It is, without a doubt, the greatest trilogy of all time. Especially if you take into consideration its historical context (which we should always do when watching a movie), the “Star Wars” to “Jedi” saga (now known as the Original Trilogy, or OT) stands as the greatest series of films in history. If you really think about it, “Star Wars” basically created the idea of a trilogy. Nowadays, it seems if one film is successful, studio heads and fanboys begin to think of sequels one AND two. And it’s all because of “Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi”‘s success. Of course, it wasn’t always suppose to be a trilogy. First, it was supposed to be one film, and then nine. And then it ended up being three–until 1999. But its success as a trilogy, as a three part saga, cemented almost all franchise cinema into the 1-3 mindset.
Before writing this blog, I re-watched the film—that’s right, the way I grew up watching it, on my 21 year-old VHS copy
In fact, I don’t know if there are any three consecutive franchise films that are as perfect as “Star Wars” to “Jedi”. Don’t bring up “Lord of the Rings”, because I don’t care. Seriously, though. “The Matrix”, “Pirates”, “Spider-Man”, “X-Men”, “Bourne”. All of them just seemed to come up short in two or three or both. Nolan’s Batman series is close, as is the “Back to the Future” trilogy and, if you ask me, the first three Indiana Jones films (I will defend “Temple of Doom” to the death, in a blog-post to come later). Below, I will try to explain why I think that “Return of the Jedi” is equal to or greater than “Empire” and “A New Hope” (or “Star Wars”). The three films as a series, are nothing short of perfect storytelling.
How I felt at the end of “Matrix: Revolutions”
The internet is a funny thing, though, when it comes to how the film community seems to view films. Times have changed, and so has “Star Wars”. And on the internet, if you spend enough time reading people’s posts, opinions, blogs and vlogs, listening to podcasts and interviews, you can start gauge the General Internet Consensus (or GIC). Now, the GIC only pertains to people’s opinions on the internet, not the general public as a whole. It really only accounts for those people who have taken advantage of social media, forums and blogs to constantly spam their opinions onto other readers. My opinion here would be part of that GIC. The general populous, on the other hand, doesn’t really care to take the time to go on the internet and complain about movies. For example, the GIC for 1984’s “Temple of Doom” might be that: the Indiana Jones franchise took a step back from “Raiders” and that it was ruined by hearts on fire, Short Round and Kate Capshaw’s performance. I disagree with that GIC, and so does most of the general public, as “Temple of Doom” was a very successful film and continues to be popular to this day.
Before I give some film analysis of “Return of the Jedi” on this 30th year of its existence, I want to battle some GIC about the film. The GIC tends to be that “Empire” was so dark and sincere, that the happy-ending nature of “Jedi”, the Ewoks, and Special Edition dance routines provided for a lackluster finale to what should have been a dark and nasty brawl between Dark and Light, with casualties that would teach a generation of children the awful truth: that life’s not fair. A lot of this stem’s from the conversation in “Clerks” about how “Empire” is better because it’s darker. It ends on a down note, and life is just a series of down notes. It’s a funny take on our favorite films, but fans have ever-since taken that notion that a darker film means a better film and run with it.
A lot of people, Lawrence Kasdan and Harrison Ford included, have suggested, for example, that Han Solo’s character should have been killed off. For me, that would have been a terrible decision. I mean, if they were gonna take the coolest character in the franchise and kill him off, they should have just done it in “Empire”. Keeping him alive in “Empire” to kill him in “Jedi” would have stopped the movie in its tracks. We’ve seen it before. Remember (spoilers), “Matrix: Reloaded” when Neo uses his powers to bring Trinity back to life only for her to die in the next chapter of the series? What—what was that all about? I’m glad George Lucas had the final say, and Han’s life and legacy lived on. I am glad the film ends on a lighter note, damn it. If the film ended with Han’s funeral, or Luke sacrificing himself, the franchise’s basis of the Hero’s Journey mythos would suddenly become the Tragic Hero mythos, throwing the overarching story into a complete identity crisis. “Jedi” and Luke’s happy ending is what will separate it from “Sith” and Anakin’s ending to come in 2005. Let’s face it, even in 1983, knowing Anakin’s fate as a Jedi, what good would it do if Luke had as dark of an ending to his story? Could you imagine if “Return of the Jedi” ended on a down note, with Luke in liquid hot magma? That would be dumb.
