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Luke Inside Yourself: The Self-Help Philosophy of “Return of the Jedi”…

The podcast that I co-host, The 250, has a tradition of covering Star Wars films at Christmas. Last weekend, we covered the last of the films on the list, Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi. It’s a fun, broad discussion. However, watching the film and talking about the film got me thinking about the film as a cultural snapshot of 1983.

Every generation gets the Star Wars movie that they deserve.

The original film was intended as George Lucas’ statement on Vietnam. Lucas had originally planned to make Apocalypse Now, and it is possible to see shades of that in his existential parable about a plucky band of rebels facing a technologically superior evil empire. Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back was perhaps one of the first true blockbusters of the eighties, and also helped to further codify the future of mainstream cinema as the New Hollywood movement endured its death throes with failures like Heaven’s Gate.

As such, it makes sense that Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi was the perfect film for 1983. It was a much less creative sequel, one that reduced the franchise down to a set of easily repeatable iconography while also maximising its toyetic potential. However, there is more to it than that. Return of the Jedi arguably marked the end of a journey that began with Star Wars. After all, the original Star Wars was in many ways a radical allegory for late seventies America, bristling with anger and rage at a broken world.

In contrast, Return of the Jedi is essentially a self-help movie, where the fate of the galaxy matters much less than how Luke Skywalker chooses to think about his father.

To be clear, there are plenty of radical and subversive moments in Return of the Jedi, even if many of those elements are subversive within the framework of that eighties hypercapitalism. Return of the Jedi restages the Vietnam metaphor of the original Star Wars, just much more overtly. Once again, this is a story about a bunch of rebels fighting an oppressive imperialist force, but Return of the Jedi pairs these rebels with a species of toyetic teddy bears (that are maybe hungry for human flesh) and then sold toys of these adorable stand-ins for the Viet Cong to an entire generation.

However, what is most interesting about Return of the Jedi is how it codifies so much of the “dad stuff” associated with Star Wars franchise, effectively building to a narrative of reconciliation between Luke Skywalker and Dark Vader that is treated as being as important as anything involving the destruction of the Second Death Star and the collapse of the First Galactic Empire. The primary plot thread in Return of the Jedi, the one following Luke Skywalker, is about the idea of Luke making peace with his father.

Of course, “dad stuff” is so thoroughly ingrained in Star Wars that it is easy to miss just how much of that is down to Return of the Jedi. After all, Luke did not have any idea of his relationship to Darth Vader in the original Star Wars. As far as Luke was concerned, his father was a man who died fighting in “the Clone Wars.” In the context of a movie released in 1977 about guerilla warfare, the particulars of “the Clone Wars” were unimportant. It was enough to infer they were equivalent to the Second World War, and Luke’s father was a member of “the greatest generation.”

In the original Star Wars, Luke’s primary motivation was to simply leave Tatooine. He experienced a sense of wanderlust perhaps recognisable to any person who has ever been a teenager. He initially wants to enlist in the Imperial Flight Academy. In the original screenplay, Luke is surprised that his friend Biggs would “jump ship” and join the Rebel Alliance. Indeed, Luke only really ends up joining the Rebel Alliance when (in an overt homage to imagery from the Vietnam War) his aunt and uncle are burnt alive. He also embarks on a mission to rescue princess Leia Organa.

In this sense, it’s easy to position Star Wars in the context of seventies America. Star Wars was the product of a country that had endured national tragedies like the Vietnam War and Watergate, which had recently lived through a horrific recession. The film’s “used future” aesthetic was in many ways a complete rejection of the utopian fantasies of seventies science-fiction. It is possible to read Star Wars as a story of a young farmer who is radicalised when his family are killed by enemy soldiers and so becomes a terrorist against that horrific regime.

In the original Star Wars, Darth Vader is effectively a visually impressive henchman to Grand Moff Tarkin. However, Tarkin dies at the climax of Star Wars, while Vader is sent careening into space. Vader returns in The Empire Strikes Back, leading the manhunt for Luke. George Lucas reportedly decided quite late in the development process that Vader would turn out to be Luke’s father, even if that relationship would come to define the pair of them. Nevertheless, in The Empire Strikes Back, Luke’s motivation is to learn about the Force and to help his friends.

