As it has been announced since the Disney acquisition of LucasFilm Ltd, this will, apparently, will not be the chronological end of the Star Wars movie saga after all. A sequel trilogy following the exploits of the original cast is on track for a 2015 release helmed by J.J. Abrams. What will come of a new trilogy remains to be seen, but for the original trilogy, it ended on a very good note even if it lacked a little something. I think this is the one movie of the original trilogy that has declined over time for me. There is so much depth and peril in The Empire Strikes Back that this movie feels a little starved for that, on the whole. Yet, it is still a highly entertaining, rousing, and powerful film where it truly counts. And no, I’ve never had a negative disposition towards the Ewoks. I certainly understand the issue people have with their part in the film, but it’s never really bothered me. So, let us journey back to a galaxy far, far away one more time.
Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) must travel to Tatooine to free Han Solo (Harrison Ford) by infiltrating the wretched stronghold of Jabba the Hutt, the galaxy’s most loathsome gangster. Once reunited, the Rebels team up with tribes of Ewoks to combat the Imperial forces on the forest moon of Endor. Meanwhile the Emperor (Ian McDiarmid) and Darth Vader conspire to turn Luke to the dark side, and young Skywalker is determined to rekindle the spirit of the Jedi within his father. The Galactic Civil War culminates in the ultimate showdown, as the Rebel forces gather to attack the seemingly defenseless and incomplete second Death Star in the battle that will determine the fate of the galaxy.
This was actually the first Star Wars movie I saw theatrically, and I was all of three years old at the time. All I remember from the experience was getting scared by the loud noises and the scared visage of Anakin Skywalker. At that age, you can hardly blame me. This film does follow up rather nicely on the cliffhanger plot threads of The Empire Strikes Back. Scenes of Luke visiting Yoda and Obi-Wan are given substantial weight and the comfort of time to play out with importance. Many were in disbelief at Darth Vader’s revelation in the previous film, and they required reliable confirmation. There were no two better characters for that than these Jedi Masters. This is the main crux of Luke’s storyline as he struggles with trying to pull his father back from the Dark Side, and it provides the weight of emotion throughout the picture. It is a little unfortunate that some scenes were cut from the beginning of the film that would have made this a far more constant and overarching element of the film. As it is, none of this is addressed until forty minutes into the movie in favor of the action set pieces of Han’s rescue from Jabba’s Palace.
Never get me wrong. The Jabba’s Palace scenes are expertly done featuring some of the highest grade puppetry in live action films. CGI has never done Jabba the Hutt justice over the original tangible puppet by Phil Tippett of ILM’s Creature Shop. The palace scenes subject audiences to an eclectic menagerie of fantastical aliens that demonstrate a fertile imagination and talented ambition. While everyone holds the Cantina scene from the first film as the groundbreaker, George Lucas truly made this the new gold standard, and achieved something amazing with his dedicated team at Industrial Light & Magic. The atmosphere of the sets is almost classic noir with the smoke all around in this den of seediness and crime. The Rancor scene, matte lines or no, is still an impressive piece of work that has always been an action highlight for me. This is a great example of 1980s fantasy film visual effects where more organic, large scale creatures were integrated into live action. And yes, indeed, I do vastly prefer the original musical numbers by the Max Reebo Band. I am reviewing the original theatrical versions for a distinct reason here beyond just the fact that those are the ones I grew up with and fell in love with. Overall, this entire section of the movie is amazingly well done in every aspect, but unlike the previous movies, it takes quite a while for the story, action, and drama to pick up. Even with Empire, while it didn’t have a rousing opening, it still had danger and peril to create dramatic momentum. Return of the Jedi feels like it lacks an element of excitement and momentum from its outset.
