustrations and humiliations, but according to my little theories, that shouldn’t be enough.
- One prime suspect is Hammil’s underrated performance, which goes a long to way to making his whining sympathetic and his longing looks at the horizon somehow stirring, but is that enough?
- You’ve watched and analyzed this movie far more closely than I have, so I’d love to hear your thoughts: Why do we instantly love this unkind, petulant, whiny farmboy, who does nothing to win us over?
James’s epic reply:
So! I just re-watched the first hour of STAR WARS with your comments in mind. Here’s my two cents. You say, "Why do we instantly love this unkind, petulant, whiny farmboy, who does nothing to win us over?" Come now! You know you’re being disingenuous. Luke is not actively unkind (in fact he treats the droids pretty well), and to say that he’s petulant/whiny overstates your case.
But it’s true that you’ve identified a anomaly! Luke doesn’t seem to fulfill the terms of your checklist. That's a problem, because the checklist is usually so accurate! Does the success of Luke Skywalker mean the checklist is invalid? No. Does it mean that Luke is a shitty hero and we all just got fooled into caring about him? No. Is STAR WARS a crazy, sui generis art movie like MULHOLLAND DRIVE that is outside the scope of your checklist? Nope, it's is the great-grand-daddy of all blockbusters that is explicitly used as a template for so much that came after! What is going on, then? (Actually, I think the third alternative is closest to the truth. STAR WARS secretly is a really weird movie, weirder than it gets credit for.)
Here’s my theory. The most obvious difference between STAR WARS and most popular action movies is that it’s a long, long time before we meet our hero. The first time we meet Luke, we’re already 17 minutes into the movie -- startlingly, more than an eighth of the movie is over, and we haven’t even set eyes on our supposed protagonist! Since this late arrival of the hero is the element that is most glaringly different, I suspect that that’s the reason the checklist fails.
In most movies the hero is introduced immediately, or soon after the opening credits. That has caused your checklist to conflate two issues: selling the audience on the hero and selling the audience on the movie. I think that if the audience is successfully sold on the movie early on -- through fulfilled promises, intriguing characters that are clearly in supporting roles, and a fast-moving and yet logical plot, then once the late-arriving hero is introduced, the audience’s resistance will have already been surmounted, and the filmmakers has much less work to do to make the hero heroic -- which is a particularly good strategy if you don’t want your hero to be an immediate superman, but just an ordinary dude like Luke. And since the audience is basically panting for a hero to show up by that point, they’re more likely to take what you give them.
(Actually, with almost every line and scene choice, Lucas does work hard in various small clever ways to make us like Luke, but it’s a lot of small subtle choices. I’ll outline them below.) Let’s outline everything that happens up to meeting Luke for the first time:
Luke is the first person we’ve seen so far who isn’t a monster, or an old person. The youthful audience will naturally bond with him. And since we’re basically dying for a hero now, he comes like water in the desert, and we’re prepared to cut him all kinds of slack. We’re prepared to let him act a little less like a stereotypical hero and more like a regular kid. This is a great opportunity for the filmmaker. The worst thing right now would be for Luke to have an overly strong personality.
19:00 C3P0 advises Luke to buy R2D2 instead, Luke takes his advice, which we really wanted to happen, because seeing R2D2 and C3P0 get separated again would make us sad. We like the action Luke takes here, which makes us like him. That said, after Luke takes C3P0’s advice, he subtly waves the robot silent when C3P0 blathers on. Luke is a canny, practical peasant: he can tell right away, just as we can, that C3P0 talks too much. (A worse choice, that would’ve superficially “made sense,” would be for Luke to be fascinated by what this golden robot had to say. But Luke comes pretty quickly to the conclusion we already know: C3P0 has almost nothing important to say. When Luke comes to an accurate conclusion like that so quickly, we trust him more.)
19:10 “Okay, let’s go,” Luke sighs as he takes the robots indoors. This sighing would be intolerable if Luke were the focus of the scene. But he isn’t the focus, which allows him to get away with this human moment. The emotions we really care about in this scene are R2D2 and C3P0’s (“Don’t you forget this. Why I should stick out my neck for you is beyond my capacity...”) There’s a good lesson in this, maybe: if, in order to keep your hero plausible, your hero has to indulge in some negative action or emotion that would make him seem unheroic, just make the emotion or reaction occur in the background or be implied offscreen.
Come back tomorrow for Part 2!