CINEMA CLASSICS: Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1983)

Oscar brings the OT Star Wars films to a close with the divisive sixth chapter. 

Who made it?: Richard Marquand (Director), George Lucas, Lawrence Kasdan (Writers), Howard G. Kazanjian (Producer), LucasFilm Ltd., 20th Century Fox.

Who’s in it?: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Billy Dee Williams, Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew, David Prowse, Frank Oz, Sebastian Shaw.

Tagline: “The Empire Falls…”

IMDb rating: 8.4/10.

For a long while, I actually considered Return of the Jedi to be my second favourite Star Wars movie. I do think it gets the short end of the stick to this day; it’s not perfect and parts of it are a little samey, feeling like George Lucas was playing things safe thematically, so it’s not exactly underrated either. But there is enough good material to make it work as an emotionally-rewarding climax, tying up all the loose-ends of the previous movies.

Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) initiates a plan to rescue Han Solo (Harrison Ford) from the crime lord Jabba the Hutt with the help of Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), and R2-D2 (Kenny Baker). Leia, disguised as a bounty hunter, releases Han Solo from his carbonite prison, but she is captured and enslaved, and Han is imprisoned along with Chewbacca. Luke then arrives and, after a tense standoff, he is sentenced along with Han to death by feeding them to the Sarlacc. Before being executed, Luke frees himself with R2-D2’s help and battles Jabba’s guards. Meanwhile, Leia strangles Jabba to death, Han accidentally dispatches Boba Fett, and Luke destroys Jabba’s sail barge as the group escapes. Luke returns to Dagobah where he finds that Yoda (Frank Oz) is dying of old age. Before he becomes one with the Force, Yoda confirms that Darth Vader is Luke’s father, and there is “another Skywalker.” The spirit of Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) reveals Vader’s true identity to be Anakin Skywalker, whom Luke must face and defeat in order to fulfil his destiny, and confirms that this other Skywalker is Luke’s twin sister, Leia.

The Rebel Alliance learns that the Empire has been constructing a new Death Star under the supervision of Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) himself, and protected by an energy shield on the forest moon of Endor. Using a stolen Imperial Shuttle, Han, Luke and Leia with Chewie, R2 and 3PO in tow lead a strike team to destroy the shield generator, enabling the Rebel Starfleet to destroy the Death Star. On Endor, Leia is separated from Luke during a speeder bike chase and befriends a native Ewok warrior named Wicket (Warwick Davis). Han, Luke and the others are captured by Wicket’s tribe and, after a brief conflict, gain their trust. That night, Luke reveals to Leia that Vader is his father and she is, by extension, his sister, and that he must go and confront him. Surrendering to Imperial troops, Luke is brought to Vader who then delivers him to the Emperor in order to sway Luke over to the Dark Side.

The acting is strong with this one. Hamill completes Luke’s journey from unseasoned farmboy to mighty Jedi Knight flawlessly; you fully believe him in his convictions and foibles. Ford is everyone’s loveable rogue once again, and while he doesn’t have as much to do as in previous instalments, he does get plenty of comedic lines and expressions. Fisher has great chemistry with Ford and is as likeable and brave as ever. Billy Dee is a dashing hero as Lando, Mayhew is always great as Chewie, and Daniels and Baker play off one another nicely. The combined physicality of David Prowse and the badass timbre of James Earl Jones once again bring Darth Vader to life, balancing out his intense rage and subtle emotional moments effectively. Also, Sabastian Shaw as old Anakin is often under-appreciated in how much he captured the remorse of this broken Sith Lord. McDiarmid was perfect as the Emperor; he hits just the right balance between over-the-top and subtle, and you really do believe he is capable of bending strong minds to his will. Oz and Guiness are both warm and venerable in their performances, and I even like Davis’ physical performance as Wicket.

There’s a lot of great effects work throughout Return of the Jedi, and the majority of the original effects still hold up. I especially love the creature makeup and animatronics, from the booming Ackbar to the slovenly Jabba and his minions. Despite the mocking nickname of “Muppets in Space,” isn’t this part of why we love Star Wars, the tangibility of the creatures and aliens? I love the strong, contrasting cinematography as it can be very dark and forbidding, but also warm and mysterious. Every scene on Endor or the Death Star looks incredible. The optical effects work for the fantastic miniatures, combined with the detailed matte paintings, defy all expectations. The resultant space battle is a treat to behold in how much energy and detail it conveys. Even more subtle effects like the Imperial Shuttle descending from the Death Star onto Endor at night conveys so much atmosphere and presence in mere minutes. While in other genre movies new creatures are introduced with laborious setups, Jedi immediately plunges its alien beasts into the thick of the action. Maybe that’s why the film has such a sense of visual richness. Jabba’s throne room, for example, is populated with several weird creatures, some of them only half-glimpsed in the corner of the frame.

John Williams was on top form, providing a worthy follow-up to his previous epic scores; the action-adventure cues are as powerful as ever. The moody choir pieces for the Emperor’s bone-chillingly sinister theme, and the emotional, physical and psychological duel between Luke and Vader were always the most engaging and suspenseful parts of the movie. I even like his jaunty theme for the Ewoks, and the way he incorporates more tribal-sounding music for their scenes. The new Luke and Leia theme gives the Skywalker scenes that extra bit of warmth, and who doesn’t love the Han/Leia love theme? I also appreciate the resolution to Vader’s journey over the trilogy. The score carries the emotions perfectly, taking an already strong story and pushing it into the realm of cinema classics.

