Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi
And so George Lucas lets the walls come tumbling down. Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi isn’t a disaster, as it at least ties up the Luke/Vader arc with some degree of responsibility, but it plays safe in almost every other respect, undoing the intricacy, character-building, magic-making and general sense of majesty Irvin Kershner invested in The Empire Strikes Back. Jedi, for the most part, is just another fantasy movie, of which there was an abundance in the six years following Star Wars, and Richard Marquand’s workmanlike, functional approach does nothing to augment or lift Lucas’ aggressive retreat into a cosy, upbeat climax to his saga.
While the prequels are entirely lesser beasts in terms of finished product, at least two of them (and to some extent even The Phantom Menace, if in a very muddled manner) have more going for them in terms of plot than Return of the Jedi. Almost everything about Lucas’ conception of Episode VI is regressive and backwards-looking, but as much as it’s clear he was looking for The Empire Strikes Back to be the cliffhanger second act it turned out to be (albeit not anticipating the sheer graft Kershner would put in), the script conferences for Return of the Jedi show the third act we got was exactly what he wanted, for better or, invariably, worse, and mostly over the protestations of Lawrence Kasdan (producer Gary Kurtz had departed by this point, and he also had vocal misgivings over the furrow Lucas chose to topple his plough horse into; “Instead of bittersweet and poignant he wanted a euphoric ending and everybody happy”).
The most obvious points to raise are that Lucas, and his entire entourage, returns to Tatooine (and thus the series can’t get away from the planet farthest from the bright centre to this universe; it’s a regular thriving hub!), for a “the gang’s back together” reunion. They’re assembled in the most perfunctory of manners.
But worse is to come; Lucas wheels out the Death Star again as his ultimate threat, his excuse being he originally positioned it at the end of the trilogy, but brought it forward because he thought he was only getting one film (yeah, right). Well the answer there, George, is to come up with something else. There’s a very mechanical feel to Return of the Jedi (as Pauline Kael pointed out in her review, “an impersonal and rather junky piece of moviemaking”) and, while much of that comes down to Marquand’s adequate but unadorned style, it’s equally the result of a creator continually not just settling for but actively pursuing the easiest of options.
George Lucas: The whole point of the film, the whole emotion that I am trying to get at the end of this film, is for you to be real uplifted, emotionally and spiritually and feel absolutely good about life.
The extracts from the script conference between Lucas, Kasdan and Marquand (the latter appears to have little of consequence to offer, which was probably just what Lucas wanted; however, it should be noted that George did offer Kershner the gig, who respectfully declined) reveal a producer who wanted to steer his baby towards the ineffectual, despite the best efforts of Kasdan to imbue this final chapter with some substance and consequence. In fairness to Lucas, nothing about his above stated remit is a bad thing to aim for per se, it’s just that the measures he took to get there, from employing a “Yes, sir” surrogate director to the most overtly cynical manipulation (“Look at the cute teddy bears!”) serve, ironically, only to deflate that intent. The near-final shot of the trio of Force ghosts (pre-Hayden Christensen) may be a bit on the tidy side, but it does foster a glimmer of contemplation amid the celebrations that, like the Luke/ Vader/ Emperor showdown prevents the picture from becoming entirely shallow, yet the movie is nevertheless rendered insubstantial and facile as a whole.
George Lucas: I don’t want to kill Yoda. You don’t have to kill people. You’re a product of the 1980s. You don’t go around killing people. It’s not nice.
Kasdan even suggested during the conference “Maybe we get rid of the Ewoks” so he was a man with the right kind of ideas. It looks like it was a struggle to persuade Lucas even to sacrifice Yoda, in Kasdan’s quest to give the Return of the Jedi some edge. It’s quite amusing to see him reeling off suggestions of how they might kill Luke, or Lando; “the movie has more emotional weight if someone you love is lost along the way; the journey has more impact” to which Lucas replied “I don’t like that and I don’t believe it”. Lucas added, “the main thrust of this one is that it has to be fun”, because it’s a fairy-tale (ask Terry Gilliam about fairy-tales being fun, but Lucas is clearly coming from the Disney-fied tradition).
Harrison Ford: He’s got no mama, he’s got no papa, he’s got no future, he has no story responsibilities at this point, so let’s allow him to self-sacrifice.
