Synopsis: Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) returns to his home planet, Tatooine, to rescue his friend Han Solo (Harrison Ford) from the clutches of the vile gangster, Jabba the Hutt. Afterwards, he and his friends journey to the forest moon of Endor to save the Rebellion from a second, dreaded Death Star that is still under construction. In the process Luke must complete his training as a Jedi knight by having a final confrontation with his father and his father’s master, the Emperor.
Aficionados of the original Star Wars trilogy commonly regard Return of the Jedi as the weakest of its chapters. The problems facing this film include the standard Star Wars moral and spiritual issues it raises (discussed in a separate essay). Those weaknesses pertain to all the Star Wars films, but there are several reasons cited for the weakness of the saga’s final chapter:
Originally, George Lucas had planned the Ewoks’ forest moon to be the home planet of the Wookies, the Watutsi-tall sasquatches of the Star Wars universe. They would have been the primitive allies Luke and his companions found in the movie. They would have the same tree houses, the same tribal structure. And we would have had the same earth-people-win-over-technology victory that we got in the actual film.
However, according to what Lucas has said in interviews, when he went to make the first Star Wars film (Episode IV), he didn’t know if he’d get to make any others, and he loved the idea of the Wookies so much that he made the co-pilot of the Millennium Falcon a Wookie in case he never got the chance to further explore the characters. The co-pilot he established Chewbacca was a character familiar with technology, but it had been his plan for the Wookies to be a primitive, non-technological race.
When it came time to make the final film, Lucas decided that, having established Chewbacca as a technologically adept member of this race, the Wookies couldn’t be a race of primitives, and he couldn’t use them as planned. So he cut the hairy giants in half and reworked the name Wook-EE as EE-Wok (get it?).
Personally, I don’t buy the reasoning behind this. One technologically adept member of a race does not ruin the concept of a non-technological people. Chewbacca could easily have been a lone individual schooled in the ways of technology (perhaps captured at an early age by slavers who took him off planet), yet the rest of his people could have been the forest-dwellers Lucas envisioned. Had Wookies been used as originally planned, it would have been wicked cool.
Even supposing that Lucas did have to change the Wookies to Ewoks, he didn’t have to give them the costumes he did. Many of the tiny critters are clearly wearing suits made of synthetic fur cloth that could have been (and probably was) bought in a local fabric store. Sometimes one can actually see the seams where the suits have been sewn together, and some have stripes in their fur that far more regular than anything you’d find in nature. The creatures also have frozen, inarticulate faces that can’t match the expressiveness of Chewbacca’s.
This isn’t a limitation of the make-up and costuming technology available to Lucas at the time. Chewbacca’s costume is realistic and cool; the Ewoks’ costumes do not meet the same standard.
Having made the Ewoks small and fuzzy, Lucas can’t resist playing up their cute factor in a way many feel is out of keeping with the rest of the series. He also ends up using them for comic relief in a way many fans find distracting (e.g., the final, climactic space-and-land battle is interrupted by numerous comic moments that either wouldn’t be there or would have played better had Wookies been used).
Still, while the Ewoks leave many older fans cold, they succeed in terms of what they really are: comic-relief teddy bears meant to appeal to the children in the audience.
The result was a wash of aliens that look like Jim Henson’s Muppets, but are in many cases much less successful than Yoda. Most occur in the context of Jabba the Hutt’s entourage (e.g., the blue, elephant-like keyboard player Max Rebo, or the cackling chicken-rat Salacious Crumb). Some appear elsewhere: I have never been able to shake the impression that Lando’s alien co-pilot is a Muppet knock-off of Chico Marx. Fortunately, the CGI special effects of the 1997 special edition somewhat blunt the problem of muppet aliens.
Yet while many of the new aliens are not what they should be, there is one that widely has been regarded as an outstanding success: Jabba the Hutt himself. Although Lucas had always had a sense of what he wanted Jabba to look like, and while shooting the original Star Wars had even filmed a scene for Jabba intending to use a stop-motion model, he didn’t end up showing the character until he had the resources to make the giant puppet seen in Return of the Jedi. (The unused footage from Episode VI was later restored in the Special Edition with a computer-generated Jabba.)
