Fixing RotJ, Part 2: Armed Only With This
25th Jun 2020
Reading Time: 11 minutes
In my first post about script doctoring Return of the Jedi, I talked a lot about the infamous "certain point of view" scene. This is the scene where Luke encounters Obi-Wan's ghost right after Yoda dies. It's a critical turning point in the film that doesn't live up to its potential, and it sets the stage for a disappointing conclusion of Luke's story in the original Star Wars trilogy.
In the scene, Luke's just lost his teacher and ally, the last living Jedi Master, Yoda. Just before dying, Yoda confirmed for Luke that Darth Vader was telling the truth: he is Luke's father. The burden of confronting his father and the Emperor, Dark Lords of the Sith and rulers of the Galaxy, now lies squarely on Luke's shoulders. "I can't do it, Artoo," Luke says at the beginning of the scene. "I can't go on alone."
Yet going on alone is exactly what Luke must do. There's no one left who can help him deal with these Jedi/Sith problems. The line might even be too on-the-nose, because coming to terms with his reponsibility for choosing the path forward is the entire reason for the scene. It's a first-draft kind of line that maybe should've been workshopped a little more.
But whatever, it gets the scene going. So then Obi-Wan's ghost shows up, giving Luke a perfect opportunity to confront his failed mentor. He could ask about Kenobi's outright lies and demand to know the true story of what happened to his father. He could challenge why he was raised in a foster home on a desert wasteland of a planet. Question why he should believe anything this old fool has ever said.
Luke should have left this scene with a newfound determination to tackle the problem of Vader and the Emperor his own way. Instead, he simply listens to Obi-Wan's vague and entirely unsatisfying story, which only reinforces that Obi-Wan is to blame for ruining Luke's life, not to mention screwing up the entire galaxy. Note that the ending of this line in the script was left out of the final cut of the movie:
BEN When I first knew him, your father was already a great pilot. But I was amazed how strongly the Force was with him. I took it upon myself to train him as a Jedi. I thought that I could instruct him just as well as Yoda. I was wrong. My pride has had terrible consequences for the galaxy.
There's actually quite a bit more to that scene in the script than there was in the finished film. But none of it absolves Obi-Wan's actions, either with Luke or with Anakin. A critical reading of the scene shows clearly that Obi-Wan is desperate to use Luke as his pawn to redeem himself, and he was perfectly happy to lie about Luke's parentage if that served his purpose.
Viewed in this context, Obi-Wan's line where he says "so what I told you was true, from a certain point of view" should raise red flags immediately. What Obi-Wan told Luke, we learn in this scene, was not true. It was, in fact, a deliberate, manipulative lie. When added together with the many other lies of Obi-Wan Kenobi, it shows us that Old Ben is little better than a self-serving con artist, definitely not to be trusted at all.
Rather than have Luke embrace a feeling of righteous anger at this batty old wizard who obviously doesn't have anyone's best interests at heart but his own, the story has Luke meekly acquiesce. He simply accepts what he's being told, which by the way includes having to kill the estranged father he's only just discovered he has:
LUKE I can't kill my own father. BEN Then the Emperor has already won.
The scene then gets sidetracked into the revelation that Leia is Luke's sister. Now, I'm not entirely opposed to this idea, but at the same time it's just not neccessary. I feel like it's only put in there as a lever for Vader to use later in pushing Luke over the edge during their final duel, and secondarily to provide an excuse for why Leia ends up with Han rather than Luke. I think the confrontation with the Emperor should be entirely rewritten anyway (we're getting there!) and Leia doesn't need any excuse to choose Han—they fell in love in the last movie, remember?
Anyway, back to the point: Luke should confront Obi-Wan's ghost in that scene. He has some very legitimate grievances. He has some very tough questions that Obi-Wan doesn't answer very well. He's progressed far along the path of the Jedi, but he's still not in complete control of his feelings. After what Obi-Wan has done to him, it would be completely understandable to be pretty pissed off.
Most importantly, this is where the story has an opportunity to raise the stakes—to make us question whether Luke might still turn to the Dark Side. It could do this easily by simply having Luke reject Obi-Wan, rather than continue to accept his highly dubious "certain point of view."
Now, it could be that, despite all his duplicity, Obi-Wan is still basically right about Vader and the Emperor. But Luke doesn't have to agree, certainly not after finding out he's been so egregiously lied to. Maybe now that he's had a little time to cool off and think about it, he'd like to hear his father's side of the story, whatever the risks might be.
Whatever Vader's sins—and obviously, there are many—he hasn't lied to Luke. In fact, he spent the last part of their first and only conversation asking Luke to join him in overthrowing the Emperor and reforming the Galactic Imperial government. If getting rid of the Emperor is really what Luke and the other Rebels are all about, what better ally could they possibly have than Darth Vader?
Which brings us to the second scene where something goes seriously wrong in RotJ: the scene where Luke and Vader meet once more. Luke and his friends have infiltrated Imperial territory, landing on the forested moon of Endor as part of a coordinated plan to destroy the second Death Star. Their mission is to destroy the shield generator just before the Rebel fleet shows up to engage it. Vader and Luke sense each other's presence through the Force, and Luke knows he's endangering the mission as a result. So he surrenders to an Imperial patrol, and Vader meets them on a gantry beneath the garrison's landing pad.
