Trilogies seem to be the desired thing in the world of entertainment; for every film, it is seen fit to do a sequel for, a third instalment isn’t usually far behind (and sometimes a fourth, fifth, sixth, etc…) and this makes sense if the story demands it, sometimes the traditional three-act structure can’t be covered in one movie, in which case sequels are needed, such is the case here, a three-film arc worked perfectly for the story that was being told.
That being aside, I’d be hard pushed to name a trilogy where the third film is the strongest in the series. Usually, by the third film, you’ve used up all the series’ great ideas and are speeding downhill towards a conclusion, unless you have a firmly established arc in place from the beginning, your third film is usually the one that falls apart under the least pressure.
While I won’t go as far as saying Return of the Jedi ‘falls apart’ in any way, I will go as far as saying that it is the weakest of the original trilogy, not that it’s bad, I still like it a lot, just that after the one-two punch of A New Hope and Empire it had its work cut-out to both outdo its predecessors and wrap up the story in a satisfying way.
So, where are we in the story then? Well, after getting their collective arses kicked by the Empire last time out, the Rebellion are done licking their wounds and are ready to mount a comeback, starting with rescuing Han Solo, but it soon transpires that the Empire has a whole new Death Star nearing completion, the race is on to destroy it before it can be finished, meanwhile, Luke prepares to face his ultimate destiny by facing his father once again.
As a basic narrative skeleton, Return has all the basic ingredients to pay off the series’ running arcs in spectacular fashion, but like a moth at a firework display, it keeps getting distracted.
It doesn’t help that for my re-watch I watched the Disney+ version, which is the one with all the ‘Special Edition’ nonsense in it, which adds more ugly distractions to what should have been an easy road to concluding the saga.
As a whole, the film feels more sluggish than the previous two, like it’s lacking a certain spark that gave the series life, some parts are severely lacking in energy, one such area is the visuals, which on occasion seem dull and lifeless compared to the previous two entries. I couldn’t help but compare the set-pieces in Empire to those in this film, and they all feel so much worse off for it.
Maybe that’s being a tad unfair, as each Star Wars film has their own feel, and their own way of going about their action set-pieces, but putting special focus on the opening sequences in the original trilogy, Return‘s visit to Jabba’s palace just doesn’t measure up with the previous two, even if it has its moments, it still feels particularly low on energy.
That’s not to say the film is a complete bust, far from it, as I said earlier, I still like Return a lot, despite my critical brain pointing out its flaws. I wish it were better of course, but there’s still moments of greatness here that makes the Original Trilogy stand out.
Its final act is pretty much perfectly executed (give or take the Ewoks, who I’ll get to) giving us the final confrontation we’ve been waiting for throughout the whole series, as well as showing us the menace and power of the Emperor for the first time in the series. Vader’s change of heart is well-built and extremely well-paced, keeping us guessing right up until the final moment, and the flight of the Falcon to destroy the new Death Star is also thrilling, if not as ground-breaking as the first time around.
In a way, the film is redeemed by its final act, because it’s more or less the perfect ending to the story. It rounds off Luke and Anakin’s arcs perfectly, and has the element of emotion there too, in Vader’s final moments, actually satisfyingly humanising the monster. It’s a very touching moment, to say the least, and pays off three films worth of build-up surrounding Luke and Vader’s connection.
Some of the stuff on Endor is a sticking point for me, I must say, and it’s not even necessarily the Ewoks (I promise, I’ll get to them) it’s just that everything about it feels recycled, and even if some of the forest settings are quite nice on the eye, the effects in the action scenes are lacking, my mind goes to the speeder chase, which would almost look at home in the Prequels, for how fake it looks. This is what I meant earlier when I mentioned a lack of energy, it just feels like a film going through the motions, desperately wanting to get to the finale as quickly as possible, and the rush to get there is evident.
Then there’s the Ewoks. Full disclosure, I don’t hate them, I find them annoying and disconcerting, but I can’t register the same dislike I feel towards, Jar Jar, for instance; mainly because the Ewoks are actually useful, but they could have been useful AND a believable threat to the Stormtroopers (who I’ll remind you are soldiers, specially bred for battle) rather than cuddly teddy bears, specially designed for selling toys.
This isn’t a Star Wars-exclusive gripe, but I really hate when characters feel like they’re there to sell toys rather than to enhance the story, maybe that’s why I dislike the Transformers so much, but there’s no reason that the Ewoks couldn’t have looked at least slightly challenging to enemies because it just looks so out-of-place then they start successfully taking on stormtroopers; I remember reading before that at an early stage, it was supposed to be the Wookie’s who help the Rebels, and that sounds far better than what we have here. Still, I’m willing to live with them because of their eventual usefulness, but that isn’t to say they couldn’t have been better.
Acting-wise, everyone seems to have found their zone now with their characters. Mark Hamill is a much stronger performer here than he was at the start, and Carrie Fisher has transitioned from quiet nobility to headstrong leader in as natural a way as possible, adapting to her circumstances perfectly, and Harrison Ford is being Harrison Ford, that is to say, easily charismatic and charming, even when it doesn’t seem like he’s trying.
I could go on to say more about the changes made in the ‘Special Edition’ cuts of the film, but I think that dead horse has been flogged on the internet so much that there’s nearly any of its carcass left, suffice to say they add nothing but annoyance, but the film is still the same as it always was.
In conclusion, then, it’s not as revolutionary as the previous two films and feels lethargic at times, but for its final third, and eventually satisfying conclusion to the saga, Return of the Jedi still holds a special place in my heart. It’s in the shadow of Empire, but so is every Star Wars film since, in terms of concluding instalments of a trilogy, you can do a lot worse.