When enough people are on the same page (Kurtz, Kasdan, Ford, who convinced the easily-convinced Marquand at one point) about a lack of something, a wise producer will take notice. Ford commented, “I desperately wanted to die… I thought it would give the myth some body” and, whatever his failings with material since, he was at this point clearly a shrewd judge of story. He was also a shrewd judge of motivation. Return of the Jedi, with its big monsters, exciting chases and cuddly teddy bears, made a big chunk of money more than its predecessor; “There was no future in dead Han toys”.
Lawrence Kasdan: The real problem is to figure out a plan; if you figure out a plan you can stick those people in anywhere you want.
The issues with Return of the Jedi extend beyond that plan, however. While there’s a certain neatness to the structure, it’s a too neat, too rote; everything is too conveniently positioned and resolved. The above quote relates to Luke’s rescue, but it applies equally to the entire movie. Unfortunately, the plan in the Tatooine sequence is simply to introduce the line-up of actors, almost like a stage show, with Jabba (or Bib Fortuna) as compere, and then blow some sets up. It’s flagrantly crude, and it doesn’t even care. Luke’s “plan” itself is pretty haphazard, since it seems to involve throwing everyone he knows at the walls of Jabba’s palace and seeing who sticks.
Luke Skywalker: Your over-confidence is your weakness.
The Emperor: Your faith in your friends is yours.
The original treatment didn’t have the Emperor on the Death Star, but rather his lava lair on Had Abbadon. In terms of streamlining the plot and story, it makes sense to bring him to the Death Star. Except the Death Star is a tired, familiar device now, and expecting the same audience to buy into an Empire building another battle station as inherently flawed as the first, and then staging the climax around this repeat assault, is banal no matter how much more bang-whizz and over-stoked the effects are (crucially too, no one we really care about is staging the assault). Worse, the Emperor’s active participation in giving the rebels their head never really lands believably as an act of hubris; Luke highlighting the same is pretty much the writers’ admission, “This is a shitty plot point, but at least we’re aware of it”.
Both the Tatooine and Death Star assault sequences fall into the category of “Bigger, Faster, More” that would eventually afflict the prequels. There are some flourishes of old in the opening; the shot of C-3PO and R2-D2 travelling down a desert road towards Jabba’s palace, the vast entry door and the strange spider thing in the shadows as C-3PO enters, and the sheer variety of creature designs, from Jabba himself to the Gamorrean Guards, Squid Head, Klaatu, Weequay, Nikto, Bib Fortuna and the wonderfully-named hand puppet Salacious Crumb with his inane laugh and even better moment where he looks at Jabba’s writhing tail as if it’s a fat, juicy worm waiting to be eaten.
There are even appealing asides, such as the droid torture chamber (that poor power droid’s feet!) and the parlance of its droid officiator (“You’re a feisty little one”, EV-9D9 says to R2), Generally, it’s a self-confessed chance for Lucas to redo A New Hope’s cantina on a grand scale, but it lacks the same sense of magic of discovery.
And, curiously, given the emphasis on budget, it lacks scale when it comes to physical sets. Jabba’s throne room is a cramped affair, the sail barges likewise; we’re always conscious of just how limited the shooting geography is, and the Special Edition clean-up of matte work can’t disguise this.
Which wouldn’t matter so much if the proceedings had a feel of variety or inventiveness. The sequence introducing C-3PO and R2-D2 is fine, albeit calling back to the first movie (Luke clearly doesn’t trust C-3PO not to blab about his pitiful plan, based around R2-D2 firing a lightsabre his way at a crucial moment, since it’s a complete surprise he’s presented to Jabba as a gift; more Jedi deceit there – if Jabba had said fine, I’ll take them and you can have Han”, would Luke have accepted?).
And Leia coming on dressed as Boussh is a nice visual touch, giving Carrie Fisher something different to do before donning a metal bikini (it’s almost as if she had to exchange a sliver of proactivity for being objectified) and having a giant sex pest slug tongue her.
Does her strangling Jabba make up for it? I think it’s more that, like everything here, it feels like an arbitrary consequence of pitching events towards the big exploding skiff resolution rather than creating a clever sequence (the first act’s Death Star), or developing characters, or any of the things we saw in The Empire Strikes Back.
