The original Star Wars trilogy contains two of the best films ever made, regardless of genre. A New Hope ushered in a brand new type of space adventure film, and The Empire Strikes Back gave us all a deeper understanding of the Jedi way. That 1983’s Return of the Jedi is merely good might seem a bit like a step backward, but how do you wrap up one of the most beloved sagas of all time in one movie? Quickly, it turns out. And with a lot of creatures.
Growing up, I may have watched Return of the Jedi more than the other two, simply because it had Jabba the Hutt and all of those amazing creatures. Plus, it was packed with all the lightsaber action a kid could want. Watching it as an adult, though, there are certainly aspects to it that I love, but as a whole it doesn’t quite come together the way it should. Jedi simply doesn’t have A New Hope‘s direct path from the beginning of the movie to the end, or the way Empire introduces mysticism and philosophy on one hand and a romantic chase plot on the other. It’s not as focused.
But, let’s talk first about the things it definitely has going for it. First and foremost, it starts with about 40 minutes of a Jabba the Hutt story. For two movies, we’d been hearing about this horrible gangster to whom Han Solo owed money. Finally, in Empire, Boba Fett managed to capture the slippery smuggler and bring the Han-sicle back to Jabba’s lair. All of this serves to give the crime lord a mythic quality and provides our heroes a clear mission for the beginning of this movie. The creature work on all of the subjects in Jabba’s palace, not to mention on Jabba himself, is astounding and they’re some of the best puppets in any film of the era. Slowly, the heroes are introduced into the scene, beginning with the droids, then Luke via hologram, then Chewie, then Leia in disguise, then Lando in disguise, then Han unfrozen, before finally Luke himself arrives, more mythic and powerful that we’d ever seen him before.
While the actual plan of the heroes doesn’t make the most sense, this layered introduction allows us to slowly understand that something is afoot. And when it finally all goes off, over the Pit of the Almighty Sarlaac, it’s an absolute joy to watch. There’s humor with Han being blind but fighting anyway, and there’s excitement with Luke flipping all around and being a true Jedi Knight for the first time in the series. Even Leia, who sadly gets reduced to eye candy for a bit, gets to choke Jabba the Hutt with the very chains that enslaved her. It hearkens to the possibility of adventures we don’t get to see but sure are amazing.
The second great part of the movie is the confrontation between Luke and Vader, followed by one involving Luke, Vader, and the Emperor, with the soul of Darth Vader hanging in the balance. It’s truly excellent good-versus-evil stuff, and Ian McDiarmid’s first portrayal of the Emperor might actually be his best. While I never really bought Luke being tempted by the Dark Side in any other fashion apart from simply being angry that his friends would probably die, the idea of him seeing in Vader what he could become if he gave in to the Dark Side is a really powerful one. Though it is not particularly well demonstrated on screen, the inner conflict in Vader coming to a head over seeing his son being tortured to death is excellent. He is redeemed at the end, or at least on the road to redemption, before ultimately succumbing to his wounds. Great, mythic hero stuff.
The scene where Luke revisits Yoda and learns ALL OF THE THINGS is done well, and it’s nice to see Yoda and Obi-Wan again, but it’s a bit of an info-dump. It’s only really there to explain why Obi-Wan was a big ol’ liar in the first movie, or at least a certain-point-of-viewer. It’s also here that we discover the identity of Luke’s twin sister. Ben’s ghost doesn’t say it outright, but Luke discovers it within himself. What good deduction skills! Let’s run through all the dozens of women we’ve met up to now in the series: Is it Aunt Beru? No. Is it one of those two sisters in the Cantina? No. Is it the Echo Base technician on Hoth? No. Is it Mon Mothma? Seems unlikely. Is it Oola, the Twi-lek dancer who gets eaten by the Rancor? No, that– wait! It must be Princess Leia! The dumbest reveal in movie history. Also, these movies sure don’t even come close to passing the Bechdel Test.
Given that the only confrontation with any true meaning happens between Luke and the Sith Lords, the other characters are left to do a bunch of busywork: Han, Leia, Chewie, the droids, and a ground assault team are going to the forest moon of Endor to destroy a shield generator so that the new, even bigger Death Star can be attacked by the Rebel fleet led by Admiral Ackbar, Lando in the Falcon, and Wedge Antilles. There are some exciting and awesome bits in here, but none of it has the emotional power behind it that you’d hope it would. I have nothing against the Ewoks at all, and Wicket is pretty awesome, but the whole Endor bit seems tacked on for runtime more than any real narrative purpose. Which brings me to what is perhaps the most unfortunate part of the movie.
There was talk on all fronts that maybe Han Solo would die in the beginning of this movie, but George Lucas was adamant that he remain alive. Of all the characters, Solo was perhaps the most expendable, but that would certainly have crushed a lot of fans’ hearts. So, Han was kept alive and, as a result, he doesn’t have much to do. In the first movie, he has a huge arc and a Grinch-like change of heart; in the second film, he becomes the romantic lead and eventual sacrificial lamb. Here, all he really does is crack wise and not understand very easy-to-grasp concepts involving siblings. Leia doesn’t even tell him what’s going on after Luke unloads the truth on her ears. He just sort of goes along with it. He, and most of the characters in this, become passive simply because the heart of the story really doesn’t really center on them.
The filming is a little less dynamic here and less focused. Famously, Lucas wanted his pal Steven Spielberg to direct, but because of DGA malarkey, that couldn’t happen. He also wanted David Lynch, but Lynch ultimately opted to make Dune instead. So Richard Marquand was hired, a veteran of British television who had only directed a couple of features. His comfort with special effects was limited, so Lucas himself had to step in and be more involved than he’d originally planned. The location filming was done entirely in the United States and was all done after studio days in England were completed. Much of the Endor sequence is shot rather perfunctorily and with much less grandeur than in Empire. These are things I never really noticed as a youth, but are now much more evident in my critical brain.
All of these criticisms are simply just to point out that Return of the Jedi isn’t quite as good as the previous two films. If Empire is a 10 and A New Hope is a 9.5, then Jedi is maybe an 8. Still very good, and still much better than any of the prequels, but less so than its predecessors.
And that was the last we saw of Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Princess Leia for 32 years until this year when they will return in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I’m was the most excited a person could conceivably be to see what happens next. You can read my review of Episode VII right here. Thank you all for joining me on this rewatch/review of the six Star Wars movies. Let’s reconvene in another bunch of years to review the new stuff, yeah?
Images: 20th Century Fox/Lucasfilm
Kyle Anderson is a film and TV critic for Nerdist.com and has so much Star Wars in his brain right now, he accidentally called his brother “Chewie.” Follow him on Twitter and share some of the madness.