Thursday, April 16, 2020

Return of the Jedi (1983)

The highly anticipated grand finale to the original Star Wars trilogy ruled the summer of 1983 and while it disappointed some, it delivered the answers audiences were seeking after three years of speculation.

So many questions at the end of The Empire Strikes Back. Will the rebellion survive? What will be the fate of Han Solo? What new characters will be introduced, including the often mentioned Jabba the Hut? Most importantly, is Darth Vader the father of Luke Skywalker?

While the film faithfully answered all those questions, there's a strange blend of weariness and euphoria to the film. George Lucas was exhausted from the amount of time and work it took to make these movies, leading to a divorce and long hiatus from directing. Although he hired Richard MarQuand to direct, a British director who had impressed Lucas with his 1981 film Eye of the Needle, Lucas was present for much of the filming. The special effects and array of creatures gave audiences a lot to feast their eyes on - almost to the point of excess. The minimal feel of the original Star Wars and sense of desperation in Empire gave way to dwarfing sense of extravaganza in Jedi.

The cast were starting to tire of the saga. Harrison Ford as Han Solo returned, but the movie gives him little to do except run around with his blaster. Granted, he's now a respected leader in the alliance, but his unpredictability has mellowed. The same for Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia who deserved more of a role here as well, mostly relegated to comic relief and not to mention Jabba's servant girl for a time - not aged well! Mark Hamill gave by far the best performance, the script giving him a real arc and a satisfying conclusion. Even the villains appear a little long in the tooth, but we do get to meet the Emperor memorably played by Ian MacDiarmid. Despite all this, there's a cheery "let's get the band together one last time" prevailing over the shortcomings. 

The first act returns to Tatooine. Mostly set at Jabba's palace. Han is still frozen in carbonite, but his friends have gathered to rescue him. The opening with R2-D2 and C-3PO also calls back the original. Jabba is introduced as a giant slug mobster surrounded by sycophants. What would David Lynch have done? Lucas originally wanted Lynch to direct, Lynch went off and made Dune instead. It's actually quite a dark world, even more so in the original version, before Lucas added a cheesy music sequence. But it does bring all the characters together and is very within the tradition of serials which inspired the films.

Once the business of rescuing Han is completed, Luke returns to Dagobah to complete his training with Yoda. In maybe the best scene in the movie, Yoda passes away and implores Luke to trust in the force. Then in a notorious scene, Obi-Wan appears and provides an overload of exposition, including the infamous sibling reveal. Meanwhile the Rebellion learns of another Death Star and is preparing for one last battle with the Empire.

Then the action shifts to the forest planet of Endor where we meet the friendly Ewoks, little Teddy Bears who will take down an Empire. Ewoks served Lucas's purpose depict a low technological society defeating a high tech one, an obvious parallel to the Vietnam War. While much of the last act would focus on the antics of the Ewoks, they also serve as a reminder these movies are made for children. Irvin Kershner brought such a mature tone to Empire, the whiplash back into more kiddie entertainment proved unbearable for some.

The heart of the film hinged upon the confrontation between Luke and Darth Vader, this time as father and son. What plays out is mostly tragedy with a hint redemption added into the story. The powerful mythological motif of the father/son confrontation is brought to dramatic conclusion. The tone of these scenes is so striking it feels like a different movie.

At the same time Lucas cut the last act with three major narratives going, taking the American Graffiti approach even further. The rush of story has a certain narrative appeal and did anticipate the future of American cinema, also setting the template for the way Lucas would structure the prequel films.

There are so many ways to look at Jedi, in a way it's a movie more fun to talk about than actually watch. The original script was far more ambitious and was similar in tone to Empire with a more subdued ending and a better character arc for Leia. A full synopsis appears in Star Wars: FAQ by Mark Clark. Kids will always love Jedi because it's episodic and pleasing to the eye. The high amount of creatures and makeup is also a remarkable feat.

As for myself, it's hard not to feel some letdown with Jedi as an adult. But nostalgia is powerful, and the merits of the film overcome the flaws. The special effects and set pieces are spectacular. Lucas and his team took film technology as far as it could go at the time, raising a high bar for the future - creating a mystique persisting to this day. 

****



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