Star Wars at 30: ‘Return to a Galaxy… Far, Far Away’

The Interweb age is in full swing, and consequently hype has become quite a different thing to what it was in 1983. With each of the Star Wars prequels, we have been able to watch endless trailers and teasers on the web, and access the official Wars site for further reams of information. Rumours, leaked images and the like filter through onto the online world regularly, and it’s now more possible than ever to find out everything about a movie long before seeing the finished product.

Return of the Jedi - sorry, I prefer this posterBack then, the leak of data seemed far more under control. Though you could learn much from newspapers, and television fed a limited number of updates to viewers, it was less easy to be prepared for the film to come. Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back made for a heady broth of hype. The third part, or Episode VI, was as breathlessly awaited as any movie, a promised culmination of the saga that had led to welters of toys, books and other merchandise. Known until only weeks before its release as Revenge of the Jedi, the final chapter promised much, showing us the images of horrible looking new beasts, like Bib Fortuna, the albino butler to Jabba the Hutt, and the imposing looking Imperial Guards, with their flowing red robes and a single black slit where their eyes should have been.

The film’s title changed slightly, once George Lucas pointed out that the Jedi didn’t, in fact, get any vengeance, but more controversial was the alleged stretching of its BBFC ‘U’ certificate. Apparently, the movie was going to serve up fresh horrors, testing its audiences with adult themes, scenes of violence and a loathsome slug that had a liking for the ladies. The rating stood. Millions flocked to the theatres, making for a wildly profitable episode that wound up the series and wasn’t overly damaged for being directed by a relative novice, the Cardiff-born Richard Marquand. A virtually critic-proof movie in 1983, time hasn’t been altogether kind to it, with critics highlighting its flaws as irrevocably damaging to its climactic content.

But are they? Is the sixth - and numerically final - chapter a last let down from Lucas, or a masterpiece? Is it ruined by Ewoks, or saved by the epic confrontation between the only remaining Jedi knight and his nemesis?

Episode 6 - Return of the Jedi (1983)

At least the ‘U’ rating furore died down quickly, once people had been to see the film. If anything, Return of the Jedi panders to its younger viewers far more than its prequels, diluting the weighty issues set up in Empire with teddy bear heroes and a welter of puppet extras. The latter pop up en masse in ROTJ’s early scenes, set in the world of gangster, Jabba the Hutt. Following an impressive opening, which gives us the dramatic image of a new and incomplete Death Star, the action moves to Tatooine, and a rescue attempt by our heroes. The object of their labours is Han Solo, still encased in carbonite and literally part of Jabba’s furniture. In succession, the regulars make their way to his palace, get captured and conspire to set Han free.

A breathtaking space scene

During the original story discussions, the prospect of killing Solo off at the end of Empire was mooted. The character turned out to be far too popular to let that happen, yet you wonder how Episode VI might have developed if they hadn’t thrown in this largely unnecessary episode. As an action set piece, the rescue is thrilling enough, but it doesn’t advance the plot, and the characters never seem to be in any real danger. Besides, you’d think Admiral Ackbar and his Council cronies might have something to say about prominent Rebellion soldiers wilfully putting their lives in danger before the big push against the Empire. All churlishness aside, the ‘Jabba’ story only works sporadically. The Hutt lives in a darkened chamber, which is populated with a range of colourful animated aliens. It’s all too much, an overbearing of muppets that might be all right in a Jim Henson production, but speaks of overkill here. Though the Wars has always had its fair share of weird and wonderful monsters, the assortment collected in Jabba’s lair stretches the boundaries of fantasy. It looks less a hive of scum and villainy, and more like a zoo. As for Jabba himself, the man whose scene in Episode IV was cut has by now been re-imagined as a giant slug, replete with warty, leathery skin and mucus spilling from his enormous mouth. The wonder is that the animated creature doesn’t look instantly laughable. Teams of puppeteers operated Jabba from the inside, and the effect isn’t as bad as you might imagine. Again though, is it really necessary? As difficult as it is to imagine a big turdlike creature occupying a position of power, questions must be raised over the fancy he takes to Leia, who is far from sluglike in appearance. What’s that all about?

