What started out as a simple fantasy adventure in space with Star Wars was turned into an epic by The Empire Strikes Back. Return of the Jedi faced the daunting task of bringing the whole thing to a satisfying conclusion. For my money, they succeeded spectacularly, though not without a small, but noticeable dip in quality from the previous film.
The movie picks up where the last one left off; with Luke and his friends trying to rescue Han from the monstrous Jabba the Hutt. This opening almost feels like a full film in itself, especially as it both goes on for far too long and is rather severely disconnected from the rest of the film. In essence, it’s a self-contained story that takes up full the first half-hour of screen time.
That said, it’s not at all a bad sequence; there’s the fast-paced high adventure we knew from the earlier films, done with the same creativity and anchored by the same great characters. I’m not really sure what Luke’s original plan was, but the adventure serves to showcase how far he’s come. Despite his failure against Darth Vader, he’s grown from a naïve farm boy to a formidable warrior in his own right.
Characterization wise, the dynamic here reverses that of the previous films: in both the end of the original and beginning of Empire, Han had to save Luke. Then at the end of Empire Luke tried to save Han and failed. Here Luke succeeds, showing that he’s taken his place as the real leader and hero of their little band.
This jump in power and confidence from the previous film is a little jarring, it must be said, especially as we don’t know how much time has past. And that points to probably the biggest problem with the film as a whole: that despite the leisurely opening act, the film feels rushed. Plot threads set up in the first and second films are knocked down one after another in quick succession: Luke returns to continue his training with Yoda, only for Yoda to die after saying he needs no more training. Yoda’s cryptic words about “another Skywalker” are answered almost instantly with the reveal that Leia is Luke’s sister (which is probably the weakest story development in the trilogy: nothing about their interactions indicated this and it raises big questions about the dynamics of their birth and early life). The Empire has built another Death Star and the Rebels have a chance-in-a-million to end the war once and for all.
Now, none of these plot threads are really bad or poorly done (well, the reveal about Leia is debatable), but having them all occur so quickly does feel contrived. This is another reason why it’s frustrating the Jabba the Hutt sequence is allowed to go on as long as it does: with so much story to tell, it’s strange to spend such a huge chunk of the film on what amounts to wholly different plot. But we’re clearly moving into the endgame here, and this does create a sense that things are marching to a conclusion one way or another.
There; I’ve basically covered the main points where the film falls short (well, save a debatable case which we’ll come to), and they do drag it down a bit, but they can’t really overcome the full weight of great storytelling that has been built up over the past two films, nor counteract the very real positives of this one.
In the first place, we finally have our reveal of the Emperor himself, always present as an almost-unseen force lurking in the background of the past two films. This (along with the reveal of Jabba the Hutt) is an almost perfect example of how to bring a shadowy character onstage without diminishing his mystique. Indeed, the Emperor manages the difficult task of being very nearly as vivid and intimidating as Vader himself, just from the first time he appears. We first have the opening scene of Vader arriving on the new Death Star to rebuke the commander for slow progress, then as the man tries to weasel his way out of it with one excuse after another Vader drops the information that the Emperor himself is coming, which causes the commander to look as though he’s about ready to wet himself. The message (reinforced with Vader’s darkly hilarious line “The Emperor is not as forgiving as I am”) is clear: scary as Darth Vader is, the Emperor is even worse. Then when the Emperor finally appears, he’s this withered, deathlike figure covered in a black robe, directing events with a satanic chuckle. We can well believe that this is the man who controls and directs the vast, evil armada of the Empire.
The character development of the previous film continues and reaches its conclusion in this one. Han and Lando, the two former scoundrels, have fully committed to the rebellion, as well as recommitting to their damaged friendship (exemplified when Han let’s Lando take the Falcon for the final battle). The reveal of just how far Han has gone respectable is done fantastically, with him first teasing Lando about being made a general just in time for a dangerous mission before it’s revealed that he’s one too, with an even more dangerous assignment. On that note, the film takes care to give everyone a major role in the climax; every character has a moment to shine and there’s a real sense that it could not have succeeded without all their contributions, which is exactly what we want from this group of characters we’ve grown and struggled with for so long.
Most importantly, the film spends a lot of time dealing with the consequences of Darth Vader’s reveal that he is Luke’s father. This is the main theme and driving force of the story: the huge, raging space battle ultimately doesn’t matter as much as what it means that these characters are father and son.
The dynamic here is frankly nothing short of fantastic. Luke and Vader aren’t just the ones that everything depends on, but they’re the only ones who fully realize what the relationship means.
Yoda and Obi Wan both want Luke to understand that it’s now more important than ever for him to confront and defeat Vader. Now that Luke knows Vader is his father, the question of whether he will follow in his father’s footsteps, present from the beginning of the series (recall Uncle Owen’s “That’s what I’m afraid of” comment, which, like so much else, takes on new meaning in retrospect), has become an active and urgent question. He has to face him to settle that issue once and for all.
