Star Wars: Episode VI — Return of the Jedi (1983) — You’re going to die here, you know. Convenient.
Welcome back to Registering the Registry, where we consider and review the films inducted into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry by merit of their cultural, historical, and aesthetic qualities! After some delays, we’re back with a look at one of the biggest names in the class of 2022, the concluding chapter of the original trilogy and blight upon mankind, Richard Marquand’s Return of the Jedi! It’s a long one today, so let’s get crackin’!
If you get too high-minded in your thinking about why a work might make the National Film Registry, Return of the Jedi feels an odd inclusion. The original Star Wars makes sense as a member of the inaugural 1989 class, for the Registry hadn’t yet fully coalesced its trend of mixing esteemed mainstream classics with important but endangered works of independent and local cinema, and while there were plenty other respectable works left out with it as the only representative of the 70s, a late 80s perspective on American film easily identifies Lucas’ space opera as one of the principle films of the decade. The Empire Strikes Back also slots naturally into qualities the Library of Congress identifies as worthwhile by its 2010 inclusion, being a rare additive sequel in the realm of commercial franchise filmmaking and playing a key role in ensuring Star Wars as a cultural force would survive past the crummy disco remixes and Holiday Specials by establishing a capacity for relatively deeper spiritual musings. Marketplaces of cash and ideas alike remolded themselves to match the first two entries’ examples, and they themselves are exemplary examples of editing as a defining feature of the medium in action to boot. Return of the Jedi, for its part, comes along when the landscape is already dominated by Star Wars, when everyone is already racing after Star Wars’ example, and doesn’t do much as a worldshaker other than thunderously declare, “THIS IS WHERE STAR WARS STOOD, AND THIS IS WHERE STAR WARS SHALL STOP,” to the tune of ten times its production cost in theatrical gross. Inducting it into the Registry feels a matter of completionism, something we simply must do at some point to ensure there’s a big eye-catching name in the headline for all the news outlets to focus on so they don’t spend too long paying attention to the smallfry inductees whose fragile status might actually need some attention.
Feels so particularly at this stage, nearly forty years on from Jedi’s release, after two whole cycles of Star Wars slumping into spin-offs for brand enthusiasts only before reigniting with great furor to prove why it probably should’ve died on Lucas’ original terms. Neither the man’s genuine attempts to fill gaps in his story nobody with a proportionate idea of what’s important in filmic storytelling thought were gaps while relearning directing on the fly following a twenty-year hiatus, nor Disney’s hair-tearing exercises in willing the franchise to live as one of its highly-polished living dead devoid of substance or passion or consistent vision while warring with its creatives’ attempts to place their own stamp has inspired much confidence in Star Wars’ health. Sure, they’ve generated millions and billions of dollars in ticket sales, and a good deal beyond that in merchandising; sure, the fanbase has never once waned in enthusiasm, positively or negatively oriented, to pretty damaging effects in each case; sure, Star Wars the entity sat beneath the nifty single stroke yellow line logo with the lightsabers and the Force and the X-wings and the Yoda is likely to perpetrate itself into infinity long after my time of dying, assuming society doesn’t explode before then. I say Star Wars has seemed sickly and unlikely to recover since at least 1991 because its first two installments spoke to a kind of health wholly devoid from near-anything produced after.
They spoke to a market willing to permit to so out-there an idea as reviving the Republic film serial with aesthetics equally drawn from pulp magazine sci-fi and contemporary cynical futurism the status of major release and crown it a box office juggernaut, a studio system sufficiently tolerant of freewheeling creatives to give Lucas the chances necessary to hammer the troubled production into shape. They spoke to days when the mystery in a fantastical story’s background was texture to enhance the feeling you could go anywhere and see anything, a feeling contributive to the immediacy of its narrative and action rather than potential spin-offs full on magic-grinding explanation. Here was an era when special effects breakthroughs were accomplishments worthy of elevating their developers to celebrity status in turn, capable of legitimizing a field long looked down upon if not working on war flicks, of making the impossible electric and tactile instead of ordinary and expected. Empire in particular speaks to a willingness (however grudging) to allow a different perspective dominance in the creative process of an established work’s continuation, to ignore the immediate aspects of weird aliens and high action tantalizing for any sequelization in favor of digging at character and theme with a smaller assemblage strengthened to feel bigger than before. The era of blockbusters inaugurated by Jaws and solidified by Star Wars COULD do better than regurgitating the original formula in increasingly mushier form, COULD question its assumptions and dig to the core of what made its first installments resonant, COULD aspire to a legitimacy beyond the already respectable greatness of mastering the art of crowdpleasing.
