Fixing RotJ, Part 1: A Certain Point of View
28th May 2020
Reading Time: 12 minutes
I know what you're thinking - you're thinking, "Craig, you spice-addled fool! Nothing's wrong with RotJ! It's amazing!" And of course, you're right - I love Jedi, and only the masterpiece that is Empire prevents it from being my favorite Star War. So let me start this off by mentioning just a few of the things about it that are absolutely great.
The opening sequence dealing with rescuing Han from Jabba is a thrilling, self-contained adventure for heroes we care deeply about. The space battle over Endor is a triumphant blend of 80s FX wizardry, dramatic tension, and high stakes. The speeder bike chase is thrilling and immersive. Ian McDiarmid's wonderfully committed performance as Emperor Palpatine is iconic and endlessly imitable. I don't even mind the Ewoks.
So what could I possibly have to complain about?
Well, if you've read a certain other post of mine, you can probably guess.
For all my love of RotJ, I always felt a certain lack of tension in the way the final confrontation with the Emperor played out. There's so much that's wonderful about the scenes with the Emperor - Ian McDiarmid, the set design of the throne room tower, the basso chorus of John Williams' dolorous Emperor theme. But the one thing that seems lacking is that despite how well the scenes create a feeling of dread, I never worry that Luke might actually turn to the Dark Side. The movies build up to this climactic challenge for so long, and yet, when we get there, the Emperor's pitch just falls short.
I'm definitely not the first person to point this out (obligatory RedLetterMedia link), but it's kind of a big deal because it's just about the only thing wrong with this otherwise impeccable movie, and by extension the Original Trilogy. I know it may seem heretical to ask whether we could improve a cornerstone of Star Wars fandom like Jedi, but honestly, the prequel and sequel trilogies are (mostly) too easy to pick apart, and anyway I'd rather spend time thinking deeply about the movies that actually matter to me.
Why isn't the Emperor's pitch to Luke very tempting? The Emperor tries to tempt Luke with giving in to his anger - but anger has never been a particular flaw of Luke's. It seems to have been a major failing of Anakin's, though, and maybe the Emperor just arrogantly assumed the same tricks would work twice. It certainly fits with the Emperor's overconfidence that he simply didn't put in the effort he should have to understand Luke before trying to turn him, but having our main villain fail because he's lazy undermines the story's stakes.
The flip side of that coin is that Luke could have been a little angrier. It would have increased the tension of these scenes substantially if we were more afraid that he might have enough anger in him to be swayed. And let's be real, Luke has a lot of legitimate things to be angry about.
The scene where Obi-Wan's ghost shows up to talk to Luke is the first moment when something starts to seem off about the story, and it's because Luke's anger at being lied to about who his father was is let go of too easily. Caring about his father's identity has been with Luke from the very beginning - the fact that literally everyone he trusted lied to him about this would've been a very natural and understandable source of anger for him.
Luke Skywalker may be the most relatable character ever. From the moment we meet him as a restless foster kid living in his Aunt and Uncle's basement, straining against the monotony of the dirt-farming life in a galaxy filled with untold wonders, it's incredibly easy to sympathize with how he feels.
Luke's story is first and foremost a quest to discover his own identity. At the beginning, all he knows for sure is that he doesn't belong on Tatooine - he's seen what it has to offer and isn't impressed. Having never known his parents, he makes up for a lack of strong role models by hanging out with "older brother" friends (Biggs) and idolizes imagined versions of his father. By the end of the first movie, he's made new friends, found belonging as a respected member of a terrorist organization, and taken his first steps down the path of becoming a mystical space-wizard, following (he thinks) in his real father's footsteps.
In Empire, he continues along that path, throwing himself into Yoda's Jedi training. But from the very beginning, he feels at odds with the Jedi teachings. No longer a wide-eyed farm boy, he questions Yoda's wisdom, which conflicts with his lived experience - he's gotten this far by being reckless and following his gut, why should he stop now? He feels validated by his successes, and ultimately he decides to reject Yoda's teachings and put his trust in his own boldness. Ironically, if he'd actually managed to defeat Vader in Cloud City, there might've been no way to prevent him from falling to the Dark Side; it would've solidified his belief that he didn't need to listen to anyone.
Instead, of course, Luke's arc in Empire is the story of being humbled and reminded that he isn't perfect. From the very beginning, the movie beats him up, literally and figuratively. He gets mauled by a snow monster, worn out by the exercise regimen of a two-foot-tall frog, and beaten to the point of attempting suicide by his own father. Far from confirming that he's an invincible hero, Empire knocks him down repeatedly, until he finally seems to understand that he's not going to be able to coast through life just because he blew up a big space station one time.
