After The Empire Strikes Back magnified everything that Star Wars offered, it would be fair to say that Return of the Jedi faced a tough task – tying up the cinematic phenomenon that was the original Star Wars trilogy. And while the 1983 Empire follow-up may not be remembered as fondly as its immediate predecessors, it still manages to offer a fun space drama with plenty of action.
At one point known as Revenge of the Jedi (and reportedly scheduled to have Luke take Vader’s place alongside the Emperor), this instalment was directed by Richard Marquand. Steven Spielberg was approached, as was David Lynch, who was fresh off of The Elephant Man’s Oscar success, but he had “next door to zero interest.”
A pity for them, really, because the film was a huge financial success – grossing somewhere around half a billion dollars from its budget of around $40 million. Critics loved it, too, and despite unfavorable comparisons with Empire’s darker story, its clear three-act structure clearly won hearts.
Opening with Luke and company’s daring rescue of Han Solo, Jabba the Hutt’s decadence is on full display. His palace on Tatooine is packed with sycophants and co-conspirators, marking the ultimate test of Luke’s restraint as a Jedi completing his training – and that’s not even mentioning the Rancor in the basement.
Moving into the desert on Jabba’s barge, the “Sarlacc sequence” remains one of the franchise’s most enduring setpieces. It offers everything Star Wars does best – the comedy of an almost blind Han Solo doing more harm than good, R2-D2 doing his best to support the combat, and Luke swinging his lightsaber in a way that makes him look infinitely more assured than he did in his last battle with Vader. Plus, of course, there’s Princess Leia strangling a giant space slug to death – something no one is likely to forget in a hurry.
After a brief detour to kill off Yoda, a sequence that still feels a little unnecessary even now, but more on that later, the second act of the movie moves to the forest moon of Endor. Here we find speeder bikes, Ewoks, and an Imperial Base that provides a shield for a second Death Star. The Rebels team with the indigenous teddy bears (who are surprisingly vicious) and attempt to overpower the superior force while Luke turns himself over to Vader, who takes his son for an audience with the Emperor himself (a deliciously eeeevil Ian McDiarmid).
The third act of Return of the Jedi is some of the finest sci-fi in history, offering three different planes of action surrounding the second Death Star. In the Emperor’s Throne Room, Luke refuses to join the dark side. On Endor, Leia and Han battle to knock out the shield generator. And in space, the Rebels engage the Imperial Fleet in what is arguably the best space-combat sequence in the franchise so far.
The Emperor’s full plan is revealed, as the real big bad explains that the Death Star is not only operational, but ready to fire on the assembled fleet. Meanwhile, Vader duels with Luke, suggesting he plans to turn Luke’s sister (revealed via Obi-Wan’s ghost early in the movie to be Leia) to the dark side, which sends the Jedi into a rage.
Severing his father’s hand but refusing to kill him, Luke is attacked by the Emperor who is able to zap him with the Force Lightning we’ve since seen in Revenge of the Sith. Vader has a change of heart, throwing the Emperor to his death in the depths of the space station, before dying in Luke’s arms while the latter tries to rescue him. The Death Star is destroyed (again), and our heroes reunite on Endor as celebrations begin across the galaxy. The end.
That’s a heavily truncated version of events of course, but there’s plenty to unpack here. It’s worth noting that everyone’s favorite bounty hunter, Boba Fett, is unceremoniously slain during the battle above the Sarlacc pit. Thankfully, we have The Mandalorian now.
Secondly, Return of the Jedi gives us a much clearer look at the saga’s antagonists. In literal terms, we see Darth Vader’s helmet removed to reveal his scarred, pale face. We also finally get to see the Emperor in the flesh, although arguably we find out more about him through the Prequel Trilogy, which charts how he rose to power.
It’s a shame to see Yoda, one of Empire’s best new additions, essentially relegated to simply confirming Luke’s father’s identity before he croaks on Dagobah. The Jedi Master is another character that’s served well by the prequels (CGI battles aside), but it still feels like his death is solely to place Luke as the last remaining Jedi.
Speaking of Luke’s journey to becoming a Jedi Knight, Hamill’s understated performance in Return of the Jedi is arguably his best yet. He’s confident, but not overly so, and the contrast between his calm when dealing with Jabba and his cronies versus his stoic nature when interacting with his father and the Emperor shows that he’s learned his place in the universe.
In the run-up to The Rise of Skywalker, rewatching Return of the Jedi offers up more questions. How did the Emperor survive his fall? What kind of legacy does Vader leave for his grandson, Kylo Ren? Will we see more Ewoks? We can’t wait to find out how the latest instalment answers these.
Return of the Jedi isn’t a perfect movie. It sags in the middle, slowed down by a reliance on Endor and a lack of fresh planets to explore, but it offers a fitting culmination to Luke’s journey. At the conclusion of the movie, he’s beaten his father in combat (albeit having lost his temper somewhat, suggesting he’s not as infallible as expected) and finally brought balance to the Force – for a while, at least…
Best lightsaber bit: As fun as R2-D2 flinging Luke’s lightsaber through the air at the Sarlacc pit is, we have to go with the Jedi’s new green saber clashing with his father’s classic red laser sword in the Death Star’s throne room, while the Emperor looks on gleefully.
Best non-lightsaber bit: The Executor-class Star Dreadnought crashing through the Death Star remains a fist-pumping moment, even all these years later.
Jedi wisdom: “Search your feelings, father. I feel the conflict within you. Let go of your hate.” Luke’s appeal to his dad’s better nature speaks to the conflict within all of us. Basically, be awesome and say no to the dark side.
Rules of the Force: With Anakin’s redemption leading to him becoming an un-Vader-fied Force Ghost, it turns out that one good deed can make up for being the galaxy’s biggest mass-murderer. Vader may have spent much of his life as a Sith, but after killing the Emperor he appears alongside Obi-Wan and Yoda as a benelovent spirit at the movie’s conclusion (with original actor Sebastian Shaw controversially replaced by Hayden Christensen, thanks to George Lucas’ post-prequel tinkering).
Who has a bad feeling about this? It’s a double whammy this time, with both C-3PO and Han Solo both saying the immortal words. Threepio says it when entering Jabba’s palace, while Han is similarly dubious when he’s about to be roasted by Ewoks alongside Luke and Chewbacca. We can’t blame either of them, really.
Galactic stop-offs: A much shorter tour itinerary – we revisit Tatooine and Dagobah, but other than that the only fresh locale is the forest moon of Endor, home of the Ewoks.
Who wins? A definitive win for the Rebels here, as the second Death Star has been destroyed, alongside the Emperor and Darth Vader. Luke’s the last Jedi, but he’s got a sister now (that he kissed passionately just one movie ago, so make of that what you will). Han has been saved, too, so everything is going to work out just fine, right? No more Star Wars, no sir.
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