WFTB Score: 8/20
The plot: With the Empire hard at work building a new Death Star, the Rebel Alliance need their best men, women, droids and other beings on the front line. But Han Solo, still frozen, is the property of Jabba the Hutt, and it takes more than Leia, Lando and Luke Skywalker’s Jedi mind tricks to free him. Even once the gang are back together, the Alliance is pitted against Darth Vader and the evil Emperor – with little more than a few furry friends to help in the fight.
I can only imagine the excitement felt by millions of Star Wars fans as the release of Return of the Jedi came ever closer in 1983. After three years away from Luke, Leia, Han and friends, they were about to find out answers to their questions: was Han still alive? Would Vader turn Luke to the Dark Side of the Force? They got answers, alright, and much more besides.
As Return of the Jedi opens, the forces of the Empire under Darth Vader (physically Dave Prowse, vocally James Earl Jones, and…well, all in good time) are planning their decisive assault on the dogged Rebel Alliance with the help of a new Death Star. To the surprise of his Generals, the Emperor (Ian McDiarmid) visits personally to check on progress, but his true interest lies in news of Vader’s son Luke (Mark Hamill) and the possibility of bringing his Jedi powers over to the Dark Side. Luke, meanwhile, plans to rescue his friend Han Solo (Harrison Ford) from the clutches of Jabba the Hutt; but when a gift of faithful droids R2-D2 and C-3PO doesn’t have the desired effect, he’s forced to use his wits, fighting skills and the help of unknowing sister Leia (Carrie Fisher) and new ally Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) to escape with Solo and his life. Luke barely has time to check in on his old friend Yoda before the Jedi Master dies and the youngster is called to help with the Rebels’ last stand: if they can knock out the shield protecting the Death Star, powered from a forest moon of Endor, Lando and his fleet of Rebel ships might have a chance to destroy the space station. However, while Leia, Han, Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) and the robots find surprising assistance in their fight against Imperial forces from the moon’s population of furry Ewoks, Luke has bigger fish to fry, and sets off for a showdown with Dad – formerly known as Anakin Skywalker (Sebastian Shaw) – and the all-powerful Emperor.
If I were to boil Return of the Jedi down to a single, overall impression, the word George Lucas would probably like me to arrive at would be ‘restoration’, or ‘redemption’, or ‘harmony’, a word encompassing the struggle within both Luke and Anakin Skywalker’s minds as they wrestle with each other and the pull of the Dark Side. Unfortunately, the word that springs to mind is this one: critters. Damn critters, everywhere. I’ll come onto the Ewoks in a bit, but right from the start Lucas seems less interested in advancing his story than with throwing creature after creature onto the screen, and giving them annoying things to do or, in the case of the Special Edition, sing*. I’m all for a bit of colour, and the exotic creatures in Jabba’s palace are certainly colourful; but whereas Jabba, his keyboard-playing blue elephant et al are all well and good, an inordinate amount of time is given over to them, whether it‘s C-3PO translating Jabba’s gibberish or the infuriating cackling of Jabba’s muppety pet Salacious Crumb (they bothered to give it a name!). I was more than keen for Luke to rescue Han in double-quick time, so that the fun in space could start in earnest; but as the scenes in Jabba’s palace went on, and on, I found myself asking, ‘Oh, this is the story?‘ And yes, skimpy slave costumes are very nice, but they don’t excuse a plot that goes nowhere fast.
So it’s little surprise that by the time the Ewoks turn up, the viewer isn’t necessarily pre-disposed to warm to fuzzy brown aliens (who also needs translating by 3PO, their would-be deity). It’s not just annoying that their cutesiness is cynically calculated to be a merchandiser’s dream, or that their primitive ways are improbably sufficient to defeat the mighty weaponry of the Empire (if Ewoks are so good at defending themselves, and the stormtroopers are as incompetent as they repeatedly are here, how did the base ever get set up in the first place?); no, the big problem is that whilst the Star Wars universe seemed to be heading inexorably in a more serious, mature and (frankly) interesting direction during The Empire Strikes Back, the prevalence of the Ewoks and a multitude of other fish-eyed, rat-faced and pig-headed creatures dumps us back into Lucas’ most childish imaginings. It’s unrefined, too: the action sequences on Endor are constantly undermined by slapstick and surprisingly iffy effects (the rear projection during speeder chases is often poor).
If the action on Endor represents a misguided attempt to enrapture younger viewers and introduce light relief, the second story strand suffers from over-familiarity. Space is more full than ever, and the model work during the battle to blow up Death Star II is excellent. The space fights are excitingly staged, but are essentially a re-run of the final scenes from Star Wars – only with secondary characters at the helm. Hey, there’s Wedge (Denis Lawson)! Look, it’s, er, Nien…Nunb? I know there are people who lap all of this up, just as there are people who stand on station platforms and get excited about diesel locomotives, or obsess over rare Beatles recordings; but giving the smallest character exhaustive biographies doesn’t improve the movie one bit.
Finally, there’s the altogether weightier thread of Luke, Vader and the Emperor, the meat and potatoes of the film. Ian McDiarmid, in terrifying make-up, is wonderfully vile as the Emperor; and while you’d like Hamill to be a little more compelling – the conflict is written in the Emperor’s taunts, not on Luke’s face – he’s perfectly okay, and his anger during the fight with his father makes for a good watch. Impressively, we get a sense of Darth Vader’s uncertainty while he’s still wearing the helmet, and although some may think it a pity that Return of the Jedi sees Vader (previously such a bad-ass villain) in a troubled light, the Emperor takes over the bad guy role with extreme unpleasantness, and the resolution of the story is both harrowing and satisfying. Except: when the battle’s lost and won, and the dead are mourned, and Han understands what’s really going on between Luke and Leia – does Lucas really have to send us away with dancing? And pan pipes?
To conclude, I’ll revisit the cinema/movie motif from my Star Wars review. As cinema, Return of the Jedi is a joke, with no directorial flair and dialogue as one-dimensional as many of the characters (‘You rebel scum!’; or ‘Master Yoda – you can’t die!’, immediately before he does). As a movie, though, it’s ideal: loud and flashy, with spaceships, aliens, fighting, music and comedy; and it wraps up all the loose ends quite nicely, which is all anyone cared about when they joined the queues back in 1983. I just wish that whilst Lucas was wrapping up those loose ends, he had also had the integrity to take a severe pair of scissors to the Ewoks parts of the plot that were designed solely to sell toys. For while his accountant and 20th Century Fox both love George dearly for his efforts, some film lovers look less kindly on his tainted legacy.
NOTES: As with its predecessors, my ‘Special’ Edition often doesn’t do the older film elements, or the visual effects techniques at Marquand’s disposal circa 1983, many favours. The Sarlacc pit now looks much more threatening (thanks to someone who’s seen Little Shop of Horrors), but Sy Snootles’ – eesh! – new song simply replaces one bad scene with another, the new one looking completely out of place.