This is presumably why we have Lando revealed in his skiff guard outfit, pulling down his face guard purely for the audience to see it’s Lando. And why Luke shows up, smartly-dressed in a hood and funereal black and full of Jedi knowledge, only to fall down a whacking great hole and nearly get gobbled (full marks to Paul Brooke as the tearful rancor keeper).
As previously noted, the one upside of the Special Editions is that the original effects and matte work tends to be better integrated, as the trilogy got notably worse at hiding the joins as its appetite for bigger spectacle increased; from the skiffs to the rancor to the speeder bike chase, Return of the Jedi has definitely aged the least well of the Original Trilogy, which probably is as much down to the frequently flavourless cinematography from Alan Hume (who fell out with the producers and was replaced by assistant Alec Mills, although this isn’t mentioned in the Making of).
The entire first act appears designed purely to deliver what the kids expect; monsters and mayhem (and with a bit of flesh for the dads), where Kershner clearly felt you could have the freak show and an artistic sensibility too. Probably the most obvious evidence of this slapdash approach is the disposal of Boba Fett, exiting offhandedly in a comedy fumble from Han that deposits the bounty hunter in the Sarlacc.
All the build-up (albeit mainly in the audience’s imagination), this foe is felled with a lucky swing and the reveal that he’s not remotely a force to be reckoned with after all. In general, one might say Lucas is merely paying off the classic serial cliffhanger here, the kind of thing Raiders of the Lost Ark ran with; the Tatooine sequence is a thirty-minute “In one bound he was free”. It could have, should have, been something more, though.
Lando Calrissian: Will you get going, you old pirate?
In contrast, I don’t think revisiting the Death Star could ever have led to anything satisfying. I might suggest this is partly down to hinging the attack on the character the audience is least invested in, Lando Calrissian, but I doubt that Han leading it would have been particularly more engaging. As it is, though, and as with the resolve of Han’s sticky predicament, the deft sketch work that introduced Lando comes to nothing; he’s entirely one-note in Return of the Jedi, and Billy Dee Williams is understandably unable to do anything with that.
As with Tatooine, there are some fine creature designs (Admiral Ackbar’s Scottish goldfish – Erik Abuersfeld also voiced Bib Fortuna – and Nien Nunb), but we aren’t invested in the proceedings, there’s nothing personal in the stakes, it’s a means for Lucas to see through his elaborate construction to its production line conclusion.
Ackbar also features in probably the least tasteful scene in the movie, and that includes the copious indulgence of Ewoks to come. Post-Tatooine, there is the respite of planning the Death Star assault, where Mon Mothma (Caroline Blakiston) mentions the many Bothan spies who died to bring them this information. The self-congratulatory winking here is on a par with the ceremonial finale of A New Hope, as old friends greet each other, General (for doing what exactly, where has his military prowess been revealed?) Solo is revealed to be leading the ground mission (which makes a complete hash of; it’s no wonder Luke acts as if he’s in charge) and Luke comes along for the ride (“Count me in too!” – Yippee!). As C-3PO would say “How horrid”.
Harrison Ford: I don’t think it had a very successful ending with that teddy bear picnic.
The entire Endor sequence defeats criticism really, except that Lucas at least subsequently lowered the bar to make it seem slightly less kiddie-tastic when sat next to Jar Jar Binks in The Phantom Menace. They have the same basic construct; the primitives overcome the technical might of the Empire (or the Vietcong versus US military), and they’re equally twee. As with the Emperor’s over-confidence, Lucas’ “fun” road map for the last half of the picture undermines the potency of the villains. They’re usurped so easily, the stormtroopers and scout walkers, by cuddly teddy bears no less, whatever was there to worry about from the Empire in the first place?
I’ll readily admit the Ewoks were “fun” when I was a kid, what with Wicket, ickle baby Ewoks and the devastating scene where one grieves over its fallen comrade-in-cuddles, so Lucas was assuredly onto something, but I was also conscious, in whatever unexpressed way, that this section was weightless, that there was nothing in the way of threat or dramatic heft to scenes that were taking place in very Earth-looking arboreal surrounds (without even the dry ice Robin of Sherwood used to make things look spooky or exotic). Even the name Ewok evidence Lucas’ cheap inspiration, contained as it is in Wookie, his original plan being to visit the Wookie home world.
