Return to the magic. Return to the adventure. Return to the number one film from the summer of 1983!
As the third film in the Star Wars trilogy (well, the original trilogy), Return of the Jedi wraps up the major mysteries created by its predecessor, The Empire Strikes Back. It also continued to innovate the world of sci-fi film and special effect technology, driving the 80s towards many more iconic films thanks to the technology created for this film.
As with Empire, it’s nearly impossible to watch the trailer for this film in a modern context without understanding what is happening. It features the narrator urging viewers to “return” to the film for numerous reasons. There are new planets, aliens, spaceships, technology on display; enough to please those patient enough to wait 3 years since the previous film. Let’s return to the magic and wonder that is Star Wars.
Presented below is the trailer for the film.
The Fiction of The Film
On board a new Death Star battle station Darth Vader (David Prowse, voice of James Earl Jones) informs Moff Jerjerrod (Michael Pennington) that the Emperor is not pleased with the progress they’ve been making and he is on his way to supervise. Back on Luke Skywalker’s home planet, the various heroes arrive at Jabba the Hutt’s palace to rescue Han Solo (Harrison Ford). First the two droids, R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) and C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), then Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) and Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) in disguise, and finally Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) himself, dressed in his Jedi Knight outfit.
Unfortunately the rescue does not go as planned. Leia is captured freeing Han from the carbonite slab and forced to be Jabba’s slave girl after his former one was killed. Luke, Chewbacca, and Han are to be put to death at the pit of Carkoon, digested for an eternity in the sarlacc. Luckily, one of the guards on the desert skiff is Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) in disguise and he helps Luke and Han fight off the other guards. During the battle, Leia strangles Jabba with her chain and all of the star warriors escape. While the rest of the rebels head back to the fleet in the Millennium Falcon, Luke travels with R2 back to Dagobah to see his Jedi master, Yoda (Frank Oz).
Yoda is ill, and informs Luke that there’s nothing left for him to learn, before passing away. As Luke is about to leave, the spirit of Ben Kenobi (Alec Guinness) arrives and confirms Luke’s father is in fact Darth Vader. Kenobi explains that Anakin Skywalker was seduced by the Dark Side of the Force and became Darth Vader, from a “certain point of view.” He also shares that Luke has a twin sister in Leia. Back at the Rebellion, the fleet is amassing a strike force. A number of rebel leaders explain the plan to attack the new Death Star which they believe to be undefended, and which also happens to contain the Emperor himself.
Han leads a small strike team with Luke, Leia, Chewie and the droids to the forest moon of Endor to disable the shield generator protecting the Death Star so that the rebellion fighters can attack. The team becomes separated on the verdant forest planet and Leia is rescued from some imperial scout troopers by a small furry creature named Wicket (Warwick Davis). The rest of the strike team leadership is captured by these same creatures, referred to as Ewoks in supporting material, and taken to their village high in the trees. They believe Threepio to be a golden God and release the prisoners. Luke shares the news of their parentage with Leia, which Han misinterprets as a romantic relationship between the two.
Luke believes himself to be a risk to the plan, as Vader can sense him, so he allows himself to be captured and brought before the Emperor (Ian McDiarmid). The wrinkled ruler reveals his trap to Luke, having tricked the rebellion into believing the station is undefended. He also vows to turn young Skywalker to the Dark Side, just as he did his father. While the family drama unfolds in orbit, Han and the others stage a daring attack on the shield bunker, with the help of the Ewoks, and manage to blow up the shield generator. The Imperial ground forces appear to be no match for the indigenous creatures with their guerilla tactics.
With the shield down, Lando leads the fighter squadrons in an attack on the giant battle station, but soon realizes that its laser is operational, as it destroys several rebel cruisers. The rebel craft try to stay close to the Imperial ships, hoping the laser won’t risk destroying their own. Luke succumbs to the temptations of the Emperor and attacks Vader. But when the Emperor uses his Force lightning on the youth, humanity returns to the Dark Lord of the Sith and he kills his Emperor. Luke speaks with his father before he succumbs to his wounds, and flies off the station with his father’s body. Lando and Wedge (Dennis Lawson) peel off and fly into the superstructure of the Death Star, firing missiles into the heart of the station, blowing it up. Back on Endor the heroes celebrate their victory as news spreads across the galaxy that the reign of the Empire is over.
