100 Film Favorites – #36: Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi
(Richard Marquand, 1983)
Props to all of you who saw this coming. Today we wrap up the Star Wars saga with its final chapter to date, Return of the Jedi.
“Jedi” takes place roughly a year after the events of “Empire,” and opens with Luke and the gang infiltrating the palace of Jabba the Hutt. Princess Leia frees Han Solo from his carbonite prison, but is caught before they can escape. Leia is enslaved and forced to wear an outfit which would leave an indelible impact on the formative years of many a young fanboy.
Meanwhile, Luke allows himself to be captured by Jabba. After Luke makes short work of Jabba’s pet monster, a Rancor, the sluggish crime lord must devise another means of execution. Jabba loads the prisoners and his puppet posse aboard a sail barge, and they all hover out across the Tatooine desert until they come to a pit housing a Sarlacc, a big tentacled maw in the ground. Jabba laughs a hearty laugh and performs various lascivious gestures while Leia looks uncomfortable and Han and Luke are forced to “walk the plank” over the Sarlacc’s waiting jaws.
Suddenly, Luke uses his Force powers to grab his lightsaber. As he and Han make a dramatic escape, fighting off Jabba’s henchmen and causing Boba Fett to inadvertently launch himself into the Sarlacc, Leia kills Jabba by strangling him with her own chains.
While Leia, Han, and Lando head to meet back up with their Rebel peeps, Luke returns to Dagobah to finish up his Jedi training, cut short in the previous film. He’s a bit late, though, as Yoda is dying of old age (“When 900 years old you reach, look as good you will not”). Yoda confirms that Vader really is Luke’s father, and that there is yet another mystery Skywalker. Before he can elaborate, the sage old Muppet promptly expires and vanishes, as dead Jedi are wont to do. Conferring with the ghost of Obi-Wan, Luke deduces that the “other Skywalker” is his twin sister…who happens to be Leia. Good thing they only made out once or twice, or things might have gotten awkward.
Elsewhere in the galaxy, the Rebels have learned that the Empire is hard at work constructing another Death Star…for some reason. I’m not really sure why. The first one didn’t work out too well for them. But that’s what they’re doing, and the Rebels plan to put the kibosh on the Imperial scheme. To do this, they must first travel to the planet Endor (or, more specifically, “the forest moon of Endor”) to deactivate the shield generators still protecting the not-yet completed Death Star.
Here, Luke and his his galactic chums are waylaid by the Endor natives, a primitive race of diminutive, teddy-bear like creatures called Ewoks. Despite their cuddly exteriors, the spear-wielding Ewoks quickly trap and subdue Luke and Han, and begin making preparations to roast and eat them. They are only dissuaded by the appearance of C-3PO, whom the Ewoks take to be a god. When Luke employs his Force-magic to simulate the droid’s godly wrath, the Ewoks quickly untie and play nice with our heroes. The scene in which C-3PO regales Ewok children with the story of the group’s adventures thus far, told in the Ewok language with plenty of recognizable sound effects thrown in, is a personal favorite of mine.
Luke informs Leia of their siblinghood, and then departs for the Death Star to parlay with Vader. Aboard the great space station, Luke meets Vader’s boss, the Emperor himself, for the first time. Luke states that he hopes to turn Vader to the Light Side of the Force. Vader states that he hopes to turn Luke to the Dark Side of the Force. It’s all very dramatic.
Back on Endor, the Rebels are surrounded by Imperial troops, but the Ewoks come to their rescue, fighting off the storm troopers and walkers with improvised weapons made of wood and stone. Simultaneously, in the skies above, Lando (now a Rebel general) arrives in the Millennium Falcon to destroy the Death Star – but is less than pleased to discover that, due to the delays on Endor, the station’s shields are still up, and much of the Empire’s space fleet is awaiting him.
Aboard the Death Star, Luke engages Darth Vader in a lightsaber duel. The Emperor goads Luke on, urging him to use his anger as a weapon to overpower Vader. Gradually realizing that this is pretty evil advice, Luke pulls himself back from the brink and refuses to kill the downed Vader. The Emperor declares Luke “weak,” and begins attacking him with bolts of evil magic lightning. Unable to watch his son suffer, Vader turns face, hoisting the Emperor onto his shoulders and hurling him down one of those bottomless space-holes so abundant in the Star Wars universe. Grievously injured by the lightning, Vader requests to see Luke with his own eyes before he dies. Luke removes his father’s mask, and promises that Anakin Skywalker will be remembered for the bit of good that endured in him til the end.
