It was a three year wait to find out what happened to Han Solo, who was last seen frozen in carbonite and loaded onto Boba Fett’s spaceship. 30 years ago, on May 25, 1983, Return of the Jedi, one of the most anticipated films of my youth, finally hit theater screens.
I saw this movie on opening day at the Stamm Theatre in Antioch California with my friend Zant Burdine. As related in a previous article on WarGames, Zant and I went through a time when we liked to sit in the front row of the theater. For a period of about one year, our ideal movie seat was front row center. As Zant always said, “We like to get the full effect.” Call it a poor man’s IMAX if you will. We were first in line that opening day to madly scramble for two seats that no one wanted.
For my friend and I, Return of the Jedi delivered as promised — spectacular space battles, a few unexpected character revelations, plus (spoiler alert) some ominous foreshadowing regarding Han Solo and the Millennium Falcon that doesn’t come to pass. After the movie, which of course we both thought was awesome, I saw my friend Alex Baker standing in line for the next showing. He immediately covered his ears and went into full “Shields Up” anti-spoiler mode. But of course I never would have spoiled anything for him. I just smiled and moved along, much to his relief. Alex later told me that he also loved the deceptive foreshadowing.
It’s certainly not a flawless movie and is admittedly the weakest of the original trilogy. For me, Jedi‘s biggest plot problem isn’t the fact that the Empire’s big plan is to build yet another Death Star with an even bigger weakness than the previous one. The biggest problem I’ve always had with Jedi is that after Yoda insists in The Empire Strikes Back (1980) how dangerous it is for Luke Skywalker to confront Darth Vader before completing his Jedi training, when Luke returns to Dagobah in Return of the Jedi, Yoda informs him that in order to complete his Jedi training, Luke must confront Vader. Huh?
I have a friend who says that the only problem with the movie is that in the forest battle only one Ewok dies. I know it’s fashionable to bash the Ewoks and I’ve done my fair share of that myself over the years — those early Ewok scenes are pretty stupid, especially when they’re going to set fire to our heroes and they think C3P0 is a god. But I’ve always loved the forest battle, when the Ewoks take on the Empire with booby traps, sticks and stones versus lasers and AT-ST Imperial Walkers. I’ve always enjoyed that aspect of the film, where primitive weapons and cleverness emerge triumphant over technology. (In George Lucas’s original concept, the battle would have taken place on Chewbacca’s home planet but that idea was abandoned because Lucas concluded that the Wookies aren’t a primitive enough species.) The Ewok celebration was always a little goofy, but I’ll definitely take every single “Yub Nub” over the new ending for the 1997 special edition version.
George Lucas wrote the screenplay with his Empire Strikes Back collaborator Lawrence Kasdan, who at that point was no longer interested in writing projects for which he would not direct himself. To date, Jedi would end up being the last screenwriter-for-hire assignment that Kasdan would take, but rumors abound that he is in consideration for Disney’s upcoming series of Star Wars films (which will be fantastic if true).
My favorite parts of Return of the Jedi are all of the scenes between Luke, Vader and the Emperor. Mark Hamill brings a level of Jedi Knight calmness to the role of Luke Skywalker, as Vader and the Emperor attempt to have him embrace his anger and thus join the dark side of the Force — and when Luke eventually does flip out and attack Vader it is a grand, operatic moment. It’s interesting to see his character mature over the three films. Luke Skywalker has come a long way from whining about picking up power converters at Tosche Station. (To be fair, his Uncle Owen was kind of a dick.)
When the Rebel fighters take on the Imperial Fleet, the space battles are appropriately epic and were truly spectacular in their day. The battle sequences push the envelope of being over-the-top, without becoming too unbelievable like so many action scenes in movies now. The film deftly intercuts between these jaw-dropping action scenes, the Ewok battle on the forest moon of Endor, and the Luke / Vader / Emperor confrontation. My favorite sections of the John Williams score are written for all of these scenes in the film’s final act, hardly any of which showed up on the original Return of the Jedi soundtrack album (notably the “Luke flips out and attacks Vader” moment previously described). I would end up buying Star Wars music many times over the years, in many different forms of expanded editions. As Admiral Ackbar says, “It’s a trap!” True, but eventually I would have all of this music.
During the movie’s final shot, featuring Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), R2D2 (Kenny Baker), C3P0 (Anthony Daniels), and Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) in one single wide shot, I could tell my friend Zant was overwhelmed. He was squirming in his seat, trying to utter words, but nothing coherent was coming out. I’m familiar now with the term nerdgasm and this is the closest I’ve ever seen a human being actually having one. His sheer excitement carried over to me and we both were geeking out big time, as the principal cast filled our field of vision. It was cool. As Zant always said, we sat in the front row to get the full effect.