While May 4th is known the world over as Star Wars Day, many also choose to extend the celebrations of the course of three days, with one of them being the “Evil Star Wars Day” of May 6th (as in “Sith”). This year, I’ve been using the three Star Wars Days as the perfect excuse to go back over the Original Trilogy.
Released: 22 September 2019
Originally Released: 25 May 1983
Director: Richard Marquand
Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment
Original Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Budget: $32.5 million
Stars: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, Peter Mayhew, David Prowse/James Earl Jones, Billy Dee Williams, and Ian McDiarmid
After rescuing Han Solo (Ford) from the clutches of Jabba the Hutt (Scott Schumann), Jedi Knight Luke Skywalker (Hamill) prepares himself for a showdown with his father, Darth Vader (Prowse/Jones) while Princess Leia Organa (Fisher) and the Rebel Alliance prepare for one final, all-or-nothing assault on the partially-constructed Death Star II in the hopes of ridding the galaxy of the Emperor (McDiarmid) once and for all.
By 1983, George Lucas’s science-fiction “space opera” had developed into an extremely successful series of films and multimedia merchandise; yet, though the wave of books, action figures, and videogames that were released back then was prominent, it merely only hinted at the nigh-unstoppable reach of the franchise. After Star Wars: Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (Kershner, 1980) proved an incredible, if divisive, box office success, Lucas began financing a third film and looking at potential directors (including Steven Spielberg). Eventually, he settled on Richard Marquand but was frequently on set offering advice and assistance. Originally produced under the title Revenge of the Jedi, Lucas eventually altered the title and would clash somewhat with star Harrison Ford over the fate of Han Solo: Ford wanted Solo to die but Lucas was vehemently against it and, eventually, talked the former carpenter around. Although Return of the Jedi didn’t make quite as much at the box office as its predecessor, it was still an incredible financial success, making over $475 million at the box office and finishing first at the box office for six of its first seven weeks of release. The film’s critical reception appears to have been the opposite of Empire’s, with critics of the time largely praising the film and modern audiences generally regarding the film as the weakest of the Original Trilogy for its more child-friendly inclusions and derivative elements. As with the other films in the Original Trilogy, Lucas later revisited and augmented the film using modern technologies which has resulted in one of the most derided inclusions of all the alterations Lucas has made to his influential trilogy.
I touched upon this in my review of Empire but when I was a kid, I knew about Star Wars and I liked what I saw but I hadn’t really ever had the opportunity to watch any of the films from start to finish; they never seemed to be on television (we only had the basic four channels back then) and the VHS tapes were quite hard to come by until the 1997 Special Editions were released. As a result, while I can recall snapshots and snippets of each film, the first one I remember sitting down and watching from start to finish (or, at least, enjoying all the way through) was Return of the Jedi and, for a long time, it was my favourite of the Original Trilogy until I came to find a deeper appreciation for The Empire Strikes Back’s bleak brilliance.
Still, there is a lot to like about Return of the Jedi; the effects, for one thing, are at their peak in the Original Trilogy and it represents the culmination of each character’s journey and arc since we were first introduced to them. Unfortunately, a lot of it is a bit redundant as we’ve already seen a fully operational Death Star before so returning to that well was a bit derivative and it lacks both the gritty, “lived-in” feel of Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope (Lucas, 1977) and the large scale impact of Empire but what we’re left with is still a pretty decent rollicking space adventure when you focus on Luke’s journey and the desperate battle against the partially-constructed Death Star II.
When Jedi begins, the Rebel Alliance are in a bit of disarray; though the threat of a new Death Star lingers ominously in the background, Princess Leia risks everything to deviate from concocting an assault on the space station to infiltrate the sordid palace of the disgusting and nefarious slug-like crime lord Jabba the Hutt in order to rescue her beloved Han. I mentioned when reviewing Empire how, in the previous film, Leia’s militaristic and pragmatic façade was slowly and methodically stripped away as her more human, vulnerable, and emotional side came to the forefront through her burgeoning feelings for Han and nowhere is that best expressed than in her putting aside her commitment to the Rebel Alliance to rescue Han. Once he is safely back amidst the Rebel Alliance, she then steps away from her more diplomatic role as a co-ordinator and commander to join Han in the mission to knock out the Death Star II’s shield generator, now fully embracing both her proactive, action-orientated abilities and her softer, more empathetic side.
Leia’s infiltration is just a mere part of the grand plan to rescue Solo, however, and it’s all been devised by Luke Skywalker. Now a far cry from the wide-eyed, naïve farmboy of A New Hope, Luke is garbed head to toe in black and Jedi robes, confidant in his ability to use the Force and sure that he has the power and ability to rescue Solo with a minimum of fuss. As impressive as Luke’s newfound abilities are, however, he’s not without flaws; he doesn’t bank on Jabba resisting his Jedi mind tricks or Han emerging from the slab of carbonite with temporary blindness. His concern for the well-being of his friend, particularly his treasured Leia, also causes him to receive a blaster shot to his cybernetic hand during the rescue though they are, nevertheless, successful.
