Star Wars: Episode VI—Return of the Jedi (Special Edition)
Screenplay : Lawrence Kasdan and George Lucas
MPAA Rating : PG
Year of Release : 1983 (1997 re-release)
Stars : Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker), Carrie Fischer (Princess Leia), Harrison Ford (Han Solo), Billy Dee Williams (Lando Calrissian), Anthony Daniels (C-3P0), James Earl Jones (voice of Darth Vader)
As the final chapter in the Star Wars Trilogy, "Return of the Jedi" is the least of the three, but it is still a magnificent experience in its own right. Its main problem is that it tends to lean too much on the slick commercialism generated by the first two installments. "Jedi" is forced to be the wrap-up of all the problems created in the first two films, so in that way it has no choice but to play it safe. Because Lucas was willing to take so many risks in "The Empire Strikes Back," he had to use "Jedi" to tie up all the loose ends and resolve all the dilemmas.
"Jedi" opens in grand fashion with the nefarious Jabba the Hutt, that giant, slimy, oozing slug of a gangster who is one of the most original and inspired villains of all time. Sitting on his throne, surrounding by his court of space dregs and bounty hunters, Jabba is the ultimate Godfather of the space set. With his deep, booming voice and smug attitude, he carved out a piece of film lore. Plus, he upped the sexual aspects of the Star Wars series by enslaving Princess Leia (Carrie Fischer) and putting her in that skimpy dancing bikini.
When Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) shows up on the scene, we begin to realize what a transformation he has made. No longer the gee-whiz kid of "Star Wars," or the budding protege of "Empire," he has become a full-fledged hero in his own right. He exudes self confidence and power as he strides into Jabba's palace, shrouded in the black robes of the Jedi Knight. And even when he's dropped into an underground dungeon to become lunchmeat for the Rancor, he shows poise and inventive tactics to escape in one of the film's best scenes. And when he's standing on the plank of Jabba's sand barge, about to be hurled into the gapping maw of the Sarlac, he's still saying in an assured voice, "This is your last chance Jabba. Free us or die."
"Jedi" is also memorable for getting us acquainted with the Emperor, someone so evil and powerful that even Darth Vader bows down before him. The final three-way confrontation between Luke, Vader, and the Emperor is a battle of wills that is often a bit overstated, but still intriguing. Seeing Luke and Vader, father and son, dueling it out in the half-completed Death Star seems to be the moment everything in the previous films had been moving toward. It's a clever, well-staged fight with plenty of melodramatic overtones, intercut with the massive Rebel assault on the Death Star being waged outside. It's classic comic book fun.
The Ewoks, those cuddly teddy bears who help defeat the Empire, have always been a sore point with Star Wars fans. From what I've read, the original treatment of the story had Endor populated with Wookies instead. But, Lucas and co-screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan decided to opt for the cute factor in the third film, something that was mostly lacking in the previous two excursions. Sometimes labeled the "Disneyfication" of "Star Wars," the Ewoks seem like Lucas' answer to Spielberg's "E.T." The final battle on Endor between the Rebels, the Empire, and the Ewoks is quite a spectacle, with endless explosions, speederbike chases, and all kinds of primitive weapons. Lucas' underlying theme of nature versus technology is never so evident as in the last thirty minutes of this film.
Unfortunately, Lucas' digital tinkering shows its ugly side in the third installment. While his additions mostly enhanced the first two films, what he does in "Jedi" actually detracts from the proceedings. The worst offender is an awful musical number in Jabba's palace. Instead of keeping the grimy, sinister tone the first twenty minutes of the film had so finely woven, this musical number with its goofy characters and over-the-top antics make it look like a circus. The digitally inserted scene takes the place of the original musical number, which had been much more low-key. This time, we get some weird, furry Muppet-looking cartoon barreling out notes right in the front of the camera like something out of Looney Toons. It's awful, to say the least.
The rest of the enhancements include giving a snapping beak to the Sarlac, revving up the speederbike engines, and adding some new scenes of celebration all over the galaxy when the Death Star is finally destroyed. These scenes aren't so bad, but they still feel a bit unnecessary, as if Lucas was thinking, "Well, I added something to the first two, I'd better add something here, also."
Even if it bordered on being a bit too slick in its commercialism, "Return of the Jedi" is still an exciting and fitting conclusion to one the greatest series in motion picture history. It gives the audience everything it wants, and celebrates the heroic myths that good will always vanquish evil in the end. Everything is taken up one more notch, and it leaves you with the question of how Lucas plans to stage his prequels. I guess we'll just have to wait and see.
©1997 James Kendrick