We live in a strange age, folks. When I was a kid, all we had were VHS pans and scanned versions of old movies like Superman, Raiders of the Lost Arkand Foreigners. These days, almost every weekend brings a theatrical re-release of a classic movie. So far, this year giving us a remastered edition of Titanic and now Star Wars: Return of the Jedi for its 40th anniversary. It’s a strange echo of 1997, which saw the release of Cameron’s film and the Star Wars Special Edition trilogy.
My views on Return of the Jedi have varied over the years. As a kid, it was my favorite Star Wars movie. It’s a fun, action-packed space fantasy with vibrant visuals and colorful characters. As I got older, however, my interests were more drawn to the darker aspects of The The Empire is back and I leave ROTJ’s childish nonsense.
In theaters, I still enjoy the spectacle. John Williams’ amazing score does most of the heavy lifting, but there’s also some fun character development and great effects. Han Solo is more goofball than scoundrel, Leia is more of a doe-eyed princess than feisty freedom fighter, and Luke is, well… more powerful Luke.
Even Darth Vader lacked menace. In a wild about-face from his actions in Empire, the villain doesn’t kill a soul and functions until the third act. She shares a great scene with Luke, where she confesses her love for the dark side. However, it doesn’t look like the Vader we all fear – perhaps to make the film more kid-friendly.
I mean, just look at this scene:
Compared to, say, this Empire scene:
Return of the Jedi maximizes entertainment above all else
It’s Jedi fun. Where A New Hope and Empire were designed to appeal to all audiences, ROTJ is intended for young adults. I once read a review that described the experience of catching up with old friends, which was apt. Stiff performances, simplistic script, quick resolutions to dangling story threads, and lack of fresh ideas show that the cast and crew are eager to move on. While ROTJ is satisfying, I’m not sure it lives up to its name.
After all, IT how did the Empire fall?
From the original Star Wars trilogy, Jedi feels the most dated. The hairstyles, the acting, the fight choreography, and the overall look of the film firmly set the events of the early 1980s. In comparison, Empire features lively cinematography, dark shadows, and dramatic lighting. See this series of fights between Luke and Vader and compare it to their standoff in ROTJ.
That being said, Jedi have some magical moments. Luke versus the Rancor was great, Jabba the Hutt remains the villain of all time, and that high-speed chase through the forest still induces goosebumps:
I’m not going to include all of the Ewoks. They don’t work for me, but they make the kids happy.
Empire Strikes Back stands alone
If you remove Empire from the equation, Star Wars is closer to a Saturday morning cartoon than, say, Dune. The Empire remains the lone wild card – the ugly one Star Wars epic that teases endless artistic and creative possibilities.
Return of the Jedi is very much in line with George Lucas’ vision. It’s big, bold, and sometimes exciting, but it’s also silly, full of silly humor and cartoonish action … not to mention hopeful, optimistic, and full of heart.
Sitting in the theater, I was swept away by the innocence of the Jedi and the true approach of good versus evil. There’s a bit of nuance to be found here, but that’s part of the appeal. Halfway through, I stopped gnashing my teeth at its flaws, sat back, and enjoyed the show. We may never get another Empire Strikes Back, especially with Disney in charge. However, that legendary picture may be a case of lightning in a bottle, an aberration in a long-running franchise that has hit more than it hits. I didn’t give up.
Return of the Jedi doesn’t match the cinematic grandeur but offers quality family entertainment. In these increasingly ridiculous times, maybe, just maybe, that’s enough.