Time flies like the Millennium Falcon through hyperspace.
Looking back 35 years (gasp!), I still tend to regard “Return of the Jedi” as the first genuine misstep of cinematic Star Wars (the runt of the original trilogy litter). I realize it is a favorite for some, and I’m not trying to challenge or argue anyone else’s opinion on the film; I’m simply trying to suss out my own.
“A New Hope” (I prefer to call it SW77… “New Hope” sounds like a ‘70s soap opera) and “The Empire Strikes Back” are the closest things to pure perfection the Star Wars universe has ever achieved.
SW77 was life-changing. I truly believe that my DNA rearranged itself as I sat and watched it in that old multiplex on that summer day in 1977. I had never seen anything quite like it before (I didn’t see 1968’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” until about 5 years later at a revival screening).
SW77 seemed both a revolution in cinematic arts as well as the very reason why the art of cinema existed. It was both wildly revolutionary (the never-before-seen visual effects, the meticulously designed robots, spaceships, that transcendent jump to hyperspace) and yet quaintly old-fashioned (a farmboy, a wizard, and a princess join forces to take out an enemy battle fort). The movie was my generation’s “Wizard of Oz” but with enough cinematic firepower to change movies forever. It was, long before the word became so overused… awesome.
Then came “The Empire Strikes Back” in the summer of 1980. We saw it about a month or so after it’s release, waiting for my dad’s vacation so that we could see it in Los Angeles at the Egyptian theatre (only the best for this one). I was 13 then, and a bit more ‘ready’ for the experience this time. I remember feverishly reading the movie’s novelization by Donald F. Glut and not even minding that I’d ruined ‘the big spoiler’ for myself ahead of time. If anything, that foreknowledge of Luke’s parentage made me all the more anxious to see my family’s reaction to it (remember, this was pre-internet). Even though I knew all of the film’s spoilers? Seeing it in 70mm on a giant screen blew me away (that Dolby sound was pretty intense for 1980).
The new vistas seen in “Empire” (the vast icy plains of Hoth, the art deco splendor of Cloud City) were jaw-droppingly gorgeous. Reading of Hoth, Bespin and Yoda was not the same as seeing it all come to life. And the new music by John Williams (that Imperial March) was at least as memorable as Williams’ previous score for SW77. I could already feel my cheap boy’s velcro wallet ripping open to buy the soundtrack…
Seeing “The Empire Strikes Back” at the Egyptian (now the American Cinematheque) remains, to this day, one of the most perfect cinema experiences of my life. The movie is one of my favorite films of all time (sequel or not). I enjoyed it more than SW77 (and that one was the life-changer, mind you).
Could a sequel get any better than that?
Three very long years later, the answer was ‘no.’
My memories of “Return of the Jedi”…
“Return of the Jedi” came out in May of 1983, and by that time I was a sophomore in high school. Times were a little different for me then. I began to get ‘chin pubes’ (the first inklings of facial hair) and girls were suddenly a lot more important to me than they’d ever been before. In short, I was a chubby, hormonal, pretentious mess.
But there was still one constant in my life…my love of science fiction and Star Wars (which is science fiction-fantasy, just to be nerd-picky). This time, we planned to see it opening night. We drove down to a local cinema only to find that the showing we wanted to see was sold out (again, pre-internet, pre-Fandango). Feeling my heart break inside my chest, we managed to get tickets for a midnight showing. And this was on a school night. But then again, this was a Star Wars movie; I was prepared to make the sacrifice of a good night’s sleep for it.
Well, after a two-hour plus wait in line, we finally got in.
The screen at our local cinema was big enough (certainly bigger than the one I saw SW77 on six years earlier). The lights dimmed. No trailers (it was midnight, after all). Then came the Fox fanfare, and the brassy blast of John Williams’ familiar opening theme.
As soon as the iconic opening crawl began, some old jackass walked into the row directly in front of us, stopped, and began flicking his damn cigarette lighter to find an empty seat. I remember several people literally shouting at him to “SIT DOWN!” He then found a seat, but the opening crawl was kinda ruined for me at that point.
