As would befit their titles, Return of the Jedi is the exact opposite of Revenge of the Sith. Sith is a movie with lots of new, interesting plot points that is dragged way down by the awfulness of the first two prequels and their terrible characters. Jedi, conversely, doesn’t have much of the way of ideas, but it’s able to coast because the first two movies set it up so perfectly. At this point, the audience loves Luke, Han, Leia, and Chewie so much they’re willing to watch them in just about anything (Star Wars Christmas Special excluded).
So where is our story at this point? At the end of ESB, Lando and Chewbacca flew away on the Millenium Falcon, promising to find the bounty hunter that has the frozen Han Solo. “Awesome,” a hypothetical viewer might say. “That bounty hunter didn’t say much, but his suit and ship were amazing, and it will be cool to see Lando and Chewie take him on! I wonder if their spaceships will fight or…”
“Oh. Jedi is beginning and it’s just R2 and 3PO walking around on Luke’s home planet again. Han has already been shipped to Jabba the Hutt and now the bounty hunter is just chillaxing in Jabba’s dance hall. That’s cool, I guess. I didn’t want to see Lando and Chewbacca go on a sweet rescue mission anyway (sniff).”
I’m putting a lot of words in this hypothetical viewer’s mouth…certainly when I saw Jedi as a ten-year-old, I didn’t waste too much time on “what ifs”. Still, compared to the creativity shown in ESB, Jedi doesn’t seem to have many ideas on how to make the rescue of Han Solo interesting. I mean, he’s hanging right there on the wall! Jabba has guards, sure, but they’re mostly stupid pig-men and random dancing aliens. It seems like if Luke, Leia, Lando, Chewbacca, and a handful of armed Rebel Alliance volunteers had shown up, nobody would have been able to stop them.
But fortunately for Jabba, the Rebels are determined not to do things the easy way. After R2 and 3PO are enslaved to Jabba as a gift from Luke (Noooo! Luke, don’t you know Jabba has a robot torture chamber for some dumb reason?), a disguised Leia brings in Chewbacca, who gets taken to the dungeons. At this point the heroes have added three more names to their “Need to eventually rescue” list. Leia then unfreezes Han, and they both get recaptured immediately. Leia is forced to wear a bikini because the movie-makers realized that she had clothes on for both of the previous movies and that just didn’t seem right.
Then Jedi does another good idea fake-out. Luke Skywalker enters Jabba’s palace dressed all in black and starts Force-choking and Jedi-mind-tricking his way through the guards. Oh man! Has Luke turned to the Dark Side? Nope, just kidding. Luke doesn’t need Dark Powers when he has a sweet plan! The plan is: make some threats, fall into a pit, kill the pit monster unarmed, get captured and put in chains, make some more threats until Jabba decides to feed all the good guys to his back-up pit monster. Finally, R2 tosses Luke’s lightsaber eighty feet over a chasm, and Luke catches it and fights off every single bad guy by himself while everyone else tries not to fall to their death. Seems to me that Luke could have skipped some of those middle steps, but what do I know.
I’m picking on the beginning of the movie, but I actually enjoy most of it. It addresses the biggest problem from ESB – the sense that the main characters no longer liked each other– by giving the heroes some fun banter and chances to rescue each other. It’s also exciting to see Luke take on Jabba’s thugs with his new lightsaber and mad skillz. Still, the first act makes it clear: this final installment is going to be lighter, simpler, and sillier than the previous one, with fewer betrayals and torture scenes, and more onscreen burps (three!).
Luke returns to Dagobah, where Yoda promptly dies because he has contracted Lack-of-anything-relevant-to-impart-to-the-main-character-itis.* It is on Dagobah that Luke learns of one of the worst ideas that Jedi introduces: Leia is his sister. Blerg! It is not very nice to your two main characters to ret-con them as incestuous. Were the writers worried that the audience might feel cheated if Luke ended up single for No Good Reason (other than the perfectly legitimate reason of Leia liking someone else better)? This plot twist not only eliminates the exciting Love Triangle dynamic from the leads, it makes it gross that it ever existed. Suddenly, there’s no more tension. We know Han and Leia are just gonna grin at each other all movie. There’s one brief moment where Han gets jealous of Luke, but we as an audience aren’t concerned, because we know as soon as Leia says “He’s my brother,” the princess and the former scoundrel will get back to smoochin’. Sigh.
Anyway, back to the plot. The Rebels have discovered that the Empire is building an EVEN BIGGER DEATH STAR, but they seemed to be fairly relaxed about it. To destroy the Death Star’s shield generator on Endor, they send the stealthy team of Han, Leia, Luke, a seven-foot tall furry monster, and two shiny, slow-moving droids who never ever stop talking/beeping. Unfortunately for the Rebellion, this top-notch team of spies gets sidetracked a bunch of teddy bears.
