It’s been a journey to get to this point, but as I’ve watched all ten Star Wars movies in preparation for The Rise of Skywalker, I have unexpectedly come to the conclusion that Return of the Jedi is the best the original trilogy has to offer. Let’s explore my reasoning and celebrate the first time the world thought the Skywalker saga was wrapped up.
Genuinely funny humor
The entire chunk of the film dedicated to Jabba the Hutt’s chunky villainy is rife with successful comedy. From Salacious B. Crumb’s manic reactions to countless priceless C-3PO moments, the movie’s first act walks a line between silly and serious. There’s humor with a dark streak too. Malakili’s reaction to the Rancor’s death is both amusing and heartbreaking. And the Gonk droid who keeps screaming under torture is hilarious and disturbing at the same time.
The Ewoks, to their credit, are not generally bumbling delivery systems for slapstick, so when Wicket does hit himself in the face with a slingshot, it lands in more ways than one. I also love when an Ewok hugs Han’s legs after hearing about his carbonite experience. But it’s C-3PO who consistently kills it in Return of the Jedi; this is his best showcase as a panicking accidental comedian.
Deep engagement with core Star Wars themes
Not that the previous two chapters don’t possess depth, but Return of the Jedi firmly codifies a lot of the thematic preoccupations of Star Wars. Obi-Wan Kenobi gives his famous speech about “a certain point of view”. The Ewoks’ crucial role in defeating the Empire contrasts the natural world against technology through the lens of warfare, connecting to one of the key conflicts in the entire saga: the natural and flowing vs. the mechanical and rigid.
But it is the Luke Skywalker/Darth Vader/Emperor Palpatine thread that gets to the core of Jedi and Sith philosophy. Building on Yoda’s teachings in The Empire Strikes Back, this sequel makes the lesson tangible: the idea that the Dark Side is not wearing all black and using a red lightsaber, but rather giving into fear, hate, anger, and aggression. And make no mistake, Luke flirts with the Dark Side throughout the entire movie. The first thing we see him do is use Force Choke on two Gamorrean guards. After opening himself up to fear, anger, and hatred at the thought of losing his sister Leia, we see how wild and aggressive his lightsaber strikes against Vader are. That’s not passive defense. It’s passionate attack.
In the end, however, Luke remains a hero. When he refuses to kill his father, throws away his lightsaber, and leaves himself vulnerable to Palpatine, it’s a stunning act. He is willing to sacrifice his life to force Anakin Skywalker to redeem himself. It’s a defining moment for Luke; you can draw a straight line from this almost Biblical sacrifice play to his epic pacifist heroism on Crait in The Last Jedi.
The sail barge sequence
The sail barge sequence is the best pure action setpiece in the original trilogy. It’s a thrilling ride, from R2-D2’s iconic lightsaber delivery, to Leia choking Jabba, to Lando’s amusing scream when the Sarlacc’s tentacle ensnares him, to the triumphant score when the skirmish is won. It doesn’t matter that you can see a stuntman’s alien headpiece fall off as he rolls into the Sarlacc Pit, nor that Boba Fett’s death is celebrated with an ignominious burp. Nor that Luke cutting down henchmen has the imprecise choreography of an impromptu schoolyard play-adventure – and maybe that’s part of the point. Perhaps the charm of the sequence comes from that childlike enthusiasm. “What if Luke walked the plank, but then jumped up and got his lightsaber, and slashed all the bad guys?” If Luke swings his lightsaber haphazardly in the general direction of a stuntman, and they perform a stagey fall, we can fill in the blanks. Whether with crayons or ball-point pens, we can fill in the blanks.
The war, the lore, and the score
The theory goes that there are three major elements of Star Wars. The military conflict aspect: the war. The Force/destiny aspect: the lore. And the crime/heist/underworld aspect: for the sake of preserving the rhyme, the score. Return of the Jedi brilliantly serves all three masters. All the Jabba stuff is a hugely enjoyable dive into the criminal underworld. The seduction of Luke and redemption of Anakin is iconic lore material. And the two-pronged Battle of Endor is the war on a big canvas. Structurally, the film is an odd beast. As opposed to the straightforward chase framework of The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi leads with what could be its own mini-movie, fully develops it, and then widens the scope to round out the galactic picture. It has a clear serialized feel that is core to Star Wars.
Demerits and conclusion
I do take issue with some aspects of Return of the Jedi, which should be addressed. The edge is almost totally taken off the Han Solo and Lando Calrissian characters. Maybe Han’s carbon sickness lasts the whole movie, or maybe Harrison Ford didn’t necessarily want to be there, but Han is a goofy figure by and large. Lando is an appealing presence, but that’s all he is here: the square-jawed hero. The screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan and George Lucas can skew somewhat hacky, repeating phrases and ideas. And regarding the remastered edition changes, Vader’s “Nooooooooo” when killing Palpatine probably should’ve stayed internal.
However, the film benefits from the deepest emotional complexity of the original trilogy. The reveal that Darth Vader is Luke’s father in The Empire Strikes Back is a truly horrific spectacle. We sympathize with Luke’s pain and, indeed, revulsion; the Darth Vader character has been a monolithic force of evil. It is Return of the Jedi’s innovation to take that dark reveal, and find hope in it. To apply, I’ll say it, a Star Trekkian level of humanism to this Dark Lord of the Sith. Vader/Anakin’s moment of sacrifice in betraying Palpatine rightly gets the headlines, but observe the earlier scene where our heroes try to get clearance for their stolen Imperial shuttle Tydirium to land on Endor. Vader senses Luke’s presence; this is the enemy, ready to sabotage the deflector shield. But Vader lets the shuttle land. Is this a moment of sentiment?
A New Hope’s simplicity is its greatest strength and greatest weakness. The Empire Strikes Back, while deepening Jedi philosophy and the visual texture of the series, has an insular quality and its chase structure makes for a slightly fallow middle third. Return of the Jedi features the most impressive action in the trilogy in the form of the sail barge skirmish and the Battle of Endor (including the speeder bike chase), the most amusing humor, and in the Luke/Vader storyline, it writes a humanistic thesis of Star Wars. (Plus there’s the joy of Ian McDiarmid’s scenery-chewing as Palpatine.) There are moments watching Hope and Empire when I think all they have over certain other Star Wars movies is a high level of craftsmanship. To watch Return of the Jedi is to eat a full Star Wars meal. The show’s not over ‘til the fat Ewok dances.