From the Vault #19: STAR WARS: EPISODE VI: RETURN OF THE JEDI (1983)

From 2012 onwards, before developing this blog, I wrote a multitude of reviews on the website Letterboxd. In this irregular series called From the Vault, I’m going to haul these earlier reviews out of mothballs and re-purpose them here.

This one is from May 4th, 2015, as we close in on Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker

Can you imagine Return of the Jedi being named ‘Revenge of the Jedi’? Directed by either David Lynch or David Cronenberg? No. Well there’s probably an alternate universe where all of those things happened, as Episode VI very nearly took several different paths to the Star Wars cinematic conclusion we know so well, a conclusion in 1983 anyway.

George Lucas obviously recognised the strengths in The Empire Strikes Back and pulled away yet again from the directors chair and primary script duties, Lawrence Kasdan again taking up that mantle, but truthfully, objectively, Jedi is the weakest of the original – which admittedly is akin to pointing out the ‘worst’ of the Three Stooges, they are all fine in their constituent parts. Richard Marquand, taking the helm, crafts a piece which has much clearer DNA to the first movie, lightening the tone and the visual pallet after the relative gloom and edge of Empire, allowing for a rousing flourish of a finish in which, it’s no spoiler to reveal, good naturally triumphs over evil.

In such an epic saga of derring do, you’d expect nothing less.

Jedi goes back to its roots right from the beginning though: a sand planet, the quirky droids on a mission squabbling, weird creatures a world away from the slick darkness of the Empire, and Lucas is unafraid to indulge this for the first act as we meet the discussed Jabba the Hutt and crucially resolve Han Solo’s tricky fate; a necessary plot movement but arguably one that shilly shallies a shade too much in casting a suspicion of darkness over Luke Skywalker’s motivations now.

Mark Hamill plays him with a deeper shade of mystery, of ambiguity; not pushed too hard given the lightness of tone but he’s happy to cut through Jabba’s goons, all dressed comparatively in black against his previous white, the implication being temptation: his hand-severing encounter with Darth Vader, and the subsequent revelation of his parentage, could serve as the trigger to deliver almost a self-fulfilling prophecy – will Luke follow his father’s Dark Path, with Ian McDiarmid’s venomous Emperor egging him on?

While this may form the spine of Jedi, Lucas & Marquand are at pains to ensure we’re not existing in the same tonal space as Empire throughout; Jabba’s palace is gaudy in its grime, filled with singing aliens and lurching beasts, while the counterpoint to Luke & Vader’s ultimate battle lies on the forest moon of Endor, home to the now legendary Ewoks – furry little creatures, played indeed by children, who would help the Rebel Alliance take down the shield generator for the second formative Death Star almost built.

The Ewoks aren’t nearly as annoying as some might suggest, indeed they’re quite cute, but again despite some enjoyable forest battle sequences (and the memorable speeder bike chase through Endor, which still impresses), nothing here matches the spectacle of Hoth, and sadly having Han & Leia fully in love strips away the sexual tension between them which really buoyed their characterisation in Empire. And loveable as Lando is, Han doesn’t spend nearly enough time in the Millennium Falcon here!

Ultimately, the mythic strands of redemption drive Return of the Jedi to its natural conclusion, one in which Vader’s true self that Lucas would later explore comes to the fore, and Luke & his family save the day. It’s simplistic but filled with a sense of adventure, fun and joy that many other films simply can’t reach, and indeed as a conclusion it’s perfectly satisfying. What Jedi lacks though, for the most part, are the truly iconic moments and memorable character beats which made the previous two films genuine cinematic greats.

It’s well constructed, tonally in spirit, and hugely enjoyable, but the Force simply isn’t as strong in this one.

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