The last installment of the original “Star Wars” trilogy has everything a cinema enthusiast might want: stunning visuals, from ship and planet settings to space battles, breath-stopping action scenes, believable romance, surprising plot twists, emotional build-up and a rewarding release, big moral statements, strong, developing characters and even some of the fun and a lot of the hope of the first film.
After the less than encouraging conclusion of “The Empire Strikes Back”, which left our heroes separated and seemingly defeated, they start this new film with surprising faith in themselves. They are not hopeless and they don’t sit around deploring their cruel fate. No, they take up arms again and find ways to get back on track. They regroup to save Han Solo from the hands of vile gangster Jabba the Hutt and devise a new plan to destroy the rebuilt Death Star and take back the galaxy from the Empire.
“Return of the Jedi” starts in high gear with the rescue of Han Solo and it doesn’t really stop delivering until the very end. And from the very beginning, some of the whimsical quality of the first film is back in the sequence that shows Jabba the Hutt’s lair. There are again all sorts of funny-looking creatures, there is music being played – and real groovy music, too – and in spite of the dire situation in which our heroes find themselves, the viewer is still able to enjoy the general feel of fun.
It’s important to note here that Han Solo is freed from his sinister frozen carbonite prison by Princess Leia herself, disguised as a bounty hunter, and partnering with Lando Calrissian. This is an interesting reversal of gender roles. In fact, it’s a little like watching an anti-Snow White scenario. The male character is the one trapped in death-like sleep, translated to cryostatis in this sci-fi framework, and it’s the Princess who wakes him up, not with a magical kiss, but by using her intelligence and knowledge. She doesn’t even reveal herself until Han asks for the identity of his mysterious savior. What we discover behind the mask and the electronically altered voice of the bounty hunter is none other than Leia and her answer: “Someone who loves you.”
The beginning of the film also brings the wonderful reintroduction of Luke Skywalker, which is steeped deeply in Fantasy: the boy with once untapped potential and noble blood has now become a full-fledged hero, no longer reckless and riddled with self-doubt, but reserved and in control of his own fears. His entrance, dressed in humble attire that hides his face, but with the sort of calculated walk that you only see in people who feel confident about their abilities is played for both suspense and a certain degree of grandness that comes with heroism. Luke is revealed to be a Jedi Knight now, and even without his light saber, he manages to turn the table and rescue himself and his friends. What I love about Luke is that, while he is highly skilled and has some of the mental power that we had seen before in Obi Wan, he is not a superhero. Especially when facing the monster in the pit – a medieval/fantasy plot device if ever there was one – Luke uses his intelligence to get away from it and eventually kill it, not his superpowers.
The scene of Han Solo’s rescue contains great action and brings our team of heroes back together again, adding Lando as having now made the choice of being a good guy.
What this scene also does is establish something essential about Leia and about the way “Star Wars” envisages its female characters. “Star Wars” women are no damsels in distress. Leia has been enslaved by Jabba the Hut and kept as a kind of a sexual pet by him. She is wearing skimpy clothing and she even has a chain around her neck that Jabba tugs on every now and then to remind her that he’s in control. We might say that Leia has been properly objectified, but that does not go on for long. The moment the situation is overturned by Luke, and Jabba loses his grip on her, Leia springs into action and strangles her captor with the very chain that he was holding her captive by. This spells immediate and direct retaliation on the part of the abused female. Leia literally takes back her freedom with her bare hands. She is empowered and even given equal status to her male counterparts because, 1) she doesn’t need their help to overpower Jabba the Hutt, and 2) it is actually a matter of honor for Leia to be the one who kills Jabba as she was the one being most personally wronged by him. Redeeming honor is one of the great driving forces behind Fantasy stories, but it’s usually something that is reserved for male characters (with a recent and very strong example being the Thorin Oakenshield/Azog dynamic in the Hobbit movies, where their long-standing feud is resolved by having them kill each other). Here, Leia is given full claim to her own honor, which means that she is treated as a full hero character. This is extremely refreshing and rewarding for me as female viewer. Moreover, the other male characters do not objectify her even for a second, not even Han Solo, who is in love with her. The film spends zero time on having its male leads distracted by the fact that Leia is a beautiful woman walking around in nothing but an elaborate bathing suit. Leia also doesn’t seem to care about that. She’s neither embarrassed by it, nor does she try to use her state of undress in order to display her female charms. Everyone goes about their hero business, and again that places Leia on the same level with the men around her.
And this is not even the most remarkable aspect of Leia’s character. Her status of equality with the male characters is further strengthened by the revelation that she is Luke’s sister, that she has the same claim to the Force and that she could learn to wield it at the same level as Luke, which gives Leia the same chances at becoming a Jedi Knight as her brother has. As a woman, this moment was one of the highlights of the film for me because it truly made me feel included in the grand scheme of things at a level which many women still struggle for in the real world. Leia is allowed to be an active part of the fight against evil. She fights alongside her male friends and she has the power to use the same skills and resources as them.