Order was soon restored to the galaxy… for now.
The opening scene of Vader (and his spiffy new shuttle) boarding the as-yet-incomplete Death Star was a good start, but even then, a cynical part of my brain was thinking, “another Death Star?” Really? Three years to come up with something new, and this is all they’ve got? But I kept such feelings (to paraphrase Obi Wan) ‘buried deep inside’ of me; such cynical thoughts did me credit, but they could be made to ruin the movie.
We then see R2-D2 (the late Kenny Baker) and C3PO (Anthony Daniels) conversing as they walk toward’s Jabba’s palace. The moment is nice enough, but very familiar. Once again, the Star Wars saga is back on Tatooine…taking us to places we’d already been as an audience. This wouldn’t be the last time this happens in the film, either.
Then came the seemingly interminable, overly-complicated rescue of the frozen Han Solo from Jabba’s palace.
After six years of rumors, and only a glimpse of Irish actor Declan Mulholland in a deleted scene from SW77 (seen in a “Star Wars” CBS-TV special), this was to be our first ‘real’ look at the notorious Hutt gangster.
While Jabba himself was an impressive sight, many of the other puppets–er, creatures in Jabba’s palace looked a bit silly. Maybe it was my precocious 16-year old brain at work, but they seemed very unconvincing. I still remember a guy sitting behind me saying (loud enough to get a few laughs), “This looks like a damn Muppet movie!” While I said nothing then, I was silently agreeing with him.
The creatures in SW77’s cantina sequence were convincing mainly because they were photographed in a smoky, dimly-lit room and were used mostly in quick cuts. But the creatures in Jabba’s palace were shot very plainly and in somewhat longer takes that revealed them to be, well… muppets.
Leia poses as an alien bounty hunter with Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) as her quarry in an effort to gain entry into Jabba’s palace. Once inside, she sneaks off and frees Han Solo from his carbonite slab and it promptly captured (this is all part of the ‘plan,’ mind you...).
Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Princess Leia’s new wardrobe in this sequence. After Leia is captured, she is forced by Jabba to wear a metallic ’slave bikini.’ And yes, that costume made many kids around my age feel a bit ‘funny’ inside (including myself…hey, I was 16, give me a break). While I long admired the Leia character, I felt it was beneath her to have to wear that getup. It wasn’t so much sexy as it was a symbol of enslavement, and there’s nothing sexy about that. The late Carrie Fisher (still miss her) looked more embarrassed in that sequence than titillating. The only time I felt the ‘real’ Princess Leia come back was when she strangled Jabba the Hutt to death with his own chains. That was the Leia I knew and admired; the woman who’d grab a blaster and take care of the stormtroopers herself. She was a princess, but she was rarely a damsel-in-distress, and that was one of the things I loved about the character so much. By putting her in that bondage-bikini, they turned her from a sexy, independent freedom fighter into a sex object. That move felt wrong for a Star Wars movie. In fact, Leia seems somewhat detached throughout “Return of the Jedi.” Fisher reads her lines and goes through her paces in a somnambulistic way. It’s a long fall from the spirited, feisty and moving performance we saw of her in “The Empire Strikes Back”; where her declaration of “I love you” to Han brings tears to your eyes, it’s so good.
Back to the movie…
Newly minted-Jedi Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) comes to parlay for Han’s release (in full Jedi robes now) and is also captured. He is forced to fight a giant pit monster pet of Jabba’s called a “Rancor” (a nice bit of stop-motion by Phil Tippet). In a sequence worthy of the best Ray Harryhausen movies, Luke fells the best, but is captured.