Of course, the Star Wars franchise had begun to shift with the mood around it. The Empire Strikes Back lacked the grand unifying narrative of the original Star Wars. It was not about an epic plan to save a princess and blow up a superweapon. Instead, it was about people navigating their relationships to individuals and institutions. Luke must decide between being a Jedi and saving his friends. Han must decide between returning to his old life and staying with Leia. Lando has to choose between his position and his friends. Even Vader is caught between the Empire and his son.

The Empire Strikes Back at least acknowledged that these choices were irreconcilable. Luke leaves Degobah before his training is complete, and so gets handily (heh) humiliated by Vader at Bespin. Han is frozen in carbonite and forcibly returned to Jabba the Hutt. Lando has to give up his “respectable” career in order to help his friends. The Empire Strikes Back presents these choices as tough and weighty. Which makes Return of the Jedi especially interesting, because it never touches on the idea of a conflict between an individual and their outside obligations.

In this sense, Return of the Jedi is a movie very much in step with the times around it. The original Star Wars was released after the resignation of Richard Nixon. The Empire Strikes Back was released on the cusp of the election of Ronald Reagan. In contrast, Return of the Jedi was released just after the midpoint of Ronald Reagan’s first term in office. If the eighties were just starting as The Empire Strikes Back hit cinemas, then they were in full swing by the time that Return of the Jedi was released.

In August 1976, essayist Tom Wolfe described the seventies as “the ‘me’ decade.” This existed implicitly in contrast to the radical activism and protest movements of the sixties, which had been replaced by a certain cynicism and resignation. Indeed, this is arguably the central thematic hook of Philip Kaufman’s remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers in 1978, which imagines a host of parasitic spores descending on San Francisco – once home to “flower power” and “the summer of love” – transforming the city’s inhabitants into soulless automatons.

The aliens in Invasion of the Body Snatchers operate primarily through Doctor David Kibner, who is an interesting character for several reasons. Most obviously, Kibner is played by Leonard Nimoy, who played a counter-culture icon as Spock on Star Trek, making his casting in Invasion of the Body Snatchers deliberately perverse. More than that, Kibner provided a lot of cover for the alien invasion through the language and rhetoric of the “self-help” movement, positioning himself as an author and psychologist in the field, assuring everybody that nothing was wrong.

By the eighties, these values had arguably been completely absorbed into the mainstream, with Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell describing the philosophy of the decade as one predicated on “looking out for number one.” With its Vietnam metaphor, the original Star Wars could be read as a last gasp of sixties social consciousness – after all, Lucas had chosen to make it instead of Apocalypse Now, a movie explicitly set in 1969 – but Return of the Jedi seems to have caught up with the mood of the present, reflecting a lot of the stereotypical pop culture of the eighties.

The idea of the collective good no longer held as much weight. While counterculture icon Jerry Rubins continued to support progressive causes throughout his life, there is a generation that labels him a “sellout” for making the leap from “yippie” to “yuppie.” The extent to which the values of the sixties appeared to be repudiated in popular culture might best be measured in the fact that President Ronald Reagan had (in part) solidified his political reputation in conflicts over the People’s Park at Berkeley in 1969, and ascended to the presidency.

The Reagan era was built on the idea of individualism ahead of the greater good. One of Reagan’s big campaign promises was massive de-regulation to allow business more freedom in how they operated while shrinking the role of government. He cut welfare and education spending, seemingly suggesting that it was to the individual to take responsibility for their own affairs without any idea of the larger community playing a role.

This arguably reflected a larger cultural shift, which saw a greater emphasis on the idea of the self-help movement. “People want to have control over their own lives,” insisted Professor Frank Reissman of the movement in July 1982. By the early 1980s, advice books “crowded out almost everything else” on the New York Times Best Seller List, prompting the creation of a new specific category for them in January 1984. As early as June 1978, The Washington Post had noted the dominance of “the new self-help, self-obsessed, East-meets-West theology of the Lifestyle Set.”

Of course, it’s possible to trace a lot of the emergence of this self-help and self-actualisation movement back to the sixties. However, but the eighties, the philosophy had been somewhat coopted and reworked to emphasise the importance of the individual. Towards the end of the seventies, “bookshops burgeoned with manuals for self‐esteem.” To illustrate the shift, Carl Rogers, Abraham Maslow and others had espoused the “human potential movement” in the sixties, but this had been embraced as a philosophy by big businesses by the middle of the eighties.

