“You must face Darth Vader again”: Returning to “Return of the Jedi”…

“Help me take this mask off.”

A few years ago, I wrote a somewhat snarky, old guy-perspective of “Return of the Jedi,” and while I still stand by most of my criticisms of the movie (unoriginal story beats, a second Death Star, etc), I think what I needed now was to see the movie again with fresh eyes.

During the earlier months of the pandemic, I realized we probably weren’t going to the movies for a long time (I still haven’t in fact, as of this writing). After inspiration from our friend Alison, my wife and I bought an at-home digital projector with which to hold our own big screen movie nights here at the homestead. I fell in love with this gadget instantly. Especially after buying a collapsible 7 ft. screen on which to show our movies (I quickly realized our house didn’t have enough bare walls to support the device!). I’ve since rewatched many of my favorites this way, and even streamed a few new ones as well (“Wonder Woman 1984” “The Midnight Sky” “Stowaway”). In fact, I haven’t really missed going out to the movies at all. Enter my friends Kathy and Adam and their 9 and a half year old Star Wars super-fan son, Joshua. As vaccinations began to happen en masse in our part of the United States, I got the idea to hold special ‘garage theater’ screenings of the original Star Wars trilogy for Joshua, since the poor kid has never experienced them on a scale larger than a TV set.

Just a snippet of video I took during our “Empire…” screening. If you didn’t know better, you might think I snuck this during a genuine theatrical screening. With the lights off in the garage, and all of us sunk into our thickly padded lawn chairs, it was very close to the ‘real thing.’

So around March of this year, we decided to screen “Star Wars” (1977) for Joshua and his folks in our garage, followed two months later by “The Empire Strikes Back” in honor of ‘May the 4th.’ Our ‘May the 4th’ night this year was pure magic (technically it was May the 1st, due to work/school restrictions, but close enough…). Watching “The Empire Strikes Back” on the large screen, in the dark, on comfortable chairs in our ‘garage theater’ (popcorn & other snacks included) felt even closer to the theatrical experience than I imagined. As was custom since our March screening of the first film, Joshua brought his toy lightsabers for an impromptu post-movie lightsaber duel. Even if Joshua never sees these landmark movies of my own childhood in a ‘real’ theater, I think he more than got the gist of what watching them theatrically truly felt like back in the 1970s and early 1980s. Not to mention that the popcorn was a lot cheaper (free) and restroom breaks were only a ‘pause’ button away.

An eager Joshua couldn’t wait for the end credits to finish rolling on “A New Hope” before he broke out the lightsabers…

After our screening of “Empire”, we immediately make plans for “Return of the Jedi” near the end of May, and everything was good to go… except for two little things; our house and the weather.

“I tell you, this station will be operational as planned.”

Well, soon after that night, my wife noticed a strange hissing sound behind one of our walls; sounded as if somewhere in the house a water tap was on, except that it wasn’t. We’d experienced this twice before in our troubled little house—it was a water leak, and it was coming from the slab underneath our house. The previous two times we had slab leaks (in the kitchen and hallway) were very expensive, time-consuming disasters to repair. We were determined to never have a leaky slab ever again. We then decided to have all of our house’s plumbing rerouted through the attic and through the walls. No more inaccessible subterranean plumbing for our home. Using savings accrued during the COVID pandemic (we weren’t going to conventions, movies or even taking vacations for a year and a half) we hired contractors to reroute all our plumbing and even install a new insta-hot water heater for our kitchen sink (which used to take an eternity to heat up). Unfortunately, our house’s existing electrical grid wasn’t able to accommodate the new heater, so we had a new direct-electrical line wired into the kitchen all the way from the fuse box outside. Our ‘garage theater’ was now a bustling command center for the army of contractors working on our house. All of the plumbing/electrical work, including drywall repair and repainting, took just shy of three weeks. Needless to say, “Return of the Jedi” night was effectively cancelled.

Note: “…Jedi” night/Jedi knight…hehe.

“No…there is another.”

