Comics Ate My Brain

May 25, 2007

Into The Woods: Star Wars, Episode VI: Return of the Jedi

Filed under: star wars — Tom Bondurant @ 2:42 am
I’m always a bit surprised by how much I like Return of the Jedi. There are parts of it I don’t like (the Special Edition’s musical number chief among them) and choices I think were ill-advised, but I give it credit for its central focus. As much as George Lucas claims the entire cycle is about Anakin/Vader, Jedi is about Luke.

Spooky Luke is in full effect from his first appearance in the film, hooded and cloaked as an obvious combination of Obi-Wan and Vader. Mark Hamill’s Jedi-mind-trick voice sounds like it’s been hollowed out with a battered wooden spoon, and his eyes are cold and penetrating: “You will bring Captain Solo and the Wookiee to me.” Later, when he tells the Emperor “soon I’ll be dead, and you with me,” he’s pretty convincing. He’s come a long way from those power converters at Tosche Station. It’s no accident that the final Jedi/Sith confrontation takes place high above the rest of the action. It would not have carried as much weight had the Emperor’s throne room been a hellish environment, as originally conceived.

The rescue of Han particularly shows Luke in charge, and also ensures that Han will be in a secondary role throughout the film. Han spends most of the sail-barge fight flailing around trying to rescue Lando. He gets to bark orders and fight later on, but he’s nowhere near the presence he was in Empire. He’s also been separated from the Millennium Falcon, so the dynamic space-pirate mojo he was working in the other films is curtailed here. His presence on Endor, and that of Leia, does make the audience care about the ground battles, and gives Lando a chance to shine in his old ride, but those assignments seem more logistical than character-driven. The principals spent most of Empire apart, so Jedi naturally wants to have them together as much as it can.

There’s still something missing from the Luke/Han/Leia relationship, beyond even the hint of a love triangle from the first film. Indeed, with Han and Leia free to be romantic, the Unresolved Sexual Tension which sparked their interactions in the previous films has been dimmed. One can see how they will grow into an old married couple in this film, but one still misses the “I am not a committee!” style of banter which made them appealing in the first place.

I tend to think that Leia gets the short end of the Jedi stick in this movie. I understand why, mind you; I just think Luke could have done a bit more planning, and maybe passed along a few simple Jedi exercises, before he strode off to face certain death at the hands of the Sith Lords. She does get to strangle Jabba with her chain, but her dealings with the Ewoks make her more of a nurturer. Obviously this is in keeping with the implication that she and Han are to breed the next generation of Jedi.

Like Han, Vader takes a more subordinate role in this movie. In this respect the prequels do Jedi a favor, showing us how fearsome Palpatine was (and may still be), but except for the beginning and the end, Vader is back to the same level on the organizational chart he had in Episode IV. Only in his climactic duel with Luke, when he ponders evilly the prospect of turning Leia to the Dark Side, does the Vader of Empire peek through.

For his part, the Emperor hasn’t lost much from his last big appearance in Episode III. He’s not as seductive or as scary, but he is more of a presence than Vader in the scenes they share. He’s just as manipulative, too — by making the Rebels aware of his Death Star visit, he sets the same kind of trap for Luke that he did for Anakin at the beginning of Episode III. When push comes to shove and he realizes he’ll have to kill Luke himself, it connects him most clearly with the end of Episode III.

We’ll come back to that in a moment, but I do want to talk about some technical aspects. Jedi has a very organic look, not surprising for a movie that spends most of its time in the redwood forest. It goes along with the general breakdown of structures that the two Star Wars trilogies chronicle. The Death Star is only half-finished, the Rebel fleet is an ad hoc collection of starships and fighters, and in fact the only major man-made structures in the movie belong to bad guys: Jabba’s palace, the shield generator bunker, and the Death Star. (If memory serves, Yoda’s house and the Ewok villages are the only other buildings.)

