The original Star Wars trilogy is told from Luke Skywalker’s point of view: you root for him, you identify with him, you share in his successes. He’s the young cocky kid who wants to ride off and save the galaxy, only his aunt and uncle won’t allow it. Lucky for him, his family is skeletized by storm troopers; now he has nothing else to do but to all-but-single-handedly take down the most powerful military force the galaxy has ever seen. And he does.
When described that way, it’s a hack story with absolutely no legs at all. Fortunately for Star Wars, it is not a series of tales about a brash youth defeating evil across the galaxy, but about an older generation overcoming its cynicism to save the wildly under-prepared Luke Skywalker.
Each of the three films ends with (at least one) cantankerous old dude coming around to affirm life by risking himself to save the mousy blond kid who has been a fuck-up his entire life. Check your memory real quick. The rescuers are:
A New Hope: Han Solo (and Obi Wan)
The Empire Strikes Back: Lando Calrissian
The Return of the Jedi: Darth Vader.
The most interesting facet of the trilogy? The hero doesn’t win any of his battles.
(You might give Luke rescuing Han from Jaba’s palace, but his plan involves selling his sister into some kind of weird sex slavery and Chewbacca . . . into presumably an even weirder sex slavery. Score it as you like, I record this one as a no decision.)
For me, the most interesting moment in the franchise is when on Degobah Luke sees what will happen to Han and Leia in Cloud City and rushes off to save them. Yoda tells him he mustn’t go. Vader’s obsession with tracking down Luke offers the Jedi and the Rebellion a chance to regroup and make an assault on the Empire. Luke might be able to rescue them, but he will undoubtedly destroy everything they have fought and suffered for.
This moment asks a question that is profound for a science fiction film: what is the real ‘us’, the biological organism, or a static collection of thoughts, feelings and actions? And which of these does friendship oblige us honor in others? Luke thinks the question is dumb (or the answer is obvious) and gets into his X-Wing without further thought. As he flies away, Yoda and Obi Wan mutter to each other about how this idiot kid has just thrown away the Jedi’s last chance to defeat the Emperor. For the two old warriors, life is meaningless compared to undoing the mistakes and failures of the past. They have grown too old to understand how the bonds of friendship are important beyond all else.
Only they are proven right. Luke’s mission to Cloud City is a complete failure. When Yoda said he was unprepared to face Vader, this was understatement. The real Who’s Yer Daddy moment came before the paternity announcement—Vader absolutely humiliates Luke in a contest of the Force. Without question, he should have stayed on Degobah.
It’s easy to overlook the wrongheadedness of Luke’s mission because Leia and Chewy escape, and the film ends with a resolution to rescue Han. But Luke’s appearance doesn’t make any of this come about. The film has a different hero.
We aren’t told much about Lando Calrissian, but we can surmise: in his early days he had to rely scams and scoundrelry to keep out of prison or to avoid having his body disposed of in an alley somewhere. But for him, the toughest part of this life was enduring the scorn of those who looked down on him as a burden to society. Then one day his stars realign. In Cloud City he finally has what he always wanted: a chance to be a pillar of the community, even if it is small and out of the way (and not strictly legal). The Empire arrives and tells him he can keep his position if he does them one or two small favors in return. At first, he agrees. But as events unfold, he comes to realize that everything he values is already lost and he rebels against Vader.
This is the right choice from a practical standpoint, but by no means an easy one. For most people, the illusion of retaining a respectable social position would permit them to become a puppet of the Empire. That is why it requires rare courage for Lando to take this step. The film blah-blah’s over this choice, because there is nothing strange about it from Luke Skywalker’s point of view—he has always run headlong into danger and, luckily, someone has always done the same for him. But this is the turning point of the film, and really of the whole trilogy. From there, Lando helps organizes the military operation that defeats the Empire. The weird religious argument between Force users proves just a distraction that facilitates the real victory.
The venerable order of the Jedi very nearly makes a muck of it. It is a merchantman with a checkered past who saves the galaxy.
(Seriously, folks, Empire is still the best one.)
The reason the original trilogy works is because on the surface it is a story about youthful adventure, but it has a darker side—not the Sith but the pessimism of an older generation that must be overcome before its knowledge and experience can put toward the common good. Luke’s foolhardy enthusiasm provides the impetus. This dynamic drives the series: it is clear either generation would be doomed without the other to inspire them and elevate their actions to a higher level.