“Amazing. Every word of what you just said was wrong.” – Luke Skywalker, Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi
Return of the Jedi is my favourite Star Wars film. Kind of. Sort of. I know it has flaws, that it’s long been hated, that it doesn’t even include many of the aspects I myself think define what makes a Star Wars film great. And I stress that when I say “my favourite” I certainly don’t mean “the best”. But every single one of the original trilogy has been my favourite Star Wars film at some point and, since re-watching all six previous films after the release of The Force Awakens, it has been Return of the Jedi in my top spot. The thing is, it’s not the quality of the film that makes it my (current) favourite. It’s what it represents as part of the series as a whole.
At the end of 2016, Rogue One challenged Return of the Jedi for my affections. It’s debatable whether or not Rogue One belongs on my entirely subjective list because it is not an ‘episode’ in the Star Wars saga but rather ‘a Star Wars story’. Nonetheless, it added something that I felt was missing from the original trilogy – besides more women and people of colour, although that contribution is significant, too. In fact, for all that I see people commenting that Star Wars has always been a left-wing, social justice parable as a defence of the progressive direction in which Disney has taken the saga, it is really only in The Force Awakens, Rogue One, and The Last Jedi that the simple metaphor of rebellion against an empire has unambiguously been shifted leftwards through the centring women and people of colour. Had the scenes in which Padmé Amidala and Bail Organa set up the rebellion made it into the final cut of Revenge of the Sith, the prequels may have tentatively served that purpose; also, they did not. It’s one of the reasons why the Disney canon is worth it, for me.
Where Rogue One appealed to me, in late 2016, was its message that in the darkest times there is still hope. Focusing on a story to which we already knew the conclusion, Rogue One shows the desperation and sacrifice that went into stealing the plans to the original Death Star. It spends two hours doing for the first Death Star what Caroline Blakiston managed in seven words for the second in Return of the Jedi: making the audience feel the sacrifices that led to even an attempt at stopping the Empire’s super weapon took. And just as the line ‘Many Bothans died to bring us this information,’ might be one of the best in the saga as a whole, Rogue One has a claim to be the best film.
Hope has, theoretically, been a central theme of the Star Wars saga since the title A New Hope was added to the original film in 1981 (although according to IMDb, George Lucas had wanted to include it in 1977). But across the original six films it is not a prominent theme: The Empire Strikes Back, widely regarded as the best of the original trilogy, focuses on despair, while the prequel trilogy spirals inevitably towards the rise of Darth Sidious, the fall of Anakin Skywalker, and twenty years of Imperial rule. A New Hope offers triumph, but it is Return of the Jedi, with its spectacular three-tiered final battle, that fulfils that hope.
In late 2015/early 2016 it was this feature of Return of the Jedi that appealed to me. The Empire and Emperor were defeated, Darth Vader redeemed, the Jedi returned. It was the culmination of hope, the final victory. Now, between 1997 and 1999 I had read quite a lot of the Star Wars books that take place after Return of the Jedi, in what is now known as the ‘Legends’ universe, detailing the further adventures of Luke, Han, and Leia, the continuing battle with the Imperial remnant, and the eventual peace treaty in Vision of the Future by Timothy Zahn (chronologically the latest book I read, before the universe spiralled back into a cycle of war with the Yuuzhan Vong invasion). But from the position of Return of the Jedi that ending seemed inevitable: the Empire would be finally defeated after many more battles, and peace would be restored to the Galaxy. The end.
My appreciation of Return of the Jedi was also, I think, a response to my bubbling dissatisfaction with The Force Awakens. In this new Disney canon we were presented with a universe in which the Empire had never truly been defeated, in which the New Republic could be wiped out with what was essentially (yawn) a third Death Star, and in which the dynamic of all-powerful Empire versus plucky band of rebels was still in place. I didn’t mind so much the echoes of A New Hope and I intellectually appreciated the value of retelling that story with women and men of colour in the central roles. But in taking place in the same universe, it lent the whole saga a sense of hopelessness – similar to how I had felt the Yuuzhan Vong invasion would do in the original expanded universe. I like to think that I was successful in keeping this dissatisfaction largely to myself, because I understood the importance of the film to others; at least until Rogue One was released and there was an alternative vessel for that hope. But The Force Awakens felt like a betrayal of the hopeful ending to Return of the Jedi, and the saga’s message as a whole.
Return of the Jedi was released in 1983, two years before I was born. In 1989, American political scientist and economist Francis Fukuyama wrote an essay called ‘The End of History?’, in which he argued that with the end of the Cold War the rise of liberal democracy as the final form of human government was inevitable. I haven’t read it. But earlier this year I read Jennifer Welsh’s The Return of History, which argued against the idea of ‘inevitability’ in history, emphasising that we must be constantly fighting for our better society. I mention in my Goodreads review of that book being reminded of Rebecca Solnit’s definition of ‘optimism’ – assuming that things will turn out for the best – and ‘hope’ – the decision to work to ensure that they do; these definitions also permeate my thoughts on Rogue One at the end of last year. Solnit also describes ‘pessimism’, as the assumption that things will turn out for the worst. My impression of The Force Awakens was that it took this pessimistic approach to the Galaxy’s future a long time ago.
Like many people I went to see the latest Star Wars film, The Last Jedi, in cinemas this week. Much like The Force Awakens, it plunges us into a Galaxy once again experiencing dark times, although now this darkness is much more explicit. Unlike a vocal portion (minority?) of the population, I enjoyed The Last Jedi unreservedly. There were flaws, no doubt, but I can’t recall seeing a Star Wars film in the cinema and being so engrossed – at least, not since 1997, when I first saw the Special Editions of the original trilogy in the cinema. That explicit message of hope was there again, and sacrifice. It was phrased differently to how it had been in Rogue One, absolutely. But in a way that I consider complimentary, not exclusive, to the ideas that we‘ve seen before in the Star Wars universe.
The old expanded universe offered a future to the Star Wars universe that was bright and optimistic, at least until a new, made up enemy took the place of the Imperial remnant. It showed me the inevitable rise of the New Republic, which would endure all major threats to its existence. It presented a universe in which history effectively ended with Return of the Jedi. In this universe, prequels that presented the inevitable fall of Anakin Skywalker and temporary rise of the Empire were the only way to go.
In the new canon, The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi remind us that the rise of the New Republic is not inevitable. It requires constant vigilance, fighting, and sacrifice. It also reminds us that, if things get dark, it is still worth fighting. Just as it has been in the past – as represented by Rogue One – it is still the case in the present.
In this light, Return of the Jedi becomes a different beast. It is a triumph against the Empire, but it is not the end. It is never the end. But it is worth remembering that victory was once possible, and that even as gains once made are lost, it will be possible to make gains anew. And that’s why Return of the Jedi remains my favourite Star Wars film, for now. It’s what we’re fighting for.