Following his capture, Luke is sentenced to die along with Solo and the others. Their deaths will take place within the gullet of the living “Sarlacc” pit, which is appears to be a giant living sphincter buried among the dunes of the Tatooine desert. Deeply disturbing on multiple levels…
After a protracted battle aboard hovering skiffs in the Tatooine desert (shot in Arizona), the rebels finally rescue Han (Harrison Ford), who also comes off as bored throughout the movie. Some of his line deliveries were really flat (“Hey, Luke. Thanks for coming after me. I owe you one”). Like Fisher, Ford seems to not be taking the movie as seriously as he did the previous two. I knew that these actors were capable of much stronger performances (Ford’s magnificent “Witness” was only a couple years away), but here they just seemed to stop giving a damn.
Cut to the first truly pleasant surprise of the movie; the arrival of Emperor Palpatine (the wonderfully hammy Ian McDiarmid) aboard Death Star II. He enters the movie much like Margaret Hamilton’s Wicked Witch in “The Wizard of Oz”; as a blast of pure, unmitigated, unfiltered evil to shake things up. Even in this brief introductory scene, he smiles a wicked grin, recites his dialogue in a menacing croaking tone, and cackles up a storm. He is the only actor in the entire film who seems to be genuinely enjoying himself, despite acting under a ton of old age prosthetics, yellow contact lenses and heavy dark robes. While he doesn’t resemble or sound like the Emperor we briefly saw in “Empire” (pre-Special Edition fixes), it doesn’t matter. McDiarmid’s version of the character is a welcome blast of pure energy into an otherwise sagging space opera. Luckily, we see a lot more of him later on…
After the rescue of Han, Luke (Mark Hamill) fulfills his promise to return to Yoda on Dagobah and complete his Jedi training, but Yoda drops a bombshell on him; the 900-year old Jedi master is dying. Yoda’s pending death is an announcement with very little dramatic weight, since we saw the equally ‘dead’ Obi Wan Kenobi come back as a force-ghost in “Empire” (and in “Return”). Yoda dies, and disappears.
Luke then has a man-to-ghost chat with the returning (but noticeably older) ghost of Obi Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness). We learn that Leia is Luke’s sister, and for some reason all I think was “Ewwwwww!!” Luke had a crush on Leia for two movies. They even shared a long, passionate kiss in the Hoth medical bay in “Empire,” and now he finds out she’s his sister?!? This was more like a plot twist out of a Farrelly Brothers movie than “Star Wars.” Personally, I didn’t buy for one second that creator George Lucas had planned this ’twist’ all along.
We seen cut back to the rebel fleet, which is planning another attack on the new Death Star, which is orbiting a forest moon of the planet Endor (contrary to popular myth, the planet is not Endor itself).
The briefing is held by rebel leader Mon Mothma (originally played by Carol Blakiston). While I liked the Mothma character (and I certainly welcomed her return in “Rogue One”, where she was played by Genevieve O’Reilly) I felt that it should’ve been rebel leader Leia giving the briefing. Leia, was (I assumed) the leader of the Rebellion; she did the mission briefing duties prior to the AT-AT walker attack on Hoth, and now it felt like she was being demoted somehow. But at least we had another prominent, strong woman character in the Star Wars universe… which was a rarity in those pre-Rey days of 1983.
Han, Leia and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) then volunteer to take a captured Imperial shuttle to the Endor moon to try to sabotage the shield generator protecting Death Star II, so that the rebel fleet can wipe out the new battle station. Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) will take the Millennium Falcon (his old ship) to lead the fleet’s charge against the Death Star itself.
What was missing for me with Han and Lando was resolution to what happened to them on Cloud City. We never saw that moment of dramatic fireworks between the two; there was no moment of lingering anger and reconciliation. Instead, the two are just old friends again; it was as though Cloud City had never happened. A missed opportunity.
Luke then crashes the briefing, and volunteers to go on the shuttle with Han, Leia and Chewie and the droids. Leia asks, “What’s wrong?” And Luke enigmatically answers, “Ask me again sometime.” Did it suddenly ‘get weird’ between them? And why does Luke feel that Leia, who has demonstrated considerable strength at every turn, suddenly would’t be able to handle the news of their being related?
