Star Wars Retrospective: Return of the Jedi

star wars return of the jedi review logo episode vi george lucas original trilogy

Here we have, then, the thrilling conclusion to this saga. It’s the Return of the Jedi – after two films building up to this, we’ve finally reached the culmination of the trilogy, with the final confrontation between the Rebels and the Empire taking place.

And, more importantly, the final confrontation between Luke and his father, Darth Vader. It’s a tense prospect, particularly given how their duel went last time. After all, the bad guys won at the end of The Empire Strikes Back.

But it’s not time for that yet. Because first, there’s the rescue of Han Solo from Jabba’s Palace. Except, well, actually, no, that’s not first. First is the revelation that the Empire is building a new Death Star – right from the beginning, we’re emphasising the power of the Empire here, and the struggle that our heroes are going to face throughout this movie. That’s why we’re seeing them, in the beginning, on the back foot, trying to fight back against their losses in the previous film – and that means rescuing Han Solo.

It’s a great way to open the movie, because it’s establishing, once again, how our heroes work together in the face of adversity. There’s a nice, layered introduction of each character; mirroring A New Hope, we start with C3PO and R2-D2. Next, it’s Chewbacca and Lando, and soon the revelation of Princess Leia in disguise, freeing Han Solo. Finally, then, it’s Luke Skywalker – and his reintroduction is most powerful of all. Dressed all in black, and using the force to choke a pair of guards, Luke seems dangerously close to the Dark Side; they’re suspicions that are strengthened as we see him threatening to kill Jabba, and outright killing guards by throwing them into the Sarlacc Pitt. It’s a plot thread that we’ll return to later, but for now, it’s a tense way to start the movie.

It’s also quite an entertaining set piece, though; you sort of get the impression that there were a couple of different contingency plans, that all sort of fell apart before coming back together in the end. It’s very much a victory that they achieved by the skin of their teeth; as much as it’s a display of their ingenuity and adaptability, we’re reminded that these characters of ours are a little ramshackle, and more than a bit disorganised. It’s a genuine question as to whether or not they’ll really be able to defeat the Emperor.

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After a brief detour to Dagobah, which I’ll discuss shortly, we end up on Endor, which is where much of the bulk of the rest of this film takes place. Endor, or more specifically the Ewoks, are quite controversial, and subject to a fair amount of criticism – people point to them as the moment where George Lucas supposedly started thinking with his wallet first and foremost, and the starting point of the Prequels’ detriments.

I reject that premise, though. I actually quite like the Ewoks. (But I shan’t argue that they’re better than seeing the planet of the Wookies, I’ll concede that point.) They’re quite entertaining – there’s always something charming about being introduced to a new alien race, isn’t there? It is, admittedly, sometimes a little difficult to buy the fact that they can defeat the Stormtroopers, but it’s actually a really nice idea; the little carnivorous teddy bears taking down a group of trained soldiers. I think it might be a little more believable, frankly, if there were more Ewoks, so that rather than about 15 of them taking on the Stormtroopers, they actually significantly outnumbered them. But then, that seems unfair, to criticise the film for not being able to quite achieve things because of unavoidable limitations (after all, that’s the sort of thinking that might lead to a hundred CGI Ewoks being added into the film).

What’s important, though, is that we’re seeing the Rebels in the final, big confrontation. It’s something we know to be quite serious – there’s a new Death Star, and we’ve finally seen the power of the Emperor himself. It’s demonstrably, clearly, obviously something of high stakes.

And these stakes are heightened because, Ewoks notwithstanding, the Rebels are actually losing here. It’s not going well for them, not one bit. You can really see how fraught things are here; like I said in my not-quite-a-review of Guardians of the Galaxy, showing our heroes genuinely struggling is a great way to imbue the scenes with real tension, and convey quite how high stakes this is. It’s a very well done battle sequence, particularly when intercut with similarly fraught scenes in space, as Lando realises that the Emperor knew they were coming – as Admiral Ackbar puts it, it’s a trap!

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Of course, though, the key emotional core of this movie is the final confrontation between Luke and his father, Darth Vader.

As I’ve already said, from the beginning, we’re lead to believe that Luke might turn to the dark side, as his father once did before him. It makes the Emperor’s attempts to turn Luke that much more frightening – as far as we know, there is a real and genuine possibility that he might succeed. It’s something that becomes increasingly more worrying, though, as we see how filled with rage Luke is during his fight with Darth Vader; it’s one of the most emotionally charged duels we’ve seen in the series. Luke overpowering Vader isn’t the moment of triumph we’d expect it to be – it’s frightening and even sickening, because we’re seeing our hero getting ever closer to falling to the dark side.

In the end, though, Luke prevails. He throws down his weapon and chooses not to fight. He opts away from violence, and stands firm in his dedication to the Light Side of the Force. That is when the moment of triumph comes; not through winning the fight, but seceding it. It’s also a moment of final vindication, wherein we see Luke was right all along; there was still good in his father. Ultimately, then, we don’t see Luke fight and kill Darth Vader – we see Luke and Anakin Skywalker overthrow the Emperor, and finally bring balance to the Force.

Mark Hamill deserves a lot of credit for his work here, because it’s genuinely compelling, and makes these scenes come alive; the internal conflict within Luke is extremely well portrayed, and I think it has to be said that Return of the Jedi is Hamill’s best performance as Skywalker across all three films. We’re finally seeing the culmination of Luke’s journey from farmhand to hero; he realises that he’s not trying to be a warrior, but a Jedi Knight. It’s an ending that really, truly resonates, and it’s achieved with real success.

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The ending of Return of the Jedi is a lot of fun; it does a great job of conveying quite how happy everyone feels, and really making the audience understand how much of a triumph this is. Darth Vader has been redeemed. The Emperor has been overthrown. The Dark Side has been defeated, and peace can be restored to the Galaxy. I was watching one of the Special Editions of this movie, and I think the addition of scenes of celebration across the galaxy really added to the movie – there’s a very real, very genuine, sense of sheer elation here.

I know that, typically, Return of the Jedi is considered to be a somewhat weaker movie, but it’s honestly one of my favourites – and that’s all down to the scenes with Luke and Darth Vader. It’s what cements this story as one of the greatest in cinematic history; it’s such a well-realised depiction of Luke’s growth of a character, and the culmination of his arc across the series, as well as doing a great job of showing us the redemption of Anakin Skywalker.

In the end, then, I think this one gets another 10/10 the Original Trilogy is, I think, as close as one can get to three perfect movies.

Related:

Star Wars Retrospective

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