Last week I re-watched Star Wars. This looks like a good place to talk about it.
My focus is primarily on Return of the Jedi. For although it is criticized as the weakest of the original trilogy, I find it the most profound. Like the other films, it’s an epic fight against evil and for life and freedom. But it’s also something more. It’s a fight for the soul.
To be fair, this began in The Empire Strikes Back, where our hero first met the temptation of the Dark Side and the villains plotted to turn and not merely to kill him. Darth Vader’s cat-and-mouse duel was as much a spiritual menace as a physical menace. Death was always in the cards, but it wasn’t the worst one to draw. That’s why Luke, when he was as beaten as he could be, chose it.
The Empire Strikes Back raised the specter of Luke Skywalker becoming Darth Vader, and Return of the Jedi invoked it as quickly as it possibly could. That’s why Luke entered the movie wearing all black and Force-choking guards. They were trying to remind us of someone, and it wasn’t even subtle. The father-son dynamic, limited and even sweet when the father was a dead Jedi Knight, turned into something more complicated and a whole lot darker. For an idea of how much darker, consider that it took real faith for Luke to insist that his father wouldn’t kill him for not going over to the Dark Side. (And you thought you had parental issues!)
But Vader was more than a walking, (mechanically) breathing warning of what happens when you lose yourself to the Dark Side. His soul was at stake, too. He struggled between good and evil, as his son did, and both exacerbated the other’s conflict – Vader trying to convince his son to join him in the Dark Side, Luke trying to convince his father to join him in the light.
There’s a dark intimacy to those scenes aboard the Death Star. Evil never seemed more personal than in the Emperor, or in the Dark Side threatening to consume both your father and your very self. What strikes me about the whole sequence is the sense that this is the greatest danger, this the worst thing. Death recedes before a greater evil. Nothing could be worse for Luke than to fall to the Dark Side.
And nothing could be better for Darth Vader than to come back from it. Those words at the end – ‘I’ve got to save you.’ ‘You already have’ – show that even he knew the salvation that mattered most. It’s the spiritual danger and the spiritual triumph of Return of the Jedi that make me think of it as a profound film.
I don’t think Return of the Jedi is an allegory or a metaphor or a Christian film. I’m not looking for God in Star Wars. Whatever I think watching the movie, I know the people who made it were often thinking something quite different. And it doesn’t diminish my enjoyment of Return of the Jedi as not only a fun movie, but also a heroic and even deep one.
Question time (this is traditional). What is your opinion of Return of the Jedi? Are there any movies, either good or bad, that you think are mislabeled as Christian? Yes, Your Honor, I’m leading the witness because frankly, I think some Christians are too free with that label.