The podcast I host together, The 250, has a reporting tradition war of stars Movies for Christmas. Last weekend we covered the last film on the list. Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi. It’s a fun, broad discussion. When I saw the film and talked about the film, I thought about the film as a cultural snapshot from 1983.
Every generation gets that war of stars Movie they deserve.
The original film was intended as a statement by George Lucas about Vietnam. Lucas originally planned to do it Apocalypse nowand it is possible to see shadows of it in his existential parable of a brave band of rebels facing a technologically superior evil empire. Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back was perhaps one of the first true blockbusters of the 1980s, and it also helped to further codify the future of mainstream cinema as the New Hollywood movement saw its death throes of failures Gate of heaven.
As such, it makes sense that Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi was the perfect film for 1983. It was a much less creative sequel that reduced the franchise to a series of easily repeatable iconographies while maximizing its playful potential. But there is more to it than that. Return of the Jedi It was probably the end of a journey that began with war of stars. At least the original war of stars was in many ways a radical allegory for America in the late 1970s, full of anger and anger over a broken world.
In contrast, Return of the Jedi is essentially a self-help film in which the fate of the galaxy is much less important than the way Luke Skywalker thinks about his father.
To be clear, there are many radical and subversive moments in Return of the Jedieven if many of these elements are subversive in the context of hypercapitalism of the 1980s. Return of the Jedi restores the Vietnam metaphor of the original war of stars, just a lot more open. This is yet another story about a group of rebels fighting against an oppressive imperialist force, however Return of the Jedi pairs these rebels with some kind of playful teddy bear (that is could be hungry for human flesh) and then sold toys of these adorable proxy for the Viet Cong to a whole generation.
What is most interesting, however Return of the Jedi is how it codified so much of that “Dad stuff” linked to war of stars Franchise that effectively builds on a narrative of the reconciliation between Luke Skywalker and Dark Vader that is believed to be as important as anything to do with the destruction of the Second Death Star and the collapse of the First Galactic Empire. The primary plot thread in Return of the JediThe one who follows Luke Skywalker is about the idea of Luke making peace with his father.
Sure “Dad stuff” is so ingrained in war of stars that it’s easy to miss how much of it is due to it Return of the Jedi. After all, Luke had no idea in the original about his relationship with Darth Vader war of stars. For Luke, his father was a man who died fighting “The Clone Wars.” As part of a film about guerrilla warfare released in 1977, the details of “The Clone Wars” were unimportant. Suffice it to say they were World War II equivalent and Luke’s father was a member of “The greatest generation.”
In the original war of starsLuke’s main motivation was to just leave Tatooine. He experienced a sense of wanderlust that might have been recognizable to anyone who was ever a teenager. He would first like to enroll in the Imperial Flight Academy. In the original script, Luke is surprised that his friend Biggs would do this “Jump Ship” and join the Rebel Alliance. In fact, Luke only really joins the Rebel Alliance if (in an overt tribute to images from the Vietnam War) his aunt and uncle are burned alive. He also embarks on a mission to save Princess Leia Organa.
With that in mind, it’s easy to position war of stars in the context of 1970s America. war of stars was the product of a country that had seen national tragedies like the Vietnam War and Watergate, which recently went through a terrible recession. The movies “Used Future” Aesthetics was, in many ways, a total rejection of the utopian fantasies of 1970s science fiction. It is possible to read war of stars as the story of a young farmer who is radicalized when his family is killed by enemy soldiers and thus becomes a terrorist against this terrible regime.
In the original war of starsDarth Vader is a visually impressive sidekick for Grand Moff Tarkin. However, Tarkin dies at the height of war of starswhile Vader is sent into space. Vader returns The Empire Strikes Backand led the manhunt for Luke. According to reports, George Lucas decided quite late in the development process that Vader would turn out to be Luke’s father, even if that relationship defined the couple. Still in The Empire Strikes BackLuke’s motivation is to learn about the Force and help his friends.
Of course it is war of stars The franchise had started to change with the mood. The Empire Strikes Back lacked the great unifying narrative of the original war of stars. It wasn’t about an epic plan to save a princess and blow up a super weapon. Instead, it was about people controlling their relationships with individuals and institutions. Luke has to choose whether to be a Jedi or to save his friends. Han has to choose between returning to his old life and staying with Leia. Lando has to choose between his position and his friends. Even Vader is caught between the Empire and his son.
