by Heath Holland
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”