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Star Wars Retrospective: Return of the Jedi

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[The Star Wars Retrospective is my look back at the Star Wars saga, thanks to the recent blu-ray release. Look for more articles every week from myself and other Flixist editors. Let us hear your opinions on Star Wars in our community blogs!]

Return of the Jedi isn’t as bad as everyone says. On the strength of the performances alone, it’s equally as charming and exciting as the previous two films. It’s the lesser of the three original Star Warsfilms, to be sure, but that’s like saying one filet mignon isn’t as good as two others that have been perfectly cooked. Is it obvious that I’m writing while I’m hungry? Probably. I love the final battle between Luke and Vader, I love the amazing space battle over Endor, and god damn it, I love the Ewoks. They’re teddy bears that walk like people. If you don’t like that, you’re a monster.

However, they are symptomatic of the reasons why Jedi marks the turning point of the Star Wars franchise. What was a thrilling space opera, full of exciting situations and fantastic aliens begins, ever so slightly, to become something…off.

One of the biggest criticisms I have about Return of the Jedi is that there are far fewer absolutely barn-burner awesome moments compared to A New Hope and Empire. The aforementioned space battle is the jewel in the crown. The final lightsaber duel between Luke and Vader is phenomenal. It’s still the single-best use of the lightsaber I’ve seen, and that includes the acrobatics-heavy fights of the prequels. I used to love the speeder bike chase, but rewatching it on Blu-ray betrays some very bad green screen work and poor editing. It’s difficult to gain much from the scene other than a sense of speed that isn’t transparently from a wind machine. In this sense, the film has a distinct sense of having fewer great ideas than the first two. To be expected in a third movie in a trilogy, but nonetheless disheartening.

The entire sequence with Jabba’s Palace is a little hinky too. It’s starting in media res, and that’s fabulous, but tonally, it feels like a different movie with a different writer. That’s a shame because it feels like a better movie than the one that follows it. Luke’s relationship to the Force is murky, at best, as he almost gleefully informs Jabba that not letting them go was the last mistake he’ll ever make. Han, for the only time in the series, is vulnerable, and Leia is a complete badass. There’s a great diversity in terms of alien types, and they’re all pretty interesting in their own way. Luke kills a goddamned dinosaur with a pug’s face. Then we get to the latter two-thirds of the film, and things get different. I don’t mean to say it gets worse, though you could make a good argument for that statement, but it feels like we just finished watching Star Wars 2.5 and only now are we getting to the actual third film. As a sidenote, if anyone wanted to get the original cast together for an animated version of Shadows of the Empire, I would shit and jizz all up in my pants with excitement.

Let’s address the elephant in the room: the Ewoks. They’re almost universally decried amongst the fanboy population, and that’s some serious bullshit. First thing’s first: if you don’t think they’re at least a little cute, then you can get fucked. Ewoks are damned adorable. I said it before, and I’ll say it again. They’re talking teddy bears. I bet if you hug one, he’d make a happy sound and hug you back. And not in a creepy way. In a way that a little kid hugs people because he just loves everyone. Your heart would melt, and it would be adorable. Furthermore, I absolutely love how they manage to take down the Empire with nothing more than their wits and a series of devices made from tree parts. It’s not that far removed from the tale of the entire Rebel Alliance. Luke blew up a space station the size of a moon with two torpedoes. They’d probably bounce right of the hull of the thing, normally, but he hit the weak point for massive damage. That’s just a macro version of what the Ewoks did. If you’ve got a problem with Ewoks because they couldn’t possibly fight the Empire’s superior technology, then you’ve got a problem with the entire idea of destroying the Death Stars.

Small note: the new “NOOOOO!” in Vader’s final scene where he kills the Emperor is exactly as stupid, in the context of the whole movie, as you think it is. I was willing to give it the benefit of the doubt that it just didn’t work out of context, in the clips that have popped up online. It’s bad. It’s really bad. Not just in terms of the revisionist bullshit Lucas spouts now, but in terms of actual filmmakingand writing, it’s just bad.

Here’s what makes Return of the Jedi just twist my stomach, as a fan of the series. The first two movies felt like family movies in a strictly literal sense. There was something for everyone, almost equally. Kids can enjoy Star Wars. Teens can. Adults can. Granny at her knitting can. They’re fairly universally enjoyable. What begins to creep into Return of the Jedi is an increasing reliance on characters designed not to entertain or astonish but to sell. I spent a good deal of time above talking about how much I liked the Ewoks, from a story and design point of view. That still stands. However, Ewoks seem almost transparently designed to sell plush dolls and little action figures and to spin off into their own movies and television shows. I’m not so naïve as to think that Star Wars and Lucasfilm wasn’t largely funded by sale of toys and goods before this movie, but in no way can you tell me that it isn’t just ridiculously obvious by now.

This is a big part of what would eventually taint the franchise: commoditization. Star Wars, somewhere between Jedi and Phantom Menace, became a thing to buy rather than a universe. My toy closet as a child was absolute proof of this. I had a rad Millennium Falcon with a pop-off top that let you sit the characters down around that holochess table, and I had Darth Vader’s TIE fighter, and I had a T-16 speeder (the kind Luke could bulls-eye womp rats with back home on Tatooine), and I had more action figures than I had any right to. My parents probably hated Star Wars just from the amount of money I made them spend on shit that’s sitting in their attic or passed off to Goodwill right now. Granted, a large part of that is the fact that I was a kid, and Star Wars just happened to be my main thing. I’m sure you guys who were into He-Man or Mighty Max or whatever had your large share of those. Nevertheless, the fact that you could buy a toy of the medical droid that tends to Luke after getting shredded by the Wampa is patently ridiculous. This is what began to go wrong with Star Wars as a franchise.

The prequels, which I will begin to write about next week with The Phantom Menace, represent this mentality blown out a hundred times. I shudder to think what the next three weeks will do to my sanity.

Ok, I’ll do the Slave Leia picture one more time now.