Attack of the Space Bears
Star Wars, Episode VI: Return of the Jedi
When I was younger I thoroughly enjoyed the Star WarsThe modern blockbuster: it's a concept so commonplace now we don't even think about the fact that before the end of the 1970s, this kind of movie -- huge spectacles, big action, massive budgets -- wasn't really made. That all changed, though, with Star Wars, a series of films that were big on spectacle (and even bigger on profits). A hero's journey set against a sci-fi backdrop, nothing like this series had ever really been done before, and then Hollywood was never the same. films. Of course at the time there were only three movies to watch with none of the extended universe or midi-chlorian-infused prequels to deal with. Back then I could view the films with wonder as giant sights and blasting sounds from a Galaxy Far Far Away were displayed before me. Being a child when Star Wars was still fresh and new was fantastic, especially since it meant that the conclusion of the series, Episode VI: Return of the Jedi, could be viewed with a child's sense of wonder. You need to be a child to really enjoy Return of the Jedi because, in comparison to A New Hope with it's effective hero's journey or dark places explored by The Empire Strikes Back Jedi is a pretty shallow film.
Now, I'm not trying to make an argument that Return of the Jedi is somehow worse that any of the films in the prequel series -- even the best of those films, >Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, is still a righteous turd in comparison to Episode VI. It's just that Episode IV and Episode V had more depth to their storytelling. A New Hope gave you a new galaxy full of glorious sights to explore while Empire added some needed depth and maturity to the Saga. Jedi, though, seems content to retread old ground all for a climax where the mighty Empire is felled by mini space bears. Considering the heights expected after the fifth film, its hard to view the sixth film as anything other than a letdown.
Before Episode VI can focus on its main story it first has to tie up loose ends from its direct predecessor. Han was captured and frozen in Carbonite in Empire, sold to Jabba for unpaid debts, so the team has to band together, invade Jabba's HQ, unfreeze Han, and somehow escape. The plan quickly goes right off the rails but, thanks to Luke showing up and being a badass Jedi, the day is eventually saved. Reunited, our full team (now including Lando) head to the Rebellion's new base so that plans can be made to bring down the Empire once and for all. It seems that while the Rebellion was faffing about last movie, the Empire had quickly moved forward on rebuilding the Death Star. Already most of the way completed, the Death Star could easily give the Empire the decisive edge they need to defeat the Rebels once and for all (especially without Gallen Erso involved to set a weakness in the designs like he did back in Rogue One).
Thus, a small team is dispatched to Endor, a forest moon and the current location of the Death Star II, floating in orbit. The team -- Luke, Han, Leia, C3PO, Chewie, and R2D2 -- are supposed to find a shield generator base on the moon so they can destroy it and take out the one thing protecting the half-built Death Star. Then, the Rebellion can fly their ships in, attack the Death Star, and once again blow it up. Along the way, though, Luke and his crew will end up making friends with the Ewoks, the native sentient creatures on the planet, mini-bear natives who live in the dense forests of the world. With the help of the Ewoks most of the team (minus Luke) could head to the base and find a way to take it over and drop the shield around thee Death Star. Meanwhile, Luke, sensing Darth Vader on the Death Star, flies up to try and free his father from the Dark Side. But there's a greater evil at stake as the Emperor is also on the Death Star and will do everything he can to lure Luke to the Dark Side so he can how two powerful Jedis at his command as he rules the galaxy. Only one side will win.
As with the previous two films, Return of the Jedi opens with a small section of film to lead us in to the greater adventure. While each of these sequences -- Darth Vader attacking Leia's ship in the first film, the Empire attacking the Rebel base on Hoth in the second movie -- added to the overall plot of the film and set the stakes for the film moving forward, it's hard to make the case that the opening sequence of Jedi has that same impact. For one, this is all to resolve one plot thread from the previous film, that of Han's capture. I'm sure there had to be a way to organically write his rescue into the larger film, handling it better than a tossed off adventure that, in a modern film series, might have been done as a web-based minisode. The way it's handled here isn't organic at all. In fact, considering the larger story the film wants to tell, that of the final conflict between Rebels and the Empire, this opening sequence actually drains away a lot of momentum from the series, and the rest of the film is never able to quite get it back.
Han was put in Carbonite largely because George Lucas and Solo actor Harrison Ford weren't sure if Han would come back for the third movie. He's given a pretty solid "death" at the end of the previous film and it's left a mystery if Han can ever really be saved. Some might say Han had to be rescued, but I'll make the argument that the film might have been stronger if Han had been left for dead at least for this movie. Trying to tie up both this plot thread and the larger conflict about with the Empire in the same movie means neither side really gets enough time or development to feel like fleshed out ideas. Han's death from the previous movies is wiped away, and the whole opening sequence that follows is just goofy and dumb. Even as a kid I never really enjoyed the opening of this movie.