And, of course, aside from just being humiliated, maimed, beaten within an inch of his life, and nearly falling to an unspeakably awful death, he also suffers a particularly cruel psychological wound: in finding out that Vader is his father, he doesnt merely discover that his old man is the worst person in the galaxy. He also finds out that all of his mentors - Uncle Owen, Obi-Wan, even arguably Yoda - lied to him. Which wouldn't be such a big deal except that he's been conciously modeling himself after an imaginary version of his father, and his father's identity and details of his life and death have always been of supreme importance to him. Not only does he discover that his father's actually been alive this whole time, but he also loses the romanticized image of his father that's inspired him his entire life. Talk about a rough day.
Which brings us to ROTJ. The adventure to rescue Han from Jabba's Palace tells us a lot about where Luke's at. First, he's learned not to try to tackle big challenges alone. Leia, Lando, Chewie, R2, and even 3PO are all instrumental in pulling off the rescue. Second, we see that he's now wearing black and making much more overt use of his Jedi powers, both hints that he may be in danger of slipping to the Dark Side.
It's interesting that after his failure at Cloud City, Luke doesn't rush right back to Dagobah. Instead, he decides to rescue his buddy while using the Force to attack and manipulate people. Although his intentions are good, his methods are exactly those that Yoda warned him against. The Dark Side is quicker, easier, more seductive - because you can do things like use it to rescue your friends. And if you can use it for that, why not use it to achieve your other personal goals too? What could possibly go wrong?
Having established that he may be playing on the edge of the slippery slope that leads to the Dark Side, Luke finally heads back to Dagobah to see about getting those final few credits he needs for his degree. Yoda confirms that Vader is his father - not that Luke really doubted it - and hints that maybe they would have told him the truth about his father when (if?) they decided he was ready.
Yoda also tells him that to be a Jedi, he must confront Vader. This has a double meaning. Yes, Luke needs to confront his father in the sense of meeting up with him again and hashing out their family issues. But he also needs to confront the Vader within himself: that now-corrupted father image in his mind that he's always held onto in the hopes that it'll tell him who he's supposed to be. He needs to confront his dependence on his father as a source of identity for himself and decide whether to keep trying to follow in his father's footsteps or discard that crutch and determine his own way forward.
After Yoda dies, Luke wanders out to his X-Wing, and That Scene begins. They could almost have cut directly from Luke's last look at Yoda's house to the gathering of the Rebel fleet. But there is a purpose that could be served by an interaction with Obi-Wan's ghost: raising the stakes for the final confrontation. Since the question to be resolved by the end is whether Luke will follow the path of the Jedi or turn to the Dark Side, what the scene should do is create doubt in our minds about which path he'll choose.
The scene begins:
Luke wanders back to where his ship is sitting. Artoo beeps a greeting, but is ignored by his depressed master. Luke kneels down, begins to help Artoo with the ship, then stops and shakes his head dejectedly. LUKE I can't do it, Artoo. I can't go on alone.
This is a perfect setup for the scene: Luke, having lost his last living mentor, is now truly alone with the burden of confronting both his father and the evil Emperor. No longer the student, he is now an independent adult. The fight is now his, and his alone, to pursue as best he can. That feeling of being the only responsible adult in a situation is extremely relatable to anyone who's felt it. There's anguish, apprehension, uncertainty... but also empowerment. When the buck stops with you, it's very possible you'll make bad choices. But they'll be your choices, and you get to make them.
One thing you're not in the mood for when feeling that way is listening to someone trying to evade responsibility.
When Obi-Wan's ghost shows up, Luke rightly confronts him about his lies. This is the first time Luke's talked to him since leaving Dagobah the last time. He's had some time to think it through, and he hasn't come up with any good reasons why Obi-Wan didnt tell him that Vader's his father. He has good reason to be pretty angry with Obi-Wan about that, and to its credit, the scene starts off addressing that:
LUKE Obi-Wan! Why didn't you tell me? The ghost of Ben Kenobi approaches him through the swamp. LUKE You told me Vader betrayed and murdered my father.
Obi-Wan answers this with what may be the most suspicious, dissembling, mealy-mouthed, non-answer in the history of film:
BEN Your father was seduced by the dark side of the Force. He ceased to be Anakin Skywalker and became Darth Vader. When that happened, the good man who was your father was destroyed. So what I have told you was true... from a certain point of view. LUKE (turning away, derisive) A certain point of view! BEN Luke, you're going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.