(The sight of the half-finished Death Star is nice and eerie. When I saw the first preview images back in 1983, at first I thought it was the wreckage of the old one. As it is, it’s like a great metal skull made of scaffolding.)

However, the location scenes, especially on Endor, don’t feel right somehow. The less built-up they are, the more they remind me of live-action role-playing. Aside from the original movie, and the prequels’ Tatooine scenes, Star Wars tends not to do well with location shooting. I got the feeling the camera couldn’t follow the Endor battles as well due to real-world restrictions, so they aren’t quite as involving as the Hoth battle or especially the prequels’ large-scale combat. Obviously, Jedi‘s space battle scenes could be choreographed more flexibly, and are more satisfying as a result.

The Ewoks can get annoying, but I still enjoy their schtick in moderation. Besides, the film doesn’t take them all that seriously. Considering they’re cuddly teddy bears who were more than ready to cook and eat Han, Luke, and Chewie, they’re a lot like the killer dolls in Barbarella — cute and fanged. Sure, given the choice, I would have liked a planet of Wookiees rising up against the Empire, but a) that would have been a much shorter battle and b) the Ewoks in large part buy time for the Rebel strike force to blow up the shield generator. In fact, I would put an Ewok village up against a village full of out-of-shape, overfed Hobbits any day. Last I heard, the Hobbits hadn’t perfected hang-gliding.

Indeed, watching the Ewok flip switches knowingly in order to steal that speeder bike, I wondered whether the Ewoks weren’t really just the last remnant of a more advanced civilization the Empire had subjugated a decade or ago to build this second (bigger, more powerful) Death Star. That would explain the Ewoks’ “Gilligan’s Island”-level of technology. It would also fit perfectly with the broken-systems motif I’ve been flogging throughout these disjointed little essays. The Ewoks are rebels too, of course, trying to throw the occupying Imperial forces out of their backyard, so they can go back to living in harmony with nature, or whaterver it was they were doing before.

Star Wars isn’t an ode to anarchy, because it does believe in some systems — remember Obi-Wan trying to convince the Gungans that they lived in symbiosis with the Naboo humans? It just doesn’t like the artificial systems which can preoccupy the ruling classes of hominids. Its heroes are unconventional Jedi, whiny farmboys, politicians-turned-freedom-fighters, outlaws, and robots with minds of their own. Luke triumphs through the Power of Love, which isn’t exactly the most original solution in all of fiction … except that he does so while channeling a Force that’s not supposed to favor such “attachments.” Apparently, the Force needed Anakin to destroy the Jedi Order so that Luke could rebuild it. As the last of the Jedi, and the first in a long time with no exposure to the Order’s practices, Luke is free to remold his students as the Force guides them.

Moreover, Jedi sees absolutely nothing wrong with Leia being a Jedi, a spouse, and presumably a mother, all at once. I’ve said before that through the Skywalkers, the Force sought to make itself more egalitarian, and I still see nothing to contradict that.

Accordingly, Jedi wraps up the cycle pretty well. It gets a bit draggy and repetitive for a good twenty minutes, when it bops back and forth among the Death Star, Endor, and space-battle threads, but watching it this time the end snuck up on me, and that gave the big climaxes an extra kick. Being a sentimental old softie, I still enjoy the brief surveys of Bespin, Tatooine, Naboo, and Coruscant, and the hugs-all-around montage. I even like the insertion of Hayden Christensen. He looks a little embarrassed — as he should — but it connects Anakin’s experiences more to Luke’s, and makes Anakin’s journey more poignant as a result. The circle is now complete, indeed.

Fireworks, anyone…?


  1. Well said, my friend.

    Comment by Anonymous — May 25, 2007 @ 3:29 am

  2. Great series of posts on the movies, Tom. I too don’t think the prequels deserve quite as much hate as they often get,and think that ROTS in particular is actually pretty good (I’d rank it third out of the six, and there are flashes of brilliance).Like I said, great series of posts.

    Comment by Rich — May 29, 2007 @ 12:24 pm

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