“If there’s a bright spot in the universe,” Luke once said, when he thought he’d be stuck on Tatooine forever, “this is the planet it’s farthest from.” For a backwater wasteland run by a mob of giant slugs, however, it gets a lot of narrative attention. Having left Cloud City with Han Solo (frozen solid in a block of carbonite and allegedly alive) Boba Fett delivered him to Jabba the Hutt’s palace, where Han is now on display as both trophy and warning. This is what happens if Jabba gets fed up with you.
But the Rebellion has bigger problems. In what is not the most original plot twist George Lucas could have come up with, the Empire has started construction on the Death Star 2.0 and are a startling way ahead of schedule considering the last one took them twenty odd years to develop. Darth Vader comes to see the progress and he’s a lot less impressed than I am. When the commander overseeing construction protests that he needs more men to get the work done on schedule, Vader pulls out the ultimate threat: the Emperor is coming to view the operation personally, and he does not accept excuses. Or other people’s opinions. Or any reality that doesn’t fit with what he wants.
Meanwhile, on Tatooine, C3-PO and R2-D2 are once more walking through the desert, this time towards Jabba the Hutt’s palace. They are carrying a message on Luke’s behalf. C3-PO’s hopes of this mission being a complete non-starter are dashed when they are allowed into the palace, and I don’t blame him for the reluctance – it’s a horrible place, full of horrible people and other people having a really horrible time. Having what is probably the most horrible time of all is the Twi’lek slave girl sitting at Jabba’s feet. Her sole purpose in this movie is being something beautiful that he can break. Did Jabba really need to be an inter-species sexual predator as well as a violent and capricious mob boss? Really?
The two droids don’t actually know what Luke’s message says. R2-D2 has already been fondled by Jabba’s creepy lackey by the time they reach Jabba and C3-PO is poised for a full on panic attack so the realisation that Luke doesn’t intend to get them out – that they are in fact gifts for Jabba, to more easily facilitate negotiations for Han’s release – is a dreadful shock. It’s hard to tell whether this is a ploy on Luke’s part or not. Despite delivering a sickening amount of flattery in one short message, he could not look more stony.
He’s also introducing himself as a Jedi Knight these days. That doesn’t mean much to Jabba, who keeps the droids but has no intention of giving up his favourite statue. On the way through Jabba’s extremely inhospitable halls, C3-PO and R2-D2 are brought to a torture chamber for droids (it is really disturbing) where C3-PO is fitted with a restraining bolt and sent back up to act as Jabba’s interpreter. R2-D2 is taken off to wait tables on Jabba’s barge. They are both terrified and this is not okay. I am disappointed in you, Luke.
Jabba hosts a party that night – or maybe it’s not a party, maybe he always has a live band performing non-stop for his entertainment and skimpily clad dancing girls in chains performing at his whim, I don’t know. He’s the type. Boba Fett is in attendance, a little separate from the rest of Jabba’s crew and radiating a vibe of disinterest. When Jabba hauls the Twi’lek girl off the dance floor towards him, practically salivating at her distress, she fights back as hard as she can and I really want to rescue her from this story, because she DESERVES BETTER. Jabba gets bored with her struggles. He opens a trapdoor and drops her into the pit beneath the floor, to be torn apart by the monster he keeps beneath the palace.
The ‘entertainment’ is distrupted when a short-tempered bounty hunter in a helmet and body armour comes down the stairs, hauling Chewbacca along with them. There’s a price on his head and the bounty hunter has come to collect, using a thermal detonator as inducement for Jabba to up the sum. Jabba is amused. He agrees to hand over half the demanded (presumably exorbitant) price and the bounty hunter stays afterwards to join in the party. Chewbacca is towed off to the dungeons. One of the guards is a disguised Lando Calrissian, who watches but doesn’t act, not yet.
When the party is over and the palace is quiet, the bounty hunter slips back into the dark throne room and goes to Han, adjusting the settings on the carbonite to unfreeze him. Han tumbles out, unconscious, shaking and temporarily blind from hibernation sickness. He’s scared and confused. Pulling off the helmet, the bounty hunter is revealed to be Leia – but she’s shown her hand too soon. Jabba suspected a trick and set up an ambush. Han immediately tries to fast talk his way out of it, but no dice, he’s dragged off to the dungeons. Leia is forced to take on the vacant role of dancing slave girl, chained to Jabba’s side and stripped down to the infamous golden bikini.