“I am a Jedi, like my father before me.” – Luke Skywalker
History in the Making
There was probably no film more anticipated in May of 1983 than Return of the Jedi, now prominently touted as Episode VI in the Skywalker saga and the last film in the original trilogy. It sealed a promise made three years earlier between Producer/Director George Lucas and the film watching public. His middle chapter of the Star Wars Saga, The Empire Strikes Back, left numerous questions that haunted moviegoers over the interim, and Jedi resolved those dangling threads. It provided closure to the stories of Luke, Leia, Vader and the rest of the characters, having the rebels triumph over the Empire. And thus it concluded the most popular franchise of all time. It captured the number one position for six of it’s first seven weeks of release and was nominated, again, for a slew of technical Academy Awards, including best sound, best sound effects, best score, and best art direction, none of which it took home this time. But, it did allow the recognition of the visual effects team (for a 3rd time) with a Special Achievement Academy Award for Visual Effects.
Lucas’s experiment in creating a new mythology for the current generation appeared to be a success. Audiences waited in lines stretching around city blocks hoping to get the answers to the cliffhangers left in the previous installment: would Han Solo get rescued, could the Empire be defeated, and the biggest one of all, was Darth Vader really Luke’s father? The story continued to evolve creating interesting new characters and situations, as Luke and his comrades completed the hero’s journey. But even the mystical power of the Force couldn’t stave off critics who felt that the filmmaker had lost his edge. Reviewers had always been critical, even of Star Wars, with its reductive plot and over-reliance on special effects. But by the release of Jedi, fans that had been strong proponents of the previous films, felt that Lucas was going soft, specifically with the inclusion of the overly cute Ewoks. It was the beginning of audience expectations from the hype seemingly not being met, and the backlash of that disappointment. Certainly the first inkling of a rift that would divide fans further in the future.
One thing that nobody denied was the incredible visuals that Jedi put forth. The special effects had also evolved in both size and scope to keep up with the ideas flowing from Lucas’ brain. He continued to push the envelope creating a new life-size puppet in Jabba the Hutt, which was controlled by no less than 4 individuals. Add to that the inclusion of a race of furry forest dwellers, who all needed to be costumed (featuring the largest assemblage of little people on film since The Wizard of Oz), dozens more armored Imperial troopers, and other new alien races, and it would seem that the creature and costume shops must have been overwhelmed. But the expanse in scope didn’t stop there, as Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) created new motion control rigs and film processing techniques to allow for the incredibly dense and detailed space battles the film required. Compare the speed and complexity of the trench run in Star Wars to the end battle here, and one can see an increase in speed and the number of ships, more in line with Lucas’ original idea. These breakthroughs and techniques would serve ILM well throughout the rest of the 80s as they created the effects for many of the biggest special effects films of the decade.
Return of the Jedi was continuing to tread new ground in the world of sci-fi cinema. The world was now divided into blockbusters, and everything else. All the smaller films, that probably knew that they weren’t a blockbuster, were at least hoping to get a piece of the pie. How else do you explain the slew of copycat films that popped up around releases like this? Films like Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone, Krull, and Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared-Syn all saw a chance to maybe become the next big thing. And why not? They were doing everything that the Star Wars films were doing. Why shouldn’t they be a hit? They were set in space, on distant planets, with robots, evil warlords, young heroes, laser weapons and fascinating magical elements. They all used special effects to one extent or another. Yet audiences did not respond to them the same way as they did to the Star Wars trilogy. Why?
