Stars: **** out of Four
Summary: A thrilling, angsty finale for a classic trilogy, with the best effects and the best music, to boot.
Review: Starting with the gleeful innocence and spectacle of ‘Star Wars’, going to the troubling middle chapter of ‘The Empire Strikes Back’, and now into the dark, unexpected finale of ‘Return of the Jedi’, the Original ‘Star Wars’ Trilogy cemented the legacy of George Lucas in modern film. The blockbuster and the summer tentpole were now the economic foundations of the film industry.
Before ‘Return of the Jedi’ was released, there were high expectations as to how Lucas could possibly wrap up the Trilogy. After it was released, though it was still highly regarded and was a box office smash, there was some disappointment in the content, with some believing that the spirit of the mature middle chapter had been compromised and that Lucas was pandering to kids. The reason being the Ewoks, a race of teddy-bear-like aliens, who manage to overwhelm Imperial forces on their home moon. I find it ironic that this is considered a betrayal, after all, ‘Star Wars’ was intended to be escapist adventure. There isn’t anything inconsistent in having something that seems ridiculous, as long as it follows the film’s internal logic, which it does.
The film does, in fact, take the darker nature of ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ and continue it, while keeping the spirit balanced. The film opens with all of the heroes in deep trouble, and keeps that tone all the way to the end. The Empire, in essence, continues to strike back.
The good guys head to the planet Tatooine, hoping to free Han Solo from the gangster Jabba the Hutt. All of them fail, including, most famously, Princess Leia, who finds herself forced to become what is essentially a sex slave for Jabba, clad in only a gold bikini. As revolting and seemingly unnecessary as this is, it does make the ultimate triumph of the heroes over Jabba seem more glorious. Ironically, Jabba is strangled to death by Leia, using the very chains he used to control her. The sexual aspects of this whole sequence are not particularly explicit, and it never leaves PG territory.
The Force, it seemed at the time, was fully elaborated on in this film. The nature of the Light versus the Dark is now shown before us in the ultimate struggle, as Luke is tempted by the Emperor. Where the real struggle lies, however, is in Darth Vader. He is the Anti-Hero. In my interpretation of the final conflict, Luke allows the Emperor to attack him directly, goading him, which triggers the latent hero in Vader. This seems to make sense, but don’t take it as the definitive explanation.
Also of note is Luke’s dark wardrobe. The implication seems to be that, although he is now a Jedi Knight, due to the revelation of his father’s identity he has unleashed a dark part of himself. Aesthetically, it makes Luke appear more mature than the previous films. Not only is he a Jedi Knight, he is a full-fledged hero, no longer in Han Solo’s shadow.
Dualism is the primary philosophy behind the Force. Here, though, the Dark Side seems questioned; it is not as strong as Light, it merely thinks it is. The Emperor claims the whole final battle, allowing the Rebellion to know the way to knock out the new Darth Star, is part of his plan. This seems to be a defensive reaction to his own failure. So what is Lucas saying here? Is the Dark merely under the impression that it is stronger, or is it undone only by human error? We are never told.
The artistic merits of the film seem the strongest of the Trilogy. The music is in top form, with fully developed cues, and a new theme for the Emperor to distinguish him from Darth Vader. The visual effects take us places we’ve never been before. The battle around and inside the Death Star is no longer depicted with mere trenches, but with super-massive inner workings. The lightsabers are crisp, and the resonant sound effects make Luke’s lightsaber a reflection of his own maturity. Ewoks run at the feet of convincingly composited machines, and the sail barges on Tatooine are natural.
Performance wise, Mark Hamill comes out of the gate with his strongest portrayal of Luke. Now that young Skywalker is a complete hero, it gives the actor playing him a chance to shine. Ian McDiarmid, who plays the Emperor, was only in his 30s at the time, but you wouldn’t know it.
A rollicking good time with an angsty soul, this is my personal favorite of the Trilogy and the one that is the most unfairly derided, in my view.