Star Wars: The Force Awakens Is Still No Return of the Jedi
Star Wars: The Force Awakens is great, but is it really the best since Empire Strikes Back? Return of the Jedi begs to differ...
This article contains Star Wars: The Force Awakens spoilers.
Do you sense it? There has been an awakening in the Force… and for that matter a supernova of excitement in geekdom. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is now on Blu-ray with a wealth of special features deeper than the Sarlacc Pit’s digestive system, and with more nerdy factoids than there are lightsabers in the Jedi Council. Just like the marketing for The Force Awakens says, “The movie event of a generation,” or at least 2015, has arrived on home media.
And with everyone now getting the chance to sit down and revisit one of the most successful films of all time, it is more apparent than ever that director J.J. Abrams and Lucasfilm pulled off quite the hat trick by creating a Star Wars movie that played to the nostalgia of older fans while successfully creating a whole new generation of faithful younglings for the space opera. And most importantly of all, it did all of this while crafting a good movie with instantly lovable protagonists that kids today can call their own in Rey, Finn, and Poe Dameron.
In fact, the vibes are still so good four months later that it’s easy to understand why so many are willing to paint the seventh Star Wars film with wildly hyperbolic brushes. As aforementioned, the Star Wars: The Force Awakens trailer called this picture “the movie event of a generation,” seemingly forgetting that the domestic box office record is broken about once every decade (for the record, the previous “movie event of a generation,” Avatar, still owns the worldwide bragging rights).
But additionally, it is easy to descend into any conversation, whether in-person or online, and discover that many would call The Force Awakens the best movie of 2015, the best film of the past 15 years, and even the best Star Wars film ever made. Even those who avoid such flights of fancy are still quick to suggest that The Force Awakens is the best movie in that galaxy far, far away since Empire Strikes Back—which is essentially aiming shade blasters at full power toward Return of the Jedi.
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Indeed, the original “ending” to the Star Wars saga—back when the idea of letting franchises have a conclusion didn’t seem like a fairy tale—has often been the black sheep of the original Star Wars trilogy. And honestly, it’s for good reason, Return of the Jedi is arguably the weakest of the first three Star Wars films released between 1977 and 1983, lacking the wonderment and innovation of Star Wars or the layered, emotional complexity of Empire Strikes Back. Essentially a retread of the narrative structure of the original 1977 movie, complete by beginning in the deserts of Tatooine and ending with yet another World War II styled dogfight in the bowels of a Death Star, Return of the Jedi inherently lacks the freshness of its predecessors.
Also, there are many who would infer that the less said about Ewoks, the better off we all are.
Of course, opinion really is all in the eye of the beholder, but I would contend that Return of the Jedi has suffered an unfair reputation for 30 years due to simply being very good instead of amazing. While generations, including my own, were raised on accepting it as a satisfying part of the “trilogy,” every year that a new Star Wars film has opened in my lifetime comes reviews from professional critics (never mind over-caffeinated fans) that declare it the best since Empire and better than Jedi. It happened with The Phantom Menace; it happened with Attack of the Clones; and it occurred even with Revenge of the Sith.
Now that we actually have our first good Star Wars movie since 1983, it is easy to see why these declarations are finally sticking with The Force Awakens. However, the truth of the matter is that Awakens is still probably the fourth best film under its glistening brand.
Almost immediately, it is striking how similar The Force Awakens and Return of the Jedi are. Both pictures carry a nigh impossible weight of expectation with the earliest one tasked with ending the Star Wars saga in a satisfying manner, and the other daunted by the challenge of truly reinventing it 30 years onward. However, both make the same shrewd decision in their goal: retread the narrative highlights of Star Wars (also for the record, the name of that 1977 film is Star Wars, not the retroactively added “A New Hope”).
Each film revisits the narrative elements where a hero’s destiny is discovered in a desert, whether it be Luke Skywalker in 1977 or 1983, or for that matter the wonderful Rey in 2015. They also each feature a rebel/resistance attack on an enemy base, and spaceships flying inside said base to create a nice big explosion.
However, Return of the Jedi adds plenty of its own creative flourishes to this very familiar formula. Right off the bat, returning to Star Wars’ Tatooine can feel reductive since it shrinks the galaxy to being what feels like a handful of planets. Indeed, there are few clues in the 1977 picture to suggest that Jabba the Hutt actually resides on the desert planet where Luke first met Han Solo.
However, what occurs on this world is an excuse for a multitude of set-pieces of varied, exciting quality. While Jabba’s Palace unto itself can be viewed as an extension on the “Canteen” sequence from Star Wars (much like Maz’s Castle in The Force Awakens), it is actually explored and broadened into something much more unique and satisfying. Whereas the Mos Eisley Canteen sequence represented a page deliberately and broadly ripped out of Rick’s Café in Casablanca, Jabba’s Palace was an excuse to dive headlong into the criminal and gangster underworld of the Star Wars universe. If Star Wars went to Rick’s, then Jedi found the kind of scuzzy dive Sydney Greenstreet would operate in ‘40s noirs like The Maltese Falcon. They even had a nightly floor show musical number!