The Empire Strikes Back at least acknowledged that these decisions were incompatible. Luke leaves Degobah before his training is complete and becomes so handy (heh) humiliated by Vader in Bespin. Han is frozen in carbonite and forcibly returned to Jabba the Hutt. Lando has to give up on his “Respectable” Career to help his friends. The Empire Strikes Back presents these decisions as tough and weighty. What does Return of the Jedi Especially interesting because it never touches on the idea of a conflict between an individual and their external obligations.
In this sense, Return of the Jedi is a film that is very much in tune with the times. The original war of stars was released after Richard Nixon’s resignation. The Empire Strikes Back was published on the cusp of the election of Ronald Reagan. In contrast, Return of the Jedi was released shortly after the middle of Ronald Reagan’s first term. If the eighties were just starting out as The Empire Strikes Back Hit cinemas, then by that point they were in full swing Return of the Jedi was published.
In August 1976 essayist Tom Wolfe described the 1970s as “The I decade.” This existed implicitly in contrast to the radical activism and protest movements of the 1960s, which had been replaced by a certain cynicism and resignation. Indeed, this is arguably the central thematic catch of Philip Kaufman’s remake of Invasion of the Body Snatcher 1978 imagining a multitude of parasitic spores descending on San Francisco – once the home of “Flower power” and “The summer of love” – turn the city’s residents into soulless machines.
The aliens in Invasion of the Body Snatcher work primarily through Doctor David Kibner, who is an interesting character for several reasons. Most obviously, Kibner is played by Leonard Nimoy, who played a counterculture icon as Spock on Star Trekand did his casting in Invasion of the Body Snatcher intentionally perverted. In addition, Kibner provided plenty of cover for the alien invasion through the language and rhetoric of the “Self-help” Movement, positions yourself as a writer and psychologist in the field, reassuring everyone that nothing was wrong.
By the 1980s these values had arguably been fully mainstream, and Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell described the philosophy of the decade as one on which it was based “Looking for number one.” The original with its Vietnam metaphor war of stars could be read as a final breath of 1960s social consciousness – after all, Lucas had decided to do it instead Apocalypse now, a film set explicitly in 1969 – but Return of the Jedi seems to have caught up with the mood of the present and reflects much of the stereotypical pop culture of the 1980s.
The idea of the collective good no longer held so much weight. While counterculture icon Jerry Rubins has been a lifelong supporter of progressive causes, there is a generation that calls him a “sell out” for the jump from “Yippie” to “Yuppie.” The extent to which the values of the 1960s appeared to be rejected in popular culture can best be measured by the fact that President Ronald Reagan (partially) cemented his political reputation in conflicts over the Berkeley public park in 1969 and rose to the presidency.
The Reagan era was built on the idea of individualism over the common good. One of Reagan’s big campaign promises was massive deregulation to allow companies more freedom in how they operate while reducing the role of government. He cut social and educational spending and seemed to suggest that it was up to the individual to take responsibility for his own affairs without realizing that the larger community was involved.
This probably reflected a larger cultural change in which the idea of the self-help movement came to the fore. “People want to be in control of their own life” Professor Frank Reissman insisted on the move in July 1982. In the early 1980s, Counselor “Almost everything else suppressed” on the New York Times Best seller list that led to the creation of a new specific category for them in January 1984. Already in June 1978 The Washington Post had noticed the dominance of “The new self-help, self-obsessed East-West theology of the lifestyle set.”
Of course, it is possible to trace much of the development of this self-help and self-realization movement back to the 1960s. In the 1980s, however, the philosophy was somewhat adopted and revised to emphasize the importance of the individual. Towards the end of the seventies “Bookstores full of manuals for self-esteem.” To illustrate the shift, Carl Rogers, Abraham Maslow, and others had that “Human Potential Movement” in the 1960s, but this had been adopted as a philosophy by large corporations in the mid-1980s.
