Here’s a fun question for you to consider: what is the pinnacle moment of Star Wars?
I’m sure that asking this question will prompt a variety of answers and thoughts, but there seems to be one moment in particular that has the most support. And I firmly believe that this is the most pivotal moment of Star Wars – and that misunderstanding this leads to a fundamental misunderstanding of the sequel trilogy.
So, what is it? And why does it matter? Let’s explore.
What is it?
The pinnacle moment of the main Star Wars saga, in my opinion, occurs on board the second Death Star at the end of Return of the Jedi. It is here that two men, father and son, experience a choice. And it’s the choice of one, the son, in particular that stands out.
Luke Skywalker has surrendered himself to his father, Darth Vader – formerly Anakin Skywalker. Luke believes that there is still good in Vader, but the Sith Lord brings his son before Emperor Palpatine on the Death Star. Palpatine reveals to Luke that the entire Battle of Endor had been staged by him to crush the Rebellion once and for all: the strike force on the Forest Moon of Endor, as well as the space fleet, were both heading into a trap. Palpatine tempts Luke to take the lightsaber and strike him down, thus fulfilling his journey toward the dark side. Eventually, Luke draws his lightsaber, and Vader raises his to meet it. The two engage in combat, but Luke makes it clear that he won’t fight Vader. He won’t kill his own father. Vader doesn’t share the same kind of sentiment, however, and is seemingly perfectly willing to kill his son. Luke hides from Vader, but the Dark Lord lures Luke out by threatening his sister – Leia, whom Obi-Wan Kenobi had tried so hard to hide from him. This sends Luke into a rage, revealing his location; and giving in to his anger, Luke gains the upper hand on Vader. Landing furious blow after furious blow, Luke eventually cuts Vader’s hand off, leaving the Sith defenseless on the ground.
And now, as Palpatine tempts Luke to strike his father down and take his place at the Emperor’s side, Luke is faced with a choice. It’s a choice that has been building throughout the saga. In A New Hope, Luke Skywalker is the classic representation of a hero, while Darth Vader is the classic representation of a villain. It’s pretty simple, but The Empire Strikes Back adds a stunning new twist that, if true, causes us to wonder whether we really know what’s going on. Darth Vader tells Luke Skywalker that he didn’t kill Luke’s father; he is Luke’s father! This sheer horror, this feared Dark Lord of the Sith who shows no mercy, this iconic representation of evil, is the father of this heroic young boy trying to become a Jedi. This Darth Vader was formerly Anakin Skywalker, a Jedi Knight who trained under the great Obi-Wan Kenobi. That guy turned to the dark side. So… what is keeping Luke from doing the same thing? Throughout Return of the Jedi, Luke is still the hero, but there are signs that are intended to point the audience to continue to wonder what Luke’s choice will be: from the fact that he’s dressed all in black (like Vader) to the fact that he apparently force chokes some Gamorrean Guards early on… and then, culminating in the fact that Luke uses his anger to best Vader.
Remember the words of Yoda earlier in the film? He tells Luke: “Remember, a Jedi’s strength flows from the Force. But beware: anger, fear, aggression; the dark side are they. Once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny. … do not underestimate the powers of the Emperor, or suffer your father’s fate you will.” So what happens late in ROTJ? Luke is triggered by fear (Vader’s threats against Leia), which leads to anger (yelling and proceeding to attack) that is shown through aggression (Luke’s furious fighting style that is relentless) – all while not seeming to heed the Emperor’s threats/urges. Everything that Yoda said earlier in the film is what Luke flirts with here, so the viewer should realize that the only thing left is for Luke to suffer his father’s fate. And that’s exactly what Palpatine tells Luke to do after all of this: strike Vader down and take his place at Palpatine’s side.
That’s what leads us to the pinnacle moment: Luke glances down at his hand, lightsaber ignited, and sees Vader’s hand too – noticing that both of them have mechanical hands. Luke turns and throws his lightsaber away, telling Palpatine, “Never. I’ll never turn to the Dark Side. You’ve failed, your highness. I am a Jedi, like my father before me.” THIS is the pinnacle moment of the Star Wars saga: Luke Skywalker throws his lightsaber away, fully becoming a Jedi and recognizing that it’s better to die than to give in to the dark side.