One can identify Return of the Jedi as a contributing factor in the onset of this decline in Star Wars’ health and with it the health of the franchise film in general, if not for any reasons you can easily condemn on their own. I will never in a million years believe Lucas’ bullshit about having a perfectly plotted story mapped in his head before writing a single word or knowing from the start he’d get nine movies no trouble, but I absolutely take him at his word when he says there was a brief moment between Episodes IV and V when he honestly thought Star Wars as a series could match the vision in his mind’s eye. Then came the splinters — nearly losing Mark Hamill to a car crash, Lucas exhausting himself on the first movie to the point he trusted Irving Kershner and Lawrence Kasdan to guide the film in directions he never intended, the contemporary audience backlash against Empire for not being enough like Star Wars, Harrison Ford’s rebellion against the idea of doing these films into perpetuity, Lucas souring his relationship with producer Gary Kurtz, and splitting with his wife/indispensable editor Marcia mid-Episode VI. A million instances of life’s hard knock realities crashing on an idealist visionary’s head, coupled with a growing sense society’s attention would swiftly pass him by, and Star Wars goes from something of ambitions untold before or since to two movies capped by a third and final installment. As I say, understandable: a body will likely cease chasing the impossible dream if the chase is shutting down normative function, and there’s no shame in stopping when you already conquered the world. So dramatic a shift in priorities necessitated compression, however, especially as Lucas was determined to wrench his bootstrapped finale away from Kershner’s quieter mode in Empire back towards the bombast he originally envisioned, though still retaining elements of the new mode for consistency’s sake, because he knew how to play the hand he was dealt unlike a certain someone. Planned plotlines must be merged, long arcs made short and conclusive, older ideas trotted out and pumped up larger to create some sense of continuity. Return of the Jedi becomes as much an attempt to stop anyone from coercing George Lucas back into making more Star Wars films by way of shutting the book hard as possible as a Star Wars film in its own right.
Not to imply this adds up to a bad movie. Certainly a movie with many a notable flaw or janky passage. Harrison Ford plainly does not want to be here, coerced into coming back as Han Solo at the last possible moment after a rocky turn as Rick Deckard for Ridley Scott, and so mugs his face clean off at every opportunity, turning in a fun performance hardly recognizable as the rough smuggler with a heart of fool’s gold from before. Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher struggle with their emotive material as it is so deeply entwined with an ill-judged decision to merge a plot about Leia becoming a Jedi and Luke tracking down his twin sister into one beat that does little other than retroactively introduce incest into the franchise, a complication which seemingly leaves them unwilling to fully engage their skills. Hamill especially only gets a grip on how best to perform his character in the back half, creating an awkward lumpiness when the preceding passages are dominated by characters with no story of their own, present only because they’re series staples. The macro movie-wide structure has gone to pot, with the opening act dominated by the rescue from Jabba’s palace extended at least three times longer than its function as reintroduction to the characters probably warranted, the second act given over to an infiltration mission sidetracked down a long and winding road dotted with Ewoks, and the third left to resolve the conflict between Luke and Vader AND give the Rebels a satisfactory fight against the Empire with some Ewok assistance AND cap the trilogy inside forty minutes. Say buh-bye to nimble, buttery progression defined by constant forward momentum, it simply ain’t in this movie. Any believable notion Luke might turn to the dark side (the central question of the picture, I might add) is left as dusting so lightly applied you probably won’t ever think about it until hours after credits, and even then only in the context of wondering why the movie has the hero force choking people and indiscriminately cutting down bad guys like his villain father while blaring an unironically heroic John Williams score.
It’s easy as hell to pick at Jedi and find ample backing evidence to argue it an uneven, uncertain film that reveals George Lucas as a fantastic idea man and crew coordinator who doesn’t quite understand how movies should move or people should behave without his ex-wife and ex-producer around.
