So, Solo: A Star Wars Story came out this weekend and it’s arguably the first financial failure in the history of the Star Wars films.
Despite making $1.3 billion and receiving mostly glowing reviews from critics, The Last Jedi was a (needlessly) controversial film among hardcore fans, with more than 100,000 fans signing a petition urging Disney to scrap it from the official canon. One idiot went so far as to re-cut the film to not have any women in it.
But many critics praised The Last Jedi, mostly in tones similar to The Atlantic, which said it was, “arguably the best the franchise has offered since Empire.”
That last description has been buzzing around in my head since I first read it in the middle of December. The best since Empire?
Yes, the prequels sucked, The Force Awakens was a glossy retread of A New Hope, and Rogue One was a flawed but interesting addition to the universe, but in our haste to hold The Empire Strikes Back up as a near-perfect piece of cinema and compare all subsequent films to it, I believe Return of the Jedi (1983) receives short shrift among Star Wars fans.
Many “best of” lists rank it anywhere from fourth to seventh in the series, and while Empire earned its spot at No. 1, is Jedi—the conclusion of the original trilog y—really as bad as its reputation says it is? Given Solo, the prequel trilogy and the new movies, I believe Return of the Jedi has to be considered one of the strongest entries in the entire franchise.
My first foray into the Star Wars universe wasn’t actually the films, but the popular space battle simulator X-Wing released in 1993. Seven-year-old me was obsessed —no, addicted —to this game. It allowed you to climb behind the controls of the Rebel’s starfighters and destroy Tie Fighters and Imperial Star Destroyers. I was so addicted my parents hid the code book required to log into the game (but I had memorized many of the codes so that didn’t stop me). I also wore out two joysticks playing the game.
It wasn’t until two years later that I saw my first film in the original trilogy. My friend was shocked that I hadn’t seen any, and immediately grabbed his 1995 THX box set and popped Empire into the VHS player. “This is the best one,” he assured me.
A few months later my own box set of the movies arrived as a birthday present from my parents, and I finally watched the rest of the trilogy.
A New Hope receives near-universal praise for revolutionizing the science fiction genre and for introducing iconic characters in one of the best world building exercises put to film when it was released in 1977. Who were the mystical Jedi and what was the Light Side and Dark Side? Who was Darth Vader? And Obi-Wan Kenobi? And what was up with those laser swords?
But it’s easy to forget the film has some pretty clunky dialogue and a whiny Luke Skywalker, reminiscent of Anakin in the prequels. And to 2018 viewers, it’s pretty slow for a blockbuster.
Then, in 1980 Empire flipped the story on its head; it stuffed its main character inside the guts of a dead snow camel, it forced the good guys to retreat and scatter across the universe, it double-crossed our heroes, trapped one in carbonite (whatever the hell that is), turned the lead character into an amputee, and has the most famous twist ever filmed in a mainstream movie. It’s widely viewed as perhaps one of the best sequel movies in history, and in many ways is similar to the subversion used throughout Last Jedi.
Yet when you go back and read the original reviews you’ll find that, much like The Last Jedi, Empire divided critics. Vincent Canby wrote in the New York Times that it “is not a truly terrible movie. It’s a nice movie. It’s not, by any means, as nice as Star Wars.”
When Return of the Jedi hit theatres in 1983, it too received similar lukewarm reviews, and today is derided as a lazy re-write of A New Hope that relied on the same plot device (the Death Star) to drive the action, suffered from the return of George Lucas’ stilted dialogue, used Ewok teddy bears to shamelessly sell toys, and employed the tired “nature versus technology” moralizing.
But for me, Return of the Jedi is the film that has evoked my strongest emotional tie to the Star Wars universe ever since I first saw it more than 20 years ago.
Let’s begin with the conclusion of Luke Skywalker’s journey . Throughout Empire, Luke (and the viewer) is repeatedly told hate, fear, and anger all lead to the Dark Side. And in Return of the Jedi, Luke is again warned by Obi-Wan to bury his feelings deep down, or they could be used to serve the Emperor.
It is this knowledge and fear of what could tip Luke to the Dark Side that makes the epic throne room lightsaber battle between Luke and Vader in so compelling. We see Luke fighting his emotions, but once Vader detects the presence of Luke’s sister and threatens to turn her to the Dark Side instead, Luke can’t hold back any longer.
He uses his anger and rage to overpower Vader, but after he chops off his father’s hand and see only wires and circuits (then looks at his own robotic hand lost in Empire) he steps back from the precipice of the Dark Side and tosses away his weapon.
He did the seemingly impossible; he toed the line between Light and Dark, but didn’t fall. It’s a fantastic character arc and has led some to believe he is a so-called “Gray Jedi.”
Admittedly, the film does suffer in some areas. The opening act to rescue Han Solo from Jabba the Hutt is too long and no Hollywood executive would likely approve putting Princess Leia in that gold bikini today, but where this movie truly excels is the way it seamlessly weaves three different plots (the throne room, the battle on Endor, and the Death Star space battle) to tell an exciting, cohesive conclusion.
Look no further than Empire to see a movie that struggles with multiple simultaneous storylines; one of the film’s biggest criticisms is how director Irvin Kershner handles the timeline of Luke’s training with Yoda and the activities on Cloud City. Did Luke’s training only last a few days, or were they at the floating city for weeks?
Jedi also features the best space battle in the entire series (and with a name like Star Wars I am going to put a big emphasis on the star warring) as the Rebellion tries desperately to destroy the second Death Star. There’s the mounting tension as the team struggles to lower the shields on Endor, and the dread that clouds Lando’s face when he realizes the shield is still operational when the fleet arrives, punctuated with the infamous line, “It’s a trap!” from Admiral Ackbar.
“But the Ewoks!!” I hear the Internet scream. Yes, fine, the Ewoks. George Lucas originally wanted to have Wookiees in the climactic final act, and even considered using a reptilian species instead, but inevitable script changes meant they were changed to the cute, cuddly teddy bears you either love or loathe.
But they didn’t seem out of place to me when I was a kid watching the movies, given the vastness of the Star Wars universe, and their treehouse forts and clever traps made for fun viewing. Even as an adult I can appreciate their role in the film. Besides, it was pretty fun to watch two enormous logs crush the Imperial walker like an egg (and who didn’t shed a tear when the one Ewok mourned its fallen comrade?).
And despite all his Oscar cred, the infamous “Yub Nub” Ewok celebration song is one of John Williams’ biggest contributions to popular culture, even though it was tragically changed for the 1997 special edition.
Empire is the better film, no doubt, but for me Return of the Jedi is the film that perhaps embodies the spirit of Star Wars the best—a big, bright space opera where good triumphs over evil using laser swords, X-Wings are the most badass ships in the galaxy, and carnivorous teddy bears feed on the flesh of their vanquished enemies.
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This article originally appeared on VICE CA.