Let’s not mince words: this is a narrative choice based on sexism. Leia’s treatment is specifically, sexually denigrating when there is no good reason for her to be treated differently to the male prisoners. I can’t watch this movie without remembering what it was like, as a little girl, to see my favourite character treated as a thing and to understand that she was being treated that way because she was the same gender as me. What’s worse is that I wasn’t surprised. Because I already knew that’s what happened to women when the story wanted to hurt them: their clothes got taken away and so did their strength.
I sincerely hope this trope dies a swift and merciless death.
In the dungeons, Han reunites with a jubilant Chewbacca, who explains that Luke is going to come and rescue them – an idea that Han is tremendously doubtful about, as he still thinks of Luke as a good-hearted but naive farmboy. Luke is not that person any more. He walks into the palace shrouded in a dark cloak, sweeping away the guards with easy gestures, like he’s swatting flies. Unfortunately, Jabba is not as susceptible to Jedi mind tricks. It’s strange to think he’d remember the ways of Jedi, that it’s actually only a generation ago that the Jedi were a legend everybody knew and respected. Jabba probably remembers little Anakin Skywalker the impossible Podracer – I wonder if he ever joined the dots? Probably not. He may not be swayed by mind tricks, but he’s not bright.
Luke is calm in the face of Jabba’s…everything. He does not speak directly to Leia and she does not look happy to see him; she’s still chained up, there’s nothing to be happy about yet. And Luke is not an all-powerful legend, he’s a well-trained man surrounded by professional killers. Jabba activates the trapdoor and Luke falls into the pit along with an unlucky guard, who is immediately devoured by the monster. As Luke is hoisted toward the Rancor’s maw, he stabs it in the mouth with an old bone and runs, but there’s no way out. So instead he smashes the portcullis gateway and brings it down on the Rancor’s head, much to its keeper’s distress.
His first attempt having failed, Jabba comes up with another exciting execution for his prisoners. Luke, Han and Chewbacca are taken out to the Dune Sea, where they will be hurled into the nest of the Sarlaac while Jabba’s crew watch on from his barge. Luke keeps his chill. Leia is disgusted with everything. R2-D2 serves drinks.
Lando has managed to get aboard the smaller craft that is transporting the prisoners. When they reach the Sarlaac (another enormous monster that is all tentacles and teeth) a gangplank extends over its snapping mouth. “Jabba, this is your last chance,” Luke calls out. “Free us or die.” Jabba laughs. Luke is prodded out onto the gangplank. He nods to Lando, flicks a salute to R2-D2 and does a Force-powered backflip as the Skywalkers’ guardian droid sends his lightsaber flying into his hand. A free-for-all breaks out as the other prisoners fight off their guards. Boba Fett flies down to deal with Luke and is accidentally knocked into the pit by a half-blind Han. Leia, with enormous pleasure, loops her chain around Jabba’s neck and throttles him to death. R2-D2 then busts her out. Team Rebellion leave Jabba’s barge in flaming smithereens as they fly away.
Upon departure from Tatooine, Han, Leia, Chewbacca, Lando and C3-PO go to join the Rebellion forces in the Millenium Falcon while Luke travels back to Dagobah with R2-D2. Meanwhile, at the construction site of the second Death Star, everyone is assembled to greet their Emperor. He casually delivers his orders to Vader as they walk between ranks of stormtroopers: they are going to wait for Luke to confront them, and then claim him for the Dark Side of the Force. After all, the Emperor has already turned one Skywalker. Why not get the latest model?
On Dagobah, Yoda’s nine hundred years are weighing heavily on him. He tells Luke that his training is complete, then gently mocks him for the awestruck statement “So I am a Jedi.” Yoda insists that Luke must defeat Vader before he can truly call himself that and Luke quietly brings up the question of his parentage. Yoda tries to avoid answering but has to admit that it’s true, Darth Vader is Luke’s father. He pleads with Luke to pass on what he’s learned, his last, choked words being, “There is another Skywalker.” Then he’s gone. His blanket collapses as the body underneath it fades away.
Leaving the hut, Luke is joined by the ghostly presence of Obi-Wan. Luke angrily demands to know why he lied about who Vader really was; Obi-Wan unapologetically explains that it was true ‘from a certain point of view’. “He’s more machine now than man,” he says sadly. Luke is convinced that there is still good in Vader (where is your EVIDENCE, Luke, he put your best friend in a FREEZER) and is unwilling to kill him. Obi-Wan then reveals that Luke has a twin sister, kept separate from him since birth. Luke guesses, instantly and correctly, that it’s Leia. It’s a Force thing. Obi-Wan tells him to be cautious of his emotions, lest the Emperor use them against him.