Han Solo: I don’t know, fly casual.
The Endor scenes do well for C-3PO, at least, transformed into a golden god and assuming the role of Homeric storyteller, but Han and Leia are confirmed as effectively redundant to their own tale. No one can think of a way to advance their relationship so they are stuck in a holding pattern.
Ford barely registers, a bit of mugging aside (blowing on a flaming torch to prevent from becoming lunch, looking resigned when an Ewok hugs his leg, “And hurry up, I don’t have all day” when giving C-3PO a shopping list of demands, his expression on learning Luke isn’t actually intent on shagging his sister after all), and this is the first time we can see the older Ford, the one we’re most familiar with now.
Maybe Blade Runner took it all out of him (maybe it was turning forty), but there’s a marked difference between the guy here and the sparky, raffish rogue of The Empire Strikes Back. Apparently, there had been doubt about Ford returning (Lando is also there as an insurance card), because he wasn’t tied into a multi-picture contract; he should either had opted out or bargained for a better part.
Carrie Fisher: I thought it was the weakest one.
As should Fisher, adorned with the stuff of a thousand teenage fantasies and, in response to the perception that Leia was a “space bitch”, Marquand voiced his desire to “Turn her into more of a woman”. Which entails expressing her mothering instincts with some loveable Ewoks, basically. There’s also, in a sign of the cute inter-referencing that would come to plague the series, a reversal of the “I love you” “I know” exchange from The Empire Strikes Back, but lacking any of the vitality or flair.
Generally, keeping Han and Leia together geographically is a poor move. Neither gets anything particularly heroic to do (as mentioned, Han is mostly bumbling about, stepping on twigs and looking out of sorts) and they spend an inordinate amount of time stuck in a doorway. Chewbacca does a Tarzan impression, which is bizarre, but says a lot about the level the series was reducing itself to (in the same year, in another Alan Hume-lensed picture, Roger Moore also did a Tarzan impression).
The speeder bike chase is great stuff, though, even given the limitations of the technology (preferable that it is an integration of live action, models and green screen than the entirely CG route Lucas would later use, however), the only part of the picture that really captures the breathless, giddy potential the series could offer in previous episodes.
Because Return of the Jedi settles for pedestrian zestlessness most of the time, it is at is best when concentrating on the Luke plotline, even if that has none of the subtlety and pregnant promise of the The Empire Strikes Back.
Yoda: Pass on what you have learned. There is another Skywalker.
The return to Dagobah lacks the magical (and yes, fairy-tale) vibe of The Empire Strikes Back, and Yoda is somehow much more like a puppet under the flat photography, but it’s still an echo of the mythic quality of the series, something in short supply in Return of the Jedi.
The conversations regarding the truth about Vader may result from the corner Lucas plotted himself into, but the moral equivalence is the most interesting philosophical meat of the picture (Obi-Wan Kenobi: So what I told you was true, from a certain point of view; Luke Skywalker: A certain point of view; Obi-Wan Kenobi: Luke, you are going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view). It also sets up Ben, for all his insight, as limited and blinded when it comes to Anakin’s potential for rehabilitation. The scene is a means to an end, like Tatooine, to tie up loose ends Lucas created, but the combination of Oz, Hamill and Guinness lifts it (likewise, the quiet moment in the village on Endor, between Leia and Luke before he goes to meet his father, is one of the best scenes on the forest moon).
Darth Vader: It is too late for me, my son.
Also doing heavy lifting is James Earl Jones’ contribution, in conjunction with a fine performance from Hamill that really sells Luke’s progression over three movies (where everyone else has ground to a halt on the last leg). A little goes a long way with an iconic outfit and voice, and a failing of the big confrontation is that it is given too much time, becoming circular in its conversation regarding turning and betrayal and giving into anger (there isn’t much Sith and Jedi have to say, when it comes down to it), but generally speaking its dramatic integrity is sustained, while in short supply elsewhere.
