Watching Return of the Jedi is a bipolar experience. As the third entry in a trilogy, it should supply a satisfying conclusion to everything that has come before. In reality, a large chunk is spent wasting time and giving characters we all know and love nothing to do except run around with live-action, Star Wars-themed versions of my daughter’s plush bedtime toy.
Jedi opens at the palace of Jabba the Hutt, a ruthless and all-around disgusting gangster with a base of operations on Tatooine, Luke’s home planet. After being frozen in carbonite in Empire, Han Solo was transported to Jabba’s palace to serve as a sort of decoration for Jabba to admire and gloat over. Not one to take his friends being frozen and used as a coffee table book sitting down, Luke devises a rescue attempt involving both R2-D2 and C-3PO, Leia, Chewbacca, and Lando Calrissian, and Jedi’s opening sees the two droids enacting the first part of Luke’s rescue plan. That seems like a reasonable place to start the story this time around, right? Right.
Unfortunately, during this scene in Return of the Jedi is where the wheels start to come off of the Star Wars wagon. Something about the entire rescue seems off, and if it weren’t for the way Mark Hamill plays Luke, I would hate this entire portion of the movie.
Basically, it makes no sense. Luke sends in 3PO and R2 to ask for Han’s release, and when that fails, he sends in Leia disguised as a bounty hunter, with Chewie “captured” by her side. For reasons that are over my head, this part of the plan fails, as well, and Luke is left with having to go into Jabba’s lair himself to free Han. Why he didn’t do that to begin with is a mystery that both the Bermuda Triangle and the Loch Ness Monster have nothing on. At some point before the rescue operation begins, Luke stashes his lightsaber inside R2. Fast-forward to when the shit hits the fan, and you’d imagine Luke would want that lightsaber, but your imagination would be severely lacking. Instead, he goes for a blaster and gets immediately swarmed as he stands directly on top of a trap door in the floor. Keep in mind, for God-knows how long, Lando Calrissian has been spying on Jabba’s operation under the guise of a palace guard or something, but it doesn’t matter, since he does literally nothing to help Luke when he makes his move. All he had to do was not let him fall into the rancor pit as R2 shot the lightsaber into Luke’s hands, but that makes too much sense. The way it unfolds would make much more sense if Luke was ambushed instead of the orchestrating the rescue mission, but it allows for the sarlacc debacle, where Luke is supposed to literally walk the plank. Making the hero walk the plank is the worst possible idea, one hundred percent of the time, regardless of who you are or what you’re trying to accomplish. Just don’t do it.
But Jabba does it, and Luke uses the ineptitude (and the plank itself) as a springboard to fly through the air, with his lightsaber never far away when he needs it. Seeing Luke transform into a Jedi before my eyes is a treat, and as I mentioned, Mark Hamill nails it. He has an air about him that is almost creepy, and his facial expressions betray only that he knows something and won’t tell anyone what it is. It feels like he’s enjoying using his newfound power and Force insight, which will come back into play as the story progresses.
One thing that never progresses, however, is Han Solo’s character, and I don’t really care if it’s due to Harrison Ford being over the whole Star Wars thing by the time his two-picture contract was up. Whatever the reason, Han Solo is a useless sack of meat who does nothing in Return of the Jedi, and any time a scene calls for him to do what Han used to do best, it’s done in a slapstick, deleted scene kind of way that’s not believable in the slightest. Though he’s not a buffoon, he’s portrayed as one, and that will never sit well with me.
The issues with Han mainly come about as by-products of Jedi’s major problem, which is everything that happens on Endor’s moon. If you’ve seen the movie, you know what’s coming: Ewoks. Those walking product placements make all of the rebel’s activities nigh unwatchable for me. Their introduction is fifteen minutes of almost unbroken awfulness that only lets up when Luke’s part of the tale is put back in focus. I don’t know how many total minutes they’re on-screen, but those minutes could have been much better spent doing just about anything else. I’d rather see more from Lando while he attacks the Death Star, for example. He’s hardly in the movie at all, and giving him more battles to win would at least make him useful.
The worst Ewok offense, for me, is that fifteen minute stretch where C-3PO is mistaken by the Ewoks as some kind of a golden god. Absolutely nothing gets accomplished by anyone during this span, which leads me to conclude that the only reason it was shot was so children would have more toys to buy after the fact. That’s a nice sentiment, isn’t it? It totally doesn’t remind you of the prequels or anything.
I’m well aware of the differences between the making of Return of the Jedi and the previous entry in the series, The Empire Strikes Back. Irvin Kershner, the director of Empire, was able to put his foot down and make the movie he wanted to make, which in turn caused George Lucas to hire an inexperienced film director to helm Jedi. Lucas was basically a co-director and signed off on every important decision that needed to be made. In short, it was his movie, not the actual director’s, and everything makes sense to me after that. The stories of Lucas behind the scenes are well-documented, so I won’t belabor the point or attempt an in-depth recollection. I’ll just say that, in my opinion, Return of the Jedi is where you begin to see the merchandising and marketing scheme become more important than the quality of the base product.
It’s supremely frustrating, then, to realize that when the Ewoks are nowhere to be seen, Return of the Jedi becomes the worthy successor it was supposed to be. The way Luke behaves is exactly how Anakin Skywalker should have behaved in Revenge of the Sith, which was supposed to depict a man torn between the light and the dark side. While not torn, Luke still exhibits influences of both sides while never allowing one to overtake the other. His father lacked the strength to balance himself with the Force, and, in turn, he was able to be controlled by his master, Darth Sidious.
The final confrontation between Luke, Darth Vader, and Darth Sidious is almost as exciting and harrowing as Luke and Vader’s duel in Empire, but with more of a true ending to the movie itself. If only Lucas could have allowed his creations to take shape and evolve in the hands of other (read: better) talents, the trilogy could have ended on a total high note. What’s there isn’t trash through-and-through, but the Ewok nonsense threatens to unravel everything built up by Luke’s story arc.
I honestly don’t know whether Return of the Jedi is a mostly-awesome movie with a large hole punched through it or a terribly-executed end to a trilogy that still manages to bring a few excellent ideas to fruition. Either way, it’s a mixed bag and not what I want from the last leg in a long narrative. Something clearly changed from the time Empire released to when Jedi went into production, and whatever it was worsened the franchise. You can choose to look at this as ending on a low note, but with the amount of content available in the Extended Universe (books, games, shows, etc.), there should be enough to keep any fan sustained for a good while. Despite not being the ideal way to set up the Star Wars universe, Jedi’s fumbles have worked out for the best so far, and I’m hoping The Force Awakens, which is playing in theaters as we speak, will be able to raise the bar back up to where it’s supposed to be.
Read more from George Bell at Knights of Mars Roundtable