It’s hard to say how Lucas was able to take this hodge-podge of ideas, re-mix them, and generate something as new and invigorating as Star Wars. The inclusion of mythological, historical, and filmic elements were all nothing new on their own, but his unique vision, coupled with its timing of the release, created something that audiences wanted to see. By the time Jedi rolled around, he was not only drawing from other sources to craft his films, but from his own movies. Return of the Jedi, more so than Empire, featured call backs to both of the previous films. As example, all the films start with the same opening crawl style, followed by a Star Destroyer emerging over the camera. This film features a new Imperial weapon, based on their battle station from the original Star Wars, something some viewers found too similar to the original. The film also featured callbacks to the chasm swing with Luke and Leia in the Death Star, as this time Luke and Leia swing to safety from Jabba’s barge. Jedi also uses the fan favorite line, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” in a new and unique way, as well as inverting Han and Leia’s lines from Empire, “I love you. I know.”
Lucas has referred to these callbacks the same way a composer would use a particular theme (in this case John Williams) for a particular character or situation. It’s similar, yet different in rhythm, tone, or speed. The definition in literature for this idea is leitmotif, and it fits his grander vision for a sci-fi/fantasy film. So why does he get away with “copying” himself and other filmmakers get a rap on the knuckles for trying to “be more Star Wars?” Primarily it has to do with the universe Lucas created. His filmic definition of the galaxy far, far away includes these elements, so his re-use organically works. When other filmmakers use these elements, it appears that they are trying to take shortcuts, or purposefully try to compare their films to Star Wars, two things audiences don’t appreciate.
At its heart, this Star Wars trilogy is a story of good versus evil, and as Jedi shows, the redemption of Anakin Skywalker. Who would have thought watching the first two films, that Darth Vader would be a character that could be redeemed in the end? Throughout the trilogy the personal story of Luke Skywalker, and his confrontations with the Empire, crime lords, and other unsavory characters, was set against the backdrop of a Galactic Civil War, where a small band of rebels challenged a tyrannical Empire. Jedi adds an additional level of context in revealing that Vader is Luke’s father, who was “seduced” by the Dark Side. Luke’s mission then becomes even more personal as he senses that there is still good in his father, and must find a way to turn him back to the light. The Dark Side is a constant threat in both Empire and Jedi. Both Yoda and Obi-Wan warn of its seductiveness and depth. “Once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny,” Yoda cautions. Both masters are pushing Luke to be a better person, a good person, and as such also urge the audiences into that realm too.
But Jedi introduces the biggest gray area to all of the counseling the Jedi Masters have instigated. When Luke confronts Ben, for lying about Vader killing his father, Obi-Wan tells Luke it wasn’t a lie. “What I told you was true, from a certain point of view,” Ben says. “You’re going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.” A confusing moment at best, and a ‘gotcha’ to audiences, as Lucas misdirects the thought that Anakin Skywalker and Darth Vader might both be the same person. The Jedi seem to be saying that it’s okay to lie, or in this case, to present an alternate view of events, if it is for the greater good. Ben knows that if he had told Luke of his parentage when originally confronted, Luke would have either run off ignoring his training, or confronted Vader before he was ready (something he did anyway). But to audiences it also opens up the idea that the mentors we follow are not some all-knowing font of knowledge. They too are flawed individuals that make mistakes and have issues.
The Science in The Fiction
Technology is still on the forefront as the Empire expands the grip on the galaxy with the newer, larger space station, the abundance of star destroyers, TIE fighters and other personal fighter craft. There are flying desert hovercrafts, and reminders of robotic limbs, as well as motorcycle-like speeder bikes that jet through the forest at hundreds of miles an hour. Yet all that technology and might is brought down with the help of a pre-industrialized, primitive group of aliens: the Ewoks. Deceptively diminutive in size, their sheer numbers help overwhelm the Imperial forces on the planet of Endor and lead the way for the rebellion spacecraft to blow up the second Death Star.
