Star Wars is a difficult franchise to love these days. Over-saturated with bad products (and not just the prequels – the games, TV movies, endless merchandise), it seems what made Star Wars great has been forgotten about. Even the upcoming Episode VII hasn’t got general fandom excited in the way the announcement of Episode I did (ah, more innocent days). So to write an article defending a film which many people regard as where the rot set in is no easy task. Indeed, some may even be ready to dismiss my efforts as pointless, so set in their Jedi dismissing ways are they. But I really do believe Return Of The Jedi deserves a lot more love than it normally gets, and I’m going to tell you why. For purposes of the article, I’m going to use the original release as my reference point, but with discussion of the various special editions.
But first of all I’m going to recap just why many of you think so lowly of it. Apparently it was where Lucas decided to stop bothering about his epic saga, and just started caring about the commercial tie-ins. Cue the Ewoks. Many see it as a rip-off of A New Hope, complete with another attack on the Death Star. Still others can’t get over how bad Boba Fett’s death is. On a script, design, and direction level, Jedi just isn’t up to scratch, especially in comparison to A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back. Hell, some people even rank it below Revenge of the Sith when rating all the Star Wars films. A pox on them I say.
I’m going to come right out and admit it; Return Of The Jedi is my favourite Star Wars film. Always has been, always will be (unless one of VII, VIII, or VIX is the greatest film ever made). Is it the best Star Wars film? No, many of the complaints listed above are valid. But it does so much right, that it lifts itself above the bad and becomes a truly epic and magical conclusion to a three, then six, film journey.
I’ll address the Ewok issue head-on. Fully grown adults howled with rage when some cute bear creatures turned up and beat the Empire. But the Ewoks are accessible – for those who have never seen Star Wars, they quickly become one of the most memorable and iconic aliens in the whole damn thing. They epitomise the never say die attitude of the Rebellion, and prove that where’s there a will there’s a way. A low-tech solution to a high-tech tyranny? That’s the Ewoks. Yeah they were probably in there for the kids (and possibly budgetary reasons), and I know it was meant to be a planet full of Wookies. But look how that turned out in Revenge of the Sith. About a tenth as exciting as the teddy bears killing stormtroopers with rocks. Plus they got the best ‘we won! Yub Nub!’ song ever. Until Lucas stuck crappy world music over it instead.
In terms of other memorable characters, it also gives us Jabba the Hutt and his own criminal enterprise. The moment with the rancor was the most terrifying thing I ever saw as a kid, but then undercut instantly by the sadness of the keeper after its death. Where else do you get that tragic-comic acknowledgment of a boy and his monster in Star Wars? We also get the Emperor at long last, and he is used perfectly here. Not just a cackling pantomime villain, the Emperor exudes genuine menace, and proves even more frightening than Darth Vader himself, official best baddie of all time TM. This is how you up the stakes, and increase the risk. It also leads the new films with a lot of work to do on the villain front – how can you better the Emperor?!
Jedi also gets a fair amount of criticism for its script. While at times functional and occasionally uninspired (like every Star Wars films really), it definitely has its fair share of quotable lines. I bet if you started saying Star Wars lines in your head right now, the majority of them would be from Jedi. “It’s a trap”, “many Bothans died to bring us this information”, “so be it Jedi”, and “especially for… sister” are just some of the memorable corkers lurking within.
Perhaps the most outstanding element of Jedi though is the fights, both space battles, hand-to-hand, and lightsaber duels. They have the balance just right on action, spectacle, and watchability. Compared to A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back, Jedi’s fights are bigger, better, and faster, as well as having greater scope and higher stakes. Compared to the prequels, they actually have emotional resonance, feel like they’re really happening (and not just in a computer somewhere), and can be followed easily. That stuff all matters. The assault on the Death Star II is the best space battle ever committed to film (in my opinion), and special mention must go to the A-Wing pilot who crashes into the Super Star Destroyer.
But the best fight in Jedi, and in fact all six Star Wars movies, is the final duel between Luke and Vader. It’s basically what the whole saga has been about – the Skywalker legacy. Paired with one of the best pieces of operatic and epic music that John Williams ever composed (listen from 1’10’’ right here) the scene is everything we’ve been waiting for. Not just a great ending for Jedi, but a great ending for all the films.
The scenes in the Emperor’s throne-room leading up to the final duel also turn Jedi into a decent film into something approaching greatness. There is nothing I would change in the whole final third of the film actually, but the three-hander is especially powerful. It’s left such a lasting impression on me, and my taste in films, books, and games, that an impressive final confrontation can make or break a story for me. And then they give Vader the greatest heroic moment ever. The pain and anguish are plain to read on his impassive blank mask, as is his inner turmoil over whether to turn on his master to save his son. Of course Lucas had to fucking ruin it by putting a stupid, ‘No, noooooo’ dubbing over the top of his latest special edition, but in its original form that moment is about as close as you can get to cinematic genius for me.
The whole resolution to the monomyth proves that Lucas really was Joseph Campbell’s greatest ever student. While a million other films have tried to copy The Hero’s Journey since, only Lucas got it spot on. That is why the ending of Jedi has such resonance, and why it has made such a lasting impact. Does that mean Jedi only works as part of a larger whole? Perhaps, and that’s why it’s not the best Star Wars film. But it is the most emotionally satisfying, and that means a great deal when experiencing film. The head tells me Empire, but my heart has always said Jedi.
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