Return of the Jedi (1983)
Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker), Harrison Ford (Han Solo), Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia), Billy Dee Williams (Lando Calrissian), Anthony Daniels (C-3PO), Kenny Baker (R2-D2), Peter Mayhew (Chewbacca), Jeremy Bulloch (Boba Fett), Temuera Morrison (Boba Fett’s voice – special edition), Frank Oz (Yoda), David Prowse (Darth Vader), James Earl Jones (Darth Vader’s Voice), Sebastian Shaw (Anakin Skywalker), Ian McDiarmid (The Emperor), Alec Guinness (Ben Kenobi), Warwick Davis (Wickett)
“Episode VI – Return of the Jedi. Luke Skywalker has returned to his home planet of Tatooine in an attempt to rescue his friend Han Solo from the clutches of the vile gangster Jabba the Hutt. Little does Luke now that the GALACTIC EMPIRE has secretly begun construction on a new armored space station even more powerful than the first dreaded Death Star. When completed this ultimate weapon will spell certain doom for the small band of rebels struggling to restore freedom to the galaxy…”
Like its father before it, The Empire Strikes Back was a rousing success. Star Wars had set up an epic narrative, Empire had carried it through a masterpiece of a second act, and it was up to Return of the Jedi to carry it all home. Whether or not this movie managed to complete its task has been a point of debate among fans ever since its release.
Roughly a year after the events of Empire our heroes stage a rescue of Han Solo from the clutches of Jabba the Hutt. Things don’t go well, Leia manages to free Han from his carbonite prison but is immediately captured and turned into Jabba’s trophy slave. 3P0 and R2 are taken in as Jabba’s and Chewie is brought in as a prisoner as part of Leia’s failed plan to save Han. Only Lando, in disguise as a guard, and Luke are still free.
Luke shows up, decked in black and now in command of all kinds of fancy Jedi powers. He tells Jabba that he should give up or die, beats his giant pit monster, and is captured and carried out into the desert with all his friends to be fed to a giant toothy maw in the ground. That of course doesn’t happen because Luke is a badass now and so is his entourage. Leia herself gets the honor of killing Jabba using the very chains with which he holds her in bondage, girl power and all that.
From here Luke returns to Dagoba to finish his training. Yoda tells him that his training is finished (presumably he completed a right of passage when he didn’t allow Vader to turn him to the dark side in the previous film) and that the dark lord is correct in guessing that Luke is his son, then he dies. Luke, distraught over the loss of his mentor, comes outside to meet Ben Kenobi’s ghost who tells him that his story about how Vader killed his dad was technically true because symbolism. Ben warns him that he must face Vader but he needs to be wary of the Emperor for he will try and trick him to give in to his emotions and turn to the dark side.
The Rebels have gotten plans for a new and supposedly more powerful Death Star which is orbiting above the world of Endor, undergoing construction. The Rebels plan to send a small team down to the planet’s surface to disable the force-field generator which protects the Deather Star from attack so that their fleet can swoop in, fly into its guts, and blow up its reactor.
Luke, Leia, R2 and 3P0, Han, Chewie, and some other random guys go down to the planet’s surface. They fight some storm troopers on hover bikes and meet a tribe of flesh-eating Vietnamese teddy bears called Ewoks. The Ewoks are persuaded not to eat their guests and decide to help them after 3PO tells them the story of the last two films.
Luke, realizing that he’s like catnip to Vader, decides he needs to leave before he jeopardizes the mission. He tells Leia goodbye, letting her know that they are siblings and that Vader is their dad. He then turns himself in to the Imperial troops so he can gain an audience with Vader and try and appeal to the good within him. The narrative splits into three sections as Luke and Vader go before the Emperor; Han, Leia, the droids, and Chewie take the generator facility; and Lando Calrissian and the Rebel fleet take the fight to the Deather Star.
Of the original trilogy, Return gets the most scrutiny – roughly all the scrutiny it deserves as well as all the scrutiny that the first film deserves but never got. Part of the reason that fans tend to be so hard on this movie is because Lucas “sold out”, I didn’t put that statement in quotation marks because I disagree with it necessarily but the story is a bit more complicated.
Return of the Jedi, briefly renamed Revenge of the Jedi had some changes late in the game. Harrison Ford had not signed a three movie contract and the idea of killing the character off in a heroic moment assaulting an Imperial base was bandied about. Lawrence Kasden said this would be a good way to make the audience lose their feeling of safety early in the film and Harrison Ford agreed. But Lucas disagreed, not wanting to lose the character, similarly he balked at the idea of having Luke walk off into the distance weary and alone like the hero of a spaghetti western at the end of the film.
According to Gary Kurtz (producer of the first two, but not the third film) these decisions were motivated not by desire to tell a good story, but to help encourage more merchandise sales. Maybe he’s telling the truth, maybe he isn’t, maybe he’s mistaken, regardless of Lucas’ reasoning I think killing Han and having Luke wander off alone would’ve really killed the spirit of the piece. I think it’s important that our heroes get their moment of happiness and peace and dark turns such as the ones planned fit in more tonally with Empire than they do with Return.
The other big thing people hate is the Ewoks. Supposedly it was originally intended to be Wookies who helped our heroes fight off the Imperials on Endor but the cuter and more toyetic creatures were put in their place. Having not seen this in years I was prepared to be disgusted with the Ewoks but they really weren’t that bad. There’s a racist caricature quality about them but that applies to most of the aliens in this film series and I find it strange that anyone offended by oblique racial stereotyping would draw a line in the sand with the Ewoks above all else.
Many also take issue with a bunch of teddy bear people stopping a battalion of troops with stone age weaponry, but that’s not really what happens. The Ewoks provide distraction and cover fire while the rebels clean up the troops, groups of Ewoks do gang up on single troopers in the chaos and they use primitive weaponry to trip up or smash the AT-ST walkers but in general they don’t do anything too implausible. They don’t really add much to the movie, it’s true, but part of Star Wars‘ charm has always been the way it throws in weird aliens all the time for no reason other than to make the movies feel more fantastical.
The next problem people have is that Return feels too similar to the first film. I can’t really argue with that notion, we start out in Tattooine then have a chat with Ben about Luke’s dad, head out to save the day only to find out that the Empire guessed their plan and prepared for them, then a big space battle and the destruction of the Deather Star. It’s a fair gripe but I think that the familiarity of the plot also helps highlight how things have changed, providing a symmetry to the series.
A big part of the problem with Return is how it’s paced. The movie is halfway over before our characters even leave Tattooine, then we have our quiet scenes with Luke and the Jedi, and then we have a whole movie’s worth of plot crammed into the rest. This should have been at least two movies because there are just so many character beats that need time to breathe and too many plot threads that need to be tied up. This is partially Emperor’s fault as it’s streamlined narrative was lean to the point that very little story development happened until the last thirty minutes. As such the pacing of this movie is all over the place with a good slow-paced open, meandering borderline-glacial middle, and a tightly plotted rush-to-the-finish ending.
One of the reasons that killing Han wouldn’t work is tied to one of the strangest things about the series. Somewhere in the transition between Star Wars and Return of the Jedi, our characters have switched roles. Luke went from being the action hero to the solemn warrior monk, Han took the spot after vacating the lovable rogue pilot role, and Lando filled in for Han. This movie is still about Luke Skywalker but Han Solo is more of a protagonist than he is. I guess if I wanted to make a pretentious explanation I could say Han is the movie’s heart and Luke is the soul (I vomited in my mouth a little bit typing that.) But what it really comes down to is the problem that the first movie had, we really just have too many principal characters, and absurdly every one of them gets at least one big moment in this movie; even C3PO! I would really like to see a treatment of this series where Luke doesn’t exist and the important parts of his arc are just folded into Leia’s story because I feel they could make the best of two weak characters that way.
Leia is finally important to the story and her role in the latter half of the movie makes her whole strangling of Jabba with the chains of symbolism seem kind of silly. Gone is the waspish and petulant princess of previous films and in her place is a mature, clever, and charming soldier in the Rebel army. It’s a shame they didn’t get here quicker. Carrie Fisher is now giving a fine performance and has a nice play on her “I love you” “I know” exchange wit Han from the previous film.
Is there any character in the history of storytelling who is more of a build up to a wet fart than Boba Fett? We’ve been teasing him out for two movies (he appears in the background of the Jabba/Han scene in the special edition of Star Wars) and he maybe shoots at a couple of people. Han accidentally knocks him over, causing his jetpack to knock him into the side of Jabba’s barge where he falls into the Sarlacc pit. We then cut to the pit as it burps. That’s the big payoff! Why is this asshole given so much buildup? Why does the camera keep cutting to him like he’s special for some reason? He just looks cool, that is literally the only thing he does!
While it’s a bit of a mess there are a lot of things to love about this movie and not just during the first act. The Deather Star assault may be deja vu inducing but that scene where they fly into the guts of the thing to blow up the reactor may well be the best ship scene in the trilogy. Admittedly they used their spare Han, Lando Calrissian, to fly the Millennium Falcon because we’re out of characters for the audience to sympathize with (poor Wedge.) But the real showpiece of this movie isn’t action at all, it’s talking.
The series has built up that Luke and Vader are going to fight, for real this time, but Luke just quietly turns himself in and lets Vader take him to the Emperor. He is greeted by the man himself, Ian McDiarmid, who is hamming it up as the evil ruler. Emperor Palpatine belongs in a much stupider movie but his deliberate overacting is menacing in its own way and actually works with the character as the Emperor is just acting like an internet comments troll to piss Luke off and make him accept the dark side.
