This is the sixth and final installment of our Star Wars Week review series. Check out our reviews of The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, Revenge of the Sith, A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back!
Growing up, I really loved Return of the Jedi. I just had a soft spot for it (as I do with all endings); it represents something so nostalgic and emotional and hopeful for me. I distinctly remember being in my grandparents’ living room at a young age acting out the closing scene of Force Ghost Yoda, Anakin and Obi-Wan (Sebastian Shaw, of course) and humming the very simple soundtrack. I think the reason I fell in love with it was because of the triumphant message it gave. Even a guy as evil and cruel as Darth Vader could be turned from the Dark Side to the Light. That meant anyone could be, right? It was perfectly conveyed and that ending will always remain with me.
As I grew older there were parts of the movie that started to feel off to me, but I couldn’t figure out why. Despite this, I still considered Jedi to be my favourite in the Saga simply because of that ending, as well as pretty much everything set on the Death Star. It was only this weekend when I rewatched the Original Trilogy that I finally put my finger on it.
Return of the Jedi sticks with the narrative structure which was established in The Empire Strikes Back – the 3 segment rule. In that it was Hoth<Dagobah/Falcon<Cloud City. In this it’s Tattooine<Endor<Death Star. There’s some criss-cross but that’s the general layout. Now, there’s nothing wrong with that (it evidently works), but it falters here. The problem is that everything which happens on Tattooine is fairly inconsequential to the wider plot; its sole purpose is saving Han Solo, which it accomplishes. Hoth set up the rest of Empire; the rebels, including our heroes, became scattered, and Luke receives the vision from Obi-Wan which drives his mission to Dagobah. If you take out Hoth then the entire film doesn’t work. On the other hand, if you take out Tattooine, Jedi remains pretty much the same, just lacking in the scruffy looking nerfherders department.
What makes it worse is the fact that, while it expands the criminal underworld we briefly see in A New Hope and hear about so often, it’s really boring. We go through C-3PO and R2-D2 travelling to Jabba, and then Leia, but then Lando is already there, and then Luke arrives, and… uh, yeah. Everything could have easily been accomplished if we just have Luke arrive right off the bat; that way you keep the core goal of the scenes – rescue Han – but it’s done in a much more streamlined way, which then frees up time for the rest of the film. I honestly can’t think of one reason for Tattooine being as long as it is, except so that we could spend less time on Endor.
My other big problem?
So, let me get this straight. Han finally meets up with an old friend again, one whom he shares a lot of history with, and within about an hour he betrays him to the Empire which results in him frozen in carbonite. Sure, he didn’t want to and he let them escape, but he still did it. When Han gets out, he isn’t angry or abrasive or wary of Lando – he hugs him. Fucking hugs him.
Look, I get that Lando essentially redeems himself in the eyes of the audience, but Han frickin’ Solo most definitely wouldn’t have. He probably would have tried to pounce on him and end up getting pulled away by Luke and Leia. It’s simply not a logical character move for him to just completely forgive Lando for everything, and then give him the fucking Millennium Falcon! Ugh. It pisses me off.
In doing this, it misses out on a fantastic opportunity for both of their characters. Han Solo’s arc over the entire trilogy is one of slowly becoming more heroic, transitioning from the selfish loner we met in Mos Eisley to a noble, selfless Rebel leader. This could have been aided by having him slowly learn forgiveness; perhaps he and Lando could have been forced to work together even though they’re not exactly in a good place. This would lead to some fun interactions and good character growth. Perhaps Lando would have to save Han at one point to prove his loyalty – OR Han ends up saving Lando to show how he has forgiven him and wants to protect his friend.
This is part of the film’s broader problem in characterisation. Aside from Luke, nobody really has any development in Jedi. He’s grown into the Jedi Knight he wanted to be back in Hope; he’s much more mature and responsible and learns about the true nature of the Dark Side. Seriously, Luke in those two movies is basically two different characters. It’s a strong testament to the character and Mark Hamill’s acting ability, and is just one of the many reasons why Luke is awesome.