This should be an absolutely monumental, dramatic, pivotal scene for the movie. Our plucky protagonist and our primary antagonist are face-to-face for only the second time in the story, and the first time in this movie. There's a heck of a lot going on between these two characters. Just for starters:
- They are a father and son who only recently discovered each other;
- Both had their lives ruined by the same shady, lying con artist;
- They are soldiers on opposing sides in a Galaxy-spanning civil war;
- They are all that remains of the once-proud Jedi order;
- They've faced each other in combat twice before, and Luke nearly died both times;
- Luke knows that Anakin also had a daughter that Vader doesn't know about;
- As soon as he found out about Luke, Vader worked tirelessly to be reunited with his long-lost son;
- The rebels are plotting to take down the shield generator on Endor and attack the second Death Star;
- Both Vader and the Rebels want to depose the Emperor and reshape the political landscape of the Galaxy.
Instead of being a major turning point in this story, this scene plays out as almost incidental. Luke is a prisoner at the beginning of the scene and a prisoner at the end. He and Vader exchange a few words in about three minutes, at the end of which Luke allows himself to be escorted away by a couple of stormtroopers. The key exchange in the scene is this:
LUKE Come with me. VADER Obi-Wan once thought as you do. Luke steps close to Vader, then stops. Vader is still. VADER You don't know the power of the dark side. I must obey my master.
The problem with this exchange and Vader's entire attitude throughout RotJ is that of a weak and ineffectual pawn of the Emperor. Once the iconic villain of the entire saga, Darth Vader is reduced in RotJ to almost a non-character, a mere puppet who mindlessly obeys his master. This contradicts his proactive, obsessive character in The Empire Strikes Back, where he is clearly a concerned parent willing to do whatever it takes to find the son he never knew he had.
In RotJ, Vader is a meek thrall of the Emperor, with none of the dynamism or initiative of the man who suggested he and Luke team up to kill the Emperor and rule the Galaxy as father and son. Only at the very end, when Vader turns on the Emperor, does he regain any agency. Built up over the first two movies as the primary antagonist of the franchise, Vader's character is sabotaged by the final installment, demoted from primary antagonist to errand-running lackey.
Also, was this the entirety of Luke's plan? Ask his father to abandon the Empire and if he said no, then just give up and be delivered to the Emperor, the guy who Master Yoda specifically warned him not to underestimate? Also, he knows that the Rebels are planning to attack and blow up that Death Star, so going there is a suicide mission either way. So what was Luke really trying to accomplish?
Here's how it should have played out: Luke, having rejected Obi-Wan's ghost as a failed mentor back on Dagobah, arrives at the landing platform to face his ultimate challenge: confronting his father. He reveals that he knows Darth Vader's true name: Anakin Skywalker. But here's where things take a turn.
Vader says that he should have known Obi-Wan wouldn't have told Luke the truth: for you see, Obi-Wan lied to Anakin as well! That old con artist had concealed Anakin's children from him, in order to manipulate him into killing the Emperor. Vader could point out—truthfully—that the moment he had learned he had a son, he spared no expense trying to reunite the two of them.
Luke wouldn't bother to ask Vader to "come with me"—what's Vader going to do, run off into the forest with him and live with a tribe of Ewoks? I doubt that they have the bacta tanks he needs to treat his persistent skin condition. And if Luke tried to take him back to the Rebels, it's not like they'd welcome Vader with open arms.
No, the smart play would be to see if that offer's still on the table to gang up on the Emperor and rule the Galaxy together. Having thought it over, Luke has realized that getting rid of Palpatine really is the priority here. Besides, as the #2 man in the Empire, Luke would have waaaaayyy more influence over policy than he ever will as a Rebel leader. He could also pull off a Juan Carlos and, when Vader's chronic medical conditions get the better of him in a few years, turn around and declare the Empire a Republic again.
The tension here would be that we, the audience, wouldn't know if Luke's saying all this because he really is taking the most logical course toward liberating the Galaxy, or if the temptations of power and the sting of Obi-Wan's betrayal have nudged him over the line into Dark Side territory. At this point, he's on the razor's edge, seeking power for what he believes is a Good cause.
Remember, the tension in Luke's story needs to stay focused on his struggle to retain his soul, an internal conflict that was seemingly ignored in RotJ, at least after the Jabba opening. Think about it: at what point during any of his scenes with the Emperor do you actually worry that Luke might turn to the Dark Side?
So anyway, Luke asks about taking down the Emperor together, and Vader jumps at the chance. He's been playing second fiddle to the Emperor for decades now, and hates the old bastard. He may still be generally aligned with the Emperor's politics—maybe he could explain to Luke that before the Empire, the Galaxy was in total chaos and it still needs a firm hand—but those kinds of father-son dinner table political debates will be positively delightful compared to the way things are now.
But maybe Vader doesn't quite reveal all that. He's a canny player, and has been waiting for this opportunity for too long to blurt it all out, especially when he knows Luke is about to be interrogated by an ancient sorcerer who can read minds. Better to tell Luke yes, but to put those thoughts out of his mind and wait for Vader to give him the signal. They won't get a second chance at this, so they're going to have to play it super cool until they get within lightsaber range.
So that's it, the two of them head on up to the Death Star together. These changes make the opening scenes with the Emperor way more interesting, because there'd be so much more going on. Luke's glad to be reunited with his father and working with him, hoping they can kill the Emperor and put an end to the civil war.
At the same time, we see that Luke's in more danger than ever of falling to the Dark Side, and we know the Emperor can twist that to his advantage. Vader, meanwhile, rather than being a pathetic shill, is secretly scheming against his master, although we have no idea whether he'll pull it off or die trying. Suddenly, with just these few changes, the final confrontation with the Emperor could go a bunch of different directions.
Next time, I'll go over how the sequence in the Emperor's throne room could have played out differently with these changes in place, and decide whether or not these changes would really have improved the story overall.