The final episode in both the original trilogy and the Lucas Cycle, Return of the Jedi. This was supposed to be the end chapter of Star Wars!
Return of the Jedi is usually beloved by younger Star Wars fans, and given an asterisk by the older devotees. “Yes, but Ewoks” is a common refrain, one I’ve uttered myself ever since I was about seventeen or so.
Growing up, a kid named Dane and his four brothers (two younger, two older) lived next door until I was about six or seven, and then still lived in the neighborhood after that. Dane’s dad and his two oldest brothers were essentially my conduit to 80’s culture. Punk and hair metal seeped from beneath oldest brother Anderw’s bedroom door. The family had an Apple II where Dane and I would play floppies of the Ultima series and Black Cauldron RPGs. (Dad had Wasteland — the Fallout precursor — but we weren’t allowed to touch it.) There was a box full of classic castle and space Legos. They had the Inhumanoids toys. We didn’t play Dungeons and Dragons, but Dane and I made our own “Gauntlet” mazes on the Lite Brite, and played our own dungeon game with our own rules.
This house is where my earliest memory of watching Return of the Jedi takes place.
I remember already knowing the movie at the time, but the memory of watching it in that dark den of 80’s geekdom is vivid. I remember Jabba’s Palace, and associating Gamorean guards with the vaguely porcine orcs of other fantasy art. A New Hope is firmly in the class of 70’s fare like Logan’s Run or the later Planet of the Apes movies… but Return of the Jedi is pure 80’s sci-fantasy family fun. It’s contemporaries (or imitators) are films like The Neverending Story, Labrynth and Willow. The Emperor is the 80’s fantasy villain from which all other villainous sorcerers from the rest of the decade were derived.
When I was a toddler and too young to differentiate films, any time “Star Wars” was on, I wanted to see “the Jabba the Hutt scene”. I would pull my shirt over my head — years before the Great Cornholio, mind you! — and squeak “Oo-oo-ee-ah!” like an Ewok. Nothing was more thrilling in film, to me, than a speederbike slamming into a tree.
When I got older, I came to understand why the Ewoks are derided, why fans of Han Solo were so nonplussed by Return of the Jedi. I hold that Return of the Jedi has the very best and worst of Star Wars. The series is never more compelling than the final duel between Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker before the Emperor’s throne, never more underwhelming than when teddy bears take down an Imperial army. If the tribal Ewoks had instead been all the last battalions of the rebel army, Return of the Jedi would have been the ultimate.
Before Star Wars prequels, and before The Force Awakens became canon, the signs in Empireand Jedi pointed to the obvious: Luke barely escaped the dark side by the skin of his teeth in The Empire Strikes Back and had begun the process of becoming “more machine than man” like his father. He force-chokes a Gamorean guard in Jabba’s palace and would have likely succumbed to the Emperor’s tortures if not for Vader’s redemption. In the prophesied sequel trilogy, it would be Luke who was fallen. I remember my mother explaining this to me when I was maybe five. She knew it, we all did.
It seems that will not come to pass in the Disney era of Star Wars, but the rampant and stubborn fan speculation before the release of The Force Awakens that “Luke = Kylo Ren,” and now “Luke = Snoke” or “Rey will eventually need to redeem Luke” speaks to the signposts George Lucas left in his original trilogy. For all the pulp serial fun, for all the optimism in Star Wars, and in spite of the Ewoks, in the 1980’s we took away a more nuanced, humanist view from the greatest pop culture film work ever made: the heroes could win… but just for a while, and never without precipitous cost.
I remember also one of my regular movie theatres growing up in Indianapolis had an original title “Revenge of the Jedi” poster. That darker tile and its shadowy imagery haunted me a little. I’m excited to rewatch this one, and look for the connected seams to The Force Awakens.
Honestly… Return of the Jedi kinda sucks, a little bit!
The tone of Return of the Jedi is all wrong. It doesn’t feel like all the history of the Jedi, the masterwork of the Emperor, the hard efforts of the Rebellion, the imbalance of The Force, and the Prophesy of The One has lead to these final moments. It’s doesn’t feel like the ultimate climax to anything. Part of it is the Ewoks. Part of it is that assaulting a small field generator shack doesn’t seem like an epic task fitting of our heroes. Part of it is the locations, which are never more exotic than California and Arizona. Part of it is the kinder, gentler, Hasbro-friendly Han solo.
A big, big part of it is the lighting. Contra the dark shadows and filtered light of The Empire Strikes Back, the vast majority of Return of the Jedi takes place in broad daylight or interiors with bright white used for key and backlighting. (Compare the lighting in the carbon freezing chamber to the Emperor’s throne room to see what I mean.) Only Jabba’s Palace — the rescue mission that is completely inconsequential to the six-film Lucas Cycle’s main plot — is lit in a way that gives any sense of danger or foreboding.
There’s other odds and ends that make Return of the Jedi underwhelm. All three leads look homely and act sluggish. AT-STs are cool, but feel like a threat downgrade from the AT-ATs in ESB. After Leia’s heroism in The Empire Strikes Back, and after her courage in rescuing Han Solo, the rebel leaders… wait for her to volunteer to assist general Solo in leading the Endor mission. (It shoulda been Leia, dawg.) Blowing-up a second Death Star is a rehash, and this time the accomplishment doesn’t involve a turning point for a character, like when Luke first used the Force.
