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The best scene in Star Wars is Luke unmasking Vader in Return of the Jedi
Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker marks the end of the Skywalker Saga, a nine-movie series that's spanned 42 years and three generations of characters to capture the imaginations and hearts of millions of fans around the world. While it's impossible to sum up everything we love about these films, we here at SYFY WIRE are going to try.
Leading up to The Rise of Skywalker, we're breaking down and celebrating our favorite scenes from the series. Today, we celebrate the emotionally wrought scene in which Luke Skywalker sees his father for the first time in Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi.
Roger Ebert famously likened films to machines that generate empathy. When films are at their best, they help you understand the world around you better, they help you understand other people with experiences different than yours, and they help you understand more about yourself and what you’re made of.
More than any moment in the Star Wars saga, the one that did this most effectively, in my mind, was the scene in Star Wars: Return of the Jedi when Darth Vader is finally unmasked by his son.
That’s what makes it the best scene in the saga, at least as far as I’m concerned.
Why is this scene so important in Star Wars and one of its best? For me, the answer becomes intensely personal, as anything that informs a life’s philosophy tends to be.
THE HUMAN INSIDE
When this particular scene first appeared in 1983, this was our first glimpse at who was really behind the mask. We’d seen glimpses of Darth Vader's scarred head in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, but we couldn’t be sure if he was even human.
The revelation at the end of that film about Luke Skywalker being his son certainly clouded the issue. In the early parts of Return of the Jedi, we’re given confirmation that Vader was telling the truth, so the audience is left to grapple with the idea that there is a human inside of that suit, one once worthy of love, one who was once loved enough to conceive the Skywalker twins.
But how did such a person become such a monster? Without the aid of the (brilliant) prequels, we’re only left to guess.
As Vader watches Darth Sidious torture his son, we can practically read his emotions through the mask. When he makes his final choice, we know why. Vader has turned back to the light and understands, at least in part, the error of his ways, illustrating to us that it’s never too late to eschew evil.
That is not to say he shouldn’t atone for what he’s done (as he definitely does die for his sins).
Luke Skywalker is the beating heart of the scene; he cannot bear to let his father die alone. After Vader defeats the Emperor once and for all, Luke drags him through an exploding Death Star in what could be an act of needless sacrifice. Had Luke abandoned his father, there would have been no question of his escape. He would have done it easily.
As father and son reach the Imperial Shuttle, it’s clear that neither of them can go on until they have their conversation.
Darth Vader, this character who we have viewed as a monster, the greatest and most terrifying villain in the history of film to that point, is a person. With feelings. And has a final request in his dying moments.
“Help me take this mask off," he rasps.
“But you’ll die,” Luke says with so much soul and empathy in his voice that it brings chills.
The response? “Nothing can stop that now.”
We as an audience want to know why he would want to take his mask off. What reason could he have? We know why we want him to take it off, but why does Vader?
And then he gives us the sad answer.
“Just for once, let me look on you with my own eyes," he tells his son.
This is such a simple, humble request. And Luke is moved to do it without further hesitation. Here he is, removing the mask of the man who had been his greatest fear, and he’s doing it with courage and purpose.
Remember, when Luke faced his failure at the cave, his fear was seeing his own face reflected beneath the mask. Now, he would have to confront that unabashedly and with confidence.
And we have this moment, played beautifully between Sebastian Shaw and Mark Hamill, where they share this empathy and understanding for the first time. Here are two people who have spent almost three complete movies trying to kill each other, and they realize they share a common bond and love and empathy for one another. Luke found the light in his father, and it is moving to him.
It connects Luke to his father even further, as we think back to Anakin losing his own mother in his arms. Where Anakin uses this as inspiration to take up the sword, Luke uses it to take up the cause of peace. They are different, but they are the same.
And it makes us even more emotional when we see his ghost appear on Endor, the visage of his younger self, the way he viewed himself when he was last good.
THE PERSONAL CONNECTION
I was abused as a kid. Physically and emotionally. In my mind, I likened my own father to Darth Vader, and, like an aging Luke in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, I still feel the effects of these actions.
That’s why this scene was so powerful to me.
Through the darkest times in my youth (and sometimes into my adulthood), I held out hope that one day I would be able to have a moment with my father where I could find the light still within him, take off his proverbial mask, and see that I had a father who loved me.
Sadly, I never got that moment.
But this scene fueled that hope and it taught me something, too. It taught me to try to look for that good in everyone. I might not always find it, but I had to try. Maybe it’s not even good I was looking for — maybe it was just the understanding of where a person is coming from.
As the prequels came out and we were able to see firsthand why Anakin made all of the terrible (and damaging) decisions that he did, we were able to say to ourselves, “I see where he’s coming from, wrong as it may be.”
Seeing where a person is coming from isn’t an excuse for their horrific behavior and the damage they did to others, but it does help us understand how those things can happen. It aids our empathy to understand why a person might be a monster and gives us a window into what might turn them back.
For Vader, it was the love and protection of his family that was robbed of him, albeit by his own actions.
This was powerful stuff for a kid in the ‘80s.
Or even a kid today.
Overall, the scene is simply moving.
The emotion Hamill presents, the genuine empathy he creates for the galaxy’s largest monster, is touching. We all know this feeling Luke is going through, and we have offered forgiveness for transgressions against us. Granted, those transgressions are all almost always smaller than those that Vader is guilty of, but this is a fairy tale and everything is, naturally, written much larger than life.
In the final accounting, one of the chief lessons is to know when to cast aside the sword and when to pick it up. Thanks to The Last Jedi, we watch Luke struggle with this idea until he perfects the lesson he needed to learn, striking a balance between a peaceful existence and the appearance of raising a sword.
If movies are machines to create empathy, there is no better engine than Hamill and Shaw in this scene. We’ve understood failure and sacrifice, and we watch a man's overwhelming love conquer the overwhelming hate that permeated his father’s life. And then, when Anakin Skywalker finally succumbs to his wounds, we feel Luke’s pain viscerally.
In short, it's perfect.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBCUniversal.