First of all, for the record, we’re reviewing the original version of this. No plaintive “NNNOOOO!!!”s, no chopped yub-yub songs, no gratuitous insertion of youthful child murderers in the happy afterlife of the Force. Nothing but pure uncut 1983 here.
That said, we might consider Return of the Jedi as the most problematic – and thus the most interesting – of the original Star Wars trilogy. A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back are beyond reproach, but Jedi? Bring it up and the qualifiers start. The Ewoks were kind of dumb. Han (Harrison Ford) really doesn’t do a whole lot. We get a second Death Star, which is a little too close to the first, and the storyline is too concerned with wrapping things up to develop any momentum of its own. All of this is true, making it easily the weakest entry in the original trilogy and some might argue a harbinger of horrifying Jar-Jars to come. True, yes… but not necessarily fair, especially considering the task before it and thirty years of 20/20 hindsight.
Certainly nobody was complaining upon the film’s initial release: everyone eager for answers to the questions that had plagued us for the previous three years. We still didn’t know for sure if Darth Vader (David Prowse/James Earl Jones) was really Luke’s (Mark Hamill) father, or if Han was ever going to get out of that carbonite coffin. And we had no idea what other secrets the film held, like Luke and Leia’s (Carrie Fisher) true relationship (ew). In retrospect, it all carries the sheen of soap opera busywork – plot twists for the sake of plot twists – but when we first saw it, it was so, so glorious.
And those glories haven’t faded as much as we might think. While Jedi definitely sits as the runt of the original trilogy litter, that comes about in part because it spends all its time tidying up the loose threads left behind by other, cooler entries. It finds its rhythm in the little details: the corners of this universe we haven’t seen and the ways its main characters have changed forever. It absorbs the sloppy seconds of its two predecessors, but it also reaps its share of rewards from them… rewards which the trilogy would be far weaker without.
The best example is Luke, who goes from untested youth (and grade-A whiner) to wiser-yet-sadder adult here. We see the cost of his foolish decisions on his face, sense the anger that still burns within and may yet overwhelm him if he isn’t careful. His journey has come at a cost, and without Jedi, we couldn’t fully understand the implications of that. Hamill delivers a wonderful, quiet performance that speaks to this older, more damaged hero in ways the earlier films couldn’t. Yes, it feels like a conclusion rather than a destination, but that doesn’t diminish its power.
Vader plays a similar game in his ultimate redemption, the seeds of which were laid in Empire. Director Richard Marquand throws some very quiet signs that the worm is about to turn with him (and okay, some not-so-quiet ones by introducing us to the Emperor [Ian McDiarmid], who actually manages to out-scary the scariest villain in movie history.) Look for Admiral Piett (Kenneth Colley) who, if you recall, earned his promotion amid Vader’s Force-choke rampage in the second film. Piett was next on the chopping block if the Millennium Falcon got away… which it did. And yet Piett pops up again in Jedi, telling Vader “it’s an older code, but it checks out” as if nothing had happened. Clearly, the D man was as affected by his encounter with Luke as Luke was with him, and signs of mercy appeared in him well before chucking the Emperor down that shaft. This eventual transformation thus feels like a logical progression rather than an arbitrary resolution.
And of course, on a superficial level, the film is just a blast. George Lucas’s obsession with speed finds one of its best manifestations in the forest bike chase, and the battle aboard Jabba’s sail barge carries some of the most exciting moments in the whole series (silly Sarlaac belch notwithstanding). Speaking of Jabba, everyone’s favorite slug gave A New Hope’s creature cantina an incredible upgrade, with a few dashes of humor thrown in to keep us smiling. (I love the Rancor keeper who’s devastated when Luke kills his beloved pet.) The Ewoks can be annoying, true, but we sure didn’t feel that way when we were ten, and they’ve aged a bit better than their initial overexposure would suggest. The series’ great themes of temptation and redemption find fertile ground in the last few scenes, and let’s face it: the universe would be a sadder, emptier place without Slavegirl Leia.
All of those elements simply prove that, while Jedi has its flaws, they come from the very highest of expectations. It remains as much of a classic as its predecessors, hampered only by its status as the anchor to the saga, and fully justifying the hype that surrounded it. It’s no secret that this was the film to top in the summer 1983, and as we’ll see, no one else even came close. The Force was always with it, and time, though not entirely kind, still affirms that most important truth.