The final movie in the Original Trilogy, Return of the Jedi (1983), is an unbalanced film. Harrison Ford had wanted George Lucas to kill off Han Solo; Ford thought that Solo no longer served a purpose in the story. He’s right. But nor did Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), C3PO (Anthony Daniels), R2D2 (Kenny Baker), Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams), and everybody other than Luke. Once Han is rescued, a plot is invented to keep the ensemble busy – taking down the shield generator so an assault can be launched on the new Death Star. Along the way, we meet some teddy bears who teach us about the horrors of war.
The first act is a mess. So, as a ruse to help rescue Han, Lando somehow got a position in Jabba’s palace. C3PO and R2D2 show up, representing Luke (Mark Hamill). But then Leia shows up with Chewbacca. Wait, Lando went off with Chewbacca at the end of Empire. Why are Leia and Chewbacca together? Then Leia attempts to rescue Han, although Lando, C3P0, and R2 don’t appear to be part of her plan. So was she going to leave them there? Or is this part of Luke’s plan? Or was she meant to only thaw Han? Or did she plan to get captured? Or are the others just meant to improvise? Then Luke’s whole plan is to face Jabba, and try and Force-grab a gun? Wait, what? When Luke’s master-Force-grab-a-gun plan doesn’t work, Jabba takes the whole gang out to the desert with the intention of having them walk the plank into the Sarlacc. Did Luke see this coming? Is this why R2 is ready to fire out Luke’s lightsaber to him? And, from from there, the whole plan is to run amok? Nothing anybody does (outside of Luke and R2 here at the end) seems to be in concert with anybody else’s actions.
Later, Luke goes to see Yoda (the voice of Frank Oz) to continue his Jedi training. Although in The Empire Strikes Back (1980) Yoda told Luke his training was not complete and it’s regrettable Luke rushed to meet Vader, now Yoda says he has no more to teach. While in Empire Yoda warned him not to face Darth Vader, now Yoda tells Luke he must face Darth Vader. Okay, Luke’s first meeting with Vader changed him, but if facing Vader would complete Luke’s training to a satisfactory level, why stop him from facing Vader? Or was the plan to train Luke into a super-Jedi and then reveal him years down the track? Also, factor in that, in Empire, Luke’s training on Dagobah mirrors the Millennium Falcon’s journey to Cloud City. Even if we exaggerate it and say it took the Falcon six months to get to Cloud City (and it obviously took nowhere near that long), that doesn’t seem very long to train to become a Jedi.
The incongruities make it difficult to understand the logic, or if they’d thought through how Jedi followed Empire. When I saw it for the first time, I’d assumed Luke must’ve gone back to Yoda following Empire, then left again to help with the rescue of Han. That would explain why he is so changed. But that’s not the case. I wish they’d thought this aspect of it through a little more.
The best scene (right) that features Luke – and offers some genuine depth – in the first act ended up on the cutting room floor: Luke in a cave, building his new lightsaber, when Vader telepathically implores him to join the Dark Side. In an act of resolve, Luke ignites his lightsaber. It’s a dark scene that sets the tone for what Luke is about to face. Unfortunately, it jars with the other side of the film, which is silly romp on the Endor moon, where everybody seems to have stopped taking the threat of the Empire seriously and the Stormtroopers devolve into buffoons.
Anyway, once the preliminaries are all out of the way, Luke’s story becomes a compelling journey. In A New Hope (1977), he believes Darth Vader (David Prowse/James Earl Jones) killed his father. In Empire, Luke learns that Darth Vader is, in fact, his father. In Return of the Jedi, Luke learns he must face Darth Vader again.
This part of the story keeps moving, the character keeps developing, the beats are still there.
Luke rescues Han Solo from Jabba.
As indulgent as these scenes are, they show that Luke is no longer the callow, impulsive goof from Empire. He’s changed. He’s become measured and composed – methodical. His Force abilities have also improved. This is a result of his training and his experiences, the way a soldier who goes to war can become hardened by battle.