On the other side, the Emperor is confused by the fact that Vader can sense Luke’s presence while he can’t, which raises his suspicions (for perhaps the first time in who knows how long) of just where Vader’s loyalties lie. Like the Jedi, he too needs this confrontation to take place to determine just what the relationship will ultimately mean to his plans. The difference is that the Emperor fully expects to win no matter what happens: either Vader will kill Luke, or Luke will kill Vader and take his place. Yoda and Obi Wan fear the exact same outcome, though they clearly think there’s a chance for Luke to kill Vader without succumbing to the Dark Side.
Meanwhile, both Luke and Vader have their own ideas. Vader, as he expressed to his son in the previous film, wants to overthrow the Emperor and rule in his stead, with his son at his side. Luke, on the other hand, believes that Vader isn’t wholly lost; he’s felt the sincere longing in his father’s attempt to convince him to turn and believes that this tiny spark of love can restore the good man he once was.
The interesting point is that both Vader and Luke, despite the fact that each carries the weight of their respective war efforts on their shoulders, each has the other as their first priority. Each wants his side to triumph, but not at the expense of the other. It’s a brilliant bit of writing: this galactic war that we’ve been following for three films ultimately comes down to the connection of a father and son, something universal, instantly understandable, and packed with emotion.
That’s not to say the war is underwhelming. This film takes the ship battles to a new level, with some of the best effects in the series, culminating in an epic battle about the new Death Star. The Millennium Falcon, with Lando at the helm, leads the united rebel force in space (commanded by the instantly-memorable Admiral Ackbar). At the same time, Han, Leia, and Chewie conduct a commando raid against the Death Star’s shield generator in order to render the unfinished battle station vulnerable to attack.
And that raid brings us to one of the main things people tend to hate about this film: the Ewoks. On the one hand, yes, they are the most cartoony, childish element in the film, and perhaps the entire trilogy, and they don’t really fit into this otherwise-grounded world. They’re just too cutesy to completely work, and I especially don’t buy that they’re a legitimate threat to our heroes in the silly scene where they prepare to roast and eat them.
That said, I will raise a defense for the Ewoks. For one thing, their role in the story as the one concrete thing the Emperor didn’t take into account requires them to be somewhat silly creatures. There really wouldn’t be any excuse for him to ignore the Wookies, for instance, as they’re too obviously dangerous. But a bunch of little teddy bears with stone-age tech? That I can buy the Emperor shrugging off. Also, their very child-friendly nature fits with the idea that these are exactly the kind of humble, unpretentious people the Empire regularly stomp on, but who prove its downfall precisely because they were ignored.
Also, despite some slapstick, the film stages their battle with the stormtroopers in a fairly believable way. It’s made clear the Ewoks are only able to hold their own for two reasons: one they know the terrain and are able to perform hit-and-run tactics and set traps, and the other is their sheer numbers. These two factors, along with hi-tech support from Han, Leia, and the rebel forces, allow them just barely to squeak a win (watching the battle this time, I realized that a lot of the time they serve to distract and confuse the Imperial troops while the rebels hit them with blaster fire).
That, and the film goes out of its way to show that they are taking casualties; they are paying a steep price for their help. The bit where the one Ewok tries to get his friend to wake up and then just sits back and hangs his head in grief is genuinely affecting. Besides which, thanks to C3-P0’s abridged recap of the past two films, the Ewoks are shown to have an idea of what they’re fighting for; they’re not just serving as cannon fodder, they’re legitimately part of the Rebellion at this point.
Basically, my position on the Ewoks is that they’re very poorly conceived, but very well executed, especially once the shooting starts.
But all that serves as a side story to Luke and Vader, leading up to that fantastic final moment where Vader has to choose between power and his family, followed by that heartfelt last exchange between father and son.
In short, though it comes weighed down with heavier flaws than either of its predecessors, the high points of Return of the Jedi are among the highest in the trilogy, just as the climax ought to be. For me, that sense of finality and accomplishment is best shown (visual storytelling again) when we watch that miles-long Super Star Destroyer going down in flames, symbolizing that the seemingly-invincible Empire has fallen at last. The whole final act is like that; a thrilling and cathartic sense of having come a long way through all kinds of adventures, but having ultimately won the day in the end. After three densely packed films, it leaves us just where we want to be: Luke is a Jedi, Han and Leia are together, and the Rebellion has defeated the Empire against all odds, largely due to the fact that Darth Vader’s love for his son unexpectedly proved stronger than his loyalty to the Emperor.
That penultimate image of Luke seeing his father’s ghost joining those of his two teachers says it all; he’s redeemed his father’s legacy and can now feel as proud of him as he ever felt of his mentors.
Return of the Jedi isn’t quite a textbook example of how to conclude a trilogy, but it is very close, and, like the heroes, we are able to celebrate and come away feeling all is right with the universe.