So here’s my problem: While I’m aware, in my brain, that A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back are undoubtedly the best two Star Wars films to date, none of that matters when the chips are down and someone asks you to wrestle on behalf of the movie that is closest to your heart. (I have no idea why someone might ask you to do that, just roll with it.)
What I’m trying to say is… Return of the Jedi is my favorite Star Wars film.
It’s rough because there’s a large contingent of Star Wars fans (and film fans in general) who hate this movie. You know how lots of people say that the prequels “ruined” Star Wars? Yeah, there are plenty of people who claim that Jedi did the same thing. They’re all like, fluffy fighting bears! A second Death Star is dumb! Darth Vader is all pasty and sad under his helmet! Han Solo isn’t cool anymore! FLUFFY FIGHTING BEARS, FOR GOD’S SAKE.
And sure, there are some structural things in Jedi that could have been handled better. Maybe a second Death Star wasn’t the way to go. Maybe it would have been awesome if they’d figured out how to have an army of Wookiees instead of Ewoks fighting the Imperial ground forces. (This was the original intention, but it proved too difficult. It’s the reason why “Ewok” is basically “Wookiee” with the ‘e’ moved around.) Maybe, maybe, maybe. But this is the movie we’ve got. And all of those arguments are boring to me. Because they’re tired and they’re hashed out and they’re not that interesting to begin with, but also because I fail to understand how anyone can watch this movie and come away with nothing but complaints.
Return of the Jedi matters because it is, fundamentally, Luke and Anakin’s story. I’ve already written at length about how Luke spends this movie being a complete badass and no one seems to notice/care, but it’s more than that. On a rewatch, I tried to view the film through fresh eyes… and that only makes it clearer. Return of the Jedi isn’t a bad movie, but it’s a strange one. For the type of film it is (a conclusion to a mythic arc), it makes so many odd turns.
What’s hilarious—though not unexpected—is that a lot of essential choices made by Lucas for the final film ultimately came down to a desire for more money. Or more specifically (as Mel Brooks would later have it), merchandising. Lucas refused to kill off Han (which Lawrence Kasdan wanted to do early on in the film, to increase the sense of jeopardy) because he wanted to sell more toys. Lando and the Falcon were also briefly for the chopping block, and it’s likely that the same reason was behind their survival. The same was also true of the happy ending; the original idea was to have Luke walk off into a sunset alone, like a cowboy, but Lucas opted to have a much more cuddly ending because he thought that merch sales would do better. Whether or not he was right (he was), it forced Episode VI to veer from the sort of territory that some fans might have preferred following Empire Strikes Back.
Setting the tone are Artoo and Threepio, even more at ease in their roles as Constant Peril Machines than they’ve ever been. (It makes their rapport somehow that much more endearing throughout the film.) We’re back on Tatooine, but a far cry from the farm where Luke was raised, or even the seedy Mos Eisley spaceport. Jabba the Hutt is grotesquely rendered, a marvel of puppetry, and his gallery of criminals exist in this murky den of vice precisely to make them more frightening. Poor Han wakes up, and you can’t blame him for thinking everyone’s jumped the shark; retrieving him doesn’t truly make sense, tactically. He was a good fighter for the Alliance, but these people are here because they love him, not because he’s irreplaceable to their cause.
The reason Han’s rescue is impressive is because it goes off without a hitch. It’s a sequence meant to prove that Luke Skywalker is a far more deadly figure than the boy we saw in the last film. Good or bad, we can’t know yet, but he is powerful and dangerous if he means to be. The body count he racks up here is different than the one he gained destroying the Death Star. That first film was about Luke saving the Rebel Base, the entirety of the Alliance, so that they could continue to fight. But Jabba’s court? He does that because he wants to. Because he knows how horrible Jabba is (terrorizing his home world, hanging his best friend on a wall, forcing his soon-to-be-revealed-as sister to be an object of pleasure), and he wants to get rid of him.
To be fair, Luke can’t be expected to have a perfect grasp on how his powers are meant to be used because he still doesn’t understand what they’ve been developed for. It’s fascinating that his final scene with Yoda was not conceived in the original script (Lucas added it because he realized that without confirmation of Vader’s paternity through the old Master, children who saw the film might never believe that he told the truth) because it is so important to Luke’s final journey. He is told by his mentor that the intention behind his training was always to have him kill his own father. Then that lesson is further drilled down by Obi-Wan’s additional plea. So this is where Luke’s most pivotal actions will germinate, starting with the question of whether or not he will do as he’s commanded by his teachers. And he immediately suggests what no one (aside from his dying mother) has ever considered before—
—Vader is not a monster. Vader can be redeemed.