I’ve always felt that making Luke and Leia brother and sister always felt like a dramatic cheat. They could’ve resolved the love triangle with Luke simply realizing that Leia loved Han, and that he was committed to the Jedi teachings. That would’ve worked better than a vaguely incestuous pining for his long-lost sister (!).
With the team ready, the stolen shuttle is launched, jumps to hyperspace and seemingly bluffs its way past the Vader-led Imperial blockade over the Endor moon. Vader, of course, realizes that Luke is among the assault team, and allows it to land.
Once on the forest moon of Endor, there is an exciting and spectacular “speeder-bike” chase between the rebels and Imperial troopers through the giant Californian redwood trees. After that white-knuckle sequence, the movie makes an ill-advised left turn towards cuteness with the discovery of the Ewoks…who are essentially a tribe of spear-wielding teddy bears.
Of the multitudinous creatures seen in the Star Wars universe, the Ewoks (the name is never mentioned onscreen) are arguably the least imaginative. Even at 16 years old, I found myself involuntarily looking for the zippers on their backs. Their glassy, immobile eyes gave them a vaguely dead-eyed gaze (and no, the Special Edition’s ‘fix’ of giving them CGI blinking didn’t help, either…). These weren’t aliens of a far away galaxy…these were Care Bears. The Ewoks were lazy, dull, uninspired merchandising opportunities rather than intriguing new allies in the Star Wars universe.
After the Ewoks initially capture and threaten to cook our heroes, Luke uses the force to make C3PO hover…scaring the already superstitious Ewoks into believing that he’s a god (a definite Star Trek no-no).
Once freed from their diminutive captors, Leia and Luke have a moment where Luke finally tells her the truth of their shared parentage. Leia says she knows…somehow she always knew (yet she kissed him fully on the lips, for what seemed like forever on Hoth). Luke then tells her he is going off to confront their father, Vader (interestingly, ‘Vader’ is Dutch for ’father’). Han walks in on them as Luke leaves, and assumes that Leia is still pining for Luke. Han doesn’t realize that Luke is her brother, and of course she doesn’t tell him either (?!).
This part of the movie feels like one of those stupid sitcoms where a huge and unnecessarily complicated misunderstanding would be immediately undone if one character simply talked to the other. But of course, they don’t because…movie.
It is around this time that the action cuts between three distinct arcs; the rebel assault team/Ewoks on the Endor moon, Vader & Luke’s confrontation with Emperor Palpatine, and Lando leading the rebel forces to attack Death Star II.
Of the three, the Palpatine arc is by far the most interesting; with Vader taking his son to face his destiny with Emperor Palpatine.
Ian McDiarmid just plays the hell out of these moments, too. Words drip from his wrinkled mouth like toxic honey, as he tries to lure newly-minted Jedi Luke to the dark side of the force, much the same way he lured his father Anakin Skywalker (Vader’s true name) years before; preying upon Luke’s own fear of losing his friends and loved ones. In this case, provoking Luke to react aggressively at the imminent destruction facing his friends both on the Endor moon and on the incoming rebel fleet. Luke takes the bait and calls his lightsaber to his waiting hand…and it immediately clashes with Vader’s. Palpatine is loving it, of course…and so is the audience, since McDiarmid is clearly having a great time.
The attacking rebel fleet are being cut to pieces as the attacking forces realize the Death Star’s shield is still up, inspiring the fish-like Admiral Ackbar’s classic line, “It’s a TRAP!” The late Erik Bauersfield reprised of the voice of Ackbar in both “The Force Awakens” and “The Last Jedi” (where his character was unceremoniously killed off in a redshirt-like death).
Vader and Luke continue their lightsaber duel aboard Death Star II, with Luke showing a bit more expertise than his previous (and arguably more dramatic) confrontation with Vader in “Empire.” Palpatine is pitting father against son, with the winner getting gaining his favor.
