To wrap up the reviews, we turn to the third film released in the series, sixth in the chronology and a guaranteed fanbase-splitter. Return of the Jedi is essentially the second half of The Empire Strikes Back, which unfortunately gives it the great burden of resolving every plotline opened in the previous. Will Han Solo return? Will Princess Leia return to his arms? Will Luke return to Dagobah to complete his training? Will Darth Vader return with the Imperial forces to tempt Luke again? So there really is a lot of returning involved in the story. The title seems like a natural fit. There’s another level to the title as well, with the return not just of the Jedi through Luke, but the return of the fallen Jedi, Vader. The hero returns from the Dark Side thanks to the loving redemption of his son.
Jedi also has to concern itself with resolving the rebellion’s war against the Empire since this is the last film. This winds up complicating Jedi by a fair amount, which plays into the fanbase split over it.
Empire is a much more personal story. Jedi has to sacrifice some of its intimacy for the sake of moving the larger background plot along. Instead of getting a resolution scene between Han and Lando, for instance, we all just have to assume that Chewbacca filled him in that Lando had made moves to redeem himself. Instead of a more intimate reuniting between the three leads at the end, it’s couched within a larger celebration scene.
These are not knocks against the film. In fact, for me it’s what makes it work. The entire story is about resolution and there’s not a plot stone unturned. Vader’s story is both expanded and resolved; everything we knew about him from the previous films is turned on its head when we meet the Emperor (referenced briefly in A New Hope). Though we see him kneel before a hologram in Empire, we actually see someone so unafraid of Vader as to chastise him openly. Moff Jerjerrod actually mouths off to Vader a little bit at the beginning of the film, whereas mere mention of the Emperor makes him practically wet himself.
That was off-putting enough for the producer of the first two, Gary Kurtz, to walk from the production to pursue other projects. According to at least one source I’ve read, Kurtz adamantly disagreed with Lucas diminishing Vader in such a way.
I never had any problem with it. Jedi came to be my favorite of the original three films, largely for a lot of these story aspects. Now that it’s couched in the larger saga of all six films, the story works even better. Again, to draw a comparison to the Lord of the Rings book, I imagine that if you read Return of the King without Fellowship of the Ring, certain story elements would be off-putting. Tom Bombadil once again comes to mind.
What Could Have Worked Better
Most everyone loves to knock on the Ewoks, but they make sense in a certain way. If you look at the Emperor scenes, Jabba the Hutt’s court, the battle at the Sarlacc, Yoda’s death, the revelation of Vader being Luke’s father, Luke nearly going to the Dark Side and the intense action of the space battle, Jedi actually skews darker than Empire. The Ewoks lighten the tone a bit and evoke the Munchkins from Wizard of Oz; Lucas has also said that they’re supposed to evoke the Vietnam war, which seems a little insane.
I also like to throw out there that if you really watch the battle, the Ewoks were getting their asses handed to them until Chewbacca jumped in and took over the AT-ST. Just saying.
The design sensibilities seem a bit off in Jedi, which is unfortunate. The Rebel cruiser briefing room, for instance, is pristinely clean and sterile. The walls are unmarked white. The uniforms are pressed. This reads inconsistent visually with the rest of the rebel forces we’ve ever seen. The cinematography is a bit off on the indoor “outside” sets as well, especially when Luke talks with Leia and Vader. Whether this is because for those scenes they wanted so much secrecy and so had a skeleton crew, I don’t know. I hope that at some point that question gets answered.
I’ll also say that the matte painting of the rebel hangar drives me insane and I wish they’d “Special Edition” it. It’s always bothered me.
The pacing after the escape from Jabba the Hutt is also disjointed. From the gathering at the rebel fleet to Luke’s departure to see Vader, the story feels a little forced, as if they were struggling with how to get the characters where they needed to be. There are some terrific moments, such as the Speeder Bike chase and Vader sensing Luke’s approach to Endor, but the flow is not what it should be.
Special Edition Changes
The improved Sarlacc is a non-event for me. I could have lived without it, I don’t care that it’s there.
The improved celebration montage is exactly that: improved. I never disliked the Ewok celebration, but the new ending actually brings the entire series together and gives a real sense of the scope of the victory. The musical scene at Jabba’s palace, including the extended fate of Oola the green dancer, is another one of those things that I could have lived without, but I like the sense of fun and whimsy attached to it. Also, as much as I have an emotional connection to the song Lapti Nek, it was a terrible 1980s synth-laden workout song, so I’m not one to mourn its passing.
Which brings us to Hayden Christensen’s insert at the end for the 2004 DVD release. I like it and not just to be contrarian as at least two of my friends have accused of me. it rings more true for at least two main reasons. The first is, as a spiritual projection, Anakin is making an effort to show his son what he looked like before he was a hideously disfigured half-machine monster. The second is that, when I “see” relatives who have died, I don’t see them as they were at the end. I see them as the vibrant people of the happy times in my life. I’ve actually blogged about this in greater detail before, in the first blog I ever wrote.
To anticipate a certain counter-argument, Obi-Wan and Yoda knew Luke in life and had a positive influence on him in such a way that there’s no need for them to appear in a way he never knew.
The Final Analysis
As I said earlier, Return of the Jedi came to be my favorite of the original three films. It remains so, thanks to its place in the larger story arc formed by all six. It’s not perfect, but it’s perfect enough. Williams’ theme for the Emperor is freaking awesome, a perfect zombie horror counterpoint to the gentle serenity of Yoda’s theme. The theme actually sounds like the music you’d expect for the Lord of the Undead.
There are missteps in the middle again, as there were with Empire, but Jedi has some moments of editing wizardry that blow my mind to this day. The Battle at the Sarlacc is amazingly perfect; according to notes from the annotated screenplays, the negative processors sent a note back with the final version that said that one sequence contained more cuts than most films. Much like the Factory scene in Attack of the Clones or the desert truck chase in Raiders of the Lost Ark, it holds up as one of the most tightly-edited action sequences ever.
So that’s it. I’ll be taking a break from Star Wars for a little bit now, but I just got a wild hair and promised myself I’d write these this year.
Now I can focus on more important things like beating up on Star Trek fans.