Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (United States, 1983)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

There's an old saying that states something about leaving the best for last. George Lucas certainly didn't follow that adage when crafting the original Star Wars trilogy. Return of the Jedi, the final installment of the series, is easily the least innovative and most hokey of the three films. In fact, most of the enjoyment derived from this motion picture comes from the simple act of getting together with old friends and enemies one more time. If Luke, Han, Leia, and Vader were replaced by nameless, faceless characters, Return of the Jedi wouldn't be a whole lot more interesting than Independence Day.

Cuteness is the watchword here. The dark, eerie atmosphere that oozed from every frame of The Empire Strikes Back is gone. Instead, for Return of the Jedi, we have good triumphing decisively over evil, a too-pat resolution to a love triangle, and walking teddy bears. Even Darth Vader doesn't seem very daunting this time around. With the arrival of the Emperor (a gaunt-looking Ian McDiarmid), Vader has turned into a second fiddle. It's decidedly unsatisfactory to watch him engage Luke in a civilized conversation.

Return of the Jedi picks up an unspecified time after the conclusion of The Empire Strikes Back. Luke (Mark Hamill), Leia (Carrie Fisher), Lando (Billy Dee Williams), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), and the droids (Anthony Daniels and Kenny Baker) are on a rescue mission to Luke's home planet of Tatooine. Their aim: to save Han (Harrison Ford) from the clutches of Jabba the Hutt. Once this goal is attained, it's back to outer space, where the Rebel alliance is about to face the Empire's newest threat: a second, more powerful Death Star, that, if activated, could spell doom for anyone who stands against the Emperor. So, while the fleet prepares for the final battle, Luke and company travel to the forest moon of Endor to knock out the shield that defends the Death Star against all attacks. There, they are befriended by the Ewoks, the teddy bear-like indigenous race, and Luke, fearing that his presence is endangering the group, turns himself over to Vader.

Return of the Jedi has some interesting elements. The Luke/Vader/Emperor scenes are suitably tense and well-acted, and, if the resolution isn't a complete surprise, at least it's a little more original that it could have been. From a technical point-of-view, the space battles are amazing, easily dwarfing anything depicted in the previous films. Not only are there many, many more ships, but their speed and range of movement have been dramatically improved. On one level, Return of the Jedi is almost worth watching for the special effects. In the Special Edition, a new, equally repugnant dance number has been added to the Jabba the Hutt scene. Additionally, there are some impressive touches tacked onto the ending. Once again, while the improvements don't significantly alter the viewing experience, they're fun to spot.

While there isn't much of a down side to Star Wars or The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi has some serious drawbacks. First and foremost are the Ewoks, an unbearably cuddly race that seem handpicked to generate toy sales. Children enjoy these creatures; everyone I know over age 12 finds them insufferably annoying. Then there's the unbelievably cheap cop-out that Lucas uses to erase the Luke/Han/Leia triangle. Whether Lucas had this in mind from the beginning is irrelevant -- it's a bad idea. Not only does it defuse romantic tension, but it leaves viewers shaking their heads in incredulity. There are other problems too -- the death toll on the rebel side seems shockingly small for a "final battle" and a bit of foreshadowing regarding the Millennium Falcon's fate is thrown out the window. Of course, I could also make the rather obvious observation that large elements of Return of the Jedi are lifted from the original Star Wars, indicating that the creative wellspring of writers George Lucas and Lawrence Kasdan had perhaps run dry.

The acting in Return of the Jedi is stronger than in the previous films. By now, Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, and Carrie Fisher have all matured in their on-screen personas. The chemistry amongst the trio is terrific, with the only awkward moments coming during the Luke/Leia conversations when they discuss their origins. As in Empire, Billy Dee Williams gives us another human hero to root for. Newcomer Ian McDiarmid plays the Emperor as a suitably creepy, cunning, and evil creature, although he's not as imposing as Vader was in Star Wars.

Although it was great fun re-watching Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back again on the big screen, Return of the Jedi doesn't generate the same sense of enjoyment. And, while Lucas worked diligently to re-invigorate each entry into the trilogy, Jedi needs more than the patches of improved sound, cleaned-up visuals, and a few new scenes. Still, despite the flaws, this is still Star Wars, and, as such, represents a couple of lightly-entertaining hours spent with characters we have gotten to know and love over the years. Return of the Jedi is easily the weakest of the series, but its position as the conclusion makes it a must-see for anyone who has enjoyed its predecessors.

Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (United States, 1983)

Run Time: 2:15
U.S. Release Date: 1983-05-25
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1