The Star Wars original trilogy is pretty sacred text to those obsessed with a galaxy far far away. In a modern world where the prequel trilogy is an infamous memory and the current Disney run is hotly contested to say the least, the Star Wars trilogy that enchanted audiences in the late 70s – the early 80s is still largely considered to be the holy scripture of the franchise by fans. Star Wars revolutionized the sci-fi fantasy genre for decades to come. Empire Strikes Back – while receiving a lukewarm reception upon initial release – is often considered one of the best sequels of all time by film dorks and average joes alike. The third entry in the original trilogy Return of the Jedi is a bit of a different story.
In an age before Star Wars was close to the 21st century, Return of the Jedi was the black sheep. A concluding chapter which represented how a series that appealed to all audiences was mainly targeting the younger set and leaving anyone above the age of 12 in the dust. It’s filled with an extensive amount of puppets, furry teddy bear creatures and dumb sight gags that would make adults scratch their heads and older kids feeling bored. Jedi became the punching bag for a disappointing end to a trilogy for a few decades. As Dante Hicks once said in 1994’s Clerks, “Empire had the better ending. Luke loses his hand and finds out Vader is his father. Han is frozen and captured by Boba Fett. It ends on such a down note. Just like in real life. All Jedi had was a bunch of Muppets.”
Yet, Jedi has has gained some amount of respect in the resulting three and a half decades since it was released. With the harsh backlash against the prequel trilogy and the rather divisive reception of the new Disney era films by the fanbase, Jedi looks less disappointing even with its faults. But that’s only really in comparison. Fans still love to prod and poke at Ewoks, Boba Fett’s disappointing end or the tonal shifts at play. And those criticisms have some merit. However, even with those faults squarely in mind, Jedi is not only an overall rousing finale to most of the threads from the first two films, but arguably has the best subplot of any of them. You read that right. This jumbled mess manages to close out the original series with a bang few other trilogies have managed to achieve. And I’m not just talking about the second Death Star.
On a superficial level, there’s a major upping of the ante with the creatures and production design on display. Jabba the Hutt’s palace is a dingy yet incredibly detailed nightmare den of scum and villainy, taking all the promise of the Cantina in the original film and fleshing it out to a larger galaxy context. We only get so long with Jabba, but we get a sense that this is a true crime slum of debauchery and reckless abandon that has no rule beyond Jabba’s word. His excess and slimy lackadaisical attitude say so much with so little. This contrast between hedonism and small details breaths life into everyone involved at the palace. Who could forget the simple moment of a trainer mourning the loss of his giant Rancor monster? Some have said this awkwardly contrasts with the Endor scenes, but it feels more like clear direct contrast. Going from a dimly lit land of sin living in their filth to a pure society of green happy creatures working to save their ecosystem feels like a natural transition. All with the over arching apex of the Empire looming overhead with an even larger Death Star and a spectacularly elaborate spin on the original trench run to boot. Showcasing how all of this exists in the same galaxy and can only be controlled by the powers of The Force in the form of Mark Hamill,’s Luke Skywalker.
The major theme of Return of the Jedi is one that spills over into the other Star Wars films; confrontation with your past. Luke Skywalker’s major arc throughout the entire trilogy – and into the sequel films – is coming to terms with what has happened before and moving on from it. By Return of the Jedi, Luke has to face several aspects of his past before embracing what he never knew to be true until the ending of Empire; his father Darth Vader. He returns to his home of Tatooine to save his newfound friends, says goodbye to Yoda & Obi-Wan after the give him the final truth of his growth & abilities as a Jedi and returns to the rebuilt version of the battle station he blew up to finally confront his enemy and progenitor. We see just how far Luke has come here, from wide eyed innocent farm boy to eager reckless Jedi to calm yet worried master. Even with the time jumps, Luke has formed into a true cloth Jedi. One who handily destroys The Rancor and invades Jabba’s palace of immersive creatures without batting an eye in intimidation. Yet, he still has his hesitations and worries. About the future of his friends or his ability to fight against Vader. There’s deliberation into his actions, even when it’s considering doubt over his abilities or vengeance in his heart that nearly consumes him. It shows that Luke is far more human than previous Jedi later depicted in the prequels, which makes him a far more engaging character than most in prior chronology. It’s still to this day the most nuanced performance of Mark Hamill’s career, balancing the affable hero of Luke we know with the newfound sense of determination and occasional lashing out.
