I got into writing this thing because of holiday nostalgia, and RETURN OF THE JEDI is probably at the epicenter of that wave. I was born in 1981, so it was the only one of the original STAR WARS movies that came out when I was actually alive, and though I don't think I saw it in theaters, I may as well have given how often I saw it on TV during my formative years. Though probably the least effective entry in the series, it's still a lavish and imaginative romp, the ideal space opera for a child of the eighties. It also, especially in light of all six movies, makes a superb finish to the saga, wrapping up its supreme conflict between good and evil in a way that's surprisingly personal and touching.
As the Empire decides to celebrate its rout of the Rebellion by building a second, more powerful Death Star under the personal supervision of Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Chewbacca, Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams, returning from EMPIRE), C-3P0, and R2-D2 have all traveled to Tattooine to rescue Han Solo- still frozen in a block of carbonite- from the evil gangster Jabba the Hutt. Leia, disguised as a bounty hunter, infiltrates the crime lord's palace and manages to revive Han, and though everyone ends up taken prisoner and offered up to a giant sand monster, Luke, now acting as a full-fledged Jedi Knight, leads a daring escape. Heading back to Dagobah to finish his training, Luke finds a dying Yoda who confirms that Darth Vader is his father Anakin Skywalker, corrupted by the Dark Side. He tells Luke that to truly become a Jedi, he must face Vader again. Obi-Wan drops the other shoe by revealing that Leia is in fact Luke's long-lost twin sister, and warns that Luke may have to kill his father to save the galaxy. Meanwhile, the Rebels have discovered that the new Death Star is under construction, and that the Emperor is aboard, meaning that a successful attack could pretty much bring down the whole Empire. The station is protected by an energy shield projected from the forest moon of Endor (where it's in orbit, natch), and Luke joins Han, Leia, Chewie and the droids in a mission to bring down the Imperial shield generator. After the Rebels meet up with the short, furry Ewok natives, Luke, sensing that Vader is on the Death Star, sets out to try to bring his father back to the side of good. The Emperor, meanwhile, plans to turn Luke to the Dark Side of the Force, and has laid a trap for the attacking Rebels...
The end of a heroic saga is in some ways the culmination of its themes; when good defeats evil, it's usually not through simple chance, but some quality of either or both concepts (at least as seen by the author), most often a fundamental failure of "evil". The One Ring is destroyed because of the very obsession it creates in those who come near it; the White Witch meets her end because she doesn't account for the laws of her world; Agent Smith fails to understand free will and so is destroyed by it. Similarly, the Emperor's own attempt to turn Luke Skywalker seals his fate by ultimately turning Darth Vader against him. He is undone by his self-interest and his certainty- he allows Luke to live because he believes he can be made his servant, and continually exclaims that things are unfolding as he has foreseen up until the moment when Vader picks him up and throws him down a deep shaft. Meanwhile, the various good guys seem to adapt to whatever happens, while making sure to look out for each other as often as possible.
There's also an element of maturation in this, the true culmination of Luke's heroic journey. In THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, he defies the advice of Yoda and Obi-Wan by rushing off to rescue his friends and fight Vader. This appears to have been a mistake, as he is maimed by Vader and Han is still frozen and taken to Tattooine. However, in rushing off, he has learned an important truth that his masters weren't willing to reveal. In this film, they advise him that he will have to face and destroy Vader, and "bury his feelings"- instead, he continues in his attempt to bring his father back to the good side. And, after much suffering and disappointment, it works, and Anakin Skywalker is redeemed. Luke can now exercise his own judgment and do what he feels is right.
For all of this, the film suffers greatly from pacing issues. From some accounts, the late Richard Marquand (who, like EMPIRE's Kershner, had done mostly smaller films), had difficulty with the effects-heavy JEDI, and Lucas had to step in at points, perhaps contributing to an uneven feeling. To start, the film takes a while getting all the heroes together in Jabba's Palace, with three separate "entrance" scenes before the action begins in earnest. It's the longest such opening lull in any of the movies, though the following scenes- a battle with the giant Rancor monster and a chaotic skirmish over the pit of the man-eating Sarlaac- are impressive enough to make up for it. Unfortunately there's a similar lag in the scenes on Endor, coming after a brilliant chase through the trees on flying speeder bikes; there's a lot of business with the Ewoks that could have been, if not cut, certainly trimmed down. Again, it's saved by the action that follows; the climax brilliantly intercuts Luke's confrontation with Vader and the Emperor, the battle between Stormtroopers and Ewoks and Rebels on Endor's surface, and a wonderfully chaotic and grandiose space battle overhead. It's very much a film of ups and downs.
The STAR WARS movies have never been praised for the acting on display, but though most of the performances are simply adequate, much credit must go to Ian McDiarmid's gloriously over-the-top and scummy Emperor. He spends most of the film gloating over his impending triumph, at the same time using this to tempt Luke into unleashing his anger and thus becoming his servant. This could have gone very wrong, but McDiarmid modulates the Emperor's satanic arrogance and rage quite well.
Despite the somber undercurrent of Luke's final confrontation with the Dark Side, the film is quite upbeat and cheery overall, a celebratory progression to the ultimate triumph of the Rebellion. This is matched with a high level of visual playfulness, which is the source of much of the criticism the film has received from science fiction fans. The fandom case against was rather aptly summed up in CLERKS, when a character said "all JEDI had was a bunch of Muppets." And as a matter of fact, the Jim Henson workshop had a substantial hand in creating the many, many alien creatures present in the movie, and there is a vaguely Muppety vibe to many of them. But, of course, to a kid, the strict divisions between space sagas and Muppets and Lucas and Spielberg and so forth don't really exist, and something like THE DARK CRYSTAL (released the year before) just blurs the lines even further. And in the end there's no real reason why the proceedings of the film need to be especially dignified, at least not throughout. There's always been something vaguely fun and silly running through the heart of these movies, which, after all, owe a debt to Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon as well as Akira Kurosawa and Joseph Campbell. In some of its wilder moments, RETURN OF THE JEDI sums up the STAR WARS experience: weird alien monsters, spaceships that go whoosh, and lightsabers, all with a bit of mythmaking in the background. However imperfect the execution, its heart is in the right place.
(I suppose I should close out the OT reviews with a word on the new DVDs. Though I do think it sucks that the transfers of the theatrical releases aren't widescreen-enhanced, and hence look worse on a widescreen TV, that they're not remastered like the special editions were doesn't bother me too much. It's enough just to have them available on a durable medium for historical purposes- demanding that they meet a certain standard smacks a bit of fan entitlement. And the graininess of the image does give viewing the discs an oddly cinematic quality.)