Celebrating the most famous end to any trilogy onscreen
Nevertheless, Return of the Jedi carries a lot of momentum from The Empire Strikes Back, the best of all the Star Wars movies, which leaves it in a place where Luke has to pick himself back up from revelations about his father and the Empire’s renewed strength in crushing the resistance. As a Jedi-in-training, Luke has gained power that’s coupled with uncertainty, because he’s not in full command of a Force that Darth Vader and the Emperor intend to use to lure him to the dark side. Fate has dictated that Luke and Darth Vader will have a father-son relationship, but the terms are under violent negotiation.
With the completion of the new Death Star a priority for the Empire – being a contractor for the Emperor is maybe the worst job in the universe – the rebels have to plot another unlikely mission to destroy the reactor at its core. But first they have to get past the impenetrable shield protecting the space station, which is rooted on the forest moon of Endor. The Empire is fully anticipating every step of this plan, but the rebels make allies of the Ewoks, the cuddly, merchandisable teddy bears who live on Endor, to say nothing of the beds of every child under 10 in America.
The action set pieces in Return of the Jedi rarely have the same impact as the highlights from the previous two films, with nothing like the excitement of Luke’s climactic shot at the reactor in Star Wars or the attack of those all-terrain “walkers” in The Empire Strikes Back, with their imposing, Ray Harryhausen-esque jankiness. The one pulse-quickening event here takes advantage of the Endor’s gorgeous forest setting with speeder bikes zipping around (and into) trees with the immensity of California redwoods. But it remains an odd choice to relegate Han Solo mostly to the sidelines here, especially after Lucas and Ford had helped redefine the modern adventure movie a couple of summers earlier with Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Yet Return of the Jedi is more concerned with emotional payoffs than interstellar thrills, which puts Luke’s identity – as a son, as a brother and as a Jedi – front and center as the series completes its arc. Lucas has sound reason to cash out on the massive investment viewers have made on these characters over three films, and how you feel about Return of the Jedi tends to relate strongly to how you feel about the episodes that preceded it. Luke’s visit with his fading mentor Yoda on Dagobah, the recasting of his relationship with Leia and his final light saber duel with Vader complete a hero’s journey with an affirmation of the themes that had guided the trilogy to this point – loyalty, decency, redemption, self-sacrifice, friendship and family. It all seemed more affecting 40 years ago.