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Dissecting the Classics – Return of the Jedi

December 15, 2017 | Posted by Aaron Hubbard
Star Wars Return of the Jedi

Well, this has been a fun, occasionally exhausting ride. But every journey has an end, and this is definitely going to be the end for Star Wars columns. Because no, I’m not going to cover the prequels.

No, not even if you ask nicely. Or buy my booze.

Welcome to Dissecting the Classics , the column previously known as Taken For Granted. In this column, I analyze films that are almost universally loved and considered to be great. Why? Because great movies don’t just happen by accident. They connect with initial audiences and they endure for a reason. This column is designed to keep meaningful conversation about these films alive.

Return of the Jedi

Wide Release Date: May 25, 1983
Directed By: Richard Marquand
Written By: Lawrence Kasdan and George Lucas
Produced By: Howard Kazanjian
Cinematography By: Alan Hume
Edited By: Sean Martin, Duwayne Dunham and Marcia Lucas
Music By: John Williams
Production Company: Lucasfilm, Ltd.
Distributed By: 20th Century Fox
Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker
Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia
Harrison Ford as Han Solo
David Prowse and James Earl Jones as Darth Vader
Ian McDiarmid as The Emperor

What Do We All Know?

After the massive financial success of Star Wars and the still impressive but not quite as successful The Empire Strikes Back, George Lucas brought things full circle for what was then the final Star Wars movie. Initially billed as Revenge of the Jedi before settling on the gentler Return, the film was released six years to the day of the original film. Much like that one, it ends on a triumphant high note and was initially better received than Empire.

The film’s plot is pretty simple; the Empire has built a new Death Star, but first out heroes have to save Han Solo from Jabba the Hutt. After successfully pulling that off, they go to the forest moon of Endor so the Rebel fleet can destroy the new Death Star, which the Emperor is personally overseeing. Luke has a more personal journey; a dying Yoda reveals his training to be complete, but he must confront his father Darth Vader to become a Jedi. Surrendering himself to Vader, Luke is tempted by the Emperor before rejecting the Dark Side and ultimately redeeming his father, who kills the Emperor. Meanwhile, Han, Leia, the droids and an army of teddy bears manage to take out the shield generator so Lando can blow up the Death Star, and the Empire is finally defeated.

I always try rewatch a movie with fresh eyes when I do this column, both so I can pick up on any objective flaws and so that I can notice things that enhance the film. For example, I only really noticed the cohesive theme of “our heroes always place their friendship above their other problems” in Empire on my last viewing.

But on rewatching Return of the Jedi, I’ve come to realize that I may not actually like this movie very much. Parts of it are incredible, certainly, but as a whole, I actually found the movie to be a chore to sit through. And yes, I did watch the original theatrical cut because I’m not masochistic enough to hear Vader scream “Noo!” while killing the Emperor or that stupid dance number (which is almost as annoying in the original cut, by the way). But I’m committed to maintaining the integrity of this column and to reviewing this movie. So, for the sake of ending on a positive note, we’re going to switch the usual format around a bit and tackle the problems first.

What Went Wrong?

Hoo boy, where to start. I suppose the best place would be with the script, which has a lot of tedious and banal dialogue even compared to the original Star Wars. There are entire scenes that just tell us information instead of showing it, and it starts to detract from the experience. The Emperor just isn’t as impressive when you realize he’s an expository character. The film also has to deal with the somewhat difficult structure of having a mini-movie as its first act, which ends on a high note. Going from that sequence to an exposition heavy second act is jarring, and I think having to follow the rescue of Han is a reason so much of the rest of the movie feels kind of plodding.

I’m also just baffled by some of the narrative decisions in this movie. The second Death Star has always felt like a lazy retread, and it can never be as fun watching it blow up here. And while I don’t really have a problem with the ewoks conceptually, I don’t get why they are such a key part of a movie. Why are we being asked to pretend that there’s any tension at all in watching the ewoks try to cook Han alive? They are also single handedly responsible for ruining the reputation of Stormtroopers in my opinion. Also, if the Vietnam War reference really was necessary and we had to have the Empire undone by a primitive race of forest dwellers, why not wookiees? Surely a few basketball teams would have been just as easy to hire as all the little people who are playing ewoks. With all due respect to Warrick Davis and company… the ewoks really do take the already silly franchise and push it a little too far into camp for my taste.

