Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Heath Holland On...Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi

by Heath Holland
This is my favorite Star Wars movie.

It wasn’t always this way; I was devoted to The Empire Strikes Back for years, drawn to the complex storytelling and deep characterization, the romance and the dialogue. Of course, I didn’t know that’s what was sucking me in, and I just thought I liked it because it was “dark” and because it ended on such a desolate note. But these days? These days give me Return of the Jedi.

After the smash successes of the previous two films, there was a lot riding on the conclusion to the Original Trilogy. Richard Marquand was hired to direct, and much like the decision to hire Irvin Kershner as the director of The Empire Strikes Back, there are no real successes in his resume before RotJ that make the decision obvious. Marquand had come from documentary and television work, and only had a handful of theatrical films under his belt when the call came to take what was then the final chapter. Maybe that’s why George Lucas was reportedly so hands on during the shoot that many people say he practically directed the film himself.

Cinematically, the hallmarks of George Lucas are everywhere in Return of the Jedi. From the euphemistic burping sarlacc that inhabits the Great Pit of Carkoon on Tatooine to the pulp images of Leia in a metal bikini draped across Jabba The Hutt’s dais, to the highly marketable Ewoks of Endor, this is a George Lucas movie through and through.
Younger Star Wars fans might be surprised to discover that there was already a pretty big backlash against Lucas and Star Wars even back in 1983. Many of the kids who had seen the film we know refer to as A New Hope back in 1977 had grown up with the story, and were pleased with the mature direction of The Empire Strikes Back. A lot of these kids were now teenagers by the time that Return of the Jedi hit theaters, and didn’t appreciate the warm and fuzzy aspects of the story, hated the Ewoks, and felt like Han Solo was completely neutered in the film. I just think it’s interesting, maybe even important, to remember that as long as there have been Star Wars sequels, there have been people complaining about how those sequels aren’t REALLY Star Wars.

Lest you think I’m going to defend these things, let me blow your mind: a lot of these criticisms are totally valid. Harrison Ford is one of the people who felt like Han Solo had been completely stripped of anything that made him interesting by the third film, and I have a hard time disagreeing with him. He felt that the character should have died at the climax of The Empire Strikes Back because his death would give the story greater depth and meaning through his sacrifice. As thankful as I am that we still have Han Solo in The Force Awakens, I think he was absolutely right. Every character deserves (needs) an arc, but the guy at the end of Jedi isn’t even the same person we saw gun down Greedo in the Cantina a few years earlier. I don’t mean that in the sense of “he’s come so far and grown so much” as much as I mean that he’s like a totally different guy. Not for the better, if you ask me.

The people who say that Ewoks exist to sell toys are probably right too. I don’t really care; I love the Ewoks, probably because I can’t remember a time when they didn’t exist. Just like Jar Jar Binks was created to make kids laugh, Ewoks were put in this movie for children, and those children love them to this day (just like many kids from the ‘90s onward still have a soft spot for Jar Jar). Still, I recognize the Ewoks for what they are, and I’d be lying if I said that the Battle of Endor didn’t stretch on just a little too long for my tastes. And how inept is the Empire, to be taken out by a bunch of fuzzy primitives who are only three feet tall and don’t even have complex machines? Much has been said about the poor marksmanship of stormtroopers, but come on. Then again, this is a George Lucas movie.
Then there are the “Special Edition” changes from 1997. Of the three films to be tinkered with before a theatrical re-release, my beloved Return of the Jedi was the hardest hit. Gone is the otherworldly song in Jabba’s palace, “Lapti Nek,” replaced by a cartoon character singing some electric blues number and getting so close to the camera that we see that little hangy-down thing in the back of his CGI throat as he croons. The previously mentioned euphemistic sarlacc now has a euphemistic ding dong that rises up and swallows people. The small party and Ewok song on Endor that closes the original film has been replaced with footage of the entire galaxy celebrating victory, all set to new music. And as of the Blu-ray releases, Darth Vader’s once-silent act of defiance is now accompanied by a big “Noooooooo!” I respect the ground Lucas walks on and I think he’s an incredible mind that has done more for the film industry than ANYONE through millions of dollars in donations and his progressive filmmaking decisions, but I think it’s a big mistake to change any film. I recognize that, due to the way he made these movies, they belonged to him and he was free to do with them as he wished, but I think it was a mistake. I almost always choose to watch my inferior standard definition copies than the altered Blu-rays.

