Okay, final spoiler warning: This is how an icon from The Empire Strikes Back returned to gleefully steal a scene in The Last Jedi.
Bereft over what he sees as the mistakes of the past, and angry after seeing Rey depart aboard the Millennium Falcon, Luke Skywalker ignites a torch and heads off to destroy the ancient tree that contains a small library of sacred Jedi texts.
But he is stopped by a familiar chuckle. Perched on some nearby rocks is the faintly glowing figure of an old friend: “Master Yoda …” Luke says.
The little green Jedi cackles and before Luke can light his fire, Yoda conjures a lightning bolt. “Time it is,” Yoda says. “For you to look past a pile of old books.”
Page-turners they were not, the jolly little Force ghost says, insisting that those scriptures contain no teachings that Rey “already does not possess.” (Luke doesn’t realize Yoda means this literally – Rey has absconded with the texts. There is no book burning in Star Wars.)
Of course, Yoda is not all warmth and sage advice. He whacks Luke with his ghost cane while taunting and teasing him.
“That’s what I love, still smacking me on the nose, trying to train me like a puppy,” Hamill said at the post-screening Q&A. “Oh ‘young Skywalker.’ Really? This coming from a character who’s 947 years old.”
The great and powerful Oz
The scene actually reunited him with iconic Muppets puppeteer Frank Oz, who performed Yoda back in The Empire Strikes Back. Creature shop supervisor Neal Scanlan used the original molds to create a replica of the original Yoda, and the two got back to work for one final lesson.
“Frank is so gifted, and I’ve been a fan of his for years,” Hamill says. “The thing is, it was just so real to me.”
He said it was important even in Luke’s age and wisdom to show that he still needs guidance.
“Luke is not the sharpest tool in the box,” Hamill said. “Things are right in front of him, and he doesn’t get it. Like when I’m looking for Ben Kenobi and I don’t recognize Alec Guinness for who he is. I shoo Yoda away, ‘Get out of my rations, I’m looking for a great Jedi warrior!’ Those touches are so human.”
Writer-director Rian Johnson says he needed to have a figure from Luke’s past reappear, and with Alec Guinness gone there was no other option except Yoda.
“That was really it,” the filmmaker said at the Q&A. “When I was thinking about what Luke’s arc is going to be, and realized that someone coming back and kicking his butt would be his final beat on the island, Yoda just made the most sense.”
Ewan McGregor, who played a younger Obi-Wan Kenobi in the prequels, previously supplied some voiceover as the character in The Force Awakens, but Johnson said it wouldn’t have felt right to have him appear as the character.
“If we had brought Ewan in, it would have been fun, but Mark as Luke has never had a relationship with the Ewan version of Obi-Wan,” he said.
Although … that could have been where Luke learned it was okay to make himself look younger in projected appearance.
“Exactly! There’s some benefit to Force ghost-dom,” Johnson agreed.
To keep Yoda’s return a surprise, producer Ram Bergman worked diligently for a year to hide the involvement of the all-powerful Oz. “I had to convince Frank to basically make sure we don’t put his name on the poster, and not to do any press about it,” Bergman said. “I made sure he ate in the office and not publicly in the restaurant when he came to Pinewood [Studios.]”
Even reuniting with Mark Hamill off-set was cloak and dagger.
“We were emailing each other: ‘Meet me in the parking lot and I’ll sneak you up to my hotel room,’” Hamill said with a laugh. “You’re reading these things later and thinking, ‘Eww, that’s kind of creepy. People could take this the wrong way.’”
More post-screening insights (these are heavy spoilers, but if you’ve read this far…)