I’ve never liked the common fandom practice of personally ranking Star Wars films from best to worst. Mostly because despite liking the movie, Return of the Jedi has always been near the bottom of my list.
This was the case, at least, until the movie came back to theaters for its 40th anniversary at the end of April.
Return of the Jedi‘s spot in my personal rankings has nothing to do with the fact that it was released before I was born. When I first watched it — likely when I was very young, hardly old enough to consider myself a Star Wars fan in my own right yet — I probably sat captivated by the speeder bike chase and dozens of fuzzy murder bears.
For me, Jedi was simply always the movie that ended up playing as background noise to the many lightsaber battles I had with my brother. I built many Star Wars LEGO sets to the sounds of Luke and Vader’s clashing sabers in that final duel. I watched the movie, but often rarely “watched” it. It became the necessary ending to every rewatch of a galaxy far, far away — or the bridge between one trilogy and the next, depending on the year.
By high school I’d entered a temporary phase of pre-adulthood during which I tried convincing myself I’d grown out of liking Star Wars, that my days of penning HanLeia fanfiction were behind me, that while I’d loved Star Wars for a long time, life went on, and I wanted to be interested in other things.
My return to fandom was Clone Wars themed, and despite the many connections the show’s stories have to the rest of the saga, I still found Return of the Jedi to be the movie I least enjoyed re-watching. It was not a “bad” movie. I simply gravitated toward the prequels, the source material for my rebirth as a fanatic of a galaxy far, far away.
Everything changed when I excitedly awaited the film’s return to the big screen — a celebration 40 years in the making I felt lucky to be able to experience. I sat down in that theater seat thinking maybe I’d have a good time. A great time, maybe. A life-altering experience? I wasn’t expecting that. And yet.
It had been several years since I’d last had Return of the Jedi on in the background of other tasks. It had been part of my full Skywalker Saga re-watch leading up to the release of The Rise of Skywalker, but again, I’d experienced it as noise more than substance. I had simply come to accept that it was not my favorite Star Wars movie, that there was nothing wrong with that, and that I didn’t need to force myself to love it.
But I’d grown up experiencing the movie as a background tapestry rather than the main event. Take away my plastic sabers, the LEGO, my phone and laptop — sit me down in front of a screen with nothing to do but watch that movie — really watch it, possibly for the first time in my fully formed memory — and everything looks different.
Return of the Jedi is a movie made to be viewed in a theater. I couldn’t have known that before my first opportunity to view it that way, 40 years after its debut. But I’ve seen it as intended now, and I understand the appeal. The explosions are more impactful. The jokes are funnier. Harrison Ford’s line deliveries are perfect. Everything is grander. Every moment is more spectacular.
I haven’t decided how this experience may or may not affect my Star Wars movie rankings. But I do know that I’ll do my best never to miss another chance to see Star Wars on the big screen. I didn’t know what I was missing before. I didn’t realize how abruptly one night could change that.
Star Wars, as a story, has captivated audiences for nearly 50 years. But what has made every movie, show, and the like even more memorable are the experiences each fan associates with viewing each one. You likely remember your first Star Wars movie. You remember rushing to the group chat after that mind-blowing season finale. You remember where you were, who you were with. You remember how it made you feel.
Seeing Return of the Jedi in a movie theater for the first time, looking over at the huge smile on my husband’s face when Vader first appeared, staring open-mouthed at the Endor scenery as if seeing it for the first time. Feeling like a kid again, when Star Wars was the coolest thing I’d ever seen.
It’s all changed the way I view the movie, and will reshape future viewings of it for the rest of my life.
When Star Wars can still shower you with feelings of wonder, excitement, and hope — that’s how you know you’re a fan for life.
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