Return of the Jedi 30th Anniversary: A Retrospective on the Most Hotly Debated Star Wars Film

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The 30 year anniversary of Return of the Jedi is upon us, meaning that Star Wars fans everywhere are likely breaking out the DVD/Blu-ray/VHS to watch the trilogy closer. But is the celebration a trap?

With Star Wars Episode VII just two years away, the fandom behind the Force is crawling back out of the Sarlacc pit the prequels threw them into. One even stranger effect the prequels had on the saga was questioning the critical value of Episode VI. Some claim the closing battles match the quality of the originals, while other say that the Ewoks were an obvious precursor to Jar Jar Binks.

Well this significant year for Return of the Jedi is a perfect time to re-evaluate where it stands as both a piece of entertainment and a major portion of the Star Wars saga. So let’s start from the beginning.

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…but roughly one year after Han Solo was frozen in carbonite, two droids embark on a mission to rescue him from the ruthless gangster Jabba the Hutt.

The scenes at Jabba’s Palace, and eventually his sail barge, are the stuff of classic Star Wars. The surroundings, and multitude of creepy aliens, actually make it feel like a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. Few other scenes in the trilogy feel so foreign and ancient at the same time. George Lucas has always been praised for taking something so different and making it human, but as far is different goes, Jabba the Hutt and his band of galactic waste are nothing of this Earth (seriously, take another look at the Rancor).

It actually makes for a perfect way to build on the darkness that ended Empire Strikes Back. While everyone was in kind of a rough spot on Cloud City, in Jabba’s Palace we have blind Han Solo captive with Chewbacca and a darker, more emotionally ready Luke Skywalker. Meanwhile, Leia has become the slug’s slave, C-3PO can’t afford any mistakes as Jabba’s interpretor, and R2-D2 is serving drinks.

"After this, Han better not say 'I know' again."

“After this, Han better not say ‘I know’ again.”

The climax of the episode sees Luke cutting down a number of the gangster’s goons, while Han kills Boba Fett by accident. Fans gripe over his anticlimactic death, but Fett barely has three scenes in Empire. He’s really one of the most overrated villains of all time.

Now we move to the overarching story of the entire trilogy, the fight against Darth Vader, the Empire, and now the Emperor. Ian McDiarmid created one of the best movie villains of all time almost instantly when he appeared on screen. Here is this figure suddenly capable of making Darth Vader kneel. It’s powerful stuff and sets up Vader’s eventual redemption perfectly.

More solid setup comes from Luke’s final visit to Yoda. After the prequels, Yoda’s quiet, natural death carries some extra weight. Here is this hero who’s days on the battlefield are far behind him. He has trained the one destined to bring Vader back to the light, and now he can die in peace.

The reveal of Leia as Luke’s sister has never really sat well with me. It feels like Lucas was trying to one-up the Vader-father reveal in Empire. It also keeps Leia’s eyes firmly on Han. But the prequels build on this mythology a bit, especially Revenge of the Sith, making it an essential part of the Star Wars canon.

Now we come to Endor, and the indisputably awesome speeder bike chase. But then Return of the Jedi is stopped dead by the Rebellion’s furry new companions. The Ewoks underide all of the film’s tension, failing to be comic relief and instead turning into kids stuff.

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“Sorry we weren’t wookies.”

But as a kid, I remember how the Ewoks were oddly inspiring. Much like the Rebels themselves, the Ewoks can be considered the “little guy” capable of making a difference. That theme goes all the way back to farm boy Luke on Tatooine in A New Hope. As a kid I felt like the Ewoks showed you don’t have to be a Jedi, or a princess, or a general to make a difference. Of course now as an adult, the execution is weak, as we spend far too much time with them in the woods.

The end of Return of the Jedi brings together three massive confrontations, which Lucas interweaves beautifully to make one of the most exciting climaxes in cinema history. The characters are brought full circle as we close out this chapter of the saga.

Han and Leia find each other, now free of the war. Lando has redeemed himself from the events at the end of Empire. Then we have Luke and Vader, the most fascinating character transformations of the trilogy and possibly the saga.

Luke goes through a very traditional hero’s journey, as described by scholar Joseph Campbell. By the time we meet up again with him at the beginning of Episode VI, Luke has had his call to adventure (the message to Obi Wan in R2-D2), supernatural aid (the Force), crossed the threshold (left Tatooine to rescue Leia), faced a road of challenges (Death Star, Hoth, Dagobah), and faced the revelation (“I am your father.”).

From there he faces transformation as he prepares to become a fully fledged Jedi Knight. But to complete his goal, he must confront his father. This darker version of Luke feels warranted after the end of Empire. This is especially evident by the fact that he is on his former home in the beginning of the film, as a totally different person.

In his final confrontation with Vader, he almost turns to the Dark Side. It’s the final test. Does Luke let his feelings get to him and murder the man who has caused him so much pain? Or does he search inside that man and find the good needed to conquer the true evil?

“I am a Jedi, like my father before me,” he says to the Emperor, refusing to kill his father. Luke’s journey is complete. He confronted his father and didn’t give in to the temptations of the Dark Side. His reward? He gets his father back.

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“Want to play catch in the yard instead?”

We then realize that this story was not Luke’s necessarily, but Darth Vader’s. The prequels obviously expand upon this with controversial results (well, controversial by fanboy standards). But with Revenge of the Sith behind us, the final moments of Vader’s life release this incredible burdon on both the character and the audience. One of the most celebrated villains of all time is suddenly a hero.

Star Wars teaches us that good will always prevail against evil, even if it takes almost a lifetime. And that lesson is crucial to Return of the Jedi. Yes, A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back are individually stronger films, but the fact that the Star Wars trilogy as a whole is considered one of the greatest modern epics would be impossible without Return of the Jedi.

The trilogy comes full circle as we see locations across the galaxy celebrating the Rebel’s victory. Back on Endor, the Ewok’s celebrate with our band of misfits. Looking on are the ghosts of the heroes that passed to make this victory possible, Obi Wan, Yoda, and yes Anakin Skywalker. The Force is balanced and the story wraps in a fun, yet alien manner.

So in closing, Return of the Jedi holds up after 30 years. The 20 minutes of Ewoks in the middle do kind of suck, but the rest of the film is incredibly strong. The emotional payoff is exactly what you want it to be. With this film, Lucas created the modern epic by tying three films together and concluding the arcs started in the original. I’ll forgive a tiny misstep with some teddy bears.

Put your cynicism aside. Before the prequels you loved Return of the Jedi, and you should again. Individually it may not be a masterpiece but it creates the masterpiece that is the Star Wars trilogy.

By Matt Dougherty

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