In the Endorian forests below, the Rebels and Ewoks surge forward and destroy the shield generators, and Lando is at last able to enter the bowels of the Death Star, where he once again initiates a chain-reaction explosion which destroys the station and everyone aboard. Seriously, the Empire really should have gone with a different architect this time around. Luckily, Luke just makes it off the Death Star with Vader’s body in time. Back on Endor, Vader’s body is burned on a funeral pyre. While planets throughout the galaxy celebrate the toppling of the Empire, Luke, Leia, Han and the gang celebrate with the Ewoks. I honestly think the heroes of a galactic war probably could have gotten invites to a more high-profile victory party, but hey, Ewoks are good too. At least they have a killer playlist. During a lull in the festivities, Luke looks over to see the spirits of Yoda and Obi-Wan watching over him…joined by a ghostly Anakin Skywalker, restored to his human form.
This post is already getting fairly long, so I’ll try to keep additional commentary concise. I feel like one of the bigger questions this Countdown may elicit is why I chose to rank the Star Wars films in this particular order. Why is Return of the Jedi my favorite? I promise there were more influencing factors to my decision than just Slave Leia. Actually, some may see my main reason for favoring this installment over the others as even more shallow: I really like the creatures.
The cantina scene in the original Star Wars is one of my favorite parts of that film, primarily because of the abundance of weird alien species on display. Return of the Jedi gives the impression that the filmmakers thought, “Let’s make a whole movie with that level of creature saturation.” From Jabba’s retinue of alien elephants, alien rat-monkeys, and alien slave-dancers of all makes and models, to the monstrous Rancor and Sarlacc, to the cute and cuddly Ewoks, this whole movie is stuffed to brimming with distinctive space-critters. I’m ashamed to admit it now, but (Star Wars purists should close their eyes now) I actually kind of liked Episode I when I first saw it, due to the vast menageries of creative creatures. I’ve seen the error of my ways with regard to that film, since many aspects of the story make no sense, and the characters see little meaningful or logical development. But in “Jedi,” the vast bestiary is paired with a fairly good story, which brings the whole Star Wars saga to a spectacular end.
That’s the other reason Return of the Jedi takes the cake for me. Unlike the “bummer” ending of “Empire,” here we finally see the characters we’ve grown to know and love over the last three films triumph over their foes. Good is victorious over evil and Vader is redeemed. And while you can argue that simply defeating the Emperor wouldn’t bring the entire Empire and its various political institutions immediately crashing down, I feel the film is an admirable end to the series. Of course, as you all know, it won’t be the end of the series for long. Only time will tell what J.J. Abrams and the upcoming sequel trilogy hold in store for Luke, his cosmic compadres, and their galaxy long ago and far, far way.
-The film was produced under the alternate title “Blue Harvest” to hide the true nature of the project. This was done in part to keep service providers from jacking up prices to serve Lucas and his crew. Blue Harvest would later be the title of the Family Guy episode dedicated to parodying Star Wars.
-The forest planet of this film was originally intended to be Kashyyyk, the Wookie homeworld. However, in a move that has widely been criticized as a ploy to sell more merchandise, Lucas opted to create a whole new race of furry forest-dwellers, this time making them tiny instead of towering. But he couldn’t simply call them mini-wookiees. So what was he to do? Turn “Wookiees” kinda sorta backwards and end up with the “Ewoks,” that’s what! But Ewoks aren’t all bad. In addition to showing remarkable fighting prowess (remember, they managed to capture Luke and Han right off the bat), they’re also excellent moonwalkers (skip to 3:50 if you don’t believe me):
Finally, to really finish off our trip through the Star Wars saga in style, check out yet another high-quality comical fan-film. George Lucas in Love is a dual-parody of both Shakespeare in Love and the genesis of Star Wars. Young California film student George Lucas is struggling to complete his final project, the script for an epic tragedy about a farmer cursed with a bad crop of “space wheat.” He finds his muse in a strong-willed girl named Marion, the “leader of the student rebellion.” Encouraged by Marion to “write what’s in his heart,” George finds inspiration in the events around him (including a student losing his hand in a fencing match, and a stoner roommate in a robe babbling about a “cosmic force”), and quickly finishes a draft of his future masterpiece. It’s hilarious. You should watch it.