The result of all this is a first third that entertains and is almost entirely meaningless. What makes it worse is that they’ve saved a diluted Han Solo, someone who is a mere shadow of the rogue from past episodes. The reasons for this are never entirely explained, almost as though his character was written in as an afterthought. Probably just as likely is the fact that by now, it’s Luke Skywalker who is the centre of attention, the focal point in the battle between good and evil. Nothing wrong with that, though Mark Hamill worked best when he was the serious side to Harrison Ford’s lighter and better fun protagonist. In ROTJ, Solo is reduced to a comic foil, a walking bag of clichéd tics, mannered banter and a wounded soul as he suddenly becomes less sure of himself in his quest to woo Leia.

Ewoks = Wrong

For all that, even an emasculated Han is better than most morally dubious heroes, and as always he gets the pick of the film’s comedic lines. Elsewhere, it’s up to Luke to save ROTJ, and a manful job he does. A shame it is to see the demise of Yoda, certainly a highlight of Empire, and killed rather abruptly in his one scene here. It’s a hallmark of both trilogies that characters who have been developed carefully are suddenly removed from the story. Consider Count Dooku in the prequels. Here, the Jedi Master has nothing more to do than answer Luke’s - and our - questions that are left hanging from the previous instalment. Yoda reveals that Darth Vader is indeed his father, no doubt breaking several thousand kids’ hearts who were hoping it was an elaborate lie, yet maintaining the story’s weight and momentum. We also learn that Luke has a sister - Leia, which adds a slightly unsavoury dimension to one or two of the kisses shared by the siblings prior to the revelation, but at least shows why Darth was willing to fling his entire fleet after the escaping Millennium Falcon in Empire.

From there, ROTJ enters its extended final act, a three-pronged assault on our senses as the Rebels throw the dice one last time. It’s an ambitious and spectacular hour of film, cranking up the tension mercilessly with each group of friends trying - and often failing - to help the others in their quest for survival. The best, largely because it can’t go wrong, is the attack on the Death Star led by Lando Calrissian. Billy Dee Williams is nobody’s idea of a convincing leader, but he doesn’t really have to be, settling back into the seat of the Falcon and letting ILM’s superb effects carry the burden. For the most part, Lando’s leg of the tail involves him and the Rebel fleet dovetailing around much bigger ships as they wait for their pals on Endor to destroy the Death Star’s shield. Once this happens, they’ll be able to fly into the structure and destroy it by knocking out its reactor… just like in the original movie! We all know that the Emperor’s over-confidence is his weakness, but surely planning a battle station with the same soft underbelly as its predecessor borders on the reckless. Or, dare I say, a shortfall in the plot…

While Lando ducks and weaves in space, Han and Leia lead a strike team on Endor, the forest moon where the Death Star’s shield happens to be located. Some of the action here is fantastic. The speeder bikes are inspired inventions, accelerating through the jungle maze at an impossible pace. But then, you get your first glimpse of an Ewok and all the goodwill built up by the bikes and Han’s sarcastic wit is tarnished. I often wonder who at Lucasfilm thought that cute teddy bears were a good idea, how they were greenlit beyond the drawing stage until their ultimate insertion in the movie. A lot of people considered the final form of the Ewoks to be viable, and they were all wrong. There’s something to be said for the ‘heart versus technology’ conflict that decides the battle on the forest moon, and the Ewoks certainly turn their natural environment into a series of clever traps for stormtroopers to walk blindly into. However, they’re so cheesy, so loveable and cornball that nobody over the age of 10 should have anything but disdain for them. The scene where C-3PO recounts the heroes’ adventures thus far to the Ewoks is toe-curlingly embarassing, as is the way they keep butting into the main characters with their little bodies and shrill voices. It’s all a frustrated Han can do not to batter them senselessly once they’re within a three-feet radius. Just like in Jabba’s palace, there’s no need for this plethora of new creatures where the main players might have prevailed. As they romp across the screen, emitting strings of unintelligible dialogue, you can almost hear the crisp flicking of many banknotes as Lucas explores the merchandising opportunities they bring.