Speaking of that forest moon (why is it a moon, how big is the planet it orbits?), it doesn’t really work for me as a Star Wars setting. Compared to the desert and ice planets, the woods just aren’t threatening or alien enough for me. Watching scenes that feel like they could be shot in my backyard just can’t compare. But I will be fair and acknowledge this could just be a geography bias. And there are times where things that I take umbrage with are not exactly true, meaningful flaws. Even the ewoks fall in that category. Another “Dumb Thing That Just Bugs Me” is Boba Fett’s anticlimactic death scene. Yes, fanboys have always inflated Boba Fett’s importance, but that doesn’t mean his death had to be player for comedy. And don’t bring up how the EU fixes it; if it had to be fixed, that means it is still broken in this movie.

But the real big issue I have that falls into this category is the big reveal that Luke and Leia are brother and sister. I alluded to it in my last column as something that has always been nagging at me, but the more I think about it the less I like this. Lucas clearly intended there to be romantic tension between Leia and Luke. He rescues her knight-and-shining-armor style, gets a kiss on the cheek, and is aggressively hugged in Star Wars. Leia kisses Luke full on the mouth in Empire and he clearly enjoys it. And even in this movie, Han sees Luke as a romantic rival. Why abruptly change your mind and make them siblings? Why the line about Leia somehow always knowing? Not only does this necessitate that I reach for my mouthwash, but it’s a lazy resolution to two plot points and one cosmic coincidence too many. Also, why does Leia have no meaningful reaction to finding out Darth Vader? The man who tortured her, who was complicit in the Alderaan genocide and was willing to murder the love of her life is her father. Why doesn’t this garner any emotional response?

And while that is nitpicky, it is indicative of a very real problem in this movie. After Leia rescues Han, they have almost nothing to do, character wise. Yes, they have a function in the big three plane finale, but they don’t really grow. Harrison Ford looks bored most of the time and I can’t blame him. Leia has a scene of importance with Luke, but it doesn’t really play well and she doesn’t really grow from it. These two feel more like props than main characters and that is really disappointing for me.

Speaking of Leia… yeah, the Slave Leia outfit is problematic. It’s especially tacky that she never gets an on screen line since heaven forbid we see Carrie’s tummy be less than perfect when she moves her diaphragm. I don’t have a huge problem with this in terms of narrative, and the chain gives her the tools to kill Jabba in one of her best moments. But the fan obsession over this is kind of gross.

Lastly, there’s something that is far from nitpicky. The use of blue screen in this film is pervasive, obvious and distracting. Perhaps the compositing is better in the HD versions, I wouldn’t know. I don’t normally talk about effects in old movies since visual effects are often the first thing to become dated. But I watched the original cut of Star Wars two weeks ago and even in its cheapest moments it looks better than a lot of Return. So if the third movie has aged more poorly than the original in the visual department… yeah it’s kind of a problem.

Now at this point, after touching on all the negatives I have with this movie, you may think that I just outright hate it. Well, please don’t get out the laser pitchforks just yet. This is an honest column, but it’s also primarily about positivity. Films can have numerous problems and transcend that with their positives. Which is why it’s now time to turn away from the Dark Side and talk about…

What Went Right?

Okay, so Return of the Jedi is far from a perfect film. But it’s not a bad film at all, and now it’s time to give it due credit. The entire first act is really fun; Jabba the Hutt is as unique and memorable as any alien creature in film, with a presence and personality that makes waiting for him worth it. The other aliens are also interesting, particularly the Gamorrean guards and Bib Fortuna. The stop motion Rancor looks incredible when Luke isn’t in frame. Princess Leia rescuing Han in a major role reversal is a fantastic moment, as is Luke’s arrival where he demonstrates his increased power, calmer disposition and new lightsaber.

