” I am a Jedi, like my father before me” – Luke Skywalker
Anticipation was immensely high for the grand finale of the Star Wars saga and for good reason. The first two films in the trilogy were both critically acclaimed and financial successes. The last film The Empire Strikes Back, considered by most people as the best Star Wars film ever, ended on a tantalizing cliffhanger and with many unanswered questions. Given this background, it would be difficult for Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi to match the previous films. Regrettably, that proved to be case, but nevertheless it was a generally rousing conclusion to the Star Wars saga.
The film takes place long ago in a galaxy far, far away. A Galactic Civil War is reaching its conclusion with the evil Galactic Empire readying a decisive blow against the Rebel Alliance. In Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, the Empire’s battle station, the moon-sized Death Star, was destroyed by the fledging Jedi Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). Now, the Empire is constructing a second Death Star that is orbiting the forest moon of Endor. Sith Lord Darth Vader (David Prowse, voiced by James Earl Jones) arrives at the nearly complete battle station to oversee the finishing touches. He informs the nervous imperial officers that Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) himself will arrive soon to ensure that the station is finished on schedule.
As the construction continues, Luke goes to his home planet Tatooine to rescue his friend Han Solo (Harrison Ford) from the gangster Jabba the Hutt. Han owed Jabba, a humongous slug-like alien, outstanding debts and in the previous film was captured by Darth Vader and the bounty hunter Boba Fett (Jeremy Bulloch) and entombed in carbonite.
Luke sends his two droids C-3P0 (Anthony Daniels) and R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) as gifts to Jabba at his lair and to relay a message about bargaining for Han’s release. Jabba refuses this offer and at that moment, a helmeted bounty hunter called Boushh enters the lair with Han’s friend Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), a Wookiee, in chains. Later that night, when Jabba and his minions are asleep, Boushh, who is actually Princes Leia (Carrie Fisher), frees Han. Before the lovers can celebrate, they’re captured by Jabba’s guards. Unknown to Jabba and the other criminals is that one of them is actually Han’s old friend Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams).
The next day Luke arrives in person and is also captured. Now he, Han and Chewbacca are sentenced to death while Leia is kept as a chain-bound slave. The trio are taken out to the desert wastes of the planet as Jabba and his entourage watch their sentence carried out from a nearby floating barge. At Luke’s signal, R2-D2 shoots out Luke’s lightsaber at the Jedi and Luke uses it to free his friends and decimate Jabba’s forces. In the end, Han accidently kills Boba Fett, while Leia strangles Jabba and Luke destroys the barge.
They leave the planet in Han’s ship the Millennium Falcon to rendezvous with the Rebel fleet. Luke instead travels to the planet Dagobah to meet with Jedi Master Yoda (Frank Oz) and complete his Jedi training. Visibly withered, Yoda admits that he is dying of old age and that Luke doesn’t need any further training, but needs to destroy Vader before he can become an actual Jedi. He also confirms that Vader is indeed Luke’s father and before he dies and fades away, reveals that there is another Skywalker.
Grief stricken, Luke is soon met by the ghost of his old mentor Obi-Wan “Ben” Kenobi (Alec Guinness). The old Jedi explains Luke’s family history, revealing the story of how Anakin Skywalker fell to the dark side of the Force, the mystical life/energy field that is used by the Jedi and their enemy the Sith. He also reveals that Leia is actually Luke’s twin sister and that he and Leia were hidden at birth to keep them away from Vader, who must be destroyed by Luke.
Later, he reaches the spaceborne Rebel fleet and joins his friends as they meet with the Rebel leaders. An assault is planned to destroy the Death Star before it’s completed. But, before the Rebel fleet can engage the Death Star and its guarding ships, a strike force has to land on the forest moon and destroy an imperial base that is emitting a force field protecting the Death Star. Luke, Han, Leia and Chewbacca volunteer to head the strike force while Lando, now a general, will pilot the Millennium Falcon and a contingent of ships to destroy the Death Star.