Now, I’m not anti-Ewok per se; I don’t dislike the little critters just because they’re cute, the way some fanboys seem to do. What I am opposed to is upstaging: the Ewoks come to dominate the Endor storyline at the expense of everyone else. Han and Leia, whose relationship was so central in ESB, don’t get many chances to talk to each other…but there IS a long scene where the Ewoks learn about the plot of the first two movies. The Rebel attack of the shield generator doesn’t consist of much more than hanging out in the bushes firing randomly…but the Ewoks get to make all sorts of ingenious traps, all of which are highly effective on the surprisingly fragile Imperial Scout Walkers. The furry little devils steal screen time, and that, more than anything else, is why I find them problematic.*
At least Luke doesn’t get short-changed. In the strongest of Jedi’s storylines, Luke surrenders to Darth Vader, hopefully to sway him back to the good side. Emperor Palpatine, of course, has the opposite idea: he wants for Luke to use his anger and turn to the Dark Side of the Force. Palpatine, played as always by the excellent Ian McDiarmid, reveals to Luke that the seemingly-vulnerable Death Star was actually a trap for Rebels. Luke is somewhat peeved at the prospect of the imminent death of everyone he knows, and a Vader-Luke duel breaks out. But somewhere in between Cloud City and Endor, Luke has grown in power, and the idea that he might kill and replace his father is no longer just theoretical.
It’s a great sequence, and it gives the last third of the film emotional heft. The other components of the finale aren’t quite as strong…the space battle is a great spectacle, but the only main character involved in it is Lando (who is cool but still largely unknown, thanks to the middle third of the movie being taken up by EWOKS). The fighting on the ground has a disappointingly low Han Solo to Ewok ratio, and it makes the feared Imperial Stormtroopers seem like bowling pins to be easily knocked over.
Still, as I said, the lightsaber duel ties it all together, and the moment when Vader (spoiler) switches to the Good Side in order to protect his son is one of the finest in the trilogy. Seeing good triumphing over evil on all three separate arenas, it’s hard not feel elated. Freedom is returned to the galaxy, the Empire is demolished, and everyone lives happily ever. Now if only there was someone to party with besides these lousy Ewoks.
When analyzing Return of the Jedi, it’s easy to enumerate flaws. It isn’t as imaginative as Star Wars, nor as rich in drama and suspense as The Empire Strikes Back. Most of its ideas are either recycled or mediocre. Characters show up at the beginning of the movie as developed as they’re ever gonna get. There’s a scene where a dang Ewok hits himself in the face with a dang slingshot. Etc, etc.
But although the characters don’t really evolve, they don’t deteriorate, either. Our heroes retain much of their spark from previous installments, and thus we continue rooting for them on their adventures. And although some of those adventures are silly (Luke convinces the Ewoks that 3PO is magic!), others are exciting (the Millenium Falcon flies into the Death Star), dramatic (Luke gets lightning-ed by the Emperor), or just plain fun (speeder bike chase!!!). Jedi is not the perfect ending to the saga, but it has its own magic all the same.
Best Scene: Vader picks up the Emperor and throws him in a big pit. If you’re watching the Blu-Ray version, where Lucas added Darth Vader’s voice yelling “NOOOOOO!” to that scene, I’m very sorry. In that case, the best scene is probably Vader’s death, where he thanks his son for saving him. Sniffle.
Best Line of Dialogue: Star Wars gave us “May the Force be with you.” The Empire Strikes Back gave us “I am your father.” And Return of the Jedi gives us this iconic line.
Worst Scene: Jabba’s hall is home to crappy puppet aliens playing disco (original)/crappy CGI aliens playing saxophone-rock (Special Edition).
Worst Line of Dialogue: “I’m rather embarrassed, General Solo, but it appears that you are to be the main course at a banquet in my honor.”
Biggest Let-Down: Boba Fett turns out to be a spaz (original)/Hayden Christiansen shows up as young Blue-Ghost Young Anakin (special edition).
Only single moment in the trilogy where Special Editioning was maybe a good call: I’m not a fan of adding Naboo and Coruscant to the final moments of the trilogy, and on principle I don’t think Lucas should have changed anything, but man is that new John Williams song superior to a bunch of Ewoks singing “yub yub”.
* Am I the only one who thought Yoda’s last words were “There is another sky”? As far as last words go, I think that’s more poetic than “There is another Skywalker” especially since the latter can also be pronounced “You French-kissed your sister.”
**I’m also not a huge fan of the “primitive natives worship shiny foreigner as a God” narrative.