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Fearless and Inventive: ‘Return of the Jedi’ turns 40

| May 3, 2023

There is a moment early in Return of the Jedi that illustrates exactly what makes these Star Wars movies so special.  Our comedy duo R2D2 and C-3PO enter the lair of the gangster Jabba the Hutt through a massive hanger door that squeaks and groans and slowly struggles to open.  As they enter the dark caverns, a large mechanical spider walks behind them.  You can see the dust and grime on the interior floor where the wind has blown the sand in from outside.  You can hear C-3PO’s voice echoing off the interior walls.  The interior is cruddy and rusty and dirty and looks as if it had been built for another purpose.

That kind of detail is not, by functional logic, necessary (why would anyone want to build a mechanical spider?).  The point is to get R2 into the door and for 3PO to follow behind while voicing his whiney protest.  But to add that level of detail, to dream up those minute elements and to put them into the scene gives this fantasy world a sense of history, a sense that this is a lived-in universe.  That kind of detail is all through Return of the Jedi, in the foreground, the background on the edges of the screen and it has been part of the tapestry of this series all along.  It gives you the sense that a thousand stories are happening behind the main characters.  It gives you the feeling that George Lucas and his team wanted to create something special, not just a place for the story to function but a believable world for that story to inhabit.  Return of the Jedi is special for that reason, and just as special because the story here is just as strong as the two films that preceded it.

Return of the Jedi makes a 40th anniversary run this week in selected theaters, and that’s special because the impact of the Star Wars movies is something that a home screen just cannot capture – an audience experience on the biggest screen possible.

The decades have been kind to this movie.  It feels as fresh now as it did then.  Released in May of 1983 in a massive flurry of press and anticipation, birthed largely by the phenomenal success of the two films that proceeded it, it’s path of success is almost foreign today.  The closing of The Empire Strikes Back anticipated it but didn’t punch you in the face – you just felt it.  It opened on Memorial Day and ended its run around the time that we kids were picking out our Halloween costumes.  And, yeah, there was talk of another film but there didn’t seem to be a big hurry to rush one out.  It had an ending, that felt like an ending.  For those of us tipping just on the edge of pre-teen, it was closing the book on a massive piece of our childhood.

Critics weren’t universally enthusiastic about the film.  Some were mixed, I think largely because its success was predetermined.  That isn’t the fault of George Lucas or his co-writer Lawrence Kasden.  Bearing the legacy left by Empire, this was a film with a lot to get done.  It must carry the weight of two previous films that have been so lionized by popular culture that anything less than perfection (or at least satisfaction) might unpin the entire trilogy.  In that way, it is reasonable to think that it might not feel as new as what came before.  It doesn’t have the striking originality of Star Wars or the mythology of The Empire Strikes Back, but that’s not a criticism.  This is the most emotionally satisfying of the trilogy, a tricky balancing act of visual effects, action and dramatic weight.

The balancing act is what makes the movie special.  George Lucas and his team have to bring the story around, deal with Luke’s family issues and the Rebellion’s final battle with the evil Empire.  It is nice that in the middle of all of this action, all of these weird creatures, all of this production, the dramatic stuff doesn’t feel like an obligation.  In the midst of all this production there is time for the smallest moments.  My favorite being the moment after Luke leaves Yoda’s hut.  The old master has died and as Luke looks back across the lake, the light in Yoda’s window goes out.  The old generation has passed and the light of the Jedi is now sorely in danger of being put out forever.

That’s heavy stuff for a special effects movie.  The drama mostly deals with whether or not Darth Vader and his Emperor can seduce Luke over to the dark side of the force.  In the last movie, we saw that he was certainly vulnerable.  The series gave Luke a sense of maturation – in the first movie he was just a boy; in the second he was like a sullen and often ill-tempered teenager; here he is more thoughtful, more of a young man seeing things with clarity but still susceptible to temptation.

That’s the center of the film.  The real achievement here is the character invention, and this movie is bursting with it.  We finally meet the vile gangster Jabba the Hutt who seems to have been modeled as a massive slug reincarnated as Sydney Greenstreet’s character from The Maltese Falcon.  His crowded palace of hangers-on and sycophants and opportunists is a visual delight and so is the Rancor, which occupies the under-welling of his lair.  Also, a strange Venus Flytrap creature that lives beneath the sand out in the desert dunes.  Later in the film we also meet a cuddly tribe of Ewoks, little teddy bears whose occupation on the forest planet seems to be benign, until the Empire shows up and they prove themselves to be a band of mighty warriors.

Although this movie is packed with frontal and ancillary characters, this is not a movie that stands around introducing everyone.  This is a movie so lived-in that we get names and functions of smaller characters but not necessarily details.  That’s okay because the full population makes that impossible.  We know who they are and why they are there and that’s pretty much all we need.  Plus, if you’re looking for introductions to Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Princess Leia, Chewbacca, Darth Vader, Lando Calrissian or R2D2 and C2PO, you’re not going to find them.  This is a movie made with the assumption that you have full knowledge of the series up to this point.

If the characters seem familiar and lived-in, what can you say about the visual effects.  Having been through a flurry of re-edits and remastering and unnecessary tinkering, is it possible to enjoy the movie the way we did in 1983.  Largely that depends on you.  The edits that Lucas’ team put in place for the trilogy’s 20th anniversary Special Edition in 1997 are still intact – the print running in theaters is the same print running on Disney+ – and so too are the re-edits that he had done since.  For me, they run hot and cold.  I love them in smaller doses: the Venus flytrap in the desert is cool, so is the Bantha herd, and I love the much bigger ending (replacing the zub-zub private party), but I could probably do without the musical number in Jabba’s palace and the inclusion of Hayden Christensen which seems to open a can of illogical questions that it would take another essay to try and unravel.

But even at that, I can’t deny how much this movie means to me.  It was the perfect movie for the moment, and its central dramatic weight remains intact.  If it feels a little silly and dated, then well, so do all fairy tales.  Time hasn’t crushed its spirit, nor my love for it.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2023) View IMDB Filed in: Sci-Fi/Fantasty