Somewhere between movies, Luke has grown considerably and, despite receiving only a crash course in Jedi training, is all-but a Jedi Knight when Jedi begins. However, upon returning to his wizened master Yoda (Oz), Luke learns that he must confront and defeat Darth Vader if he is ever to become a true Jedi. Luke is aghast at the suggestion, sure that he is unable to kill his father, and his doubts are further compounded when the spirit of his first mentor, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness), reveals that Leia is actually his twin sister. Rather than dwell on the romantic and sexual feelings and moments they shared in the previous films, Luke resolves to instead attempt to turn his father from the Dark Side and redeem him rather than kill him and is so convinced that Vader is in conflict between his good and bad feelings that he’s even willing to die in this attempt.
After being freed from the carbonite and recovering from his vision loss, Han fully commits to the Rebel Alliance and their desperate crusade against the Death Star II; to show just how far his character has grown over the years, rather than simply laughing off or walking away from the Rebel cause, he voluntarily agrees to lead the ground assault against the shield generator and takes up a commanding position with ease and grace. He’s still the most charismatic of the characters and actors, however, and maintains that gruff, rugged edge that made him so likeable but he’s also clearly developed as a character, showing layers of vulnerability and leadership, respectively, where he previously only showed selfishness.
Han reluctantly hands the keys to the Millennium Falcon over to his former smuggling buddy Lando Calrissian (Williams); it’s not addressed onscreen why Han immediately trusts Lando considering he was betraying him to Vader and the bungling bounty hunter Boba Fett (Jeremy Bulloch) in the previous film but, regardless, Lando is now an accepted and integral part of the Rebellion and trusted enough with leading the head-on assault against the second Death Star. Still emitting a cool, smooth charm, Lando fulfils the role of a principal figure in the Rebellion as easily as Han, as though he was merely hiding from his greater destiny all this time.
Once again, our heroes are supported by the droids C-3PO (Daniels), R2-D2 (Baker), and the Wookie, Chewbacca (Mayhew); this time around, Threepio gets a bit more of the spotlight as he is revered as a God by the tribal-like teddy bears known as Ewoks and shines in his comedic contributions and an abridged, adorable retelling of the saga so far. Artoo, meanwhile, doesn’t really get a whole lot to do beyond being Luke’s unquestioning confidant and getting the Rebels into the shield generator stronghold and, similarly, Chewbacca is taken away from the space action to join Han’s ground party where he humourously bonds with the Ewoks and commandeers an All-Terrain Scout Transport (AT-ST) walker during the big forest battle.
Although the Emperor was retroactively inserted into Empire, he was first introduced in the flesh here in Jedi. After the Force and their kind were openly mocked and treated with scorn in A New Hope, its humbling and affecting to see that the Imperials fear the Emperor almost as much, if not more so, than Vader himself. A cackling, manipulative, wizened crone in a dark robe, the Emperor’s words are full of confidence and poison and he is so convinced of his victory that he willingly leaks information about the Death Star II to the Rebels in order to lure them into a trap. Seated in his enigmatic throne aboard the second Death Star, the Emperor taunts and cajoles Luke in order to fuel his anger and affect his turn towards the Dark Side; everything the Emperor says is designed to push Luke further and further and he even leaves himself completely defenceless, seemingly ready to die so that Luke can turn to the Dark Side and succeed him. His true motivation, of course, can be read through subtext; the Emperor wants Luke to battle, kill, and ultimately replace Vader as his apprentice and he (the Emperor) doesn’t really try to hide this motivation.
As for Darth Vader, he is at his most conflicted in Jedi; in A New Hope, he was a mere puppet, almost bored with the mundane routine of his life, but he was a driven, focused force of nature in Empire. In Jedi, we see just how committed and devoted to his Emperor Vader is; he willingly bows in the Emperor’s presence, speaks for him to the Imperial subordinates, and seems in awe (or fear) of the Emperor’s power and ability in the Dark Side of the Force. In Empire, Vader offered Luke the chance to join him so that they could overthrow the Emperor and you can tell, even with the featureless helmet and after shunning Luke’s assertions of his inner conflict, that Vader truly desires to unite with his son to displace the Emperor’s authority.
Return of the Jedi really ups the ante when it comes to practical and special effects; it’s truly a shame to see what a mess Lucas made of the Prequel Trilogy by relying so heavily on computer-generated characters and effects when the standards for the suits and puppets and stop motion work were so high in Jedi. Jabba makes an immediate impression thanks to being a huge, tangible puppet; slimy and disgusting, he’s little more than a lackadaisical slug but is so expressive and lifelike that you really buy into his presence and menace.
