As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a Jedi. Star Wars has always existed for me. I was born in 1979, two years after the first Star Wars movie was released. It’s hard to describe to younger people just how ubiquitous a movie could be back then, when it could play, literally, for an entire year in one theater, and people would still line up to see it after it had been out for months. Star Wars permeated the culture in a way that’s just not possible today. Before I even knew what Star Wars was, I knew what Star Wars was.
I was far too young to see The Empire Strikes Back in the theater in 1980, but by the time Return of the Jedi came out, a few weeks before my fourth birthday, I knew the stories of the first two movies backwards and forwards, and could spell “Skywalker” with more surety than my own last name.
I don’t remember seeing too many movies from that time. I know that I was dragged out of The Dark Crystal screaming, because of those fucking Skeksis, but I don’t remember watching the actual movie. I know that I fell asleep watching E.T., but only because my mom told me the story years later. But I can remember every moment of the first time that I watched Return of the Jedi. I remember the blaring opening horns, the dark thrill of seeing Darth Vader larger than life, descending the steps of his shuttle right towards me. I remember the bright light of Tatooine glinting off my old friends, R2-D2 and C-3PO (who were also on the shoes I was wearing that night), and the monstrous, slimy Jabba the Hutt. I had nightmares about the Rancor and the Sarlacc that I recall more vividly than what I had for breakfast this morning.
And yes I loved Chewie, and yes I loved Yoda, and yes, God help me, I loved those Ewoks that I’m supposed to hate now, at 36 years old. But I just can’t bring myself to do it. People hate the Ewoks because they hate the idea that the Empire, this vast, destructive force, could be defeated by something so innocent, so guileless, so damn cuddly.
By the time we’re grown, we’ve seen evil--in others, and in ourselves--so often that we become resentful of any suggestion that something as simple as hope can defeat it. That’s why it’s cool to love Empire, but not Jedi. The first Star Wars movie is hopeful, but Jedi goes beyond that hope to a childlike naivete. When Luke Skywalker takes off his father’s mask, we expect something horrific, but instead we find a pale, larval bureaucrat with sad eyes. Evil, Jedi tells us, is unformed and pathetic.
In the end, Anakin Skywalker earns his redemption with one moment of choice, in not being able to stand by while his son is tortured by the same wizened creature that ruined his own life. At the end of the movie, we see Anakin again, bathed in the same blue spirit-light as Obi-Wan and Yoda. By making that one choice, he has become their equal in goodness. The blood and terror of Darth Vader are gone. Just like that.
Before Anakin’s choice, we see Luke contemplate a dark future of his own, as he stands over his wounded father, ready to aim the killing blow. It’s only when Luke notices that his father’s mechanical hand mirrors his own that he is thrown out of the dark reverie to which The Emperor has manipulated him, and he realizes that his father was once like him--a boy with the same fear and doubt. That moment of reflection gives Luke the strength to make the right choice. He is a Jedi, like his father before him. Like his father can be again.
We know, or we think we know, that the world isn’t that easy. That being good or evil isn’t just a choice. Isn’t just one moment’s decision. But what if it is? What if the choice is as easy as seeing our own damaged clockwork, the same machinery that propelled our parents into their own poor decisions, and choosing to follow another path? Then we would be beings of unimaginable strength, capable of moving x-wings with our minds and toppling empires with compassion.
Join us next week for our in-depth discussion of Return of the Jedi, the conclusion of the original Star Wars trilogy.