Luke takes center stage as the main character here, and his feelings about Darth Vader are refreshingly nuanced. Something that I think eludes people here is that Luke disobeys Yoda and Obi-Wan, and makes the right call in doing so. Despite their proclamations of being peaceful, both old Jedi masters insist on violence as the answer to this problem. Luke gives into his hate momentarily, but once he is reminded of how he is becoming more like his father, he takes a third option; true serenity. It isn’t his powers or his training that defeats the Emperor; it is his empathy, compassion and forgiveness that redeem Anakin Skywalker. Luke comes to his own decision about what being a Jedi truly means, reconciling his teaching with his conscience. In this way, he becomes one of the truly great heroes of cinema.

All of that is powerful, emotional stuff that lends dramatic weight to the final confrontation. Vader and Luke have changed since their last encounter, they have a more interesting dynamic, and while it can’t match the skill and nuance of the Empire duel, it over delivers in terms of emotionally driven storytelling. The moment where Luke’s anger enables him to battle back, only to stop when he cuts off Vader’s hand, is incredible. I still get chills when Luke looks at his hand, and when he tosses his saber away.

The Emperor also accomplishes the impressive feat of upstaging Vader as the true evil of the series. Ian McDiarmid’s posture and voice are complemented by incredible makeup and the pitch black cloak. While he can be exposition heavy, the scenes where he tempts Luke work spectacularly well. And when he turns around and reveals his true power, he becomes truly terrifying. If the Emperor didn’t work, this whole movie would have likely landed flat.

Vader’s ultimate decision to save his son is possibly his greatest character moment. It’s also a great look at how editing, cinematography and music can tell a story without dialogue or even facial expressions. And we get several scenes of catharsis afterward. Their last conversation, the funeral and Anakin joining Obi-Wan and Yoda as Force ghosts are all powerful moments. In terms of wrapping up the main story, Return of the Jedi does a better job than almost any third entry.

While most of my praise goes to Luke’s storyline, there are a few other things I like. Yoda’s death is well handled. Han Solo has some very good lines, even if Harrison Ford looks bored most of the time. The scene where the ewoks first see C-3PO and the dialogue exchange between Han and Threepio is one of my favorites. The speeder chase and the space battle are impressive technical feats, and the power core of the Death Star is much more interesting than the trench run. And the reversal of “I love you,” “I know,” is just perfect.

And In Summary…

Return of the Jedi is not an unassailable classic like its predecessors. In fact, after rewatching it, I’m tempted to say that if it was divorced from those films, it wouldn’t be particularly fondly remembered. But it is Star Wars, and it brings the main story to a highly satisfying and emotionally rich conclusion. Luke Skywalker’s character arc is completed, Vader is redeemed, the Empire is defeated. It’s the perfect high note for the series to end on. The road to get there is a little bumpy, but for those invested in the story, it’s easy to overlook those details.

For me, I’ve had the somewhat disappointing realization that most of Return doesn’t really hold my interest. I’ve struggled with this, since I do think that on balance it’s a pretty good movie. The emotional resonance it has with certain fans is undeniable, and the last thing I like to do is kick the shit out of someone’s favorite movie. (Unless their favorite movie is Batman v. Superman.) But one of my guiding principles as a critic is that nobody is obligated to like any movie, and surely that has to apply to myself.

So, I’d like to personally invite those of you who really love this film to share what you love about it. My opinion shouldn’t dissuade you from enjoying the film; I mean, I like Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and Secret of the Ooze, so my opinion better not be the end all, be all.

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Jurassic Park, Back to the Future, Chinatown, Taxi Driver, The Matrix, Batman (1989), Casablanca, Goldfinger, X2, King Kong (1933), Beauty and the Beast (1991), The Dark Crystal, The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Godfather, The Godfather, Part II, The Silence of the Lambs, Alien, Aliens, Casino Royale, Superman: The Movie, Superman II, Batman (1966), The Maltese Falcon, Spider-Man, Spider-Man 2, 12 Angry Men, Aladdin, The Wizard of Oz, Dial M For Murder, Godzilla (1954), The Hurt Locker, The Breakfast Club, Iron Man, The Shining, Dr. Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange, Eyes Wide Shut, Blade Runner, Rosemary’s Baby, Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Princess Bride, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, Toy Story, Star Wars – Part 1, Star Wars – Part 2, The Empire Strikes Back

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May the Force be with you.