Star Wars rewatch: Return of the Jedi is a toy chest in search of a film
As we count down to The Rise of Skywalker (Dec. 20), Entertainment Weekly critic Darren Franich is looking back on every film in the Star Wars franchise. Last week: None of the special effects are working. Next week: Jabba goes to the races.
Return of the Jedi isn’t even the best movie about Ewoks, so the world of grown-up humans is split between people who love the third Star Wars movie and people who have actually watched it recently.
For kids, the appeal is visceral. Jabba’s Palace is all the stuff your parents would buy you, if they loved you as much as parents love their children in commercials. The salivating ganglord slugwad runs Tatooine’s hottest clubcave, where people speak four dialects of Spaceperanto: “Mischka Jabba Du Hutt?” and “Die wanna wanga,” and the telescopic doordroid puts a real bitchball twist on the line reading “Koochuaoo BRONTEE?” Later, C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) thrills his furry worshippers with a babytalk summary of Empire Strikes Back: “Master Luke had Chiminiy Choodoooooooo.” This is ace dialogue for anyone still learning their first language. I don’t recall very much about being 4 years old, but I remember assuming that Bib Fortuna (Michael Carter with Erik Bauersfeld’s voice) was speaking real words that I’d learn in school someday.
Bib’s quite a visual: A palefaced henchmen with head-tails swooping round his neck into a vaguely Parisian skinscarf. He’s one of many background figures who look cooler than anything happening in the foreground. You get the feeling with this movie that you’re seeing someone else play with all the best toys, and so watching Return of the Jedi could be the worst way to experience Return of the Jedi. Buy yourself the Ewok village: A whole city in a treehouse! Or get a Royal Guard, one of those crimson cape-troopers wielding dangerstaffs behind cool dispositions. Plotwise, the red Guardsmen don’t rescue their Emperor (Ian McDiarmid), fight anyone, or do anything. Some of the most beloved characters in cinema history do many unmemorable things in Return of the Jedi, though, and the cheapest Jabba action figure moves almost as much as the film’s blobster megapuppet with bong-swallowed eyes.
George Lucas shares a screenplay credit with Lawrence Kasdan, and was apparently a very up-close executive producer working over director Richard Marquand’s shoulder. The franchise had made Lucas a very rich man working on his first divorce. Much of the material suggests a big company gone cash-crazy, stuffing in marketable concepts (A-Wings and B-Wings!) with an eye on Q3 toy sales. It’s excessive — visibly ’80s— but maybe Lucas was just bored. The second Death Star is a memorable image, resembling the head of a cyclops smiling through busted chompers. Still: Another Death Star, really? All the fearsome possibilities of a galaxy, and the saga’s final act turns to Xerox. And the epic ground battle on the moon of Endor is… a frontal onslaught toward a small forest shack with a difficult door.
I know there are viewers grooving onto the, like, philosophical resonance of this first finale. Luke (Mark Hamill) pursues the redemption of his father Darth Vader (David Prowse with James Earl Jones’ voice and Sebastian Shaw’s eyebrows). The oft-discussed “good in him!” lurking behind the onetime-Anakin’s mask layers Born Again redemption into the Force’s vibey mysticism, and a generation without religion needs something to believe in. Meanwhile, anyone hunting allegories will parrot how the Ewoks symbolize the Viet Cong. If that was ever the intention, then they’re the Viet Cong as seen by American propaganda, trusty locals spurred to revolutionary action by people who look and sound like Harrison Ford.
You never think for a millisecond that Luke would turn evil, though. Credit McDiarmid for giving the gothsnake Emperor a seductive purr. “I’m afraid the deflector shield will be quite operational when your friends arrive”: That techspeak sound seductive, coming from him. But the big pitch on the Dark Side turns out to be: Don’t miss this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to stand patiently in a quiet room wearing something monkish! Luke by this point is sexless and undesiring, a politician’s notion of Young Heroism. His scenes with Vader and the Emperor are speechy postulations without feeling or danger. When Vader climactically lifts his boss into the air, Palpatine’s arms stay outstretched: He’s not even a fully posable action figure.
When people who dislike Lucas wax prose-poetic on his life’s work, it’s common to compare him to the Emperor. The trajectory is too delicious: An independent filmmaker who despised Hollywood became a blockbuster tycoon cashing out for Disney billions, the archetypal Rebel building a monolithic Empire. Way harsh, though, and I had another angle going into this rewatch. Take a closer look at the first act, practically a separate short story about saving Han (Ford) from Jabba’s clutches.
The scenes follow a repetitive structure: Character arrives, talks to Jabba, oo-oo-oo-aaa-aaa-aaaaa, repeat. The palace shrinks the more you look. When Leia (Carrie Fisher) saves Han, it turns out Jabba and his entire court were hiding behind a curtain: A community theater effect, such a step down from the infinite shadowlight of lower Bespin. You remember how, in the Mos Eisley Cantina, every creature was doing something: drinking, gabbing, flirting, fighting. Nobody cared who Luke Skywalker was. Now, everyone is always paying close attention to the parade of icons. The effect is singular and self-regarding: It looks like a party thrown by someone who hates parties because they’re always the center of attention.
And the center of this nonstop festival of pain is Jabba, who waits patiently for minions to bring incidents in front of him. And this is where I was going to explain my theory that George Lucas was becoming Jabba the Hutt, living in a big beautiful house far away from any empires or rebellions, washing his hands of studio executives he loathed and of the bold New Hollywood revolution his success helped destroy, surrounded by extremely agreeable yes-people and glorious monstrosities, the money always rolling in from multiple industries.