However, even then, it all happens off-screen. We don’t actually see him become a Jedi Knight. One moment he’s given up on his training, the next he’s passed it. We don’t see how or why he becomes mature, responsible and wise – it just happens. While it’s great to see him like that, the movie would be a lot stronger if we got all of that development in Return of the Jedi – either from Yoda or just through his own actions and experiences. Instead, it feels as if we’ve skipped a movie. That most likely comes down to all the internal problems that rocked the development of the movie. If you don’t know anything about that, then George Lucas had originally planned for Episodes VII-IX to happen during the 80’s; Leia wasn’t Luke’s sister and he would face the Emperor at the end of IX. Once he changed his mind, this was all crammed into one movie – and it shows, just from the fact that they rush Luke’s entire character along off-screen.
‘Leia Skywalker’ still doesn’t make an awful lot of sense, either. If Darth Vader could sense that Luke was his son, why couldn’t he do that with Leia in A New Hope? And then there is, of course, their kiss in Empire. I think the entire fandom has discussed that one quite enough.
To be honest, I would still rather Luke’s sister have been an entirely new character. It wouldn’t be too out-of-left-field, as Yoda already stated to the audience that there “is another”. This doesn’t even have to be a sister, but it opens up the floodgates for any number of potentially-awesome new characters. Alas, that isn’t the direction which Lucas and Richard Marquand went with, and it’s one of the reasons for why Jedi is a much weaker film than the previous instalments.
Unlike some fans, I don’t hate them. They’re mostly tolerable, especially in comparison to certain other aspects of this franchise. Ahem.
My main problem with Endor is how much cooler it would have been as Kashyyk (which was the original plan), and the tone/pacing. It’s all very plodding and many of the scenes end up being forgettable. This could be down to a number of factors; Marquand’s inexperience as a director, rewrites or Lucas’ desire for toy sales overriding the story. I think it’s important to consider how difficult it is to empathise with the Ewoks, as they don’t really speak or do much. Yes, they’re darn cute, and Pixar shows how that can be just enough to make you care about a character – but that isn’t done particularly well here. If we maybe saw them being subjugated by Stormtroopers to illustrate how they’re losing their home to the Empire then we might have felt something, but as it is there’s just a big void.
Don’t let this review fool you, though. I certainly do not hate Return of the Jedi – far from it. As I talked about in the opening paragraphs (and the headline), the entire movie is completely made by the scenes on the Death Star. The holy combination of John Williams’ rousing score, Ian McDiarmid’s masterful performance, the sight of Luke being tempted by the Dark Side and the sheer emotion of watching the conclusion to such an engaging and sweeping story with so much character investment. It’s truly emotional, and whenever I watch Vader throwing the Emperor down into the core of the Death Star I get chills.
Fuck it, let’s watch it now.
That’s exactly why I have no idea how I feel about this film. On one hand, it’s got some sheer artistry in it with powerful and resonating characters and scenes. On the other, the script as a whole is really lacking and it’s stupid that the Rebels manage to knock a major blow against the Empire with teddy bears. How can a film be so completely split down the middle like that? One does wonder whether it has something to do with the rumours that Lucas essentially ghost-directed Jedi; perhaps the Imperial scenes were down to him, and everything else was Richard Marquand – or the other way around.
Therefore, that’s what I have to conclude. Some aspects of this movie are perfect, and some are far from it. While it sucks that it has so many missed opportunities, I’m tremendously happy about the good stuff that is in there. And boy, is it good.
And thus, we conclude our retrospective of the Star Wars Saga. It’s been a long ride (well, five days, but it feels longer) although it was totally worth it. We got to revisit some great movies and talk about why they’re great, as well as revisit some not-so-great ones and shit all over them. However, while it’s the end of our retrospective series, the reviews are not yet over.
Tomorrow the Force is awakening, after a long, long time away.