Luke surrenders himself to Darth Vader.
While some might’ve expected a physical battle to end the trilogy – Luke taking on both Darth Vader and the Emperor (Ian McDiarmid) – the story takes a different turn. Luke tries to redeem Darth Vader. This is an interesting twist – and one that both Obi Wan Kenobi (Alec Guiness) and Yoda didn’t anticipate was possible. They’ve tried to duplicate this in the New Trilogy, with Rey (Daisy Ridley) trying to redeem Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), but why? The two have no connection to one another. Why should Rey care? What is her motivation? Just altruism? If they retcon it and make them family, it still doesn’t explain why Rey was taking this action before she had this knowledge. Luke tried to kill Vader before finding out who he is.
Luke is presented to the Emperor.
While Luke believes he can redeem Darth Vader, he must contest with the Emperor, who goads him in an attempt to get Luke to succumb to his anger – a pathway to the Dark Side.
When Luke tries to strike him down, Darth Vader intercedes. Luke is vulnerable. You can see him struggling to hold on. And he is a hothead. The real beauty of this scene is that Luke’s pushed into an unwinnable position: if, in his anger, he strikes the Emperor down, he fails; when Vader intercepts his attack, Luke then risks killing Vader in anger, which would be another fail; and if he surrenders, he’s killed, and thus he fails again. He can’t win this – not in this moment. All he can do is stall, and hope the Rebels knock out the Death Star, although we learn here that the Emperor knows about this, so it would seem another failure.
As it is, Luke is left to battle Vader. We see that Luke has grown in stature, as now he handles Darth Vader with the ease Vader handled him in Empire.
When Darth Vader learns of Leia’s identity – as Luke’s sister – he taunts Luke about turning her until Luke loses his shit. A battle ensure. Luke beats down Vader and chops off one of his mechanical hands. Luke looks at it, then his own gloved prosthetic hand, knowing that if he continues down this pathway he will take Vader’s spot. He surrenders to the Emperor, who concedes he can’t turn Luke.
It’s a brilliant scene. Again, most people would’ve expected a physical victory. The context here is excellent. We know the Emperor’s position and we know Luke’s position. But Darth Vader? Throughout their conversations, Luke has continually referred to the ‘good’ remaining in Vader. Vader has denied it. The Emperor is so supremely confident he hasn’t even considered it. So what happens here?
The Emperor starts to kill Luke. Darth Vader grabs the Emperor and casts him down a pit.
Luke’s goal is complete – he has redeemed Vader, and the Emperor has been slain (seemingly).
Everything that involves the triumvirate of Luke, Darth Vader, and the Emperor is brilliant. Luke’s dealings with the Emperor and Vader are brilliant. Ian McDiarmid should’ve won a Best Supporting Oscar for his portrayal of the Emperor (although such movies didn’t garner best acting Oscars back then). For two movies, we’ve seen Vader coldly wreak a trail of destruction. Who could this guy possibly answer to? When the Emperor arrives, he exudes power and drips malice. It’s very easy to believe Vader would answer to him.
The rest of the movie is uneven (and, cynically, an advertisement for toys). It’s because, as Ford felt about Solo, they didn’t have any purpose. In A New Hope, the main characters are intertwined. In Empire, although they separate, their fates grow intertwined when Darth Vader captures Han Solo, Princess Leia, and Chewbacca, and Vader uses them to bait Luke. In Return of the Jedi, these characters exist to increase the stakes: the Empire has a new Death Star. With it, they’ll rule the galaxy, so it has to be knocked out. The silly thing is that accomplishing this would’ve killed Luke, Vader, and the Emperor. So it makes their battle redundant. In the books that followed the Original Trilogy, they alluded to the Imperial Fleet losing cohesion once the Emperor died, as if his considerable Force-ability directed their attack. This is why the Rebels were suddenly able to get on top. If this is the case, I wish they’d explored it further in Jedi, as it would’ve offered some context.
