Tuesday's segment ended with Luke finally beginning to understand the ways of the Force, thanks to Yoda's teaching and training. But "he still has a long way to go before he can overcome the concentrated evil of the Emperor and Darth Vader." That's where we pick up the story …

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Lucas emphasizes Luke's great susceptibility to evil in numerous instances where Luke's impatience and anger defy the wisdom of Yoda. As Yoda initially points out, Luke is impatient like his own father was, the Jedi knight Anakin Skywalker, who was seduced by the dark side and became Darth Vader (as we come to learn in The Empire Strikes Back). The most striking example of Luke's vulnerability comes in his imagined confrontation with Darth Vader, in which Luke lops off Vader's head but sees behind Vader's mask his own face. It is a potent reminder—and an uncharacteristic departure from the surface simplicities of melodrama—that the enemy lies as much within us as without, and that poses a daunting moral and spiritual challenge.

Luke's apprenticeship ends when he chooses to interrupt his training with Yoda to rescue his friends Leia, Chewbacca, and Han, who have fallen into Vader's clutches. The difficulty with this decision, which is opposed by both Yoda and Obi-Wan, is that, with his training only partially completed, Luke must confront Vader without being fully prepared. In fact, Darth Vader has captured Luke's friends for the very purpose of using them as bait to lure this young apprentice into an encounter; he knows that Luke is his son and is "strong with the Force," and he wants to interrupt Luke's apprenticeship before his power and skills increase. When their meeting finally takes place, the match between them is close, for Luke has become a skilled and wily opponent. Vader succeeds only when he literally disarms young Luke and then, as the two stand on a windblown parapet, tries to lure him to the dark side by revealing that he is in fact Luke's father.

Horrified at the revelation that this monster of evil is his father, Luke chooses death rather than to embrace evil, a potential for selflessness that forecasts the climax of The Return of the Jedi. That choice is a tribute to Luke's fast-growing maturity, especially when contrasted with the petulance of the young man who is initially worried about being late for dinner. Luke's self-sacrificial end is averted, however, when he is miraculously rescued—again, thanks to the power of the Force—by another one who, unbeknownst even to herself, shares in the lineage of the Force.

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The saga's focus becomes clear

Nor did Lucas disappoint in the third episode of the initial trilogy. In The Return of the Jedi (1983), Lucas pulls off stunning surprises that retroactively illuminate and enrich the whole of the trilogy. Not only does that primary issue of Luke's maturation and fate, and of the Rebellion, arrive at a crisp resolution, but many related uncertainties are resolved and themes come to happy fruition. Lucas does this all in very plausible ways that no one anticipated. Indeed, only at the very end—that is, in the last ten minutes of six hours of film—does the ultimate focus of the saga become entirely clear.

There has been enough, to be sure, to whet audience curiosity about what will happen next; but in The Return of the Jedi, Lucas's intergalactic leap in plotting gives his story a depth that moves it from amusing and affecting kid stuff to a mythic religious tale of lasting appeal. Finally, at the end of a long pilgrimage, Luke Skywalker gets it right, and that makes all the difference. Indeed, the conclusion of The Return of the Jedi explodes with a depth of meaning that no one thought possible. One way of getting at that is to examine the history and implications of Lucas's selection of a title for the last installment of the trilogy.

For a long time during production and pre-release hype, the movie was entitled The Revenge of the Jedi; indeed, posters with that title adorned the walls of many movie theaters. That seemed to be an unexceptional choice: the usual Hollywood formulaic happy climax, a standard "kill 'em all," justice-is-done conclusion. It fit well enough with what most viewers wanted and expected from the story Lucas had told up to that point: the good guys vanquish all the bad guys, sending Darth Vader and the Emperor to painful death and perdition. Still, to those who had been paying much attention to the struggles of Luke Skywalker and to the theology and code of the Jedi as laid out in The Empire Strikes Back, that "get even" recourse just did not make sense. After all, at the heart of the Jedi code lay a kind of quasi-pacifism: the Jedi never sought vindication, aggression, or revenge but used the Force only for defense. The Jedi used the Force to wish the world well and to protect its inherent goodness from destruction by evil. The apprehensions of devotees about the seeming departure from the theme of the saga that was implied by the title of the third episode were partly dispelled when, not long before its release, Lucas changed the title to the one we now have, and what a difference that makes.