The four reach the moon in a stolen imperial shuttle along with the droids and several Rebel soldiers. They soon discover imperial stormtroopers and engage in battle. During the fracas, a few soldiers escape using speeder bikes and Luke and Leia chase them down with a seized speeder bike. The twins successfully stop the soldiers but get separated. Leia later encounters a small, bear cub-like creature wearing tribal gear. He is Wicket (Warwick Davis), an Ewok, and takes her back to his village as his guest. Meanwhile, Luke, Han, Chewbacca and the droids try looking for Leia in the thick forest, but are captured by Ewoks. C-3P0, however, is mistaken to be a deity and treated as a revered guest.
At the Ewok village, the golden droid convinces the Ewoks to free his friends thanks to an assist by Luke, who uses the Force to levitate C-3P0. Soon, the group enlists the Ewoks to help against the imperial soldiers stationed at the moon. Luke, however, is troubled after sensing Vader’s presence and is afraid he is jeopardizing his friends. During some festivities in the village at night, he confides to Leia about their true relationship and Vader, who he thinks he can redeem. Luke bids her a sad farewell as he leaves the village and later surrenders to Vader. Despite Luke’s efforts, Vader refuses to denounce the dark side of the Force.
Luke is taken up to the Death Star and meets Emperor Palpatine, who is eager to corrupt the young Jedi as he did with his father years ago. With Vader at his side, the Emperor plays mind games with Luke and admits that he knows about the Rebels’ attack. In reality, the Emperor allowed this to lure them into a trap.
Down on the moon, an attack on the fortified imperial base by the Rebels is quickly defeated. However, the brave Ewoks mobilize their own army and join the fight against the Empire, but are clearly outmatched. Meanwhile, the Rebel armada arrives in the Endor system and Lando quickly realizes that they’ve jumped into a trap. Then, the Rebel fleet is swarmed by overwhelming imperial ships. As Luke witnesses the firefight outside in despair, the Emperor divulges that the station is operational by having it open fire on the Rebel ships. This goads Luke into lashing out at Palpatine with his lightsaber but Vader parries the would-be killing stroke. As the climatic battle rages outside and on the moon a final confrontation between father and son, good and evil commences.
Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi is the weakest film in the original trilogy, but it is an entertaining romp that ties up the near-mythical Star Wars lore. On the whole it feels very pedestrian and by the numbers. The first half of the film seems to be written (by George Lucas and Lawrence Kasdan) as if the writers wanted to get many hanging threads out of the way to concentrate on the second half. The problem is that one of the film’s three main objectives, destroying the second Death Star, is just an extended rethread of the first film. All the imagination and risk from The Empire Strikes Back is missing here and watching this gives the impression that Lucas and company just wanted to be done with the film and go home.
What doesn’t help Return of the Jedi at all is the lackluster direction by Richard Marquand. Instead of returning to the director’s chair Lucas tried to enlist other directors like Steven Spielberg and even offered the job to David Lynch. One can only wonder what a David Lynch Star Wars film would’ve been like. Dune, the film he was busy with to take the offer, gives interesting clues as to how a Star Wars film by him would’ve been like. George Lucas had a heavy presence on the set of Return of the Jedi and it’s likely that he had more influence on the film than Marquand had, which could be why the relatively inexperienced director was chosen. The results were uneven.
It is an exciting tale with crowd-pleasing moments, but its clunky dialogue is almost painful to hear at times. Half the actors, especially Harrison Ford, seem bored and lack passion. Ford was the worst offender, half the time he looked as if he couldn’t be bothered and the other time he was busy mugging the camera. Honestly, it would’ve been better if the filmmakers had taken up his suggestion and have Han Solo die heroically. Mark Hamill, on the other hand, gave it his all and was impressive. It was clear that the young, naive farm boy from Tatooine had matured into a competent and noble warrior who never lost sight of his humility while bearing a quiet confidence. As it should be, the focus and highlight of the film was on the completion of Luke’s journey and in the end he proved that by resisting the temptation of the dark side, he was a better man than his father.
