Star Wars: Return of the Jedi

3.5 stars.

Theatrical release: 5/25/1983
[PG]; 2 hrs. 11 min.

Produced by Howard Kazanjian
Screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan and George Lucas
Story by George Lucas
Directed by Richard Marquand

January 19, 2016

Review Text

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.

Previous: Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back
Next: Star Wars: The Phantom Menace

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33 comments on this post

    I think you somewhat overrate Jedi. It's an extremely flawed movie (although it does have its merits and a handful of classic scenes). It's hard not to be frustrated whilst watching when you know the original, far superior plans for the movie.

    Han Solo was supposed to die selflessly in a raid on an Imperial stronghold, completing his arc from selfish smuggler to rebel hero. Originally there was no second Death Star, the film centred on a Rebel attack on the Imperial homeworld. The design sketches of which are on the Internet and just amazing in my book. It looks fascinatingly different and alien. This in particular is a major let down for me because I think reusing the Death Star is the single lamest thing about the original trilogy, even if the battle is very impressive to this day in terms of special effects.

    Also, Leia was never supposed to be Luke's sister. Originally Yoda was to reveal that Luke had a sister (the "other" that Obi Wan and Yoda discuss in Empire) and the movie was to end with Luke leaving into the sunset to find her, setting up a potential sequel trilogy. But Lucas had had enough at this point and just wanted to tie up all the loose ends and end Star Wars already.

    The only plot strand that made it into the final film relatively unchanged is the confrontation with the Emperor and Vader turning back to the light side; and it's no surprise that it's easily the strongest part of the finished product. Luke vs. Vader is the best duel of any of the seven movies, and Anakin's redemption is played perfectly (although I question why the Emperor has a mine shaft in his throne room). The reveal that behind that iconic, terrifying mask is a sad, frail old man is the most underrated moment in Star Wars if you ask me.

    Overall 2 stars from me. It's watchable and parts of it are great. But man, what could have been...

    This one ranks as high as "A New Hope" for me. Luke being fully tamed as a Jedi is a great payoff after the bitter ending of "Empire Strikes Back".

    The Ewoks are goofy, but it's still fun to see unconventional guerrilla warfare after being exposed to the fatal traditional warfare that crushed the rebels on Hoth in Empire.

    I think Vader's recognition of Sidius' manipulation after seeing his son's mechanical apendage was extremely well executed and one of the best twists of the franchise.

    4 stars for this.

    < Also, Leia was never supposed to be Luke's sister. >

    If that's true then the scene near the end of "Empire" -- where an injured Luke calls out to Leia and she hears him -- makes no sense.

    I never really understood why people thought Jedi was inferior. The trilogy gets better as it goes along. If I had to pick a weak point it would be during IV and if I had to pick a strong point it would be during V, but I like to consider all three as a continued story. Maybe that's just because I watched them all on VHS all in the same week.

    No comment on Vader yelling "no!" Before throwing the emperor down the shaft on the Blu-ray? That's the single most irritating thing about the Blu-rays.

    I love C-3PO's story time. It's a great callback to his line in A New Hope when he said "I'm really not much more than an interpreter, and not very good at telling stories."


    Well we all know that the "Nooo" inserted into the Blu-ray iteration of "Jedi" was meant as a "close-the-arc" moment for Vader echoing back to the "Nooo" in "Sith" which was a "close-the-arc" moment for Anakin.

    In "Revenge of the Sith" the last vestige of Anakin was shed by the "Nooo" in response to the revelation of Padme's death (and --as far as he knew at the time -- his son as well). Saving Padme was, after all, the main reason he had chosen this path. Following the "Nooo" he was 100% a slave to both Palpatine and the suit. (Ironic that he started as a slave in TPM and ended as a slave in ROTS.)

    The "Nooo" in "Jedi" was meant to signal the end of Vader and the reemergence of Anakin as the son that he had not known about until the events in "Empire" was about to be killed.

