My appreciation for the Star Wars franchise as a whole may be diminishing at this time, but there is one entry whose followups’ mistakes haven’t ruined its magic for its forty-year place in pop culture: the one that was once straight up called Star Wars.
Sure, Star Wars is a special effects revolution whose psychological audience reaction was visualized by the ending of Raiders of the Lost Ark (probably), but if that’s all it were, it would have gone the way of James Cameron’s Avatar. What Star Wars really is is a thematically universal fairy tale with a relatable protagonist and a clear distinction between good and evil, though it wasn’t until The Empire Strikes Back where the spiritual line between good and evil became clear. Sure, Han Solo’s “heroism” isn’t as clear-cut as Luke’s, Leia’s, and Obi-Wan’s, but he’s given a redemptive arc. Why Star Wars still works so well is the sense of wonder it conveys by introducing us to the far, far away galaxy through Luke Skywalker’s eyes, and C-3P0’s and R2-D2’s before his.
It’s not dramatically perfect (it is George Lucas writing and directing, after all). I mean, come on, Luke’s still sulking about somebody close’s death while Princess Leia seems to have completely shaken off her entire home world getting blown up in front of her eyes? Obi-Wan seems more troubled by the destruction, and he doesn’t even watch it happen!
Nonetheless, I like to picture an alternate reality where the Original Trilogy had no prequels or expanded universe that took away the mystery of the Force and the Jedi—no prequels to either back the mythology into a corner or cheapen the sense of wonder Star Wars conveys and no studio-driven sequels that could turn the good-vs.-evil theme towards relativism. In fact, I’d say Star Wars started going downhill with Return of the Jedi; I mean, Jedi is good, but it’s just good enough. Heck, I don’t like what the latter two Originals do to Obi-Wan.
Empire may be widely regarded as the best of the trilogy, and it is great (if there’s one thing I’m still a sucker for, it’s lightsaber fights, and Empire has the best one ever, especially compared to the one we get here), but it needs a Return of the Jedi that’s better than what we got. Star Wars is, and always will be, the definitive Star Wars movie, the one that ignited our imaginations and introduced both a new potential for filmmaking and John Williams’s most legendary musical score.