The final film in the original Star Wars trilogy is rightly considered the weakest link in the bunch. Unlike previous entries it didn’t work as a stand-alone movie, and it didn’t work as a piece of the larger saga.
The original Star Wars is of course a perfect stand-alone adventure, considering that it was essentially made without any sequels in mind. It also works as the first piece to a three-part story since the movies that followed did a good enough job hearkening back to the elements established in A New Hope.
And even though The Empire Strikes Back has the burden of being the middle part of a three-part story, and even though—as a result—it has no precise beginning and ending, it still manages to stand on its own as a movie. The movie tells the story of Luke being thrust too soon into a fight of destiny and being unprepared for the shocks that come with it. All we need to know about Vader and Luke is told to us throughout the movie so even if you never saw A New Hope you can relate well enough to the principal characters and follow the film. Return of the Jedi, however, leans heavily on what came before it…in more ways than one. On the one hand, viewing the prior two movies is critical to following the plot. Character motivations are taken for granted and major story beats are presented hand-in-hand with the previous two movies. Unlike the first two, you need to know and love the previous movies to appreciate this one.
There’s another way this movie leans too much on the past, and that has to do with the central plot of the film…a plot which doesn’t even present itself until half an hour into the movie, since the first thirty minutes serve to wrap up the dangling thread of the previous movie. The Han rescue sequence is the first chink in this movie’s armor. Whatever Luke’s “plan” was, it makes no sense as it is presented in the movie. It really seems like the Jedi is just winging it. He hides his lightsaber in R2…and what, are we suppose to assume that Luke knew he would be captured and would condemned to the Sarlaac pit? In that case, why send Leia in first to bargain for him…unless Leia was plan-A. But if that’s the case then why send the droids in at all? It’s a very convoluted scene and even though the prequels excelled in convoluted scenes, the Original Trilogy had—to this point—managed to avoid them.
And the fact that the rescue goes off without a hitch, with no casualty or price paid makes the entire enterprise feel…hollow. That’s the biggest sin of this movie. Things happen but at no personal cost. Han is rescued, but no one suffers or dies to save him. The Endor Shield Generator is taken down, but other than a rare-Stormtrooper hit on the hero (Leia’s shoulder) the good guys are no worse for wear. All the Empire’s forces are demolished by a handful of Rebel troops and a boatload of teddybears. The Second Death Star is destroyed by Lando’s fleet, but other than a few unidentified Rebels and ships, there’s no major casualty. The only real sacrifice in the movie is the only one that had to happen: Vader dies saving Luke. Obviously Vader had to die, one way or another. Though it is interesting to think what would have happened if Luke had died and Vader lived. What would a light-side Vader have done then? There’s a “what if?” comic I wish Marvel would explore…
The point is Return of the Jedi was too concerned with playing it safe. While Empire Strikes Back is regarded as more than a great Star Wars movie—it’s a great movie, period—Return of the Jedi is not. It’s just a really good Star Wars movie, and is only called “really good” when viewed in relation to the prequels. As an Original Trilogy movie, it ended the Star Wars saga on a bland note.
Are there individual moments of greatness to enjoy? Certainly! The Endor speeder-bike chase was exhilarating. The space fight over Endor was huge and epic. And the final fight between father and son was a powerful end to their story. But those are moments. The story around those moments suffered in comparison to the previous two movies.
In a lot of ways Return of the Jedi was a warning (which went unheeded) that the prequels would not live up to the standards of Star Wars’ best.
It was the first movie where George Lucas had complete creative control. Though he has revised history and written himself as the sole brains behind Star Wars, the fact is there are two other people who deserve tremendous credit for getting the franchise off the ground. Marcia Lucas was the editor who turned the first Star Wars movie from a boring, bloated mess of a movie into the lean mean swashbuckling adventure it became. The other now-unsung hero was Gary Kurtz. He was the no-man producer that, early on, reigned in a lot of Lucas’ bad ideas, offered some good ones of his own, and helped steer the direction of the movies by having a different eye than Lucas had.
By the time Return of the Jedi was in production, Star Wars had officially become “Star Wars.” It was not only the biggest movie of all time (though soon to be bested by E.T.), it was also—and more importantly to Lucas—a merchandise empire. The creator of the franchise put more weight behind making a movie that could sell toys and less worry into making a movie that was as great as it could be. Instead we got a movie that was “good enough.” And that “good enough” attitude carried over into the prequels. So, though Harrison Ford and screenwriter Lawrence Kasden wanted Han to sacrifice himself, Lucas said no because he didn’t want a sad ending. He wanted the kids to be bubbly and happy upon leaving the theater. He wanted them skipping right over to Toys-R-Us to pick up the Han Solo action figure.
Instead of a new setting for the final battle, Lucas opted to rehash the Death Star idea, which Kurtz and Kasden strongly opposed. Kurtz left Lucasfilm and Kasden—though he stayed to finish Jedi’s screenplay—soon after left, never to work with Lucas again. The idea of a second Death Star was just the kind of cheap, “good enough” idea that Lucas would make the norm during the days of the Prequel Trilogy. The plot was too rehashed from earlier movies. The space battle, though epic, was just a bigger version of the one that ended A New Hope. The lightsaber fight, though powerful, was just a weightier version of the one that ended Empire Strikes Back. Even the Endor battle on the surface of the moon was just the Hoth Battle with a Forest setting. Too little attention was paid to the story; plot was sacrificed on the altar of “good enough.” According to Kurtz (in interviews he’s given about his time working on Star Wars), George came to believe, after the success of Raiders of the Lost Ark, that theater-goers weren’t interested in story; they only care about spectacle. So the story, which was 90% of Empire’s success, was de-emphasized for Jedi. And though that might have sold some extra toys, it made a movie that has not held up over the years as well as the previous two.
As we approach a new Star Wars movie, the creators now in charge over the franchise have said all the right things. They’ve promised a new adventure that looks forward and blazes its own trail. They’ve promised an emphasis on story and character, not only set pieces and special effects. They’ve promised a return, without actually saying it, to the “good” Star Wars movies. The ones that had warmth, the ones that wore their emotions on their sleeves, and the ones that had adventure that was complimented by a strong story, not existing instead of one.
Return of the Jedi isn’t a bad movie, by any means. It’s not a great movie, however, and it doesn’t hold a candle to the greatness of the original two Star Wars movies. It was hindered by the wrong approach to movie-making, one which emphasized style over substance. It has some wonderful moments, but the total package is a bit disappointing. It takes the Star Wars saga out on a note.
But not a particularly high one.