Five things I love about Return of the Jedi

Rose Tico once said that we’re going to win not by fighting what we hate, but by saving what we love. That wisdom is pertinent for Star Wars fans; amidst seemingly incessant criticism, I want to spend time actually liking Star Wars. I love all Star Wars, so in this series, I’ll walk through each of the films identifying five things I love about it. That’s not to say there are only five, but I’m limiting myself to five here. One note: because I think John Williams’ work on every Star Wars film is fantastic, I’m going to essentially assume that would make every list, thus I’m leaving it out intentionally. But without Williams’ music, we don’t have Star Wars as we know and love it.

We continue today with Return of the Jedi.


1. “I am a Jedi, like my father before me”

The climax of Return of the Jedi is also, in my opinion, the greatest moment in all of Star Wars. We’ll dive into this a bit more with the next point, but so much of the heart of this film – and particularly the final half of it – centers around Luke and Vader. To this point, it seems that Luke has tried and failed to bring his father back to the light, and instead Vader and Emperor Palpatine seem determined to turn Luke to the dark side. Luke learns that the Rebel attack was all a trap, and he uses the Force to call his lightsaber to himself. Vader ignites his own blade and rises to meet Luke’s, and the two begin a long-awaited duel. A rematch of their previous encounter on Cloud City.

But this time, Luke doesn’t want to fight. In The Empire Strikes Back, Luke was overzealous and rushed to face Vader as he sought to save his friends. Here, Luke is more reasoned and level-headed, preferring to avoid a fight with his father than strike him down. Vader, however, isn’t much interested in this, and he continues to pursue a duel that, should Luke not turn to the dark side, would lead to the death. And so they come to a pivotal moment where Luke hides in the throne room, with Vader taunting him. Father searches his son’s mind and discovers that Luke has a sister, well-hidden from the dark lord. “Obi-Wan was wise to hide her from me,” Vader taunts. “Now his failure is complete.” But as Vader suggests that maybe he’ll get Luke’s sister to turn to the dark side instead of him, Luke responds in rage, yelling and igniting his lightsaber as he charges Vader. This furious attack has Vader on his heels, and Luke’s raging blows pin Vader to the floor before Skywalker cuts off his hand. Luke has defeated Vader in combat!

Here, however, is the genius of George Lucas on display. Here is the moment that most brilliantly defines and displays what it truly means to be a Jedi, perhaps only matched by Luke’s actions years later on Crait in The Last Jedi. But to fully understand what’s going on, remember how Lucas has instructed us along the way in the film and in the trilogy. In A New Hope we meet the hopeful and optimistic hero in Luke Skywalker, but then in The Empire Strikes Back we get the astonishing revelation that Luke is actually the son of the most evil being in the galaxy (at least that we’d met thus far). Darth Vader, the definition of evil in the trilogy, was the father of this textbook hero? And so Lucas capitalizes on that in Return of the Jedi: Luke’s first appearance sees him dressed all in black and wearing a hood, and doing what some have taken to be a Force choke on the Gamorrean Guards (it’s unclear). Is this foreshadowing that Luke will join his father? Most importantly, however, remember what Yoda tells Luke earlier in the movie, shortly before the Jedi Master passes away into the Force: “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 we’ve been explicitly told the path to the dark side: anger, fear, and aggression. So what happens at this final duel? Out of fear for his sister’s wellbeing and the fate of his friends, Luke responds in anger and lashes out in aggression toward his father. Everything is proceeding exactly as Yoda warned against! Luke is turning to the dark side!

But then he stops. He takes a look at his father, thinking about what he’s doing. He deactivates his lightsaber, and throws it away. “You’ve failed, your highness,” he boldly says to the Emperor. “I am a Jedi, like my father before me.” It is at this moment that Luke truly embraces the Jedi, and it is absolutely pivotal to our entire understanding of the Star Wars saga to realize that this moment comes not when Luke defeats Vader in combat but when he refuses to fight any longer. In fact, Luke besting Vader in the lightsaber duel is, in the course of this story, the thing that brings him on the edge of the dark side. But by refusing to fight any longer, Luke truly embraces what a Jedi is. He is basically saying, “I don’t care if I die in the process; I’m not turning to the dark side.” In this moment, by throwing his lightsaber and refusing to fight, refusing to give into his fear and anger and aggression, Luke takes a firm stand with the best of the Jedi, fully identifying with everything they stand for.

I truly believe it is the greatest moment in the entire saga.

