Return of the Jedi or as it’s now known, Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi brings this epic trilogy to its best possible conclusion. Even if that conclusion is a lot lighter than The Empire Strikes Back. Nevertheless, Return of the Jedi was a general crowd pleaser at the time of its release in 1983. I’m still not sure if I saw the Star Wars original trilogy out of order, but if I did, it’s likely Return of the Jedi was the first Star Wars movie I saw. That might explain why it’s the one I enjoyed watching the most as a kid. Looking back on it now, I better understand why Return of the Jedi is weaker compared to A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back. It’s the first thing about the immediate franchise that can be blamed on George Lucas.
Like before, Lucas chose not to direct the final installment. But he still wanted to make sure his story was being handled properly. Both Lucas and Lawrence Kasdan wrote the screenplay and Lucas was on set a lot more. Of course it was also his decision to make Return of the Jedi more toy friendly. Although names as big as Steven Spielberg, David Lynch, and David Cronenberg were an option, Lucas ultimately went with unknown director Richard Marquand. Production went off without a hitch and the only problem was the title. Return of the Jedi was changed to the much harsher Revenge of the Jedi, then back again after it was obvious the title change didn’t make sense. SPOILER ALERT! (that I’m sure is still unnecessary)…
The Emperor observes Darth Vader vs. Luke Skywalker
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away… is shown for the final time in Star Wars as most audiences likely assumed at the time. After the traditional use of the 20th Century Fox and Lucasfilm Ltd. logos. Just like with most third installments, Return of the Jedi indicates in its opening crawl that everything will come full circle. Luke faced a devastating defeat at the end of The Empire Strikes Back, but now he’s returned as a fully formed Jedi to where this all started. That’s why Return of the Jedi is a much better title for Luke. Since a Jedi doesn’t seek revenge. Another full circle inclusion is the reuse of the Death Star. Call it lazy, but a larger partially constructed Death Star is just as threatening an ultimate weapon as before. The new Death Star’s construction is enough to bring the all powerful, ultimate evil of the Dark side, Sith lord, and Darth Vader’s previously hinted at master. The Emperor finally takes his rightful place as the true antagonist of the Star Wars saga.
The entire first act is insignificant to the rest of the story, but it still offers the most entertaining and memorable moments. The ongoing storyline of the bounty Jabba the Hutt holds over Han Solo is finally resolved after 2 movies worth of build up. Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Lando Calrissian, Chewbacca, C-3PO, and R2-D2 all hatch a convoluted plan to free Han from his carbonite freeze. We return to Tatooine where 3PO & R2 are together just like in the first Star Wars. They’re the first to enter Jabba’s palace where they reluctantly become droid servants in a trade deal. After years of wondering, Jabba the Hutt is finally revealed to be a disgusting slug crime boss surrounded by servants, slaves, and live entertainment. Including his aide Bib Fortuna, Gamorrean guards, erotic Twi’lek slave girl, and Max Rebo band. And let’s not forget the cackling monkey-lizard Salacious Crumb. The next part of the plan includes a mysterious bounty hunter collecting a bounty for Chewie in exchange for not setting off a thermal detonator. It’s revealed to be Leia who promptly unfreezes Han. Except a suspecting Jabba catches them and makes Leia his new bikini-clad slave. So it’s now up to Luke to Force himself in. Luke is then dropped into a Rancor pit, but the beast is no match for a Jedi Knight.
So the action is taken to the outskirts of Tatooine on Jabba’s mobile Sail Barge. Luke, Han, and Chewie are to be sacrificed to a mouth in the sand known as the Sarlacc pit. The tension builds as Luke makes his way to the diving board. In epic cheer worthy fashion, R2 ejects Luke’s new lightsaber revealing it to be green. A chaotic fight ensues where Luke swings his lightsaber, Chewie attacks, a disguised Lando helps out, and a visually impaired Han accidentally kills the badass Boba Fett in the most cartoonishly over-the-top way imaginable. Back on the Barge, Leia overpowers her capture Jabba by strangling him to death. R2 rescues 3PO and everyone returns to the Rebel Alliance. Luke just needs to make a very important stop back on Dagobah. Where a dying Yoda confirms that Darth Vader is indeed Luke’s father. It’s mostly for the benefit of younger audience members. Then the ancient Jedi master at last becomes one with the Force. Really it’s the Force ghost of Obi-Wan Kenobi who delivers another major bombshell. That Leia was Luke’s sister the entire time. Making the romantic kiss they shared retroactively awkward.
