And so, to the last of the original trilogy, a movie that is not quite as good as its predecessors but still much better than the prequels. Which is not necessarily much of a compliment, but this is a good film with some really great bits that more than make up for the ‘not great’ bits.
As a very young child I might even have claimed that this was actually my favourite, but that’s only because I had the opinions of a small child. Still, I did see this at a young enough age that nostalgia helps me to overlook some of this movie’s worst faults.
And now to the spoiler alert:
Spoiler Alert – I expect that I’ll be revealing some plot points in the text that follows. This may ruin your enjoyment of a movie that came out it in 1983 but probably much less than the Ewoks will.
This movie is not about someone giving back a Jedi that they borrowed like a library book– George Lucas reserved those kind of perfunctory plotlines for the prequel trilogy. No, this is either about the notional return of the Jedi order, as Luke completes his training, or possibly about the return from the dark side of Anakin Skywalker. And if it is the latter you could argue that it is, in fact, about someone giving back a Jedi that they borrowed like a library book. But you would be wrong to argue that because Palpatine doesn’t give Anakin back at all. Anakin chucks Palpatine into the reactor of the Death Star. Library books don’t tend to do that. At least not in my experience. Although I did borrow a book on ‘referencing’, when writing my MA dissertation, which was so dull it made me want to hurl myself into the nearest Death Star reactor. So, it was lucky for me that Death Stars don’t exist in real life.
‘Return of the Jedi’ is mostly brilliant and some of the best moments of the whole franchise happen in this one. But it’s also the first to confirm that once you’ve established a weapon that can literally blow up planets in your first movie, there’s nowhere else to go in terms of raising the jeopardy. So, the main threat in this is just another Death Star. The main difference this time is that that Death Star is still under construction. Or is it? Well yes it is. But also it isn’t.
It’s not really the point anyway. Blowing up the second Death Star just gives the rest of the good guys something to do while Luke is dealing with the main bit of the story, which is the build up to, and realisation of, his final battle with his dad. Because Luke can’t become a Jedi until he defeats his father in battle. Which is a pretty demanding final exam really. Obviously, Luke doesn’t kill his father in the end. But he does beat him, fair and square, in a pretty fantastic lightsaber dual which is up there with the best of the franchise.
‘Return of the Jedi’ also introduces us properly to the real villain of the saga, one Emperor Palpatine. He popped up briefly in ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ but he’s centre stage here and tremendous fun. In the most evil of ways. And he can shoot lightening from his fingers, which is quite a skill. Obviously ‘force lightening’ has featured in a few Star Wars movies now, but this was the first time we’d ever seen it. And Luke certainly didn’t see it coming. Just as well his loving father was there to save him. Good old dad…
Compelling though those final scenes in the Emperor’s throne room are (quick note to Mr Palpatine, probably best not to have a direct shaft to the core reactor of the Death Star in your throne room. Because if it’s not there, no-one can throw you into it…), the rest of the action is pretty great too. Sure, the Death Star is nothing new, but you can still have fun blowing it up and we mostly do.
Except down on the forest moon of Endor, where Han, Leia et al. are trying to destroy the shield generator which protects said Death Star. It’s a compelling enough adventure, no doubt, but these furry little things show up called Ewoks. And they aren’t great. It’s almost as if they were only put in the movie to sell toys.
And as a kid, I loved those toys. I had loads of them before I even saw the movie for the first time. Indeed, I saw the first stand-alone Ewok movie (the first of two no less) long before I saw ‘Return of the Jedi’. So, I didn’t hate them at all, and now they are protected from my wrath by the power of nostalgia.
And if you don’t hate the Ewoks, then there really isn’t much to dislike about Return of the Jedi.
At least there wasn’t, until George Lucas decided to tinker. To be fair, ‘Return of the Jedi’ was not badly affected by the nineties CGI ‘amendments’. There’s the stupid song and dance routine in Jabba’s palace at the beginning, which is pretty irritating, but it didn’t make me apoplectic. I could live with it.
But then he had to mess with it again. With almost the final shot of the movie. As the victorious rebels are celebrating, Luke looks over to see the ‘force ghosts’ of Obi Wan Kenobi and Yoda and they are joined by the spirit of the now redeemed Anakin Skywalker. And this incarnation of Skywalker senior was played by Sebastian Shaw, the same actor who we see earlier in the movie as the unmasked Darth Vader, shortly before he dies. But for some reason, Lucas thought that we hadn’t all been upset enough by the prequels so he digitally replaced Shaw with the visibly much younger Hayden Christensen. Which is just a kick in the teeth really. It should be noted that Christensen was not complicit in this ‘update’ and it was archive footage of him that was used. But he was still rubbish in the prequels, which is partly why this change hurts so much.
Still we shouldn’t let the fact that George Lucas desecrated the final scene of his original trilogy, detract from the fact that, as the last chapter of epic sagas go, ‘Return of the Jedi’ was a fitting finale.
Because let’s be honest, this is where the story should have finished…
Best character – Princess Leia
Much like Han in the preceding movie, Leia steals the show in this one. And not just because of ‘that outfit’. Although I was a fan. But from her initial rescue attempt of Han dressed as a bounty hunter, to strangling Jabba, to a reckless highspeed chase through a forest and finally casually shooting two stormtroopers immediately after she has been shot and wounded, Leia is pretty unstoppable throughout this one.
Worst Character – Admiral Ackbar
I loved his action figure as a kid and he does say the immortal line “It’s a trap!”. But he’s pretty useless in the final assault on the Death Star and if it was down to him the rebels would all have retreated long before they had any chance of victory. There is a moment when it seems like he has been quite astute in his military tactics, when his plan results in two Star Destroyers crashing into each other but it’s not down to him at all. Essentially his plan only works because one of the rebel pilots loses control of his ship and crashes into one of the Star Destroyers. And in light of that gruesome death, the look of relief on Ackbar’s face shortly afterwards is really in very poor taste.
Unsung Hero – Wedge Antilles
Yep it’s Wedge again. After being overlooked in the original movie, I’m not sure he’s given due credit here either. Ok, it is Lando Calrissian, ably assisted by Nien Nunb, who fires the shots that ultimately destroy the second Death Star, but shortly before that Wedge destroys the power regulators. Now I’m no Death Star engineer, but my understanding is that he’s not doing that for fun, it’s a pivotal part of the plan to destroy the Death Star. So, he makes another massive contribution to the rebel cause and all he gets for his troubles is a hug from Chewie. None of us had a Wedge Antilles action figure when we were children and I’m starting to feel a bit guilty about that.
And that wraps up the original trilogy and frankly it should wrap up the whole saga. But it doesn’t because someone thought it was a good idea to make another trilogy.
And whether that was a good idea or not, that’s where we’re off to next.