In fact, it is remarkable to what extent books like Thomas A. Harris I’m fine – you’re fine a punch line was associated with the decade. David Bowie played with the track on his 1980 album title Back up the hill, To sing, “I’m fine – you’re so-so.” A parody book is carried in by the bomber Plane 2, published in 1982. In May 1982, The New York Times noted that Reagan seemed to draw on the book when dealing with journalists. Even looking back at the era, it gets calls in movies like Mary and Max or Wet Hot American Summer.
There is nothing inherently wrong with self-improvement as philosophy, but many details of its expression in the 1980s were particularly self-obsessed, and it often seemed less about figuring out an individual’s place in the world and instead figuring out how to recreate it aligns the world to reflect the perspective of the individual. Indeed, part of this culture has been viewed as implicitly postmodern, even on occasion as an indication of a rejection of objective reality outside the self.
It all seems to be playing Return of the Jedithat takes the existential struggle of the original war of stars and turns it into a meditation on the idea of Luke’s relationship with his father. Generational dispute is a common topic in literature. It would be particularly pronounced in the context of the late sixties and early seventies consciousness simmering through the original war of stars. After all, the conflicts over Vietnam (like those over civil rights) were often generational – children holding their parents accountable for the world in which they lived.
In the context of the late 1960s, this generational conflict was literally called the “Revolution.” This implied a massive systemic change in the way the world works. To be fair, massive gains were made towards equality and changing the national sentiment in the Vietnam War, but the idea of radical revolution has largely disappeared. The children who rebelled in the late 1960s and early 1970s had settled down and had become the establishment by the 1980s.
So it makes sense that Luke Skywalker’s perspective changed a bit in 1983. Luke is at peace with himself. Luke doesn’t seem particularly interested in fighting the Empire for the freedom of the galaxy. He makes his way to the opening act for the film to save Han Solo from Jabba the Hutt on Tatooine before casually strolling into a Rebel Alliance meeting about the latest superweapon destroying the planet.
So much for Luke’s character in the original war of stars had been defined by his desire to fly and flee. in the Return of the JediHe returns home and spends very little time in the cockpit. Instead, Luke seems pretty gentle about the idea of the Empire building a second Death Star. He volunteers to accompany his friend Han on a mission behind enemy lines, but is unaware of the fact that Darth Vader may spot him until they literally fly past Vader’s Star Destroyer. (Vader had been able to speak to him telepathically at the height of his life The Empire Strikes Back.)
As soon as it becomes clear that Darth Vader is hanging around the second Death Star, Luke’s priorities shift. Luke never was especially He’s interested in destroying the Death Star and freeing the galaxy, but he’s determined to save Darth Vader and prove that his father is a good man under that formidable black suit. “It’s still good in him” Luke reassures the ghost of Obi-Wan Kenobi, a man Vader killed war of stars. Luke has no real basis for this claim other than the obvious fact that he did to like to believe his father wasn’t a monster.
Luke’s actions in Return of the Jedi are consistent and amazingly selfish. Luke is a jedi. He is a formidable warrior. In fact, the opening act is about showing how impressive Luke is. Even after Lando and Leia sneaked into Jabba the Hutt’s Palace, it’s Luke and his lightsaber who do the most damage. It seems fair to suggest that Luke is quite an important strategic asset for Han, and his skills would be useful in helping the rebels take the shield off. (His use of the Force helps save the team from the Ewoks by levitating C-3PO.)
However, Luke cannot look past himself and his own desire for self-affirmation. In Ewok Village, Luke casually reveals to Leia that they are brother and sister. This implicitly confirms that Vader is Leia’s father. Leia was originally tortured by Vader war of stars. She was standing next to Vader on the Death Star when Alderaan burned the original war of stars. She listened as Vader tortured Han The Empire Strikes Back. No matter how attuned Leia is, the news should come as a shock to her. However, Luke has no interest in what this news means for Leia. It’s all about him.
Of course, the reveal was that Luke and Leia were related (like Luke’s parentage in The Empire Strikes Back) a late addition to it Return of the Jedi. It makes a certain amount of sense that the film isn’t structured in a way that Leia has the ability to process this news. Even so, she is completely separate from Luke’s attempt to reconcile with Vader. She is not present when Luke burns Vader’s body. Return of the Jedi spends more time processing Han processing the news that Luke and Leia are related than Leia has come to terms with her own ancestry.