After receiving some more off-screen information about the Empire’s Death Star, Rebel leader Mon Mothma reveals that the key this time is to destroy a shield generator on the forest moon of Endor. Once destroyed, the Death Star will be vulnerable and ready for assault. So 2 separate teams are established. Lando takes the Millennium Falcon along with co-pilot Nien Nunb. Joining their Rebel assault is everyone’s favorite fish faced Mon Calamari Admiral Ackbar. Meanwhile, Luke, Leia, Han, Chewie, R2, and 3PO take a stolen Imperial ship to Endor. Hoping Vader doesn’t sense his son’s presence. While on Endor, Luke and Leia engage in a fast paced Speeder Bike chase against Scout Troopers. Narrowly avoiding rocks and trees. That’s when we’re introduced to the very first franchise ruining characters. I’m of course talking about the Ewoks. The little kid friendly teddy bears that took on a life of their own and dominate the rest of Return of the Jedi. Wicket is the first to introduce Leia to their primitive tribal home in the trees. The rest are captured and only freed when the Ewoks assume 3PO is a god (with a little help from the Force). Only Luke leaves to confront his father after telling Leia the truth. As well as hinting at the possibility of her being Force sensitive too.
Now the action is split 3 ways. With Luke attempting to bring Vader back to the Light side, the strike team attempting to take out the generator, and the Rebel ships attempting to take out the Death Star. Luke comes face to face with the unarmed, but still intimidating Emperor. Who attempts to sway the young Skywalker to the Dark side. By encouraging his anger when his friends are placed in immediate danger. The Empire sets a trap for the Rebels that reveals the incomplete Death Star to be fully operational. Along with a fleet of Star Destroyers and TIE fighters that overwhelm the heroes. Back on Endor, Stormtroopers and AT-ST’s (or Chicken Walkers) have everyone surrounded at the generator station. As ridiculous as Ewoks defeating Imperial forces using sticks & stones is, it is what overpowers the Stormtroopers. That’s when the shield is destroyed.
The final lightsaber duel begins when the Emperor allows Luke to strike him down. It’s an emotional battle between father and son. When Vader threatens to turn his twin sister to the Dark side, it’s enough to push Luke over the edge. Luke cuts off Vader’s hand, but he refuses to end up like his father. An enraged Emperor unleashes his Dark side exclusive Force lightning on Luke. I always cheer the moment Darth Vader chooses to save his son and kill the Emperor for good. Luke attempts to rescue his dying father, but it’s too late for him. So we finally see the unmasked heavily scarred Anakin Skywalker for the very first time. Luke escapes just in time for Lando and the rest to blow up the exposed Death Star. Ending the Galactic Civil War once and for all. Han and Leia declare their love for one another and Luke cremates his fallen father. In the end, Luke, Han, Leia, Chewie, 3PO, R2, Lando, and very lucky pilot Wedge Antilles celebrate with the Ewoks. The Force Ghosts of Obi-Wan, Yoda, and fully redeemed Anakin join them as well. Closing with a heroic shot that will never be forgotten…
Jabba the Hutt keeps Leia prisoner
Return of the Jedi was a bit of a tonal compromise for the Star Wars original trilogy. Recapturing the innocent adventure of A New Hope without abandoning the darker ideas of The Empire Strikes Back. Before confirming his return, Harrison Ford was positive Han Solo should die for the cause he now believed in. It would have been shocking, but really Han doesn’t do much outside of being rescued and helping the Rebels defeat the Empire. Well George Lucas was more concerned with toy sales, so he shot down the idea and anything else that made the conclusion less kid friendly. That’s why Ewoks are given so much attention. I don’t hate the Ewoks, I just don’t get why they felt the need to give them 2 TV movies and an animated series. I don’t think anyone thought native teddy bears would become such a big part of Star Wars. Well as it turns out, Wookies were originally meant to bring an end to the Empire. But trying to find actors as big as Peter Mayhew was probably difficult. Instead beloved little person Warwick Davis began his career by playing Wicket.
