That three-year gap must have been unbearable, so when Star Wars returned for it third movie, albeit sixth episode, blockbuster success was virtually guaranteed, but disappointment is also something that can come from such eager anticipation, and so it is that many consider Return of the Jedi to be the weakest of the original trilogy.
Calling it the weakest is not unfounded, of the original trilogy it’s definitely the one you would rank as the bottom of the first three, but that doesn’t stop it from being an incredibly enjoyable watch, and it also isn’t as problematic as the film that would relaunch the Star Wars series in 1999, as there is a lot within the final film of the original Star Wars trilogy that sees the series falling on all filmmaking cylinders; John Williams’ score, Alan Hume’s photography and Norman Reynolds’ production design are all fantastic.
Given its status as one of the most awaited movies of its time, and the stature of Lucasfilm as well by 1983 (not only was Star Wars on the go, but the Indiana Jones movies were up and running by this point too) it’s no surprise that several famous filmmakers were considered for the job, most prominently David Lynch and David Cronenberg, both of whom would turn it down, with Cronenberg going on to direct The Dead Zone and Videodrome, while Lynch would in the end try to put his own stamp on to the space opera genre with his adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune. The failure of that film would prompt him to go back to his own brand of intense weirdness with Blue Velvet, although the idea of a Lynch-directed Star Wars is still, to this day, an intriguing thought.
In the end the director’s chair would be filled by Welsh filmmaker Richard Marquand, a director somewhat untested in the world of a genre film on this scale, having previously directed the spy thriller Eye of the Needle, and subsequently Jagged Edge, and during production would end up having to hand over to Lucas for help in order to bring the vision of the film to life.
Picking up after the events of The Empire Strikes Back, the film begins by resolving the fate of Han Solo, as the first act becomes an entertaining mission to save everyone’s favourite space smuggler, but with everyone, including Luke, Chewie and Leia getting captured, which subsequently turns out to be part of Luke’s rescue plan.
In 1983, the film would have been the first glimpse audiences had of Jabba the Hutt, although this is no longer the case as, due to the release of the Special Editions, the film now marks the second appearance of the famed character, his first appearance now being the somewhat awkward CGI inclusion of him in A New Hope. It’s an incredibly entertaining beginning, and whilst the film that follows has some issues with pacing, as well cynically throwing cuddly bears into the mix, it does get a lot of things right that many overlook. Whilst there are some accurate criticisms that the film rests on its laurels a little by throwing in another Death Star, some of the drama going on around it makes it worth while.
With the entire cast returning, the film would be the last time until 2015 that we’d get to see these actors playing their characters, and as such the film does have a feeling of finality to it, not least in how many of the character and story arcs conclude. While Luke had always been portrayed as the “good boy” of the series, Return of the Jedi sees Hamill’s portrayal become more conflicted and layered, as Luke finds himself torn throughout by wanting to save his father and being tempted and taunted by Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid, his first appearance in the series, but, like Jabba, it would become his second when the Blu-Ray edition of The Empire Strikes Back inserted him into a key scene he hadn’t been in before).
Clad in black and more assured of himself than in the first two movies, this is Luke as a fully fledged Jedi and it’s the completion of his journey that really stands out in the movie. In comparison, Han and Leia’s role in the movie is almost the least important, even though they play big roles. Famously Ford wanted Han to die and Laurence Kasdan was more than okay to actually kill the character, planning to script a scene where he sacrifices himself to save everyone, thus leaving the audience on edge as to who else could possibly die as the film continues, but in the end the idea was vetoed by George Lucas, and as such Han got to live to fight another day…at least for now.
Predominantly taking place on the forests of Endor, the film made the most of its location filming in Redwood National Forest, and the film returns somewhat to its near fairy tale-like status of the first film after the darker and more Shakespearian complexities of the previous installment. Where A New Hope was full of wonder, from the twin sunsets, and its “save the princess, save the galaxy” narrative, and The Empire Strikes Back was more of a tragic drama complete with familial revelations and ghostly visitations, Return of the Jedi has more of the fun, fairy tale flavour.
After the snowy wastes of Yavin IV and the Brothers Grimm woods of The Degobah System, we are now in the more hopeful, gorgeous forests of Endor and its Ewok population. There is more sunlight than in Empire, and whilst we return to the desert plains of Tatooine in the first act, and a brief sojourn to Degobah to say goodbye to Yoda (still one of the most poignant death scenes in the series), the fun and games of Endor is where we spend most of the running time, at least when we aren’t cutting back to the incomplete new Death Star.
The scenes between the trio of Luke, Vader and Palpatine still retains some of the Shakespearian flavour, being as they are effectively a three-person play, and there are a multitude of battles going over for two characters souls, but unlike Empire, Jedi builds to a climax that is emotional and sad, but hopeful for the future. Whilst the inclusion of the Ewoks is still controversial today, at least they aren’t annoying on the scale of Jar-Jar Binks, and the prolonged battle on Endor, complete with high-octane action like the speeder chase, is another series highlight, with the way the film cuts between the battle on Endor, the aerial battle above near the Death Star and Luke vs Vader and Palpatine, being fantastically edited and terrifically engaging.
The Special Edition does ruin the final moments a little by adding Hayden Christensen, not because Christensen is bad, it just calls attention to Luke seeing the ghost of his father, Obi-Wan and Yoda reunited in a way that somewhat belittles the emotion, and it makes one question why Anakin Skywalker is there in his younger self and not Obi-Wan. Despite these problems, the film is still a fine accomplishment, despite the issues many have with Ewoks, or the large number of changes made it during its numerous home entertainment releases, but, like many blockbusters from the 80’s, it has the perfect combination of action, humour, adventure, appropriate darkness and cuteness.
For a long time it felt as if this would genuinely be the last time we’d see some of these characters in live action, and the idea of a series of movies set after the events of this one felt like something that wouldn’t, or possibly shouldn’t, happen, despite Lucas having mentioned a potential seventh to ninth episodes years previously. As such, there would be a continuation, but it wouldn’t happen until after the divisive prequels and the $4 billion purchase of Lucasfilm by the biggest movie studio in Hollywood.
The Force would be an awakened…
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