Similarly, the effects on the Rancor are still commendably impressive; a large, bipedal, nightmarish monster, we’ve never seen a character engage with a monster like the Rancor in the Star Wars films before and it’s very impressive the way the filmmakers pulled it off. Similarly, the integration of the Imperial Walkers into the more complex environment of the forest moon of Endor is equally impressive, marred only by the poor effects seen in the speeder bike chase.
Return of the Jedi also features the best space battle of the saga so far as the entire Rebel fleet converges on the second Death Star and the second biggest twist of the series is revealed when the Death Star starts blowing up their frigates with its super laser. What follows is an intense, suicidal mission as the outnumbered and outgunned Rebels desperately engage with countless TIE Fighters and numerous gigantic Star Destroyers until Han’s group manages to bring down the shield and allow Lando to lead the assault into the space station’s superstructure. It’s a big, visually impressive space battle and leagues beyond the more gritty skirmish we saw in A New Hope; because of the sheer amount of ships and destruction happening onscreen at any one time, you really get a sense of the urgency and overwhelming odds that the Rebels are up against and that ths is their last chance at defeating the Empire for good.
Ultimately, though, Vader willingly engages his son in the most brutal and emotionally charged lightsaber battle of the saga so far; like the Emperor, Vader taunts Luke, threatening his friends and sister to goad him into giving in to his hatred and anger. This works a little too well, however, as Luke flies into a rage and relentlessly pummels Vader, severing his cybernetic arm and rendering him beaten and helpless. Now held at the mercy of Luke’s lightsaber in a thematic reversal of the conclusion to their last battle, Vader wheezes helplessly on the floor, even holding a hand up as if to ward off Luke’s wrath and it is only when Luke compares his own cybernetic hand to Vader’s prosthetics that he realises how alike they truly are and he dramatically casts aside his lightsaber and refuses to kill his father. Insulted and angered, the Emperor unleashes his full power on Luke and reveals a peak at the true destructive potential of the Force; prior to Jedi, the Force was an abstract concept with a multitude of uses but never truly tangibly seen onscreen but the Emperor’s devastating Force Lightning changes that and it’s extremely unsettling to see him cackling away and taking such pleasure in roasting Luke alive.
Darth Vader is deeply perturbed by these events; literally turning his head to his suffering son and his all-powerful master, physically evoking the conflict deep within his dark heart. Ultimately, Vader chooses to turn on his master, hoisting the Emperor up and casting him down a vast chasm to his death and absorbing the full, lethal force of his master’s lightning at the same time. Many like to argue that this one act redeems Vader (and Jedi goes out of its way to show this as the case as Vader, now restored to the form of Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen), appears alongside Obi-Wan and Yoda as a Force ghost at the film’s conclusion, now content and happy) but I actually take issue with this. It’s a poignant and moving seen seeing Vader’s scarred and vulnerable true face as he has one last heartfelt moment with his son but does one act, no matter how pivotal, truly make up for the years of torture and genocide that Vader personally revelled in? I would argue that it doesn’t and that it takes the focus off of Luke who, for me, is the true “Chosen One” of the saga and that Anakin’s destiny was to sire the Chosen One rather than be it himself.
Many people like to rag on Star Wars: Episode VI: Return of the Jedi and I can understand why: the plot is largely derivative, the inclusion of the cute and cuddly Ewoks was a bit jarring, and it seems like a much shorter, far less intense film of the most part. For me, personally, I have no real issue with the Ewoks as they help to expand the Star Wars universe and tell a decent story of primitive cultures triumphing over superior forces (acting as a pretty on the nose allegory for the Rebellion itself in many ways) and the film’s intensity ramps up considerably once the big space battle and the culmination of Luke’s journey begins. No, for me, Return of the Jedi’s flaws lie in the disappointing trend it set for further Star Wars films to focus more on call-backs and redundant elements than trying something new; not only does the Death Star return, the first portion of the film returns to the bleak, barren, boring landscape of Tatooine and, while it does something new with this environment, it’s disappointing to me how many subsequent Star Wars films re-used this desert landscape or returned to the idea of a planet-killing super weapon. Still, that aside, there’s a lot to like in Return of the Jedi, particularly if you focus on the assault against the Death Star II and Luke’s emotional confrontation with his father and it’s easily the second best film in the Original Trilogy for me.
Where do you rank Star Wars: Episode VI: Return of the Jedi against the Original Trilogy, and the other films in the Star Wars saga? What did you think to the inclusion of the Ewoks and bringing the Death Star back into the story? How about the Emperor; what did you think of him and of Darth Vader’s sacrifice in the film’s finale? Do you feel that one act redeemed Vader or do you agree that one act cannot be weighed against a lifetime of evil deeds? What did you think to the revelation that Leia is Luke’s sister? How are you celebrating May the Sith today? Whatever you think, drop a comment below and let me know and thanks for joining me in revisiting the Original Trilogy over the last three days.