That leaves Luke’s impossible mission, his attempt to destroy the Emperor and be reunited with his father. In ROTJ, Skywalker bears little resemblance to the callow youth from A New Hope. Mature, solemn and having swapped his desert whites for a familial all-black outfit, the movie’s hero actually seeks Vader out, outlining his intentions from the start. What seems like a fool’s errand actually has a spark of hope, as it’s made clear Darth isn’t quite as single-minded as we may have believed. He senses Luke’s presence when the Emperor does not. When he tells his son that it’s too late for him, the words sound almost like a plea, the first time he’s shown any sign of weakness in the entire trilogy.

As the battle rages on, Luke is brought before the Emperor himself, Darth Sidious. Bizarrely, Ian McDiarmid looks somehow older in this than in Revenge of the Sith, despite the actor being 22 years younger when filming ROTJ. As always, he makes for a fantastic villain. You can see the confidence visibly sap from Skywalker as Sidious reveals the extent of his plans for both the Rebellion and himself. Later, he will coerce the young Jedi into a final scrap with his father, the culmination of another scheme gone horribly right… as long as the pair don’t team up, of course. In any event, it’s a grisly plan. Luke is intended to kill his own dad, and from there become the Emperor’s new apprentice. As unlikely as this sounds, it almost works. Darth’s power has diminished. His offspring’s has grown, and the really awful part is that, whatever else happens, the older man is quite accepting that he won’t come out of this alive.

The collected cast, sans Ewoks

I found myself getting a little emotional as the Sith Lord threw his master over the side of the endlessly deep Death Star shaft, the sort that’s obviously favoured by Imperial architects. It was six movies in, a long haul viewing session through an uneven body of work, yet here we were, at last finding that Anakin Skywalker was indeed the one to bring balance to the force, albeit after going through hell to get there. And he didn’t do it through any high minded ideal, but for his boy, to save Luke from being pulverised by Sidious’s lightning attack. However you choose to look at it, the ending is packed with emotion, a high point that isn’t sustained when Luke pulls Vader’s mask off, or with the rather standard celebrations across the galaxy that close both the film and the saga.

The latter is the most visible instance of fresh CGI being inserted into the ‘Special Edition.’ I remember the party at the end of the theatrical version being confined to Endor, Alliance bods and Ewoks enjoying a few mutual backslaps and fireworks. Suddenly, this has extended across the known galaxy. Mos Eisley, Naboo, Cloud City and Coruscant are all shown in ‘VE Day’ style dancing in the streets, which adds another image to the catalogue of suggested ‘Us versus the Nazis’ parallels thrown in throughout the series. It’s all fine, if horribly overblown, and I would similarly question whether Lucas really had to alter the closing song, which is no better or worse than the schmaltzy pap that signed off the 1983 edition.

More clumsy is the attempt to round off the series with its links to the prequels intact. Luke sees the ghostly images of past Jedi. Obi-Wan, Yoda and Anakin smile back at him, a job well done and balance duly returned to the force, but wait! That’s not Luke’s dad, the genial one from behind Darth’s mask - it’s Hayden Christensen, looking a bit embarassed to be there. As well he might - what was the point in including the younger Skywalker at the end? What would seeing him mean to Luke, when surely Sebastian Shaw is a far more appropriate fatherly figure? If you’re going to show Christensen, why does Obi-Wan have to appear in the ghostly shape of Alec Guinness? Why not the more youthful Ewan McGregor? An explanation for young Anakin’s reappearance is offered on the IMDb FAQs. It’s suggested that, having returned ultimately to the good side, Skywalker Snr is able to revert to the state he was at before joining the Sith. Had Shaw’s image been used, the FAQ argues, logically he would have had to appear without an arm and his legs, a consequence of his physical condition at the time. As sound enough as this reasoning appears to be, it’s still true that for many viewers, the moment is one that jars horribly. I’m yet to be convinced that Christensen’s cameo is anything more than a gimmick.

