Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 2 hours 14 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG for Sci-Fi Action Violence
Directed by: Richard Marquand
Written by: Lawrence Kasdan & George Lucas
Starring: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Billy Dee Williams, Anthony Daniels, James Earl Jones, Frank Oz & Ian McDiarmid
Before rewatching the original STAR WARS trilogy this week, I could remember bits and pieces of each film. These included: most of Episode IV, some of Episode V, and next to nothing from Episode VI. While EMPIRE STRIKES BACK is undoubtedly my favorite film of the series and treated its space-opera material with a straight face, RETURN OF THE JEDI is where George Lucas began to falter in his intergalactic saga. Though there are things to like in this sixth episode, I found it be a significant step down from the previous two films to the point where I actually rank it below REVENGE OF THE SITH (my favorite of the prequel trilogy). This might be a blasphemous opinion and I’ll do my best to express why I feel that way.
Picking up right after Episode V, Luke Skywalker has begun enacting a clever plan to rescue a frozen Han Solo from Jabba the Hutt’s palace. This involves sending R2-D2, C3PO, and Princess Leia under cover, but the plan isn’t as foolproof as Luke originally expected and they soon find themselves frantically trying to escape from Jabba’s grimy clutches. However, even if they do make it off Tatooine alive, Luke and his companions will be faced with seemingly insurmountable odds as the Empire is constructing a second, even larger, Death Star to squash the rebels once and for all. Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine also plan on turning Luke to the dark side of the force.
RETURN OF THE JEDI kicks off in stellar form. I love the first 30 minutes of this film, mainly because this opening is the strongest part of the story. Jabba the Hutt is a slimy, disgusting creation who resembles a giant slug but has the intimidating attitude of a mob boss. He’s an intergalactic gangster who lives a lavish lifestyle and has a posse of various other alien thugs surrounding him (including pig guards and fan favorite Boba Fett). The way that the Jabba storyline plays out is well-paced and packs in a ton of excitement for the first act. We get one of the series’ most fearsome creatures in the man-eating Rancor as well as a desert-dwelling Lovecraftian beastie called the Sarlacc. The final showdown on Tatoine is among my favorite sequences of the entire series.
Seeing as the first act is ridiculously exciting, the viewer would hope that momentum would carry on for everything else in the film. Sadly, that’s not the case and the last two acts combine for a slow-paced step down in quality. This can be initially seen in the performances from the returning characters. Mark Hamill seems bored in his third outing as Luke Skywalker. His delivery feels unnaturally wooden and while some could attribute this to Luke becoming a more peaceful, emotionless Jedi warrior, I attribute it to Hamill being bored on the set. The same can be said for Carrie Fisher, who seems to lack Leia’s mix of attitude and passion from Episodes IV and V. These characteristics make a too little, too late return for the final 15 minutes. The only actor who seems completely on point is Harrison Ford as lovable rogue Han Solo.
While EMPIRE STRIKES BACK introduced new worlds into the STAR WARS cinematic universe, RETURN OF THE JEDI has a smaller scale as the first third is set on Tatooine, then we get two minutes on Dagobah, with the remainder of the story taking place in space and on the forest moon of Endor. Though it only introduces one new world, Episode VI gives us a lot of new aliens. These mainly come in the opening third with the aforementioned Jabba and his various cronies. However, there’s one more frustrating creation that lives on the moon of Endor and rivals Jar Jar Binks as the worst creature in all of STAR WARS. Of course, I’m talking about the Ewoks. These feral teddy bears supply a lot of over-the-top, cheap comic relief. To make matters worse, they somehow become even more annoying in their many scenes with C3PO (who goes from being funny in EMPIRE back to being his annoying old self here).
Another big problem in this original trilogy closer comes from both Darth Vader and the Emperor. These guys simply aren’t threatening this time around as Darth Vader takes the backseat to his underdeveloped evil master. Though a lightsaber duel between Luke and Vader is enjoyable (even PHANTOM MENACE‘s lightsaber fight was entertaining), RETURN OF THE JEDI concludes by repeating Greatest Hits from Episodes IV and V. We see the rebels trying to destroy the new Death Star (with a couple of new changes that don’t seem nearly as devastating as they probably should be) as Luke faces off against the black helmeted menace. Everything in between the first third and this entertaining (but overly familiar) final showdown feels very much like filler.
RETURN OF THE JEDI is nowhere near the same level as its two predecessors. Though it starts off strong and has one of the best scenes of the whole series (I love the showdown above the Sarlacc’s gaping mouth), the rest of Episode VI feels like a mix of fun Greatest Hits moments, boring filler, and terrible attempts at comic relief. Seriously, the Ewoks are horrible and take this film down a peg for their sheer presence in the whole second half of the story. However, there is still fun to be had in Jabba’s palace and the final third which, though overly reliant on scenes from the last two Episodes, is fun to watch. I place RETURN OF THE JEDI on par with ATTACK OF THE CLONES. Episode VI is definitely not the worst STAR WARS film (cough, PHANTOM MENACE, cough), but it’s still far from the heights that the series has reached in other episodes.