As a result, when Jedi debuted, it was the first time that we had seen the gangster, and the bloated, slug-like form he was given along with his rich basso profundo voice is thought by many to be an extremely successful way of capturing his decadent, ruthless character.
First, there is a climactic scene in which Vader must choose between the Emperor and Luke. It would be natural in any such decision scene for the character making the decision to look back and forth between the individuals representing his choices. But since Darth Vader’s breath mask is completely expressionless (though cool), we are left with him looking expressionlessly back and forth, back and forth, back and forth between the two options a flat way of conveying the inner turmoil Vader is supposed to be feeling.
Second, when we finally see Darth Vader without the breath mask, he isn’t nearly as striking as he needs to be in particular, he isn’t nearly messed-up enough. Heretofore we have learned that Darth Vader is more machine than man, that he has been horribly injured by an unknown trauma, and we have seen the back of his bald, horribly scarred head. When we see the front of his face, we are expecting a terribly mauled visage, possibly including mechanical elements. What we get is the face of a rather pudgy, bald man with minor scarring. Not enough to satisfy prior expectations.
This meant that he was supposed to have undergone a spiritual transformation, and spiritual transformations are notoriously difficult for actors to portray. I have commented that, in The Ten Commandments, Charlton Heston loses his ability to act as soon as he sees the Burning Bush. A similar problem affects Mark Hamill in this film: His character having become a man of power and enlightenment by his Jedi training, Hamill’s acting has become (even more) flat, cardboard, and uninteresting.
And yet the Star Wars movies have never been about acting. They’re an adventure story that transcends the strengths or weaknesses of any single actor’s performance. People who are hung up on the acting in Star Wars films aren’t getting it.
And there is something here to get, something that makes Return of the Jedi worth watching. Not only is it the requisite end of the story, it also has a lot of cool stuff in it.
For instance, Jabba isn’t the only cool alien creature in the film. Jabba’s brutish, boar-like Gamorrean guards and tentacle-headed attendant Bib Fortuna are also interesting. One of my favorite creatures (which may actually be a droid) is seen only in silhouette and looks like a seven-foot-tall daddy longlegs that gives
As in the other films, we have lightsaber battles, death-defying stunts, high-speed chases, and ship-to-ship outer space combat including a rousing first-act rescue sequence and a large-scale final battle that is fought on multiple fronts.
Of particular note is the sky-cycle chase on the forest moon. The environment is so overgrown, with the trunks of giant trees fallen everywhere, that some kind of aerial vehicle is about the only sort of small transport that would work. As a result, the Empire is having its troops use one-man sky-cycles to get around. When Luke and Leia (Carrie Fisher) commandeer one to intercept a stormtrooper who is trying to report them, the cycles are pressed to speeds way beyond safe operational limits, resulting in a death-defying chase through the forest that only Luke and Leia survive. (In Episode I we see young Anakin Skywalker do something that explains why Luke and Leia are able to handle these speeds so much better than the stormtroopers.)
Another very successful element in the film is the Emperor, whom we here see for the first time in the trilogy as more than a dimly-lit hologram. When we finally get to see him and watch him for an extended period, it becomes clear that Lucas has managed to create a villain even more evil than Darth Vader something few would have thought possible when the first film came out. Yet there the Emperor is, sitting on his throne like a black spider at the center of a galactic web of evil (an image evoked by the window behind his throne). His makeup gives him a horribly disfigured appearance that of itself is able to frighten children. And when he begins to use his powers from the dark side of the Force, look out!
Some of the neat things in the film are very small. For example, Lucas is known for calling back minor lines of dialogue that run through his films like leitmotifs (e.g., I’ve got a bad feeling about this, references to something being not entirely stable, You assume too much). Return of the Jedi calls back a pair of lines from the previous film in an especially nice way.
When Episode V was filmed, one scene put Han and Leia in a very tense situation that forced Leia’s true feelings for Han to the surface as she called out I love you! Reportedly, the scene had to be shot so many times that at one point the exhausted Harrison Ford responded flatly with the ad-libbed line, I know. It worked better than what was in the script and made it into the film. Episode VI gives this line a rewarding twist in another scene that puts Han and Leia in another tense situation that forces Han’s true feelings for Leia to the surface.