Indeed, it’s notable the extent to which books like Thomas A. Harris’ I’m OK – You’re OK became a punchline associated with the decade. David Bowie played with title on his 1980 album track Up the Hill Backwards, singing, “I’m okay – you’re so-so.” A parody book is carried by the bomber in Airplane 2, released in 1982. In May 1982, The New York Times noted that Reagan seemed to draw from the book in his handling of journalists. Even in flashback to the era, it receives shoutouts in films like Mary and Max or Wet Hot American Summer.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with self-improvement as a philosophy, but a lot of the particulars of its expression during the eighties were especially self-obsessed, often seeming less about figuring out an individual’s place in the world and instead figuring out how to realign the world to reflect the individual’s perspective. Indeed, some of this culture has been seen as implicitly postmodern, occasionally even going so far as to suggest a rejection of objective reality outside the self.

This all seems to play out Return of the Jedi, which takes the existential struggle of the original Star Wars and turns it into a meditation on the idea of Luke’s relationship to his father. Generational strife is a common theme in literature. It would be particularly pronounced in the context of the late sixties and early seventies consciousness simmering through the original Star Wars. After all, the arguments over Vietnam (as with the arguments over Civil Rights) were often framed in generational terms – children holding their parents to account for the world in which they lived.

In the context of the late sixties, this generational conflict was literally framed as a “revolution.” It implied a massive systemic change to the way in which the world worked. To be fair, there were massive gains made towards things like equality and in changing the national mood on the Vietnam War, but the idea of a radical revolution largely fizzled out. The children who had rebelled in the late sixties and early seventies had settled down and become the establishment by the eighties.

So it makes sense that by 1983, Luke Skywalker’s perspective had changed somewhat. Luke is at peace with himself. Luke does not seem especially interested in fighting for the galaxy’s freedom against the Empire; he clocks off for the movie’s opening act to rescue Han Solo from Jabba the Hutt on Tatooine before just casually strolling into a Rebel Alliance briefing about the latest planet-destroying super-weapon.

So much of Luke’s character in the original Star Wars had been defined by his desire to fly and escape. In Return of the Jedi, he returns home and spends very little time in a cockpit. Instead, Luke seems pretty mellow about the idea of the Empire building a Second Death Star. He volunteers to accompany his friend Han on a mission behind enemy lines, but is oblivious to the fact that Darth Vader might detect him until they are literally flying past Vader’s Star Destroyer. (Vader had been able to talk to him telepathically at the climax of The Empire Strikes Back.)

Once it becomes clear that Darth Vader is hanging around the Second Death Star, Luke’s priorities shift. Luke was never especially interested in destroying the Death Star and freeing the galaxy, but he becomes singlemindedly fixated on the idea of redeeming Darth Vader and proving that his father is a good man underneath that impressive black suit. “There’s still good in him,” Luke assures the ghost of Obi-Wan Kenobi, a man that Vader killed in Star Wars. Luke has no real basis for that assertion, beyond the obvious fact that he’d like to believe his father is not a monster.

Luke’s actions in Return of the Jedi are consistently and staggeringly selfish. Luke is a Jedi. He is a formidable warrior. Indeed, the entire point of the opening act is to demonstrate just how formidable Luke is; even after sneaking Lando and Leia into Jabba the Hutt’s Palace, it is Luke and his lightsabre that cause the most damage. It seems fair to suggest that Luke is a pretty important strategic asset for Han, and his skills would be useful in helping the rebels to take down the shield. (His use of the Force helps to save the team from the Ewoks by levitating C-3PO.)

However, Luke cannot see past himself and his own desire for self-affirmation. In the Ewok Village, Luke casually reveals to Leia that they are brother and sister. This implicitly confirms that Vader is Leia’s father. Leia was tortured by Vader in the original Star Wars. She stood beside Vader on the Death Star as Alderaan burned in the original Star Wars. She listened to Vader torture Han in The Empire Strikes Back. No matter how well adjusted Leia might be, that news should be a shock to her. However, Luke has no interest in what that news means to Leia. It is all about him.

Of course, the reveal that Luke and Leia were related was (like Luke’s parentage in The Empire Strikes Back) a late addition to Return of the Jedi. It makes a certain amount of sense that the film is not structured to give Leia the chance to process this news. Still, she is entirely separate from Luke’s attempt to reconcile with Vader. She is not present when Luke burns Vader’s body. Return of the Jedi spends more time on Han processing the news that Luke and Leia are related than it does on Leia coming to terms with her own parentage.

