In our Genius Character Reveals series we examine scenes and moments where a film or TV show reveals a tremendous amount of character information in a compressed amount of screen time. This instalment focuses on Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), the hero of the original STAR WARS trilogy.
Luke Skywalker and STAR WARS
STAR WARS was an international phenomenon when it was released in 1977.
Famously, writer-director George Lucas drew on a large range of pop culture and mythology, including Joseph Campbell’s idea of the hero’s journey.
Hollywood blockbuster economics have changed massively since then (as the trajectory of the STAR WARS franchise itself shows!). However, the storytelling power of the original is constant.
Who is Luke Skywalker?
Luke Skywalker is the hero of STAR WARS trilogy. He grows up on his aunt and uncle’s farm on the remote planet Tatooine, unaware that the Force, a supernatural energy, is strong in him.
How is Luke Skywalker’s character revealed by the action and dialogue?
An opening crawl describes a galaxy-wide civil war. Two droids on a Rebel ship, C3PO and R2D2, escape from the Empire.
Landing on the desert planet Tatooine, they evade the Empire’s Storm Troopers but fall into the hands of Jawas, small aliens who take them to trade.
The Jawas arrive at a farmhouse, a dwelling set below the entirely sandy surface of Tatooine.
Luke Skywalker and his uncle Owen talk to the Jawas. Owen wants to look at the droids they have for sale.
A woman’s voice calls Luke. He wanders back and leans over a sandy balcony.
Aunt Beru, down below, tells him that if they get a translator to make sure it speaks Bocce.
Luke replies, “Doesn’t look like we have much of a choice, but I’ll remind him.” Luke heads back to Owen, who’s choosing between droids.
In the background, Luke examines one that Owen’s already chosen. Luke’s uncle tells him, “Take these two over to the garage, will you? I want them cleaned up before dinner.”
But I was going into Tosche station to pick up some power converters!
Owen is firm. “You can waste time with your friends when your chores are done. Now come on, get to it.”
Luke relents, but one of their droids malfunctions. Luke tells Owen it “has a bad motivator” and, at C3PO’s suggestion, tells Owen to take R2D2 instead.
Still annoyed, Luke takes the droids back home.
What do we learn about Luke Skywalker in this scene?
STAR WARS is partly told from the perspective of two droids. (Lucas borrows this idea from the Kurosawa film THE HIDDEN FORTRESS, which takes the perspective of two of its lowest characters.)
This means that we’re not meeting Luke, the protagonist, until about 20 minutes into the film. There’s not much time to lose.
The original STAR WARS feels so fast moving because it also begins in media res – in the middle of the story.
After the opening crawl, most of the backstory and world-building takes place in the background.
This scene is a great example. Owen, Beru and Luke use droids, harvest moisture and happen to live on a desert planet. These aren’t explained because the audience don’t need to know their explanations.
Furthermore, even with all these sci-fi and fantasy trappings, Luke’s life is instantly recognisable.
His is a rural existence. A wide shot shows the empty desert. They don’t have any neighbours and the Jawas have to come to them to trade.
There is a town (or “station”) Luke can go to. Luke does have friends he can meet. However, both are easier said than done.
Doesn’t look like we have much of a choice
Luke’s pessimism about the Jawas’ droids reflects the lack of choice in his own life.
He’s not free to pursue his own interests and abilities with technology and engineering. He’s in charge of the droids, but they’re purely functional robots, for helping at the farm. Owen tells Luke he has to finish his chores first before going out.
Luke lives with his aunt and uncle, raising questions about his parents (is he an orphan?). They still have seniority and authority over him. They are his family but also his guardians.
At this stage and as far as the characters know, Luke’s destiny is to take over their farm.
A subsequent scene, where Luke stares at two setting suns, set to John Williams’ swelling score, is iconic.
But the sense that Luke feels trapped in a mundane existence, that his life has been planned out for him, and the longing to escape to something more exciting is already present here.
Why is this an example of brilliantly succinct screenwriting?
Luke’s introduction shows the importance of having something an audience can connect with, especially in a fantasy action-adventure story. Spectacle without humanity can only take a film so far.
Luke is a normal teenager, or at least what counts as “normal” in this universe. He even whines about doing his chores, instantly connecting to the preteen audience. One of the original trailers even begins with:
Luke Skywalker was just a farmboy.
This also allows Luke to go on the biggest journey possible over the course of the film and its sequels.
Luke, who wants to shirk the simple responsibility of his farm work, ends up holding the fate of the galaxy in his hands.