In the run-up to the release of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker and the end of the Skywalker Saga, we will be taking a look back at all of the Saga films and re-evaluating them and their legacy as a whole.
Star Wars: Episode VI The Return of the Jedi
Now that we’ve dispensed with the two undisputedly great Star Wars films, it’s time to get into the more complicated ones. As mentioned in The Empire Strikes Back piece, the thesis of all Star Wars sequels after A New Hope was to avoid repetition and always try and create something new, but that thesis was frequently ignored, especially when deadlines loomed. Unfortunately, most of the problems in the series would have come from the moments when the films turned backward. Not all of them, not by a long shot [new doesn’t mean good; it just means new], but most of them.
There is, first and foremost, plenty of new to focus on – the forest moon of Endor and its wonderfully silly teddy bears, chicken walkers, and rocket bikes, the slug crime lord Jabba and his pirate pleasure ships, and the long-awaited introduction of the man behind the man, Emperor Palpatine. All of the visual whimsy and feel for set pieces, which made A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back what they were, are still in full effect, buoyed by greater confidence in the creative teams’ ability to execute ever more complicated sequences.
More importantly than any of that, Return of the Jedi attempts to grapple with greater moral issues than any of the previous films, replacing the aphorisms of Empire with real dramatic action and stakes as Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader’s familial drama approaches apotheosis. Return of the Jedi, at its best, has moments that are greater than anything in the other ‘better’ films. It also has far deeper valleys, ultimately creating an uneven experience that makes it less satisfying if still enjoyable (An issue that will also raise its head continuously in the films to follow).
Still, it is within Jedi that the boldest and perhaps greatest moment in the series takes place – the hero throws his weapon away and refuses to fight the villain. Imagine any other major action franchise that approaches the final moment of conflict and turns its back, decrying the choice of violence as the real enemy; it would seem hopelessly anti-climactic. In Jedi, it comes off as inevitable, the logical outcome of the Buddhist philosophy initiated in Empire and finally applied to dramatic context. It’s Star Wars‘ first and still most successful brush with real complexity. The series tends to get tagged, even here, as a simple ‘good versus evil’ story, but that stops being accurate fairly early – it is more specifically about ‘good and evil’ and the different ways human beings interact with the concepts.
It’s also a moment built on characterization, another element the series is frequently rebuffed for but which, in its most important moments, it takes extremely seriously. Though the performances in Return of the Jedi are uneven in the way finales can be, the climax contains the actors most committed to what the film is attempting. Particularly Hamill, who is finally up to the challenge given him.
He is also finally matched by Darth Vader, who gels the work of body and voice into one dramatic whole. Even better than the final confrontation with the Emperor is Luke’s meeting with Vader on Endor. Simple gesturing and villainy are replaced with actual communication and emotional exchange. Darth Vader, DARTH VADER, reveals levels of inner turmoil and depth – if that’s not a sign of challenging the status quo, I don’t know what is. It is the best scene in the film and one of the best in the entire series.
What works in Jedi works so well, in fact, it’s almost possible to ignore what doesn’t (and that will not be the last time that is said for Star Wars). As much new ground as Jedi treads, for the first time, it begins leading the series into the past, re-using locations and plot points in order to give the finished product some sort of form. With a release date set in stone and less time to develop the story than any of the previous two films (A New Hope took four years to conceptualize and write, and Empire was worked on for nearly two years, while Jedi received half that time), Jedi frequently returns to old ideas.
Tatooine returns, as does the Death Star, and once again, the heroes make a fatal flight into its innards in order to save the day. It’s as if all the tenets set up in Empire were forgotten, or at least set aside when not convenient.
It’s not a complete rehash – a fair amount of remixing is done, and fantastic new elements are added. More importantly, the film has enough propulsive power to push past those issues. But after the refreshing newness of Empire, it’s a letdown and ultimately a sign of things to come. The direction by newcomer Richard Marquand (taking over from Kershner after the marathon that was Empire) is not as stylish as his forerunner but makes the best of both its old elements (the Death Star and Tatooine both seem new even as we return to them) and new ones combining them into a finished whole.
Most importantly, he pulls useful performances not just out of the characters he needs them from (Luke and Vader) but from those with less utility to the story. Jedi is, as the title suggests, a Skywalker affair from start to finish, with Leia and Han hanging around because they’ve been around, and their actors often indifferent to what they’re doing.
Much of that comes from an unwillingness to let go of characters whose dramatic arcs have ended and an inability to create new ones (a problem that will also pop up again), particularly for Han Solo. This is abetted by a desire to create a happy ending even when it doesn’t always make sense, which made sense at the time but created many problems for future installments.
After the accomplishment of Empire, it’s possible, maybe even probable, that nothing would ever have been a match that came before. Even if no plot or world elements had been re-used, it’s entirely likely Jedi would suffer from the same problems it has, slowing down noticeably in the second act when it should be picking up. That’s the nature of art. But wrapping everything in a previous context just makes it more clear when it’s going wrong and how.
Still, as backward-looking as Return of the Jedi can be, it is also a view of the future. A premonition of what future Star Wars films would be like, good and bad, and why.
Rating: 7 out of 10 (Buy Return of the Jedi at Amazon)
Joshua Starnes has been writing about film and the entertainment industry since 2004 and served as the President of the Houston Film Critics Society from 2012 to 2019. In 2015, he became a co-owner/publisher of Red 5 Comics and, in 2018, wrote the series “Kulipari: Dreamwalker” for Netflix. In between, he continues his lifelong quest to find THE perfect tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwich combination.