On May the 4th 2014, just over a year before the release of the as-yet-unnamed 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens', a close friend, my partner and I went to a marathon of the original 'Star Wars' trilogy. I was bouncing in my seat with excitement - despite having seen these films more times than I could count, I'd never seen them on the big screen before. Nearly 10 years later though, the memory that has stayed with me from that marathon was the last few minutes from the third (or sixth) film, 'Return of the Jedi'. You could feel the air shift in the room, that everyone there was collectively realising the same thing. We were so used to this being The End, that there would be no more after this. For the first time - certainly for me - I was watching through new eyes, the realisation that this wasn't the end of the story after all; that in just over a year, we would return anew to that galaxy far, far away.
I bring this up because, in some ways, the arrival of the Sequel Trilogy (as the following three films have been dubbed) has likely shifted our relationship with 'Jedi' more so than any of the original Star Wars films. What had once felt so decisive and consequential was now just an odd middle chapter, a grand finale that, perhaps now, doesn't feel so grand. This is, of course, no fault on the film itself, but it does make it an odd exercise to return to it for its 40th anniversary. 'Star Wars' (1977) is significant for its out-of-the-blue uniqueness, technical magnificence and glorious simplicity. 'The Empire Strikes Back' (1980) still shimmers with an incandescent brilliance, where the set pieces and special effects truly play second fiddle to a psychologically rich, thematically resonant character study culminating in maybe the greatest twist in any film. The prestige of 'Return of the Jedi' was as... well... the end of 'Star Wars'. With that status now made redundant, it's a great opportunity to reassess 'Return of the Jedi' as a film in its own right - and I would argue, a damn fine one.
For most of us who grew up with 'Star Wars' in a pre-Prequel Trilogy world, 'Return of the Jedi' was often our favourite. A cynical explanation for this is that we were all charmed by the cuddly Ewoks, but that's doing both the film and the Ewoks a disservice. Of the three films, 'Jedi' is arguably the most fun. The setup is done, the heavy thematic surprises have been delivered, and now we get to explore some of the more unusual and anarchic aspects of this imaginary universe. By virtue of its belief that it was some kind of ending in 1983, it throws everything it has at its story and the screen, and the result is a rollocking adventure film with its tongue, at the right points, gleefully in its cheek.
For my money, I don't think it's the Ewoks that are the secret "fantastical creatures" weapon of 'Jedi', but the opening act at Jabba's palace. Apart from the cantina in Mos Eisley, the tauntauns on Hoth and the Jedi master Yoda, George Lucas' space opera has been, up until this point, surprising light on alien creatures. The moment hapless C-3PO and scheming R2D2 step into Jabba's palace on Tatooine, you're hit by a wall of the strangest creatures you've ever seen, so numerous that they're literally hanging off the walls. I was obsessed with these scenes as a kid, at the oily opulence of the tentacular Bib Fortuna, the screeching chaos of scraggly Salacious Crumb and obviously the regal monstrosity of Jabba the Hutt himself. Suddenly, the world of 'Star Wars' seemed so much more than just heroic farm boys, dashing princesses, roguish smugglers and old men with light swords. The world felt alive, diverse, brimming with stories and potential adventures hiding in the corners of the screen.
'STAR WARS: EPISODE VI - RETURN OF THE JEDI' TRAILER
This is the first of many key factors that, I think, make 'Jedi' one of the most distinct and arresting of the 'Star Wars' films. The universe of this story had expanded carefully with 'Empire', but now it exploded, with visions of unknown corners of this universe now standing as extras in the back of a Mon Mothma battle briefing. 'Jedi' is such a colourful, visually rich film, and perhaps its re-watchability can be credited to the endless amount of detail in it. That expanded world-building is also utilised carefully and liberally throughout, such as in the film's most sublime set piece at the Sarlacc pit, so crazy and slapstick and propulsive.
The arrival of the Ewoks themselves comes at exactly the right time - we've seen all these cool creatures as gangsters and pilots and hardened military leaders, but here we see them in an environment all their own, where they outnumber the human characters and mostly set the rules of engagement. It's easy to forget that, for all their cuddliness, the Ewoks have a wickedly mean streak to them. They do, after all, string up Luke and Han to be roasted and eaten in C-3P0's honour. We forget, as adults, that one of the key appeals of these creatures is their tendency towards chaos and mischief. They have the stature of children, something a kid can easily relate to (a small person having to contend with a world built for adults), and yet they can defend themselves and be naughty and set the rules. Maybe we love them so much as children because, in a universe where the closest characters you have to your age are two teenagers/young adults, the Ewoks are the one chance we have to see ourselves in 'Star Wars', and who doesn't want to imagine being able to rig up a set of battering rams to crush in the head of an AT-ST?
Another easy criticism lobbed at 'Return of the Jedi' is that, compared to 'Star Wars' and 'Empire', the film feels a little bloated and messy. We know this is likely because of its troubled production, where George Lucas (fairly or unfairly) pulled directorial strings behind the film's actual director, Richard Marquand. The film never seems to know entirely what tone it wants to strike or what rhythm it wants to adopt. I would argue though that, while 'Jedi' feels bloated and messy compared to 'Star Wars' and 'Empire', that's a relatively high bar to be compared to. 'Star Wars' is one of the most perfectly edited, perfectly structured, perfectly paced films ever made, and 'Empire' has the feeling of a great Shakespearean tragedy in space. Compared to other action-adventure/science-fiction films, 'Jedi' stands tall. It begins with an opening sequence even 'James Bond' films would die to have, culminates in a ground-breaking finale balancing three storylines at once (something that should, by all logic, not work anywhere near as well as it does), deals with the fallout of the last film's jaw-dropping twist and brings the whole damn story to an end. The fact that the film is able to pull off any of this with this level of coherence is worthy of praise.