Well, last weekend, our fully repaired house was up-and-running. Everything works perfectly. We decided to continue the Star Wars streak we began in March and finally watch “Return of the Jedi” as originally planned. Of course, we then had a monstrous heat wave hit this past week. Temperatures jumped over the triple digits a few times (about 104 F/40 C), and then simmered back into the mid-90s. Our little garage became an oven. Even with the garage blinds fully blocked (as I usually do for our movie nights) and two fans running (an improvisation I rigged up in desperation), the garage ambient temperature was still too high. It also felt kind of ridiculous to risk heat stroke in the garage when our house’s air-conditioning was first rate. Problem is, the projector doesn’t work very well in our too-bright living room, even with the lights off (and especially in the summer, when sunlight seems to stream in to every nook and cranny of our house). That said, I didn’t want to break my promise, so I thought of a fallback plan…what if I swallowed my pride a bit and we just screened the movie on our smallish (43″/109 cm) living room TV, instead? We’d still turn down the lights and have fresh popcorn (I’d even make homemade pizzas), except that the movie itself would be on a smaller screen than we’d originally planned. Everyone agreed, and so “Return of the Jedi” night was back on—-we were just moving it from the Egyptian Theatre down the hallway to the smaller multiplex screen in our living room.

Death Star II: Electric Boogaloo.

******STAR DESTROYER-SIZED SPOILERS!!******

So, we settled in on the couches (we’re all vaccinated, save for Joshua, who’s not quite old enough) and started the show; I haven’t seen “Return of the Jedi” all the way through for years, so this was a memory refresher for me as well.

Every Star Wars movie of the original trilogy started off with a shot of an Imperial star destroyer… why mess with tradition?

First thing that was immediately noticeable was the sound. As carried through our entertainment center’s receiver, soundbar and subwoofer, the sound had a lot more kick than the Bluetooth speakers we used for our digital projector. Since my wife and I rarely watch TV anymore, I’d forgotten just how well our 10-year old Sony sound system performed. When the Imperial star destroyer came into view with Death Star II on the horizon, the low end rumble made our living room walls vibrate a bit. Once again, I’d forgotten how much punch our old Sony sound system had to it. Of course, the landing in Death Star II was followed by Darth Vader (Dave Prowse, voice of James Earl Jones) bullying Admiral Jerjerrod (Michael Pennington). I was periodically glancing over at Joshua to vicariously experience the movie as he saw it, and he was fully immersed.

Note: When I say my wife and I rarely watch TV these days, I mean that we stream most of our content on iPads or our computers, save for the occasional movie night with the digital projector.

Leia (Carrie Fisher) has a ‘f—k with me and find out’ moment with her soon-to-be-dead-as-roast-beef captor, Jabba the Hutt.

While I still feel the entire rescue sequence of the de-carbonized Han Solo (Harrison Ford) from Jabba’s palace goes on far too long, I was noticing some minor details this time around, such as the CGI creatures added to the extended musical number (for the 1997 edition) before Jabba’s green dancer is fed to the Rancor beast. The singing creatures added in the scene’s post-production (like the little screaming hirsute creature whose tonsils we see up-close and personal), looked terribly phony—even on our little 43″ TV. Once again, this was an adult observation. Joshua was wearing an ear-to-ear grin the whole time. He also got a kick out of C3PO (Anthony Daniels) and his antics with R2D2 (the late Kenny Baker). While I’ve always believed Star Wars to be multigenerational entertainment, some of its sillier, more Muppet-ish elements (Ewoks, Porgs and yes, even Jar Jar Binks) go over very well with younger members of the audience. Then again, when I saw “Star Wars” at age 10, I really loved the Jawas—which were no more than little persons and children with cloaks and dark masks.

The destruction of the the skiff packed a lot more thunder on our TV’s old sound system.

I also noticed (for the first time) that the heavy-duty window blinds on Jabba’s sail barge reminded me very much of Don Corleone’s office in “The Godfather” (1972); such subtle influences make sense since Francis Ford Coppola mentored the young George Lucas early in his career (see: THX-1138” {1971} ). Another scene that seemed have more oomph than I remember was the destruction of Jabba’s sail barge just before the departure from Tatooine. Our old Sony’s subwoofer really went to town as Jabba’s barge and skiff exploded, just when Luke (Mark Hamill), Leia, Solo and Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) sail off to safety. Joshua giggled aloud when he saw the droids’ legs sticking out from the sands of Tatooine. His giggling made me smile as well—it’s a vicarious thrill to see kids enjoying these movies, as I remember just how much fun Star Wars was when I was a kid (and as an adult).

