So here we are, Mertmas and I – at the final chapter of the original Star Wars trilogy having taken only two weeks to do so, a feat perhaps more impressive than doing the Kessel Run in a mere twelve parsecs. It’s time to watch the film that we all thought was ‘it’. The end. The last we’d get. At least that’s what we were told. Before the dark times…before the prequels.
The prequels have a strong connection to “Return Of The Jedi”, especially when it comes to the Special Edition Blu Ray which is what we’re watching. But even way back in 1983, the warning signs of everything we would come to loathe about the prequels were there. But we’ll get to that in due course. Mertmas is not as forgiving as I am of these digressions and he’s keen to see what happens after the tumultuous cliff-hangers of “The Empire Strikes Back”. That iconic Fox fanfare awaits (seriously, how weird is it going to be to see a new “Star Wars” film without that right at the start?) and there’s an opening scroll to read.
The opening scrolls have always been a curious part of the saga, often – especially in the original trilogy – reading like a plot summary written by someone who hasn’t seen the film but had overheard other people talking about it. The opening scroll of “Jedi” retains the Luke-centric approach adopted in “The Empire Strikes Back” but mentions Han Solo this time too, meaning the principle three heroes have all been mentioned in the opening crawls of at least one of the films. The construction of the second Death Star is almost a secondary point, mentioned in passing but it sets up the plot of the film nicely. There’s no indication why GALACTIC EMPIRE is suddenly deserving of capitalisation, though. Is it an acronym? The only other thing that got capitalised was DEATH STAR in the original crawl of “Star Wars”. Perhaps Lucas hit CAPS LOCK instead of shift.
The film opens, as do all the films of the original trilogy with a Star Destroyer, this time approaching the under-construction Death Star in orbit of Endor. The clumsily dubbed yet wonderfully over enunciating Lieutenant Endicott (for some reason this guy really sticks in my mind when I think of this movie) informs the commander (and us) that the shuttle is Lord Vader’s. Vader has some of his best scenes in this film. He gets a lot more dialogue and even though he’s clearly conflicted, he’s still a complete badass.
Our visit with the Empire is a brief one, however, and we’re suddenly on Tatooine with C-3PO and R2D2. For the most part, the whole sequence on Tatooine is great fun and before the Special Editions it was an unalloyed delight. It’s like the original cantina scene on steroids as Lucas and director Richard Marquand throw so much at the screen it’s hard to take it all in in one viewing. So many stand-out creature designs are crammed into the palace it’s hard to pick a favourite. Bib Fortuna, of course, stays in the memory and not just because he has a throat wattle to rival that of Lucas himself. Given most of the original trilogy were filmed in the UK, I have to assume Lucas had annoyed somebody in the linguistics department since most phrases in Huttese include the word ‘wank’. Like, a lot.
There’s a lot of casual sadism on show in Jabba’s palace and a surprisingly dark sensibility for a film oft dismissed as a militarised teddy bear’s picnic. After ‘3PO and R2 deliver their message, they’re taken to be inducted into Jabba’s service. In his robot workshop, we see a variety of machinery, including several torture devices specifically for droids. Just consider that for a moment. Not the fact that a sadistic, decadent crime boss would have his mechanical servants brutalised on a whim but that whoever designed and built these droids thought it would be simply ‘wizard’ if they could feel pain. Suddenly, C-3PO being blasted to bits in “The Empire Strikes Back” doesn’t seem so light-hearted anymore.
It’s not just in torturing droids that Lucas gets his special edition jollies from either, he’s got his eyes on the audience’s pain receptors too as he unleashes a horrifically cartoony CGI addition to the Jabba’s Palace scenes. No wonder Boba Fett walks out during the souped up [Editor note: spellcheck suggested soured up and I seriously considered it] musical number which sees original vocalist Sy Snootles pushed into the background and overgrown hairy woodlouse Joh Wowza digitally inserted in her stead. The Max Rebo band has never sounded worse. Even Oona purposefully angers Jabba and willingly surrenders to the Rancor’s jaws rather than listen. Admittedly, it’s not quite as awful as I remembered. It helps enormously that it’s not very long and Mertmas doesn’t seem to mind the stupidity of having a musical number front and centre in a “Star Wars” film. Even if it does bother him, he’s soon too distracted by the great stuff that follows. Harrison Ford is a hoot as the defrosted Han Solo, striking just the right note of swagger and desperation as he pleads with Jabba. Even the hokey slapstick of him facing the wrong way feels natural and in character, rather than the awkward humour crowbarred into the prequels.