Aboard the Rebellion flagship, Lando has been made a general (to Han’s genuine delight) and Leia has got hold of proper clothes again, thank goodness. The rebels have learned the location of the new Death Star and also know that the weapons systems are not yet operational. Most importantly, the Emperor will be aboard. They have a small window of time in which to attack. The energy shield that defends the Death Star is generated on the forest moon of Endor, and has to be taken out before the station itself can be destroyed; Lando volunteers to lead the attack on the Death Star while a strike team led by Han goes after the energy shield. Han wouldn’t commit Chewbacca to such a dangerous mission, which is really adorable, but Chewie exasperatedly insists on going and Leia volunteers as well. Luke arrives in time to join them. Leia can immediately tell something is up with him but it’s not the right place for explanations.
Han practically orders Lando to take the Falcon, like it’s a lucky charm between them that will make sure his friend comes back in one piece. They’re pretty cute together now that all the betrayal and back-stabbing is out of the way. The Emperor, however, is by no means as unprepared as the rebels think. He has the imperial fleet waiting on the far side of Endor, where it won’t be detected.
Han’s team approach in a small imperial shuttle in the hope that they can use it to land undetected. Last time Han posed as an imperial officer, it didn’t go well, but this time everything goes to plan – until Vader senses Luke’s presence. When the rebels land on Endor, there are stormtroopers in the forest looking for them. Luke and Leia are separated from the rest of the group as they try to stop two scouts getting away; they are then separated from each other when they run into more stormtroopers and Leia is knocked unconscious.
She’s found by an Ewok. Ewoks are an indigenous species on Endor, who are basically walking, talking, spear-carrying teddy bears. Star Wars fandom does not seem to like them. I DO. So does Leia. She befriends this one by communicating through the medium of biscuit and they fight a stormtrooper together, which is a proven bonding experience. The Ewok decides she’s friendly enough to take back to his village. This apparently necessitates another costume change, Leia’s third so far in the course of the movie. The rationale behind the Ewoks just happening to have a dress in Leia’s size, designed for her species, goes unexplained.
In the search for his sister, Luke finds Leia’s discarded helmet and Han finds the ruin of the speeders she took down. Chewbacca is distracted by the smell of meat, suspended from a branch. It must smell incredible to him because he reaches out without thinking and the whole lot of them are scooped up in a net. Eternally resourceful, R2 cuts them free, but they are quickly surrounded by Ewoks, and they don’t pass muster nearly so well as Leia does. Then C3-PO sits up and the Ewoks mistake him for a god. It’s a pretty racist bit of storytelling, actually, relying on the trope of ‘gullible natives’. The trope is carried further when Luke, Han and Chewbacca are transported to the village to be cooked. The Ewoks’ reverence doesn’t go so far as listening to what C3-PO actually wants, so Luke fakes a divine rage by lifting C3-PO into the air with the Force. That’s enough to convince the Ewoks, who free their prisoners.
C3-PO recounts their adventures to date, complete with precise sound effects. He has an appreciative audience; the Ewoks decide to adopt them all, including the rebel cause. Luke slips away from the festive atmosphere and Leia follows him, sensing that he’s in an odd mood. He asks if she remembers her mother. She tells him that she remembers a woman who was kind and sad, but that can’t have been Padme, as she died when the twins were born. Luke tells Leia that Vader is on Endor. He explains that Vader is his father – and that Leia is his sister. She claims to have always known, which is total nonsense and probably just her way of handling all the awful of the situation. Luke insists on leaving. Han comes bumbling up while Leia desperately wants to be left alone, and his jealousy jumps to all the wrong conclusions. Despite his confusion, he does try to be supportive.
Luke surrenders to Vader. He is determined to reawaken the Light Side in him, just as Vader is determined to bring out the Dark Side in him. Vader turns almost plaintive as he tells Luke that he must obey the Emperor – Luke is right, the little slave boy from Tatooine is still in there, but that doesn’t change any of Vader’s innumerable murderous life choices and he makes a new one by hauling his optimistic son off to face the Emperor.
Han’s team prepare to take out the shield generator and Lando leads the rebel fleet towards the Death Star. With a clever diversion tactic courtesy of their Ewok allies, Han and Leia reach the control bunker where the generator is located, but it is a trap set up by the Emperor. They are quickly surrounded by stormtroopers and when Lando reaches the Death Star its shield is still operational. Realising that the imperial forces are prepared for them, Lando tries to call off the attack. It’s too late. Suddenly, they are all stuck in a last stand.
