There are plenty of fundamental ingredients simmering away in the crucible of Star Wars: myth, samurai cinema, westerns, thirties sci-fi serials, politics. Yet one of the key things that gets routinely overlooked in this concoction is comfort.
I recently put a question out to the Twittersphere asking what Star Wars film respondents found most comforting. Although there were some predictable answers – your Empires and New Hopes – there were just as many that said The Last Jedi (TLJ), Solo and, like me, The Phantom Menace. But, by far and away, the most popular answer was Return of the Jedi (ROTJ).
It’s worth defining comfort here to separate it from simply being fun (which Star Wars should also be, incidentally). As per Oxford Languages and Google, comfort is 1. a state of physical ease and freedom from pain or constraint; 2. the easing or alleviation of a person’s feelings of grief or distress. Judged by these criteria, every Star Wars movie can fit the bill, depending on whoever is doing the watching. But, more than any of the other movies, comfort seems coded into the DNA of ROTJ.
After the dark twists and turns of The Empire Strikes Back, the third in the original trilogy brings the main gang back together. The characters have been challenged and changed by their experiences; they have grown and loved and lost, but they are still the same characters we first adored. After Han’s rescue – which is like its own self-contained short film – the flow of the main plot is simple and clearly defined: get down to Endor undetected; take down the shield generator protecting the second Death Star; face Vader; send in the rebel fleet. Most of the surprises here are character driven. Leia being Luke’s twin sister; Luke surrendering himself to the Empire in the hopes of turning his father; Luke giving into his hate and attempting to strike the Emperor down. The reveal that the second Death Star’s weapons systems are operational is the only major plot twist and, frankly, it was always expected.
Despite the massive stakes, the story on the ground level of Endor feels small. And that’s what helps to make this film so comforting. It doesn’t have the pervasive sense of dread and the need to act that Rogue One would employ decades later. Here the plot can take a step back and give the characters a chance to be themselves, to take a moment, rather than simply reacting. There’s a reason why the scene in which C-3PO regales the Ewoks with a story is such a delight. The Ewoks themselves are a masterclass in creature design. They perfectly balance cuteness, vulnerability and capability, so while they’re often providing light relief, they also show the Imperial forces what for. Yet when the action is in overdrive, there’s almost always a sense of triumph.
Seeing Luke choose love over hate should be a comfort, as should seeing Darth Vader acting on love and saving his son. The unmasking scene remains one of the saga’s most poignant, but it isn’t until the celebration back on Endor that the warm fuzzies double down. With the wise decision of replacing ‘Yub Nub’ with music that has much more gravitas, the ending of the film truly feels like a celebration: of the end of galactic fascism, of the scrappy rebels that could, of love over hate. Everyone we see is rightfully giddy with victory and the simple pleasure of being alive. We the audience can’t help but share in the joy.
As well as everything I’ve touched on, what ultimately makes ROTJ such a comforting film is its re-watchability. No matter how many times you watch it, good always triumphs, love always wins. The film’s acts are so clearly defined, the plot so obviously signposted, that it only requires as much effort from the viewer as they’re willing or able to bring. It’s a salve for troubled times, for feelings of doubt, depression and anxiety, and that’s something we need now more than ever.