Friday, March 16, 2012

Star Wars—Episode VI: Return of the Jedi

Before the prequel films, Return of the Jedi was the punching bag of the "Star Wars" series. The arrival of the Ewoks introduced a “cute-and-cuddly” element that would come to represent the exact moment at which George Lucas had jumped the shark. Of course, now we all know this was just the beginning of Lucas’ eventual focus on brand value instead of strong filmmaking. And while this development is worthwhile to note in the context of the saga’s history, perhaps too often it overshadows the many merits of Richard Marquand’s film. True enough, Return of the Jedi doesn’t reinvent or expand its world the way The Empire Strikes Back did, nor does it have the fresh energy of Star Wars, but it has nearly the same appreciation for detail and storytelling luster that marked the first two films. Moreover, Return of the Jedi may be the weirdest entry in the series, and I love it all the more because of it.
At the outset it is apparent that Return of the Jedi is all about looking back. Just after giving a glance of a new Death Star, it drops us on the same desert planet with the same two droids as the first film did. As it turns out, the film’s outward nostalgia proves to be an asset, particularly as a contrast to the solemn treatment it gives to the dramatic center of the Luke/Vader storyline. Thus, Jedi appears to be driven by two central tasks: 1) to conclude the Luke/Vader story with a strong generational tension, therefore cementing the mythical status of the saga; and 2) to give viewers one last chance to revel in this universe of odd creatures, towering sights, and colorful characters. The result is a strange mix of sensibilities that—despite the bumps—somehow feels right.
Even though Return of the Jedi is one of the longest entries in the saga, it feels shorter than the others. Or, rather, it feels smaller. This may be due in part to its structure. Roughly the first 40 minutes of the film take place in a seedy corner of Luke’s home planet of Tatooine, where Jabba the Hutt is holding Hans Solo in a nightclub populated with characters of all shapes and sizes. Although these scenes do not concern the broader struggle of the Rebel Alliance or Luke Skywalker’s confrontation with Darth Vader, they nonetheless give Return of the Jedi its own unique flavor. These scenes almost feel like a film within a film, as they slowly reintroduce each of the characters in a slightly off-kilter manner. But the greatest triumph of the opening act is none other than the gangster, Jabba the Hutt, a blubbery mass of pulsing slime who is as smart as he is ruthless. Of all the great sound effects in the Star Wars lexicon, Jabba’s voice and laugh remains some of the most inspired audible creations to come from the Star Wars films.
After the delightfully weird passages on Tatooine, Jedi then pivots toward its final showdown between good and evil. And its too bad none of it is as imaginative or engaging as the first act. The design and portrayal of the Ewoks is indeed an issue, but I would suggest that almost everything about the forest moon is awry. When the battle eventually kicks up between the forces of nature and technology, the result is lackluster, especially when you consider that this is supposed to be the mother of all battles. Thankfully, the space battle above the moon doesn’t disappoint. It offers excitement and a frenzy of activity that helps to steer the action on course. As for the third leg of the finale—the duel between Vader and Luke—I can honestly say that it is the one aspect of the original trilogy that feels improved as a result of the prequel films. I always considered Luke’s angry lash-out and the ensuing fight to be the emotional climax of the film and the series, but it takes on additional weight with the backstory of Anakin Skywalker.
On the whole, Return of the Jedi is cut from the same cloth as Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back. In fact, given the more pronounced and widespread problems of the prequels, Jedi comes across as even more accomplished. In the context of the original three films, it will always be seen as an undeserving finale to the two great films that preceded it. This evaluation is unfair, though. It would have been just about impossible for any film to reach the heights achieved by the tandem of Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back. Yet, although Jedi doesn’t equal its predecessors, it nonetheless caps the trilogy in suitable fashion, channeling internal nostalgia through bold hues of melodrama in service of a last act that feels like a reunion of friends. Instead of further pushing the envelope, Return of the Jedi is a warm blanket of comfort and a reminder of why we fell in love with this world in the first place. (Richard Marquand, 1983/1997/2004) ***½

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