It’s just easier to praise the film as an impressive extension of what its predecessors laid down in face of its disadvantages. The palace rescue sequence, for instance. Jabba the Hutt’s massive, disgusting puppet would be enough on its lonesome to justify spending as much time in this seedy hole as possible, and still the film has oodles to offer the longer we drag our feet on getting out’ve here. A greater concentration of gonzo droid and alien designs than the original film’s cantina sequence, crafted with makeup and costuming jobs worlds advanced beyond the off-the-shelf masks and retrofit flips of six years prior. Impressive puppetry from the weaselly annoying Salacious Crumb to the glistening fast-motion Rancor creature. Glimpses at what traditions of the crime genre look like when filtered through the Star Wars aesthetic: private lounge acts rendered with weirdly catchy alien tunes, hit jobs turned into gladiatorial combat against a slavering monster, driving some mugs out to the desert for a shallow grave made a grand show over a toothy tentacled mouth in the ground that becomes a frenzied action sequence of characters leaping over and dangling off flying sail barges. It may not serve a damned lick of purpose in the film to follow, but it finds the filthiest, slimiest corner to peek around you could manage in a family-friendly film, and completely immerses you there for well over half an hour. Set design and lighting and music and pacing are all on-point to generate an atmosphere of rottenness the characters fall into as one victim after the next, to the point one’s led around by chain in a skimpy gold bikini, until they finally blow it all to kingdom come in a blast of blind flailing and gigantic laser cannons and choking the stupid slug man with his own links of gross power. All this, AND it has Paul Brooke in his brief memorable cameo as the sobbing Rancor keeper, just to remind you there’s hints of humanist tales untold even this deep in the muck.
Or take our extended stay on the forest moon of Endor, with its tribal teddy bears of endearing personality and somewhat questionable indigenous primitives coding. I cannot complain long about a stretch of film which produced the franchise’s single best action scene via the Steadicam-driven speederbike chase through the single worst environment for navigation on speederbike. The sensation of those trees whipping by at 300 MPH and the enormous satisfying fiery BOOMs whenever someone finally misses a twitch on the steering completely overwhelms any datedness in the bluescreen compositing. As for the longer-present Ewoks themselves, they’re admirable in their own right for turning Lucas’ swap from budget-unfriendly Wookies to little people actors into a roundabout statement on tactical warfare by resisting anything obviously badass or intimidating. These fuzzballs who spook themselves at every other turn and swing around like Tarzan in treetop villages and worship Anthony Daniels are crafty and organized enough to catch the heroes off-guard, putting them in as much danger as the more overt threats of the trash compactor or the asteroid worm (not even with a notably greater degree of tension-defusing comedy if you remember how those scenes played out), and when all parties come to an understanding against the Empire, the teddy bears prove a surprisingly effective fighting force. Not initially, for they’ve gotta take enough licks to match the space fleet caught between a contingent of Super Star Destroyers and a fully armed and operational Death Star (including the film’s other great minor humanist moment when one Ewok tries to raise a dead companion), but once they get their feet under them and find the right angles for their guerilla tactics, the stormtroopers and AT-AT walkers crumble readily as anything. Through the Ewoks you find a symbolic extension of Yoda’s speeches about not underestimating based on first impressions, the reason any named character gets out alive contingent on funny waddling plush animals peppering Imperial forces with rolling logs and flung stones and crafty coordination. I’m more than down with ’em myself, and will happily accept the reality they mostly strongarmed the Wookies out’ve the budget because they made excellent toys.
Or just… anything to do with Ian McDiarmid as the Emperor, honestly. Only properly present for a third of the final third, only here to serve as Luke’s final challenge with little buildup, and yet far ’n’ away the best part of the entire movie. His face a ghoulish apparition with piercing eyes beneath a heavy hood and skin wrinkled with impossible age, his every word dripping with memorable malice, contempt, unrepentant enjoyment of the sheer level to which he’s played the Rebels into his inescapable trap. The mind scans him as scarcely human for how deeply he’s torn apart his person and replaced it with unmistakable evil, but there must have once been something recognizable as a person in there, else his attempts to play upon Luke’s fragile emotional state as the Imperial fleet rips his friends apart and he’s backed further into a corner wouldn’t cut so deep or sting so cruelly. He’s the gold standard for all other evil emperors, and wizened shadowy figures, and master manipulators, concentrated wickedness without a drop’s dilution in the mix, capable of taking his villainy high as possible with mere mocking words, then ramping it to the next level with cold lightning from his fingertips. One of those bad guys the descriptor “delicious” was made for, which makes it so enthralling when Hamill falls for those deceptions, spends a good chunk of his time in the throne room fully prepared to kill the Emperor or Vader if necessary, only to see the horrible truth of what he’s becoming at the last moment and make the right choice when it really counts. A large portion of the accolades for this deservedly rest on Mark’s shoulders, but it’s Ian whose goading and cackling and soft moaning in ecstasy at the prospect of his death if it will destroy the galaxy’s last hope makes those reactions hit so hard against a figure who seems to turn even failure into opportunity until he pushes the wrong man a little too far.