But that won’t hold. Jabba the Hutt is id unleashed. He enslaves dancing girls, though the violence-preferring MPAA would happily report that Jabba only dresses women up so they look good getting eaten alive. His lust is gluttony, and Return of the Jedi is weird enough to score his slothful malevolence to a musical number. In the original theatrical cut, while the Max Rebo Band play their snazzy disco-soul anthem, Jabba engages in a call-and-response chainpull with a green lady dancer. Their conversation actually seems to be part of the song, with the roar of the Rancor the percussive climax.
Jabba’s a gangster, but we must be catching him at the bury-your-head-in-your-own-cocaine-mountain phase of criminality: All play, no work. His whole organization exists to consume itself, right down to the desert frogbeast tongue-grabbing the little urchin rodent outside his palace. There is an active sub-basement designed purely for droid torture, bots exploded or branded screaming. The Rancor emerges from behind a gigantic door, and the jagged bottom of its portal will be the teeth that collapse into its skull. There’s always a bigger mouth waiting to devour you, and the substory ends at the Great Pit of Carkoon, where the Sarlacc Pit swallows anything you throw at it.
All crazy violent stuff, and I’m a bit torn, really. The Jabba stuff is much more fun than anything in the back half, but there’s a nastiness to the Act One material that goes way beyond anything in Empire. Return of the Jedi is the actual dark Star Wars, I think: The one where a gigantic phallic burpsloth engages violent delights, while the oddly blank hero patiently waits for the right moment to blow everything up. We’re close to Robert E. Howard territory here, and then Clive Barker would approve of the scene where Leia strangles Jabba, the camera cutting a few times to his waggishly asphyxiated tail.
Unclear to me whether to read that scene as self-righteous revenge or a dark twisted male fantasy. Fisher’s voice was already raspier by 1983, and to a modern audience, she sounds more like her sweetly cynical memoirist self. But Return cuts off any chance for her sense of humor to flare up, unless you’re really scanning for eyerolls during the Ewok scenes. (“Well, looks like I’m stuck here,” she says to the little fuzzball, and she sounds very stuck indeed.) Ford has to work harder, playing quippy blindness, comedically blowing out a torch when the Ewok tribe threaten to roast him on a spit.
The Ewoks! They’re a snooze in Return of the Jedi, but I’ll go to bat for Caravan of Courage and Battle for Endor, the awkward yet enthralling fairy tale spin-offs. And worth pointing out that Return of the Jedi would be the first Star Wars totally stripmined for spare parts by later projects. You didn’t walk away from Empire wanting to find out more about Wampa culture, or seeking greater insight into Bespin’s troubled relationship with the Mining Guild. But the Ewoks and Jabba lived on, and seemingly every individual piece of Return would power the multimedia franchise in the years between trilogies.
In the mid-’90s, writer Jim Woodwring and penciler Art Wetherell delivered a truly globulous short series of Jabba the Huttcomics, four acid tales of space noir full of blown heads and traitorous cannibalism. And there aren’t really any characters in Return‘s final assault on the Death Star: Billy Dee Williams‘ Lando is just there to say exactly what the special effects are showing us, and Admiral Ackbar (Tim Rose, voiced by Erik Bauersfeld) has that one big funny line. But the whole notion of banishing the main cast from the final space battle conjures a broader vision of the Rebellion, notably less white-British-dudely than the army we saw in the previous entries. That leads right into the 1995 videogame shooter Dark Forces, where you play a Rebel operative who throws thermal detonators (introduced in Return) at Jabba’s rotund green tusk soldiers (ditto). And racing speeder bikes through the Endor forest is kinda cool. But you know what’s really cool? Racing speeder bikes through Tatooine performing gas-pedal superjumps over the Sarlacc pit, as in 1996’s charmingly blockworlded Nintendo 64 adventure Shadows of the Empire.
Return of the Jedi is still trying to be a movie, of course, and little of the plot holds up to narrative scrutiny. Good luck sorting out what Luke’s master plan was in the Jabba Heist, unless the strategy really was “Everyone get captured and hang out until R2-D2 launches my lightsaber in the air.” Which is a positively Napoleonic ploy compared to the Emperor’s big gambit! So, okay: Palpatine reveals that it was he, he, who let the Rebels get ahold of the Death Star plans, on the principle that it would entice them to waltz into a trap. Yet he apparently didn’t count on, like, there being slightly more Rebels than he expected — and he gave them the actual location of the Shield Generator, and the actual blueprints to the Death Star!
I know, I know, we’ve all learned just recently that some tyrants are idiotic, but this is the worst kind of bad writing, covering a lack of ideas behind unnecessary twists and outright obfuscations (what happened to that fleet of Star Destroyers?) The film can’t even obey its own simplified space-battlefield strategy: The Imperials are jamming the Rebels’ sensors, until suddenly they just aren’t.
There’s a tendency for internet generations to treat all beloved childhood movies as sacred objects. This habit is obviously unhealthy, because we are all constantly evolving beings in a society moving haltingly forward toward the better world our kids deserve. This movie, which could have been the last Star Wars, anticipates its own awkward fate as a generational touchstone. The Ewoks promote C-3PO to godhood, even though we know he’s a fussy goof, endearingly regular but lacking in supernatural magic or divine wisdom.
He would probably prefer to be very far away, someplace safe. Still, he can’t deny: He does love the attention. Threepio spent Empire getting switched off by the good guys and disassembled by the bad guys. Now, he’s got a captive audience, regaling the Ewoks with war stories, even recreating the particular slazz quiver of a striking lightsaber. And here, I think, you find George Lucas, the quiet man who became some sort of god. His followers would be passionate, just like the Ewoks, and they would burn nonbelievers alive.
[Next: The Phantom Menace]