And then we get to Endor and the movie really loses its way. I don't hate the Ewoks. Honestly, I think its cool that the film series added in yet another sentient species, showing that life really can take any form and grown anywhere. And having the Ewoks help the infiltration team is fine. The Empire has always shown itself to be too cocky, trusting in its own might when it really shouldn't. If the movie had been about the team finding a way to destroy a second Death Star and, via the Empire's own incompetence and their ability to suspect the space bears out the forest could be a threat, they lose their super weapon again, I think I would have been find with that story. It would have been fun, and silly, but it could have played like a caper flick and been enjoyable for what it was.
But Return of the Jedi isn't just about destroying a super weapon; it's also about ending the Empire once and for all. For that reason, the Emperor has to be on the Death Star, and Luke has to go up to have a final confrontation with Vader, the Emperor, and the Dark Side. That's where the problem lies because the second you put the supreme leader of the Empire in play you automatically have to up the amount of defense, both in space and on the planet, that the Death Star gets. I know the movie plays it off as a trap for the Rebels, that the Empire is brought down by the Emperor's own hubris, but the simple fact is that once the trap is set and the Rebels fall for the ruse, the rest of the Emperor's forces should have been revealed. The Rebellion should have been defeated with overwhelming force at that moment, but the overwhelming force never materializes.
What was the Emperor's plan, really? Did he really think that the few ships and a few troops could actually take on the fill Rebellion? When you best guys on the planet are felled by space bears, and then the star base you're on can be blown up by a smuggler's ship and his X-Wing wingman, you're severely overestimated your own abilities. He's been in power 20 years and he's taken out by Ewoks. It's laughable.
That's really where the movie loses me. It's not in the setup, not in the special effects or the acting (which remain great), and it's not with the space bears. No, it's the fact that this movie is setup as a climax to the series, the final chapter in this trilogy and the end of the story of the Empire and the Rebellion. If this had just been another film in the series, a way to bring Han back and show the Rebellion continuing their march against the Empire, I think it would have been fine. A weaker, but still enjoyable middle entry in the Saga. Instead it has to bear the weight of being the end of a major era in the series, and under that weight it just doesn't hold up.
Return of the Jedi is an enjoyable enough diverse, fun and amusing with a few good moments and a couple of decent action sequences to carry the film. I like those aspects of the movie, but I hate it as an end to the Imperial era of Star Wars. What I really want is one more movie dedicated to Luke fighting the Emperor to give us a proper conclusion that feels earned. Keep the space bears, they're fine, just ditch the Emperor from this movie and put him in a fourth film so he can get his proper due. As it is, the Empire goes out with a whimper when it deserved a more fitting end.
Continuity and Issues:
So the first Death Star took on the order of 20 years to construct (since we saw it partially built all the way back in Episode III: Revenge of the Sith). It was blown up at the end of Episode IV: A New Hope, and now the Death Star II is mostly constructed, what, four years at most later? And Darth Vader is complaining that it's not moving quickly enough. Hell, that's an awful moving goal post. No wonder Vader is going around Force coking co-workers left and right.
Of course, the quick turn around would make more sense if we imagine there's a whole ship yard with Death Stars being constructed. Like, after the first one exploded, maybe they used three or four partially made Death Stars to quickly finish the single, most complete one. That's not what happened, but it makes much more sense then one space station taking twenty years to build and then the Emperor saying "oh well, build me another one over the weekend."
Jabba is much larger in this film than he was in the Special Edition of A New Hope. Some of that is, of course, trying to fit a CGI model over top of a human actor for the originally deleted Jabba sequence from that film. That said, I think most of the Hutts are around the size of Jabba here in this film, leading me to think it's less a matter of Jabba getting fat (or his equivalent of swole) and more just an issue with the CGI editing-in process.
The Special Edition of this film adds in a completely pointless musical number in Jabba's lair. I seriously don't get why it was included because it adds less than nothing to the proceedings, actually slowing down the pace of the film for no reason. This is one of the most glaring additions to these films that I just can't stand.
I want the story about how Luke made his saber. The kyber crystals can't be easy to get in a Sith-controlled galaxy. Who did he get the crystal from? Did the Rebellion have to trade something away so their one Jedi could have his laser sword again?
So here we have Obi-Wan trying to dig these movies out of the hole they created when Anakin Skywalker wasn't killed by Darth Vader and, instead, went evil and became Vader. Sure, you can take it as Obi-Wan just trying to keep a dark secret from Luke, but it seems like bad hand-waving.
Since Amidala died when Luke and Leia were born Leia shouldn't have any memory of her mother. The fact that she does is a bit of an issue raised by the prequels. I know there's stories set in the extended universe that explain it, but, again, that's just hand-waving away a problem Lucas should have seen coming when he wrote the prequels.