Luke decides to surrender to the Empire. This is a tactically questionable decision on several levels. Most obviously, Han is being denied access to a key resource during this important mission. It also confirms to the Empire that rebels are operating on the forest moon. Of course, Luke claims he is alone, but it would still sabotage any chance the team had of surprising the Empire.
Of course, as in many ways, Return of the Jedi is structured to excuse Luke’s selfishness. Vader could already feel himself arriving on the moon, even though Luke had no idea for sure whether that was the case or not. Similarly, the emperor set a trap and awaited an ambush by the rebels, although Luke could not have known it. Based on what Luke knew then, this is a ruthless and selfish decision. However, the film is structured in such a way that this is never a serious problem that has real ramifications.
Luke remains convinced that his father can be saved. This continues in his confrontation with the emperor. Luke refuses to put Vader down in cold blood after learning the central lesson in his vision The Empire Strikes Back. When the emperor decides to brutally murder Luke with lightning bolts, Vader finally takes a stand. Vader refuses to let his son die, accepts the emperor and throws him to his death in the heart of the second Death Star. The logic is that Vader will be redeemed.
Indeed, Luke is very pleased with the confirmation. When he accompanies Vader to the shuttle bay, his father collapses. “I can’t leave you here” Luke swears. “I have to save you.” Vader replies, “You already have, Luke. You were right about me Tell your sister … you were right. “ This is about confirming Luke. Specifically, it’s about reaffirming Luke’s belief that his father was a fundamentally decent person. It doesn’t matter that Leia might feel differently after he was tortured by him, it just matters that Luke was right and that he can prove it.
It is, of course, worth asking if Vader was actually redeemed in any meaningful sense. Refusing to allow your boss to murder your child goes little beyond that in terms of parenting. More to the point The Empire Strikes Back had made it very clear that Vader would always prefer Lukas to the emperor and had no intention of changing his entire political philosophy. “You can destroy the emperor” Vader tells Luke. “Join me and together we can rule the galaxy as father and son.” So Vader always intended to kill the Emperor and spare Luke.
Moreover, salvation is a complicated process that involves things like accountability and confession. Vader has been involved in crimes that are beyond human imagination. It was ready when Alderaan burned. He casually murdered officers on a whim. He murdered his mentor. He tortured with impunity. Nothing that Vader does Return of the Jedi includes the recognition of any of it. Indeed, it is noteworthy that after the Emperor’s death, Vader does not even do anything as basic as ordering the Empire to step down in the Battle of Endor. The fight rages on and kills many.
Once again, Return of the Jedi contorts to confirm Luke. Vader dies before they can leave the second Death Star. This saves potentially awkward questions about what to do with him afterwards. Would Luke like to allow his father to stand trial, knowing that he will likely be executed or imprisoned for his crimes? Would Vader himself be able to show humility and compassion to the many victims of his atrocities? What did Vader do that Luke doesn’t even know about? Vader’s dying saves Luke these potentially uncomfortable questions.
Of course, these questions don’t matter in the context of Return of the Jedi. The idea of the larger universe has disappeared. The Empire and the Rebel Alliance are abstract traps rather than broad metaphors. There is no need to consider what will happen after the fall of the empire or how the process will go “Denazification” or “Reconstruction” that must inevitably follow. Whatever metaphor there was in the original war of stars has been gone a long time. There is not even a proper salvation.
To be fair, the emperor is dead. The second death star is destroyed. Even if Darth Vader had lived, it is questionable how far he could have rallied the Empire. However, this is treated as something random Return of the Jedi. The emperor is first given a name Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace. The second Death Star is blown up by Lando Calrissian and Nien Nunb, both very secondary characters. While these types of regime changes are actually vast and brutal affairs, Return of the Jedi just throws up a great party scene.
Watch out Return of the JediIt’s becoming increasingly clear that this is not the story of Anakin Skywalker’s redemption, though the existence of the prequels would tarnish it and the fact that the original trilogy ended with Luke’s perceived redemption of his father’s idea that would shape the franchise for the future . After all, as director Rian Johnson astutely noted, “Luke’s relationship was with Vader, not really Anakin.” More specifically, Luke’s relationship was with his idea of Anakin, not really Anakin himself. (In the end, Anakin is literally a projection.)