Luke decides to surrender himself to the Empire. This is a tactically questionable decision on multiple levels. Most obviously, it denies Han access to a key resource during this important mission. More than that, it confirms to the Empire that there are rebels operating on the forest moon. Of course, Luke claims that he is alone, but it still would sabotage any chance the team had of surprising the Empire.

Of course, as in so many ways, Return of the Jedi is structured to excuse Luke’s selfishness. Vader already sensed him arriving on the moon, even if Luke has no way of knowing for sure whether that was the case or not. Similarly, the Emperor was setting a trap and so was expecting a rebel ambush, even if Luke also had no way of knowing that. Based on what Luke knows at the time, this is a reckless and selfish choice. However, the film is structured in such a way that this never a serious problem that generates real consequences.

Luke remains convinced that his father can be redeemed. This continues into his confrontation with Emperor. Luke refuses to strike Vader down in cold blood, having learned the central lesson of his vision in The Empire Strikes Back. Ultimately, when the Emperor decides to brutally murder Luke with Force lightning, Vader eventually takes a stand. Refusing to allow his son to die, Vader picks up the Emperor and throws him to his death at the heart of the Second Death Star. In doing so, the logic goes, Vader is redeemed.

Indeed, Luke is very clearly happy for the validation. As he escorts Vader down to the shuttlebay, his father collapses. “I can’t leave you here,” Luke vows. “I’ve got to save you.” Vader replies, “You already have, Luke. You were right about me. Tell your sister… you were right.” This is all about affirming Luke. In particular, it is about affirming Luke’s belief that his father was a fundamentally decent person. It doesn’t matter that Leia might feel otherwise after being tortured by him, it only matters that Luke was right and that he can prove that.

Of course, it’s worth asking whether Vader was ever actually redeemed in a meaningful sense. After all, refusing to allow your boss to murder your child is hardly above and beyond as far as parenting goes. More to the point, The Empire Strikes Back had made it very clear that Vader would always choose Luke over the Emperor and wasn’t planning on changing his whole political philosophy. “You can destroy the emperor,” Vader tells Luke. “Join me and together we can rule the galaxy as father and son.” So Vader always planned to kill the Emperor and spare Luke.

More than that, redemption is a complicated process that involves things like accountability and confession. Vader is complicit in crimes on a scale beyond human imagination. He stood by as Alderaan burned. He casually murdered officers on a whim. He murdered his mentor. He tortured with impunity. Nothing that Vader does in Return of the Jedi involves acknowledging any of that. Indeed, after the Emperor dies, it’s notable that Vader doesn’t even do anything as basic as ordering the Empire to stand down at the Battle of Endor. The battle continues to rage, killing many.

Again, Return of the Jedi contorts to validate Luke. Vader dies before they can leave the Second Death Star. This spares any potentially awkward questions about what to do with him afterwards. Would Luke be happy to allow his father to stand trial, knowing that he would likely be executed or imprisoned for his crimes? Would Vader himself be capable of demonstrating humility and compassion to the many victims of his atrocities? What has Vader done that Luke doesn’t even know about? Vader dying spares Luke these potentially uncomfortable questions.

Of course, these questions don’t really matter in the context of Return of the Jedi. The idea of the larger universe has fallen away. The Empire and the Rebel Alliance are just abstract trappings rather than broad metaphors. There is no need to consider the question of what happens after the fall of the Empire, or what the process of “denazification” or “reconstruction” that must inevitably follow. Whatever metaphor there was in the original Star Wars is long gone. There is not even a proper redemption.

To be fair, the Emperor is dead. The Second Death Star is destroyed. Even if Darth Vader had lived, it is debatable the extent to which he might have been able to rally the Empire. However, this is treated as something incidental in Return of the Jedi. The Emperor does not receive a name until Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace. The Second Death Star is blown up by Lando Calrissian and Nien Nunb, both very much secondary characters. While in reality these sorts of regime changes are extended and brutal affairs, Return of the Jedi just throws a big party scene.