The battle on Endor heats up as well. At this point we’re supposed to believe that the teddy bear Ewoks bring down the Empire’s finest troops using rocks and slings, as well as magically cut, strategically placed logs used to impale passing Imperial scout walkers that just happen to walk by at a precisely-timed moment. The implausibilities (even for a space fantasy) begin to stack up higher and higher after this point.
If only the writers (George Lucas, Lawrence Kasdan) had stuck to the earlier drafts of the script. In earlier drafts, the Ewoks were Wookiees. A battle-royale between an army of Wookiees and stormtroopers would’ve been far more cinematic and exciting than a bunch of teddy bears pelting fully armed (and armored) troopers to death with rocks.
The lightsaber duel climaxes as Luke coaxes Luke by sensing (and using) the thoughts of his “sssister” against him. Vader has found Luke’s achilles’ heel, and Luke flies into a raging fury against him. In a moment that feels more like it belongs in “Empire”, Luke aggressively hacks away at Vader, forcing him onto a chasm’s ledge (there’s always a ridiculously high precipice in these locales) as he lops off Vader’s bionic right hand. Vader is beaten. Luke freezes, as he looks at his own mechanical right hand and realizes he’s going down the same path as his father. He stops, turns off his lightsaber and tosses it. In so many words, he tells Palpatine to go stuff himself. Luke will not be turned. He is a Jedi.
Han and Leia’s assault team, after some setbacks, ultimately succeed in destroying the shield generator on the moon’s surface. Death Star II is now defenseless (well, except for its super-lasers, which eliminate multiple ships in the rebel fleet…). Lando’s fleet flies in for the kill.
Despite the redundancy of the rebel fleet attacking yet another Death Star in a blatant repeat of the climax of SW77, the motion-control miniature effects work and dazzling battle choreography is truly stunning. The final rebel assault on Death Star II in “Return” include some of the best visual effects work in the Star Wars saga at that point. It’s dazzling optical work, and holds up even today in the age of CGI-dominated visual effects. Serious kudos to those at Industrial Light and Magic, who earned a special Oscar for their work in “Return.” They yielded such amazing results using opticals and motion control miniatures; both of which are essentially dying art forms these days.
Cut to the Emperor’s throne room.
Palpatine, realizing Luke won’t budge, begins zapping him with ‘force-lightning.’ Luke pleads for his father to save him. Vader does. His innate love for his son turns him from ‘the dark side’ as Vader, or rather Anakin Skywalker, grabs Palpatine and tosses his imperious ass down the chasm.
For some reason, Vader simply picking the Emperor up like a sack of potatoes and tossing him away like so much garbage felt a mite undignified to me. I kept thinking, wouldn’t it have been much cooler if Vader had used his one remaining hand to summon Luke’s lightsaber and behead Palpatine as his attention was on Luke? That just seemed like a more fitting, quasi-regal death than just picking up Palpatine and pitching him like a robed medicine ball, but sure, whatever.
Palpatine’s death at the bottom of the core releases a giant cloud of blue-energy which, I always assumed, was the full power of the dark side of the force unleashed (?). A disbelieving Luke rushes to his father’s side, as Anakin was mortally wounded by Palpatine’s bolts of force-energy. Luke then drags dear old dad to a hangar bay, as he plans to steal a shuttle and escape Death Star II, as repeated assaults by the rebels cause it to fall apart.
Per his dying father’s request, Luke removes the Vader mask to reveal a bald, pale, vulnerable older man (the late Sebastian Shaw) who just wants to see his son just once with his own eyes. He says to Luke,“tell your sister…you were right (about me),” and dies. It’s one of the best moments in the film.
In short order, Lando and rebel X-wing pilot Wedge Antilles (Denis Lawson, uncle of future prequel Obi Wan, Ewan McGregor) fly into Death Star II’s core, fire proton torpedoes into its main reactor, and get the hell out of Dodge as the station begins to explode (it explodes a hell of a lot slower than it did in SW77, by the way…). The remaining rebels flee, as does Luke in a stolen Imperial shuttle, just as Death Star II blows up in the skies over the moon of Endor.