2. Luke and Vader

I could spend a lot more time on that one moment, but let’s move on to another thing I love about this film that’s closely related: the relationship between Luke and Vader. The first half of the film doesn’t really have much to do with this, since it’s about establishing and preparing for the Emperor’s arrival while Luke and his friends attempt to rescue Han Solo from Jabba the Hutt. But once the storylines converge and the Rebellion hatches a plan to attack the Death Star, the heart of the film truly zeroes in on the relationship between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader. Hero and villain. Father and son. Vader is determined to find Luke in an attempt to get him to join him, while Luke is determined to go to Vader in an attempt to bring him back to the light. As Luke tells Leia, “I’ve got to try.” So the first major moment between them comes when Luke willingly surrenders himself to the Empire, and he is brought to meet Vader on the forest moon of Endor. I think this moment is extremely underrated in Star Wars, as Luke converses one-on-one with his father. Luke attempts to get through to his father, but it doesn’t seem to work. They share a lengthy conversation (at least by Star Wars standards) that results in Luke being taken before the Emperor. But before that, as Luke is removed from Vader’s presence, the dark lord takes a moment to gaze out at the Endor night, and both his actions and the music suggest that maybe, just maybe, there’s a sliver of hope left that he could turn. Maybe, just maybe, Luke is getting through to him.

That scene between Luke and Vader is masterful, but they then come before the Emperor. Palpatine here takes the lead and it largely becomes Luke dialoguing with the ultimate bad guy, but then he duels Vader. We still don’t see cracks in the dark lord’s attitude, since he’s determined on either getting Luke to turn to the dark side or killing him. And then he even taunts about getting Leia to turn instead! It is then that Luke gets the upper hand in the duel, giving into the dark side. Luke taps into the darkness to defeat Vader, but in the immediate aftermath two very important things happen. First, Palpatine instructs Luke to kill Vader; it’s surely a slap in the face to Vader that his master sees him as expendable. Even though Vader knew that was his master’s feeling already, now it’s confirmed. But second, and most important, Luke refuses to fight any longer. Luke refuses to kill his father. Luke puts on display what a Jedi should be.

That scene between Luke and Vader is masterful, but they then come before the Emperor. Palpatine here takes the lead and it largely becomes Luke dialoguing with the ultimate bad guy, but then he duels Vader. We still don’t see cracks in the dark lord’s attitude, since he’s determined on either getting Luke to turn to the dark side or killing him. And then he even taunts about getting Leia to turn instead! It is then that Luke gets the upper hand in the duel, giving into the dark side. Luke taps into the darkness to defeat Vader, but in the immediate aftermath two very important things happen. First, Palpatine instructs Luke to kill Vader; it’s surely a slap in the face to Vader that his master sees him as expendable. Even though Vader knew that was his master’s feeling already, now it’s confirmed. But second, and most important, Luke refuses to fight any longer. Luke refuses to kill his father. Luke puts on display what a Jedi should be.

So then Palpatine turns his fury on Luke, unleashing a relentless barrage of Force lightning that leaves the Jedi writhing in pain, pleading with his father to save him. Vader initially rises to stand by his master, but as he takes it in has a change of heart. Through the unceasing love and hope of his son, Anakin Skywalker returns to the light. Lifting Palpatine up above his head, Anakin chucks the Emperor down the Death Star reactor, seemingly to his death. And so it is then that the two share their second main conversation of the film, but this time it’s between Luke and Anakin. Luke removes Anakin’s mask, since he’s going to die anyway, and as Luke says he needs to save him, Anakin responds, “You already have, Luke. You already have. You were right. You were right about me. Tell your sister, you were right.” It’s an incredibly emotional ending to this trilogy, as Luke has succeeded in bringing Anakin back to the light, and Anakin has saved his son just as Luke had saved his father. Luke and Vader steal so much of the show in this film, and the intimate, emotional nature of their storyline is beautifully wrapped up.

3. Return of the Jedi

In case you’re not sensing the theme, this movie really centers around Luke Skywalker, even more than the previous two films. And early in the movie, we get an epic heroic moment. The plan to rescue Han Solo from Jabba the Hutt (whatever that plan was) is detoured; Lando is undercover, Chewbacca is imprisoned with Han, Leia is Jabba’s slave, and Luke is thrown to face the fearsome Rancor. Luke defeats the beast, and the heroes are then taken to the Great Pit of Carkoon, the resting place of the almighty sarlaac. Han obviously isn’t in on things and therefore think they’re heading to their deaths, and the audience feels or worries the same thing. But Luke remains confident. Remember, earlier, when Han heard from Chewie that Luke was a Jedi Knight, Han dismissed it as “delusions of grandeur.” Was that all it was? If so, things look bleak for the heroes!

So they’re taken above the sarlaac pit, and Luke demands that Jabba either free them or die. Jabba orders for Skywalker to be thrust into the pit, but Luke gives a salute to R2-D2, perched atop Jabba’s Sail Barge. As Luke leaps off the plank toward the pit, he suddenly spins, catches the plank, and flips himself into the air, all the while R2 launches Luke’s lightsaber high into the air. Luke lands on the skiff, catches the lightsaber in his hand, and ignites it – a GREEN lightsaber (the first time a lightsaber in the franchise wasn’t blue or red)! He then begins furiously fending off Jabba’s men, and the thrilling battle is on.

