Having only seen the prequels, I didn’t really get Star Wars—so in order to increase my Star Wars I.Q., I finally watched the original trilogy. And I’ll be blunt: I don’t think Return of the Jedi is as good as The Empire Strikes Back or A New Hope.
And yet… despite not being as good as its predecessors, Return of the Jedi still strikes a chord in me.
My first mistake was not digging for the original cut of this movie. From reading the long list of changes on Wikipedia, I would have been far more impressed with the original. (I do admit that non-blinking Ewoks would have been much creepier, though.) The “Jedi Rocks” scene was horrible enough that I now understand why overworked game developers decided to add a dance-off to the Star Wars Kinect game.
My second mistake? Thinking that I could take the Ewoks, since I do like cute in the face of evil. As far as I’m concerned, the concept is fine, but the execution was, as it often seems with Lucas, flawed. Something was off about the Ewoks—I didn’t really buy the savage-warrior vibe off of them.
I thought about the Jawas on Tatooine, who seem to be around the same build as the Ewoks. I took them more seriously because their first impression was as a threat. And yes, the first Ewok that Leia meets does threaten her, but as the little Ewok acts more like a slightly intelligent hungry raccoon than a small tribal warrior, I couldn’t take any Ewok seriously afterward. Not even after they tied up our heroes and were about to roast them in C-3PO’s honor.
Now, what if the Ewoks were Wookiees? Then the introduction scene would work, because we already know a Wookiee is a fearsome foe, thanks to Chewbacca. In fact, the exact same tone of the scene would be needed, because it would show that there was some hope of appeasing these furry menaces. I wonder if this was meant to be the Wookiee planet, and the budget couldn’t withstand Wookiees, so we got Endor instead.
The dialogue between Luke and Leia about their mother was… weird. Because I know what happened to Padme. So that was just… ARGH.
Still, I should not give in to anger or to hate, because that way lies the Dark Side of the Force. And to be honest, the Ewoks are just a thorn in the side of the movie rather than an outright travesty like Jar-Jar Binks.
There is so much to like about Return of the Jedi.
The plan to save Han Solo was executed brilliantly, and the movie started off very well—like observing a syzygy of character arcs in motion. Luke Skywalker is so assertive, so self-assured, that he’s almost unrecognizable. I see the core of “I want to get off this rock” Luke there, but around it is this young Jedi Knight. The contrast in character is delicious. Plus, Luke can actually swing the lightsaber, so to speak, managing to use his powers to get into Jabba’s lair, and then killing a rancor.
Leia is more open about her love for Han, and Han is far less self-centered. In A New Hope, Han looked out for number one, while in Return of the Jedi he tells his rescuers to leave him behind more than once. This vast change is wonderful to behold, upholding a long-running theme of optimism with regards to the characters of villains and scoundrels, that some of them can be changed and taken off that path. In other words, the concept of the Light versus the Darkness goes beyond the Force users.
I didn’t think I would like watching Yoda toddle around and die of old age. I didn’t like him in the prequels, and being exposed to muppet!Yoda surprised me more than anything else in Empire Strikes Back. But watching this Yoda, as he prepares for death, as he struggles with how to tell Luke about his father and Vader… he’s more emotional, and so much wiser. I wish this version of Yoda had been in the prequels.
I don’t know what to think about Admiral Ackbar. I’ve been so over-exposed to the “It’s a trap!” meme and the general forced weirdness of prequel aliens that I just can’t take him seriously. Even when he is so serious.
And then there’s the resolution of the reveal from Empire Strikes Back. Every time the movie cut away from this thread, I wanted it to veer back (even though that wouldn’t have done the movie’s pacing much good).
One thing the prequels definitely got right is the manipulative evil that is Palpatine. The classic villain with a smiling cheek, in the prequels McDiarmid’s acting was star levels above everyone else’s. There’s almost perfect character continuity with respect to him: His plans always have wheels within wheels. He manipulated Anakin into a position where Anakin eventually Force-choked Padme despite sacrificing so many people so that she would live. And he attempts to manipulate Luke into a position where Luke will kill his own father despite wanting to bring him back to the Light.
And damn. Palpatine does such a good job of it. It almost works, but Luke is stubborn and has indeed learned enough to resist the wiles of Palpatine—just think if prequel Ben or Yoda had actually listened to Anakin (sometimes) and given him the support he needed. Now, it’s a wiser Ben and a wiser Yoda that teach Luke how to not give in to the Dark Side.
As for Vader—the entire interaction between him, the Emperor, and Luke is excellent. That mask hides everything from us—it’s only through Luke’s insistence that there is a conflict inside that we know there’s still a chance that Vader is sympathetic. And Vader’s decision to throw Palpatine into the core reactor (wait, why is there a chute to the core reactor in Palpatine’s throne… never mind, I probably missed something) is thus the more unexpected.
And while the “NOOOOOOOOOO” is definitely artificial in this case, I do have to say that it’s far more consistent with prequel Anakin. Old habits die hard, no matter how much badassery you’ve gone through.
The final scene between father and son, and Darth Vader’s pyre scene, were touching. The random scene where some Gungan screams “Weesa free!” is, um, less so.
Anthony Pero in the comments to the previous post mentioned that Jedis don’t by default go to “heaven.” Qui-Gon learned how to defeat death, and then Yoda and Ben learned how to defeat death from him. But that, as Anthony says, leaves a hole. Why in the world is Anakin there at the end?
And why is it young Anakin that appears? We don’t see young Ben or even young(er) Yoda.
Right, don’t give in to hate, etc.
My impression is that if the prequels never existed (or at least, if I never watched them), I would be happier with the ending.
On balance, I liked Return of the Jedi. I quite liked A New Hope. And I loved Empire Strikes Back.
That’s pretty good for the Original Trilogy.
This article was originally published in November 2015.