“Strike me down with all of your hatred, and your journey towards the Dark side will be complete!”
So, remember how I said I loved the tone of The Empire Strikes Back? Well the final part of the original Star Wars trilogy, Return of the Jedi, went a considerably different route for a good portion of the film.
Many people claim this is the weakest movie of the trilogy – and I’m not going to disagree with them here. While there are certainly parts of it I still love, there are also parts of it I really don’t. Return of the Jedi is the first ‘polarising’ instalment in a saga that would struggle to find its footing from this point onwards; its best days (from a critical viewpoint at least) already behind it.
But let’s begin with the good. Like any good conclusion to a typical trilogy, this film went back to where it had all started six years before: on Tatooine, with C-3PO and R2-D2. They’re back to help infiltrate Jabba’s Palace and rescue Han Solo from his clutches – who is still frozen in carbonite by the way; C-3PO makes sure to unnecessarily spell it out for us once they’re inside.
This was the first time audiences had seen Jabba the Hutt (unless, like me, you had seen the 1997 ‘special edition’ of the original Star Wars beforehand – in which George Lucas had seen fit to insert a CGI version of him for no narrative purpose) and his slug-like character design would become almost as iconic as Yoda.
Soon Luke Skywalker turns up at Jabba’s Palace as well, having sent the droids with a personal message that he was on his way. Luke in this movie is now an authoritative ‘badass’ Jedi knight; a far cry from the slightly whiny teenager we were first introduced to in the original Star Wars. You really get the sense from his first scene that Luke has come a long way as a character – his arc being another trait this final instalment nails perfectly, and overall this is probably my favourite version of Luke in the trilogy.
Needless to say, the confrontation between Luke and Jabba does not go well, and within the first twenty minutes we’re treated to another memorable opening action sequence as was the case in Empire (though not quite on the same scale). With Han Solo freed from the carbonite, and the three main protagonists (Luke, Leia and Han) back together for the first time since the start of the preceding film, it’s hard not to get caught up in the feel-good nostalgic sentiment of Return of the Jedi’s opening sequence.
From Jabba’s palace to the edge of the Sarlacc pit (in which people are thrown to be ‘slowly digested over a thousand years’), it starts off at a pace that makes you believe you’re in for one hell of a ride throughout the rest of the film. To be honest though, one of the main issues I have with Jedi is its pacing; as it struggles to maintain this momentum going into the rest of the movie.
This is evident from Luke’s very next scene. Fresh off of rescuing Han, he sets off with R2 to return to Dagobah and complete his training with Master Yoda. Except when he gets there, that’s not what happens.
Instead, they talk. Yoda reaffirms that Luke needs to face Darth Vader again and defeat him if he wants to be a true Jedi, before revealing a significant plot detail that ‘there is another Skywalker’. Then he dies rather abruptly – barely thirty minutes into the film. It all felt a little… rushed. Almost as if Lucas had a checklist of things he wanted to get through in this film and he therefore wanted to get Yoda’s death out of the way early.
Outside Yoda’s hut, Luke meets Obi-Wan in spirit form again. Obi-Wan’s spirit feels it necessary to sit down on a rock as he talks to Luke… I could dwell on that, but I’ll move on. Obi-Wan and Luke talk. Obi-Wan tells Luke he must face Vader again. Then he reaffirms it one more time for effect, before confirming Luke has a sister: Leia. Not quite the emotional slobberknocker of a twist that we got in Empire, but something at least.
Luke’s entire visit to Dagobah, though brief, exemplifies another problem with Jedi: exposition. So many scenes are, for me, too concerned with communicating what’s going on to the audience in words rather than action, as was more the case in this film’s two predecessors. While I said this version of Luke was my favourite of the trilogy, one is left with the feeling that we just don’t see enough of what he can do as a Jedi, after those new skills were hinted at in the opening sequence. We’re left wanting more that, until near the end, we don’t quite get.