    The problem that we all have with it, of course, is that from 1983 until the Blu-ray release in 2011 this "Nooo" was not in this movie and it therefore seems awkward for it to be there now.

    "Star Wars virgins" -- viewing these movies for the first time -- have no problem with it and recognize it as the callback to "Sith" that it's meant to be.

    The problem with it is that it ruins the subtlety and diminishes the effect of the original scene. There was no reason to insert references to the prequels into these movies. Plus, tinkering with another director's work is unbelievably tacky and just shouldn't be done.

    It's an unnecessary change, and consider me not in favor of it, although it doesn't turn the scene into a travesty or anything. It just seems wrong to me because it will always be the original way in my mind.

    The Noooooo is needlessly hokey, regardless of whether it connects to the equally cringeworthy moment at the end of Revenge of The Sith. Vader's silent betrayal of his master as he watches his son writhing in pain was far more powerful.

    I'm glad that Lucas didn't tinker with the space battle in this film - it continues to hold up against modern-day CGI.

    The climax of this film is the highlight of all Star Wars for me. More than anything else, its what I remember about Star Wars and the images, sounds and feelings of those last scenes are what stayed with me from child to adult.

    The insertion of the two "no"s is just stupid. The scene is far more powerful with Vader's actions doing the talking.

    Not a fan of the new No-Nos, but otherwise this film is a perfect capper to the saga. I just wish TFA had done a better job of carrying the story threads forward.

    I watched the original trilogy recently again after a long interval. Thought ANH was great fun but showing its age. ESB was dazzling. I was really disappointing by ROTJ. So much potential carried over from ESB just didn't go anywhere. The glimmer had gone from Hans Solo's eye. All the danger gone from Lando, whose only job seemed to be fly the Falcon. And the first hour dragged so much. The thing's dead (IMHO) by the time the Ewoks show up. I think the bottom line is that ESB was REALLY about the characters, their choices, their loyalties, and while the Emperor/Darth Vader/Luke scene reaches for that, the rest of the cast just get to kill Jabba and run round a forest and speak some reeeaally lame dialogue.

    My opinion, of course. You can love it if you wish.

    Props for talking about that moment when C-3P0 tells the story of Star Wars in Ewok talk; I find that hardly gets any mention whenever people talk about ROTJ. I definitely agree, it's one of those smaller under-appreciated moments which adds to the canvas and also acts as sly meta commentary. When George Lucas nails it, he really nails it.

    Overall a quite good movie although not on the appropriately legendary, breathtakingly excellent level of the first two films.

    Luke's compassion for Vader worked a bit better for me on my most recent rewatch, as did the Ewoks. You kind of get the sense that the Ewoks are distracting the bad guys more than beating them until near the end of the battle where they are beating them a bit too much.

    I never liked the idea that Leia was Luke's sister and it still feels pretty forced.

    I refuse to watch the blu ray with No, to me the point and a lot of the strength of the scene was that Vader acted to save Luke *immediately* upon deciding to do so.

    I remember going to the theater in early June 1983, waiting an hour in line to get to the see the movie. It was a real buzz of the kind I never see any more at theaters.

    For a 6 year old kid it was an amazing experience. But what really sat in my mind was the final part of the Luke/Vader duel(when Luke gains the upper hand) when the chorale joins in, that must have been the first time that kind of music was used in an epic space fantasy film and would be often imitated and never equaled. RIP John Williams.

    Unless there is breaking news I have not heard, John Williams is not dead. There apparently was a hoax recently that he died...

    @Alex: Perhaps there's not as much of a buzz around movies in theaters anymore because many people prefer to watch them at home. I know I do. I cannot stand going to theaters when people use them as daycare facilities and let toddlers shout and run in the aisles and bring 9-month-olds who cry for an hour.

    I don't mind being around children in most places but theaters are not their playgrounds.