Aboard the Death Star, Luke is calm in the face of the Emperor’s…everything. He tries not to react when the Emperor gloats over the imminent failure of the rebel attack, but he’s rethinking his pacifist approach. Why he considers killing the Emperor to be crossing a moral line when he’s been totally fine with killing stormtroopers is a mystery to me – he killed Jabba’s people without any visible qualms either – but probably it’s something to do with setting a Good Example to Vader, who has been making querulous comments on how irresistible the Dark Side is ever since he came into the Emperor’s presence, like he’s trying to convince himself as well as Luke. The Emperor has a lot to say about Destiny, and how Luke’s Destiny is to become a Sith Lord like his father. To drive home Luke’s despair, he reveals that the Death Star’s weapons system is up and running – maybe not at full strength, given that it only takes out a single spacecraft, but certainly capable of decimating the rebel fleet when the Emperor gives the order.
Destiny, though, has failed to take the Ewoks into account. No doubt the Emperor thought of them as inconsequential, but the terrain is in their favour, they are small and fast enough to easily disappear when they want to, and there are enough gaps in stormtrooper armour that bows and arrows shot by expert marksmen have a good impact. You get the feeling that they have been watching the imperial invaders closely and planning all of this in detail. Chewbacca provides their small army with extra muscle. Han hotwires the control bunker doors while Leia covers him and they gain entry, setting the place to blow up.
If Luke wants to save his friends, he has to take out the Emperor. When Vader reads Luke’s mind and learns that Leia is also a Skywalker, Luke very nearly kills him. He cuts off Vader’s hand, he has him pinned – but when it comes right down to it, he will not kill his father. That’s just not who he is. Seeing Luke’s unwavering commitment to the Light Side, the Emperor tires of his game. He tortures Luke with Force lightning, delighting in it, while Vader stands silent behind him. Luke weakly pleads with his father to save him and something, finally, finally, snaps. Vader is not strong enough to stop the Emperor, but he’s strong enough to lift him. Hoisting his master into the air, somehow walking while wreathed in lightning, Vader hurls the Emperor into the Death Star’s power core, to his death.
With the shield down at last, Lando flies into the Death Star to aim for the power generator. He sends back most of his team, there’s no space for the fight in here. One pilot takes down a Star Destroyer and sends it smashing into the Death Star, and the station is in chaos as Luke staggers for a hangar bay, more or less carrying Vader. At Vader’s insistence, he removes the helmet, revealing the damaged human underneath. Luke wants to save him. “You already have,” Vader says. “Tell your sister…you were right.” He dies there, and has someone to mourn him.
The rebels take out the power generator. Luke escapes just in time and Lando bursts through the flames with a triumphant shout. To those watching on Endor, the explosion means victory. Han tries to reassure Leia that Luke wasn’t on board the Death Star when it blew and she calmly agrees that he wasn’t, that she can feel he’s still alive. Han misunderstands again. Leia spells it out with unnecessary patience, like he’s a bit thick for not having worked it out already: Luke is her brother.
Luke brings Vader’s body to the moon surface and builds a pyre to burn it. He stands vigil while the rest of the universe celebrates the end of the Empire, in a retconned montage that includes Coruscant and Naboo. It is an outpouring that cannot be stopped. The Ewoks celebrate in their own way, lighting bonfires and dancing, using stormtrooper helmets as drums. Han and Chewbacca grab onto Lando like family, and Leia yanks Luke into a hug. When he looks back at the night, he sees Obi-Wan and Yoda watching him – and his father is with them. The young, hot version of his father, because this is on DVD and George Lucas got at it. Still, it’s kind of fitting. It wasn’t Vader that Luke saved, it was Anakin. And Leia pulls Luke back into the revels, because this is the family that Luke saved himself to rejoin.
I have such mixed feelings about this movie. I can’t watch it without feeling my mother’s quiet and fierce disappointment on Leia’s behalf and my own sense of betrayal as an adult; I also have a lot less patience for Darth Vader getting every second chance that Luke can muster after so many people suffered and died at Vader’s own command. At the same time, Luke’s stubborn insistence on forging a new way, on being a better kind of Jedi, brings a deeper sense of relief after seeing the terrible mistakes made by his predecessors.
Which does not mean he can’t make terrible mistakes of his own. But he’s begun the right way.