Some character interactions are also far less convincing here than in Empire. Han Solo, for example, seems once again to be best buddies with Lando Calrissian, despite the latter having betrayed him to the Empire on one of their last meetings. While it’s understandable that the two would reconcile and rekindle their friendship, I feel the film misses an opportunity to make it more of an interesting arc that could have been developed further.
This would also be the case with Leia in a later scene, when Luke reveals to her that not only is Darth Vader his father, but she is also his sister – which makes Vader her father as well. The emotional resonance of this reveal never quite comes across from Leia’s perspective, which is disappointing, especially considering it played such a major role in Luke’s character arc in the previous film. A little knowledge of Leia’s character history also suggests that if anything, she should be more horrified than Luke at finding out such news. She was fighting against the Empire long before Vader invaded her rebel cruiser and held her captive for a whole two thirds of the first film, after all.
Obviously Lucas must take some of the blame for these gripes (especially the points at which exposition is heavy), but I also have an issue with how this film is directed by Richard Marquand, with whom the main responsibility must lie for the niggling problems in the aforementioned scenes. Return of the Jedi suffers due to a less ‘daring’ directorial style than we saw in Irvin Kershner’s Empire Strikes Back.
This is all before I’ve even taken those creatures known as the Ewoks into consideration. Now, when most people quote their reasons for disliking Jedi a little more than the other instalments in the trilogy, these furry little teddy bear-lookalikes are never far from the conversation.
It’s not just that they’re clearly a nod to the younger members of Jedi’s audience, but more that their inclusion around the mid-way point of the film absolutely kills whatever pacing it had up until that point. Tonally, the Ewoks just didn’t fit in Return of the Jedi. The movie didn’t really need them.
Here’s a major part of the issue: on one hand, you had the despicably evil Emperor’s first appearance in person, magnificently and sinisterly portrayed by Ian McDiarmid, and on the other you had the Ewoks helping take out what he himself claims is an “entire battalion” of his absolute best troops. Sorry, but I call bullshit on that one.
It didn’t make sense, even if I kind of understand what George Lucas was going for. Yoda had taught us in the previous movie not to judge by appearances and to be wary of underestimating others based on size; Lucas saw another opportunity here to reiterate that point again in more of a feel-good manner than the dark tones of Empire.
But let’s dwell on the Emperor for a moment. Perhaps the single biggest reason I enjoy returning to Jedi so much now is to see McDiarmid’s original characterisation of a man he would play again in the prequel trilogy almost twenty years later. Here we truly see the Emperor’s powers in action for the first time; realising exactly how and why the Empire has managed to maintain its tyrannical hold over the galaxy for this long under his rule. The final climactic fight between Vader and Luke is made to feel all the more epic with his manipulative presence in the background – a presence that you feel has really been there, unseen, throughout the entire trilogy.
No doubt remains in this final movie; we see a delicately balanced three-way conflict between these three main characters. Darth Vader himself is no longer the true main villain, no longer quite the badass we knew in Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, with the Emperor revealed as the manipulator pulling his strings.
For a few moments the Emperor almost convinces Luke and the audience that the young Jedi will indeed take his father’s place by his side. But of course we know how this story ultimately ends; with Anakin Skywalker killing his ‘Sith’ master, as he would later be prophesied to do in the prequels. This ending sequence, from Vader’s sacrifice and redemption up to Luke standing by his funeral pyre (the only person there, which shows Vader was feared rather than liked by his subordinates), is the film’s emotional high point.
Return of the Jedi undoubtedly showcased some of George Lucas’ bad habits (childish elements, exposition overload, dodgy pacing), along with some better ones in action sequences and production design. It is, on balance, still an immensely enjoyable movie, though falls short of the excessively high bar set by the other two films in the trilogy. This is Star Wars; not quite at its best but, as most people would say, to be treasured and appreciated for what it is… considering what awaited in the saga’s future.
8 / 10