It’s an interesting approach for a sequel which follows such a bold cliff-hanger to slowly reintroduce your heroes one by one. Leia gets a wicked entrance as the mighty Boush (although it’s undercut by her later wardrobe change into the now legendary gold bikini), but it’s Luke’s super-confident introduction that impresses the most, from swanning into Jabba’s palace to taking out the Rancor, he’s clearly not the boy we last saw on the Rebel medical frigate.
Although it’s not the most elegant and skilfully choreographed battle sequence, the fight around the Sarlaac pit is great and it’s such a joyous moment when Luke ignites his new lightsaber – my favourite of the whole saga. Unfortunately, the battle of Jabba’s Sail Barge also marks the nadir for one of the saga’s most famous characters. If you look at his entire screen time of the original trilogy, it’s hard to understand why Boba Fett is thought of as so cool. Sure, he’s got a great look and projects an aura of cool when he’s just standing there but, as “Return Of The Jedi” shows, as soon as he does anything he’s an incompetent doofus. Given he saw his father decapitated by a Jedi Master, his one and only offensive move against Luke Skywalker is to borrow some of the webbing from the 1970s Nicholas Hammond Spider-Man? Then he falls over, stands up, suffers a jetpack malfunction and falls into a digital version of Audrey II from “Little Shop Of Horrors”. Was Lucas trying to troll the fans?
With the gang back together and Jabba ironically choked by his own slave girl, it’s time to leave Tatooine and head for the rebel rendezvous but not before a brief stopover on Dagobah. There’s no way around it, the scenes on Dagobah are a [*covers Mertmas’ ears*] clusterfuck of expository retconning as Obi-Wan desperately tries to backpedal on all of the bullshit he’s fed Luke in the previous two films. Hilariously, they may – just about – solve problems in the original trilogy (except, of course, for the massive problem they create in “The Empire Strikes Back”. Even Mertmas immediately brings up the kiss between Luke and Leia. No matter what Lucas says, there’s no point of view from which that is an okay thing to have done on purpose) but they end up creating more inconsistencies with the prequels which followed. Puppet Yoda still rules over his CGI successors though and his passing, although a little cheesy, is still a sad moment.
While all this has been going on, the Emperor has finally arrived on the Death Star and it’s everything we could have hoped for. It’s our first real look at the power behind Vader and McDiarmid totally owns it. Lawrence Kasdan’s script really shines here (given his appalling grasp of dialogue, I find it impossible to believe anything of Lucas’ made it into the finished draft of the and almost every single line he utters is an instant classic. On the other hand, James Earl Jones’ incredulous ‘he will come to me?’ is the worst line reading he gives as the character…apart from the ‘Noooooooooo!’ of course. I always thought the crimson robed Imperial Guards were the coolest looking Stormtrooper variations ever and it’s a real shame we never get to see them actually do anything ever. Perhaps they’ve learned from what happened to Boba Fett?
We’re also given our first glimpse of the Rebel Alliance’s rarefied command structure and an odd bunch they are too. Charisma vacuum Mon Mothma sedates the assembled soldiers with her monotonous delivery and you have to assume she attended the same presentation skills course they send the Queens of Naboo on during their leadership training. Luckily, Admiral Ackbar is there to inject some razzle dazzle into proceedings (although his finest moment is yet to come) and all I have to say about General Madine is that his hair is a bizarrely Trump-ian combover of galactic proportions. The briefing’s continued unveiling of surprise assignments is played as a moment of cute comedy but I think it’s always undermined the friendships, as if they wouldn’t have talked to each other. But the weirdest thing – and I remember thinking this when I first saw it in 1983 – is how muted the reception is for Luke. You’d think there’d be more of a fuss and reaction when the last Jedi in the galaxy walks in but apart from Leia, Han and Chewie, nobody seems that bothered.