Return of the Jedi‘s tonal failings are only exacerbated by it’s ’97, ’05, and ’11 revisions, by far the worst of all three movies. “Lapti Nek” was always too synthy and out of place in these films, but the replacement song performance “Jedi Rocks” is even worse. It wrecks the pacing and mood when Jabba kills his slave girl. In the original she falls to a gruesome death we’re left only to imagine, which adds stakes when Luke falls into the rancor pit later. In the new version, poorly animated characters whose body movements use cartoon physics counter-act the anxiety the scene is supposed to create. They are completely distracting, worse than Jar Jar Binks by any count. And then we see the pit the slave girl falls to, so most of the mystery is gone when Luke falls in later.
The updated Sarlacc Pit, again, undercuts what was originally good directing. In 1983, the pit was a toothed, vaguely vaginal belching maw. You didn’t know exactly what it was, which made it frightening. The new Sarlacc beak and tentacles are far less frightening than the dark corners of wonder.
Then, there’s Anakin’s ghost at the end of the film. This defies the saga’s internal logic on four (!) counts:
Now Qui-Gon’s body doesn’t fade either, and both Qui-Gon and Vader are burned at the pyre, so maybe after careful Jedi training or meditation or whatever you can either give yourself to the Force or have another Jedi burn you at the pyre to make the ritual complete. Or maybe Qui-Gon’s discovered knowledge is the same that Darth Plagueis the Wise had learned, and perhaps the Emperor passed that knowledge on to Anakin. (Line-up your Snoke = Emperor theories!) But no matter how you slice it, the Rules for Jedi Ghosts are convoluted, a fact worse because Lucas seems to have tried to address it.
There are other ways that Lucas failed to make the prequel films congruent with Return of the Jedi. Leia clearly remembers her mother, which is clearly impossible. Obi-Wan’s ghost tells Luke that Anakin was “a good man,” but I’m not sure that’s how I’d describe Anakin in Attack of the Clones, before he began to turn. The comedic Jabba the Hutt in The Phantom Menace badly undercuts the menacing Jabba the Hutt in Return of the Jedi.
On the other hand, just about everything that is great about the prequels (the rise of the Emperor, the Only Two Sith Rule) is handily paid-off in this film. Yoda’s pain when Luke asks if Vader really is his father and the old master’s plea to Luke “do not underestimate the Emperor’s power” carry new weight because we’ve seen Yoda humbled before the Emperor.
There are several scenes with Vader and the Emperor discussing what to do about Luke, and all of them have a new undertone of Vader and the Emperor both jockying for the new apprentice while pretending they’ll bring him on as a third. I love when the Emperor threatens “I wonder if your feelings are clear on this matter, Lord Vader”. He’s basically saying “Don’t you dare try it”.
Because the prequels tell us that Vader must eventually kill the Emperor or be replaced, and because Luke refused Vader’s invitation to join him in The Empire Strikes Back, Darth Vader in Return of the Jedi is newly shaded with sadness for the whole movie. You can sense his dilemma. It’s not just a pull between good and evil (which synergizes nicely with Kylo Ren in The Force Awakens, by the way) but also a survival dilemma inherent in the Sith cult’s Only Two rule. If Vader can’t have Luke, then either he is stuck as the apprentice with no prospects in sight, or he is doomed to be killed while the Emperor sits and watches just as Anakin killed Count Dooku in Revenge of the Sith.
And that throne room battle is even more fantastic because of what the prequels set up. The Emperor tells Luke “Give yourself to the dark side, it is the only way to save your friends” and now that echoes how The Emperor enticed Anakin, with the promise of saving Padme. When Luke gives in to anger and tries to strike-down the Emperor, Vader blocks Luke’s lightsaber. He doesn’t do it because he wants to protect the Emperor! If Luke kills the Emperor, he has turned to the dark side and Vader becomes the master. Vader parries Luke’s strike because in that moment, Vader wants to save Luke. But the darkside pulls Vader once again, and soon heis dueling Luke to the death, hoping to destroy the apprentice the Emperor clearly intends to replace Vader with.
It’s only when Luke has resisted the Emperor’s plea, making an example for his father, that Vader realizes the only way out. He can’t become the Sith Master, the Emperor will surely try to replace Vader as apprentice again, and the only path for Darth Vader is to return as Anakin Skywalker and cast the Emperor down a reactor shaft to his death.
The Emperor dies at the bottom of the shaft and there is a long flash of light. Is it the extinguishing of the dark side? Is it the Force falling into balance? Is it the spectacular effect of the Emperor cheating death according to the dark arts uncovered by Darth Plagueis the Wise? I believe the next two Disney Star Wars films will provide clarity on this, once the current nature of the Force and the identity of Supreme Leader Snoke is known.
I like the celebration montage added to the end of the movie, but I find it odd that Tatooine is celebrating the death of the Emperor. Tatooine is controlled by the Hutts, and yes Jabba is dead, but “Hutts” is plural.
Even though Return of the Jedi is an unfitting end to the six-film Lucas cycle, and even though huge chunks of it underwhelm, it still has wonderful stuff in it. Excepting the musical number, everything in Jabba’s Palace is great. The speederbike chase is a blast. And good lord, the space battle over Death Star II is probably the best space battle ever committed to film. It’s chaotic, filled with action, visually stunning, and worthy space combat of the final chapter in a six-film epic called “Star Wars”.
I probably enjoyed Return of the Jedi less on this viewing than any other. I still have great affection for it, but the flaws seemed more glaring. I’m not sure it transitions well to The Force Awakens. I hope to revisit The Force Awakens this week and we’ll see!