As we approach the end of the Skywalker saga with Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker, we here at Full Circle agreed it was time to take a look back. Every day until The Rise of Skywalker‘s release, we’ll be discussing every single theatrical project in the Star Wars franchise, in canonical order. For this latest entry in our retrospective, we will look at the movie that brought the Original Trilogy to an end: 1983’s Return of the Jedi.
Since 1983, it has been easy to look at Return of the Jedi and only focus on the Ewoks. For one thing, it is the first entry in the series to introduce this fierce bear-like tribe. Not to mention, the Ewoks play quite a large role in the climax. However, this mentality oversimplifies what is supposed to be a grand conclusion to the Original Trilogy. This is not to say that the film matches the wonderful simplicity of Star Wars or the nuanced character work in The Empire Strikes Back. In fact, one can argue that it has too many elements to juggle. But having too much on its plate still means that it deserves a more accurate summation than “the one with the Ewoks”.
Besides, it does not take long for the movie to reveal itself as a terrific expansion on what came before. Star Wars may have introduced audiences to Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and Darth Vader (James Earl Jones). The Empire Strikes Back may have dropped the idea that these two have a familial connection. But it was not until Return of the Jedi that the series dived deep into their relationship. In a refreshing move, the film spends time with them interacting as well-rounded individuals instead of one-note caricatures. As a result, the story depicts Luke at his most aggressive and Vader at his most vulnerable. Given their early characterizations, it is a delight that writers Lawrence Kasdan and George Lucas take them to this stage.
Right from the start, Kasdan and Lucas effectively convey nuanced personalities for the hero and the villain. One notable early scene shows Vader mildly reacting to an Imperial officer belatedly requesting for more support. Under clumsier hands, Vader would react with aggression and handle the situation in a physical way. Thanks to the screenwriters, however, he instead reacts by admitting his own mercy. Also, he warns him of the severe punishments to come. Meanwhile, Luke’s introduction depicts him as someone so fearless and confident that he barely registers as approachable. Due to his adept use of Force powers, he has a commanding presence that distinguishes him from his peers.
Things only get more interesting once Luke and Vader meet face-to-face. Simply put, this is where Return of the Jedi flips personalities between the two opposing figures. With Vader in Luke’s presence, Luke has the chance to prove his worth as a trained Jedi. At the same time, it is clear that anger is the primary way Luke expresses that proof, which turns out to be against the way of the Jedi. One can see a similar contrast with Vader, as his time with Luke turns him into a generous individual. Even during their lightsaber fight, he clearly expresses to Luke that he would rather give up the fight and work as one. By the time Vader commits to his kindness in the end, it is hard not to feel the catharsis of a moment this redemptive.
Ultimately, the film is at its absolute best whenever it spends time on either of these essential Star Wars characters. However, the Luke/Vader scenes only take up half of the 131-minute runtime, leaving us with half of a film that is less superb. True, the remaining portions have their fair share of pleasures, not the least of which is the elaborate space battles. A six-year gap between this and the original Star Wars may not seem like much. Despite that, it benefits the staging in huge ways. Gone are the occasional instances of static compositions. In its place are dense shots that nicely depict the chaotic nature of the action. It also helps that the effects have improved considerably between films, with zero moments that expose any seams in the compositing.
But as a piece of storytelling, Return of the Jedi struggles with giving the remaining characters emotionally engaging arcs. Of the series regulars, Han Solo (Harrison Ford) fares the worst. This time around, he comes off as an extraneous vehicle for comic relief. Unlike previous entries, this film has to make do with giving him brittle jokes and not much else. As someone who loved Han for his disillusioned but lively vibe, it is disappointing that this entry does not advance the character very much. Elsewhere, we have Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) and Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams). Both of these characters get far less to do as the film progresses. To give it some credit, their early scenes convey the potential to further develop their arcs. This is most apparent with Leia’s retaliation against Jabba the Hutt. Unfortunately, but their withering presence restricts that from happening.
The film also runs into an issue that no other Star Wars movie has encountered: an opening act that ought to be a ten-minute prologue. Kasdan and Lucas devote this section to Luke and the gang rescuing Han from Jabba’s Palace. To the film’s detriment, this turns out to have little significance in the central narrative. This is not to say that it has zero purpose. After all, this is where it establishes Luke as a Jedi master. Additionally, it is a showcase of delightful creature designs with Jabba’s slug-like form being the obvious highlight. But considering how long it takes before it focuses on the relationship between Luke and Vader, it cannot help but feel like a distraction from what really matters.
Nevertheless, this means that Return of the Jedi only improves on its storytelling as it reaches its end. In addition to the Luke/Vader scenes, there is another moment that reveals this: the storytime sequence between C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and the Ewoks. At this moment, C-3PO describes the events of Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back in broad strokes. At the same time, it speaks to them in a foreign dialect and recreates iconic sound effects like gunfire and lightsaber swings. The only intelligible words to come out of its mouth are character names. In spite of that, this sequence serves as a charming recap to the events leading up to this film. By replacing descriptions with sound effects, it gets to the heart of why simplicity is the key to the franchise’s success.
To invoke the name of a Holiday Special character, Return of the Jedi makes for a lumpy experience. If one stops watching it after the first act, one could regard it as a fun but insubstantial continuation of what came before. However, it finds its footing not long after that, and it manages to complete the arcs of Luke and Vader in the most satisfying way possible. Make no mistake, there exists a more concise Return of the Jedi within the untrimmed fat. Still, only a few final installments have had a sense of closure as palpable as this. Because of that, I see no reason not to hold this in high estimation, flaws and all. – Mark Tan
Return of the Jedi is available on Blu-ray, Digital HD, and Disney+.
The film stars Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Billy Dee Williams, Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew, and Ian McDiarmid.