While the arrival of 1977’s Star Wars detonated the cinematic medium into a new paradigm of blockbuster filmmaking, the film’s world-building would pay dividends in The Empire Strikes Back, proving that the series was no fluke. When Return of the Jedi followed, there were clear signs that creator George Lucas, tainted by capitalism and a glut of increasingly capricious decisions, was descending into a creative abyss from which the ongoing saga has yet to recover.
Return of the Jedi opens with the Rebel Alliance attempting to regroup after a series of brutal defeats at the hands of the Galactic Empire, and the first order of business is to rescue Han Solo from Jabba the Hutt. That task completed, Luke returns to Jedi Master Yoda for a few words of encouragement and an affirmation of the bombshell Darth Vader ladled on him, only to have a new family member revealed. Once it’s clear that a new Death Star is on the horizon, Luke and his confederates stage a final assault that promises to cripple the Empire and redeem their greatest foe.
The problems in Return of the Jedi arise early, and they have little to do with rebuilding an $8.1 quadrillion dollar Death Star with essentially the same weakness as the easily destroyed first one: how does Luke go from a happy-go-lucky but cocky student of the Jedi arts, who is soundly beaten by Vader, to a killjoy cocky master Jedi capable of destroying him in less than a year? What training, and conducted by whom, would convince Yoda to leap from deeming him unprepared and cautioning him against facing Vader to suddenly ordaining him a Jedi on the condition that he now face Vader? And how did Vader, previously one of the most feared men in the galaxy, become such a timid pansy?
Story issues aside, Lucas’ first attempt to mount Return of the Jedi included an overture for David Lynch to direct, an admittedly stupid idea that would have produced terrible results. There can be no doubt that Lynch is a first-class filmmaker, but who would want his dark, surreal, non-narrative vision applied to a popcorn movie? Once turned down, Lucas chased David Cronenberg, a less stupid idea that would’ve produced less terrible results. Cronenberg takes a psychological approach to his phantasmagoric, often venereal horror, and he’s completely wrong for Star Wars. These choices present a relevant question: what the hell was Lucas thinking?
He ultimately selected the dearly departed Richard Marquand, an instantly indefensible choice, but not one for which either man should be criticized. If nothing else, Marquand helped shape the script and ultimately insisted that Luke return to Yoda for counsel, which was a fairly necessary development considering the Jedi Master’s role in The Empire Strikes Back. Several outlines of the Return of the Jedi premise were rejected by Lucas on the grounds that they might damage merchandising sales, and his increasingly narrow view on providing spectacle instead of story, including the rehashing of the Death Star, forced out Gary Kurtz, who produced both of the first two films.
Nowhere is Lucas’ poisonous attitude more prevalent that the inclusion of the Ewoks and their depressingly inexplicable defeat of the Empire. Or their ludicrous after-party, which, for a bunch of superstitious teddy bears only first encountering strange intruders on their turf, is logically akin to a dog getting excited when his owner cheers a touchdown.
As is often the case with a series of depreciating quality, the festering symptoms extend beyond the story. After composing beautiful music for the first two entries, culminating in the two most memorable, lyrical entries in the entire series with The Imperial March and the closing reorchestration of Han Solo and the Princess in The Empire Strikes Back, John Williams (through no fault of his own) is relegated to providing playful, derivative crap for the Ewoks. Peter Suschitzky’s warm, nuanced cinematography from the previous film is replaced by Alan Hume’s drab, muddy counterpart. Paul Hirsch was not brought back for editing duties, and his replacements Duwayne Dunham and Marcia Lucas clearly struggle to pace Return of the Jedi, which feels more like a disconnected jumble of scenes that accomplish less with a more bloated runtime.
In spite of these setbacks, Return of the Jedi registers as a success overall. By this point in the series, our love and appreciation for the preceding films intoxicates the experience, and while most ongoing film series come off as attempts to milk an idea for money, Return of the Jedi feels like a definitive and necessary conclusion. Lucas’ eye for set-pieces and climactic battles is the one facet of his prowess that improved, particularly the desert barge and everything about the final showdown between Luke and Vader: John Williams’ various formulations of the Emperor’s Theme add haunting gravitas to Ian McDiarmid’s virtuoso turn as Palpatine, while Sebastian Shaw is downright heartbreaking as the unmasked Vader.
Unfortunately, hindsight proves it to be a harbinger of impending failures in the ill-conceived prequel trilogy; an earnest attempt to update the space opera genre became an increasingly avaricious cash-grab, shirking the original conceit in favor of making money off of its commercial opportunities. Like Anakin Skywalker’s youthful dreams of adventure being sullied by his impatience and pride, Lucas’ shortsighted greed in Return of the Jedi set the Star Wars series on the path to the dark side.