A Galactic Celebration: 40 Years of Return of the Jedi
Issue 15, Volume 113
Upon its release in 1983, Return of the Jedi quickly became the highest-grossing film of the year. In celebration of this iconic movie’s birthday on April 28, Disney re-released the film in theatres with a theatrical run until May 4, the official Star Wars day (Why? May the Fourth be with you). It reached the top five at the weekend’s box office and grossed about $5 million, proving that its star remains bright even after several decades. Return of the Jedi allowed Star Wars merchandise sales to skyrocket, solidifying the series as a cultural phenomenon and leading to the release of figurines, legos, and more. With the high anticipation built up from the previous films, there was no doubt it would become a global sensation, and it is unsurprising that it remains so today.
The finale of the original Star Wars trilogy, Return of the Jedi, left fans hungry for more, leading to a second trilogy and multiple spin-offs. Today, the Star Wars franchise has expanded to become perhaps the most universally recognizable sci-fi series, having revolutionized visual effects and paving the way for new uses of technology in film. For example, the blue screens used in A New Hope (1977)—featuring small model ships cut frame by frame and layered on top of a special effects background—were groundbreaking in their time. As a pioneer of computer-generated imagery, the film allowed the intergalactic setting to achieve its full potential. The Star Wars franchise also had a significant impact on common cinematic themes, particularly by emphasizing a dichotomy between light and darkness. The success of the franchise played a role in the revival of space movies following their decline in the 1960s, inspiring a wave of space-focused media such as Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982).
Though Return of the Jedi received criticism for its rushed conclusion to Darth Vader’s story, it still provides a fitting end to his character arc. Fans have noted that Luke Skywalker’s (Mark Hamill) emotional response to Vader’s self-sacrifice for him was unrealistically accelerated, but overall, the movie does elicit a strong emotional response from fans by providing a well-fitting redemption arc for Anakin (Sebastian Shaw) which adds depth to the story. Luke’s character development as he completes his training and becomes a Jedi Knight is also a highlight of the film. Additionally, the iconic scene where the characters visit Jabba’s palace on Tatooine showcases the impressive diversity in character design and makeup through the vast array of creatures inhabiting the palace.
The film is equal parts emotionally compelling and entertaining, as would be expected for the last addition to the trilogy. Yoda’s death is a critical plot point in the film, as he confirms that Vader is Luke’s father and reveals that Leia (Carrie Fisher) is Luke’s sister before he passes away. This leaves Luke with a mission and opens up more plotlines in the movie. The film also finally confirms the romantic subplot between Leia and Han (Harrison Ford), solidifying their relationship. Perhaps the most impactful scene is Luke’s confrontation with Vader during an intense battle; Vader uses Luke’s relationship with Leia against him, proving his status as a deadbeat father and heightening the emotional stakes. This battle ultimately leads to Vader’s redemption arc when he betrays the Emperor to save Luke, a conclusion that was largely inevitable due to the buildup from previous films. Though he dies before he can become Anakin Skywalker once again, this climactic scene closes many plot holes. To this day, it remains one of the most important moments in the franchise’s main story by allowing potential for the creation of a new Jedi order. This both sets the stage for future films and represents the culmination of all three movies, as Luke finally fulfills his destiny. The intense portrayal of emotions is some of the strongest acting in the entire movie. In particular, Mark Hamill shone by bringing an emotional authenticity to Luke’s emotional turmoil during his confrontation with his father.
The entire cast delivered strong performances that ended their characters’ plotlines on a strong note. Ford’s and Fisher’s passionate portrayals of Han and Leia, respectively, cemented their compelling romance, and the Luke-Vader father-son duo was engaging, even though their story was tragically cut short. Since it was the final movie, the characters were afforded more complexity and higher stakes than before, making Return of the Jedi one of the best films in the trilogy. In addition to some of the strongest writing in the series, the highly skilled cinematography immerses the audience in each scene. One notable example of Star Wars creator George Lucas’s genius use of light and color is the scene on the forest moon of Endor, where golden hues and warm lighting capture a mood of tranquility. Overall, Return of the Jedi manages to stay loyal to each character’s personality while simultaneously developing a narrative complexity that adds a degree of closure to the series.
Return of the Jedi was undoubtedly the most important blockbuster film of 1983, defining the year in cinema despite strong competition from movies like Flashdance and Terms of Endearment. When Lucas took a 16-year break from Star Wars immediately after, his absence created a vacuum in the film industry filled by the rise of similar ‘80s megahit films such as The Last Starfighter (1984), Dune (1984), and The Ice Pirates (1984). The film itself also had a large cultural impact beyond the inherent fame of being a Star Wars movie. It received numerous accolades for its visual effects, including the Special Achievement Academy Award and the British Academy Film Award.
The film marked a change in depictions of the future; in the ‘70s, representations of futuristic worlds were largely uniform and pristine. ‘80s sci-fi films like Alien (1979), Blade Runner (1982), Terminator (1984), and The Matrix (1999) reflected the vision of a “used future” (a future depicted as reality not fantasy) as pioneered by Return of the Jedi. Additionally, the movie’s strong soundtrack, with standout tracks including “The Emperor’s Theme” and “Jedi Rock,” further contributed to its massive success. The film serves as a time capsule of a bygone era of cinematography that is distinctly ‘80s, impossible to reproduce despite the more sophisticated technology of the modern day. Released during the Cold War, its fantastical elements and narratives centered around heroism provided much-needed escapism for viewers. The ideas of resilience and uprising against oppressive governments ran parallel to the themes of nationalism common in American media at the time.
Luke Skywalker’s development throughout the trilogy reaches a climax in Return of the Jedi; he transforms from a farm boy nobody to the Jedi Knight who defeated the Emperor. Despite the completion of this storyline and similar ones, George Lucas carefully allows for future content through the long-term goals set up for each character, such as Luke’s desire to rebuild the Jedi Order and Leia’s newfound ability in the force. While some thought the ending was underwhelming and disregarded the darker tones of The Empire Strikes Back (1980), many felt the series ended on an appropriately light and triumphant note. Establishing the end of an era, Return of the Jedi is the unparalleled culmination of the most iconic sci-fi trilogy in history.