“The Emperor Is Not As Forgiving As I Am”
Time has not been kind to Return of the Jedi. As a child, it was my favourite of the original trilogy. As an adult, it is my least favourite. If ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ was just another sequel to Star Wars, rather than the middle part of a trilogy, I’d expect it to be like ‘Return of the Jedi.’ ROTJ repeats the Death Start storyline of Episode IV, as a typical Hollywood big budget sequel would do. Of course, there are more explosions, more action and more characters, in typical Hollywood big budget sequel fashion. But looking past those things, there’s very little that contributes to resolving the many plot threads dangling from ‘The Empire Strikes Back.’ The Oedipal storyline between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader is the most (and perhaps only) satisfying aspect of ROTJ, but it’s sometimes lost among the nonsense happening elsewhere.
Right from the beginning, something feels wrong with the film. Darth Vader visits the Super Death Star to check on its progress. You’d think a visit from Darth Vader would spook the commander to do something about the apparent lack of progress, wouldn’t you? Vader is the guy who killed commanders left and right in ‘The Empire Strikes Back.’ However, Vader needs to mention that The Emperor is visiting the Death Star. The commander immediately says “we shall double our efforts.” We know that there is someone above Vader, but surely the threat of Vader is enough? Within five minutes of the film, Vader’s sense of power is already undermined.
“Free us, or die”
That scene is followed by an extended rescue of Han Solo, who’s held by Jabba The Hutt on Tatooine. You can definitely say ‘I’ve got a bad feeling about this.” It reminds me of the Mos Eisley Cantina scene. There’s a host of alien species, most of whom look like they’re rejects from The Muppets. There’s Salacious Crumb, a heckling, irritating creature. There’s a blow-up blue elephant that plays an instrument. On the Special Edition, there is a horrendous ‘song’ scene, complete with awful CGI aliens. I hate to jump on the ‘Lucas only had merchandise in mind whilst conceiving ROTJ,’ but every creature seems created solely to make children want to buy them.
Luke, Leia, Chewie and Lando all try to rescue Han, but it takes a long time! Han’s rescue takes up a hefty chunk of the film, and what does it achieve? After all that effort to rescue Han, he does very little throughout the rest of the film. Of course, it reunites Leia and Han, but what about the love triangle between Luke, Leia and Han? That’s brushed aside without much thought. What about Han and Lando, who you would think have unfinished business after Lando’s betrayal in TESB? The fireworks between Lando and Han fail to appear. They hug and get over it after the rescue. Why don’t we see a glimmer of anger in Han? Or a simple punch and a smile? There are some things to take pleasure in during Han’s rescue, like Luke finally taking on a horde of enemies with his lightsabre, and the touching reunion between Han and Leia, but it lasts too long and includes far too many superfluous creatures and things.
“Exciting is hardly the word I would choose!”
The second half of the film revolves around cute little teddy bears called Ewoks, who are obviously another ploy to influence children to buy Ewok toys. They inhabit the forest moon of Endor, where the shield generator for the second Death Star is placed. They take on the Empire’s greatest Stormtroopers with Han, Leia and the Rebels. I understand that we are supposed to see the conflict between nature and technology in the native Ewok vs Stormtrooper clash, but in no way, shape or form are we given any reason to like the Ewoks. As a child, I loved them, but as an adult, I can but groan and moan at their inclusion. Lucas’ original intention was to have Wookies in the Ewoks place, which would have made the battle a little more convincing. In Spaced, Tim Bisley says that the “Ewoks make Jar Jar look like f**king Shaft!” It doesn’t stop them from sapping any tension or thrills from the second half of the film, especially the last act.
Yes, the last act of the film, the end to the original trilogy (and the saga up until Disney bought the rights!). Our focus is divided between Han, Leia and the Ewoks fighting the Stormtroopers on Endor, the space battle outside Endor (to take down the Death Star), and the fight between Luke and Vader, hosted by The Emperor. Luke and Vader is the real meat of the last act, full of powerful emotion and subtext. Luke is desperate to turn his father to the Light Side, but The Emperor wants Luke to turn to the Dark Side to take his father’s place. It’s a gripping end to not only Luke’s journey, but Vader’s journey. The Emperor takes glee in taunting Luke (“Strike me down!”), and Ian McDiarmond plays the role brilliantly. It’s this conflict that elevates ROTJ no end.
“This is no time for heroism”
However, due to the division of screen time, power is sapped from the conflict between father and son. We flit between the space battle, the Ewok battle, and Vader vs Luke, like flies buzzing around different rooms. Make no mistake; the Battle of Endor is one of the greatest space battles in movie history. There’s an immense sense of scope, and there’s a incredible amount of stuff happening. It holds up today, but it’s a pity that it ends in attacking the Death Star, something that we’ve already seen before. Unfortunately, we don’t get to see enough of it, just as we don’t see enough of Vader and Luke. Instead, we have to see the Ewoks taking on the Stormtroopers, which is literally unbelievable. Why not have the Ewok fight minimized in favour of the other two conflicts? They are far more exciting than those damned Ewoks firing arrows at AT-STs! Instead, our attention is diverted so much as to dissipate the intensity of each conflict.
Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoy ROTJ a little. Like I mentioned, the second lightsabre fight between Luke and Vader is one of the best in the whole saga, not because of the choreography, but because of their backstory and the intense emotions involved. Luke is literally fighting for his father’s life! The speeder chase on Endor is still fairly exciting. Although I moaned about the Tatooine rescue, there are still some elements to enjoy in it’s all too long duration.
“That was too close!”
But it feels like a missed opportunity. Questions left from ‘TESB’ are glossed over or completely ignored. Lando betrayed Han? Who cares! Luke and Leia had a thing going on? It’s okay, that doesn’t matter! Han and Leia are together! ‘TESB’ left plenty of room for exploration of the dark themes it explored, but ‘ROTJ’ returns to the lighter side of things. Thematically, of course, that makes sense: a trilogy has to have a happy ending! But a tight mix of light and dark would be a more fitting end. The second half is bogged down by those bloody Ewoks, and they sap much from what should be a riveting climax to a trilogy. As popcorn fare, it’s fair enough, but as the final film in a trilogy, ‘ROTJ’ fails on quite a few levels. And, with the focus on child-orientated characters and a blunt and boring script, it was a sign of things to come with the prequels…
VERDICT: 6/10. ‘ROTJ’ is an anti-climax to the trilogy, and easily the worst of the original trilogy. The battle of father and son is gripping and powerful, but undercut by the excess of events happening at the same time. But there are still some enjoyable things about it…
Leave your thoughts/comments below!
(Click here for my review of Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope)
(Click here for my review of Star Wars: Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back)