Recapitulation does not just happen on the small scale. It’s part of Lucas’s philosophy of filmmaking (or at least of trilogy-making). Part One establishes the world and conflicts of the trilogy and is light in tone. Part Two, while keeping within the rules established in the first film, is as different from its predecessor as possible, particularly by being more dark in tone. Part Three then is made in the spirit of the first film, returning to its light tone and recapitulating its themes, but carrying the action and the stakes to a higher level.
This is what we see in the original trilogy. In particular, after the darkness of The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi seeks to recapitulate the original Star Wars on a higher level. Multiple parallels between the two films exist.
How successful is Return of the Jedi as a higher recapitulation of Star Wars?
As noted above, the film does have significant flaws, but it is still quite successful. It can’t match the sheer inventiveness of the first film, but then few sequels can outdo their predecessors in raw creativity, as the rules of the universe have already been set. By turning back to the light tone of the first film, Jedi also can’t match the dark pathos of Empire. But then we don’t want an action-adventure saga to end on a dark note. To complete the story arc, the final installment has to return to lightheartedness we were shown at its beginning.
Lucas certainly does carry the adventure to a higher level. In Episode IV, the climactic struggle came down one hero firing a single, triumphant torpedo shot demolishing a single target; in Episode VI, there is a much larger rolling climax of multiple victories by parties in several locations almost at once (Han and Leia on the forest moon, Lando in the assault on the new Death Star, Luke within the Death Star). These mounting triumphs are reinforced by satisfying resolutions in two important and previously uncertain relationships involving four central characters.
The stakes in this film, both for the Rebellion and for Luke personally, are higher in this film than in any of the previous ones, and the victories won are more decisive. There is also a rebirth for the Jedi order, on the verge of extinction for so many years, with Luke’s achievement of Jedi knight status and the clear indication that (from his own family) there will be more Jedi after him. The Jedi have returned.
In the end, Star Wars reveals itself to be not just the most ambitious science-fiction epic brought to the big screen but a story expressing the importance of family and love, the danger of moral corruption, and the possibility moral redemption. And it plays well with kids a group as much in need of these lessons as the rest of us.
In 1997 a new edition of the film was released, incorporating changes made by George Lucas using the digital technologies offered by the computer revolution since the film’s debut. This will be the form in which the film is most commonly encountered by the average viewer from now on.
A number of significant digital enhancements were made. The alien band in entertainment sequence in Jabba the Hutt’s fortress now performs a new musical number that would not have been possible before CGI filmmaking.
The sequence with the Sarlacc also has been modified. In the original version, the Sarlacc was a monster we never really saw. It lived at the bottom of a giant, conical depression in the sand, from were it would painfully digest its victims over a thousand years. When I first saw the film, I thought this was really cool, since it was obvious to me what the Sarlacc was: a giant doodle-bug.
In Texas, where I was born, there are tiny insects called doodle-bugs that make (and live at the bottom of) conical depressions in the dirt. Ants walk into the edge of these depressions and, unable to climb out, are inevitably drawn down toward the center, where they are taken under and eaten by the doodle-bug. Unfortunately, a lot of people apparently are not from Texas and so had trouble relating to the idea of the Sarlacc. In the special edition Lucas made it so that you can see the Sarlacc, which now looks like a giant version of the man-eating plant from the 1986 Little Shop of Horrors, still sitting at the bottom of its doodle-bug cone in the sand.
The most important Special Edition enhancement is the ending of the movie, which has been reedited with new music and digital effects shots. The cutesy Yub-Yub Ewok song from the original has been replaced by a new John Williams composition that much better brings out the majestic character of the victory that has been won. Even more importantly, new CGI footage has been inserted into the ending. This footage shows the celebrations on worlds across the galaxy, including the galactic capital city-planet, Coruscant, which would emerge in the next film to be released, Episode I The Phantom Menace. Overall, these changes elevate the ending of the saga from showing a local, tribal celebration to an event of galactic significance. And that is as it should be.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.