But through all this, Leia never stops being a woman. Many times in our own ‘galaxy’ here on Earth, women become more like men in order to fit in in a world ruled by men. In Leia we see a female character that balances her empowered, active status and her feminine side quite well. She does not hesitate to use weapons against enemies, but she is kind to her friends and her romance with Han comes across as genuine and profound. Of course, this is greatly due to the way that she is treated by the men around her. The Rebel soldiers have no trouble taking orders from her, her male friends are considerate and gentlemanly with her but never condescending, and Han treats her with respect even if he is not shy about expressing his feelings for her. There is one scene where we see Leia at her most fairy-tale Princess moment and that is when Han, Luke and C-3PO are brought into the Ewok camp and Leia comes out to greet them. This moment draws on Snow White and the seven dwarfs in a more traditional manner as we see Leia wearing a dress and her hair down, and surrounded by the funny, quirky Ewoks. The difference is that Leia only looks like a fairy-tale Princess. It is in this setting that her special status as a Skywalker is revealed to her and where her character actually becomes complete. We see her as an active and key factor in the fight against the Empire, but she is also allowed to cultivate her nurturing, feminine side in her romance with Han and in the obvious sisterly love that she has for Luke. Leia does not have to sacrifice her femininity in order to accede to gender equality, which, again, is a major message of normalcy and positivity that “Star Wars” sends out to viewers of both genders.
The other major highlight of the film for me was the final scene between Luke and Darth Vader. It is hard to find the right words to match the dimension of this scene because it makes such a powerful statement about real heroism amounting to non-aggression and self-sacrifice, and also to facing one’s fears. The scene is set up earlier during Luke’s final visit with Jedi Master Yoda. Here the dying Yoda tells Luke that he has nothing more to learn and that he must walk the remaining path towards full Jedi status on his own by facing his destiny, meaning that he has to face the ultimate challenge that will test his character and compel him to make a choice between good and evil. And that challenge is facing Darth Vader, who is his father and whom he must kill. This is much like killing a dragon in order to achieve hero status, but things are, of course, more complicated here because Luke actually hopes to turn Vader back to the Light side of the Force. His motivation is that he cannot kill his own father, and that he has sensed the good in him still alive. Yoda warns him that this would be foolish and, as viewers, we think the same because we are used to taking aggressive action against those who are aggressive towards us. But what actually happens is truly extraordinary and it’s the core of the positive message of “Star Wars”.
I think that beyond the victory of the Rebels over the Empire, the turning of Vader from bad to good is the ultimate triumph of Good over Evil, and it is not done by taking aggressive action against the enemy, but by refusing to do so. Luke displays an iron will as he resists the Emperor’s attempts to tempt him into giving in to his dark side. He has to watch the Rebel forces being pounded by Empire ships and possibly witness the death of his friends, and for a while he does channel his aggression in attacking Vader and cutting off his hand, but he does not go through with killing him. He chooses to not fight and to lend himself to being tortured by the Emperor in order to avoid killing his father because he believes that there is still good in him. I watched with bated breath as the Emperor kept striking Luke with those energy shots and Vader kept looking on. It really is a moment of great tension and the timing of rising and releasing that tension is so well paced that the release comes no later and no sooner than at the exact moment when it would become too much should it continue. It really feels like a triumph when Vader turns against the Emperor and throws him to his death. That’s when we know that war has been won and not just the war going on outside between the two sets of troops. It’s the big conflict between Good and Evil as sides of the Force that gets resolved when Vader finally decides to take the hand that Luke reaches out to him metaphorically and return to the Light side. It is their father/son relationship that eventually wins out. Luke cannot kill his father, and Vader cannot stand aside and watch his son being killed. Thus family ties restore order between these two characters and to the galaxy where the story takes place. And the final shot of the spirit of Anakin Skywalker appearing to Luke beside Obi Wan and Yoda reveals a double meaning behind the title of the film: the rebirth of the Jedi order through Luke, but also the rise of Anakin as a Jedi from the burning ashes of Darth Vader.
“Return of the Jedi” is the best conclusion we could have hoped for to the original “Star Wars” trilogy. The optimism of the characters stands the test of actively overcoming the challenges they meet in their fight against Evil, and over the course of that fight, they learn what they are made of and they grow into complete individuals who have the experience of Evil but make a conscious choice to do Good. The message of “Star Wars” is one of hope and faith in our abilities, in the bonds that connect us, but it is not a passive hope or an empty faith. What it’s really about is doubling our beliefs with action, taking responsibility for the world that we live in, and choosing Good over Evil.
Livia Miron is a hired writing gun in the IT industry and a creative writer in real life. She is a long-time Star Trek fan, a devout Middle-earther and a recent Star Wars convert. Currently, her passion for writing is driving her deeper and deeper into the mithril-laden mines of Hobbit fan fiction. Livia lives in Romania and is proud of her heritage, but she is also an incurable Anglophile.