Return of the Jedi is, I guess, the weakest of the original Star Wars trilogy if I have to pick one, perhaps even an ever-so-mild disappointment considering the awesome heights of The Empire Strikes Back. As all concluding chapters in trilogies go, it has the difficult task of ending the story satisfactorily. Whereas the second chapter reveled in setting up a series of epic problems, now we have reached the third where they must inevitably be solved. All that said, we're still talking about closing the book (for 32 years, anyway) on the emotional story of Luke Skywalker and his father, Darth Vader, who famously turned to the Dark Side but might turn back. Jedi does the job well with plenty of memorable adventure and emotional stakes. I still have fond memories of sitting in a movie theater (the first Star Wars movie I saw in a theater) to see this when I was seven years old.
The movie takes some narrative shortcuts, but when you're talking about a story this big that must (more or less) end happily within two hours, it's going to take some doing. It facilitates this by distilling the evil that is the Galactic Empire into the essence of one man — the Emperor, whom even Darth Vader bows before in docile obedience. Destroy the Emperor and you get your happy ending. Well, until someone decides to make Episode VII after 32 years.
But first we must rescue Han Solo, still frozen in carbonite. The first third of the movie, focused largely on this rescue, remembers something that the prequels sometimes lost sight of, which is that an audience will care more about the small-scale stakes of characters we care about than the (faceless) large-scale stakes of galactic society. Star Wars usually works best as a microcosm viewed through the prism of human feelings. (Roger Ebert used to point to the moment right after Luke kills the beast in Jabba's lair, where the creature's keeper sheds a tear. The little things add up; it's emblematic of the Star Wars penchant for world-building around the margins.) So we rescue Han from execution at Sarlaac's pit. In the mayhem, Jabba and Boba Fett are killed, while Luke displays a disturbing level of arrogant confidence while wearing all black. Hmmm. Meanwhile, Leia is forced to wear an outfit I couldn't fully appreciate at age seven, but in compensation she gets to be the one to kill Jabba, who gets an appropriately ignominious death. As for Boba Fett: Just how did he become such a big deal? Okay, so he chased down Han and took him back to Jabba. But here he falls into a pit after being completely ineffective. Basically, he gets his ass kicked. (The same happens to Jango Fett in the prequels.) What makes him such a badass (to the point Disney has announced he's getting his own movie) aside from the cool suit and helmet?
Speaking of narrative shortcuts, they really rush Yoda out the door on his deathbed. In the course of one scene he goes from walking around and looking pretty healthy to ... dead — with his last words divulging a key secret about the Skywalker bloodline. But those are the compromises you have to make when you need to wrap things up. In a similar vein, we learn the big threat looming for the Rebellion is yet another Death Star, still under construction, but as we later learn, fully armed and operational. (Just how long does it take to build a Death Star, anyway?) Like its predecessor, it also has a crucial weakness that will allow it to be blowed up real good. But it will take a daring plan from a small team of volunteers to disable the shield generator on the forest moon of Endor, where we first get that amazing speeder chase sequence that is yet another entry into the great tradition of Star Wars set pieces that exists because it makes for great action and not because it's strictly necessary.
Then we meet the Ewoks. The Ewoks seem to divide fans, but I have no qualms with them. They appeal to kids without making me as an adult feel dumber in the process (again looking at you, Jar Jar). And there's a scene at the center of the Ewoks that's memorable and underappreciated. It's where our heroes, after being captured and eventually released, spend the night with the Ewoks and C-3PO tells them the story, in their language, of Star Wars up to this point. It's in a great tradition of stories within stories and right before our eyes it manages to elevate the material we're watching into myth, both on-screen and off.
I guess I do actually have some qualms with the Ewoks: What doesn't work so well is the use of them in the battle scenes. The idea here is a David-versus-Goliath triumph of the Ewoks' primitive methods over the Empire's advanced technology, but it borders on the ridiculous and just makes the Imperial forces look stupid and incompetent. In reality, this wouldn't be a fight at all, and the Ewoks would be easily crushed, but because this is a lighthearted fantasy where good triumphs over evil, we have an Imperial Walker tripped up by a bunch of logs rolling down a hill, falling over and exploding. It's a little too slapstick considering what's at stake. That said, the moment where the filmmakers show an Ewok killed and his friend grieving beside him prove that although Ewoks are intended to appeal to kids, the movie doesn't use them to completely condescend.
Ultimately, all of that takes a back seat to what Jedi is really about — Luke's confrontation with Darth Vader in his attempts to turn him back to the light, and the ensuing face-off with the Emperor. It's worth noting the conflicted Vader of Jedi has been notably softened from the ruthless Vader of Empire as a necessity of playing out this arc. But it's a potent arc, especially with Ian McDiarmid's diabolical portrayal of the Emperor, who must reside somewhere on a short list of all-time-great skin-crawling villains. The Emperor's manipulations are filled with bile and entertainingly cruel taunts. His goal is to turn Luke to the Dark Side just as Luke is trying to turn his father back. So we have psychological warfare where everyone knows what the others are trying to do; it's just a matter of who will succeed, with Vader being the fulcrum. All of this plays out, by the way, amid the backdrop of the most elaborate and impressive space battles in the trilogy.
But you know how it all plays out. If many beats of the story end the only way they probably could have (including Vader being the sole character who bears the cost of redemption, while all our heroes get happy endings), that's because certain storytelling conventions must be respected. And if the Emperor seems overly shortsighted in his obsession with Luke given all the power he already has and all he stands to lose (by not only allowing Luke to turn his father against him, but also enabling his own defeat by allowing the rebels onto Endor in the first place) — well, that's the point, isn't it? In the Star Wars universe, evil may have expanded to conquer the galaxy, but unlimited power comes only with the inevitability of unlimited collapse. Eventually your Death Star is gonna be exploded.
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