‘Star Wars’ Revisited, Part 3: ‘Return of the Jedi’

Copyright Lucasfilm

Pre-viewing thoughts: As I’ve mentioned a couple times already in this series, “Return of the Jedi” was my favorite Star Wars movie as a kid. It’s the climactic entry of the series, for one, and it has a number of great set pieces, including the opening rescue sequence on Tatooine and the ground/space/Death Star battle at the end. More recent viewings have dampened my enthusiasm for “Jedi” a little, but it still has a lot going for it; in my mind, it’s only somewhat significant flaw is a poorly paced second act, but once Luke goes to confront Vader, the movie finishes strong. It’s time to wrap up the first arc of Star Wars and the first trilogy in this series.

Movie diary:

  • 00:00- Imagine going to see this movie in 1983 knowing that it was the last Star Wars movie for at least the near future, if not forever.
  • 2:00- “Jedi” has what is probably the most low-key opening of the series. We’re given a glimpse of the second Death Star, a brief moment with Vader, the tease of the Emperor’s arrival and little else. But the music and staging definitely give the proceedings an air of impending doom. We see Vader before we see any of the main heroes, and the music is especially gloomy. It tells that this story, at least for 32 years, is our endpoint.
  • 4:30- The look of terror on the Death Star commander’s face when Vader tells him the Emperor is coming is wonderful and does a lot to sell us on how terrible he must be. Especially when Vader says shortly thereafter “The Emperor is not as forgiving as I am,” and we’ve seen that Vader possesses little in the way of forgiveness.
  • 6:30- Jabba’s palace, like the Mos Eisley cantina, is one of those locations that contains a world of untold stories. The sheer variety of aliens on display is a huge credit to the technicians who helped bring the Star Wars universe to life.
  • 8:30- Jabba is a fantastic minor villain. He’s a literal slug, but he clearly wields great power and puts Luke, Han, Leia and the rest through quite an ordeal. Plus his treatment of Leia later on is flat-out disgusting. He earns that eventual death at Leia’s hands.
  • 10:15- Han hanging in Jabba’s throne room as a trophy is a great visual and tells you a lot about Jabba’s nature.
  • 12:00- I like Jabba’s band. The Special Edition makes their musical moment way too long and overblown, but in the theatrical release it’s a fun little diversion and glimpse into life at Jabba’s palace. Plus the sudden death of one of the dancers when she’s dropped into a pit sets up the fantastic fight between Luke and the rancor later on.
  • 15:30- Jabba laughing at the bounty hunter (eventually revealed to be Leia) after the bounty hunter pulls out the thermal detonator is also a nice touch. Jabba’s clearly been accustomed to power so long that he has little sense of his own mortality and underestimates his opponents, which proves to be his undoing.
  • 16:40- Lando revealing himself as one of Jabba’s guards clues us in that maybe things aren’t quite as bad as they appear for the good guys and that there may be more going on than we realize.
  • 17:30- The scene where the bounty hunter sneaks into Jabba’s throne room, frees Han and reveals herself to be Leia is very well done. Lots of good use of shadow, the little moments where she checks to see if she’s been seen, her gentle care of Han, the music…all good stuff.
  • 19:30- We get a short clip of Han and Leia’s love theme for the reveal, giving us a moment of hope, and then Jabba shows himself. No breaks for our heroes, at least not yet.
  • 20:45- The way Jabba licks his lips at Leia is just gross, and Carrie Fisher’s reaction fits accordingly.
  • 21:30- Han and Chewie’s reunion is a nice moment. Han is overwhelmed, but Chewie is just so glad to have his friend back, and Han eventually just gives up and tells Chewie he’s OK.
  • 22:30- The metal bikini is unnecessary. The chain is plenty, as was Jabba’s licking his lips. You could easily put her in an outfit that’s flattering without going way over the line of gratuitous titillation with that bikini. Yes it fits with Jabba’s nature, but it’s a disservice to Leia’s character.
  • 25:00- The rancor is a fantastic creature design, and the fight between it and Luke is very well done. Luke shows himself to be a capable, resourceful fighter even without his lightsaber or any other weapon. He gets out of this scrape with his wits, some rocks and a leftover bone.
  • 27:30- It’s an odd, throwaway moment, but I’ve always liked the little bit where the human (presumably the rancor’s trainer?) weeps for the monster after Luke kills it. Again, Jabba’s palace contains worlds’ worth of stories that go untold. Great way to build out the broader universe in small pieces.
  • 30:30- The Sarlaac is a nasty piece of work. “Jedi” is filled with great creature/alien designs.
  • 31:15- Luke does offer Jabba a chance to live. The gradual build until R2 shoots Luke’s lightsaber into the air and Luke grabs it is very well staged, too.
  • 33:00- Down goes Boba Fett, in ignominy. Sure it’s more or less by accident on Han’s part, but Han’s blind and still gets accidental payback on the guy who made him a trophy for Jabba.
  • 33:45- Leia gets her payback, too, and Fisher sells every bit of Leia’s anger. You go princess.
  • 36:30- “I owe you one.” Han thanking Luke is a good moment. All of the actors have grown really comfortable with each other by this point.
  • 37:30- The Emperor’s arrival on the Death Star is very well done. The contrast between the tall, imposing Vader and the seemingly frail Emperor makes him appear weak, but the trappings of power around him (I’ve always thought the blood-red Imperial Guards were cool) and Ian McDiarmid’s performance tell us this is not a man to be trifled with.
  • 40:00- Yoda gives Luke a lesson on mortality before he passes. With knowledge of the prequels and Anakin’s fruitless quest to conquer death, this is especially poignant. “Jedi” may actually be the movie that gains the most from the prequels; the parallels between the Emperor’s corruption of Anakin/Vader and his failed attempt at bringing Luke to the dark side are notable and help create a sense of finality.
  • 41:30- Yoda confirms Vader’s revelation from “Empire,” and Williams gives us a minor key variation on Luke’s theme. It’s a powerful moment.
  • 42:00- “Unfortunate that I know the truth?” “Unfortunate that you rushed to face him.” Yoda makes sure Luke knows that his unchecked emotions are his weakness.
  • 43:45- “There is another Skywalker.” Yoda gives Luke a bit of hope for the future even as he passes. And his fade from view, recalling Obi-Wan’s earlier death, is a heartfelt moment.
  • 45:00- Obi-Wan appears, and he’s got some explaining to do. Luke is justifiably angry.
  • 45:15- “A certain point of view?” This, in many ways, is the key lesson Luke has to learn. He has good instincts, but he needs to balance his urge to act with deliberation.
  • 46:10- “I was wrong.” There’s a lot unsaid in Alec Guiness’ delivery when he speaks of his failure with Anakin. Acting is about big and small moments alike, and this small moment of admitting his greatest failure tells us a lot about Obi-Wan.
  • 46:30- “I can’t kill my own father.” Luke finds his own path in the end. It’s clear from Obi-Wan, at least, and to a lesser extent Yoda, that he’s expected to kill Vader, but Luke knows he has to try to redeem him instead.
  • 47:15- The reveal that Leia and Luke are twins is a bit odd, especially since we saw them kiss in “Empire,” but I think it works. They’ve never really had the raw chemistry clearly obvious between Leia and Han (especially with the knowledge of Fisher and Ford’s affair), but they care for each other. And it makes for a great moment later on when Vader says he’ll try to turn her instead of Luke, which propels Luke to finally lash out in anger.
  • 49:00- “Jedi” gets flack for reprising the Death Star bit from “A New Hope,” but aside from the Death Star itself, the plots and themes are very different.
  • 52:45- I’ve always thought the partially finished Death Star looks cooler than the complete one from “A New Hope.” Don’t really know why. Maybe because it looks a bit a more otherworldly.
  • 53:15- The first throne room scene on the second Death Star gives us a glimpse into the Emperior-Vader dynamic: Vader is the muscle, the Emperor is the brains, as seen by his setting the trap for the Rebel fleet and his knowledge that the reports of a Rebel attack elsewhere are a ruse. They make a formidable pair.
  • 55:00- “I’m endangering the mission, I shouldn’t have come.” Luke’s probably right here, but plot necessities dictate he be there. Plus we’ve seen Vader and the Emperor lay traps before, so it’s not totally out of Vader’s character to let the group land, thinking he can catch them later.
  • 57:30- Like I said before, “Jedi’s” biggest weakness is its meandering second act, but the outlier is the incredible hover bike chase through the forest. The sense of speed and danger is palpable, the sound design is top notch, and Luke jumping from one bike to the other is a great stunt, as is Luke chopping off the front of one of the bikes with his lightsaber. And it’s pre-CGI, so kudos to the stunt team.
  • 1:02:00- The Ewoks are fine. Star Wars is not just for adults, and one of the themes of the series is the Rebellion finding allies in unexpected places and making the most of them, especially since the Empire is implicitly (later explicitly) a human-first regime. It makes sense for the locals to help the Rebels take down the Empire when the Empire comes to their planet and starts messing up the place. If you hate the later Star Wars movies because of the Ewoks or Jar Jar, you need to get your priorities straight. Everything does not need to be grim and gritty all the time.
  • 1:06:00- Luke is the one who pushes Vader back to the light side, but the second throne room scene with Vader and the Emperor gives us a glimpse into the doubts Vader is beginning to have. The Emperor asks Vader if his feelings are clear, and Vader says they are, but the delivery from James Earl Jones has a feeling of “The lady doth protest too much.”
  • 1:09:00- The scene where Luke, Han, Chewie and 3PO get caught in the trap and then captured by the Ewoks isn’t great. It drags too long, and while it’s nice that the good guys don’t just immediately kill the Ewoks (because they most likely could), I’m not sure it makes sense that they’d more or less let themselves get caught and taken to the village.
  • 1:11:00- Now, that all said, the Ewok village is a marvel of production design. It looks completely believable.
  • 1:13:00- While it’s a nice demonstration of Luke’s Force abilities to lift 3PO into the air, it would make more sense dramatically if Leia was the one who convinced the Ewoks to help them by virtue of her having helped one of their own earlier. It would make the Ewoks and Rebels allies against mutual adversaries instead of having the Ewoks being somewhat tricked into giving them Rebels a chance. 3PO’s recapping of the story so far around the fire (also a great moment, and a callback to his line from “A New Hope” where he says he’s not very good at telling stories) mitigates this somewhat.
  • 1:17:00- “Short help’s better than no help.” Han points out the obvious: When you’re fighting against an evil empire with a weapon that can destroy planets, you take whatever help you can get.
  • 1:17:00- The final scene with Luke and Leia before Luke goes to find Vader is very touching, even if Leia shouldn’t really have any memory of her mother because her mother died shortly after Leia was born, as we see in “Revenge of the Sith.”
  • 1:19:30- Leia takes the news that Luke is her brother pretty well, all things considered.
  • 1:21:30- “Hold me.” A sweet, tender moment with Han and Leia.
  • 1:23:00- “That name no longer has any meaning for me.” Again, Vader doth protest too much. Luke is already starting to get under his skin. After the second act wheel-spinning, “Jedi” finds its narrative footing here and builds to a hell of a climax.
  • 1:23:15- When Vader activates Luke’s new lightsaber, it looks for a second like he’s going to use it on Luke, reminding us that we’re still dealing with the man who cut off Luke’s hand.
  • 1:24:15- “I will not turn, and you’ll be forced to kill me.” “If that is your destiny.” A rather droll reply from Vader, but the casual air with which he says it makes it believable. As we’ve seen repeatedly, Vader has no qualms about casual murder.
  • 1:25:30- Vader pauses for a moment after handing Luke over to be taken to the Emperor. The doubts build.
  • 1:28:00- The Ewoks prove their worth quickly, leading the Rebels to the back door of the shield generator and then creating a distraction to get most of the guards away.
  • 1:30:00- “Welcome, young Skywalker. I have been expecting you.” Ian McDiarmid is absolutely fantastic as the Emperor. The makeup helps a lot, but his voice is laced with evil, and his performance is a master class in coiled menace. John Williams also gives him a great music cue.
  • 1:33:15- The Rebel fleet arrives, Luke is in the clutches of the Emperor and Vader, and Han and Leia have been ambushed. The stage is set for our big finale.
  • 1:34:00- Lando realizes the shield is still up, and all hell breaks loose.
  • 1:34:15- “It’s a trap!” I watched this movie at a Star Wars convention in Florida a few years ago, and the entire room was waiting for this line. When Admiral Ackbar get his moment, there was cheering and a huge burst of applause. It may be the most fun I’ve had watching a Star Wars movie.
  • 1:35:30- Both Yoda and the Emperor tell Luke what his destiny is, but they’re both wrong. Luke doesn’t fall to the dark side, but he doesn’t kill Vader or the Emperor. George Lucas gets grief in some quarters as a hack who simply followed Joseph Campbell’s “Hero With a Thousand Faces” template, but Luke’s arc over the course of the original trilogy is much more complicated than that.
  • 1:40:00- It’s a little odd that we don’t really get a big fleet vs. fleet battle until “Jedi,” considering the name of this series is Star Wars. But when that battle finally arrives, it’s a good one.
  • 1:41:00- The reveal that the Death Star is actually functional is a nicely done twist. It further stacks the odds in the Empire’s favor, making their eventual defeat even more satisfying.
  • 1:42:00- R2 getting shot, followed shortly by Leia being injured, are both good moments of showing how dire things are.
  • 1:45:30- Chewie gets his big moment when he takes over one of the Imperial scout walkers to turn the tide on the ground. About time he gets something to do.
  • 1:46:45- The Ewoks get pretty inventive when it comes to taking down the scout walkers. My personal favorite: Releasing a bunch of loose logs and seeing the walker go all wobbly before collapsing.
  • 1:47:15- “I love you.” “I know.” Lines are reversed, and Leia gets to save Han (again).
  • 1:48:00- Luke is fighting in a noticeably more aggressive style here. The Emperor’s getting to him, even if it’s Vader who gets him closest to the edge when he starts talking about Leia.
  • 1:50:45- Han’s little shrug when he traps the troops coming out of the shield bunker is priceless.
  • 1:51:45- Luke’s cry of rage before he goes berserk on Vader is a genuine shock; we’ve never seen him like this. The music as he batters Vader and nearly kills him is perfect, too; it gives me chills every time. This is the emotional crux of the whole series, as Luke gets as close as we ever see him to falling to the dark side before coming up just short.
  • 1:52:45- Luke cuts off Vader’s right hand, just as Vader cut off his. Luke sees this and realizes he’s becoming just like his father, as was shown to him in the cave on Dagobah. And thus he rejects the Emperor and, as he puts it…
  • 1:53:30- “…I am a Jedi, like my father before me.” Luke’s journey is complete, but there are a couple loose ends left.
  • 1:54:15- The Emperor’s lightning blasts are another great surprise. It makes sense that he attacks more directly with the Force instead of with a lightsaber like Vader.
  • 1:55:10- “Father, please!” Luke’s mercy and love for Vader is what turns him. He’s seen that he doesn’t have to embrace his worst emotions; he can save himself.
  • 1:56:15- The Emperor falling to his death before exploding in a burst of energy is a great visual.
  • 1:56:45- Vader and Luke have a nice moment together before we cut back to the space battle and Lando attempting to destroy the Death Star.
  • 1:57:40- Having Lando and Wedge attempt to blow up the Death Star from the inside is a nice way to up the trench run sequence from “A New Hope.”
  • 1:59:00- You could imagine having Vader die immediately after having killed the Emperor, but giving him one last moment with Luke where Vader can look at Luke without the mask is a nice touch.
  • 2:00:15- “I’ve got to save you.” “You already have, Luke.” And Vader gets one last, minimal reprise of the Imperial March as he dies. Rest in peace, Anakin Skywalker.
  • 2:01:15- One last plot thread to resolve. Wedge and Lando blow up the Death Star’s reactor, Luke makes his escape, and it’s time to party.
  • 2:03:22- Han’s face when Leia tells him she and Luke are siblings is a joy to beold, and probably appropriate given that in the last movie he saw her make out with Luke.
  • 2:04:00- Luke burning his father’s body on the funeral pyre is a nice image and a great way to cap off both of their arcs.
  • 2:05:00- The Ewoks’ party looks like a lot of fun. My favorite bit: The Ewoks playing drums on the Stormtroopers’ helmets.
  • 2:06:00- Just to make sure it’s clear, we get Anakin’s Force ghost along with Yoda and Obi-Wan. Luke has truly become a Jedi and redeemed his father. Happy ending.

Wrap-up: Like with “A New Hope,” my feelings toward “Jedi” haven’t really changed much after this viewing. “Jedi” has its strengths (a number of great action set pieces, some very well executed dramatic payoffs), but it also has its flaws, namely an unfocused second act. But as the end of the Star Wars saga in 1983 and the end of the first arc of movies once the prequels and “The Force Awakens” were released, “Jedi” succeeds admirably in tying up the loose ends in a satisfying matter. And once again, if the Ewoks bother you that much, loosen up.

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