Okay, so that rallying cry is likely to produce only a tiny crowd, but can we stop with the all-out bashfest on Return of the Jedi? The movie has plenty of flaws, aside from the invention of the “chopped-in-half wookies” (wook-ie; ie-wook; ewok): the sudden infatuation with the burp-joke, the ignominious end to interstellar bad-ass bounty hunter Boba Fett (means nothing – he’s coming back in Episode Seven); the ick factor in learning Leia tongue-swabbed her brother’s molars one movie prior; and the pointless revisions George Lucas made with the Special Editions just to pump the arrival of then-coming Episodes 1-3.
The Empire Strikes Back raised the bar so incredibly high for the series in 1980 that not only could Lucasfilm never surpass it, neither could most franchises working alongside it. It announced that the follow-up film could not only get better, go deeper, and be more fulfilling than the first, but it also said that the audience was ready for true cliffhanger endings and self-contained closure was not a vital part of a “trilogy.” Putting aside that the original Star Wars was not designed to be a part of a trilogy in the first place, The Empire Strikes Back was built with a future in mind.
Return of the Jedi was built with a money-making machine in mind, partially. Star Wars geegaws and licensing rewrote the value of merchandising, and as much as people want to believe the Lucas Empire was built on the value of his films, it was really built on the stuff. You just had to have all of it, from every action figure (from the butt-faced Walrusman to the robots that appeared a half-second somewhere behind one hundred Stormtroopers) to drinking glass premiums from Burger King, to the damned Christmas Album.
But even as a process of asset management, there are things in Return of the Jedi that make the trip worthwhile: the fight on the sand skiff over the Sarlaac Pit, the speeder bike chase, Leia shoots to kill, Lando comes into his own as a reliable scoundrel, and even with that layer of Mark Hamill’s overacting there is something very satisfying about his final duel with Darth Vader (the dark father, as it were) and Vader’s ultimate betrayal of his master The Emperor — these are things of high adventure and, while not up to the level of Empire which canonized the series as mythology, the film made for an entertaining night out at the movies.
I assure you that at least at the viewing I went to, opening night in 1983, nobody was complaining when they were leaving the theater. I am the unfortunate bearer of the term “a much simpler time,” because of several reasons and maybe some of them influenced our overall reception of the film. First is last, meaning we all believed this was the last Star Wars movie and darn few of us had seen before the kinds of things Industrial Light and Magic was showing us, so we were already primed to appreciate what we got. Most movie theaters hadn’t converted to the Multiplex format yet, so the screen was huge, the audience was huge, and the event felt momentous; not “just another movie weekend.” Home video was in its infancy. You could see movies on VHS videotape but they were expensive to buy — starting at $80 and moving upward — so even rentals meant you weren’t subjected to overexposure. Return of the Jedi is a movie of its time among movies that seemed to transcend time, so of course it is bound to feel slight.
But I contend that it still has something over most of the movies that appeared throughout the 2000s thus far. It has plenty of dark elements but is not necessarily a dark film. Even in the bowels of Jabba’s Rancor cage, or under the thrall of a demonic, lightning-wielding overlord, or even when a fallen Ewok, charred and smoking, is mourned by his own, there is an overall spirit to the film that is missing in modern cinema, even in most of the comedies. Return of the Jedi has the almost cartoonish belief that, no, we’re not going to die. We’re going to survive, win, and things will get better. For as much admiration as I have for Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, for finally making a series of superhero movies based in a relatively plausible scenario, Nolan’s Gotham City is incurable. It’s citizenry is screwed. There will always need to be a Batman because, no matter how much better it may get, it will never get good enough that an avenging guardian angel won’t be required. In the best, first X-Men movies Magneto and Professor X make that constant cycle not the subtext but the wax stamp of the series — Magneto says he will never stop what he’s doing. The Prof. counters that he will always be there to counter those efforts, and so the battle seems forever joined. Even though Bryan Singer’s two films are the best of them so far, that premise is a stone-faced bummer.
Before we were posed with the thought that, no, franchises go on and to facilitate that the war must go on too, Return of the Jedi felt like universal peace achieved. Laser fire, though apparently as deadly as bullets, is a sanitary kill. We don’t view a smoking burst on a uniform the way we view the gory gristle of gunfire in today’s films. That is probably for the best because gunfire should not be sanitized. It should not be an actor clutching his unbloodied chest, saying, “Egad, I’ve been shot,” and then slumping to the ground. That kind of portrayal in this time would be irresponsible, and that is another reason why Return of the Jedi is better, I feel, than most allow. It is violent. If you had to tally a body count, you’d likely be appalled, but the results are appropriate to the surroundings, being a larger-than-life space opera. The biggest curse of the 1-3 Star Wars Trilogy is not for all our most obvious claims, but that they came out in a time when we had to provide a parallel that was so much harsher than the parallel required of Episodes 4-6.
So I say to those that would complain about the childishness of RotJ, consider yourself fortunate that you have the choice to not watch it, but if you did watch you could probably lose yourself pretty thoroughly in it, provided that you allowed yourself to. It is a cultural curio, innocence cloaked in the backdrop of wartime that we could never approximate today with the same brush of naiveté. Plus, the byoow-byoww-ptchoo of neon-colored laser lights is still way cool.
Had enough? Or are you thirsty for more? If it’s the latter, do stop back tomorrow when Jeff Johnson returns with Revival House and his remembrances of RotJ!