A film review by Craig J. Koban
STAR WARS: EPISODE IV - RETURN
OF THE JEDI
25th Anniversary Retrospective
1983, PG, 133 mins.
Luke Skywalker: Mark Hamill / Han Solo: Harrison Ford /
Princess Leia: Carrie Fisher / Lando Calrissian: Billy Dee
Williams / C-3po: Anthony Daniels / Chewbacca: Peter Mayhew
/ Anakin Skywalker: Sebastian Shaw / Emperor: Ian McDiarmid
hard to put into words the level of yearning and almost paralyzing
anticipation I had as a young tyke waiting for the third film in the
original STAR WARS trilogy (and sixth and final entry in the WARS Sextet)
to be finally released in May of 1983.
I was 8-years-old
and it certainly was the very first film-going experience that I recall
where I felt that I was simply not just passively going to a movie: I was part of a larger, more significant pop culture event.
Love him or hate him, this is exactly what STAR WARS creator George Lucas
did with his very first film in the original trilogy (later renamed EPISODE
IV: A NEW HOPE), its follow-up entry (EPISODE
V: THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK), and the final chapter of the sequel
trilogy (EPISODE VI: RETURN OF THE JEDI): he utterly transformed the
landscape of modern populist cinema.
These were certainly the first of only a small handful
of films that I have seen in my entire life that were truly escapist –
they gave you a sense of leaving the earthily environment of the cinema,
so much so that you felt a part of the film world on the silver screen.
RETURN OF THE
JEDI continued the legacy that its first two antecedents helped establish.
It is widely regarded by critics and film fans as the weakest entry
of the STAR WARS sequel trilogy, which is true, but as Obi-Wan Kenobi may
say, from a certain point of view. Obviously,
JEDI could in no way shape or form rival the sense of freshness and
startling originality of A NEW HOPE (something that the extremely harsh
detractors of the later Prequel Trilogy had a hard time understanding),
not to mention that it certainly did not aspire to the late game changing
darkness of EMPIRE (still the grandest of the entire STAR WARS sextet).
JEDI, although the least of the first three STAR WARS efforts, is still
an astounding and stunning achievement in the annals of film fantasy.
To categorically label it as a "weak" entry is to sidestep its very
aims, which is to conclude all of the story threads (and shocking
cliffhangers) that the previous film left with audiences.
Like most last films in trilogies, JEDI exists to answer questions,
tie up loose ends, and bring the saga to a swift and pleasing resolution.
On those levels, the film is a triumph.
course…nothing in JEDI could have matched the scandalous and polarizing
conclusion of EMPIRE, which changed the entire narrative fabric of the
whole STAR WARS universe. Whereas A NEW HOPE was a breezy and light hearted ode to the
1930’s adventure serials, Lucas envisioned EMPIRE as a film that would
dive head on into the a larger and more gloomy myth about father and son
relationships and fallen heroes. It
contained, for my money, the ballsiest ending in the history of film.
It took established characters we have come to love and threw them into the most dire of predicaments, some life threatening,
others more emotionally unsettling. The pirate rogue Han Solo was left for all but dead in the
end for the way he selflessly sacrificed himself to the evil Empire.
Even worse, sequel saga hero Luke Skywalker was dealt up the mother of all shock
revelations when the despotic and malevolent Sith Master, Darth Vader,
revealed to him – after slicing his hand off – that he is (or was)
actually Anakin Skywalker, Luke’s father and former Old Republic Jedi
Knight turned to the Dark Side of the Force.
Made all the more painful are (a) Luke’s relentless inability to
believe Darth, (b) Luke’s conflicted frustration within himself over
whether or not his initial master, Obi-Wan Kenobi, lied to him about the
truth of his father, and (c) if Vader is his father, should he accept his
offer to join him to have his Jedi training completed so that father and
son could destroy the Emperor (the Hitler-like zealot leader of the
Empire), topple the Empire, and rule the galaxy?
Worst of all?
audience never found out whether Vader was just mind-screwing with Luke or
that he was his father entombed in black armor in EMPIRE.
