VHS Revival contemplates the much-maligned conclusion to George Lucas’s original trilogy.
Relinquishing directorial duties once again, this time to relative rookie Richard Marquand, ‘Return of the Jedi’ remains a bit of an oddity. It’s cute, fun, silly, adventurous, but marks the beginning of the decline of ‘Star Wars’ under George Lucas.
The end of ‘Empire’ was such a downer that there was perhaps an expectation that there would be some sort of rescue for Han Solo, but this wasn’t the intention from initial drafts. Lucas had not planned to include Solo in the third film, which was largely down to the fact that Harrison Ford, unlike his co-stars, had not signed a three movie deal, but after discovering that Ford was open to offers for a third run in the Millennium Falcon, those initial drafts were re-written, resulting in the daring escape plan on Tatooine.
This opening twenty minute act is a wonderful, extended re-enactment of the Mos Eisley diner scene. I can’t say I think much of the musical number on the ‘special edition’, but the collection of ‘scum and villainy’ on display, coupled with the return of some familiar faces playing their wind instruments, would certainly be a match. It also gives us another insight into how, when together, Leia, Han and Luke are a skilled team who play off each other and use each other’s strengths and weaknesses to their advantage. Leia is masterful at taking advantage of other people’s underestimations of her abilities to turn a situation on its head, while Han is the master of distraction, allowing Luke’s new found mastery of ‘the force’ to be used to maximum effect.
Their escape is also a tremendous ‘wow’ moment, playing on the original movie’s swashbuckling tendencies by having them walk the plank and jump from ship to ship, dispatching bad guys as cannon fire roars all around them. Who cares that it’s far-fetched? We all needed a lift after ‘Empire’. However, Ford was keen for Lucas to kill off Han Solo, having him die early on in an act of altruism. What an impact that would have made and how it would have changed what is a rather fluffy, cute and warm picture into something else entirely. The idea was reportedly rejected due to the millions earned from toy sales. Is it possible that Lucas was chasing the dollar signs at the expense of what could have been one of the most emotionally impactful scenes in the series? If Solo had been killed off early, it would have altered motivations and created new allegiances.
A prime example of Lucas’ new direction are the infamous Ewoks. The original script called for the Moon of Endor to be a planet of Wookies, which again would have lent the film a more dangerous edge. A planet inhabited by altogether cuter beings was yet another decision determined by the merchandising machine, although it certainly drove forward a sub-plot that served as a commentary on environmental concerns and a critique (although not that subtle) of American foreign policy.
The Ewoks live alongside and in balance with their natural surroundings and have built a civilisation that works in harmony with the forest moon. This enables them to come alive and utilise their natural surroundings when helping to defeat the Empire in the same way the Vietcong were able to conduct guerrilla warfare in Vietnam. The Empire have underestimated their enemy by sending a skeleton army that they believed could easily overpower a primitive, under-resourced race, steaming in without understanding what or who they were fighting. Never mind that they overpower the Scout Walkers too easily with arrows, rocks and stones, the overriding message from Lucas’ film is that knowledge is power.
Though the battle of Endor is not given a huge amount of logical thought (don’t get me wrong, it’s wonderfully entertaining and has the feelgood factor of an underdog victory) there are also examples of Lucas overthinking elements to the detriment of the film. Luke revisits Dagobah to find a dying Yoda who explains to Luke that Vadar is indeed his father. Apparently, Lucas consulted a child psychologist and inserted this scene so that Vadar wouldn’t be seen to be lying, (heaven forbid that a mass murdering, genocidal sociopath might be telling porkies!) It also reinforces the implication that Leia is Luke’s sister, a point that doesn’t need reinforcing. If Luke is meant to be an all-powerful Jedi, then you’d like to think he might have already picked up on that, and a literal explanation would have been better left implied and simply ‘known’.
If the film does sag a little in the middle, then it is certainly compensated with some exhilarating action sequences. The Speed Bike sequence on Endor is magnificent and, for me, one of the high points of the series, with incredible sound engineering, disorientating camerawork and a blistering, dizzying pace. The space dogfight that takes place as Lando temporarily captains the Millennium Falcon is aslo wonderful, and as messy and unlikely as the Endor battle is, you can’t argue with it as a spectacle. It shifts along at a rip-roaring pace which perfectly underpins the personal battle taking place on the newly constructed Death Star as Luke finally faces Vadar under the watchful, goading eyes of The Emperor.
This may be a fairly light film, but in The Emperor, Lucas has created a villain every bit as memorable and imposing as Vadar. His twisted, almost burnt face, appears to glow white against his dark robes recalling, infamous horror creations such as Count Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, Michael Myers, and even Edvard Munch’s expressionist painting ‘The Scream’. I love the way that his powers are suggested and implied. He doesn’t do anything much, but you know he must be incredibly powerful if even Vadar, who represents the Dark Side for two entire films, is respectful of his presence. When he finally does unleash his fury upon Luke, he is powerless against the ‘Power of God’ bolts of lightning that come from his fingertips. This serves only to spur Vadar into action in a fist-pumping moment for any ‘Star Wars’ fan. It is quite telling that Vadar, powerful as he is, is afraid or unable to challenge The Emperor until he lets ‘the good’ flow through him and throws him to his death.
It is an emotionally charged ending, and Lucas’ script achieves a rare thing, going against the rules to unmask a ‘villain’. Here, Luke takes off the mask at Vadar’s request, as he wants to look upon Luke ‘with his own eyes’, knowing that it is the mask keeping him alive. Not only is it a touching scene, it shows that beneath the machinery and imposing armour, he’s just an old man named Anakin.
This is all breathtaking stuff, but as with the beginning of the film, there are nits to be picked. The one thing that annoyed me even as a child was that if The Emperor had simply kept his mouth shut and stopped reminding Luke that striking him down would lead to his own passage to Dark Side, perhaps he would actually have struck him down. In fact, he does so as Luke is about to deliver the final blow that would destroy Vadar. It’s at this point that he looks at his artificial hand and is reminded of Obi Wan’s comment that Vadar ‘is more machine than man’, realising that he is in danger of following the same path.
Also, if you’re going to rebuild the Death Star, don’t make the same weak spot even weaker, and don’t claim that you have the rebels cornered when they’re covering roughly 10 degrees of an infinite 360 degree circle of escape. I think Family Guy’s ‘Blue Harvest’ trilogy had that point covered!
Reading this back, I may have been a bit over-critical as I still find Return of the Jedi a highly entertaining film. I suppose it represents a decline from the first two that continued into the prequels and has only recently been turned around by The Force Awakens and the absolutely stunning Rogue One. Perhaps Lucas forgot what it was like to approach the franchise as a fan like J.J Abrams and Gareth Edwards, making commercial decisions to the detriment of the ‘Star Wars’ universe. Whichever way you look at it, the trilogy still entertains children today, and new ideas continue to expand on that universe, taking it in altogether new directions.
Ultimately, it’s a great time to be a fan of the series, both old and new, and as for the sometimes frustrating ‘Return of the Jedi’ . . . well, it’s all academic really.
This all happened a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away . . .