The critic Chuck Klosterman argued that The Empire Strikes Back presented Luke as the first true one “Generation X” Protagonist, an embodiment of “Switch on, switch on and get off” Generation that gave up their service to study pseudo-Eastern philosophy with Yoda and rejected his father’s plans to include him in the family business. in the Return of the JediLuke is probably more advanced. He has given up all actual ideals outside of the idea of reconciliation with his father.
In the spirit of the mid-eighties Return of the Jedi understands that it doesn’t matter if it is Vader indeed Redeemed. It’s just important to Luke believes this Vader was redeemed. Vader only exists as a prism seen through Luke’s eyes. Despite the revelation that Leia is Luke’s sister, Anakin Luke only appears in the final scene. Anakin offers a smile and reassurance. He’s dead, but he agrees. Luke is confirmed. How Luke sees himself, especially how Luke sees his relationship with his father, is the most important thing in the universe. Everything else is irrelevant.
This in turn captures the sense in which Luke is a suitable protagonist for the era and the way in which Return of the Jedi captures the mood of the eighties. The rebellious teenagers of the late sixties had grown up and settled down. The country had moved away from the perceived generational trauma of the counterculture movement of the 1960s and simply wanted to heal any memory of the dispute that nearly tore the country apart by the end of the decade.
Of course, while the philosophy of Return of the Jedi makes sense in a historical context, is frustrating in retrospect. It is reminiscent of arguments that trauma should be forgotten or erased because processing it could be too much work. In a modern context, it makes appeals to national unity in the United States, suggesting to forgive virulent racists or to excuse corrupt politicians in the hope that it might be possible to address some of the deep divisions in society today to solve.
Like Luke, the people making these arguments want to believe that these problems will just go away. It is often an argument from a privileged position. Much like Luke never spares a thought about what Leia or Vader’s other victims might think of his father, this argument calls for courtesy and reconciliation that favor those in comfortable positions. It doesn’t matter that the underlying problems are still there and unresolved. It doesn’t matter that the Empire was not meaningfully dismantled. Luke feels good with himself and that is important.
In fact, this is a big part of what was done Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi so refreshing. Not only did it acknowledge that the world doesn’t work that way, but it also explored what happens when the narrative logic of a war of stars Film does not conform to this philosophy. Johnson understood that Luke’s pride and ego were an important blind spot for the Jedi, and that he inevitably had to face the reality that he had not liberated the galaxy from tyranny – any more than previous generations who had liberated the world of fascism were the rise as The last Jedi was published.
More than that, The last Jedi plays the “Salvation” Story by Luke and Vader. Like Luke in The Empire Strikes BackRey leaves her teacher to face her enemy. Like Luke in Return of the JediRey is convinced that her opponent can be turned from the dark side. Like Luke in Return of the JediThis is as much about Rey’s own crisis of identity and pride as it is anything else. Like Vader in Return of the JediKylo refuses to let his master kill the hero and instead kills the master. All of this is known. The rhythms are similar. Logically, Kylo should be redeemed the way Vader was.
Except, of course, that Vader was never redeemed. He just died and Luke got the confirmation he longed for. Kylo doesn’t die. Instead, he takes command of the First Order and hunts down the resistance. Rey is faced with a simple reality that Luke was spared: It is impossible to redeem a person who does not want to be redeemed. There is no indication in The Empire Strikes Back or Return of the Jedi that Vader feels bad about everything he’s done. There is only evidence that Luke wants to believe his father is a good man.
Perhaps this is why the sequel trilogy doesn’t feel as redundant as it could be, even if the spectacular failure of is possible Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker. After all Return of the Jedi leaves a lot unsolved. Similar to how the eighties wanted to believe that the turbulence of the past decades has gone down in history, Return of the Jedi wants to believe that the characters sitting around the campfire managed to put away any loose ends. Everything is better. Everything is happy. Everything is resolved. Luke feels validated in himself, and isn’t that enough?
Return of the Jedi believes it is. The last Jedi don’t know