By 1983, Star Wars was already reliably cemented as one of the biggest things in American pop culture, and what had worked so well with the original film in 1977 and The Empire Strikes Back three years later had grown into a kind of formula. Drop in on our heroes, tell a setpiece-laden story about their struggle against evil, and pepper in plenty of new creatures, ships and planets along the way. Boom, you’ve got a Star War. It’s something that’s worked so well over the years that it now applies not just to a nine-film series, but to TV shows, comic books, novels, video games and much, much more.
It makes sense that Return of the Jedi, the concluding film in George Lucas’ original trilogy, would continue to follow this formula, giving us the first big-screen appearances (in the original versions, anyway) of Jabba the Hutt, the Sarlacc Pit, and of course the space teddy bears known as Ewoks. Taken as part of a formula that’s now persisted for more than 45 years, everything about Richard Marquand’s concluding chapter in the original trilogy fits within the larger crowd-pleasing, Flash Gordon-inspired mold of Star Wars, and that mold makes it easy to look back on the film now and dismiss it as “The One with the Ewoks.” Ask the average Star Wars fan, and you’ll more often than not get the answer that it’s the weakest film in the original trilogy, in part because of its detours from the main plot, and in part because some fans have decided they’re too cool for the furry residents of the forest moon of Endor.
But as Return of the Jedi turns 40 in a Star Wars landscape that’s about to get yet another infusion of new movies, it’s worth reconsidering the film’s place in what’s now clearly a never-ending saga of new stories and adventures. If you saw this movie any time between its original 1983 release and the onset of production on the prequel trilogy in the mid-1990s, you saw it with the knowledge that it might be The Last Star Wars Movie. Sure, the Expanded Universe of novels eventually kicked in, giving us things like Heir to the Empire and Shadows of the Empire along the way, but for a long time this was it: The concluding chapter in one of the grandest movie sagas of them all. Therefore, we watched it with a sense of tremendous weight, of emotional and narrative gravity that has since been whittled away by the sheer omnipresence of the brand.
But returning to Return of the Jedi four decades after its debut reveals a film that still contains that weight, that emotional heft, whether we’re willing to engage with it or not. For all the tendency to dismiss it in favor of Empire, or to view it as a kind of stepping stone to other stories that expand on its conclusions, Return of the Jedi is still a film with a mighty blockbuster adventure punch, and a story with powerful emotional focus.
Much of that focus is, of course, devoted to the journey of Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker, the newly minted Jedi Knight who must find a way to confront Darth Vader, the man he only recently learned is his true father, and defeat him for the sake of the Rebellion’s victory over the Empire and the Light Side of the Force’s victory over the Dark. Before he can do that, though, he must help Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) and Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) launch a daring rescue of Han Solo (Harrison Ford), still frozen in a block of carbonite at Jabba’s palace.
This prelude sequence, which takes up a good chunk of the film’s real estate, has been handwaved away by many as an excuse to pack in lots of new creatures to the final Star Wars trilogy film, put Fisher in a metal space bikini and, of course, debut Luke’s new green lightsaber. But when you dig deeper into the context of what’s going on here, you get two major points of emotional oomph that will stick with us through the rest of the film. On one hand, you’ve got the entire struggle of the original trilogy in microcosm. Leia, Luke and Han aren’t fighting the Empire in the film’s Tatooine-set sequences, but they are fighting an enduring and oppressive power structure, a Made Man in the galactic underworld who takes orders from no one, fears nothing and feeds dissenters to a monster in his basement. And, as is almost always the case in Star Wars, the only way they can defeat this threat—undermine this oppressive power structure—is through unity. That’s important, because it plays heavily into how the film concludes.
Then there’s the even more emotional point on the other hand of this chapter: Why spend so much time and so many resources going for Han in the first place? It’s not like he’s going anywhere. He’s been in Jabba’s palace for a year at this point, and the Rebellion has kept right on fighting in the interim. So, why spend this much time on this? Because the film needs to deepen the bond between its trinity of main characters, in order to flesh out what’s to come.
And what’s to come is, without question, the heaviest stuff in the original trilogy. After defeating Jabba, Lawrence Kasdan and George Lucas’ script takes Luke back to Dagobah, where he gets two vital pieces of information: Leia is his sister, and he has to kill his father, Darth Vader, if there’s any hope of the Light Side winning this fight. In the wake of Yoda’s death, Luke absorbs this information while talking with the Force Ghost of a frustrated Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness, back one more time), who can’t seem to handle Luke’s reluctance to off his clearly very evil Dad.
But that reluctance, and what Luke does with the information that’s handed him, is the crux of Return of the Jedi‘s greatest narrative power. The rest of the film is taken up with a three-part battle for the fate of the entire Rebellion, as Han and Leia fight alongside the Ewoks on Endor, Lando and the Rebel Fleet face down the Death Star II, and Luke faces Vader and a cackling Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid in what would become his signature role) in the Death Star’s throne room.
First, it should be noted that Marquand shoots the hell out of all of this, with or without some help from Lucas. The space battle is one of the most thrilling in all of Star Wars, the Endor sequences are gripping and fun, and the operatic power of the Vader/Luke lightsaber duel (while Palpatine looks on) is still intact 40 years later. The canvas is vast, and the director rises to the occasion with a truly grand finale. But what really sticks out about Jedi‘s conclusion now—what’s become a prominent and inescapable theme through all of Star Wars in the years since its release—is something you might not expect.
Yes, emotionally speaking, the real linchpin of this conclusion is Luke overcoming the temptations of the Dark Side, refusing to play by the Emperor’s rules, and ultimately helping to redeem his father just before his death. But that’s not the only major point the film’s conclusion makes. Luke has been told repeatedly—by his mentors, by the people who are supposed to understand—that his father is beyond redemption, and that continuing to believe in Anakin Skywalker’s salvation is folly. Kill Vader, he’s told, or be killed. The problem is that’s pretty much exactly what Palpatine is also saying, and what the endless Imperial/Rebellion war machine is reinforcing. There’s a system of conflict in place here, a cycle of violence, and Luke, Han and Leia are all instructed repeatedly to maintain their place in that cycle.
But that’s not how Return of the Jedi ends. It ends with a military victory, yes, but more importantly it ends with Luke realizing that he has to subvert his role within the system in order to truly win. He can save his father and still defeat the Dark Side, and he does, just as he could save his best friend from Jabba’s clutches despite years of ingrained power dynamics telling him that no one messes with Jabba. At the same time, Leia realizes her place in the galaxy’s story isn’t quite where she thought, and Han realizes he’s part of something much bigger than he realized. Taken together, their respective arcs present a tale in which conventional victory is not enough. You’ve also got to learn, to grow, to be at peace with tearing down the old way of doing things.
This is, of course, something Star Wars characters are still learning now, and they’ll probably never stop learning those lessons, because cycles of violence keep stirring (and because Disney wants to keep making money). But it all began here, in ways that even A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back couldn’t articulate. Four decades on, there’s still much more to Return of the Jedi than we’re often willing to consider, and that makes it an essential piece of Star Wars lore well beyond its importance to the Continuity Gods.
Matthew Jackson is a pop culture writer and nerd-for-hire who’s been writing about entertainment for more than a decade. His writing about movies, TV, comics, and more regularly appears at SYFY WIRE, Looper, Mental Floss, Decider, BookPage, and other outlets. He lives in Austin, Texas, and when he’s not writing he’s usually counting the days until Christmas.