    Jedi is my favorite. We have the great scenes in the desert in Jabbas palace, Luke as a fully fledged Jedi, the Emperor actually makes Vader look like a saint, the awesome space battle, and Luke going apeshit on Vader in an epic Saber clash. Rebuilding the Death Star didn't bother me either.

    Sure the Ewoks were a bit hokey. However, I don't see them as "little bears that defeated the empire forces," like many do. They just helped the rebels tip the scale in their favor as the empire didn't account for them at all. ESB was great because it expanded the Star Wars universe and wasn't afraid to be dark, but Jedi is more visually appealing, and kept the tension and the stakes extremely high in a "David vs Goliath" kind of way. A common theme in movies, but to me Jedi knocks it out of the park. It's not common for the final part of a trilogy to be so good.

    @Kid Marine, I didn't know that about the original plans for this movie. That does sound better. Redoing the Death Star was indeed super lame, and then they compounded this error by doing it yet AGAIN in TFA.

    The Ewoks were not awesome (again, they changed from the Wookie planet, which would have made more sense), but not the worst aspect of the movie for me. I actually also hate the redemption of Vader, as I think you cannot redeem someone who has done so much evil. And he actually didn't even do something all that noble! Intervening to protect your only son from being killed is something most really evil men would do. And after all, Vader had already proposed to Luke in the previous movie that they team up to kill the Emperor.

    I used to think the rescue of Han Solo at the beginning was the only decent part of the movie, but I no longer can even find merit there. Luke's plan seems too convoluted and full of unnecessary elements. He talks super tough to Jabba, like he's going to easily defeat him with his Jedi powers, but then the way things go when they are above the Sarlacc pit is that they constantly come to the literal precipice of doom and then just barely avoid death, repeatedly.

    Also not a fan of the Luke-Leia sibling retcon.

    I hadn't heard of the "NOOOO!" being added to this, but it was beyond horrendous in RotS. That movie is actually pretty good otherwise, the only really decent movie of the prequels; but the "NOOO!" moment is incredibly cheesy. Does Lucas not understand that this kind of reaction became embarrassingly hokey years before he brought it back in apparent earnest sincerity? Or is he aiming at such young children, he doesn't care?

    @ SlackerInc,

    I said what I wanted to say in general in the thread about ANH, but I wanted to respond to this specific comment:

    "I actually also hate the redemption of Vader, as I think you cannot redeem someone who has done so much evil."

    If you want to talk about a downer, how much of a downer is it to conclude that evil people are doomed and there is no hope for them? I find it odd to even use a term like "evil", which we associate with Abrahamic tradition, and then to make a claim about there being no redemption for an evil person like Vader, which is also basically a religious comment. If there's a such thing as evil and there is such a thing as redemption, then in what 'universe' (or metaphysics) are you employing these terms? The Christian belief is that anyone can be redeemed if they repent, for instance. Judaism doesn't even make claims about who can or can't be redeemed, although the faith does include some aspects of the afterlife (in New Jerusalem, etc). So on what basis do you make positive claims that religious terms such as "redemption" and "evil" are real things, and that redemption isn't for evil people? And if it isn't, then who *is* it for? Why would you think that good people need redemption? (Christianity has an answer for this, but I assume you're not speaking from a Christian tradition; please correct me if I'm wrong).

    Episode VI: Yo, people. These idiots built another death star, only larger. Someone go get those technical readouts from 30 years ago, and we'll blow this thing again and get out of here.

    I couldn't believe when Luke finds out that Leia is really his sister, he doesn't even pause and feel bad about those lonely cave nights on Dagobah, when he was ejecting quarts of midiclorides into a tissue while fantasizing about the makeout sessions with Leia back in the day.

    And it blows my mind that Han isn't even a little mad at Lando for getting him encased in Carbonite. Those Jedi are very forgiving. How many billions of people has Luke's father, Vader has killed and tortured? And when Luke tells Leia she is his sister, and that Vader is his father, she doesn't even make the connection that Vader is her dad too!!!!!!! What the F . . .??

