Return of the Jedi is the best Star Wars film – come at me

Forty years on from the epic (first) conclusion of the Skywalker saga, Stephen A Russell mounts a heartfelt challenge to naysaying critics and fans.

‘KA-BLOOWIE!’ I’m not sure how often I rewound my VHS copy of Star Wars: Return of the Jedi to witness, for the umpteenth time, Darth Vader’s Super Star Destroyer (the Executor for the geeks out there) plunge pointed nose-first into the armoured carapace of the skeletal, still under construction second Death Star. Nor how often I applauded the (accidental?) sacrifice of that out-of-control Rebel A-wing that struck it straight in the command centre? But it was a lot.

I wasn’t yet five years old when the Richard Marquand-directed (first) conclusion of creator George Lucas’ epic Skywalker saga lit up cinema screens worldwide. In truth, I can’t quite recall if I saw it on the big screen or not during its 1983 run – my parents weren’t big moviegoers. But I know I wore that tape to death, first as a rental and then a Christmas present copy.

Everyone has an opinion. Image: Lucasfilm Ltd.

And it was a gift. From the very first (or should that be IV?) outing in the trilogy, I was awestruck by the scrappy forces of the downtrodden Rebellion going up against the evil might of the insidious Empire. Something deep inside of me stirred. But the Battle of Endor took it to another level. And that’s why it breaks my heart that this beautiful tribute to togetherness gets such a bad rap amongst critics and fans alike. In my mind, it’s clearly the best of the OG.

In defence of the Ewoks

Firepower has a lot to do with the wow factor, for sure. The sheer volume of spaceships at play, and the Rebel Alliance being vastly outnumbered by a fleet of Star Destroyers eerily watching on while a battalion of TIE fighters does the dirty work, overwhelmed my young mind in a way that still gives me shivers every time I hit replay. The now eternally meme-able alarm of Admiral Ackbar (Tim Rose), ‘It’s a trap,’ ­as the Death Star II lights up and begins picking off the fleet one by one, is stellar cinema.

Ackbar breaks the bad news. Image: Lucasfilm Ltd.

But even as a little guy obsessed with model work and special effects, I was guided, as if by force ghost Obi-Wan (Alec Guinness) and Yoda (voiced by Frank Oz, with Mike Quinn on puppeteer duties), towards understanding something far grander stirring under the surface of Jedi’s fist-bumping space opera.

I grasped that even the smallest amongst us could stand tall, fight back, and throw everything into the common good at all costs. Thank you, Ewoks. You do not deserve such cold-hearted ire. Especially you, little fallen dude, and your agonised mate – the ‘80s really did confront kids with realistic death far more readily.

We’ve all been there. Image: Lucasfilm Ltd.

How anyone who adores J.R.R. Tolkien’s band of Hobbit brothers Sam, Frodo, Merry and Pippin can turn their nose up at the mightiest fuzzballs considerably shorter than Chewie (Peter Mayhew) smashing an AT-ST walker with rope-swinging logs is beyond me. And the dialogue flip when the ever-rapscallion Harrison Ford’s Han Solo says “I love you” to a shot, but secret gun-toting Leia and the luminous Carrie Fisher returns fire with “I know” is *chef’s kiss*.

Image: Lucasfilm Ltd.

But it’s the smallest skirmish of all that has left the biggest mark on me to this day, and why I’ll never understand the snootiness directed this film’s way. Anyone who has ever felt out of place, alone, or torn by fear, indecision and doubt would surely see that the series has never dealt a deeper blow than its climactic tripartite power struggle.

The intimate family drama of Vader (physically performed by a towering David Prowse, thunderously voiced by James Earl Jones, with Shakespearean actor Sebastian Shaw stepping in for the unmasked finale) scrapping on with Luke as Ian McDiarmid’s Emperor snarls is a knife twist more vicious than Han frozen in carbonite.

Luke learns to appreciate his rubber boots. Image: Lucasfilm Ltd.

Don’t barge past Tatooine

But before we get to that jaw-dropping throne room showdown, let’s rewind the tape to address other grumbles lobbed Jedi’s way, like rocks at Stormtroopers.

The first act on Tatooine, taking us back to where it all started, often cops flack for dragging, but I reckon your heart has to be as icicled as Han’s not to dig this opening gambit. Bringing the gang back together in a concerted, if admittedly convoluted, assault on Jabba the Hut’s palace is FUN.

Sure, one of the key reasons we love The Empire Strikes Back is the shock of the good guys losing. But Lucas’ mythological-mining heroes’ journey summons up the barnstorming Saturday matinee adventure movie tradition adored by all the family. Of course they had to turn this barge around, and by gosh do they do it with gusto.

Oft tried but never matched at the local swimming pool. Image: Lucasfilm Ltd.

It’s fun to see the players inveigle their way in, from Leia in bounty hunter garb to Lando (the ever-ebullient Billy Dee Williams) as a barge guard and a hooded Luke bartering away R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) and C3-PO (Anthony Daniels) seemingly as pawns only to learn that his Jedi mind tricks won’t work here. The Rancor battle rocks, as does the barge biffo. So long, Boba Fett – we barely knew you (and it should have stayed that way).

Let’s get something straight: the charge that Leia chained in a slave bikini is sexist is a spectacular misreading of the situation. OF COURSE the lasciviously tongue-wagging Jabba is a slimy misogynist slug of the lowest order. That he demeans Leia in this way is clearly meant to be repugnant. But how much more feminist empowerment can it be than taking those damn chains, throttling your oppressor with them and then blowing his barge sky high?

Leia tears Jabba a new one. Image: Lucasfilm Ltd.

We’ll just brush over the unfortunate Game of Thrones effect in Empire when she pashed Luke to make Han jealous because part two is superior in every single way (mmm-hmm), shall we? Thankfully the finale’s genuinely touching reveal that they are siblings is lovely enough to overlook that icky misstep.

And while most of the team is Endor-side during the final battle, replete with outstanding speeder chase sequence, it’s real fun that Lando gets to blow the Death star sky high, hopefully earning him enough brownie points with Han to write off the considerable bodywork damage endured by the Millennium Falcon.

Turn from the dark side

Stop, rewind. Even as a kid I could tell Luke’s temptation in the Emperor’s desolate throne room as the Rebel fleet erupts in the distance was a lightspeed jump to another level.

‘Your hate has made you powerful,’ sneers Ian McDiarmid’s snarling Emperor. ‘Now, fulfil your destiny and take your father’s place at my side.’

This moment is what the saga has been building towards. Vader sensing Luke’s newfound feelings for his sister, and the threat of turning her in his stead, is what pushes Luke to the precipice of the dark side, leading to the trilogy’s most spectacular lightsaber duel.

An early victory for the greens? Image: Lucasfilm Ltd.

And yet when Luke bests his father, all is surely lost. He has surrendered to the ‘Anger, fear, aggression,’ Yoda warned him against. But as the Sith Lord wheezes on the edge of an abyss, it’s the dark mirror image of Vader’s lost robotic hand and the one gained by his son that turns Luke back to the light. ‘You’ve failed, your highness; I am a Jedi like my father before me.’

Sorry Empire stans, but nothing the saga has presented thus far comes anywhere close to the emotional trauma unfolding here. Hauntingly scored by John Williams, who almost equals the impact of his seminal Imperial March, it’s goosebump-inducing.

Vader’s redemption, hurling the Emperor into the chasm as Force lighting wracks his already battered body, is titanic mythology wrought large.

And when Vader’s mask finally slips – ‘Just for once, let me look on you with my own eyes’ – Anakin’s redemption is the new hope. It’s why Return of the Jedi is the best Star Wars has ever been.