Overview: Luke, Han, and Leia recover from the events of The Empire Strikes Back to stop Darth Vader and the Emperor’s reign of terror once and for all. 20th Century Fox; 1983; Rated PG; 131 minutes.
Fly Casual: Containing neither streamlined narrative of Star Wars or The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi opts to give audiences a rambunctious closing; one filled with high-caliber pulp, space opera, and emotional catharsis built up over the course of the previous movies. Return of the Jedi lacks the emotional lows of Empire. How could it not? When we last left things, Luke was bested by the cyborg supervillain who killed his mentor, lopped off his hand, and told, “by the way, I’m your dad.” Han Solo was whisked away in carbonite after running from his past. Princess Leia loses the man she finally professes her love to. It’s heavy stuff. Return opens with our heroes struggling to, once again, stay afloat as they finally track down Han Solo to Jabba the Hutt’s crime empire. Naturally, every plan they have goes bottoms up, as some friendly interplay between Han and Luke reminds us:
Han: So, how’re we doing?
Luke: Same as always.
Han: That bad, huh?
Therein lies the genius behind this entry in the Star Wars saga: It’s just a rolling good time. There are some pacing issues here and there but nothing that will deter audiences from full enjoyment. The opening at Jabba’s palace contains some of the quintessential swashbuckling adventure Star Wars has always known for. Luke fights a monster in a pit beneath a palace, and the central heroes make a daring escape from a galactic crime syndicate while Jabba’s numerous compatriots fall into the mouth of a beast that swallows them whole. It’s the ultimate in space fantasy adventure.
Warrior Princess: Seeing as how Leia’s slave suit in the opening act is the topic of much heated discussion, it’d be absurd not to address it. The slave suit is inherently gratuitous, and serves the narrative for this exact moment in the movie, with an entirely separate discussion stemming from how this suit has been used for the sake of marketing, subsequently. In the film, galactic crime lord and renowned Meninist-slug, Jabba the Hutt, captures the entire group, and keeps Leia as a slave chained by his side. Naturally, Leia strangles him to death with the very chains he sought to objectify her with. Han, Luke, Chewbacca, Lando and the droids all know she can take care of herself. Princess Leia is the best and don’t you forget it.
Ewoks: Once the movie rolls into the second act on Endor, many fans are quick to lament the introduction of Ewoks, the small, cuddly, tribal warriors who join the fight against the Empire. I’m here to tell you Ewoks are wonderful. It’s no secret they were meant to be Wookies that had to be excised entirely for budgetary reasons, so we the viewers, and George Lucas by extension, will have to live with that fact. To paraphrase AE writer Sean Fallon, they’re adorable teddy bears with battle tactics similar to the Viet Cong. And don’t you dare tell me your heart doesn’t sink when they start getting blown away by the AT-ST transports. The Ewoks form the predominant plot back bone for the characters on Endor. Han and Leia get large arcs in Empire but here they are relegated to the role of supporting players, which isn’t a criticism, but a simple fact about the beauty of Return of the Jedi. It’s finally, and wholly, Luke Skywalker’s story.
I Am a Jedi: The evolutionary stages young Jedi Luke Skywalker has undergone are nigh unparalleled, and that is where the heart of this film truly lies. In Star Wars, Luke is quick to join the cause of the rebellion, swept up in a victorious battle where might can meet might, if the cause is just, and the spirit is honest. The Empire Strikes Back is a reversal where might cannot overcome wisdom and experience, causing him to lose almost everything. Return of the Jedi, finally, is where Luke finally understands what it means to be a Jedi.
In his confrontation with the Emperor, Luke almost falls victim to the dark side of the force. Darth Vader eggs him on by promising to turn either he or his sister. During the best lightsaber battle in the series, Luke unleashes the rage building up inside him and nearly becomes the beast he sought to vanquish. The lightsabers trade blows as emotion drives through the scene, each saber clash pulling you closer towards the screen as the Emperor looks on as his puppets dance before him. And the Emperor is a deliciously evil figure, orchestrating a series of events to destroy the rebellion once and for all. Ian McDiarmid plays the character with the appropriate mix of ham and genuine terror. This is the single living evil entity who singlehandedly managed to destroy the Jedi Order and turn Anakin Skywalker into an embodiment of modern evil. Sheer force can’t stop a character of the Emperor’s magnitude. Striking him down would only prove the dark side is stronger. How Luke resolves his battle with one of the pinnacle evils is why the “Luke is boring” complaints will never register on anything more than an internet comment thread. Luke is a young boy who learns to become a man through responsibility and love. To paraphrase another classic franchise, “It ain’t about how hard you can hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.” Luke could hit pretty hard, but he took his hits like a champ, too.
Overall: This is a movie that we all talk about for years on end. I’ve spent nearly 1,000 words talking about this movie and I could probably write 1,000 more. Return of the Jedi is one of the greatest blockbusters in cinematic history. The flaws are no more prevalent than the original Star Wars. A few more editing tweaks here and there, we’d most likely have another obvious pick for the best Star Wars movie in the franchise. As it stands, you have a more than satisfying finale, culminating with the same sense of adventure found in the first film, and a little more maturity than viewers probably expected.