All of which brings us to the most divisive aspect of “Return Of The Jedi”: the Ewoks. They never really bothered me at the time and they still don’t to this day. There are a few things on Endor that niggle, such as Luke – the last motherlovin’ Jedi in the galaxy – asking someone else if they can reach his lightsaber when trapped in the net but the idea that a legion of the Emperor’s best troops can be overrun by feral teddy bears isn’t one of them. There’s plenty of evidence that despite their cuddly appearance, the Ewoks are vicious, bloodthirsty predators. Remember, they were planning to eat Han, Luke and Chewbacca before Leia and a Luke-powered C-3PO intervened. The whole finale is in the grand tradition of an inferior force taking on and defeating a technologically superior race. Hell, it’s effectively the Ewok’s “Independence Day” with Wicket playing the Jeff Goldblum character. It’s fast, furry fun as the Ewoks – and an impressively facially hirsute squad of rebel soldiers – take down the stormtroopers. As part of a frantic triptych of confrontations it works well, providing a degree of levity to counter the ferocity of the dogfights in the skies above and the epic intensity of the original trilogy’s finest lightsaber duel between Luke and Vader in the Emperor’s throne room. (A throne room which apparently sits at the very top of a spindly tower sticking out of the surface of the Death Star; as far as strategic placements go, that’s on a par with the USS Enterprise’s bridge being, effectively, a hood ornament.)
It’s become quite fashionable to dismiss “Return Of The Jedi” and – from a certain point of view – it’s easy to see why. Yes, it’s not as good as “The Empire Strikes Back” and it’s also not quite as good as “Star Wars” although the difference is very slight. Everything that would blight the prequels starts in “Return Of The Jedi” and should have been a cautionary restraint on the feverish excitement which awaited “The Phantom Menace” in 1999. First off, “RotJ” is the first film where Lucas was not supported and constrained by a producer who wasn’t afraid to say ‘no’ to him. Gary Kurtz departed after the difficult process of shooting “The Empire Strikes Back” and following disagreements during the development of “Jedi” over plot direction and tone. Howard Kazanjian, long time Lucasfilm employee took over producing duties and Lucas softened the tone, saved certain characters from death and brought in the repeated plot of a new Death Star. When it came to the 1997 Special Editions, the effect was exacerbated by the worst enemy the Star Wars saga has had: Rick McCallum. A spineless, toadying ‘yes’ man, he oversaw many of the worst additions to the Special Editions (“Return Of The Jedi” probably suffers the worst of all the original films with the addition of ‘Jedi Rocks’) and McCallum went on to serve this role in the prequel trilogy too, acting as chief apologist to a degree which would have made Saddam Hussein’s spokesman Muhammad ‘Comical’ Ali’ Saeed al-Sahhaf blush. Lucas was, and remains, a great, imaginative storyteller but he’s too wild, too indulgent and terrible at dialogue so he’s always needed a strong partner to reign in and refine the ideas into a strong narrative. That is where “Return Of The Jedi” marks the long descent into the purgatory of the prequels.
But you know what? Mertmas has loved it. The comedy and pathos of the forest battle, the exciting shoot-’em-up sizzle of the ship to ship combat and the choral grandeur of the Skywalkers fighting to be free of Palpatine’s influence; it’s a great, rousing end to the saga and, while I’d have preferred Mertmas to have heard Lapti Nek instead of Jedi Rocks, been cheering along to Yub Nub instead of John Williams’ Enya-esque Victory music and travelogue and, most importantly, seen Sebastian Shaw materialise instead of Hayden Christensen, they are all small flaws which don’t take away from the things that are great.
It’s been a whirlwind three weeks of “Star Wars” watching and something has proceeded which I did not foresee. I’m genuinely, thrillingly excited about “The Force Awakens” and “Star Wars” in general again. Watching the original trilogy as ‘event’ films – albeit modest domestic events – through his eyes and his enjoyment has restored my faith in the Force; Luke isn’t the only one who has managed to redeem his father and bring him back from the darkness. Proud, Yoda would be.