As with every scene that features the character (and many still that don’t) Vader is the secret focus of this scene as we’re not supposed to be seeing the Sith Master’s outrageous French taunting from the boy’s perspective but from his father/enemy. Of course Luke does eventually relent to the Emperor’s cruelty and we get a lightsaber battle not amazing for its skill but rather its brutality. Luke fully resists the dark side but for one brief insane instant he just lets loose and it’s a powerful scene, easily the best thing Mark Hamill had done to that point or would until Batman the Animated Series.
Ultimately though, this is Vader’s show and seeing one’s son humbled before your creepy greasy boss and still stand up for what’s right is affecting. Vader has only one action scene in this movie and it’s a fight against his own son, it was a brave move to keep their big bad out of the fight. Vader questions his whole ideology and the unconditional love of his son brings him back from the brink and as hackneyed as that sounds it’s a powerful moment. I wasn’t even bothered by the “NOOOOOOOOO!” added into the new special addition as Vader comes back to the side of the angels.
Now lets talk about that special addition. Of the three movies, Return has the most intrusive additional footage and hoo boy is it bad. First off there’s the Max Reebo band. Now, to be fair the singer looked stupid in the original version as well and her song was annoying, but the new song Jedi Rocks is a whole new level of awful from the dancers to the CGI aliens that belongs in the rap video for Men in Black. (Actually now that I watch it, the music video has a better looking dancing alien.) It’s not that I don’t think that Jabba is the kind of guy who listens to shitty electronic music, it’s just that I’m insulted that George Lucas thought that I would want to.
The Max Reebo band is annoying, but you can ignore it if you try really hard. What you can’t ignore is the Sarlacc. For some reason George Lucas thought that the giant tooth-ringed mouth so exquisitely rendered with practical effects needed to contain a giant shrieking nipper plant and some CG tentacles. I somehow wasn’t aware of this change and actually exclaimed “What the fuck?!” when I watched this. I have no idea why any of this awful CG was added to a handful of scenes just filled to the brim with great special effects. Jabba looks great, all the members of his entourage are weird and gross and creepy (even Salacious Crumb in all his goofy splendor), this just spoils the whole scene!
A lot of the touch-up does enhance the film. The Ewoks can blink now, which ads a lot to making them look more realistic but there are two more big changes that are points of contention. First of all there’s this.
And I get why people are pissed at this, but I’m not. I’m not one of the biggest fans of the prequels, I wouldn’t even call myself an apologist really, and Hayden Christensen’s performance as Anakin Skywalker makes 1977 Mark Hamill look like a master thespian, but I’ve never really minded the look of the character and I have always really minded the look of Sebastian Shaw. I guess it just always bugged me that after all that Vader just looked like the type of guy who would be wearing a plaid shirt and a bucket hat, talking emphatically about trout fishing emphatically. I would’ve even taken David Prowse who at least looks somewhat like Mark Hamill. And I don’t really think many people mind Revenge of the Sith Anakin being there in principle. It adds up: Anakin died when he turned to the dark side so it makes sense that his representation in the force would be a young man, and he looks far more like an imposing Sith Knight.
We also miss out on watching an Ewok play some Storm Trooper helmets like drums. But we get a new John Williams piece and my boy Wedge gets to bro it out with Chewbacca. (I am genuinely disappointed that Denis Lawson’s IMDb page doesn’t have a listing for Star Wars: The Force Awakens at the top of it.) The thing about this part that bothers everyone is we now go to various planets in the galaxy (Tattooine, Coruscant, and Naboo complete with Gungans saying “Weesa free!”) as they celebrate.
Maybe it’s the tampering with a movie that wasn’t broken or maybe it’s the bad CG but I think the real reason this and the Vader ghost bother fans so much is because it makes it impossible to ignore the prequels. As I said, I have no love for those movies (we’ll see if my opinion of them changes any in the coming week) but the whole concept of just ignoring them outright is pointless. They exist, they’re bad, life will go on. Bottom line, while it’s the most tampered-with of the three even Return of the Jedi is perfectly watchable in its special edition incarnation. Admittedly it would be nice to get the original cuts, and we will some day though it may be ten or twenty years from now they’ll come out eventually.
Ultimately I think Return of the Jedi doesn’t get enough love, it’s not as good as The Empire Strikes Back but still better than Star Wars. It’s a mess on the whole but that mess is made up of great set-pieces and character moments that really are worth celebrating. It’s a fitting end to the most famous Science-Fantasy story of all time. See you on Monday when we’ll watch the most blatant Star Wars fan film of all time.
If you want to see the original theatrical cut of this film in a decent way then you’re out of luck. George Lucas has even released a statement in response to those who have insisted he put out the original untouched versions in HD with the correct aspect ratio, but it can be found for free online. But you can get the retouched version of the movie on DVD, Blu-Ray, and Amazon Instant. Or just get the whole sextet on Blu-Ray.
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