Saturday, December 12, 2015

"Star Wars Saga" Retrospective - #6: Return of the Jedi.

Following the premiere of The Empire Strikes Back in 1980, George Lucas was on top of the world. On top of launching his dream project the Star Wars trilogy, he'd even found time to launch the Indiana Jones series starting with Steven Spielberg's Raiders of the Lost Ark, which was a worthy and riotous follow up to the Wars films, and remains the most thoroughly entertaining popcorn film of all time. Yet even with such a great new iconic franchise being brought to life, the entire world impatiently waited for the grand finale to the series that made Lucas such a household name in the first place.

Despite Empire’s initially mixed critical reception, it rightfully received stronger notices on re-evaluation years later, and served as a proper set up to grander things to come. Such things would finally come to pass three years later in Return of the Jedi (originally titled Revenge of the Jedi), where the trio of Luke, Han, and Leia would band together one more time in one last assault against the Imperial forces. It was nothing short of the grandest finale for Star Wars… until The Phantom Menace rolled along… and now the saga is about to continue once more, but I digress.

So with all that excitement, did the film live up to its expectations? For the most part, yes it did. Once again, it continually developed the characters and previously established lore and worlds, and gave us an epic last action hurrah, though not without some stumbles along the way.

Set a year after the events of The Empire Strikes Back, Jedi knight Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) leads a daring mission joined by Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) and Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) to rescue the captured smuggler Han Solo (Harrison Ford) from the clutches of the vile gangster Jabba the Hutt. After saving him, the rebels then attempt an attack against a newly constructed Death Star over the forest planet of Endor. At the same time, Luke discovers that his father, Darth Vader (James Earl Jones), is aboard the massive space station, joined by his ruthless master The Emperor (Ian McDiarmid) who plans to use Vader to seduce Luke to the dark side of the Force, while the rebels attempt to destroy the space station and free the galaxy.

Although it was a great success, when Return of the Jedi released in theaters, many fans then and now often considered it to be the black sheep of the original trilogy. Though it lacked nothing in the same scale and characters that fans grew to love, its own occasional story deficiencies were something of a disappointment for viewers. Perhaps it was a testament to just how strong and how beloved Star Wars had become that this finale would be held under especially tight scrutiny, but that’s not to say that the film is by any means bad. It still remains a great film and a spectacular culmination of the Star Wars universe… at least, until it kept continuing on.

After the bleaker tones of The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi refreshingly returned to the lighter mood of the original Star Wars, which was especially apparent in the film’s 35 minute opening stretch on Tatooine, where the film unashamedly embraces a sort of Flash-Gordon style of excitement and adventure, and featured more of the priceless banter and meaningful relationships between the several main characters. This whole series of sequences was a brilliant way of tying up several loose ends before the epic assault on the Imperials, and quite honestly could have made for just as good a solo short film. Though the following 100 minutes do have their hiccups, the opening rescue appropriately made for a superb warm up for bigger things.

Once again, the characters are the strongest element, with one of the more surprising cases being Luke. Comparing him to the once whiny and impatient young boy wishing for more on Tatooine, all of his experiences, triumphs, trauma, and sacrifices since then have evolved him in so many meaningful ways. Now, he exudes such a calm and powerful presence, having become a strong-willed leader, and a noble warrior. When seeing him, you can’t help but think “Now this is a Jedi.” But even then, he’s still not entirely without those older issues of his. Having been horrified to discover the truth of his heritage in the last film, he’s come to accept it and deny it in so many ways, gaining a desire to bring back the good and humanity he sees in his father, but feeling afraid of the temptation of the Dark Side, and of the scenario of being forced to strike him down.

