- Vancouver, British Columbia - Return of the Jedi was the first Star Wars film that I ever watched in entirety, largely because as I stated earlier in my series of Star Wars reviews, my parents didn't allow me to watch the trilogy as a child. I remember being so enraptured in the setting and world of the franchise just from this film alone that I became curious about watching the rest of them. I made plans of somehow asking to borrow the VHS box set from a friend, hoping to watch it while my parents were out, but I never got around to apprehending a copy of them, mostly for fear of being caught. Nevertheless, with this context in mind, you will probably find the following review surprising.
Return of the Jedi continues the drama with Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) more powerful than ever as a Jedi, despite having lost his hand in the previous entry of the franchise. The Empire, however, is rebuilding the Death Star and making it even more powerful. The Rebels are planning a massive strike against the Empire with hopes to turning the tide in the battle, because apparently destroying the first Death Star didn't do it. Meanwhile, Han Solo (Harrison Ford) remains a prisoner of Jabba the Hut on Luke Skywalker's home planet, Tatooine. Luke seeks to free Han, but ultimately, he knows that to complete his Jedi training, he must face his greatest fear again, his father, Darth Vader, once and for all, and try to coax him away from the Dark Side to alter the balance of power in the galaxy.
What's most unfortunate about Return of the Jedi is that it actually starts off pretty interesting with the whole attempt to break Han Solo free from Jabba the Hut's grip, but from here, the film wanders without a sense of urgency. For a film that is intended to wrap up the original trilogy, we don't really get convinced of the scale of the stakes in this film. In fact, The Empire Strikes Back performs a far better job of convincing us of how terrible things are headed for the Rebel Alliance if they fail.
A considerable amount of time is wasted with the Ewoks, and I realize that many people like to use these creatures as punching bags for why Return of the Jedi isn't the best of the original three, but it wasn't so much the Ewoks which cause trouble for this film. Nevertheless, too much time is wasted among the Ewoks, which really contributes very little to the Star Wars universe. Sure, the Ewoks end up being critical in the big battle on Endor, but there is very little learned about the characters through the interactions with the Ewoks. The only significant action in the narrative with the Ewoks is that they think C3PO is a god and this brings them in allegiance with the Rebel cause. Everything else is cutesy and a critical waste of time. Sure, Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) learns that she and Luke are twins, but this doesn't result from any sort of action or showing on the part of the scriptwriters, nor is there time with the Ewoks key to evoking this narrative action. If we're honest, it is rather clumsily thrown into the story line.
Personally, I think the Ewoks possess some level of cuteness, but bizarrely, they don't fit very well in a story line that is trying to show us how important this final battle will be for the universe. They are rather distracting and make the film feel a bit like it was aimed at a broader audience, including children. The pacing of the film panders to an audience that struggles to pay attention to the complexity of a galactic battle, which is supposed to end the war of all wars, relying instead on cute little sight gags and critters to keep our attention, while the real heroes get down to business. Simply too much screen time is wasted on elements that really do not matter at all in the grand scheme of the Star Wars trilogy.
Even thinking about the final attack on the Death Star Redux, it also lacks the urgency that was provided in A New Hope, when Luke and his pals went about destroying the first Death Star. No offence to Lando (Billy Dee Williams), but we're given very little to understand how grave it would be if they don't succeed. It ends up feeling a little like a routine mission that goes awry, but we're never exactly sure why they don't just high-tail it out of there. The single best moment of the entire battle in space is when Admiral Ackbar utters the famous line, "it's a trap!" but not for the reasons that make it compelling, but comical.
The trite death of Yoda also feels unnecessary from a story-telling perspective. In the Star Wars universe, the storytellers are generally quite averse to completely killing off characters with the exception of Obi-Wan Kenobi (but even then, he still re-appears), but with the death of Yoda (Frank Oz), it just feels arbitrary, as if to ensure that he cannot be a component of the final battle. I don't recall his health seeming to suggest that he was just about to die in The Empire Strikes Back, thus when his death scene comes in Return of the Jedi, it was hard to feel like we hadn't missed something. I get it, he's very old and has been around a long time, but his death feels out of place and unnecessary.
Neither does the diminished nature of Darth Vader's presence make for a compelling finish to the trilogy. He becomes weak and feeble in his last moments in this film, and while I really enjoy the story arc of he and his son battling it out, and him finally murdering the manipulative Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) to save his son's life, it just feels like this could've been executed far more powerfully. I think of the moment when Palpatine is giving Luke the electroshocks, promising to kill him and the greatest screen conviction we get from Darth Vader before killing Palpatine is two emotionally shallow glances back and forth from Luke's writhing body to Palpatine's evil face, and then he launches Palpatine into the abyss. Granted, he wears a mask, which covers the emotional language expressed in his body, but for such a compelling story arc, it is dissatisfying to see how it wasn't done in a more forceful and demonstrative manner. The arc itself is memorable, but the execution has always bothered me.
It's for these reasons that Return of the Jedi is the most ill-conceived of all of the films in the original trilogy. I suspect that Lucas knew what needed to happen in this film, such as Luke confronting his father and stopping the Galactic Empire, but how they decided to fill out the story was distressingly unsatisfying. It becomes a bit of a cartoony sideshow, which distracts from the compelling story arc of Luke and the redemption of Darth Vader. Thus when the Rebel Alliance wins, it doesn't feel like that big of an accomplishment, but something that seemed destined to happen regardless of the failings of the Rebel Alliance.
Rating: 2.5/5 Sour Grapes