Rather than take any responsibility for lying, expressing any remorse at his deception, and without even admitting he lied, Obi-Wan instead opts to justify himself as "telling the truth... just from a different point of view." This is the response of a pathological liar or a con artist, not anyone who should be trusted.
Now, obviously, this happened because the Original Trilogy was not meticulously planned out from the beginning. We know that when Lucas wrote the first Star Wars, he didn't yet know that Vader would be Luke's father. So, when Lucas and Kasdan sat down to hash out the script for ROTJ, they had to decide how to handle the discrepancy between Obi-Wan's original story in ANH and Vader's revelation in ESB. It couldn't have been easy to figure out what to do about it.
What they decided to do was probably one of the worst options: briefly acknowledge that Obi-Wan lied and that Luke had reason to be unhappy about it, but then quickly move on to the storytime part of the scene without exploring the rich potential for conflict between Luke and his now-unreliable mentor. They had exposition they wanted Obi-Wan to deliver and they didn't see the benefits of trashing Obi-Wan's character, so they wrote the vague lines about "point of view", hoped it would sound sort of wise, and moved on.
Instead, they could've left Obi-Wan out entirely. Yoda could have delivered any exposition Luke needed, eliminating the need for an Obi-Wan scene entirely. But, they clearly wanted to deliver a lot of exposition here - revealing a little more about Anakin's backstory, revealing that Leia is Luke's sister - and it would've ruined Yoda's dramatic exeunt to force him to go over it all.
Another option would have been to have Obi-Wan admit the lie and give a reason why. The obvious answer would've been that he was afraid Luke would seek Vader out too soon. Although it would still suck that he lied, there'd at least be some logic behind why. And it would fit well with Yoda's line "not ready for the burden were you".
Yet another option - they could've had Obi-Wan say something sketchy, like his "certain point of view" line, but have Luke stand up to him a bit more. Luke could have expressed some very justifiable outrage over being lied to. I actually prefer this approach, because it would be better for accomplishing what I see as the real goal of the scene: to increase the stakes and make us worry more about Luke's vulnerability to the Dark Side. I also don't mind setting up the idea that maybe there's more to reveal about Obi-Wan's culpability in what happened to the galaxy, since now we can't really be sure that anything he's told us is true.
So I envision the scene starting out pretty much the way it does, except instead of passively accepting Obi-Wan's hand-wavy answer, Luke reacts angrily and demands to know what else Obi-Wan's lied about. Have Luke say something to the effect that he has to clean up this mess that Obi-Wan made, and he's going to do it his way. After all, Yoda and Obi-Wan's way didn't accomplish anything in the past twenty years: the galaxy's been suffering under the Empire's boot while they hid and did nothing. Give him a little fire, and make us think about the fact that Luke was completely willing to use his abilities to trash Jabba's whole operation. Maybe have Obi-Wan try to say something about how he's falling into the same trap Anakin did - pursuing good ends with dangerous methods. Have Luke shut him down with a sick burn, like saying that he has something his father didn't - friends he can count on.
I'll stop short of actually trying to write such a scene, but I think something along those lines would've set us up better for the finale in a number of ways. It would've acknowledged that Obi-Wan lied to Luke in a particularly cruel way. It'd imply that dishonesty is a character flaw in Obi-Wan that might've also contributed to the trouble with Anakin in the first place. It'd make us wonder what lies a young Obi-Wan told a young Anakin to lure him into that first "damn fool idealistic crusade." There's good hooks there to hang some prequels on.
It also would've made us worry a lot more about Luke's upcoming confrontation with Vader and the Emperor, without completely ruining Luke as a character. Pulling that off would require a careful balance - Luke would have to be speaking out of completely justifiable anger and a desire to do what's right, not being malicious or spiteful. It'd require sacrificing Obi-Wan's position as a trusted mentor and painting him in an even less flattering light, which I know will upset a lot of people. But I think it could've been done in a way that allowed Luke to still find his way in the end while at the same time making us worry a little more about him getting there.
This isn't the only change I'd make to the ROTJ script - there's some other tweaks I'd make to the scenes between Luke, Vader, and the Emperor to help sharpen their confrontation in the end. But since this post is approaching 3,000 words, I guess this will be the first in a series of posts exploring how I'd script doctor Return of the Jedi...