Lucas uses this contrast of the technology vs the primitive as a more refined concept shown in the final battle of Star Wars. In that film, Luke shuns the technology of his targeting computer to “trust his feelings” and makes the final shot that blows up the space station. Here, the indigenous beings overwhelm the invading force of technologically superior soldiers to end the war. As many have discussed previously, this is Lucas’ take on the nature of the war in Vietnam, where a superior force was unable to overcome the guerilla tactics of the native armies. Technology is also contrasted in the personal battle between Luke and Vader. Both father and son bear portions of themselves that are mechanized: Luke, his hand, and Vader, much more of him (two legs and an arm as Revenge of the Sith would show). Luke is reminded of this commonality when he cuts off Vader’s hand, and then chooses to use his heart and emotions to resist the Emperor, hoping to stir the same feelings in his father.
Obviously Lucas doesn’t shun technology entirely, as whole crews of technological wizards were necessary to create the special effects to tell this final chapter. Instead what his message seems to be is that blind obedience to technology is what’s bad. As with many things there are levels of grey. Artoo-Detoo is an extremely helpful piece of technology, which helps the heroes numerous times in this film and throughout the Saga. He conceivably could be used for nefarious purposes, depending on his master. Similarly the technology behind the Death Star could have been used to create a more peaceful creation that helped the denizens of the galaxy instead of choosing to blow them up. It’s through intent, purpose, and consequences of actions that the technology can be deemed good or evil.
The Final Frontier
In 1983 audiences cheered as Vader was redeemed, the Emperor was killed, and the rebels and their allies defeated the Empire. It was the end of a successful string of films. Or was it? Fourteen years later, Lucas felt that special effects technology had advanced far enough that he was ready to tell the first part of his Saga, Episodes I, II, & III. To this end, he created new versions of the three original Star Wars films, dubbed the Special Editions, which updated elements (either plot wise or mostly special effects) to make them more cohesive. Star Wars received the most work, but Return of the Jedi had some additions as well including adding tentacles and a more monstrous appearance to the sarlacc, fixing some minor continuity issues with special effects, and adding additional celebratory shots at the end of the film, including the debut of the galaxy’s city-planet Coruscant, which would feature prominently in the prequels. Further additions would take place in 2004 when the DVD edition of the film replaced Sebastian Shaw’s force ghost of Anakin with the Anakin prequel actor Hayden Christensen. Other minor updates have been included since in the Blu-ray sets such as adding blinking effects to the Ewoks and adding Vader’s “Noooo” cry from Episode III into his scene killing the Emperor.
Many thought that Return of the Jedi would be the last Star Wars film. Marketing and merchandising died down within a couple of years, after the Droids and Ewoks spin-off cartoons lapsed on Saturday mornings. It wasn’t until 1991 when Del Rey publishers, the same company that published the original novelizations, decided to release Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire, that people realized there was s till a market for stories set in the Star Wars universe. It was a story set a few years after the events of Jedi and paved the way for a whole new series of tales in books and comics that would tell the adventures of Luke, Han and Leia in the new world order, as well as explore the origins of the Jedi thousands of years before the films. In 1999 the world was pleasantly surprised with the release of the first prequel film, The Phantom Menace, dubbed Episode I, which told the story of the rise and fall of Anakin Skywalker. This film and its sequels, Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, enjoyed much adulation but almost as much criticism. And by 2005 the world again thought the Star Wars film franchise dead. What other stories were there to tell? Then in 2012, once Disney acquired Lucasfilm, plans were put together for one more, sequel-trilogy. Flash forward three years to 2015, which brought The Force Awakens and the story of what was happening in the galaxy 30 years after the events of Return of the Jedi. After this film and its sequels, The Last Jedi and The Rise of Skywalker, is the Saga actually concluded. Only time will tell.
Having grown up on comics, television and film, “Jovial” Jay feels destined to host podcasts and write blogs related to the union of these nerdy pursuits. Among his other pursuits he administrates and edits stories at the two largest Star Wars fan sites on the ‘net (Rebelscum.com, TheForce.net), and co-hosts the Jedi Journals podcast over at the ForceCast network.