Also, perhaps more problematically, Lucas also indulged in his penchant for “historic” epics from yesteryear with Jabba’s Place being something akin to a how the debaucheries of Rome were represented in films like Ben-Hur (a movie he would much more explicitly revisit in The Phantom Menace). This also meant elaborate gladiatorial matches with new creatures like the Rancor beneath Jabba’s chambers, and an especially exciting fight with the Sarlacc Pit that, sexual politics aside, represents one of the most memorable action scenes in the entire franchise.
In contrast, The Force Awakens revisits Tatooine in all but name with Jakku, yet another desert planet where Rey discovers a droid carrying top secret information that the Empire First Order is after—which leads her and Finn to jumpstart the Millennium Falcon as they are chased by TIE fighters not unlike another set-piece straight out of the original Star Wars.
Similarly, Return of the Jedi creates a new visual aesthetic when the heroes later land on a forest moon called Endor, which is used for another series highlight during a tense speeder bike chase scene, complete with the memorable visuals of Luke and Leia weaving between trees while taking down enemy Stormtroopers. Conversely, every action scene and location in Star Wars: The Force Awakens has the air of familiarity to it, be it on a snowy ice planet like Empire’s Hoth (this one just happens to be a giant Death Star Starkiller Base) or on the pastoral tranquility of the Rebel base at Yavin 4.
Ultimately, when one gets into the finer details of The Force Awakens, it is the first Star Wars movie to lack its own identity. While it is surely superior in nearly every way to the prequel films, it is nevertheless more dependent on what came before than they are. Where Lucas tried and failed to build exciting new directions for his saga in the 1990s and early 2000s, Abrams and Lucasfilm succeeded by covering the best hits of the original trilogy. Hence while Return of the Jedi forged its own identity, The Force Awakens is very much an amalgamation of the original three films, including Return of the Jedi.
In fact, I would suggest the most powerful sequence in the entire 2015 film is ripped straight from Jedi’s own most unique asset: the relationship between a father and son. For at its essence, the best elements of Jedi, which tied off the franchise as a satisfying whole, were when screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan took the breathtaking cliffhanger from Empire Strikes Back and ran with it to a stunner of an ending.
Prior to Disney, the prequels, or even the Expanded Universe, the concept of Star Wars in 1983 came to represent the saga of a single family, and the primordial struggle of a son trying to atone for the sins of his father—and to leave his shadow. This was crystallized in Return of the Jedi where the strongest moments of the third act are neither the teddy bear army waging war on the Empire nor the space battle outside. Instead, the scenes that give closure to the Star Wars saga’s original form are those between Luke Skywalker, his dark father Darth Vader, and the Emperor Palpatine.
In these sequences, Luke becomes a Jedi while Lucas works through primal conflicts felt in most children as they come of age. And Luke’s ability to redeem his father, who still dies in his true form as a shriveled and elderly man, provides the sense of closure to Luke’s journey. No Star Wars movie since has found such catharsis in its ending, and I doubt any will.
Just as The Force Awakens borrowed and remixed the twist about a hidden father from Empire Strikes Back with the anti-climactic reveal that Kylo Ren is Han and Leia’s son, so too does its finale remake the Return of the Jedi ending to lesser effect. Once more a father and son stand at a crossroads when Han Solo reluctantly confronts his son Ben in a last-ditch effort to make him abandon his Kylo Ren villainy. Earlier in the film, both Empire’s holographic visage of the Emperor and his insidious influence on a former hero (a la Jedi) were presented in Supreme Chancellor Snoke. Now, Snoke’s seductive influence is felt when Ben trembles with inner-conflict and then still chooses to stab his father through the heart with his arm-guarded lightsaber.
It is a powerful moment that on its own is the emotional highlight of the film where the franchise’s best character is given a heartbreaking death. It obviously recreates the moment from the original Star Wars but now with Rey’s graying mentor being killed by a man in black. Yet, it is also a thematic inversion of Return of the Jedi. Where Jedi saw a son redeem a father in its highest peak, The Force Awakens flips the script by having a good father fail in reaching his son’s better angels and paying for it with his life…and falling into the abyss.
This does not detract from the power of the sequence. Unlike certain recent superhero movies, Han Solo’s death feels earned and poignant in this moment. While it is his only scene with Ben, both Harrison Ford and Adam Driver sell years of anguish in wordless glances and subversive give-and-takes until the son gives his father a lightsaber puncture wound. There is something appropriate about Han Solo not dying on a battlefield or by saving the world while driving an emerald spear into a CGI monstrosity—he dies trying to reach his son.
It feels of a piece with the thematic mythology of Star Wars…but only because it is redoing in a perverse way the emotional architecture that makes Return of the Jedi a worthy standalone film. And that is because whether it be Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Productions (Super 8), a revision on Star Trek’s greatest hits (Star Trek Into Darkness), or the whole of the first Star Wars trilogy (The Force Awakens), director Abrams is terrific at taking iconic moments in movie history and reconfiguring them for a new generation.
Within that context, The Force Awakens is his greatest triumph to date as he took a mythology revered in American culture like scripture, and he brought it to life in a very satisfying way that will keep it going for another 30 years at least. However, that too could be perceived as a detriment.
Return of the Jedi ended with a sense of finality as a grand saga was completed. This is becoming an impossibility in the 21st century for franchise films that always have to set up the next one—or in the age of shared universes, the next 20 ones. Cinema by its definition is finite; it’s two hours in a darkened room with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Jedi understood that and gave a strong signoff. I’m not sure we’ll see that again from this galaxy.