I might prefer the moment when Luke and dad meet on Endor, though, where Vader voices regret, as it informs his later turn on the Emperor as much as the sight of Luke in agony. And those tones of Jones’ enable a shot on Vader’s impassive visor to communicate internal processes even when he is saying nothing (but see the caveat below). Along with Williams’ score, of course; Williams’ chirpy Ewok theme may be an affront, but the Vader-Luke battle is wonderfully operatic, just the stuff to add edge to the confrontation.
The reveal of Sebastian Shaw as kindly old (out-of-shape) dad is something of a sticking point, as it smacks of Lucas taking the easy option again; show someone who is beatific and grandfatherly and you have your work done for you. It does communicate this, of course, but it’s also dissonant in that you can never retrospectively imagine Shaw inside the armour. I recall the Marvel comic adaption, which I read before seeing the film, and there was no image for his unmasking; it made the anticipation and subsequent disappointment all the greater.
The Emperor: Everything that has transpired has done so according to my design.
Kael didn’t think much of the Emperor, but I’d argue he is one of the few things Return of the Jedi gets really right, as stereotypically pure evil in formulation as Vader’s costume design announces simply “black hat”. Much of this is down to Ian McDiarmid’s wizened, splenetic, mocking delivery, imbuing the character with exactly the insistent goading needed to make the most well-intentioned do-gooder such as Luke snap. It probably wasn’t wise for the Emperor to continually draw attention to the very action to which h his intended was in the processing of succumbing (his anger), though, as it provokes Luke to gather himself together and take a step back. Like his half-baked scheme, I guess it’s a consequence of the Emperor not getting out much.
I also prefer the (cruder, but less prosthetic-looking) make-up here to the look in the prequels. This Palpatine is an old man falling apart due to the toll all that dark energy is taking on his corporeal form, whereas the prequels Emperor has been inflated with a bicycle pump.
The confrontation scene is the movie’s major plus point then, the one that justifies it, even if it lacks the craftsmanship, right down to the fight choreography, found in Kershner’s climactic confrontation in The Empire Strikes Back. Of course, Lucas’ tinkering with the special editions means even the unadulterated moments here are spoilt. As by far the most problematic of the Original Trilogy, Return of the Jedi suffers all the more under the strain of these adhesions. Darth Vader now cries “Nooooo!” echoing his “birth” in Revenge of the Sith, and ruining a moment in which the power was entirely predicated on the silent observer being seized into action.
Young Anakin’s Force ghost is complete nonsense, a visual and logical non sequitur (he joined with the Force as an old man, so you should replace Guinness with McGregor if you’re going down that path) designed to bridge the Original Trilogy and prequels even though they have no wish to be joined, aesthetically or spiritually. The shots of Coruscant etc. intercut with the Ewok party, the rather wonderful and catchy Ewok Celebration theme replaced with the insipid Victory Celebration, enforce a sterile, soulless cap on a trilogy that, whatever the faults of its finale, at least formerly sustained a human element undampened by CGI.
Earlier, there are alterations just as offensive, the most heinous being the replacement of the (like the Ewok number, quite catchy) Lapti Nek from Sy Snootles and puppet friends with a CGI Sy Snootles singing the horrendous Jedi Rocks. Nothing about it fits, visually or aurally. It’s a festering blot that serves only to make the Jabba sequence seem even less coherent (So unseemly is it, the representative photo above is of original band member Max Rebo, who somehow survived the CGI-refit).
Throwing in additional shots of Boba Fett adds insult to the injury of disposing of him so casually (you can’t have it both ways, George), while the CGI’d addition of extra tentacles and beak on the Sarlacc make it more Audrey from Little Shop of Horrors than anything to be dreaded. Oh, and now the blinkin’ Ewoks are blinking Ewoks.
Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi comes in a notch above its prequel successors more because of the analogue filmmaking involved than anything particularly superior in its construct. Indeed, as a piece of plotting it’s markedly less interesting, engaging and satisfying. It manages to render all but Luke and Vader redundant, and even there provides closure in a workmanlike, rather than wholly rewarding, manner. It’s down to Hamill and Jones (and Shaw and Prowse, give them their due) that there’s anything bittersweet in Lucas’ “fun” finale. Let’s hope Kasdan’s storytelling instincts held greater sway for The Force Awakens.