With THE LAST JEDI beckoning from the Digital Shelf, I just knew our #TBT Review this week would be the film that concluded the first (now second) trilogy (er…you know, the original one) of George Lucas’ famous space opera saga, Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi.
Since Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi was the first film I ever saw in theaters (back then, it was just known as Return of the Jedi), it’s always held a special place in my movie-going experience. Would going back to revisit this film so many years later prove this film to be the joy I remember> Or, has time – and Lucas’ special edition tweaks – damaged this classic?
Mark Hamill returns as Luke Skywalker, and fully matures into the Jedi he was destined to become. While he went through his whiny stage (Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977)) and his teen rebel stage (Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980)), Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi shows him at his maturity, confident in both his powers and his screen presence. Unfortunately, while he seemed to be the epitome of cool back in the 80’s, his performance is a bit underwhelming when viewed these days. He has gotten better over the trilogy, but he still can’t match up with his co-star Harrison Ford’s natural charm.
As usual, it’s Harrison Ford’s Han Solo that steals the show in Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi. Despite some rather silly circumstances centering around a bunch of talking teddy bear lookalikes called Ewoks (more on those later), his charm and natural screen presence will keep the viewers tuned in, if only to see more of him. While he’s not really supposed to be the main focus of the film, the viewer can’t help but be more interested in his plight than his co-stars. especially the troubled – but not really much more than background noise – Leia (Carrie Fisher).
Darth Vader, after his star turn in Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980), again plays second fiddle to a much duller villain (a la Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977)), this time in the form of the mysterious Emperor. While the prequel trilogy (which began with Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999)) did do a good job of fleshing out more of the Emperor’s character, in this film he seems threatening, but much less entertaining than his “pupil,” Darth Vader. It’s unfortunate, as one of the highlights of Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980) was seeing Darth Vader at his most menacing. This time around, he’s caught up more in an emotional storm, rather than dishing out villainy left and right – and the viewer will long for more of the tyranny that made him such a good supervillain in Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980).
C-3PO and R2 D2, who first captured the attention of the audience in Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977), are not used as well in Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi – with more focus being put on C-3PO in a ridiculous turn involving those same Ewoks. They are still fun to have around, but like co-stars Chewbacca and Lando Calrissian, they seem more of an afterthought in this film than main characters.
The plot starts off well enough, with our intrepid heroes plotting to free their buddy Han, and at first, it seems like Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi is going to be another solid pic. But then, that interest quickly fades as the heroes encounter a tribe of teddy bear lookalikes called the Ewoks. Since none of the heroes take these furry muppets seriously, it’s hard for the viewer to picture them as much more than silly comic relief – even when they help turn the tide in battle. Instead, the viewer finds themselves cringing just a bit, as they are, more than anything, just a way for the film to sell toys to kids.
The special effects in Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi are much patchier than in either STAR WARS or EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. While a few sequences from the previous films could have used a bit more touch-up (even in the Special Editions), the touch-ups down in this film only accentuate the spots they didn’t fix. The speeder chase through the trees, for example (which was a whole bunch of fun back in the 80’s) will have viewers hearkening back to the old days when they showed a screen of traffic behind a vehicle that wasn’t actually moving (i.e. the pre green screen effect). It comes off nowadays as cheesy and contrived, and rather unbelievable. Then, the explosions which are enhanced, are obvious and off-putting, especially near the end of the film when it’s clear the ships are superimposed over them. It’s odd, since the effects (even the enhanced) blended better in the previous films.
Back in the 80’s, Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi would have been the best of the trilogy, but it’s obvious from re-watching this film now, that opinion was biased due to seeing it on the big screen. Nowadays, as many other reviewers have notated, Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980) is actually the best of the trilogy, with Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi wrapping things up decently, but just quite as solid as it’s predecessor. Still, like the other films in this first trilogy, this classic is still a must-own. Of course, it’s also worth another look, what with Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) and Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017) direct sequels.
Take another look, and you’ll find yourself enjoying this first trilogy’s conclusion, although the flaws in Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi are a bit more noticeable these days than either of its predecessors.