Watching Return of the Jedi, it becomes increasingly clear that this is not the story of the redemption of Anakin Skywalker, although the existence of the prequels would come to muddy that and the fact that the original trilogy ended on Luke’s perceived redemption of his idea of his father would shape the franchise going forward. After all, as director Rian Johnson astutely noted, “Luke’s relationship was with Vader, not really Anakin.” More to the point, Luke’s relationship was with his idea of Anakin, not really Anakin himself. (At the end, Anakin is literally a projection.)

Critic Chuck Klosterman argued that The Empire Strikes Back introduced Luke as the first true “Generation X” protagonist, an embodiment of the “turn on, tune in and drop out” generation who gave up on service to study pseudo-Eastern philosophy with Yoda and who rejected his father’s plans to fold him into the family business. In Return of the Jedi, Luke has arguably progressed even further. He has given up any actual ideals outside of the idea of reconciling with his father.

In the spirit of the mid-eighties, Return of the Jedi understands that it doesn’t matter whether Vader is actually redeemed. It only matters that Luke believes that Vader was redeemed. Vader exists only as a prism glimpsed through Luke’s eyes. Despite the reveal that Leia is Luke’s sister, Anakin only appears to Luke during the final scene. Anakin offers a smile and reassurance. He is dead, but he approves. Luke is validated. How Luke sees himself, particularly how Luke sees his relationship with his father, is the most important thing in the universe. Everything else is incidental.

Again, this captures the sense in which Luke is a suitable protagonist for the era, and the ways in which Return of the Jedi captures the mood of the eighties. The rebellious teenagers of the late sixties had grown up and settled down. The country had moved on from the perceived generational trauma of the sixties counterculture movement, and wanted to simply heal any memory of the strife that had almost torn the country apart towards the end of the decade.

Of course, while the philosophy of Return of the Jedi makes sense in the historical context, it is frustrating in hindsight. It recalls arguments that traumas should be forgotten or erased because processing them through might be too much work. In a modern context, it evokes appeals to national unity in the United States that suggest forgiving virulent racists or excusing corrupt politicians, in the hope that it might possible resolve some of the deep schisms in contemporary society.

Like Luke, the people making those arguments want to believe that these problems will just go away. It is often an argument from a position of privilege. Much like Luke never spares a thought for what Leia or Vader’s other victims might think about his father, this argument appeals for civility and reconciliation that favours those in comfortable positions. It doesn’t matter that the underlying problems are still there and unresolved. It doesn’t matter that the Empire has not been meaningfully dismantled. Luke gets to feel good about himself, and that is what’s important.

Indeed, this is a large part of what made Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi so refreshing. Not only did it acknowledge that the world does not work that way, it also explored what happens when the narrative logic of a Star Wars movie does not align with that philosophy. Johnson understood that Luke’s pride and his ego were a major blindspot for the Jedi, and that he would inevitably have to confront the reality that he had not rid the galaxy of tyranny – any more than earlier generations rid with world of fascism, which was on the rise as The Last Jedi was released.

More than that, The Last Jedi replays the “redemption” narrative of Luke and Vader. Like Luke in The Empire Strikes Back, Rey leaves her teacher to confront her enemy. Like Luke in Return of the Jedi, Rey is convinced that her opponent can be turned from the dark side. Like Luke in Return of the Jedi, this is as much about Rey’s own crisis of identity and pride as it is about anything else. Like Vader in Return of the Jedi, Kylo refuses to let his master kill the hero and kills the master instead. This is all familiar. The rhythms are similar. Logically, Kylo should be redeemed as Vader was.

Except, of course, Vader was never redeemed. He just died, and Luke got the validation he craved. Kylo does not die. Instead, he assumes command of the First Order and proceeds to hunt down the Resistance. Rey is confronted with a simple reality that Luke was spared: it is impossible to redeem a person who does not want to be redeemed. There is no indication in The Empire Strikes Back or Return of the Jedi that Vader feels bad about anything that he has done. There is only evidence that Luke wants to believe that his father is a good man.

This is perhaps why the sequel trilogy doesn’t feel as superfluous as it might, even allowing for the spectacular failure of Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker. After all, Return of the Jedi leaves much unresolved. Much like the eighties wanted to believe that the turmoil of the previous decades were consigned to history, Return of the Jedi wants to believe that the characters sitting around the camp fire have managed to tidy away all of the loose ends. Everything is better. Everything is happy. Everything is resolved. Luke feels validated in himself, and is that not enough?

Return of the Jedi believes that it is. The Last Jedi knows that it not.

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