“Bury your feelings deep inside, Luke…especially those weird feelings you had about your sister.”

Next came the scenes with Emperor Palpatine (a then-38 year old Ian McDiarmid) arriving aboard Death Star II, followed by the reunion of Yoda (Frank Oz), Luke and Obi Wan Kenobi (Sir Alec Guinness) on Dagobah, where Obi Wan finally comes clean about Luke’s lineage. Some great moments, even if Obi Wan’s backpedaling still sounds like backpedaling, and Dagobah looks a lot less ‘real’ than it did in “Empire…” In fact, the lighting of the rebuilt Dagobah set is much more theatrical. No matter. Joshua certainly didn’t seem to notice or care…he was glued to the screen as Obi Wan told Luke all about his “twin sister” Leia (I might’ve let slip a sotto voce joke or two about Luke passionately kissing his sister in the last movie—my bad!).

Mon Mothma (Caroline Blakiston) rallies the troops, including C3PO, Leia, Han, Chewie and Lando.

It was during the relatively low-key Rebel briefing scene aboard the command cruiser that I quietly asked Joshua if he wanted some popcorn. He nodded, and my obliging wife jumped on over to the kitchen to make some. A short while later, Mon Mothma (Caroline Blakiston), Admiral Ackbar (the late Erik Bauersfield) and General Nadine (Dermot Crowley) delivered their plan of attack against Death Star II. I whispered to Joshua’s mother, Kathy (a friend of mine for over 30 years) that Chewbacca (the late Peter Mayhew) seemed to have much bigger hair in this movie than he did in the previous two. She replied without missing a beat, “He had ’80s hair.” Gave me a good guffaw. This is why Star Wars is best enjoyed with friends as well as their kids…

“Get your motor run-ning! Head out onto En-dor! Lookin’ for ad-ven-ture…”

Shortly afterward came our heroes’ arrival on Endor (also called the fourth moon/”forest moon” of Endor–even the characters goof this one up). I think the Endor scenes were Joshua’s favorite moments because he’s a very outdoors-y kid. Every time his parents bring him over, we usually make a beeline to the park up the street first, or to the smaller playground on the corner from our house. The oppressive heatwave we felt earlier in the day nixed that idea for now, but I could see Joshua vicariously enjoying the greenery of Endor (oh, to hell with it—it’s just Endor now). Soon came what is still one of my favorite scenes in the entire movie; the dizzying speeder-bike forest chase between Luke, Leia and some deeply unlucky Imperial scout troopers. The frenetic camerawork (shot in slow motion as a camera operator walked through the Northern California redwoods), combined with the high-pitched whining of the speeder-bike engines injects a lot of energy into the movie’s middle act.

Note: The cinematographer for “Return of the Jedi” was Alan Hume, who also shot one of my all-time favorite haunted house movies; 1973’s “The Legend of Hell House”.

C3PO (Anthony Daniels) is mistaken for a god by the Ewoks. The one time the poor protocol droid gets some respect in these movies, and it’s under false pretenses…

This was the greatest moment of divergence between ol’ cynical me and 9-year old fan, Joshua—the Ewoks. I remember reviewing “Return of the Jedi” for my school newspaper back in 1983 and calling them teddy bears with zippers on their backs. Watching them now through a kid’s perspective changes things for me, because Joshua absolutely loves the Ewoks. He even has a dog at home named “Wicket” (after the lead Ewok played in turns by Warwick Davis and Felix Silla). Little kids relate to the Ewoks because, in many ways, they are the Ewoks. Both are often dismissed (or underestimated) by adults for their small size. In fact, these diminutive ‘teddy bears’ are underestimated by just about everyone, at first. The Empire (who blithely occupy their planet without a second thought) and even the Rebels don’t take the Ewoks too seriously when they first encounter them. The Ewoks are believed to be simple ‘primitives’ (C3PO’s description of their dialect), but we soon learn these furry little tree dwellers are cunning soldiers, masters of improvisation (they boobytrap an entire forest overnight) and they fully understand the concept of self-sacrifice. Ewoks are how children see themselves—fully cognizant adults in smaller bodies. Kids don’t regard their feelings and issues as any less important to those of adults (nor should they). Likewise, the Ewoks don’t regard themselves as cutesy, highly marketable fur balls thrown in for quasi-comic relief. The Ewoks make formidable enemies too, just as Joshua wields a pretty mean toy lightsaber! Kids yearn to be the half-pint heroes who come to rescue the adults. For this reason, Ewoks are a perfect children’s hero-fulfillment fantasy. After 38 years, I feel as though I finally get the Ewoks.