Darth Vader was the other player in this saga who had the most dynamic transformation by the time Return of the Jedi finished. Once seen as the epitome of evil, by the end of the film he nearly became a tragic figure and a much weaker man. If one were to ignore his inhumane actions in Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, one can almost forgive him in light of his self sacrifice to save Luke. By the time his helmet is uncovered, the dying Vader is no more, he’s now a much older Anakin (played briefly by Sebastian Shaw), who is full of regret and sorrow over the pain he was wrought. But the question has to be asked, did he earn redemption in the end? The film (and Lucas) obviously thought so as seen when he appears in the conclusion as a ghost alongside Yoda and Obi-Wan. Still, is one noble act in the end (to save Luke from the Emperor) enough to warrant redemption? Most people would think not, but that is up to each person to decide.
A reason why Vader seemed so diminished in his villainy had to do with the Emperor himself. Ian McDiarmid had the role of a lifetime as Palpatine and he excelled as a personification of corrupt power and evil. Just look at the way the wizened old man cackled maliciously as he tried to undermine Luke. His role was so inspired that bringing him back in the prequels was a no-brainer and his presence in the prequels were highlights.
On a side note, it’s an abomination that in the special edition of Return of the Jedi, Lucas had Shaw’s image removed during the ghost scene and replaced him with Hayden Christensen, which doesn’t make sense. Why did Anakin morph into a young man? Why didn’t Obi-Wan morph himself into Ewan McGregor for that matter? In many ways, this is an insult to Shaw and feeds fans ire against the prequel films. Of all the actors to bring back, Lucas could’ve picked someone else to provide a link between the trilogies, though that wasn’t needed. That is what the droids were for.
Frankly, there were better and unrealized uses of tinkering with the film. Let’s start with the Ewoks, the teddy bear creatures that were the most hated things in the Star Wars saga until Jar Jar Binks came along. At one point, the natives that fought the stormtroopers were supposed to be the fearsome Wookiees, who were originally slated to appear as an army in the first film. It would make much more sense that the formidable stormtroopers could be defeated by the hulking giant Wookiees, but Ewoks? Lucas said once in an interview that the battle between them and the stormtroopers was an analogy to the Vietnam War wherein the Ewoks stood in for the Viet Cong, who were supposed to be inferior to the American forces, yet somehow won. OK, that is a simplistic way of looking at history and this film isn’t capable of fully exploring this idea, but it is what it is.
The obvious reason why Lucas chose to use Ewoks was for merchandising purposes. What are popular toys? Teddy bears! So the Lucasfilm marketing department came up with the bright idea to put tribal garb on teddy bears and voila, they’re Ewoks, the intellectual property of Lucasfilm. Back during filming, this premise of the small Ewoks outfighting the elite of the Empire would have been more credible if a line of dialogue mentioned how tough the wood and other natural materials were on the moon. That way when an armored scout walker gets smashed in by logs, it would make more sense if the logs were made of tougher material than the ones on our planet. When doing the special edition some CGI could’ve been used to have the Ewoks sprout fangs and claws during battle. It probably would’ve looked silly, but it might’ve sold the idea better that they were a force to reckon with.
This retrospective may come off as an epic rant, but Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi can be enjoyed if it’s not actively compared to the original films. There is an undeniable cathartic feeling of seeing the hated Empire getting its butt kicked at last by the Rebels. In the past two films, the Rebels were always the underdog, either barely winning or escaping to outright losing to the Empire. Now in this film the two sides were on equal footing and that epic space battle still holds up to this day and adds to the triumphant and satisfied mood one gets when seeing what was thought to be the last Star Wars film. Of course, we all know that wasn’t to be as seen with the upcoming release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. May the Force be with us.