Luke’s journey throughout the Original Trilogy is about learning, growth, and maturity. Think of the whiny brat we’re introduced to in A New Hope. By the time of The Return of the Jedi, Luke has changed and grown. You can see it in his manner, in his actions, in who has he become – that’s right: he’s become something, because that’s what people do. They grow. And Luke’s undertaking was to become a Jedi and help battle the Empire. Despite all his failures, he has finally succeeded, and succeeded to the extent that instead of becoming the weapon of Yoda and Obi, his takes his own course of action.
What do we expect from The Rise of Skywalker? Does it matter? Rey has glibly sailed through these stories. She’s become embroiled in galactical turmoil, she’s gone on a quest to find her identity, she has beaten up the antagonist twice – and, circumstances aside, she is at the end of The Last Jedi the same person we were introduced to in The Force Awakens. She’s calm, quirky, confident. There has been no growth, no journey. Her circumstances might’ve changed. She has not.
Her proficiency is inexplicable. She has all these skills and abilities, and no explanation as to how she got them. This is not just a fault of Rey. Han Solo is exactly the same in Solo: A Star Wars Story. Although it might be early in his mercenary career, he is given to us not only complete, but brilliant in everything he needs to do to string the story together – he can drive awesomely, fly expertly, is a formidable soldier/fighter, a gambling shark, and knows how to speak Wookie. We don’t get to see how any of that happened. It just is. I would’ve thought the point of making a prequel is to see how these things came to be.
The Rise of Skywalker might try to retcon Rey’s lineage to explain why she is this master of everything, but that would not seem by design, but to address ongoing criticism. It’s obvious that whatever plan they might’ve claimed they had for the New Trilogy, they abandoned it. Nobody provided an overarching vision, the way George Lucas did. Things just happen … because.
Where does Rey go anyway? Luke had to face Darth Vader again – there’s tension already because Vader defeated him convincingly in their one battle. Luke is also vulnerable to the Dark Side. The Emperor is waiting – he’s referenced in A New Hope, seen in The Empire Strikes Back, and finally arrives in the flesh in Return of the Jedi. Rey’s twice beaten Kylo. Do I really care to see them fight yet again? Does anybody care about Kylo being redeemed? Vader is redeemed because of the sacrifice he makes for his son. What does Kylo have to offer? Given Snoke is dead, Kylo Ren has already twice been bested, and General Hux (Domhall Gleeson) is a clown, what is the threat in this story? Who are the Resistance fighting? We hear what seems to be the Emperor’s trademark chuckle at the end of the The Rise of Skywalker trailer. Why should I care about somebody who hasn’t existed for two movies? You’re then committing the same error that Star Trek Into Darkness did: claiming that these movies are self-contained and building their own universe, but drawing on a character from stories outside your own entity for their marquee value so they can introduce gravitas that your own stories can’t, or have failed to do.
For whatever criticism George Lucas gets, at least both his trilogies attempted arcs for their characters – in the Original Trilogy, it’s about Luke’s journey to become a Jedi Master and overthrow the Empire; in the Prequels, it’s about Anakin’s journey from child to Jedi to Sith to becoming Vader and helping the Empire rise. Luke goes from a reckless youth to a Jedi Knight. Anakin goes from a kid to an impetuous Jedi apprentice, to a formidable Jedi Knight who falls to the Sith.
But the New Trilogy?
Other than overthrowing the First Order, I don’t know what this series is about. It’s a bland battle between good and bad which has been done so much better by so many other stories. If it didn’t have the Star Wars branding, it would lose its lustre and be identified as generic sci-fi action, much like JJ Abrams’ Star Trek reboot has been.
Some people claim this universe is limited in what it can do. It’s not. The people who’ve made Star Wars games – like Knights of the Old Republic, and Jedi Academy – had no problems writing up compelling stories.
So why can’t these filmmakers?