The one thing that I really have come to notice lately about the structure of the film is a marked lack of intercutting storylines. The previous two films used this story structure technique to maintain a tight rhythm and up tempo pace. This made it feel like plots were progressing, and characters were converging. With Return of the Jedi, there’s barely any such regular intercutting until the final third of the film. Anything we do get before then is slowly plotted. The entire Tatoonie sequence, which runs thirty minutes long, is presented without a single cutaway or linking element to anything else in the film. It runs along as its own isolated adventure. While it is smartly written, beautifully executed, and tightly edited, it is this structural issue that makes the film feel too compartmentalized. There are a lot of long sequences in this film that tend to drag the pace of it down, but in the least, they have character building and storyline progressing purposes. Still, maybe it’s just the familiarity of time, but that more deliberate pace seems to work towards the more somber tone for the end of a trilogy where character and story reach their ultimate juncture. They take on a far more important role than action, which is commendable. I’ve felt that the film has lacked something poignant or substantive for the longest time, but maybe it’s not so much an issue of what’s not there but how what is there is presented in terms of structure and rhythm. Just about everything that needs to be there is there, but maybe it could’ve used some greater peril to give it more punch.
I think I have to agree with Harrison Ford and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan in that the film really needed a genuine low point. Both of them firmly believed that Han Solo should have died to give the film that grave sense of peril and consequence. This is probably the film where Solo has the least substantive things to do with no arc to traverse, and he does seem like he’s more just along for the ride instead of having much poignancy to the plot turns. I’m certainly not saying that I would have wanted to see Han die, but I understand where Ford and Kasdan were both coming from. In A New Hope, there were the deaths of Aunt Beru, Uncle Owen, and Ben Kenobi to give the film peril and gravity, and in The Empire Strikes Back, there were low points abound creating an emotional contrast and sense of real danger for the characters. Luke surely has his dark moments in his confrontation with Vader and the Emperor, but they only resonate for about a moment. The triumph of the heroes would hold more weight if we had felt some strong sacrifice or loss from them.
Now, there is a question of who really directed the bulk of this film. While Richard Marquand is the credited director, many claim George Lucas was far more hands-on throughout production as many of the actors did not respond well to Marquand. To me, there doesn’t appear to be any noticeable evidence to this effect. This is a well-directed movie. The Empire Strikes Back is a brilliant movie in all aspects for many reasons. With Jedi, any problems it does have are really not a fault of direction, just a slower pace that may not have given quite as much prominent screentime to the Vader-Luke plot. What we get of it is substantive and right-on-the-mark, but there’s not much thematic material in the film beyond this. Rescuing Han from Jabba, or running through the forest with Ewoks is just fun adventure stuff. The crux of this saga at this point is what is transpiring both internally and externally amongst Luke and Vader, and with so much meaty depth built-up between them in The Empire Strikes Back, I would’ve liked to have more of that spread throughout this movie. I would’ve liked to see more of that internal conflict show through and be dealt with. Ultimately, the film feels a little too light too often for what dramatic weight it is building up to in order to conclude the trilogy.
Regardless, this film features some of the best action scenes in the whole saga. The rescue from Jabba’s sail barge is a rousing, fun, swashbuckling adventure piece where everyone gets their moment of heroism and excitement. It’s great to see the full team of heroes together fighting against a large force, and faring better than they ever have before. This triumph is a great counterbalance to how we left them at the end of the previous movie. It also builds up Luke as we know he was the architect of this plan, and the carefully crafted quality of it all demonstrates his maturing role as a leader and Jedi Knight beautifully. The speeder bike chase is still fantastic making fine use of blue screen effects and optical composites to create this dangerous, high speed sequence. And I hold the entire space battle sequence as the best I’ve ever seen. What impresses me is the depth of elements piled into this energetic and dynamic battle above the moon of Endor. Yet, they never clutter the frame, only add to the scope and visual storytelling of this climax. The technical achievement of this sequence is amazing in the age of optical composites, and it still holds up solidly to any CGI creation made today. This is further reinforced by this film’s Academy Award win for special achievement in visual effects. Beyond just that, it has great tension, danger, and stellar dog fighting. The entire three-way intercut climax gives everyone something purposeful to do, and no one ever gets lost in the mix. Nor does it bog it down with any extraneous story elements. It’s all evenly balanced and clearly conveyed to an audience. It’s the most hair-raising, exhilarating, and epic climax in the saga, to date.
Now, again, I’ve never had an issue with the Ewoks. I just always accepted them. If I have any qualm about Endor is that it never feels sufficiently alien. At least Tatoonie had alien creatures and felt like a full barren world, much the same for Hoth. Meanwhile, Dagobah was lush with its own vibrant, otherworldly life. Endor just feels too terrestrial with no unique personality. There are times when it has a nice, moody feel, but that occurs in scenes that were surely shot on a soundstage. There’s good production design with the Ewok village and a few nice matte paintings, but overall, Endor is a bit of a visual letdown.