If McDiarmid is the single MVP of the entire film, the tag-team between David Prowse, James Earl Jones, and Sebastian Shaw as Darth Vader represents its best asset overall. The material might not be quite so strong as the mystery about what’s on his mind in Empire, but the two primary actors for the Sith Lord do a phenomenal job capturing the conflict running through Vader’s heart as he’s tasked with delivering his son unto the dark side. Jones obviously kills it as always, allowed a few scenes of honesty and vulnerability without dropping his usual imposing tone and veiled threats in every word; it’s Prowse who makes those words hit harder, though, pushing his silent suit acting further than ever with a greater deal of hesitation than seen in the previous films, making it clear Vader is weighing Luke’s and his fate as one when he listens the the young Jedi’s pleas or sizes him up between bouts of increasingly unhinged lightsaber dueling. While we never lose Vader the towering force in pitch black armor who matches Ben’s assessment as “more machine now than man” across every inch, Prowse’s subtle caution and reticence gives one some distant reason to believe Luke isn’t entirely off-base about Vader the fallen Jedi. Those moments when he’s watching the Emperor torture Luke, turning his head between his son and his master, knowing full well he’s made himself complicit in and direct executor of the man’s whims because he could not imagine bearing the punishment upon his head if he stepped out of line, finding in Luke’s writhing, screaming form something worse than he ever imagined, and finally breaks to hurl the old bastard down a pit? Sublime, top five Star Wars moments contender for certain. And then you get Shaw and his eyebrows providing a nice little heartbreaker finale to contrast Lando blowing the new Death Star to high heaven, a tiny but important part capped by a solemn rework of the “Imperial March” theme.
Return of the Jedi is a good movie on its own terms. Messily assembled compared to what came before and showing signs the regular performers would rather not do this for the rest of their lives (HA), yes. Capable of providing exciting new glimpses into what this universe has to offer and squeezing every drop of value from ILM’s considerable talent pool of the day, also yes. Successful in struggling to follow on Empire’s hurled gauntlet and making something a touch meaningful out of the conflict between father and son, certainly. A worthy capstone to an endeavor which could’ve easily ended with the first installment but rather demanded further sequels after the second entry’s ending, sure, I’ll say so. A major reason why Star Wars has bled and not stopped bleeding that which made it special and invigorating for nearly four decades now? Oh God, yes.
See, much as Jedi’s individual components work like gangbusters, the stuff with Jabba and Endor and the big space battle is fundamentally at odds with the direction the franchise took in Empire. All the expansions on weird creature design and bombastic spectacle and mega-scale space combat the first sequel resisted are made into core selling-features and plopped right alongside the slower, thoughtful approach to space opera filmmaking, Luke’s quiet scenes with Yoda and Ben and Leia distinctly disharmonious with Han smugly winging his way through an invasion and A-Wing pilots kamikazing into Star Destroyer command towers. It’s not like Empire turned into Ozu or Tartakovsky when the crew decided investing a lot of time in Yoda was better worth the effort than thirty new wacky aliens, but the sheer impact of Luke’s confrontation with Vader and the fallout of his shocking reveal rather demanded the next chapter deal with the fallout at length. Instead, it shows up in a film helmed by a director really only here as proxy to Lucas’ desires for return to his stylistic preferences and an easy, simple saga conclusion. Were the man not so exhausted, frustrated, disillusioned by his experiences making Star Wars happen, Jedi could’ve acted as a buffer chapter, playing with lighter-hearted grandiosity up front as Luke shows signs of abandoning his principles and becoming more like his father as result of his trauma, the repeated victory over the new Death Star and celebration amongst the Ewoks tainted by the knowledge a nastier personal fight still lies ahead. With the two modes awkwardly mashed into one another, the movie and Star Wars as a whole suffers an identity crisis, uncertain whether the undertaking is still only a romping throwback or truly interested in developing character and questioning supposedly unshakable first principles.