There are definitely things to complain about in Return of the Jedi, but there are so many things that DO work that I just let them go and enjoy the ride. This is mythic storytelling, and this movie delivers that myth like few other films. With the proper introduction of The Emperor, the final pieces of the story begin to click into place as the scope of the three films finally becomes apparent. Think about that: before this movie (and before the Prequels), the scale of these films and the landscape they play out in hadn’t been established. Modern blockbuster movies are very quick to tell you every little detail about the world so that they can capitalize on that world with video games and books and toys. Even The Force Awakens has done that. The Classic Trilogy leaves almost everything unexplained, to its benefit. Who are the stormtroopers? Where do they come from and how do you become one? What were the Clone Wars? If The Force is something that only the Jedi use (and the Jedi are almost completely extinct), then why does the Rebel Alliance constantly tell each other “May The Force be with you?” The movies leave these things up to us.
I love that Luke is at war with himself through this entire movie. From the moment we see him at the beginning of the film, we recognize that he’s different from how we’ve ever seen him before. Confident and calm, completely dressed in black (like his father), Luke is incredibly powerful and in control. When he walks in to Jabba’s palace, he’s not looking for a fight, but he’s prepared to do it in order to save his friends. There’s a lot of precious ambiguity running through Luke’s storyline, and I think the case could be made that the real struggle in the film isn’t Luke defeating Vader or The Emperor but balancing The Force itself. In a post-Prequel world, we can see that he’s helping his father redeem that prophecy from all the way back in The Phantom Menace. Luke allows himself to be captured because he believes that the only way this will end is if he can bring Anakin Skywalker back. At no point does Luke attack The Emperor. Luke goes to his father prepared to die. This is unconventional stuff.

This is why I get so excited by Return of the Jedi, and why it’s my favorite Star Wars film. The biggest successes of the movie are its themes of redemption, love, and sacrifice; they resonate with me in a crazy way, especially as I get older and realize how important they are. I need to believe that it’s never too late to come back to the light. Darth Vader has been responsible for the deaths of countless people, many of them completely innocent (remember the younglings he slaughtered in Revenge of the Sith?), but this movie tells us that you’re never too far gone to come back to what is good, even when you’ve done unspeakable things. It doesn’t tell us that there are no consequences, but it does say that there is always a choice, even when you think it’s too late.

Going back to Luke’s struggle with himself, he’s clearly skirting dangerously close to The Dark Side. He’s in control for most of the movie, but when Vader probes his mind in The Emperor’s throne room and discovers that there is a sister, we see Luke give in to the Dark Side by letting his fear and anger take control. He brutally hacks away at Vader—the man he came to save—until he chops off his father’s hand and see’s that it’s really a machine, just like his. If he continues down this path, he will become his father. What’s more, in that moment Luke is also continuing the cycle of violence begun by his father. To the movie’s credit, no one verbalizes ANY of this. There is restraint that we don’t see much of these days, and the battle is played on Luke’s face and through the OUTSTANDING score of John Williams. Speaking of faces, the look that Ian McDiarmid gives as The Emperor when Luke tosses away his lightsaber and tells him that he will not give in to the Dark Side is fantastic. The Emperor is perplexed and disgusted, and also has been proven wrong, and all this is in a single facial expression. The thing that finally defeats The Emperor and redeems Anakin Skywalker is LOVE. Yeah, it’s corny, but THAT is why Return of the Jedi rocks. It’s the love of a son for his father and an unwillingness to give up on him. It’s also a father seeing that love and his son’s willingness to sacrifice his life. Remember, what Vader/Anakin feared more than anything was the death of his loved ones. It’s what led him to the Dark Side in the first place. Here his son is willingly giving up his life. That’s powerful stuff to me, especially given the trappings of space ships and puppets.
The ending of Return of the Jedi is bittersweet; it’s happy, with the planet of Endor celebrating and fireworks lighting up the night sky, but the film leaves us with no clear future. Yoda and Obi-Wan are gone, and Luke is now alone, the last of the Jedi. He’s been trained, but there is so much that he doesn’t know and no one there to teach him. The Empire is headless and scattered, but Star Destroyers still hold planets under their thrall throughout the galaxy. Han and Leia have each other, but there is so much work to be done in order to rebuild what has been broken for so long. This is a major victory for the Rebel Alliance—now the New Republic?—but it’s also just the beginning of a long road. As the credits come up on the screen, we’re happy, but there’s still so much we don’t know. The future is uncertain.