This sense of progression isn’t exclusive to Luke. Lando fully embraces his journey from smuggler and traitor to leader & hero of the rebellion, leading a more diverse fleet against the second Death Star. Leia comes to terms with her lineage, breaks the chains of slavery from one of the galaxy’s biggest crime lords Jabba The Hutt and leads the full on assault against the Empire. A scene between her and Luke that is mostly mean for exposition about their a connection reads as a moment of realization and attempted convincing to bring her brother away from the temptations of the Force. C-3PO even manages to go from translating as a servant for Jabba to a full fledged story telling God for the Ewoks. He manages to provoke the first battle of the Ewoks against the Stormtroopers by sheer distraction right alongside R2-D2. Hell, the Ewoks themselves evolve from a ravenous primitive culture to one based around camaraderie and defensive action. The last one admittedly sounds a bit unintentionally supportive of colonialism, but the Rebellion trusts and respects the Ewoks enough to fight against the Empire as things go on. Some of it may seem contemplatively silly, but the Ewoks use their limited resources to fight a far more advanced Empire in a way that feels like it has a spark of ingenuity while embracing their resources and trusting in the humans of the Empire to help save both their planet and the entire galaxy. It’s especially more clear when you consider Wicket and the others were so close to consuming our heroes.
The only major character who lacks a character arc in a considerable fashion is Han Solo. It’s clear that Harrison Ford‘s heart isn’t really in this final chapter as blindly flails through the first half and mugs his way through the second half. It’s also clear that George Lucas and Lawrence Kasdan – despite clearly wanting to give Han an important role in this finale to the original trilogy – give him essentially a role any of the other rebels could have taken. He’s not really leading to a considerably fashion He’s just sort of there to be a lesser version of the Han we knew and loved from before. No change or evolution… unless fully embracing that Princess Leia has the hots for him is progression. Hell, the best moments involving him showcase Leia’s growth as a character, one being her amazing reversal on the “I Love You/I Know” moment from Empire and her reveal to Han about Luke being her brother. Neither really require much from Ford and so much more from Carrie Fischer.
However, the more intriguing progression runs through Luke and spills over into Darth Vader himself. Giving this dark ominous representation of intergalactic fascism a moment of redemption could have easily gone awry in the wrong hands. Yet, the combined efforts of James Earl Jones‘ haunted vocal work, David Prowse‘s determined steps in the suit and Sebastian Shaw‘s gasping dying words craft an Anakin Skywalker who goes from seemingly lost under the Vader armor to protruding out for a final act of honest heart. The soul of Star Wars as a saga shines through in any scene between Vader, Luke and Emperor Palpatine. The delicious scenery chewing of Ian McDiarmid is gloriously glowing underneath the iconic robe. Yet, it’s with true malice and purpose as he taunts Luke with the failure of the rebellion & the clear unstoppable power of the Empire, breaking Luke’s concentration and allowing his darker tendencies to cave in. Palpatine embodies all the worst aspects of the of the Sith, having hate shrivel and consume him like a prune of embittered ego.
This is where director Richard Marquand‘s knack for character based drama really comes in handy, as he puts together what is easily the best lightsaber duel of the series between Vader and Luke. The tension that builds is palpable. With every strike, Luke and Vader clash in ways that echo with resonance and hurt as we know that this is a true fight of family. Father and son fighting not just for their lives, but the souls that bind each other in the ways of The Force. Marquand’s use of negative space creates this darkly immersive battle that slowly encompasses the dark side. Each painful bolt of Palpatine’s lighting energy clearly chills Luke to the bone. Even Vader’s redemption shows off the true hero underneath fighting to save his son with the last bit of life he had in him. It’s tragic, beautiful and one of the more awe inspiring cinematic moments of Star Wars in general. All coming to a head violent head that slowly dissipates into a moment of quiet whispered sadness as Luke sees his father pass into being one with The Force.
Ultimately, Return of the Jedi is still the overall weaker entry in the original trilogy. It doesn’t have the self contained sense of discovery of the original Star Wars or the most consistent escalation of the themes & characters of Empire. Yet, it still gives the stories of the Skywalkers true closure in a way that constantly goes unsung and underrated. Luke’s final burning of his father is a wonderful climactic shot that says everything. The reign of the Empire has ended for now, but we must honor those who serve as potential heroes even if it’s in their final moments. Redemption is possible, but doesn’t bestow immortality. Setting the stage for hope to blossom. The title fulfills its promise as Vader goes from being a Sith to being a Jedi once again, even if so briefly. It’s something Luke and Leia will permanently have to carry with them throughout life, but they can handle thanks to their own support system of a family they’ve cultivated together. While the new trilogy has yet to confirm if they’ll fulfill something similar with next year’s episode XI, one can only hope it achieves some of the gravitas of Jedi… but also doesn’t turn Finn into the new Han Solo. John Boyega deserves to give a shit
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