    I like watching this episode whenever there is a free HBO weekend on cable, but I turn it off during the big celebration scene when the galaxy is partying like it 19999999. That's because Lucas changed the very last scene where the Jedi ghost of Obi Wan, Yoda, and Luke's real dad, who just died on the death star as Vadar, but was replaced with little whiny Annie from Episode III. Is anything sacred??????

    This commentary of mine is on the 1983 release I saw in the theater, not the reworked "special" editions:

    I loved the movie way back when, and love it now. I was the right age for the Ewoks and my friends and I thought they were cool. The space battle blew our minds (and even now it holds up)

    Even before the prequels, I thought the Emperor's misstep is that he got so much wicked glee killing Luke. I think what decided Vader to act to save Luke was when he looked at the Emperor and saw the evil leer on his face (after he said, "And now Young Skywalker-you will die!") After watching the prequels (which I actually like for the most part), it is even more obvious. Think about it, what set Anakin off? First, the painful death of his mother. Then saving his wife. Anakin is all about family. How could the Emperor think he could kill Luke in such a way and Vader would be ok with it? If he simply said, "Vader, we tried to turn Luke, but he won't go with us. So, since he is such a threat, we must kill him." And a quick shot (zap, or whatever) and he's dead, Vader MIGHT have gone with that. Even before the Prequels, there was a trace of this going thru Palpatine's mind earlier (when he said, "I hope you feelings on this matter are clear, Lord Vader"), so why do that?

    But that's not a slight on the movie-just on the Emperor. Indeed, as Luke told him, "Your overconfidence is your weakness"

    Actually, the weakest part to me of the movie was the rescue of Han since the plan didn't make much sense. I mean Leia's attempt to save Han didn't blend with anything else in the plan (perhaps she did that on her own?) I could see the purpose of fooling Jabba into taking the droids (so Luke could smuggle his lightsaber in), and the idea of having Lando as a wild card in Jabba's guard entourage just in case. But it would take an amazing coincidence to know that Leia would be able to thaw Han but not escape. I think if the whole dustup happened like it did in the movie, but without Leia, they could have beaten Jabba (Leia was the one to strangle him, but still, they destroyed his sail barge anyway), and then gone back to thaw Lando (I assume most of the guards were with Jabba and co, so only a skeleton crew was back at base)

    This movie confuses character development and story with plot and effects. A rescue mission is entertaining when we like the characters and the characters are developed. But the character development was in other movies, not this one.

    we care about Luke and his father but mainly because of the character development in the previous movies.

    So there's a lot of cool visual effects and wonderful practical effects so it may disguise the fact that this movie by itself is so empty-headed. And really blowing up the death Star again?

    why not just have Luke save his father and his father turns in the second movie?

    I loved all three of the original trilogy movies growing up as a kid in the 80s, including ROTJ. But I find that ROTJ doesn’t quite hold up to adult-level scrutiny as well as Star Wars (as I will forever call it) and Empire continue to hold up. Which is not to say that I consider it a bad movie. It remains eminently watchable in a way that, IMHO, the prequels and (Force help us) Rise of Skywalker are not. In other words, I have a lot of fun whenever I watch ROTJ, but as storytelling-on-film, it has problems — which is also approximately how I feel about Force Awakens. For me, that comes out to either 2.5 or 3 stars, depending on my mood and what I happen to be focusing on during any given viewing.

    For those, like me, who are geeky enough to care about these movies enough to read message boards like this one, I highly, highly recommend the in-depth interview that IGN did with Gary Kurtz, the producer of both Star Wars and Empire, back in 2002. It’s long, but extremely interesting. You should be able to find find it by Googling “Gary Kurtz IGN interview.” It belies a lot of George Lucas’s own myth-making concerning how the Star Wars movies were made — and, make no mistake, in George’s myth, he, and he alone, was responsible for making them. Well, that’s simply not true. Feature-length movies, particularly big ones like the Star Wars movies, are community efforts. And one very important part of that community, at least during the making of the first two, was Gary Kurtz.