We would have to wait three – yes, three – long years to find
out in JEDI. For the then five-year-old in me, three years was an
When JEDI was
finally released, it certainly emerged as the most feverously anticipated
film in the entire STAR WARS sequel trilogy (and second to the prequel
trilogy’s opener, THE PHANTOM MENACE). Yes, the first sequel to the then most popular film of all
time must have been a euphoric high, but few films in a trilogy like JEDI
needed to be seen. I am not
sure what the statue of limitations is on movie spoilers, but Jedi did not
waste too much time answering that nagging question of Luke’s true
relationship with Lord Vader, but that was the enticing hook to seeing
JEDI that most of the other WARS films lacked.
It had the challenging task task of dealing with and settling the
intense cliffhanger of EMPIRE. No
JEDI also marked
a clear-cut establishment of Lucas as the most powerful independent
filmmaker in the history of the medium.
After the troublesome shoot on A NEW HOPE (not to mention previous
troubled relations with studios on THX-1138
and AMERICAN GRAFFITI), Lucas
had always vowed to separate himself from the powers that be in Hollywood.
After EMPIRE was a rousing financial success, Lucas established
himself as a separate filmmaker from the established studio system.
The financial gains garnered from A NEW HOPE and EMPIRE all but
ensured that Lucas’ would solely finance JEDI on wallet, without any
Hollywood interference. At a
budget of $35 million – all from Lucas’ coiffures - JEDI chiefly
emerged as the most expensive film of the first three WARS epics, not to
mention the most elaborate and financially costly independent films of
The making of the
film was beset by some problems. The
choice of director was a tricky thorn in Lucas’ side.
He initially wanted his buddy Steven Spielberg to conclude the
final chapter of the trilogy, but Lucas’ unceremonious resignation from
the Director’s Guild in EMPIRE’s wake stymied that prospect.
His next two choices would have led to a
wonderful “what if?” prospect for the final look and feel of JEDI.
First choice for Lucas was David Lynch, whose work he loved on the Oscar
nominated THE ELEPHANT MAN. Lynch
balked in order to film his own sci-fi opus, and adaptation of Frank
Hubert’s DUNE (which emerged as a costly disaster).
Second choice for the flannel shirted one was Canadian David
Cronenberg (which would have been really interesting). When he refused, Lucas went for and secured a very little
known Welsh director named Richard Marquand, whose previous films never
lent him to be in the same company of a big budget fantasy filmmaker.
What’s compelling here is Lucas’ desires to get directors that
were against the grain for his material (Irvin Kershner was a similarly
inspired choice for EMPIRE).
between the inexperienced Marquand and Lucas has always been a point of
mild controversy. It has been commented on that their collaboration was rocky
at times during production, but Lucas insisted that their partnership was
great and noted Marquand as a gifted actor's director. Unfortunately, Marquand’s lack of experience with working
with the large-scale set pieces and effects of a
STAR WARS picture has led many to believe (with reasonable
accuracy) that much of JEDI was ghost directed by Lucas himself.
Records have shown that Lucas was a constant presence on set, which
Marquand himself once joked about in an interview by stating,
“[Directing JEDI] is rather like trying to direct KING LEAR – with
Shakespeare in the next room!”
With a director
on board, Lucas, Marquand, and Lawrence Kasdan (who co-wrote EMPIRE, based
on Lucas’ story treatment) needed to find a satisfying manner to
conclude the STAR WARS trilogy. With
uncredited contributions by David Peoples and Marquand, JEDI’s script
was done in committee over a period of two months of conferences.
One of the major issues with the film (outside of resolving all
pertinent story threads) was star Harrison Ford, who only signed on for two
STAR WARS pictures and was obstinate in his request to kill Han Solo off in
JEDI via sacrifice in order to save his hero friends from the Empire.
Kasdan apparently liked the prospect, but Lucas steadfastly
insisted on keeping Solo alive.
Going under the
fictitious production name of BLUE HARVEST (to avoid a fan presence on the
set), filming commenced on JEDI from January to March of 1982, an
astoundingly short time considering that the film was more technically
complex than EMPIRE, which had a six week longer shooting schedule.
Since Lucas bankrolled the film with his own money – and used the
services of his own Industrial Light and Magic for the heavy effects work
it has been said that the film could have cost an additional $20
million if done in the studio system.
