We live in wonderful times, friends. When I was a kid, we only had widescreen and digitized VHS versions of older movies like Superman, The Raiders of the Lost ArkAnd Aliens. These days, almost every weekend brings with it a theatrical re-release of a classic film. So far this year has given us a remastered edition of Titanic and now Star Wars: Return of the Jedi for his 40th birthday. It’s a strange echo of 1997, which saw the release of Cameron’s film and the star wars Special edition trilogy.
My views on Return of the Jedi have varied over the years. As a kid, it was my favorite Star Wars movie. It was a cheerful, action-packed space fantasy with vivid visuals and colorful characters. As I got older, however, my interests shifted more to the darker aspects of The Empire Strikes Back and I left behind the childish antics of ROTJ.
In theaters, I still enjoyed the show. John Williams’ incredible score does much of the heavy lifting, but there’s also fun character development and exquisite effects work. Han Solo is more dumbass than villain, Leia is a doe-eyed princess rather than a fiery freedom fighter, and Luke is, well… a more powerful Luke.
Even Darth Vader lacks threat. In a wild about-face from his actions in Empire, the villain kills no one and wanders off until the third act. He shares a big scene with Luke, where he confesses his love for the dark side. Still, it never feels like the Vader we all fear – presumably to make the movie more kid-friendly.
I mean, just watch this scene:
Compared to, say, this scene in Empire:
Return of the Jedi maximizes fun above all else
Jedi is amusing. Where A New Hope and Empire are designed to appeal to all audiences, ROTJ is aimed at younger audiences. I once read a review that described the experience as hanging out with old friends, which is fitting. The stiff performances, simplistic script, quick resolutions to dangling story threads, and lack of new ideas make it clear that the cast and crew were eager to move on. While ROTJ satisfies, I’m not sure it lives up to its namesake.
After all, This is this how the empire collapses?
Of the original Star Wars trilogy, Jedi feels the most dated. The hairstyles, acting, fight choreography, and overall look of the film place the events firmly in the early 1980s. By comparison, Empire featured vibrant cinematography, dark shadows, and incredible lighting. Watch this fight sequence between Luke and Vader and compare it to their clash in ROTJ.
That said, Jedi does have magical moments. Luke vs. the Rancor is fantastic, Jabba the Hutt remains an all-time baddie, and this speeder chase through the forest is always creepy:
I’m not going to get into the Ewoks. They don’t work for me, but they make kids happy.
The Empire Strikes Back stands alone
If you remove Empire from the equation, Star Wars is closer to a Saturday morning cartoon than, say, Dune. Empire remains the only wildcard – the dark Star Wars epic that teased endless artistic and creative possibilities.
Return of the Jedi is very much in line with George Lucas’ vision. It’s big, bold, and occasionally thrilling, but it’s also silly, full of wacky humor and cartoonish action…not to mention hope, optimism, and heart.
Sitting in the theater, I was swept away by the innocence and pragmatic Jedi approach of good versus evil. There’s little nuance to be found here, but that’s part of the appeal. Halfway through, I stopped gritting my teeth at its flaws, sat back and enjoyed the show. We’ll probably never have another Empire Strikes Back again, especially with Disney in charge. Yet this legendary image may have been a case of lightning in a bottle, an aberration in a long-running franchise that hit far more than its mark. I’m giving up.
Return of the Jedi doesn’t equate to cinematic grandeur but does provide quality family entertainment. In these increasingly cynical times, maybe, just maybe, enough is enough.