Directed by: Richard Marquand || Produced by: Howard Kazanjian
Screenplay by: Lawrence Kasdan, George Lucas || Starring: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Billy Dee Williams, Anthony Daniels, David Prowse, James Earl Jones, Kenny Baker, Peter Mayhew, Frank Oz, Ian McDiarmad, Alec Guinness, Denis Lawson, Sebastian Shaw, Kenneth Colley, Warwick Davis, Jeremy Bulloch
Music by: John Williams || Cinematography by: Alan Hume || Edited by: Sean Barton, Duwayne Dunham, Marcia Lucas || Country: United States || Language: English
Running Time: 131 minutes
The third and final installment in the original Star Wars trilogy (1977 [SW], 1980, 1983) and, as of this writing, the last good Star Wars film to be released, represents an interesting turning point in both the Hollywood blockbuster industry and the personal development of its creative Godfather, George Lucas. While many fans are loathed to credit the man for personally “creating” the entire mythos of the ultimate cinematic space opera, for all legal intents and purposes, the man owned the franchise outright until the purchase of Star Wars by Disney in 2012 — even though Lucas did not write or direct The Empire Strikes Back (ESB, 1980) or direct Return of the Jedi (RotJ). He therefore had unlimited financial power over the series and acted as the primary executive behind all subsequent sequels, for better and usually for worse.
Many sources, including and especially SW and ESB producer Gary Kurtz, cite the development of RotJ as the point where Lucas began to sell out, sacrifice his artistic integrity, and fall in love with the merchandising power of the series over its storytelling magic. In his defense, some of George’s executive interference may have produced better results even if they were for the wrong reasons (i.e. box office and toy sales): Han Solo’s death was negated, and Luke Skywalker’s Spaghetti-Western-inspired exile was exchanged for the more upbeat ending we have now. Director Richard Marquand also insisted that the final scene with Yoda, where Luke receives confirmation of his relationship to Darth Vader, be written in to add closure to Empire’s gigantic twist. I approve of these alterations. Changes Lucas made to the script that didn’t go over so well include the infamous Ewoks —- lame, cutsey, Teddy Bear-esque aliens that were originally supposed to be Wookies. That would’ve been so much cooler!
In the end, though, Return of the Jedi is a strong finish for the original trilogy, and ends the saga on a realistic and deservedly optimistic note. I feel the film is often unfairly maligned compared to the original Star Wars and especially The Empire Strikes Back, with people overemphasizing the film’s exposition and brief depiction of poorly rendered projection-backgrounds. While it’s true this movie has much more expository dialogue than either of the two previous movies, and its special effects and overall story and direction are not up to par with those near-flawless pictures, RotJ remains a fine film and a satisfying conclusion to one of the greatest franchises in cinematic history. It has a lot of narrative, thematic, and relationship ground to cover, and it covers it well. We needed those scenes on Dagobah to slow down, catch our breath, and come to terms with what we had learned in ESB. The revelations and character interactions here between Luke, Yoda, and Obi-Wan are powerful and makes sense given the context of the movie, as well as the entire trilogy.
To that end, people comparing RotJ to Revenge of the Sith (2005), as if those films are somehow remotely close in cinematic quality, really need to get their heads examined. Just because Return is the least impressive of a classic threesome and Revenge is the best of a very bad bunch, and that their titles sound similar, does not in any way justify reasoning these two films are in the same area code in terms of artistry or influence. It’s not even close, people.
In any case, let’s move on to the good stuff. RotJ delivers the long awaited, frequently referenced Jabba the Hutt character who had haunted Harrison Ford’s Solo for two whole films. The entire first act of Jedi concerns our heroes infiltrating his dingy, dark, seedy palace in order to rescue him. The set designs here are near perfect, with the low-key lighting setting the mood and the grimy surfaces of Star Wars‘ “used future” aesthetic oozing through every panel. The exterior desert shots of the palace look beautiful, while the Rancor’s lair and the beast itself are some of the most frightening visuals in the entire trilogy. To that end, Jabba and his banter with Han and Luke live up to the hype, giving this third installment a sense of edginess and grit that helps overcome the shortcomings of its final act.
Mark Hamill is the true standout of this film, speaking of him. His introduction halfway through the first act is mysterious, foreboding, and cool, but not nearly as awesome as his breakout fight with Jabba’s minions at the Sarlacc Pit. The character of Luke has an incredible yet relatable arc throughout this trilogy, and his final development in RotJ is the culmination of that terrific arc. The downside of Luke’s growth is that Han and Leia are merely supporting figures that help defeat the antagonistic Empire, as opposed to the focal points they played in the previous two films. Still, Ford’s sense of humor with the Ewoks is the single biggest thing preventing the second half of the film from descending into silliness.
Of course, the most memorable moments of the film concern Luke’s standoff with Vader and his confrontation with the Emperor. Ian McDiarmad is wonderful as the evil lord Palpatine, a cackling, creepy villain who represents the Dark Side of the Force so well, the Internet subsequently turned him into one of the most overused hate-memes nearly thirty years later.
In all seriousness, though, Luke’s confrontation with the Emperor and his final fight with Vader are iconic even by Star Wars standards. The latter is the best choreographed, best paced, and most thematically potent lightsaber duel of the entire franchise, and McDiarmad somehow manages to turn a vague threat about negative emotions into arguably the most memorable contemplation of hatred and rage in all of cinema.
That’s about it, really. When fans stop and really think about both trilogies — the one that is Star Wars and the one that pretends to be Star Wars — it’s difficult for even the few memorable bright spots of the latter to reach even the lowest hanging film of the former. Sure, RotJ has somewhat shakier effects than the first two films, the Ewoks are a head-scratcher, and its finale crosscuts too many locations and events, but all that pales in comparison to the fantastic jailbreak from Jabba’s palace, Yoda’s heartfelt passing, the indomitable Emperor Palpatine, and Vader’s redemption. Return of the Jedi is no Return of the King (2003), but it sure as hell ain’t no Dark Knight Rises (2012) or Godfather Part III (1990).
Let me put it this way: If The Force Awakens (2015) is as good as Return of the Jedi, I’ll be fucking ecstatic. May the Force be with us.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Return of the Jedi starts strong and ends strong with a great introduction to Jabba the Hutt and a masterful battle between Luke and Vader before the evil Emperor. Mark Hamill is the true hero of this movie, finally proving his worth as a Jedi, like his father before him. McDiarmad matches him beat-for-beat as the deliciously evil master of the Dark Side we’ve been waiting for. Even the film’s quieter moments stand the test of time, with Yoda’s farewell, Vader’s funeral, and the celebratory epilogue all churning with emotion. It’s a dramatic conclusion to a great trilogy.
— However… Jedi remains the weakest link of that trilogy, even if its critics have largely missed the point. Some special effects are shaky, the Ewoks hint at the Jar Jars and Dexter Jetsters to come, and Leia and Han are pushed to the side to make way for Luke’s rebirth.
? Anakin: “Now… go, my son. Leave me.”
Luke: “No, you’re coming with me. I’ll not leave you here, I’ve got to save you!”
Anakin: “You already have, Luke. You were right. You were right about me. Tell your sister… you were right.”