In many ways, it becomes the Luke Skywalker show, tying up all of the character’s loose ends, meaning that Han and Leia end up taking more of a supporting role, but fittingly so. Their relationship continues to see its ups and downs, and has many tender moments, and with so much invested in the characters since the beginning, once the action is in full gear, we truly fear for their lives as the movie progresses. Darth Vader continues to be (as far as I’m concerned) the greatest villain in cinematic history, and very refreshingly, this new entry gives the character much more humanity and empathy than ever; with some of the best body language the character has had in the series. He never lets us forget the evil underneath the surface, and yet we still root for him to redeem himself and see the light again. Lando makes a return as well leading the attack on the new Death Star, Yoda and Obi-Wan return in very brief but crucial reappearances, and the sidekicks Chewbacca, C3PO, and R2D2 also make a return. That said, bounty hunter Boba Fett’s conclusion feels very anticlimactic, with the filmmakers almost underestimating the popularity of the character.

In addition, we also finally get the reveal of Jabba after two films worth of build up. I don’t care what the Special Editions try and tell you, we did not see Jabba until this movie. This was time well spent, and once we finally see him, we find ourselves both repulsed by his merciless criminal acts, but also by his putrid physical appearance, and I mean that in the best way. The effects work and puppetry of the Jabba character is some of the most seamless, weighty, and lifelike in the saga. When looking at this thing, you buy into the illusion that this disgusting monster is real.

Meanwhile, the film also introduced us to The Emperor, briefly seen through a hologram in the previous film, and seen here in the flesh played by Ian McDiarmid. The confrontation with this character had been built up as early as the original film, and with the creep factor already set up before his grand appearance, the waiting paid off. Taking more influence from religious philosophy, the character’s terrifying presence and powerful manipulation felt like a Satanic demon in his own right, intoxicating the very Force surrounding him, and even had John Williams fit him with a demonic all male choir accompaniment. The way that he entices and provokes Luke for reaction just gives me goosebumps every time, making me even more fearful for Luke’s life by the second. By no means is it a subtle performance, but McDiarmid is just so incredible that it doesn’t matter.

Outside of the characters, however, the story was notably shaky when compared to its predecessors. For many, the problem started once things finally moved to the planet Endor. After the thrilling - if sometimes exposition heavy – rescue on Tatooine, a suspenseful sequence where the rebels have to go through security clearance to land on the planet, and a superb speeder bike chase, many fans were divided as to how to feel about the indigenous Ewoks, the most notable face belonging to Warwick Davis’ Wicket. While certainly cute in appearance, their antics sometimes distracted from the intensity of the action, and even the most die-hard Star Wars fans admitted to the fact that they were added into the film to appeal to the children in the audience. I’ve personally never found them unbearable, but the fact that such a primitive species would be able to take on Imperial forces does seem a bit far-fetched, and even set in motion the eventual creation of the series’ most despised character, Jar Jar Binks.

Even when the Ewoks weren’t proving distracting, there were still some non-negligible issues. One notable element about the franchise is how, up until Attack of the Clones, each entry of Star Wars had multiplied the amount of locations that their finales would take place in. The original film had flawlessly built up entirely to the attack on the Death Star over Yavin, and there was a lot of great focus and tension because of it. With The Empire Strikes Back, there were two simultaneous finales between Leia and Lando’s escape from the Empire and Luke’s duel with Vader, which was easily manageable with them both taking place in such close proximity and keeping their momentum up. With Return of the Jedi, we end up cross-cutting between three final battles, with Luke facing off against the Emperor and Vader on the Death Star, Han and Leia attempting to disable the shield protecting the station, and Lando and the rebels destroying the station once the shield is down. That’s not to say it was a terrible climax, in fact it’s quite exciting, but sometimes you often find yourself waiting impatiently for your favorite of the three to finally roll their way back around, and this problem would be even further escalated in The Phantom Menace when the film cut between four different battles with wildly different tones.

That said, they’re all still very entertaining finales. I admit that the attack on the shield bunker is my least favorite of the three, mainly due to the sometimes too cutesy Ewok scenes, but it’s still a lot of fun seeing Han and Leia in the thick of the action. The space combat scenes are such a rush, featuring some of the most seamless and swift blue screen and miniature effects of the saga, and even gave us good old Admiral Ackbar’s famous “It’s a Trap” line that launched a thousand memes.