But let’s get the obvious GIC out of the way before I go on. Ewoks. I love Ewoks, but the GIC is that they are stupid, fluffy puppets that take away from the seriousness of the film—and the way they take down the Empire with primitive technology takes the viewer out of the film. First of all, the film is first and foremost for children. Let’s just put that out there. Ewoks provide a fun, new entry of civilization and culture to the world of Star Wars. And it does take some of the seriousness out of the film. I wouldn’t say Ewoks take away from the high stakes that are happening on Endor. But Ewoks make you smile, and make you chuckle during a dangerous final battle. Think about, recently, “Man of Steel”. One of my criticisms of that film is that it’s SO SERIOUS, you never have time to breathe. You almost forget you’re watching a Superhero film. Ewoks are geniously added to “Jedi” to remind us that, while the stakes are high for the characters that we love, this is still a fantasy film.
That being said, Ewoks are dangerous, vicious creatures. These are the furballs that capture our heroes and prepare them for a human-style pig roast. If they weren’t so enamoured with Threepio and convinced to help the Rebels, our Star Wars heroes would have been reduced to Midichlorian Reubens by the third act. And if you can’t believe that a primitive culture with homefield advantage and greater numbers could topple apathetic space marines with a surprise attack, then I don’t know what else to tell you that might convince you to appreciate the Ewoks. Except, don’t watch the Ewok made-for-TV movies or cartoon shows. Instead, listen to John William’s Ewok theme:
Part of the reason, I believe, that “Jedi” hasn’t gotten as much appreciation throughout the years is because of Director Richard Marquand’s tragic death in 1987. As opposed to “Empire” director Irvin Kershner, who had become a fan favorite for years to come, mainly due to how open he was about discussing the film and telling wonderful stories of how “Empire” became the film we all know and love today. Richard Marquand never had the opportunity to deliver that oral history of his film, and thus, goes severely under-appreciated. Under-appreciated to the point where people, to this day, make the asinine declaration that Marquand had little to do with the film’s direction, and much of it was done by producer and creator George Lucas. I think that’s wrong. It’s wrong to assume, and you know the only people perpetuating that rumor are those who don’t like “Return of the Jedi”, or the Star Wars prequel trilogy, and want more “proof” that George Lucas is inept as a director. I’ve never seen any other film by him, but “Return of the Jedi” stands as a testament to Mr. Marquand, that he had an eye for visual storytelling, and an understanding of character that tends to be lost in big budget productions these days.
Richard Marquand cameo. He also played Jabba’s torture droid.
So, now. Let’s get to what makes “Jedi” so great. What I don’t want to do is a plot summary. Because if you’re reading this, I hope you’ve seen “Return of the Jedi”. What I will do is some classic film-school, film-theory type analysis on the character of Luke Skywalker. Because, let’s face it, this is Luke and Anakin’s story, and it’s all capped off perfectly in this film.
What a story, really. And a great script, typewritten by “Empire” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark” screenwriter, Lawrence Kasdan (“Raiders of the Lost Ark” is one of the best scripts ever written, by the way). There are so many bold choices with the character of Luke Skywalker in this film that go so unnoticed. Hard choices, I am sure. For Lucas, producer Howard Kazanjian, Kasdan and Marquand. I mean, we take for granted now, I think, how easy it could have been for the filmmakers to decide that Luke Skywalker was going to go in there, kill the Emperor, confront and kill his tyrannical father, and save the day for all of his friends. We take for granted how easy it would have been for these filmmakers to say, “Look, we’ve got a winning formula here. These people are gonna come and see this movie regardless, let’s make Luke a superhero, who has easy choices and can do no wrong. Let’s have him ask Yoda for advice, Yoda will tell him what to do, and there will be this wonderful fight at the end, Luke vs Vader.” But “Empire” kind of throws a wrench into those plans, with the reveal that the biggest, baddest character in cinema history was the father to brightest-eyed and bushy-tailed, blonde hero of modern American film going. And that put our character, Luke, in a tough place, for the third act of the trilogy.
“I kissed my sister? Now I have to kill my father? What the Force?”
And the filmmakers didn’t back down from making Luke an example of right and wrong. Because when you really look closely at “Jedi”, and even the Star Wars saga (all six films as a whole), you begin to notice some startling stuff about our main heroes, namely Yoda and Obi-Wan. I guess what I’m getting at, is that we REALLY TAKE FOR GRANTED the decisions that Luke makes in “Return of the Jedi”. I mean think about it! Luke’s mentors, Yoda and Obi-Wan, are telling him that in order to become a Jedi, he has one more thing to do: he has to go and kill Darth Vader, his father. Which seems odd now, knowing what we know about what we think the Jedi stand for as an entity, as Yoda says in “Empire”: Jedi never attack, they only use their powers for knowledge and defense. Yet, here are our main wise guys in the universe telling our hero to go kill his father. And Luke isn’t sure about it. How can he kill his own father? So he goes to confront his father, who is also giving advice. And what’s that advice? In order to save his friends, he has to kill the emperor.
