I liked a lot of things about the The Force Awakens, but easily my favorite addition was Rey, who is undeniably the best. Sure, she’s basically Luke Skywalker in the original, except she’s someone who’s grown up with those same stories and now gets to live them out. It’s cool, and she gets a lightsaber and that’s awesome.
But The Last Jedi doesn’t give Rey some grand adventure. Rey doesn’t actually do a whole lot over the course of the film. While Poe’s facing down the First Order fleet she’s… talking to Luke Skywalker. While Finn and Rose are searching Canto Bight she’s… still talking to Luke Skywalker. Then she has the Throne Room (which is an epic highlight to be sure) and her run against the TIE Fighters in the Falcon, but past that she just lifts a bunch of rocks (and saves the Resistance, sure). My point is, Rey spends most of the movie sitting on an island talking to Luke and, sometimes, Kylo Ren. Which really seems like she’s just spinning her wheels for a solid chunk of time. Why doesn’t she get to do more? Why do you take your best character and leave her idling on the wayside?
Because she’s not idle, not quite. Her arc in the film is her wrestling with the legend of Luke Skywalker: both in arguing with the man himself, but also her own desire to enact the same narrative. Let’s lay out the parallels: both Luke and Rey are from nowhere desert planets. Both wanted something more than their expected life, and both were whisked off on a grand journey to defeat a galaxy-threatening evil. Along they way they also discovered that, hey, they’re strong in the Force! Come the sequels, Luke goes to a distant planet to learn to be a Jedi and redeems Darth Vader. So now Rey, who knows the story of Luke, finds herself on a distant planet with a Jedi Master; the next steps are clearly to become a Jedi herself and redeem Kylo Ren, the heir to Vader’s legacy.
But as Luke says, this isn’t going to do the way she thinks. He is not training Jedi, and his lessons is in the Force are all to dissuade her from trying to take up the old mantle, to continue the old legacy she so desperately wants and Luke resents. Essentially, Rey wants the Jedi Order of the Republic to come back, and Luke wants it to end. Rey and Luke’s conflict boils down to whether or not to put another quarter into the arcade cabinet blinking “Game Over.”
Meanwhile, a Force connection emerges between Rey and Kylo Ren. Kylo offers another foil for Rey, someone with whom she can butt heads about who’s right, and who’s wrong. But as their relationship develops and they see their similarities, Rey also finds another narrative she can enact: the redemption of a Sith. If Luke could turn Vader, could she not turn Kylo too?
Rey leaves Ahch-To and Luke’s training for two reasons. With Luke unwilling to give her the Jedi training she really wants (and swoop in to save the Resistance), she figures Jedi Masters are bunk and she’ll save the Resistance herself. But this is also her chance to save Kylo and bring him back to the light. Screw Luke Skywalker, she’s gonna do the Luke Skywalker schtick without him and redeem Kylo, save the Resistance, and continue the Jedi Order.
Remember what I said about things going the way you think? Kylo can’t be turned, and Rey’s Ultimate Catharsis is undercut. She failed. She didn’t get to save the Dark Lord and turn the tide of the battle. And she doesn’t get to be Luke Skywalker. When Kylo turns Rey down, she not only has to contend with the loss of a would-be friend, but she also finds herself shaken to the core: she’s nobody, and she’s certainly not gonna be Luke Skywalker.
Rey does end up rescuing what’s left of the Resistance, but they lose the fight, Luke is gone, and her lightsaber is split. Things have really gone sideways. But this is The Last Jedi, a movie that wonders what to do with the past. Rey has seen the legacy she had hoped to inherit come crumbling down.
And maybe it should have, maybe Luke was right and the time of the Jedi Order of old is at an end. Maybe it’s time for Rey to stop trying to be Luke and figure out what Rey’s story is.