On Endor, Leia senses Luke’s escape and finally tells Han the truth. All is well.
Luke returns, and burns Vader/Anakin’s corpse on a Jedi funeral pyre.
Since this was 1983 version of the movie and not the 1997/2004 Special Editions, the celebration of the Empire’s fall was just a fireworks show over the skies of Endor as the rebels and Ewoks have a big treehouse party. Luke waves to the force-ghosts of Yoda, Obi-Wan and Anakin Skywalker (the Sebastian Shaw version, not the Hayden Christensen model. Christensen would’ve been all of two years old at this point).
Luke joins Leia, Han, Lando, Chewie and the droids at the party.
I still remember going to school the next morning (after about an hour and a half of sleep) and I found that many of my classmates had seen the movie opening night as well. They’re impressions of the film were very different than mine. Most of my classmates were going on about the cool special effects and the nifty speeder bike chase (on those points, I agreed with them), but on nearly everything else? I felt like I’d seen a different movie.
They liked the muppets at Jabba’s palace, I thought they looked silly. They were awed by the second Death Star, I thought it was redundant. They loved the Ewoks, I hated them. They thought the Emperor’s death was cool, I thought it was undignified.
I was also adamant that the much-ballyhooed, ‘legendary’ bounty hunter Boba Fett (Jeremy Bulloch) went out like a punk. None of my friends seemed to care.
Summing it up.
These days, I don’t quite feel so bitter towards the movie as I did back in 1983.
In fact, I still get a kick out of the speeder bike chase through the woods. Yes, the closeups of the actors in that scene look very processed, but the POV shots (racing and darting between giant redwood trunks) are dizzying. It ranks as one of most exciting sequences in the original trilogy.
The scenes with Luke, Vader and the Emperor aboard Death Star II are simply the best in the film, no question. Those moments have the kind of gravitas and power that is otherwise lacking throughout much of “Return.” And despite the generally lackluster acting of the main cast, Ian McDiarmid is clearly having the time of his life (and career).
The optical effects of “Return” are still staggering to behold, especially when Pepsi-challenged against the far easier-to-create computer generated visuals of today. That final, motion-controlled battle in, around and through the innards of Death Star II are still spectacular. Death Star II’s fiery destruction is still a lot of fun, even if it is a redundant retread of the Death Star’s destruction in SW77.
While I still believe that the late Richard Marquand’s direction was largely uninspired, it was also rumored that George Lucas was over his shoulder for much of the shoot, so I doubt there was much room for dramatic experimentation on Marquand’s part.
I also saw “Return” in rerelease back in 1997 when the Special Editions came out, and of course in 2004 when it finally came to DVD. There were some variations in the visual effects, as well as a somewhat obnoxious new song number added for the already overlong Jabba’s palace sequence. The biggest changes were saved for the very end.
The Ewoks’ somewhat infamous ‘yub-nub’ celebratory song was replaced with a new, more fittingly Star Wars-sounding theme from John Williams. The newer version also included scenes celebrating the Emperor’s fall on other worlds throughout the Star Wars galaxy (with cuts to Tatooine, Naboo, Cloud City and Coruscant). While I wasn’t terribly fond of replacing Sebastian Shaw’s ‘ghost-Anakin’ with Hayden Christensen’s, I understood why it was done (for the sake of the prequels).
In the 35 years since its initial release, there have been worse entries in the Star Wars cinematic saga (“Attack of the Clones” is still my least-favorite of the bunch).
So while “Return of the Jedi” wasn’t quite the Star Wars sequel I’d looked so forward to at age 16? I’ve since made my peace with it. I also now realize that it wasn’t the end of the Star Wars cinematic universe. There would be other Star Wars movies (and TV shows) down the road; some successful, some not.
Among these newer sequels and prequels, “Return of the Jedi” has settled into a comfortable, ‘middle-of-the-road’ Star Wars movie for me, with a some truly exceptional moments.
“Return of the Jedi” is not among the very best of Star Wars, but it’s also far from the worst.