He’s told he’s wrong by everyone, his sister included. To Mark Hamill’s credit, he always plays it as though Luke himself is aware he might be wrong. His back-and-forths with Vader retain their intensity because despite how brave Luke’s words are, he knows he’s gambling on his father. He’s surprised to be taken before the Emperor, and more surprised still when Vader takes a back seat as Palpatine starts working him.
The Emperor’s mistakes in this narrative are smart because they are the mistakes made by the powerful. He underestimates the resourcefulness of the Alliance, the ingenuity of a population that seem primitive and silly to him, and he is as overconfident as Luke says. It’s easier to see with the prequels in the rearview mirror because Palpatine is so much shrewder as the manipulating Chancellor. His pitch for the dark side to Luke is peanuts compared to his hard sell to Anakin over two decades ago, but he still believes he has a winning hand against this kid who gives puppy eyes to papa every time he’s pressed.
Luke’s brief flirtation with the dark side cannot stand because it is a turn prompted by constant needling. Unlike Anakin, there is no simple catalyst for Luke. The Emperor has to spend his time whittling away at the young Jedi, convincing him that he is about to lose everything either way. He’s fast-tracking the path to the dark side, presuming that he can make a good enough show of it.
What he doesn’t count on—what no one counts on—is the overwhelming amount of love that Luke brings to the table. To believe his father capable of redemption when he barely knows the man, to accept Leia as his sister instantaneously, to rescue Han from Jabba when he’s needed elsewhere, to view Obi-Wan and Yoda as dear mentors when his time with them was so limited…. Luke Skywalker is a person defined by the love that he gives unconditionally to others, without stipulation. That is what makes him better than his father.
That brand of love can only be answered with love in kind, and this is what brings Vader back from the abyss. Luke never falters in his message, even when he finally attacks out of pain and fear. He never goes back on his conviction that Vader can release the darkness inside him and become his father again. That faith in Anakin is more than he was ever allotted as a young man, and that is key—Luke offers his father the belief that his friends and colleagues denied him as a Jedi.
And I still haven’t pointed out my favorite part of all this: the fact that Luke’s entire journey once he surrenders to Vader is utterly unimportant to the central plot of defeating the Empire.
Sure, the Emperor might have gotten away last minute, but he also might have died on the second Death Star. Luke is basically nothing more than a time-consuming distraction, and one of his own making—this wasn’t part of the original Rebel plan, which really drives home that Luke’s story is largely separate from the Rebels’ story. He is here for himself, for his family, even if his actions ultimately lead to balancing the Force. And he does it by going against what everyone told him he must do.
I’m always impressed by how far this movie goes in fleshing Luke out as a person. First two films we get a stock standard orphaned hero, and while he’s fun to watch, he isn’t given time to open up the way, say, Han does. But this film is all about giving Luke a solid personality: a sense of humor, a certain amount of frustration, a stubbornness born of both parents. He is good at being a leader, but he’s not a commander like Leia. He’s possessed of a newfound calm in the Force, a wisdom that recent experience has gifted him. But he’s still so young.
I have to talk about Leia separately, because there are so many layers to her character development, and levels to how she plays to the audience once we complete this trilogy. Everything done to Leia in this film could have easily diminished her (and was meant to in many ways), and while it might have worked on a lesser character, Leia continues to shine. I’ve written before about Carrie Fisher’s reaction to the metal bikini, her upset with fans who thought of Leia as too cold and thus unfeminine, leading to “softening” her up in Jedi. And the bikini is still gratuitous and thought of in a sexy way, which it should never be ever. (At all. There is no argument to be made here.) But Fisher fought to kill Jabba onscreen herself, and she continued to play the part with a groundedness that even “softer” dialogue couldn’t unsettle. So it doesn’t matter that Leia is a little more emotional in this film—because everyone is. The attempts to make her more attractive to the male audience accidentally resulted in a more complete character, one who couldn’t simply be sexualized and cast aside.
But it’s important to recognize that many of the decisions regarding Leia were still made for goofy, sexist reasons. The most prominent example is her sudden siblinghood with Luke, a choice made only to dissolve the love triangle between the three leads. I think we can all be glad that we didn’t get any I-love-you-but-also-you emoting in the final film, and Leia suddenly being Force-sensitive is awesome, but it’s sort of annoying that the choice was made just so she wouldn’t have to waffle over who to kiss at the end of the film. On the other hand, it’s great that Han still has no idea what’s going on, and ends up spending the film pining after her. The anger leveled at Han by fans who feel like their favorite character was declawed are missing the point—Han Solo was always this sardonic, always this paranoid, always this romantic. And after having the ultimate confirmation of how much his friends love him—like I said, Luke and Leia could have easily left him with Jabba, or at least waited until they had defeated the Empire to come get him—he goes all in.