Eventually, Luke’s choice prompts another one, this time from Anakin Skywalker. The Jedi-turned-Sith watches as his son is tortured by Palpatine, and eventually decides to step in. Hurling Palpatine over the ledge to his death, Anakin Skywalker returns to the light. As Luke tells his dying father that he has to save him, Anakin replies, “You already have, Luke.” Anakin Skywalker has returned to the light.
Why does it matter?
So why does getting this moment right matter so much? Because I think a lot of The Last Jedi hinges upon the audience understanding the end of Return of the Jedi; and I think Rian Johnson displayed that he understands the feel and flow of the saga better than most people do.
Think about it: it seemed that the most common and frequent criticism of The Last Jedi was about Luke’s character, and about how he wasn’t a great warrior or a great Jedi (again, supposedly). What might lead some to be upset about this? Well, for one, periods of crazy EU storytelling like The Force Unleashed that allowed Force users to rip Star Destroyers out of the sky, thus making Force users unrealistically powerful. But perhaps more than that, it’s a failure to understand this moment in ROTJ. The pinnacle moment is not Luke besting Vader in combat; it’s Luke refusing to fight any longer! Luke realizes, in fact, that after beating Vader he had come dangerously close to the dark side. So he refuses to give in to his fear, to his hate, to his anger, to his aggression, and he throws his weapon away. Luke Skywalker has finally become a Jedi, because he has finally understood that fighting isn’t the Jedi way.
The rest of the Star Wars films attempt to orient our mindset around this idea. In The Phantom Menace, Yoda says, “Fear is the path to the dark side…fear leads to anger…anger leads to hate…hate leads to suffering.” In Attack of the Clones, Mace Windu says, “We’re keepers of the peace, not soldiers.” In A New Hope, Ben Kenobi says, “For over a thousand generations the Jedi Knights were the guardians of peace and justice in the Old Republic. Before the dark times. Before the Empire.” In The Empire Strikes Back, Yoda says, “Wars not make one great,” as well as, “… A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defense, never for attack.” The prequels and The Clone Wars shows that the Jedi had lost sight of their true mission and instead had gotten involved as warriors; they may have been capable warriors and very skilled at their roles, but it ultimately helped contribute to the downfall of the Jedi.
Had Luke defeated Darth Vader he would have been the typical hero in action films; the one who defeats the evil enemy and lives happily ever after. But in Star Wars, Luke would have become the villain in doing so. That’s the subversion of expectations, and that’s why it’s easy to miss and harder to accept.
Fast forward thirty years and what do we find? Luke Skywalker has learned many lessons. At the start of The Last Jedi Luke has severed his connection to the Force, yes, but by the end of the film we see just how truly powerful of a Jedi Luke has become – perhaps the most powerful Jedi ever to live. Because at the end of the film, Luke halts an entire army in their tracks and allows the Resistance to escape without so much as taking a single life or engaging in a sliver of combat. Luke Skywalker projects himself through the Force, and in doing so he has truly and fully encapsulated everything it means to be a Jedi. He shows off his mastery in the Force in a stunning display, as everything he did was through the Force; as Yoda said, “A Jedi’s strength flows from the Force.” And he shows up to defend the Resistance, not to attack the First Order; as Yoda said also, “A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defense, never for attack.” Luke isn’t a pacifist – after all, he tells Kylo that, “the war is just beginning” – but he also recognizes that his greatness doesn’t come from being a warrior; like Yoda said, “Wars not make one great.” Luke’s true greatness comes in the fact that he is able to display his strength and mastery in the Force and defend the Resistance all without having to fight. That’s the true Jedi way.
And that makes total sense if we understand that the pinnacle moment in Return of the Jedi is Luke throwing his lightsaber away and refusing to fight. But if we misunderstand that, and see it as Luke defeating Vader? Then we’ll totally misunderstand Luke’s character in The Last Jedi, too.