Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker will complete Disney’s Sequel Trilogy, but the upcoming movie – and its two predecessors – have retroactively made Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi the saddest film of the Star Wars series. Since 1977, Star Wars has always doubled down on escapist fun. As one of the inaugural blockbusters of the modern age, it charts the adventures of swashbuckling scoundrels and mystical warriors in their quest for galactic justice. Yet the saga also takes time to demonstrate the grimmer aspects of these conflicts. From Darth Vader’s (Hayden Christensen) vicious slaughter of younglings in Revenge of the Sith to Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) wrestling with morality in Return of the Jedi, the franchise is full of scenes that are either troubling or melancholy.
Sequences such as the death of beloved Jedi Master Yoda (Frank Oz) and Luke lamenting that he cannot remember his mother Padmé (Natalie Portman) have long rendered Return of the Jedi as one of the saga’s most somber entries. This is compounded by a strong sense of finality; after all, it was the last chapter of Star Wars for many years. But this underlying sadness has been heightened by recent installments.
This is not because the quality of the Sequel Trilogy has tarnished Star Wars’ legacy in anyway. It is simply that several plot points within The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi call back to Return of the Jedi, and thus intensify the heartbreak that we feel when we re-watch it. Here’s how the Sequel Trilogy has made Return of the Jedi even sadder than it was before.
Return of the Jedi Is The Last Time That We See The Original Heroes Together
During Return of the Jedi’s final scenes, Luke reconvenes with his best friend Han (Harrison Ford) and his sister Leia (Carrie Fisher) after his father’s funeral. The final shot of the movie depicts the iconic group smiling together, as they join their fellow Rebels in a jubilant victory celebration with the Ewoks.
The film may end on a triumphant note, but fans now know that this trio would never be seen happy, alive, and together again in another Star Wars movie. Harrison Ford’s desire to leave the franchise was finally realized when Han Solo perished upon his son’s lightsaber in The Force Awakens. Similarly, Luke merged with the living Force in The Last Jedi’s final scenes. And though Leia will return via CGI trickery in The Rise of Skywalker, Carrie Fisher’s untimely passing means that her character will likely bow out of the saga as well.
True, Leia did see both Han and Luke again in The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi respectively, and the new canon has detailed their joys and adventures between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens. But the lack of shared screen-time for the saga’s original heroes has proved a sticking point for fans and series legends alike. Many of these criticisms do forget that this new trilogy is intended to “pass the torch” to the new generation of heroes, including Rey (Daisy Ridley), Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), Finn (John Boyega) and Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) instead of directly repeating the series’ past. Nevertheless, the final scenes of Return of the Jedi are now decidedly bittersweet considering that these characters were never unified onscreen again, and that they did not achieve the fairy-tale ending that we wanted them to enjoy after years of warfare.
The Sequel Trilogy Has Emphasized The Tragedy of Anakin Skywalker
The Original Trilogy closes with Luke Skywalker becoming a formidable, fully-fledged Jedi Knight. But as we know, this victory came at great personal cost: his aunt, uncle, two Jedi masters died, as did his long-lost father. Anakin’s fall to the Dark Side is the central tale of the Star Wars saga, which is mainly divulged across the Prequel Trilogy. After an early life of great hardship, Anakin became a warrior who feared loss, and strived for stability and acceptance. Disillusioned by the failings of the Jedi Order – and manipulated by the wily Sheev Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) – Anakin became the antithesis of all that he held dear in the guise of Darth Vader. Anakin was only able to break free of the darkness and recognize the horror of his actions when the Emperor was on the brink of destroying his son. Therefore, its utterly tragic that the hero-turned-villain could only rediscover himself – and the kind of love that he had long desired – in his dying moments. Darth Vader’s death aboard the Second Death Star is even more poignant considering that Luke had searched for a father-figure like Anakin all his life, and that this was their limit of their interaction.
However, the Sequel Trilogy gives even more context to the tragedy of Anakin Skywalker, by showing the heart-breaking consequences of his choices. His daughter, Leia, has long been recognized as a skilled senator and freedom fighter in the Star Wars universe. But the canonical novel Bloodline depicts Leia’s mindset, her efforts and her political career being tarnished by the legacy of a parent she had never known. Shunned by the New Republic, Leia ended up wearily commanding the Resistance in the latest Star Wars movies, without her family’s support.
This was partly because Ben Solo (Adam Driver) admired – and chose to emulate – his grandfather’s path instead of seeing it for the cautionary tale that it is. Kylo Ren’s reign not only drove his despairing parents apart; it resulted in even more death and destruction across the galaxy. In turn, this sent Luke into a lengthy depression over his family – and the Jedi Order’s – repeated mistakes. Luke only returned when Rey and Yoda convinced him to learn from these failings and be a hero once more. By showing the heavy cost of Vader’s actions through Luke, Leia and Han in the Sequel Trilogy, Anakin’s (twisted) desire to do good – and his eventual redemption – are given an even greater sense of tragedy. Indeed, his dying admittance that Luke was right is an even sadder sequence in Return of the Jedi – considering what occurs later in the saga.
The Rebellion Won In Return Of The Jedi - But Evil Still Returns In The Sequel Trilogy
As explored earlier, Return of the Jedi ends on a happy note with the Death Star destroyed and Ewoks joyfully using stormtrooper helmets as musical instruments. Indeed, the movie’s revamped editions depict even more jubilation, through clips of Imperial forces being routed and symbols of the Empire being torn down across the galaxy. It might appear that the Age of the Empire was over forever, but Star Wars enthusiasts will know that this was not the case.
The Sequel Trilogy has revealed that even after a lengthy campaign, evil persisted in the galaxy. The First Order rose from ashes of the Empire and struck a series of terrible blows against their enemies by obliterating the Hosnian system – the base of the New Republic – and wiping out much of the Resistance. Furthermore, the first trailer for The Rise of Skywalker ended with Luke intoning that “no one’s ever really gone” before Palpatine’s familiar cackle was heard. Director J.J. Abrams later confirmed that Palpatine was set to return in The Rise of Skywalker, even though it had been some thirty years since he was thrown into the Death Star’s reactor shaft.
Some moviegoers have complained that Palpatine’s upcoming resurrection diminishes Return of the Jedi’s ending, yet it’s a plot point that is in keeping with the wider story so far. After all, the Sequel Trilogy has been very concerned with the burden of legacy, showing how heroes old and new negotiate living with the shadows and lingering problems of a bygone age. Whilst we don’t know how Palpatine returned, or what his role will be in The Rise of Skywalker, his presence as the saga’s ultimate big bad certainly complements this subtext about failure and the endurance of evil. As such, the fact that both Anakin and the Rebellion’s sacrifices did not have the desired effect intentionally increases the melancholy mood which defines Return of the Jedi, more than any other installment in the Star Wars saga thus far.
- Star Wars 9 / Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019) release date: Dec 20, 2019