It all makes for a much lighter film than Empire, and while that may have been down to marketing, it still feels right. Star Wars doesn’t need a lot of trauma to be effective. That may be what some people want, but it seems disingenuous to the overall feeling that Star Wars is meant to convey—the innocence of that first film. Also, I think that people underestimate how a darker final chapter would have altered their perceptions of the series. Would we love Empire Strikes Back as much as we do if Jedi had been a darker film as well? Because I can’t imagine that being the case. If anything, Empire might stack up far worse settled in the midst of a more dramatic tale.
Ultimately, it’s too bad that so many people hate on this film because if you just go with the conceits of Return of the Jedi, it’s a really fun movie. We start with a successful rescue, there are so many cool new aliens to look at, everyone’s banter is on point, the Rebels are led by a fish admiral, Lando gets to pilot the Falcon, Leia splits off in the middle of a covert operation and forces Luke to run after her, our heroes get captured by fluffy bears with spears. THEY GET CAPTURED BY TEDDY BEARS. WHY DON’T YOU LOVE THIS? WHY DO YOU HATE ABSURDITY, IT IS GREAT.
What’s better is that there’s supposed to be meaning to that as well. Lucas always intended the struggles between man and technology to be central to Star Wars. (The irony of that is just incredible, considering what he hath wrought with his special effects empire.) The Ewoks were meant to show children that superior firepower wasn’t all you needed to win a fight—and you know what? That’s a great thing to teach kids. Star Wars is for everyone, including people who are young enough to believe that an Ewok in a glider dropping rock on an AT-ST is a real threat. Let them have that.
And even with all this silliness, there are pockets of tragedy in Jedi that are truly disturbing if you bother to consider them for longer than a moment. Jabba’s callous disposal of Oola the Twi’lek dancing slave, the droids being tortured and dismantled in EV-9D9’s lab below the palace, the death of the rancor, the Ewoks apparently eating their human prey and using their helmets for percussion instruments. We watch Leia consider the possibility that her brother might not make it out of this fight alive, and turn to Han for comfort. We watch two Ewoks get hit by canon fire, and one of them gets up to walk away, only to find that its companion is dying. We watch Luke drag Vader’s body across a landing bay floor while other Imperials pass them by in favor of self-preservation, proving that all of Vader’s power counts for nothing.
We watch Luke set fire to a funeral pyre that he clearly spent hours making alone, in the midst of the forest, out of a desire to honor the father that he had hoped to regain.
The various special editions add very little to the Return of the Jedi experience; the expanded Max Rebo band sequence seems like a lot of flash for no payoff, and the later addition of Hayden Christensen as the ghost of Anakin is just plain awkward and confusing. This is partly because we’re never given an explanation as to why Anakin should appear as his younger hotter self, and also because we’ve never seen his face in the original trilogy, making his appearance jarring in the extreme. (It also seems to have been filmed without Christensen’s knowledge, as he said that he was never told they were shooting anything of that nature. It shows in the clip—he’s sort of vacantly smiling, it’s really unfortunate—and something focused would have come off better.) But the Sarlacc pit looks a little bit more active, which is a good idea in theory. And while I adore the “Yub Nub” Ewok victory song, the expanded closer that shows people rejoicing across the galaxy is far superior. The new music John Williams wrote in place of the song is also better, a warmer piece of music that is more cohesive with what we see on screen.
The Star Wars trilogy ends with a party. No, it’s better than that—it ends with reunions and dancing and music and people telling stories to each other. It ends with Luke staring into the proud faces of his teachers and his father… but being dragged back toward the celebration—toward life—by his sister. The Rebels win and the Empire is no longer. The Force is balanced.
But I think it’s important that it stops exactly when it does. We get the chance to revel with the heroes while understanding that something is coming after this. That dawn will break and they will all have to get back to work or go their separate ways. It’s different watching the end of this film and knowing that we’re about to learn what happened to these people in the years that followed. More exciting, but frightening too.
Return of the Jedi is still my favorite Star Wars film. I wonder if that will ever change, given the upcoming influx… but I highly doubt it. People can criticize its more buoyant vibe, but this film always reads as tragedy to me. Luke did what everyone told him was impossible, but winning the day never works out quite how you picture it. He has come out the end of this journey an entirely different person to boot, so far from the eager farmboy who wanted to take part in space battles and just get off his rock of a home. Because the call to adventure isn’t really about getting the chance to battle dragons and rescue friends and save the world…
…it’s about who you’ve become by the time you’re done.