Note: I did have a nagging critique of the scene where the Ewoks mistook C3PO as a deity; the Ewoks became instantly worshipful of him when he appears, yet they ignore his request to release his friends from being the main course at his tributary banquet. If they worshipped C3PO so blindly, why didn’t they listen to his demand? You’d think a ‘demonstration’ of C3PO’s ‘powers’ (Luke making his chariot float) would’ve been unnecessary if they truly ‘worshipped’ him as a god…

Luke and Vader’s lightsabers looked a little weird in the 2004 DVD release–their once-white hot centers look a bit smudged. And what’s up with that darkened, hand-rotoscoped blob near Palpatine’s right eye?

Next came the scenes with Emperor Palpatine trying to lure “young Skywalker” to the dark side of the force to take his father’s place. These scenes are the most “Empire Strikes Back”-ish of the movie, and since “Empire…” is my favorite Star Wars movie of them all, you can understand why they resonate so strongly with me. When I was younger, I used to think Ian McDiarmid overplayed the role of Palpatine a bit. But as an adult, I now see exactly what he was doing—he was making the role larger than life. Looking back at it now, I realize that he had to do this, because Palpatine is Ground Zero for all evil in the Star Wars universe. You can’t underplay that. It has to be broad, and it has to be theatrical. I’m also reminded of how Margaret Hamilton dialed up her “Wicked Witch of the West” in “The Wizard of Oz” (1939); she too, had to be the dark counterweight to all of that movie’s magic and wonder. Same with McDiarmid’s Palpatine in the Star Wars universe. Kids are small, so they have to look up to everything. Everyday people and spaces all feel bigger to them; so it should be with their movie villains as well…

Thanksgivings at the Vader household always end up like this…

During the lightsaber duel between Luke and Darth Vader, Joshua would eye his dad mischievously at times, as if he was thinking, “Careful dad…you’re next!” I’m sure he was already planning some moves for the post-movie lightsaber duel—a tradition we began when we saw “A New Hope” together back in March. The scenes of Vader ultimately redeeming himself by saving his son’s life are dramatically heightened by composer John Williams’ chorus-backed score–a foreshadowing of his transcendent “Duel of the Fates” track for “Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace”. John Williams is a world treasure.

Note: Putting my adult cap back on for just a moment, I still have a major problem with Vader being redeemed so easily after his actions in the prequels. I don’t care if he saved his own flesh and blood son, and I don’t care what George Lucas says—Vader’s slaughtering of innocent children is beyond redemption (the young Jedi padawans in “Revenge of the Sith”), let alone his standing idly by while Governor Tarkin (Peter Cushing) obliterated millions of innocent people on Alderaan in “A New Hope.” Those acts are irredeemable. He doesn’t deserve to return as a force-ghost, let alone partying with Obi-Wan and Yoda in the afterlife, or coming back looking like Hayden Christensen. The sombitch should’ve roasted in Force-Hell for slaying innocent children. End of mini-rant.

“For the world is hollow…” No wait–that’s the other space opera franchise; you know, Star Track.