Despite the intense atmosphere, the Jabba scenes do feel protracted, especially before Leia thaws out Han with all the musical numbers, and even the fight at the Sarlaac Pit could have been trimmed. A lot of the Endor scenes feel slow because of the heroes being captured by and later befriending the Ewoks, and the plot doesn’t kick-in until Luke surrenders to Vader. The destruction of the Second Death Star is probably too similar to the original film, and with the return to Tatooine and Dagobah, the film feels smaller and more cyclical, and repeats the theme of the mighty Empire being defeated against all odds by a smaller force. I hesitate to call it a rehash, as that sense of thematic familiarity is relevant to Luke’s journey.

At times, I wonder if the Ewoks attract too much criticism for basically being “teddy bears with spears.” The big controversy is that they were the first subject of heavily-commercialised toys, cartoons and spin-off movies. But it’s not like they were a helpless species; they were about to eat our heroes, and they had the advantage of numbers and stealth to outflank the Troopers. Their courage reminded me of the Hobbits in the “Scouring of the Shire” chapter from The Return of the King, who were able to out-manoeuvre Saruman’s ruffians. And I admire the theme of people of small stature overcoming brute force. Now, obviously this analogy doesn’t excuse how the Ewoks were able to toast the Imperial AT-ST’s so effectively, or the “comedic” battle shots that also throw the tone off, but for me, their size and primitive nature didn’t grate as much. The theme of nature versus technology is, at best, a seed of an idea, and would have been better served if it was played more seriously and believably, but I still admire the notion behind it.

Despite the inclusion of the Ewoks, the film is not really that lighthearted considering how compellingly dark the story is. The action can get pretty brutal with Leia strangling Jabba to death, or Luke slicing up his henchmen and even lunging at Vader with the intent of killing him, hacking away like a medieval knight! Both sides of the war sustain heavy casualties; you feel the weight of this battle. Everybody loves the scenes with the Emperor as the atmosphere is so brooding and shadowy – it’s like diving into the depths of Hell, and the Emperor is Satan! I love how we don’t see the Emperor’s face in full until Vader presents him to Luke, and we get a powerful close-up of this mangled, twisted old man steeped in the Dark Side. The visual metaphor of Luke being halfway between dark and light is ingrained in everyone’s mind, and for good reason, as we’re even made to question if Vader should be redeemed. The finale is sad but happy at the same time, making the audience care about Vader’s redemption and even shed a tear when he dies a redeemed man and is cremated by his son. Even though it was a little heavy on the exposition, I do like that a lot of the mysteries introduced to us over the trilogy were closed, and I never felt bored watching the slower scenes. I like that it gets dark in places but manages to balance that with the heartfelt scenes that make the Skywalker family so compelling.

Now, let’s address the Banthas in the room. The one big fan criticism is the fact that Boba Fett’s death was done for laughs, and while I am annoyed by his comical death, I frankly find him an overrated and uninteresting character, so it doesn’t bother me so much. I grew up with both the 1995 VHS release and the 1997 “Special Edition,” and most of the changes forced on the movie over the years actually make things worse. The only change that I actually like is the new choir song provided, because of the incredible joy and finality that it instills. But that’s it. The Jabba’s Palace scene in the 1997 release features “Jedi Rocks,” which wasn’t just grating to listen to, but throws off the tone of an otherwise creepy scene. The Sarlaac was needlessly changed in the ’97 release, too, and the CG doesn’t hold up. Same with the 2004 DVDs and Blu-Rays forcing another idiotic “NOOOO!” from Darth Vader as he kills the Emperor, and worst of all, superimposing Hayden Christensen on top of Sebastian Shaw. That was the most insulting change of all time for me, especially considering the quality of Shaw’s brief performance.

With all that said, the original, pure version of Return of the Jedi is still a thoroughly enjoyable and epic instalment of the saga. It isn’t my second favourite in the trilogy any more, but its problems aren’t as severe as some want to believe. For me at least, the thrilling third act, the drama and tension between Luke and Vader, suspenseful atmosphere, the closing of the trilogy’s arcs, the high stakes and the powerfully emotional climax were enough to tip the scales. Not the best Star Wars film, but certainly better than its given credit for.

Best Scene

The concluding battle ends the trilogy on one helluva finish. Here’s the space portion.

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • It took six people to work the full-sized animatronic of Jabba the Hutt.
  • During the shot in which Salacius Crumb (the small, annoying, rat-like thing that sits with Jabba in his palace) is chewing off C-3P0’s eye, Anthony Daniels had a panic attack while in the C-3P0 suit. While filming, he didn’t actually say his lines (all his lines were dubbed in post-production anyway), but repeated “Get me up. Get me up.” over and over. This take is the take used in the final film.
  • In the DVD 2004 release, George Lucas explained the reason behind why Yoda told Luke that Darth Vader was his father. Lucas had consulted with a child psychologist during the making of the film. The psychologist said that unless it was unequivocally stated that Vader was Luke’s father, moviegoers age 12 and under would dismiss Vader’s claim to be Luke’s father as a lie.
  • George Lucas fired his friend and producer of the previous two Star Wars movies, Gary Kurtz, before production began (although some sources say he simply quit on his own) as Kurtz disagreed with Lucas’ assertion that audiences didn’t care for the story but for the spectacle.
  • Leia was never intended to be Luke’s sister (as their brief kiss in the previous film shows). A sequel trilogy was apparently going to be about Luke finding his long lost sister. However, George Lucas decided he didn’t want to do that and wanted to tie everything up with this film.

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Oscar Stainton

Student of Ancient History at Royal Holloway University of London, Anglo-Mexican, die-hard Tolkien fan, lover of escapist fiction (be it in space or a world of knights and dragons), dino-maniac, and prospective writer.

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