Although a lot more obscure in terms of the rest of his career, Richard Marquand is another important player in Star Wars history. Lucas was won over by the war themed suspense of his previous work. Marquand’s only hurdles were the special effects. Which are now a lot more polished this time around. Pretty much every trick was utilized. From stop-motion and blue screen to make up and puppetry. Frank Oz briefly returns as Yoda, but it’s really the Jabba puppet that’s the most impressive. Luckily they didn’t go with the hairy guy that appeared in the A New Hope deleted scene. Instead Jabba’s final repulsive design was performed by three puppeteers and he only speaks Huttese. Many more unusual looking aliens and droids were created as well. The Rancor ended up being a puppet that doubled in size thanks to blue screen. New terrain meant more outfit changes. Outfits are either sand planet or forrest moon appropriate.
Mark Hamill is much more sure of himself playing Luke Skywalker as a Jedi Knight. Luke’s choice of all black is meant to parallel his choice between the Light and Dark side. His new lightsaber is only green due to the blue sky in Tatooine. Since Han is helping his friends, Billy Dee Williams gives Lando Calrissian more Solo qualities. Specifically wearing his vest and using his ship. Despite not wearing clothes, Chewie’s fur does become more unruly. They may not have liked each other, but Anthony Daniels and Kenny Baker are great comic foils as C-3PO & R2-D2. 3PO even gets a chance to recap the previous movies. Really the biggest outfit changes come from Princess Leia. Ranging from a modest Endor poncho and Ewok dress to her stunning slave Leia bikini. I understand Carrie Fisher’s discomfort, but she’s a beautiful woman who pulls it off perfectly. Star Wars nerds like myself had our first fictional crush and dozens of fan girls have been cosplaying in the outfit ever since. Plus it makes sense in the context of the story and Leia is still strong enough to kill her capture in the end.
Although George Lucas claims to have mapped out Star Wars far in advance, Luke and Leia being brother and sister begs the differ. Outside of that kiss, they had too many other hints of mutual attraction. Yet the reveal does make sense since Leia was already in love with Han and it gives more hope to the galaxy. Just as it made sense for Darth Vader not to be the ultimate evil in the galaxy. Setting up the all too important dynamic of a Sith Master and apprentice. From his voice to his threatening cloaked presence, Ian McDiarmid was born to play the Emperor. All it took was one movie to show that he’s the one who needed to be defeated this entire time. Making Vader’s redemption all the more poignant. I’m honestly overwhelmed with emotion anytime I see the scene. More interactions with his son meant a greater range of character for James Earl Jones. He can be intimidating one moment and fatherly the next.
Of course the man behind the helmet needed to be someone new. Sebastian Shaw is unexpected, but just the right fit for an aged Anakin. Although I admit I was confused when he appeared without makeup as a Force ghost. John Williams’ varying themes help to balance the mixed tone. And really tone is the only minor flaw with Return of the Jedi. It’s George Lucas’ extremely extensive special edition cut that’s truly at fault. Big changes were made to Jabba’s palace. The ethereal song sung by a puppet Sy Snootles is replaced by a high energy number with obnoxiously bad CGI. The beak and tentacles added to the Sarlacc pit made sense however. But Anakin’s actor replacement and addition of new planets during the celebration are a bit much. And I’ll never forgive the addition of “No” in Vader’s perfectly silent redemption. Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi is a perfectly serviceable end to a perfect trilogy. “May the Force be with you.”
Preceded by: Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back & Followed by: Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens