#619) Return of the Jedi (1983)

#619) Return of the Jedi (1983)

OR “The Good, the Bad, and the Furry”

Directed by Richard Marquand

Written by Lawrence Kasdan and George Lucas. Story by Lucas.

Class of 2021

As with my write-ups of “Star Wars” and “The Empire Strikes Back“, this is based on my viewing of the original theatrical version of “Return of the Jedi”.

The Plot: An even less long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, the evil Empire plans to destroy the Rebel alliance once and for all with a new, more powerful Death Star. Meanwhile, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) leads a rescue mission to save Han Solo (Harrison Ford) from the slimy crime lord Jabba the Hutt. Following that success, our heroes lead a Rebel ground crew to the forest moon of Endor, with Leia (Carrie Fisher) befriending a race of teddybear-esque Ewoks. As the Rebels gear up for their final battle with the Empire, Luke must confront Darth Vader (David Prowse, voiced by James Earl Jones), who is determined to deliver Luke to Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) and the Dark Side of the Force.

Why It Matters: While the NFR admits that “Jedi” is “not quite up to the lofty standards of its two predecessors”, they praise the film’s “intriguing new characters” and declare it “an unquestioned masterpiece of fantasy, adventure and wonder.” There’s also a link to a brief video clip of Mark Hamill discussing the film’s importance.

But Does It Really?:  Sure, “Return of the Jedi” doesn’t hold a candle to the previous installments, but while the first two were allowed to be fun adventures, “Jedi” has the unenviable task of being The Conclusion, and it takes a while for the movie to find its footing and start wrapping things up. There’s a bit of padding and a lack of the fun repartee between the main characters, but ultimately the film succeeds as the exciting final chapter in an adventure serial geared towards kids. Packed with its share of iconic characters and moments, “Return of the Jedi” more than earns its spot as the first “threequel” in the NFR.

Shout Outs: Among the films cinematic influences are NFR entries “The Adventures of Robin Hood“, “The Day the Earth Stood Still“, and “The Godfather“, plus be on the lookout for a “THX 1138” reference.

Everybody Gets One: Welsh director Richard Marquand was hired to helm “Jedi” after impressing George Lucas with his WWII drama “Eye of the Needle” (it helped that Marquand was not a member of the DGA, whom Lucas recently had a falling out with). Accounts of Marquand’s on-set behavior differ depending on who you ask, with rumors that Lucas took over most of the film’s directing himself. Marquand’s side of the story wasn’t well-documented before his unexpected death in 1987, apart from his oft-repeated quote comparing filming while George Lucas is hanging around to “trying to direct King Lear with Shakespeare in the next room.”

Wow, That’s Dated: I don’t care how much “Lapti Nek” sticks out for its pure ’80s-ness, I still like it better than “Jedi Rocks“.

Title Track: Famously, “Return of the Jedi” was original titled “Revenge of the Jedi”, but was changed to “Return” five months before the film’s release, causing the already-printed “Revenge” posters to increase significantly in value. 2005’s “Revenge of the Sith” takes its title from this.

Seriously, Oscars?: The biggest hit of 1983, “Return of the Jedi” received four Oscar nominations in various tech categories. While the film lost these awards to “The Right Stuff” and “Fanny and Alexander”, it did win a Special Achievement award for its Visual Effects.

Other notes 

  • Following the success of “Empire Strikes Back”, George Lucas was able to pay off his bank loans and achieve total financial freedom for “Return of the Jedi”. Lucas wrote the first draft himself, alternating subsequent drafts with “Empire” and “Raiders” writer Lawrence Kasdan, who had recently found success directing his screenplay “Body Heat” and had started work on his sophomore effort “The Big Chill”. While Lucas came up with the original story beats, many of the details were fleshed out during two weeks of story conferences with Lucas, Kasdan, Marquand, and producer Howard Kazanjian. Allegedly, Lucas forbid any of the main heroes from being killed off or denied a happy ending in order to help boost merchandise sales.
  • I never realized how slow the first chunk of this movie is. I’m loving the aesthetic of Jabba’s palace (and his puppet work is genuinely impressive), but you have to wait a while for Luke et al to show up, leading to an unusually long amount of screentime for C-3PO, R2-D2, and a bunch of puppet aliens we’ve just met.
  • Shoutout to Femi Taylor as Jabba’s ill-fated dancing girl; the only woman of color in this film, and the only actor from the original films to reprise their role for the Special Edition.
  • Oh god, I forgot about the metal bikini they make Leia wear in this. Like we need another reminder about how creepy Star Wars nerds can be. Move along, you pervs.
  • I’m glad they thawed out Han Solo, because Harrison Ford’s wryness is helping make up for the plodding first act. This is also a good time to remind readers of my fan theory that Han Solo hallucinated both “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Blade Runner” while in carbonite.
  • Both the Rancor and Sarlaac pit action scenes are fun, but ultimately seem like a bit of milling about while we wait for the actual story to begin. And yes, Boba Fett goes out like Wile E. Coyote, but if Disney Star Wars teaches us anything, no one in this galaxy actually dies when you think they do.
  • Wow, Yoda’s puppetry is amazing in this. I just watched a puppet walk across a room and get into bed in a single take. Frank Oz, you’ve done it again!
  • Ian McDiarmid is clearly having a blast playing the embodiment of all evil, even if it’s at the expense of Vader holding that title. The Emperor’s scenes begin the kind of retconning the prequels were famous for, and the catch-all excuse of (sing it with me) “It’s been Palpatine all along”.
  • Speaking of retcons, poor Sir Alec Guinness spends his only scene spouting dialogue that totally contradicts his character from the first film. And while we’re on this scene (mini-spoiler) how the hell did Luke deduce that Leia was his sister? Another point in the “This trilogy was not mapped out ahead of time” argument.
  • I always thought that the Endor scenes were filmed in Marin, but actually they were shot much further north in Smiths’ River and Crescent City, California, right near the Oregon border. It was during the Endor shoot that the film utilized its infamous working title “Blue Harvest”, posing as a low-budget horror film to detract unwanted attention from fans and price-gouging from local businesses.
  • Hot take: I actually like the Ewoks, or least I don’t mind them as much as others do. Yes, they are cuter (and more toyetic) than your average “Star Wars” characters, but it’s a fun bit of levity in an up-to-then slow, meandering film. And while some are critical of the Ewok vs. Stormtrooper battle at the end, I actually enjoyed watching these little guys pummel stormtroopers with their spears and rocks. Those furballs are out for blood!
  • Wow, Leia really gets nothing to do in this movie. I love Carrie Fisher, but this movie gives us none of her natural warmth and spunk. In fact, other than Mark Hamill, none of the major human leads get much to do. Harrison Ford just stands around smirking, and Billy Dee Williams is completely wasted in a thankless supporting role. At least Leia and Han got more character development in “Force Awakens”.
  • “Jedi” finally picks up when it arrives at the third act, now juggling three storylines and regaining some of the frenetic energy of the first two films. After 90 minutes of worrying that this movie doesn’t hold up as well as I remember, along comes the finale to get me excited again.
  • [Spoiler] I’ve seen it 1000 times, I knew it was coming, but Darth Vader’s redemption at the end is just fantastic. You genuinely don’t know until the last moment whether or not Darth/Anakin can go through with it, and I suspect many a theater broke into applause when he turns on Palpatine.
  • I’ll go into my thoughts on the Special Edition in a bit, but I have to say watching the original ending this time was a satisfying conclusion to the film. Yes, it’s a little cheesy with the Ewoks singing “Yub Nub” (Harrison Ford once called that ending “the teddy bear picnic”), but I actually got a little choked up watching the ghosts of Obi-Wan, Yoda, and Hayden Christensen Sebastian Shaw appear together.

Legacy 

  • “Return of the Jedi” opened in theaters six years to the day of the original “Star Wars” premiere, and was an immediate hit, grossing over $300 million in its initial U.S. run. While some critics bemoaned this film’s emphasis on effects over characters, others praised the film’s entertainment value. Look no further than this clip of Siskel & Ebert teaming up to debate boorish misogynist/film critic John Simon. Seriously, fuck that guy.
  • A preview screening of “Jedi” in a theater with inadequate sound equipment encouraged George Lucas to create THX, now the gold standard for movie theater sound quality. The company has changed hands a few times (they separated from Lucasfilm in 2002), but almost 40 years later, the audience is still listening.
  • In the immediate aftermath of “Jedi” and its success, Lucasfilm doubled down on the Ewoks, producing an animated series and two made-for-TV movies centering around the creatures. Either I saw the Ewok movies when I was very young, or I had a series of fever dreams that were similar.
  • In addition to the Ewoks, other characters introduced in “Jedi” that have endured in our pop culture include Emperor Palpatine (the McDiarmid version), Jabba the Hutt, and Admiral Ackbar, whose line reading of “It’s a trap!” became one of the internet’s early viral memes.
  • Along with “Star Wars” and “Empire”, “Jedi” returned to theaters in 1997 as the Special Edition, with restored picture quality and new special effects. While most of the additions are justifiably criticized (especially the changes made to the ending), I admit that some of them don’t bother me as much. I actually think Oola’s additional scene and the new Sarlaac effects are a genuine improvement.
  • Despite rumors of another trilogy or two in the future, “Jedi” stood as the “Star Wars” saga’s definitive conclusion until 2015, when the Disney-produced sequel trilogy premiered. The films reunited many of the creative talents behind the original trilogy, and were well-received with zero complaints from their non-toxic fanbase. Moving on…
  • Chronologically, the direct follow-up to “Jedi” is “The Mandalorian”, set in the lawless galaxy following the Empire’s downfall. There’s also “The Book of Boba Fett”, which revives the series’ iconic bounty hunter, does virtually nothing with him, and then just becomes another season of “The Mandalorian”.
  • “Jedi” is also responsible for easily the greatest Yule log in all of holiday history.
  • And finally, because I had to sneak it in somewhere: the next big “Star Wars” endeavor post-“Jedi” was the Disneyland attraction “Star Tours”. God, I loved that ride.

Further Viewing: If you can’t get enough “Star Wars” trivia and/or anecdotes about creative problem solving, look no further than “Light & Magic”, Lawrence Kasdan’s six-part documentary about Industrial Light & Magic. Come for the “Star Wars” footage, stay for Phil Tippet making you feel all the feels.

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