Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi – Film Review

Overview

With The Return of the Jedi the story (if not the cinematic life) of Star Wars comes to a profound and epic conclusion. For all the criticisms which could be (and by me will be) leveled at this film, there’s no arguing its powerful impact, action, and rousing finale. Indeed, this film is a worthy conclusion to a cinematic franchise that has, at different times, been hailed as both the greatest ever seen and the biggest disappointment ever produced. The truth of the matter, however, is that the experience of Return of the Jedi is made all the richer for all five movies that (chronologically) precede it. And despite its stumbles in terms of pacing, acting, and pandering to marketing, Return of the Jedi delivers a cinematic experience worthy of Star Wars.

Review & Analysis

To get the criticisms out of the way, let’s focus, first, on the film’s pacing. The initial sequences on Tatooine are very well-paced and filled with plenty of intrigue and action. But following the daring and explosive (and well-executed) rescue of Han Solo from Jabba the Hutt, the film drags through its middle sections. And, too, the Tatooine scenes are, for the most part, wholly divorced from the rest of the movie. True, we do get a chance to see Luke’s newfound powers and maturity in action – and Han is freed of the carbonite – but the narrative is just far too disconnected from the overall story of the film, making it seem a bit more out of place than most sequences in the entire saga.

This doesn’t mean that the subsequent scenes aren’t any good – Luke’s return to Dagobah, for example, is very powerful – but rather there is a distinct anti-climactic feel to the film until it finally regains momentum after the fleet jumps into hyperspace. Additionally, the Tatooine scenes are burdened by one of the worst moments in all of Star Wars: The “Jedi Rocks” song which has been inserted into the “ambiance” of Jabba’s Palace. If we want to talk cringeworthy, that’s the epitome of it. But even the original, unaltered version shares the same disconnect between Tatooine and Endor.

And as for cringeworthy, the scene in which Luke returns to the fleet and utters his uber-cheesy, “I’m with you too” has to rank up there with Anakin’s “sand” statement (from Attack of the Clones) and his balcony scene with Padme (Revenge of the Sith).

But perhaps the biggest mistake (or embarrassment) of Return of the Jedi has to be the Ewoks. There’s no question that their design was intentional pandering to the kiddie crowd. That in and of itself isn’t terribly problematic except for the fact that these “teddy bears” will later be responsible for the complete obliteration of the Empire’s “best” legion of troops. For everyone who pans the prequel trilogy for Jar-Jar and the Gungans, they need to, at the very least, acknowledge that these teddy bears are far more implausible.

But enough of the negative. What does Jedi do well?

For starters, the Tatooine rescue, despite its disconnect from the overall narrative, is very well done and easily pulls the audience into the film, and back into a Star Wars frame of mind. Luke’s self-assuredness is quite compelling, as is the notion that he, Leia, Chewie, and Lando would risk so much just to rescue their friend. From start to finish, the sequence is pure Star Wars and very enjoyable to watch.

Then there is the final space battle which, until Revenge of the Sith, was one of the biggest, most complex action sequences ever filmed in space. And it is perfectly valid to argue that the space battles in Jedi are more compelling than those of Sith simply because of their scope and personal focus. Either way, it is undeniable that the battle above Endor and the new Death Star is a high point of the film, well worth watching even three decades later.

More importantly to the film, however, is its seminal sequence of events: the duel between Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader, and Emperor Palpatine. What make this so deeply moving is that it isn’t simply a frenetic lightsaber duel. It’s full-blown psychological warfare for the hearts and minds of Luke and Vader – with the fate of the entire galaxy hanging in the balance. The duel begins on Endor, with the first verbal spars between Luke and Vader, following Luke’s capture. Back on the Death Star, Palpatine adds his own manipulative qualities to the duel which inevitably, and necessarily, culminates in a final clash of lightsabers between Vader and Luke, between father and son.

Once the duel between Luke and Vader begins, it’s almost possible to complete forget (and forgive) the film of its shortcomings. The scenes are just that good. This is what real drama is about – not the yelling and screaming of the characters, but the deep emotional and psychological conflicts they experience as the confront one another. On this level, Return of the Jedi is masterful. Star Wars is often panned for its dialogue, but these sequences are operating a very high level – particularly the dialogue.

As a final culminating moment, the duel between Vader and Luke delivers on every level. The character arcs reach their conclusions, the themes are all interwoven, and the conflicts, internal and external are on full display with, literally, EVERYTHING – the fate of the whole galaxy – hanging in the balance. Put simply, the sequences are perfect. From Vader’s taunts, to Luke’s explosion of emotion and power, to Luke’s sudden realization of the path he is dangerously close to taking, to his final ascension to becoming a Jedi, to Palpatine’s fury of Dark Side power, to Vader’s final choice to save his son and the galaxy.

Bravo.

Now, if only it wasn’t intercut with those silly teddy bears which not only disrupt the pacing and flow, but also are a jarring contrast in mood and tone.

Once again, John Williams brings his finest skills to the saga, developing a soundtrack that, while not nearly as groundbreaking as the previous two, is very successful in pulling together all of his own musical themes into a climactic finale. There are a few new touches, such as themes for R2-D2 and C-3PO, Luke and Leia, and even Jabba the Hutt. But the success isn’t in new material, it is in how well everything comes together.

Overall Grade: B+

Return of the Jedi is a very, very good film, filled with the best moments of the entire saga. But as movie, it is uneven, unfocused, and mistake-prone. The result is a film that, while highly enjoyable to just about everybody, is just shy of being outstanding.

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