Moreover, the research and development of STAR WARS' revolutionary visual
effects that were pioneered in the first two films allowed Lucas and
company to allow for an increase in efficiency, scope, and sheer
number of effects in JEDI. JEDI
would finish with an unheard of 900 visual effects shots, a remarkable
number for an early 1980’s film.
REVENGE OF THE JEDI, the film changed its name even after original
theatrical one sheets were in lobbies, some have noted because of a
similarity to the name of STAR TREK’s second feature (THE
WRATH OF KHAN), or most likely due to Lucas’s rightful
insistence that Jedi do not seek revenge (he would save aspects of the
title for the most recent REVENGE OF
THE SITH). The story
takes place shortly after the events of the darker and more sinister
EPISODE V: Vader (physically played by David Prowse, voiced infamously by
James Earl Jones) is overseeing the construction of a new planet-destroying Death Star, and awaiting the visit of Empire’s leader – and
master of the Dark Side of the Force – Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid,
encapsulating remorseless evil). Meanwhile,
Luke Skywalker (a more stoic and moody Mark Hamill), Princess Leia
(Carrie Fisher), Lando Carlissian (Billy Dee Williams), and Chewbacca
(Peter Mayhew) are all on a rescue mission to save a carbonited Han Solo
from the vile clutches of intergalactic Godfather, Jabba the Hutt (a
gigantic slug-like creation, one of STAR WARS’ most memorable).
Jabba resides on
Tatooine, Luke’s former home world, and the young self-anointed Jedi
Knight sends in his two robots, C3P0 (the always delightful Anthony
Daniels) and R2D2 (Kenny Baker) to do some reconnaissance.
Things backfire a bit, especially when Leia is captured by Jabba
and turned into his new slave girl (the iron bikini clad Fisher, chained
to Jabba, became one of the trilogy’s most fetching sights…. outside
of the effects, of course). Needless
to say, Luke -in pure, Errol Flynn mode - swooshes in to the rescue, but
only after he has defeated Jabba’s pet (The Rancor, a T-Rex sized
monster of claws and slimy teeth) and has thoroughly trashed all of
Jabba’s men on sand dune skiffs before he, the resurrected Han, and
Chewie are all forced to walk the plank and served as the afternoon lunch
to the Sarlacc (a huge pit in the ground with teeth and a dangerously
dexterous, twenty foot tongue).
The remaining film revolves around Luke, Leia, Han, and Lando re-teaming with the Rebellion to face off, once and for all, with the Emperor and Vader’s Empire, all while ensuring that they are stopped before the new Death Star becomes operational. This becomes problematic for Luke, seeing as he has discovered – after a visit with his master Yoda (Frank Oz, a pure delight) and the ghostly apparition of Obi Wan (Alec Guinness) – that his worst fears are true: Vader is his father (c’mon – no need for a spoiler for this now). So, while the Rebellion teams up with the pint sized forest dwellers of the moon of Endor (located right by the new Death Star), Luke must face his destiny and confront the man (or machine?) that was once his father and attempt to turn him away from the Dark Side so that he can finally destroy the Emperor once and for all and restore galactic peace.
A tall order for a former whiney,
teenage agriculturist, to be sure.
mentioned, is the least revered of the sequel trilogy, partly because fans
ands critics saw it as a film that existed to tie up loose ends (which is
apt), but more because the film shelters itself away from the darkness of
the previous entry. Yes, the
Ewoks of Endor are cute and cuddly (originally supposed to be Wookies,
which would have made us all geek out that much more if an army of them
fought the Empire in Jedi), and, yes, it’s clear that Lucas was going
for a more family friendly vibe here.
Yet, attacks on Lucas for going cute and family friendly
of redundant: he has always envisioned all of the STAR WARS pictures as a
new adventure and fantasy myth for today’s youth.
Those expecting the solemnity and stern fantasies out of Tolkien
need not apply here. The
STAR WARS films have always existed on a lighter, more exuberant facade than the
LORD OF THE RINGS films. Unlike
Jackson’s fantasy epic, Lucas’ universe wisely remembers to have fun
with the proceedings.