I think Return of the Jedi is an incredible film, well-written (by Lucas and Lawrence Kasdan) and well-directed (by Richard Marquand, probably with some help), packed with ideas that resonate on a subliminal level, but packaged in a popcorn film for the ages. The themes are universal, the images are iconic, and the action is just so much fun to watch. George Lucas had wanted to create a mythology with heroes for young people, and if the pop culture frenzy around The Force Awakens is any indication, he most certainly succeeded. With Disney at the helm, there is no doubt that Star Wars will outlast us all, and our children’s children will have adventures of their own in a galaxy far, far away. Obi-Wan said it best: “The Force will be with you…always.”


  1. I was never terribly bothered by the Special Editions, but that "Nooooo!" is deplorable. That moment of Vader turning and grabbing the Emperor is the single biggest goose bump moment in my movie watching life. The silent physicality said it all. Grumble. Anyway, nice article.

  2. I understand peoples take on the Ewoks. However, as a kid I remember the scene where a couple of Ewoks are killed by an AT-ST and a fellow Ewok attempts to revive them. This was the first time in the series I actually remembered feeling true stakes. Aunt and Uncle were murder off screen and all spaceship/stormtrooper/rebel soldier deaths were truly disposable and didn’t warrant much thought for me, at that time. I mean even Yoda and Ben just disappear to almost immediately return as a force ghost. I guess I’m saying the comparison to Jar Jar and his fellow Gungans seems rather uncool to Ewoks everywhere. Hell, the first time we met them as a whole they plan on making our hero’s dinner. I’m just saying go a little easier on our mini Chewies. I suppose that’s enough Ewok ranting. Great article I’ve really liked them all. Hopefully everyone can enjoy the TFA, and we’ll get to see an Ewok.

  3. I really like Return of the Jedi, despite its many flaws (which you thoroughly enumerate here). I think this might be John Williams' best score for the Star Wars films - the "Luke and Leia" cue is my absolute favorite - and the special effects are a living tribute to the optical printer. However, that finale has just too much damn crap packed into it. My favorite moment in the film is when Vader dies. It's a genuinely touching moment, and everything gets quiet as Williams plays the Imperial March pianissimo on a harp. Beautiful. And then BAM! SMASH! The Falcon is flying in the Death Star! What in the holy hell is happening!? I get emotional whiplash every time I see that horrendous transition.

  4. Return of the Jedi was my favourite too...probably because we has recorded it off the TV onto VHS, and so it was the one I watched over, and over, and over again.

    Plus this is the movie that gave us Admiral Akbar!

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  6. Return of the Jedi is the most flawed entry in the trilogy, but I think it's also the most important key to understanding the overall theme of the original trilogy, and even Lucas's entire six-film saga, which is that the Jedi have lost their way. The Jedi are not completely good anymore, and Luke doesn't balance the force until he defies them.

    Think of how both the Emperor AND Yoda think the only way to bring balance (which they see as tipping the force in their favor rather than, yaknow, BALANCE) is to kill Darth Vader, and how Luke only wins by sparing him. Notice how Luke dresses in black and force chokes a guard but still fights for what's morally right, or how he's the first character we see without a blue or red lightsaber. Notice how at the end of the film he's the only trained force user alive, meaning he feels all the brunt of the entirety of the force.

    idk I'm kinda rambling, but this is always what I've seen in the film. I think the film, in a sense, is vastly underrated because it's mostly remembered for ewoks and whatnot, even though there's so much more here than people credit it for.

  7. Specifically, how Star Wars taught me more about information security than most any actual course or class ever could.