As with pretty much every other scene ever, the mastery of John Williams is on display here, and I point it out here because his score so perfectly encapsulates what makes this moment so epic. This moment comes a whole half-hour into the film, and things haven’t exactly gone well for the good guys so far – and that’s after a movie (The Empire Strikes Back) in which the Rebels are defeated and on the run. And so the last time we heard the heroic Star Wars fanfare was in A New Hope, when Luke and Leia swing across the Death Star walkway. We briefly hear it begin in ESB when Luke escapes from the Wampa, but it’s a truncated version of it. So we’ve been waiting for a long time to hear this, and that’s because we’ve been waiting a long time (since ANH) for the heroes to truly prove victorious. Yet here, we’re beginning to wonder whether it’ll happen at all… and then Williams slowly brings about beats to raise the tension, all before the main fanfare blares in all of its glory as Luke Skywalker leaps into the air, catching his new lightsaber. This is the hero we’ve been waiting to see. This is the victory we’ve been so hoping for. This is the return of the Jedi.

4. Luke and Leia

Return of the Jedi, like its predecessor, contains a stunning familial revelation for Luke Skywalker: this time, it’s the reveal that Leia Organa is Luke’s sister! But what’s interesting is that this isn’t played as the huge twist that Vader’s reveal at the end of Empire was; this time, it is hinted at by Yoda and then soon after we learn that Leia is Luke’s sister when Luke talks with Ben Kenobi. Any payoff of that is delayed until later in the film, when Luke talks with Leia on Endor. He tells her that she’s the last hope for the Alliance if he doesn’t make it back, because the Force is strong with her and that she is his sister. Then we re-visit that on the Death Star, when Vader reads Luke’s mind and discovers it as well – which is what spurs Luke to fight. And then on Endor in the aftermath of the battle, Leia tells this news to Han, who is quite thrilled to learn that Leia’s love for Luke is a sibling love rather than a romantic love.

To be honest, part of the reason I love this reveal so much is because of what the sequel trilogy and subsequent stories have done with the sibling relationship between Luke and Leia, as well as the fact that Leia is strong with the Force. I love the way they have been developed more, so I get that it’s part of it. But within this film it’s also something I truly love. I like that it’s revealed a bit earlier in the film, because that way it doesn’t take away as much from the focus on Luke and Vader that really carries the final act. The focus isn’t, and shouldn’t be, on Luke’s sister but rather on Luke’s father. So I appreciate how the film introduces this. But it also gives us one of the most touching scenes in the film and the saga, as Luke talks with Leia before leaving to confront Vader. It begins with Luke asking Leia for memories of her mother, and then Luke explaining that he has to go face Vader – because Vader is his father. But there’s more, and that’s when Luke reveals that Leia is his sister. This moment between siblings is touching, and in typical fashion John Williams scores this beautifully.

5. The Battle of Endor

Basically the entire final third of the film is one massive battle sequence, happening across three different plains. It’s the first time we’ve seen that in Star Wars, and it remains one of the largest battles in the franchise. You know how it goes: Han Solo leads a strike team to the forest moon of Endor that includes Leia Organa, Chewbacca, Luke Skywalker, and others. Their goal is to disable the shields so that Lando Calrissian can lead a fighter attack on the second Death Star, flying into the heart of the massive space station and destroying it.

Quite a bit of time is spent on the forest moon itself, where the team encounters a series of encounters, including a thrilling speeder bike chase, as well as meeting the Ewoks (first as their apparent dinner, and then as their allies). But Vader knows that Luke is there, and the son feels like he’s got to at least try to save his father. So he tells Leia that she’s his sister, adding that she’s their last hope if he doesn’t make it back, and then he leaves to confront his father and his destiny. And so a third encounter is added, with Luke being brought before the sinister Emperor Palpatine. Luke fights Vader, and then winds up facing the Emperor’s wrath. Before long the Rebel fleet arrives, but Lando figures out that the shield is still up, while Admiral Ackbar realizes that “it’s a trap.” The Battle of Endor is underway.

So the battle ensues across the three fields: Han, Leia, Chewie, and their team of Rebels and Ewoks fight on the forest moon to try to deactivate the shield. At the same time, Lando and the Rebel fleet faces the Imperial fleet – and a Death Star that is surprisingly operational. And meanwhile, Luke faces Vader, and then the Emperor. The three of these encounters going on at the same time really adds to the experience and it feels like the massive battle sequence that we’d been waiting for.

One thought on “Five things I love about Return of the Jedi

  1. I’ve always appreciated the moment in the battle between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader when Luke is about to deliver a killing blow, but then he sees the stump of Vader’s mechanical arm, which causes him to look at his own mechanical arm, and he realizes is in danger of becoming exactly like his father. It’s done so well, without any dialogue, and it always gives me goosebumps.

    Also, I like the Ewoks. Yes, I do! I was seven years old when ROTJ came out and I thought the Ewoks were awesome.

    Liked by 1 person

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