A film review by Craig J. Koban



25th Anniversary Retrospective Review

1983, PG, 133 mins.

Luke Skywalker: Mark Hamill / Han Solo: Harrison Ford / Princess Leia: Carrie Fisher / Lando Calrissian: Billy Dee Williams / C-3po: Anthony Daniels / Chewbacca: Peter Mayhew / Anakin Skywalker: Sebastian Shaw / Emperor: Ian McDiarmid

Directed By Richard Marquand / Written By Lawrence Kasdan and George Lucas

It’s enormously hard to put into words the level of yearning and almost paralyzing anticipation I had as a young tyke waiting for the third film in the original STAR WARS trilogy (and sixth and final entry in the WARS Sextet) to be finally released in May of 1983.  

I was 8-years-old and it certainly was the very first film-going experience that I recall where I felt that I was simply not just passively going to a movie: I was part of a larger, more significant pop culture event.  Love him or hate him, this is exactly what STAR WARS creator George Lucas did with his very first film in the original trilogy (later renamed EPISODE IV: A NEW HOPE), its follow-up entry (EPISODE V: THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK), and the final chapter of the sequel trilogy (EPISODE VI: RETURN OF THE JEDI): he utterly transformed the landscape of modern populist cinema.  These were certainly the first of only a small handful of films that I have seen in my entire life that were truly escapist – they gave you a sense of leaving the earthily environment of the cinema, so much so that you felt a part of the film world on the silver screen. 

RETURN OF THE JEDI continued the legacy that its first two antecedents helped establish.  It is widely regarded by critics and film fans as the weakest entry of the STAR WARS sequel trilogy, which is true, but as Obi-Wan Kenobi may say, from a certain point of view.  Obviously, JEDI could in no way shape or form rival the sense of freshness and startling originality of A NEW HOPE (something that the extremely harsh detractors of the later Prequel Trilogy had a hard time understanding), not to mention that it certainly did not aspire to the late game changing darkness of EMPIRE (still the grandest of the entire STAR WARS sextet).  JEDI, although the least of the first three STAR WARS efforts, is still an astounding and stunning achievement in the annals of film fantasy.  To categorically label it as a "weak" entry is to sidestep its very aims, which is to conclude all of the story threads (and shocking cliffhangers) that the previous film left with audiences.  Like most last films in trilogies, JEDI exists to answer questions, tie up loose ends, and bring the saga to a swift and pleasing resolution.  On those levels, the film is a triumph.  

And…of course…nothing in JEDI could have matched the scandalous and polarizing conclusion of EMPIRE, which changed the entire narrative fabric of the whole STAR WARS universe.  Whereas A NEW HOPE was a breezy and light hearted ode to the 1930’s adventure serials, Lucas envisioned EMPIRE as a film that would dive head on into the a larger and more gloomy myth about father and son relationships and fallen heroes.  It contained, for my money, the ballsiest ending in the history of film.  It took established characters we have come to love and threw them into the most dire of predicaments, some life threatening, others more emotionally unsettling.  The pirate rogue Han Solo was left for all but dead in the end for the way he selflessly sacrificed himself to the evil Empire.  Even worse, sequel saga hero Luke Skywalker was dealt up the mother of all shock revelations when the despotic and malevolent Sith Master, Darth Vader, revealed to him – after slicing his hand off – that he is (or was) actually Anakin Skywalker, Luke’s father and former Old Republic Jedi Knight turned to the Dark Side of the Force.  Made all the more painful are (a) Luke’s relentless inability to believe Darth, (b) Luke’s conflicted frustration within himself over whether or not his initial master, Obi-Wan Kenobi, lied to him about the truth of his father, and (c) if Vader is his father, should he accept his offer to join him to have his Jedi training completed so that father and son could destroy the Emperor (the Hitler-like zealot leader of the Empire), topple the Empire, and rule the galaxy? 

Worst of all?  The audience never found out whether Vader was just mind-screwing with Luke or that he was his father entombed in black armor in EMPIRE.  We would have to wait three – yes, three ­– long years to find out in JEDI.  For the then five-year-old in me, three years was an eternity.

When JEDI was finally released, it certainly emerged as the most feverously anticipated film in the entire STAR WARS sequel trilogy (and second to the prequel trilogy’s opener, THE PHANTOM MENACE).  Yes, the first sequel to the then most popular film of all time must have been a euphoric high, but few films in a trilogy like JEDI needed to be seen.  I am not sure what the statue of limitations is on movie spoilers, but Jedi did not waste too much time answering that nagging question of Luke’s true relationship with Lord Vader, but that was the enticing hook to seeing JEDI that most of the other WARS films lacked.  It had the challenging task task of dealing with and settling the intense cliffhanger of EMPIRE.  No easy feat.

JEDI also marked a clear-cut establishment of Lucas as the most powerful independent filmmaker in the history of the medium.  After the troublesome shoot on A NEW HOPE (not to mention previous troubled relations with studios on THX-1138 and AMERICAN GRAFFITI), Lucas had always vowed to separate himself from the powers that be in Hollywood.  After EMPIRE was a rousing financial success, Lucas established himself as a separate filmmaker from the established studio system.  The financial gains garnered from A NEW HOPE and EMPIRE all but ensured that Lucas’ would solely finance JEDI on wallet, without any Hollywood interference.  At a budget of $35 million – all from Lucas’ coiffures - JEDI chiefly emerged as the most expensive film of the first three WARS epics, not to mention the most elaborate and financially costly independent films of all-time.

The making of the film was beset by some problems.  The choice of director was a tricky thorn in Lucas’ side.  He initially wanted his buddy Steven Spielberg to conclude the final chapter of the trilogy, but Lucas’ unceremonious resignation from the Director’s Guild in EMPIRE’s wake stymied that prospect.  His next two choices would have led to a wonderful “what if?” prospect for the final look and feel of JEDI.  First choice for Lucas was David Lynch, whose work he loved on the Oscar nominated THE ELEPHANT MAN.  Lynch balked in order to film his own sci-fi opus, and adaptation of Frank Hubert’s DUNE (which emerged as a costly disaster).  Second choice for the flannel shirted one was Canadian David Cronenberg (which would have been really interesting).  When he refused, Lucas went for and secured a very little known Welsh director named Richard Marquand, whose previous films never lent him to be in the same company of a big budget fantasy filmmaker.  What’s compelling here is Lucas’ desires to get directors that were against the grain for his material (Irvin Kershner was a similarly inspired choice for EMPIRE).

The relationship between the inexperienced Marquand and Lucas has always been a point of mild controversy.  It has been commented on that their collaboration was rocky at times during production, but Lucas insisted that their partnership was great and noted Marquand as a gifted actor's director.  Unfortunately, Marquand’s lack of experience with working with the large-scale set pieces and effects of a STAR WARS picture has led many to believe (with reasonable accuracy) that much of JEDI was ghost directed by Lucas himself.  Records have shown that Lucas was a constant presence on set, which Marquand himself once joked about in an interview by stating, “[Directing JEDI] is rather like trying to direct KING LEAR – with Shakespeare in the next room!”

With a director on board, Lucas, Marquand, and Lawrence Kasdan (who co-wrote EMPIRE, based on Lucas’ story treatment) needed to find a satisfying manner to conclude the STAR WARS trilogy.  With uncredited contributions by David Peoples and Marquand, JEDI’s script was done in committee over a period of two months of conferences.  One of the major issues with the film (outside of resolving all pertinent story threads) was star Harrison Ford, who only signed on for two STAR WARS pictures and was obstinate in his request to kill Han Solo off in JEDI via sacrifice in order to save his hero friends from the Empire.  Kasdan apparently liked the prospect, but Lucas steadfastly insisted on keeping Solo alive.

Going under the fictitious production name of BLUE HARVEST (to avoid a fan presence on the set), filming commenced on JEDI from January to March of 1982, an astoundingly short time considering that the film was more technically complex than EMPIRE, which had a six week longer shooting schedule.  Since Lucas bankrolled the film with his own money – and used the services of his own Industrial Light and Magic for the heavy effects work - it has been said that the film could have cost an additional $20 million if done in the studio system.  Moreover, the research and development of STAR WARS' revolutionary visual effects that were pioneered in the first two films allowed Lucas and company to allow for an increase in efficiency, scope, and sheer number of effects in JEDI.  JEDI would finish with an unheard of 900 visual effects shots, a remarkable number for an early 1980’s film. 

Originally titled REVENGE OF THE JEDI, the film changed its name even after original theatrical one sheets were in lobbies, some have noted because of a similarity to the name of STAR TREK’s second feature (THE WRATH OF KHAN), or most likely due to Lucas’s rightful insistence that Jedi do not seek revenge (he would save aspects of the title for the most recent REVENGE OF THE SITH).  The story takes place shortly after the events of the darker and more sinister EPISODE V: Vader (physically played by David Prowse, voiced infamously by James Earl Jones) is overseeing the construction of a new planet-destroying Death Star, and awaiting the visit of Empire’s leader – and master of the Dark Side of the Force – Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid, encapsulating remorseless evil).  Meanwhile, Luke Skywalker (a more stoic and moody Mark Hamill), Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), Lando Carlissian (Billy Dee Williams), and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) are all on a rescue mission to save a carbonited Han Solo from the vile clutches of intergalactic Godfather, Jabba the Hutt (a gigantic slug-like creation, one of STAR WARS’ most memorable). 

Jabba resides on Tatooine, Luke’s former home world, and the young self-anointed Jedi Knight sends in his two robots, C3P0 (the always delightful Anthony Daniels) and R2D2 (Kenny Baker) to do some reconnaissance.  Things backfire a bit, especially when Leia is captured by Jabba and turned into his new slave girl (the iron bikini clad Fisher, chained to Jabba, became one of the trilogy’s most fetching sights…. outside of the effects, of course).  Needless to say, Luke -in pure, Errol Flynn mode - swooshes in to the rescue, but only after he has defeated Jabba’s pet (The Rancor, a T-Rex sized monster of claws and slimy teeth) and has thoroughly trashed all of Jabba’s men on sand dune skiffs before he, the resurrected Han, and Chewie are all forced to walk the plank and served as the afternoon lunch to the Sarlacc (a huge pit in the ground with teeth and a dangerously dexterous, twenty foot tongue).

The remaining film revolves around Luke, Leia, Han, and Lando re-teaming with the Rebellion to face off, once and for all, with the Emperor and Vader’s Empire, all while ensuring that they are stopped before the new Death Star becomes operational.  This becomes problematic for Luke, seeing as he has discovered – after a visit with his master Yoda (Frank Oz, a pure delight) and the ghostly apparition of Obi Wan (Alec Guinness) – that his worst fears are true: Vader is his father (c’mon – no need for a spoiler for this now).  So, while the Rebellion teams up with the pint sized forest dwellers of the moon of Endor (located right by the new Death Star), Luke must face his destiny and confront the man (or machine?) that was once his father and attempt to turn him away from the Dark Side so that he can finally destroy the Emperor once and for all and restore galactic peace.  

A tall order for a former whiney, teenage agriculturist, to be sure.

JEDI, as mentioned, is the least revered of the sequel trilogy, partly because fans ands critics saw it as a film that existed to tie up loose ends (which is apt), but more because the film shelters itself away from the darkness of the previous entry.  Yes, the Ewoks of Endor are cute and cuddly (originally supposed to be Wookies, which would have made us all geek out that much more if an army of them fought the Empire in Jedi), and, yes, it’s clear that Lucas was going for a more family friendly vibe here.  Yet, attacks on Lucas for going cute and family friendly are kind of redundant: he has always envisioned all of the STAR WARS pictures as a new adventure and fantasy myth for today’s youth.  Those expecting the solemnity and stern fantasies out of Tolkien need not apply here.   The STAR WARS films have always existed on a lighter, more exuberant facade than the LORD OF THE RINGS films.  Unlike Jackson’s fantasy epic, Lucas’ universe wisely remembers to have fun with the proceedings.

If one overlooks the Ewok factor, JEDI does have some of the most unforgettable moments out of the entire STAR WARS film cannon.  The daring and wonderfully lively battle between the heroes against Jabba’s goons is fantastic (which also does – as many scenes in STAR WARS films do – harkens back to the sense of gee-whiz innocence and vitality of the 30’s adventure serials and pirate derring-do of Errol Flynn pirate films).  Jabba the Hutt,  a puppet controlled by six people, is a fiendishly clever and imaginative creation.  A rousing and exhilarating chase sequence involving hover bikes on Endor is a series high point, as is the final climatic space battle, which is opened up in terms of size and scale that Lucas himself could not have imagined in 1977.   People have no sense of respect for the effects and boundless imagination Lucas used to conjure up these film worlds before the advent of computer trickery.  If anything, JEDI is, to this day, the greatest special effects achievement of the pre-CGI dominated movie world.

JEDI also has some of the franchise's most dramatic moments.  A touching and sad encounter Luke has with his dying master Yoda strikes a melancholic chord, as does a later encounter when Luke has a quiet and sobering exchange with Leia and reveals their true relationship (although, the film does curtail any attempts on Luke and Leia’s part to come to grips with the fact that they locked lips in a passionate, incestuous embrace and kiss in EMPIRE).  Then there are even more unsettling and compelling moments, especially when Luke confronts his father, but not in a sword battle, but for a heart-to-heart chat about his deplorable life choices.  Luke’s final lightsaber battle with his father – spurned on mostly by the Emperor’s trickery – has a gravitas that previous laser sword skirmishes have lacked.  And I defy anyone to name a STAR WARS moment more moving and inevitably rousing when Luke pleas with his father to stop the Emperor (played so despotically by the cackling McDiarmid) from destroying him, which leads to a crisis of conscience for Vader; in one final moment, when the dying former Sith Lord asks his son to remove his mask, you can still hear a pin drop in any viewing setting with multiple people.

Predictably, JEDI was a smash hit, grossing a then unheard of $450 million worldwide.  The film was nominated for four technically awards (Sound, Sound Effects Editing, John Williams’ toweringly legendary music score, and Art Direction) and lost in each of the other categories (in arguably the biggest miscarriage of Oscar justice, only outdone by REVENGE OF THE SITH’s lack of a nomination for Visual Effects in 2005).  At least the film won a Special Achievement Oscar for Effects, a rightfully deserving award for the film. 

Lucas re-released the sequel trilogy back in 1997 for the first film’s 20th Anniversary to much rabid fan interest, if not criticism.  Considered by Lucas as a test for technology used for his then unmade prequel trilogy, the filmmaker made CGI tweaks and changes to all three films (some very good, some not quite necessary).  JEDI was the least touched, most likely because it was the most aesthetically polished of the three.  However, Lucas, always being the paradoxical lightning rod for fan appreciation and hurtful ridicule, really stirred things up when he altered the end of JEDI for the film’s first DVD release in 2004 and inserted the ghostly vision of Hayden Christiansen (who portrayed the young Anakin Skywalker in the prequel trilogy) over the original actor, Sebastian Shaw (playing an aging apparition).  Fans cried a resounding “you can’t do that!” foul.

The real inanity with that response is the fact that…well…yes, Lucas can do what he wants to with his creation.    RETURN OF THE JEDI, along with the other five films in the STAR WARS sextet – are his films, existing for him to do what he wishes.  Perhaps what the needlessly nitpicky STAR WARS-aholics forget is Lucas’ masterful achievement with these films.  He not only created legendary and iconic characters and stories, but he also daringly envisioned an entire universe out of the fertility of his limitlessly creative imagination; he did so in an age when space opera and fantasy were all but spit on by the filmmaking populace.  What Lucas achieved with RETURN OF THE JEDI, the rest of the sequel trilogy, and partly with the unfairly ridiculed prequel trilogy, is that he conjured up a film world that we felt like we could actively inhabit: you never feel like a passive viewer with these films.  Not too many fantasy films – or films in general – have that level of prevailing transcending allure.  

The STAR WARS films are categorically in a league all to themselves.