It comes down to Kasdan, Lucas, Marquand and company refusing to go down the quick and easy path: instead of having Luke simply kill and save the day, they have him do something incredible. Even when he his brought to his most emotional state, Luke restrains himself. Star Wars has always been about one generation making up for the mistakes of another; it’s been about revolting against the people who came before you and screwed up everything. Luke hears the advice from his elders on the lightside, and hears the advice from his elders on the darkside and instead of choosing one side, he says “No. Ya know what? Screw both of you, I am gonna make my own, goddam decision.” And he does. When faced with the decision to kill his father, he refuses to fight. I mean, “Return of the Jedi”, a film under the umbrella of Star WARS, comes down to one man’s civil disobedience. His compassion for his father, and then his father’s compassion for his son are what defeats his enemy. He defeats them with love. And that’s a freakin’ incredible notion, and a bold decision for the filmmakers.
People forget that before “Empire” became the GIC fan favorite, “Jedi” was everybody’s favorite Star Wars film. I know it was mine. Growing up, if I was sick and had to stay home from school, it was always my “Return of the Jedi” VHS that got the most play. “Jedi” was the reason my favorite color was green, as I prefered the film’s green lightsaber over Luke’s blue lightsaber in “A New Hope” and “Empire” (it also was the lightsaber color that would send fanboys into discussion forever debating if the green lightsaber had some sort of significance to Luke’s progression into Jedi-hood. I, for one, believe it to be the symbol of Luke being a mix between the light and the dark, but maybe not). How could you not love Jabba’s palace? The action in “Jedi”, is surely the best of the OT as well. By 1983, technology was beginning to catch up with ILM and everything they were doing to change the way we thought of special effects. The second Death Star battle in “Jedi”? Just incredible. That shot from the Falcon’s cockpit with all of the Tie Fighters flying at it gives me a smile every time. Admiral Ackbar and crew flying into their trap, and the ensuing flight into the Death Star core that follows is so much fun—equally better when played in 2001’s GameCube classic, “Star Wars: Rogue Leader”. And then there’s Leia and her metal bikini, which made men out of young boys everywhere.
Also, the film definitely has benefited from many of the Special Edition changes that George has bestowed upon it. Does the “Jedi Rocks” digital dance sequence make “Jedi” a better film? Uh, no. But I definitely prefer what they fixed with the Rancor matte lines and adding the beak to the sarlacc pit. Most importantly, though, is the new ending theme by John Williams. The “Victory Celebration” song that replaced the Ewok one-hit-wonder “Yub Nub” in 1997 is definitely an upgrade in my book. I love that piece of music, it gets me every time. It’s the kind of song you want played whenever any period of time in your life comes to an end. And Hayden Christensen added there at the end? I can take it or leave it, but the idea that Anakin and Darth Vader are two different people, is pretty powerful. Brings credence to Obi-Wan telling Luke earlier in the film that Anakin Skywalker did die when he became Darth Vader.
When the Blu-Ray for “Jedi” came out, I had heard about the dialogue added before Darth Vader makes his epic decision to choose his son over the emperor. If you haven’t seen the new version, Vader has a series of “no’s” that go before he picks up ol’ Palpatine and throws him down the shaft. I bought the Blu-Ray, knew it was coming, and was ready to be disappointed by it, mainly because I loved how Marquand had managed to get so much emotion out of Vader without any dialogue or facial expression. Then, however, the moment came when I viewed my “Return of the Jedi” blu-ray for the first time. And in a scene that I had seen a million times in my life, somehow, Vader’s new “no’s” brought chills down my spine. Somehow, George, you did it again, as if it was the first I was ever watching that pivotal scene.
And here we are, 30 years later, and “Return of the Jedi” is still one of the greatest endings to a film series ever. Yet, times are changing, and all of the sudden it looks like “Jedi” is as much the beginning to a film series as it is the end, with J.J. Abrams and company continuing the saga with Episode VII. Let the speculation begin, and let it start with another viewing of Richard Marquand’s space epic!