    The Kurtz interview, first of all, contains a lot of fascinating information about how the film industry worked in the late 70s and early 80s. But it also addresses Lucas-made myth about how he had the entire trilogy, or trilogy of trilogies, or whatever, planned out from the very beginning. And it explains the original vision for ROTJ, which included the details that Kid Marine discussed in the first comment on this thread. Most importantly, the Kurtz interview explains what happened to Lucas between Empire and ROTJ. In Kurtz’s telling, Lucas became convinced that the ticket-buying public didn’t care one whit about plot or character development — that all movie audiences wanted when they went to the movies was the “roller coaster.” This is why Lucas didn’t care that he was rehashing the plot of Star Wars by introducing the Death Star II — all he cared about was making the roller coaster climax as exciting as possible (and, yes, selling toys).

    Anyway, seek out the IGN/Gary Kurtz interview. It’s illuminating. More than anything, it confirmed what I thought about George Lucas after watching the prequels: That he’s a man with a rich and wonderful imagination, but who just isn’t all that great of a filmmaker — by which I mean, he doesn’t really know how to tightly execute the craft of telling an emotionally resonant story through dialogue and moving images. Ironically, I think, Lucas is the exact opposite of J.J. Abrams, who lacks any imagination whatsoever, but actually can execute the craft of making a movie. Who knows? Maybe a sequel trilogy that had flowed from Lucas’s rich imagination, but which had been executed and committed to film by J.J., would have been as good as Empire, which came out of Lucas’s imagination but was committed to film by Irving Kushner.

    *Oops, I meant Irvin “Kershner,” not “Kushner.” Too much news intake for me — I must have Jared on the brain.

    Lucas is a bit too self-promoting egotistical, too much playing down the contributions of others, but I think so is Kurtz and a lot of his ideas for/preferred version of RotJ sound pretty bad, that the final defeat of the Emperor should have been stretched out to an Episode IX would have been way too stretched out and made RotJ not nearly climactic enough.

    I've always loved this film, it came out whilst I was at junior school - the hype was intense with panini sticker books, the figures, the star wars toys on toy-day (probably a British thing, last day of term we all brought toys in - bonkers, but true) it was epic.

    Fast forward to now, I rewatched the original trilogy for the first time for years on Disney plus recently, and as I think jammer said, as soon as ESB finished I was eager to get into ROTJ.

    It's still the great film I remember, but what the hell is going on at the start with the hokey 'rescue attempt' which just seems all over the place and badly planned, with everyone getting caught!

    Of course, Leias outfit soon made me forget all about it and yeah the death star mk2 yadda yadda but it's a rip roaring ride to the amazing end battle. Took me right back to 1983 and those great times. The point where Lando realises its a trap still gives me goosebumps. Excellent stuff!

    Do others agree with me that Palpatine's line should have been "Oh I'm afraid the *weapons systems* will be quite operational when your friends arrive" and not "the deflector shield" as it was in the film?

    My version gives dramatic weight to the situation as it's is a genuine surprise to Luke and a huge gut punch given how powerful we know those weapons to be and it feeds right into Lando's "that thing is operational!!!" line.

    Whereas having it be the "deflector shield" isn't really as strong a point because it's more like a boast about how great his troops are on the forest moon, which may or may not prove accurate.

    This has been bugging me since I was a kid.

    I think the line as it is is correct, seeing as the basis for the entire Rebel plan was to deactivate the deflector shield, thus allowing their attack (which the weapons themselves did not deter). The weapons being operational was important, but not the point of the "you failed" taunt.

    I agree with Jammer. Since the plot point in question was about the deflector shield, that was the object of their failure. That the weapons systems were *also* operational is the price they paid for their lack of vision.

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