As much as it needed to deliver on the action, world-building and spectacle, what 'Jedi' really needed to land was the conclusion to the story of Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, now no longer just unlikely adversaries but two sides of the same familial coin. 'Empire' plants the seed of Luke's terror of the darkness inside him, blown apart when he finds out that Vader is his father. 'Jedi' then becomes about reconciling those two sides of himself, something that Lucas physicalises for us. On the one hand, you have the integrity of Princess Leia, who has more of her mother's moral centre in her than her father's conflict, and on the other is the pure unrepentant hatred of Emperor Palpatine. Luke understands that he is caught in the push-and-pull of these two forces, but the genius of the film is that Luke realises his father is also caught in the same riptide. His determination to rescue his father from the clutches of Palpatine and the Dark Side would not only return his father to him, return his image of him to the mythical figure of righteousness and honour he was sold by Obi-Wan Kenobi in 'Star Wars', but also guarantee that he himself will be able to pull himself away from the edge when the time comes (something 'The Last Jedi' explores beautifully). The stakes of the tryptic finale are high enough for the sake of the galaxy, but the film's genius is that it underpins those stakes with something personal, and that the battle between Luke, Vader and Palpatine is staged with genuine dread, genuine violence and genuine tension. We probably know that Luke will prevail, as much as we know Lando and Leia and Han will, but that doesn't rob that finale of any of its power. In its original form, the finale has some of the most moving moments in any 'Star Wars' film - Vader silently watching his son be tortured to death by his master before finally stepping in to save him (drawn out beautifully by the masterful editing and John Williams' gigantic score), and the moment where father and son see one another face-to-face for the first and only time. That last moment in particular has a haunting strangeness to it. Both we and Luke have feared this monolithic figure for so long, but now that figure is nothing more than a crippled, dying man, begging for forgiveness and atonement from his son. Whether it's Lucas or Marquand responsible, giving so much space to these moments ensures that the film is as emotionally satisfying an experience as it is a satisfying piece of entertainment.
As much as it needed to deliver on the action, world-building and spectacle, what 'Jedi' really needed to land was the conclusion to the story of Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, now no longer just unlikely adversaries but two sides of the same familial coin.
This does come at a cost though, particularly for the character arcs of Han and Leia. Han's re-emergence from the carbonite never feels as weighty as the moment when he was trapped in it, and the film doesn't seem to know how to handle Han and Leia's romance. Leia suffers perhaps more than any character in the film. After rejecting the damsel-in-distress trope in the first film and emerging as a military leader in the second, she's mostly turned into a prop in 'Jedi'. The slave girl outfit in Jabba's palace will always be uncomfortable, and as much as we accept it now, the revelation that she is Luke's sister feels far too rushed. She still gets moments to kick arse (and gets the best action sequence with the speeder chase), but you just can't shake the feeling she has been shortchanged in this film. It's important that Luke's story take precedence, especially in the final act, but the strength of these films has been in how all three characters are balanced. For the grand finale of the Star Wars Trilogy, it's a pity they are relegated to supporting players.
When looking at 'Return of the Jedi' 40 years after its release, one has to strip away as much of the muck the film has accumulated over this time as possible. Of the three films, this one has suffered the most at the hands of George Lucas' revisionism, some of his bizarre choices robbing the film of its most powerful moments (such as Vader's rescue of Luke). The 1997 CGI additions look garish against the practical effects, the constant changes to the force ghosts in the end slap like a bucket of cold water to the face and, in 1997 in particular, the addition of glimpses of other liberated parts of the universe was disorienting and confusing, taking us away needlessly from the satisfaction of seeing our central heroes reach the triumphant end of their journey. Perhaps the fact it has suffered through significantly more revisionism than the others is indicative of the push-and-pull for creative control on the original shoot.
It's also been fascinating to see how the Sequel Trilogy has reframed aspects of 'Jedi'. Rian Johnson picks up the mantle of Luke's internal conflict with his heritage and weaves it into something rich and unexpected in 'The Last Jedi', but the awkward return of Palpatine in 'The Rise of Skywalker' and its refusal to adhere to the central conceit of George Lucas' grand opera (the necessity for the balance of both dark and light in the human experience) take some of the gas out of 'Jedi'. It's all very well to say we should look at the film as separate from the influence of the subsequent films, but it's hard not to now see the film in a new context against what came afterwards. This adds to the general sense that 'Jedi' is a film unmoored somehow, more so than the other films in the series.
'Return of the Jedi' may always feel like the oddball of the 'Star Wars' Saga, but there are advantages to being the oddball. While the first two films revel in their perfection, the Prequel Trilogy flails wildly with its bonkers ideas and the Sequel Trilogy is ultimately buckled at the knees by its insistence on being liked, 'Jedi' throws everything into the pot with wild, inspired abandon. The fact it thought it was the end of the story works to its advantage 40 years later, in the sense that it packs so much in and leaves little unresolved. It's a bombastic extension of George Lucas' universe, giving us glimpses of other corners without feeling the need to explain itself, all the while pulling off the impossible task of bringing its central hero's quest to an end. And on top of that, it's just so much goddamn fun. Rather than being easy to dismiss because of its oddball status in the series, 40 years later and countless tired outings into the 'Star Wars' universe since, its idiosyncrasy feels like something to celebrate.