RETURN OF THE JEDI: Possibly Better Than You Remember?
As soon as the first public screenings of The Force Awakens let out, nerds flocked to their social media outlets and began attempting to qualitatively rank where exactly JJ Abrams’ New Hope remix fit in the grander scheme of the Star Wars saga. Most (though not all) placed it above the Prequels, utilizing the second trilogy as the “lowest bar imaginable” that TFA had to hurdle in order to at least be considered “passable”. But after that obstacle was cleared, a trying question needed to be considered: how did The Force Awakens stack up against Lucas’ OT, and was it better than any of the original installments?
This need for rating isn’t really bewildering. After all, geeks of every stripe love to endlessly bicker about which piece of pop culture is better than another superficial fragment. Movie heads are possibly the worst in this regard; the infinite listification of cinema seemingly becoming a requirement amongst Blogspot amateurs and paid professionals alike (this author is certainly no stranger to the practice). Yet when it came to placing The Force Awakens amongst A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi, a peculiar trend began to emerge: many were inserting it above the final film in George Lucas’ OT. Was fresh enthusiasm catapulting the newly minted episode above Jedi? Or was this an honest to goodness judgment call, being made by those who had recently revisited the holy grail of sci-fi serials before taking in its latest incarnation?
Obviously, the only way to weigh in on this debate was to re-watch Jedi for the first time in roughly twenty years. Full disclosure: I’ve never been a Star Wars mega fan. Like every other kid of a certain era [Redacted for Pride Purposes], I owned the VHS box set and watched the OT until the magnetic tape wore out, but they were movies I shelved around thirteen or so years of age. Though I later bought both DVD and Blu editions*, the series was never a pulp well I repeatedly drank from. I mostly attribute this lack of re-examination to my undying love of horror and exploitation movies (which were really where my true passion remained throughout my life). Needless to say, my memory of Jedi was a bit hazy, as my brain mostly associated it with being the chapter both David(s) Lynch and Cronenberg almost helmed, and which introduced those furry, possibly ill-advised “primitives”, the Ewoks.
Boy, was I glad I popped that lo-rez DVD into my player, as Return of the Jedi is more of a hoot than I recalled. The first hour is utterly sublime, brimming with swashbuckling narrative propulsion that seems to have influenced The Force Awakens just as much as A New Hope. Though where Jedi has a leg up on TFA is in its tangible realization of Jabba the Hutt’s Tatooine Palace. There’s a sliminess to the gangster’s lair that’s positively repulsive, its scummy vibe amplified once Jabba imprisons Leia (Carrie Fisher) after she attempts to rescue Han Solo (Harrison Ford) from capture, and forces her to wear the now infamous (and, thankfully banned from toy shelves) “slave” getup. The first act breezes from set piece to set piece, as Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) enters, takes out the abominable Rancor, and then saves his comrades with the aid of an undercover Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams). So while The Force Awakens owes the majority of its identity to A New Hope, the pacing that defines Abrams’ deep space filmography is cribbed directly from the opening of Jedi; a breathless race to the finish that never lets the audience off the edge of their seat while dispensing exposition like blaster fire.
It really isn’t until we land on the forest moon, Endor, that the movie’s narrative stride stumbles. Following the 74-Z speeder bike chase, Jedi comes to a screeching halt for about thirty minutes, as we watch the Rebel Alliance band together with a fluffy Ewok tribe in order to take out the shields of the newly constructed Death Star II. Now let’s not mince words: the Ewoks are a pretty awful creation. While Lucas has always maintained that the cuddly moppets were loosely inspired by both Native Americans and the Viet Cong (thus adding a weirdly racist vibe to the spear wielding teddy bears), the whole thing carries an air of infantilization that would infect not only the later Prequels, but other great sci-fi series like Mad Max (the “lost boys” segment of Beyond Thunderdome feels like George Miller** predating Steven Spielberg’s awful Peter Pan picture, Hook). While the notion to have a primitive tribe take down the technologically advanced Empire is inspired, it might’ve been more interesting had Lucas & Co. stuck with their original inkling to fill Endor with a tribe of Wookiees (Chewbacca’s established technical proficiency apparently ruled this out). How badass would it have been to watch Chewie’s cousins tear off Stormtroopers’ arms and beat them to death with them? ***
While Empire no doubt delivered the series’ most iconic moment via the reveal of Luke’s familial relationship to Darth Vader, Jedi capitalizes on that crucial turning point by making it the root of his final emotional journey. Where Luke wants nothing more than to lure his father from the Dark Side’s clutches, the Emperor (Ian McDiarmid) knows he can bank on young Skywalker’s bubbling hatred to try and completely turn the Jedi Knight into his next evil servant. The resulting emotional struggle is borderline Shakespearian in magnitude, resulting in a spirited lightsaber duel, and a climax that finds a father forced to choose between his allegiances. It’s arguably the deftest moment of space melodrama contained in the entire series, and yet another instance where The Force Awakens borrows from the OT wholesale. Kylo Ren’s climactic saber battle with Finn and Rey understands how these swordfights could convey complex emotional arcs, and tries to up the ante on Jedi’s bombastic catharsis.
General Lando Carissian leading an Alliance fleet against the newly rebuilt Death Star II during the Battle of Endor is also another thrilling set piece whose stakes are raised by a cunning ruse set by the Emperor. It’s the kind of imaginative space battle you only get in daring, escapist sci-fi, as Calrissian deftly pilots the Millennium Falcon in order to take down the reactor core of the massive weapon. Adding an incredible amount of flavor is the incomparable Admiral Ackbar, who gets to bark his trademark line (“It’s a trap!”) while Lando is left to think fast and evade certain death. So even if the Endor sequences involving C-3PO becoming an Ewok god are silly and stop the movie dead in its tracks, the climactic assault more than makes up for any slack in Jedi’s runtime. This is primo fantasy entertainment, transporting you behind the control panel of a spaceship in order to make you feel the thrill of a final push for galactic freedom.
So where does Jedi truly rank when it comes the entirety of the Star Wars saga? Regardless of whether or not folks think that The Force Awakens is any good (and it is quite impressive in many regards), Abrams reboot is undoubtedly nowhere near as wondrous as The Return of the Jedi. Even with the sluggish Endor segments, the movie is an analog wonder, filled with moments of visual storytelling that deliver micro layers that harken back to primal emotions. Secret comrades trade knowing glances across a dangerous den of iniquity. A father makes a choice to sacrifice himself in order to save his son from the hands of pure evil. A scoundrel realizes that a princess truly loves him and lets go of his jealousy. A son watches as the corpse his father burns on a pyre, setting his spirit free. These are all wrapped up in a sweeping end of a tale that delivers closure to over six hours of Campbellian adventure. Jedi is a movie whose flaws are dwarfed by the scope, ambition and craft on full display. Yet preferences aside, none of this actually matters, as without Jedi there wouldn’t even be a Force Awakens. An end needed to be provided in order to allow for a new beginning, and the final chapter in Lucas’ original trilogy does so with organic gusto.
* For the purpose of this revisit, I naturally busted out a LE tin that contains the Theatrical Cut.
**Though blaming Miller for this entirely feels somewhat wrongheaded, given his departure from most of the material outside of Thunderdome’s action scenes.
*** OK, so maybe that last sentence is a bit carried away – but you get the idea.