Griping aside, and attempting to ignore Lucas’s relentless larking around with his films, what’s left is a mixed bag of a movie. There isn’t much to the final chapter, once its superfluous Jabba sequence is filtered out. Everything significant happens in the last hour. Luke’s story arc, and the space battle, are impressively worked. The former has emotional power; the latter looks great. Admiral Ackbar should have featured more regularly. It’s not often enough that you see thousands of men being led by a shrimp. On Endor, the Ewoks are an insult to most viewers’ intelligence, but at least the chemistry between Leia and Han remains intact, and a break comes for the smuggler once it’s conveniently revealed that his young rival for the princess’s affections is actually related to her. The effects work in ROTJ is generally stunning, ILM clearly in full swing by this stage. Yet too often, the action defers to its younger audience, patronising everyone with a galaxy of weird and wonderful extras that, whilst looking good, distracts from the action and comes across as dispensing plot in favour of visuals. Sadly, this is a template that was carried into Episode I, sixteen years later.

 

And with that, my work on the Wars is done. I hope you’ve enjoyed it, and my apologies for spending longer dwelling over the chronologically later episodes. The truth is these are films I’ve watched many times, and my wish to find critical comments to make has to be measured against the fact I love them helplessly. They’re part of my childhood, after all, which makes me wonder sometimes if the slating of the prequels comes perhaps from adults who are finding the Wars to be generally a lot less weighty and meaningful than they were when the reviewers themselves were youths. Certainly, I find the only genuinely excellent piece of work throughout the entire saga to be The Empire Strikes Back. The others all have their moments, and their low points, and I suspect Episodes I - III might have turned out to be much better movies if Lucas had deferred on script writing and directorial duties, handing them over to more competent craftsmen. It’s his vision, his story, and his technology behind it all - did he really have to work on areas of the production where he clearly wasn’t the best man for the job? I guess we’ll never know what the flawed prequels could have been in different hands, though Empire - and to a lesser extent, the competently directed ROTJ - were by no means harmed for Lucas taking a back seat.

Despite this, by most peoples’ standards the movies still carry all the power of a good blaster. It’s a testament that though many film makers have tried to outdo the Wars over the years, it’s only The Lord of the Rings that has left it in the shade. Peter Jackson, an admirer of Lucas’s world, put together an epic that has finally surpassed it, which isn’t bad going for a series that began three decades ago. Then again, the screenplay for the Rings was laboured over for years, and it just so happened to enjoy perfect examples of casting, featuring actors who wore their parts like favourite slippers. These elements, crucial in Jackson’s films, just as they were glossed over in Lucas’s, show where the Wars occasionally went wrong.

For all that, seeing them over again was always fun, and never a chore. I’ve watched better movies, many times, but I keep returning to them. The Boy loves his Wars also, considering the thirty-year old A New Hope to be his favourite. They might not be perfect films, but they have staying power, and are obviously guided by a force that is too powerful for my weak mind. May it be with you, always.

One Response to “Star Wars at 30: ‘Return to a Galaxy… Far, Far Away’”

  1. Bev Says:

    Great writeup on this film and I’m one who gags at the sacchrine-like addition of the dumb teddy bear creatures. Was this a section of the film that George Lucas intended to be shown in child care centers and children’s nurseries, for Pete’s sake??? Geez!
    I also seem to believe that this film is actually titled “Return of the Jedi” instead of “Revenge of the Jedi”. Easy mistake to make.

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