To celebrate the 40th anniversary of the film, two StarWars.com writers debate the best moment in Return of the Jedi.
Star Wars: Return of the Jedi arrived in theaters on May 25, 1983, bringing an end to the original trilogy in memorable fashion. Marking its 40th anniversary, StarWars.com presents “Jedi at 40,” a series of articles celebrating the film that brought us Jabba’s palace, Ewoks, Luke Skywalker’s final confrontation with the Emperor and Darth Vader, and so much more.
One of the great things about Star Wars is that it inspires endless debates and opinions on a wide array of topics. Best bounty hunter? Most powerful Jedi? Does Salacious B. Crumb have the best haircut in the saga? In that spirit, StarWars.com presents From a Certain Point of View: a series of point-counterpoints on some of the biggest — and most fun — Star Wars issues. As we celebrate the 40th anniversary of Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, streaming on Disney+, two StarWars.com writers argue in favor of what they see as the best moment in the final film of the original trilogy.
The story of the original trilogy all comes down to this one moment.
Darth Vader has just given his son an ultimatum: if he does not join the dark side, then perhaps his twin sister, Leia Organa, will. That threat spurs Luke Skywalker into a frenzied lightsaber battle, losing all sense of the Jedi-like calm that he has been exhibiting throughout the duel thus far.
With the fury and hate of the dark side powering his blows, Luke pummels his father down, cutting off his left hand, and leaving just a smoldering mechanical stump. Luke can destroy his father with one blow. The Emperor, who has been watching the entire time, is thrilled: his plan is succeeding and he might soon have a new, powerful apprentice at his side.
Offered the choice to join Palpatine, my favorite moment in Return of the Jedi, and, frankly, in all of Star Wars, then begins. Looking at his gloved, mechanical hand and his father’s missing one, Luke disengages his lightsaber and throws it away. He rejects the dark side once and for all: “Never. I’ll never turn to the dark side. You’ve failed, Your Highness. I am a Jedi, like my father before me.”
Luke’s breaths are heavy; he is sure of his choice, and it is a relief. His training with Yoda, his visions on Dagobah, the constant looming worry of turning evil…he no longer needs to worry. He has made his decision, even though he knows that the immediate consequences are only pain.
Cinematically, it is a perfect moment: the throwing of the lightsaber, the subtle head tilt, and the swelling of music by John Williams. It is Mark Hamill putting on a masterclass in acting, and, for just a moment amid the climactic battles of Jedi’s third act, the audience can breathe.
Luke has made his choice and Anakin will soon make his. It is Star Wars at its best: a family drama, a deeply personal journey, and the story of a hero. So be it.
It’s actually another Luke Skywalker moment, when he reveals and catches his hidden lightsaber, says Dan.
There’s no denying the singular brilliance of Luke throwing away his weapon and declaring “I am a Jedi, like my father before me.” It’s basically the point of the entire saga, crystalized into a single act and line. But Jedi is a great film on the whole, filled with incredible set pieces and emotional beats that still hold up after all these years. And if Brandon is picking the aforementioned moment, then I’m more than happy to argue for Luke Skywalker’s sail barge salute, flip, and lightsaber catch — the can’t-believe-it setup to my favorite action sequence of any Star Wars film.
Jedi takes its time in its opening act. It builds slowly as Han’s allies come to Jabba’s palace: first are the droids, who deliver Luke’s message of negotiation, followed by an in-disguise Leia, and then, finally, Luke himself. Once they’re all captured and sentenced to die by Sarlacc, where they’ll have to walk the plank and fall into the belly of a desert-dwelling beast, the tension is high. No one else is coming to rescue them and it’s up to our heroes to save themselves; Luke has boasted about his abilities — “I warn you not to underestimate my powers” — and now he’ll have to put his credits where his mouth is.
Once Jabba gives the order to put Luke into the pit, the scene shifts. The music gets more serious, with staccato horns on a simmering blanket of strings (a segment of the score so good it was repurposed for the Star Wars: Attack of the Clones trailer). Luke is unarmed and out of options. And then he salutes Artoo, signaling the droid to reveal just what’s hidden in his dome. Luke walks off the plank, but instead of falling downward, he grabs the ledge — and uses it to spring himself up! He somersaults in the air as Artoo launches his lightsaber, the Jedi landing just in time to catch his weapon, ignite it, and allow himself a wry smile. And we’re off.
Except for that detour in the rancor pit, much of the tension from the opening act explodes on-screen in that moment. It’s a surprising and awe-inspiring move, and a signal that this isn’t the Luke we saw battered and beaten at the end of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. Luke has clearly changed, becoming confident and powerful, if nearly unstoppable — a Jedi Knight, like he proclaimed in his message to Jabba. And that oh-so-slight pause as he grabs his weapon and smiles as he turns it on? That’s the joyous spirit of Jedi right there.
This moment tells us that our friends are worth fighting for. That we’ll face challenges but can meet them head on and win. That with hard work and a good spirit we can accomplish great things. I’ve said in the past that the reason Jedi is my favorite Star Wars film is because it makes me feel like I can do anything. And it starts right here, with that salute, somersault back onto the skiff, and catch of a lightsaber.