“When nine-hundred years old you reach, look as good you will not!”
Return of the Jedi, 1983 (Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher), 20th Century Fox
There are two schools of thought at play when watching Return of the Jedi. If you saw the movie as a child in 1983, you were most likely delighted at the final movie in the Star Wars trilogy. You were bursting with joy at the destruction of the Galactic Empire, the Emperor’s comeuppance, and Skywalker’s transformation into a full-fledged Jedi Knight. Maybe you just blocked out the Ewoks, I don’t know, but it was an incredibly fun experience. When you were a child. Inevitably, you grow up and put away childish things, but you work in around a hundred viewings of Jedi in between bouts of puberty and adolescent humiliation.
This is when Jedi unravels. I don’t think George Lucas ever intended for the movie to be picked apart with the same tools we would ordinarily designate for movies like Citizen Kane or Chinatown. I don’t even think Lucas intended for the first Star Wars movie to be hailed as a cinematic masterpiece. To hear him talk about it, he wanted the movie to be profitable and perhaps give him opportunities to tell smaller, more personal stories. He never expected his “empire” to be built on the foundation of pulp science fiction fantasy. I can’t help but think about it this way, but I would be lying if I said I didn’t absolutely enjoy Jedi. My mother took me to see it every day in one week. That’s how invested we were in these movies. Star Wars was my life. It still is, in some ways.
The Empire Strikes Back ends with a quasi-cliffhanger. Frozen in carbonite, Han Solo (Harrison Ford) has been captured by Boba Fett. Luke (Mark Hamill) loses a hand to Darth Vader, who reveals that … (drum roll) Luke’s father is Chewbacca! Just kidding, folks. No. Vader is Luke’s father, so Ben Kenobi kinda lied, or told a fib, or he was being truthful from a certain point of view. Sorry to spoil that for you. Also, Spock dies in Star Trek II and Bruce Willis is a ghost. I’ve advanced the idea (in other media) that Empire doesn’t actually end, or “close the circle” of the story until Han is rescued from the clutches of vile gangsta Jabba the Hutt, and then we can move forward with Jedi, which turns out to be a remake (of sorts) of the first Star Wars movie.
We have a second Death Star and a plan (courtesy of the doomed Bothans) to blow ‘er up but good! This one’s just a hair more difficult than skimming a trench and sinking a proton torpedo to get to the space station’s creamy nougat center. The time, Han (now promoted to General, huh?), Leia (Carrie Fisher), and Luke are required to land on the forest moon of Endor and shut down the shield that protects the new Death Star. Once the shield is disabled, Lando (Billy Dee Williams), in the Millennium Falcon, must destroy the station’s power reactor from the inside. Unfortunately, Luke knows Vader can sense him so he disconnects himself from the group shortly after the Rebels forge an alliance with the ridiculously cute Ewoks.
Luke surrenders to Vader, who takes him to the Emperor (Ian McDiarmid, who would reprise his role in the prequels and The Rise of Skywalker). The Emperor’s dialogue indicates he’s a stickler for prophecy. His motivation is turning Luke to the “dark side” of the Force by killing either Vader or himself. What’s more important to the Emperor? That Luke kill him, or that Luke become the new Jedi “face” of the Empire? I’m not sure, but I do know it doesn’t make sense, no matter how many times Lucas and co-writer Lawrence Kasdan keep reminding us with the repetitive dialogue. It goes on like this for a while in the final act. We get decent, if improbable, action set pieces on the forest moon with the always incompetent stormtroopers, biker scouts, and assorted Ewoks.
There are victories and reversals and then more victories on the forest moon and Death Star that are edited to coincide with each other. It has always seemed convenient to me that Solo and his party manage to bring down the shield just as Luke manages to defeat Vader, as well as Vader’s last-minute recant and murder of the Emperor, but we’re with our heroes all the way, no matter how ridiculous the circumstances. We want them to win. Where Jedi is uninspired in its storytelling, it compensates with incredible visual effects and a fast pace. If at all possible, avoid “special” editions of the movie. Try to dig up an old VHS tape or laserdisc! You’ll be glad you did!
May the 4th be with you!