In preparation for The Force Awakens, I’m rewatching all six Star Wars films and sharing my thoughts here. This week, I look at Return of the Jedi, the final film in the story… until now!
For almost 30 years, Return of the Jedi was the end of the Star Wars saga. Sure, there were the books and comics of the Expanded Universe, but those always had a troubled relationship with the Star Wars canon. While Lucasfilm promoted them as the official continuation of the story, George Lucas was never directly involved and always seemed to consider them separate from his creation. Despite some suggestions in the late 1970s that Lucas might write a sequel trilogy, by 1983 he clearly intended to end with Return of the Jedi. Yet, as of next week, it will no longer be the final film in the Star Wars saga. So, before we all see The Force Awakens, I wanted to spend some time thinking about the plot threads Return of the Jedi leaves unresolved.
At first glance, Return of the Jedi resolves the political crisis that began all the way back in The Phantom Menace. The Rebels deal a crushing military defeat to the Empire at the Battle of Endor and Darth Vader kills Emperor Palpatine. The Rebels celebrate by dancing with the Ewoks and the camera pans to victory celebrations on the planets Tatooine, Bespin, Naboo, and Coruscant. This montage feels like its signaling a grand finale. Yet, there’s one crucial omission: we never actually see the Rebels conquer the seat of government and establish a new administration. The Rebels are both literally and figuratively still out in the wilderness.
According to J.W. Rinzler’s excellent The Making of Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, the scope of the film was originally more ambitious, with a Rebel assault on the Imperial capital of Had Abbadon, orbited by two Death Stars. Shifting the battle from the capital to the remote forest moon of Endor means most of the Imperial government survived unscathed. On its own, Return of the Jedi asks viewers to believe that the Emperor’s death signified the end of the Galactic Civil War, but that seems farfetched. The Emperor’s senior advisors would probably attempt a rally the political elite and anybody who benefitted from the status quo to fight the Rebels. Indeed, the novel Aftermath shows that the Empire survived Palpatine. So when does the civil war end? And who ultimately wins?
Second, for a film called Return of the Jedi, the film actually says little about the Jedi. By the end of the movie, Luke is the sole surviving Jedi, and the revelation that Leia is Luke’s sister means she has also has Force potential. But the film doesn’t tell us anything about the future of the Jedi Order. For all we know, Luke and Leia truly are the only Force-sensitive individuals left in the galaxy. Can they bring the Jedi back from the brink of extinction? Even if Han and Leia—the proverbial Adam and Eve—have numerous Force-sensitive children, it could take centuries for the Jedi to become as numerous as they were before the Clone Wars. Not quite the triumphant return the title suggests.
The lack of any definitive statement on the direction of the Jedi Order seems puzzling especially after all we learn about the Jedi in the Prequel Trilogy. As I’ve argued before, a central theme of the Star Wars saga is the tension between religious dogma and mysticism. Luke firmly falls in the latter camp, but the film never explicitly acknowledges this or explains what this means for the future of the Jedi. Does the old Jedi Code still apply? Could future Jedi form romantic attachments? Will Luke recreate the old Order with a grand temple, or will his Order more closely resemble a tribe of wandering mystics?
Finally, I’ve always felt that Luke’s character arc at the end of Return of the Jedi feels oddly incomplete. Luke undergoes tremendous character growth on the second Death Star. When he lashes out at Darth Vader in anger, he touches the Dark Side. That is an important moment of self-discovery, which prompts him to throw away his lightsaber and refuse to fight. Soon afterwards, he truly meets his father for the first time, only to watch him die. Back at the Ewok bonfire, the other Rebels are upbeat, but Luke is visibly melancholy. The Rebel victory clearly can’t erase all the pain he experienced. How does Luke cope? Can he ever have a normal life again? Can he ever trust himself with great power after having near abused it? One gets the sense that Luke must make many difficult choices in the days ahead, yet Return of the Jedi doesn’t even hint at Luke’s future.*
* Much less provide an epilogue set many years later à la Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows showing what happened to the character.
For the past 20 years, I had accepted Return of the Jedi as the end of the Star Wars saga. Now, with a sequel imminent, I can’t help but see how much it leaves unresolved. The Rebel victory at Endor certainly doesn’t fix all the problems in the galaxy. I don’t know if or how The Force Awakens will address the questions I’ve raised. We’ll probably get an update on the political situation and the Jedi in the opening crawl, but I doubt we’ll get much detail (that will probably be left to the tie-in media). Based on the trailers, we know we’ll see more of Han, Leia, Chewbacca, the droids, and possibly Luke. We don’t yet know if The Force Awakens will provide closure for those characters or open a new chapter in their lives. We’ll find out on December 18…