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Still, if the earlier title sounded frustratingly predictable and thematically contradictory, the new one seemed cryptic. The return of what Jedi? The story had none about to return: Obi-Wan Kenobi was dead, Jedi master Yoda was decrepit and never the physical match for Darth Vader, and brash Luke Skywalker was not yet a Jedi. So where was there a Jedi to return? One possibility was that a new Jedi knight would show up to supplant the aspiring Luke, who seemed so uncertain and rash in The Empire Strikes Back.

There was the ancient Yoda's prophecy in Empire about yet another Jedi, another Skywalker, unknown to all, who possessed the potential to enter the Jedi knighthood and save the day if the immature, ill-prepared Luke should go the way of his traitorous father. The title meant, surely, that some new, old, or lost warrior, heretofore completely unknown, would emerge to take up the Jedi mantle and finally vanquish the dark Lord Vader and the vile Emperor. But others in the first two parts of the story seemed highly improbable, even preposterous for this challenge. Han Solo was still very much, as his name suggests, the posturing macho vagabond, and Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams), another handsome scoundrel, just did not seem up to it. The Wookiee Chewbacca and the droids were never serious candidates (Jedi presumably need to be human, although rather special humans, as Episode I: The Phantom Menace later made clear).

The likelihood of the marvelously improbable

In hindsight, indeed, the matter of the title suggests that Lucas went far out of his way to encourage mistaken expectations, if only to teach viewers a lesson about hope and redemption. The truth is that nobody really got it, certainly no elite critics or reviewers, even though the revelation and the full power of surprise lay out in plain view right in the title itself, The Return of the Jedi, where Lucas told audiences all they needed to know about the likelihood of the marvelously improbable.

The most obvious candidate for a returning Jedi is the apprentice Jedi Luke Skywalker, who at the start of Return is looking and acting very much like a full-fledged Jedi, venturing into the habitat of Jabba the Hutt, the sadist monster grub and captor of Luke's sidekick, Han Solo. Luke performs impressively in this scrape, and audiences hope that he might have the right stuff after all. But then the dying Yoda tells him he has yet to pass one final test: he must face Darth Vader again before achieving full Jedi knighthood. With no one else seeming very suitable, the audience is stuck with Luke, even though he perhaps doesn't have the mettle. About halfway through The Return of the Jedi, Lucas complicates the story once again by making known the identity of the other potential Jedi foretold by Yoda: Princess Leia, the mysterious one whose identity comes as much as a surprise to her as to anyone. She is the "other Skywalker" and stands ready but unschooled in the Jedi knight-craft and wisdom necessary to joust with Vader. It says something unfavorable about audience attitudes concerning women that no one imagined that Leia would be a candidate for Jedi-hood or that a woman would be a galaxy savior, despite many early hints, especially at the end of The Empire Strikes Back, when she senses Luke's distress and initiates his rescue. Indeed, Leia has from the beginning seemed a far more suitable candidate than her impetuous brother.

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With the revelation of Leia's identity, Lucas scored major points for surprise and for feminism, but the momentous surprise of the title comes in the very last scenes. It turns out that Lucas's allusion is not at all to the emergence of a new, uninitiated candidate for the holy Jedi brotherhood that ceased with the deaths of Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda. Another Jedi, now fallen and traitorous, still lives: the shrouded Darth Vader, servant of the evil Emperor and the father of the two potential Jedis (Luke and Leia are brother and sister, separated in childhood to protect them from their fallen father). The momentous surprise is that the fearsomely evil lord, Darth Vader himself, returns as a true Jedi. This radical reversal in devotion comes when Vader witnesses Luke's utter submission to the spiritual-moral heart of the Force, which is a mirror image of his own servile submission to the Emperor.