If one overlooks
the Ewok factor, JEDI does have some of the most unforgettable moments out
of the entire STAR WARS film cannon. The
daring and wonderfully lively battle between the heroes against Jabba’s
goons is fantastic (which also does – as many scenes in STAR WARS films do
– harkens back to the sense of gee-whiz innocence and vitality of the
30’s adventure serials and pirate derring-do of Errol Flynn pirate
films). Jabba the Hutt,
a puppet controlled by six people, is a fiendishly clever and
imaginative creation. A
rousing and exhilarating chase sequence involving hover bikes on Endor is
a series high point, as is the final climatic space battle, which is
opened up in terms of size and scale that Lucas himself could not have
imagined in 1977. People
have no sense of respect for the effects and boundless imagination Lucas
used to conjure up these film worlds before the advent of computer
trickery. If anything, JEDI
is, to this day, the greatest special effects achievement of the pre-CGI
dominated movie world.
JEDI also has
some of the franchise's most dramatic moments.
A touching and sad encounter Luke has with his dying master Yoda
strikes a melancholic chord, as does a later encounter when Luke has a
quiet and sobering exchange with Leia and reveals their true relationship
(although, the film does curtail any attempts on Luke and Leia’s part to
come to grips with the fact that they locked lips in a passionate,
incestuous embrace and kiss in EMPIRE).
Then there are even more unsettling and compelling moments, especially
when Luke confronts his father, but not in a sword battle, but for a
heart-to-heart chat about his deplorable life choices.
Luke’s final lightsaber battle with his father – spurned on
mostly by the Emperor’s trickery – has a gravitas that previous laser
sword skirmishes have lacked. And
I defy anyone to name a STAR WARS moment more moving and inevitably
rousing when Luke pleas with his father to stop the Emperor (played so
despotically by the cackling McDiarmid) from destroying him, which leads to
a crisis of conscience for Vader; in one final moment, when the dying former Sith Lord asks his son to
remove his mask, you can still hear a pin drop in any viewing setting with
was a smash hit, grossing a then unheard of $450 million worldwide.
The film was nominated for four technically awards (Sound, Sound
Effects Editing, John Williams’ toweringly legendary music score, and
Art Direction) and lost in each of the other categories (in arguably the
biggest miscarriage of Oscar justice, only outdone by REVENGE OF THE
SITH’s lack of a nomination for Visual Effects in 2005).
At least the film won a Special Achievement Oscar for Effects, a
rightfully deserving award for the film.
Lucas re-released the
sequel trilogy back in 1997 for the first film’s 20th
Anniversary to much rabid fan interest, if not criticism.
Considered by Lucas as a test for technology used for his then
unmade prequel trilogy, the filmmaker made CGI tweaks and changes to all
three films (some very good, some not quite necessary).
JEDI was the least touched, most likely because it was the most
aesthetically polished of the three.
However, Lucas, always being the paradoxical lightning rod for fan
appreciation and hurtful ridicule, really stirred things up when he
altered the end of JEDI for the film’s first DVD release in 2004 and
inserted the ghostly vision of Hayden Christiansen (who portrayed the
young Anakin Skywalker in the prequel trilogy) over the original actor,
Sebastian Shaw (playing an aging apparition).
Fans cried a resounding “you can’t do that!” foul.
The real inanity with that response is the fact that…well…yes, Lucas can do what he wants to with his creation. RETURN OF THE JEDI, along with the other five films in the STAR WARS sextet – are his films, existing for him to do what he wishes. Perhaps what the needlessly nitpicky STAR WARS-aholics forget is Lucas’ masterful achievement with these films. He not only created legendary and iconic characters and stories, but he also daringly envisioned an entire universe out of the fertility of his limitlessly creative imagination; he did so in an age when space opera and fantasy were all but spit on by the filmmaking populace. What Lucas achieved with RETURN OF THE JEDI, the rest of the sequel trilogy, and partly with the unfairly ridiculed prequel trilogy, is that he conjured up a film world that we felt like we could actively inhabit: you never feel like a passive viewer with these films. Not too many fantasy films – or films in general – have that level of prevailing transcending allure.
The STAR WARS films are categorically in a league all to