The effects cascade out of control. Expanded universe media is constantly caught in a dilemma between attempts at elevation into serious sci-fi and mindless fanservice of bigger ships ’n’ cooler force powers. Lucas’ prequels lose the plot entirely and try for a serious-minded examination of how a seemingly strong democracy can fall to populist fascism wrapped in packaging and marketing aimed at pleasing four-year olds (source: was four when they started, and immensely pleased by The Phantom Menace). Disney’s own sequels and streaming spin-offs fall victim to a war between directors over the soul of the story, goaded on by fans who just want Star Wars. It seems Star Wars is all they want, for in the mind of those who dedicate themselves to the brand heart and soul, all Star Wars can signify is more Star Wars, the act of making more Star Wars an inherent good regardless what it does. Lacking a coherent identity, beset by constant consumer demand for yet further product, more elaboration, more explanation, more exploration, more more more more more, the people in charge of Star Wars wield no perspective with which they might defend their ground, and so cave to demand, and we arrive here. Forty-five years after the first film’s debut, drowning in new films and TV shows and games and books and comics and every medium under the sun, none of it capable of meaning anything other than, “You like Star Wars, so you will like this new Star Wars.” A good deal of it isn’t even on so simple a singular level — so much of it has reached a point of, “You will like this because you liked this thing because you liked this thing because you liked this thing because you liked this thing because you liked this thing because you liked Star Wars.” Or hell, given the sheer obsession you sometimes find from fans who got into the series through Battlefront or The Clone Wars or the prequels while expressing disinterest in or outright hatred towards the original films, the simulacra have multiplied so prodigiously you don’t even need to like Star Wars to like Star Wars.
Hence it feeling weird to find Return of the Jedi among the NFR’s inductees if you think too hard, as we are wont to do on this column. The mistake of crafting two opposing movies in one and calling it a day has linked with the larger trend of corporate greed fueled by the nostalgia spending power of a generation who never quite stopped being the primary market movers as younger throngs came up through increasing economic crisis and wealth disparity to dash the film’s larger context against some awfully bloodied rocks. When the movie is remembered as “the one that concluded Star Wars” rather than for its impact on the cultural landscape, celebrating Jedi as one of the American essentials seems another example of glorifying Star Wars as an inherent good because it’s Star Wars. A part of me wants to take this tact, conclude by saying Return of the Jedi is important to history because it played a small yet meaningful part in the hollowing of the mainstream blockbuster, just absolutely word vomit cynicism about the future and claim we’re stuck in this pit until the end of time. I am, however, also aware I remain in a fragile state after my dad’s death, and have to ask myself how he’d respond if I outlined such a conclusion while talking about my work over prepping dinner or on a long drive. It’s barely a question, cause I know he’d tell me I’m catastrophizing and narrowing my focus too much, so in his spirit let’s hammer this piece’s components into something a lil’ more positive and forward-thinking, yeah?
I’ve loaded this article with behind the scenes production photos rather than still from the film as per usual for a reason, and not just because Star Wars production photos are Real Fuckin’ Nifty. They’re here as reminder that regardless the direction taken by the franchise’s top-level talent and pocketbook managers, Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi were made by passionate, creative, exceptionally talented people, and while the adjectives there are the reason the films turned out so well, it’s the noun we have to remember. All the muckery of spin-offs and revivals and branding to appeal to people multiple generations removed from the initial cultural moment, it’s all corporate obligation to chase the nostalgia dollar metastasized into ensuring what sold under the nostalgia dollar two decades ago will sell until time stops. The swamp of corporate-owned blockbusters is, of course, not the only option out there. The sort of people who made Star Wars are still working, still trying their hardest to make their wonky outside the box idea take off with the public, still walking in the spirit of the film school wunderkind with ambitions of doing Flash Gordon his way. Might not be half so well financed, might not be working in the same medium, might not be making anything remotely like Star Wars in the superficial, but the little guy lives on, toiling away in hope someone finds their creation worthwhile.
Focus on them. Find them. Support them. If you’ve only time or cash to help a few out, it’s a few who’ve got a somewhat stronger chance at success thanks to you. Despair not at the state of modern blockbusters; instead, take a page from the film under discussion. There is no degraded, corrupt, damned figure so far gone a little pressure from the plucky underdog applied in just the right place can’t topple the scaffolding and redeem what redeemable soul remains. Just… let Star Wars be what it has become, and foster the growth of what’s to come in whatever form it takes.
(“Yub Nub” > “Victory Celebration,” fight me.)
I put myself through the sequel trilogy and spin-off films after years of avoidance to gain proper perspective for this article, so I’m very glad to be Done with Star Wars for now. You in the comments, however, need have no such reservations — what do you think? About the movie, its story, its making, the franchise’s future any of it! Throw your thoughts down below and keep your eyes peeled for the next article. When we reconvene, it’s Jonathan Demme’s big concert film, capturing a pure look at Talking Heads at the peak of their artistic accomplishment and public acclaim in 1984’s Stop Making Sense! At present you can find it streaming through Roku, Pluto TV, Kanopy, or plex! See you then!
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