It happens this way: midway through Return, Luke surrenders to Darth Vader, convinced that he will have to meet him again, as foretold by Yoda, but convinced also that there is still goodness lingering in his father and that he can be persuaded to forsake the malevolent Emperor before whom he abases himself. Vader himself rejects Luke's pleas, explaining in a voice touched with sorrow and remorse that Luke has no idea of the power of the dark side and that it is "too late" for him to turn back.

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The psycho-moral realm

Darth Vader then brings his son to the Emperor, and in the final mortal conflict, the loathsome Emperor—his vile look and manner matching his moral stature—repeatedly tries to goad Luke into anger, hatred, and revenge, knowing full well that, if Luke so much as flirts with those attitudes, he has already gone far down the path to the dark side, as Yoda had warned. In the psycho-moral realm of the Force in Star Wars, and the New Testament, the deed inexorably follows the thought; morality is measured by spirit as much as by deed. Luke disciplines himself well, even though the Emperor has told him that the rebel forces led by Luke's friends are falling into a fatal trap that will kill them all (the partially completed Death Star is operational). Luke only caves in to his anger when Vader intuits that Leia is his missing daughter and says that he will seek her out and lure her to the dark side. Only then does Luke strike out in full fury, which is apparently permissible since he wishes to defend and protect, which Jedis are allowed to do.

In a lengthy combat with his father, he finally manages to disarm Vader, literally, just as Vader had earlier disarmed him. To his great credit, however, he then refuses the Emperor's offer to make his "hatred complete" by killing Vader and taking Vader's place at the Emperor's side. The Emperor even invites Luke to kill him, the Emperor, for that self-gratifying act would cost Luke—insofar as it is an act of aggression—his own soul. It is in this moment, finally, that Luke becomes a full-fledged Jedi, and he seems to know it. In a choice of solitary kenotic self-denial, and in full fidelity to the Force, Luke throws down his light saber and announces that he is "a Jedi, like my father before me." It is a gesture of faith, love, and sacrifice. Knowing that he has lost his chance to win Skywalker's soul, the Emperor executes Luke by sending wave after wave of lethal electrical current through him.

The camera cuts regularly to bystander Vader as he watches both the agony of his son's loving self-sacrifice—a crucifixion really, and the trilogy's only graphic violence—and, in contrast, the Emperor's odious delight in torture and murder. In short, Luke chooses to die because he has at last comprehended and embraced the heart of Yoda's teachings: that the universe runs by love and that love should pervade all thought and action (for the theologically minded, it is a perfect rendition of the notion of substitutionary atonement).

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His witnessing of Luke's strength, faithfulness, and care recalls Vader to the good person he once was as Anakin Skywalker, before his still-mysterious seduction to the dark side (Lucas depicts the beginning of this very process in Episode I: The Phantom Menace and Episode II: The Attack of the Clones [2002], and completes the process in Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, opening this week).

Seeing his son's willingness to die rather than use the power of the Force for aggression and murder, Vader musters the faint remnants of love and goodness of his days as a father and as a Jedi. On the verge of death himself, Darth Vader rises to destroy the Emperor in order to save his own son. In perfect symbolic appropriateness, the waves of electricity that fell on Luke now devour Vader and mortally wound the already weakened man. At the cost of his own life, Vader acts to save his son, and in doing so—as the last scene of Return makes clear—he is restored to full spiritual brotherhood with Obi-Wan and Yoda. In destroying the evil that first seduced him, Vader once again becomes a Jedi. Thus the title The Return of the Jedi: it points in a straightforward way to the transformation that no one guessed was likely or possible. Through the son's witness of love, the father is redeemed, and the father and son meet in reconciliation and true communion.

Continued: Part 4

Reprinted from Catching Light: Looking for God in the Movies (Eerdmans). Used by permission. To purchase a copy of Catching Light, click here.