By far my favorite of the three is Luke meeting the Emperor, and facing off with Darth Vader one last time. With the amount of history between these two, the ruthlessness of Vader as he tries to lure his son over to the dark side, and Luke’s temptation at the hands of the Emperor’s snakelike words and threats, there's a lot of tension continually escalating at every turn. It’s second to their showdown in the previous film as the best lightsaber duel in the series, once again reinforcing the point that lightsaber duels have less to do with the flashiness, and more to do with the boiling emotion under the surface, which gets brought to heated extremes after one of Vader’s threats, leading Luke to angrily pin him to the ground in submission and weakness, and being enlightened and horrified by what he’s done, before deciding that he won’t be seduced like his father was, now becoming a true Jedi.

Also, for this next part of the review, I will be talking about major spoilers, so read at your own risk.

This then leads into what is not only my favorite scene in the Star Wars saga, but one of my favorite scenes in all of cinema. When Luke refuses to turn to the Dark Side, The Emperor then proceeds to torture Luke with his ability to create lightning, tormenting him with his venomous words and killing him, all the while Vader stands by. As the atmosphere takes on some deeply grim lighting, Luke thrashes in agonizing pain, and the demonic all male choir keeps getting louder and louder, what really makes it so powerful is Vader’s complete silence. It’s here where David Prowse’s body language was at its most powerful, showing all of the intense conflict within Vader, and if only for a few seconds, actually made that expressionless mask show emotion. Finally having had enough, he grabs the Emperor with a triumphant rendition of the Skywalker theme accompanying him, and throws him off the balcony and into the station’s reactor core. This scene stuck with me more as a kid because it was the complete package of atmospheric, intense, restrained, and just triumphant when we finally saw this despicable figure of evil meet his end. It continues to give me goosebumps no matter how many times I watch it.

And then when the film released on Blu-Ray in 2011, George Lucas felt the need to tack on the “Noooo!” from Revenge of the Sith to hammer home Vader’s conflict in BIG, BOLD, RED LETTERS. Gone was the subtlety of the original scene, which was so powerful *because* of Vader’s silence. Why does this man feel the need to add unnecessary bells and whistles to what’s already perfect?! Just be glad that the Disney buyout means he can no longer do such a thing ever again.

As for the general craft of the film, that was all just as fantastic across the board. Admittedly, I think this film has the least impressive effects of the trilogy, but even then it’s still impressive. Sometimes the green screen in the background can be all too obvious, and a couple creature designs aren’t anything to write home about (which would be made even worse by the dated, tacky CGI that would be applied during the Special Editions, which I did not take into consideration when writing these reviews), but for every effect that doesn’t hold up, there are least eight or ten that are among the best of the series, such as the seamless stop-motion and puppetry of Jabba’s monster pet the Rancor, the space combat sequences, and even the Ewoks feel like living, breathing creatures. The art-direction continued to be astonishing, the sound design by Ben Burtt was just as varied and accomplished as ever, and John Williams (unsurprisingly) managed to tie up every last musical loose end with a lot of skill and memorability, from the Ewok march to the Emperor’s haunting demonic tones.

And with that, I finally conclude my analysis of Return of the Jedi. It certainly isn’t as good as the Star Wars films before that set the precedent for the series, but it was still a suitably epic and satisfying wrap up to the Star Wars mythology – again, before it would eventually continue. The action and the characters were of the same high quality as to be expected, featuring some of the most engaging developments in the entire saga, and some deeply powerful emotions throughout. I don’t care if the film has problems, because the things that work well work incredibly well and no amount of missteps along the way would be able to damage it. It brought Star Wars no less than the finest finale that it deserved, and it continues to stick with viewers even to this day.

Even then, the eventual additions to the mythology were only beginning…

****1/2 / *****

With that, I am finally up to date with my reviews of all six previous Star Wars, but I’m still not done with my retrospective yet. Next week will see the long-awaited release of JJ Abrams’ hotly anticipated Episode VII – The Force Awakens, and you can bet I’m hyped up to finally see it on opening night. I’ll be reviewing that film next Saturday to bring my rundown of the series so far to a close, and then make one more post finalizing my thoughts on the overall saga and my hopes for the future, as well as make a couple side stops along the way. See you then…

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