Perhaps my biggest regret of the evening was not being able to watch the final Death Star II attack on the 7 ft. screen as originally planned. Personally, I was really looking forward to seeing the stunning Industrial Light & Magic miniature work in as large a format as possible—especially as the various offensive spacecraft zip through the narrowing tunnels of the Death Star II’s infrastructure at breakneck speeds. 38 years later, it’s still a dazzling piece of miniature and optical work. It just broke my heart a little that we didn’t experience it on the larger screen (though it still looked quite vivid—even on our smallish 43″ TV). Joshua seemed perfectly okay with it, either way. Joshua’s father Adam and I were doing dueling impressions of Nien Nunb’s laugh, which, even today, is absolutely hilarious. My state has legalized marijuana, and though I don’t partake, I can only imagine how much funnier Nien Nunb’s laugh would’ve been through a filter of ‘herbal essence’.

Animal House: The Ewoks party down with Lando, Chewie, Han, R2-D2, Leia, Luke and C3PO.

Death Star II explodes (the aftermath of which is seen in 2019’s “Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker”). Vader’s remains are set ablaze in a Jedi funeral pyre. Spontaneous galaxy-wide celebrations break out on the planets Bespin, Tatooine, Naboo and Coruscant. Luke sees the force-ghosts of Yoda, Obi-Wan and Hayden Christensen. Our heroes party on with their newfound Ewok allies. Since we watched the Special Edition, that meant no “Yub-Nub” song. I didn’t miss it–at all.

The End.

Roll credits…

Note: Still not fond of actor Sebastian Shaw’s Anakin Skywalker force-ghost being replaced with Hayden Christensen. That’s all I’ll say about it for this column. Grrrrr…!

The afterglow after show.

Well, no Star Wars party with our friend’s son would be complete without a nice duel of lightsabers. Since we didn’t have the more spacious garage in which to pretend to slice off limbs, we decided to take the action to the playground on the corner of our little suburban block. This was after 9 pm, so the heat had broken, and it was much cooler now. The playground also has trees, grass, and a climbable playhouse…very Endor.

Joshua striking his best young-Obi Wan pose against his poor defenseless mom!

After a few ‘aggressive negotiations’ with the toy lightsabers, one of the sabers gave out. Joshua remembered he had a stick of bamboo in the car (don’t ask…kids save the oddest things) and so he came back with yet another weapon to brandish. During the festivities, Joshua, his dad and his mother would alternate between one working lightsaber, one dead lightsaber and a staff of bamboo (as you do). Few can ever fault a child for lacking either imagination or ingenuity, right? When I was a kid, we fashioned toys out of whatever was handy, so it’s nice to see this childhood rite of passage continue.

“No, I am your father!” Joshua challenges his pop with his ‘dark saber.’ Literally dark, because it stopped working…

Soon, it was near 10 pm, and time for Joshua to hit the hay. His parents put up the swords and we exchanged a few vaccinated hugs before parting ways for the night. Another successful Star Wars night was enjoyed, even if the screen was only a fraction of what it was for the previous two Star Wars nights. Though perhaps, with a decent sound system, a few snacks, some good friends and a few lightsaber toys (or facsimiles of them), it doesn’t really matter. The movie, enjoyed through the eyes of a 9 year old kid, was magic enough—no matter the size of the screen (“Size matters not!” Despite a few setbacks, the force was still strong in our house that night.

While the first two films of the original Star Wars trilogy may have had a bit more sophistication to them (particularly “Empire Strikes Back”), “Return of the Jedi” has more moments specifically aimed at kids. Or perhaps, more accurately, those little moments that are meant to bring out the kid in all of us.

Safe Viewing Options.

The Star Wars movies are, of course, all available to stream on DisneyPlus, as are the various TV series such as “The Mandalorian,” “The Bad Batch,” “The Clone Wars,” and “Rebels”. To my readers, I once again wish you and all of your loved ones good health and strength during the current coronavirus pandemic. The current number of COVID-related deaths in the United States are over 600,000 as of this writing.  Meanwhile, several vaccines are available and inoculations are finally widespread (whew!), which is greatly slowing the US mortality rate (though numbers in Brazil and India are spiking dramatically). Given a certain level of vaccine hesitancy, it may take a while longer for eventual herd immunity. Even vaccinated, it may still be possible to catch the coronavirus, though your chances of getting ill from it are slim-to-none.  So, if you haven’t already done so, please get vaccinated as soon as possible and let us immunize our way out of the COVID pandemic.

May the force be with us all!

Images: Disney/Lucasfilm, Author

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