The final confrontation with Luke, Darth Vader, and the Emperor is fantastically crafted and executed. I like that the lightsaber battle is almost ancillary to the emotional and psychological struggle playing out between these three characters. As I’ve mentioned in a previous Star Wars movie review, the lightsaber battles are really a plot device to motivate characters and events forward. The action is not really the focus, it’s the character interactions and dynamics. The temptation from the Emperor is masterful and devilish, and Ian McDiarmid plays it so damn good. He never treads the line of over the top acting. He keeps the Emperor a very real and frightening threat. He has all this power over so many, and he barely has to raise a finger to exercise his will. His power is in McDiarmid’s dark mystique and subtle, brilliant villainy. What we see in this climax is a seduction to the Dark Side done correctly. A little push here and there, edging Luke towards the unleashing of his emotions shows the cunning psychological manipulation that the Emperor possesses. The symbolism we get when Luke finally lashes out and severs Vader’s hand is just brilliant. The strength of Luke’s character and belief in his father shines through with inspiring honor as he throws down his arms and refuses to give in to the Dark Side. He’s able to resist the temptation because he is not a selfish person. There are good people that he believes in, and those that believe in him. I like that even Obi-Wan tells Luke that his emotions do him credit. Coupled with his maturity, Luke’s loyalty and emotional connections can lead him to the right decisions where we later saw that Anakin’s more intense, selfish emotions were his downfall. I also like the motif of Luke’s attire. In the first movie, it’s all white, in the next, it’s gray, and in Return of the Jedi, he’s all in black. It shows a certain spectral progression for him, but ultimately, his journey is not towards darkness but bringing his father out of it.
The maturing of Luke Skywalker is one of the beauties of this trilogy for me. Mark Hamill matures with the character from an eager young man desiring adventure to a far wiser, confident, and intelligent adult. Luke’s learned a lot from his first encounter with Vader. He’s no longer impatience and impulsive. He makes calm, calculated, and selfless decisions towards ends he believes in with his heart and mind. He’s more than just a respectable leader at this point, he’s a true Jedi that has taken the best qualities of those that came before and of himself. Each film evolved Luke Skywalker another step forward which resulted in this wonderful, noble, and honorable hero. Mark Hamill brings a fresh strength and air of subtle mystique to the role in this film. He taps a little into what Alec Guiness had in the original Star Wars, but with the added aspect of optimism and hope. He has not been weathered by defeat, but instead, made stronger and more decisive by it. I think very highly of Mark Hamill’s acting talents, and I am excited to see what he will be able to achieve in this new sequel trilogy.
The ultimate pay-off in this movie is the beautiful way that Vader redeems himself. I’m not going to analyze this in relation to the prequels. I’m going to say that this has always been one of my favorite moments of the saga. The silent contemplation, the internal struggle you can read so deeply into Vader’s scuffed up mask while Luke is on the verge of death from the Emperor’s Force lighting is just brilliant and gorgeous. Vader doesn’t have to say a word, his actions speak emphatically for him. The unmasking of Anakin Skywalker is beautifully touching, and the funeral pyre has always been a beloved moment for me. John Williams’ score is amazingly heartfelt and wonderful here. I also love the chorus-backed score in the climax. His work is fantastic throughout this film, as always. This saga would lose something immensely profound if John Williams had not been involved, and I hope that the sequel trilogy will maintain the integrity of his musical brilliance.
There is a great deal of good content in Return of the Jedi, but I wish the film had a stronger opening to pull me in more. That’s what usually turns me off, initially, to the movie. It takes a while for it to get exciting, much longer than most of the Star Wars films, but once it gets there, it’s great stuff! This film has all the elements it needed, and delivers spectacularly on the plot threads and conflicts established in The Empire Strikes Back. In the end, I do wish there was a little more meat on the bone to bring those aspects of character depth and conflict more into the forefront of the film instead of lingering in the background for most of the runtime. Regardless, this is a fine conclusion to the trilogy that does satisfy on many levels, especially on fresh action scenes and emotional pay-offs. Despite any shortcomings, this is still a pure, fun, and exciting Star Wars adventure that you cannot go without experiencing!