We have a month and a half left until The Last Jedi. We’ve been given a teaser, a trailer, and two excellent featurettes and yet there are still so many questions I have left unanswered. Who is Snoke? Will Kylo turn to the light side? Will Leia die? Is Rey a force reincarnation of Anakin Skywalker or isn’t she!? To keep my mind occupied with things other than questions of that sort, I continue through my rank and review of the Star Wars series. Let’s begin.
#6: Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi
I’ll allow a moment for people to collect themselves upon discovering this means a prequel will inevitably be ranked above an original trilogy entry, but I will attempt to justify my position. I adore much of this film. I am even in awe of certain aspects, but we cannot be willingly blind to it’s faults. Let us try to be as objective and honest as we can in discussing what works and what doesn’t. I should also note that I am judging the original trilogy off of the 2011 editions. This means I will both praise and criticize aspects of the films not in their theatrical releases, but ultimately it does nothing to change my overall ranking.
With all three characters being given their best performances yet, it makes their portion of the films climax one of the greatest sequences of not just the trilogy, but of the series as a whole. Luke, knowing a confrontation with Vader and Sidious is inevitable, surrenders himself and is taken aboard the Emperor’s flagship. Here, Luke watches as the climactic battle between the Empire and Rebellion unfolds, isolated entirely from it. Creatively, it’s a bold choice, but one that pays off in a big way. With Luke away from the larger battle, Lucas is able to focus in on the story the trilogy has been leading to; Luke’s ultimate triumph over the Emperor, Vader, and the dark side itself. After preventing Luke’s initial attempt at Sidious’ life, the final duel commences and it couldn’t be more perfect. Father urges son to accept his destiny, son pleads for his father to redeem himself, and the orchestrator of the entire conflict tempts our hero into giving into his rage and hatred. The fight itself is incredibly well choreographed, beginning quite similarly to Luke’s encounter with Vader on Bespin in The Empire Strikes Back. However, sensing the good in him, Luke eventually refuses to fight his father, using his lightsaber only as a means of defense. That is, until Vader mentions Leia, recently revealed to be Luke’s sister. Striking a nerve, Luke lashes out at his father from the darkness, using every ounce of strength in him to force him to the catwalk where he pays Vader back for dismembering him on Bespin. It is the moment when Luke is bearing down on his father, blow after blow with his lightsaber, that it is nigh impossible not to get goosebumps. Seeing Luke give into rage and Darth Vader, for the first time in the series, almost defenseless, all with a genuinely haunting score behind it makes this a truly special scene.
One aspect of this film more prevalent here than the first two of the original trilogy is action, and most of it is done incredibly well. The film opens up with our heroes as they attempt to rescue Han from the clutches of Jabba the Hutt. While the plan seems unnecessarily convoluted, it ends with an exciting, swashbuckling sequence aboard what is essentially a hovering pirate ship. More or less Errol Flynn with a lightsaber, and it’s just as much fun as it sounds. Before that, we are also treated to a duel between Luke and the newly introduced Rancor monster. The usage of puppetry here really is fantastic, with the details and scale almost convincing enough to fool even modern audiences that this drooling creature is 20 feet tall. Special effects in general have seen a marked improvement in this film, with the lightsabers and spaceships looking more convincing than ever. Because of this, Lucas is able to give us some particularly exciting sequences as the film goes on, starting with a speeder bike chase through the forest of Endor. The sense of speed and danger is entirely believable, and the moments of speeders violently impacting on trees sells it all the more. The sequence that benefits the most from technological and budget improvements is the climactic space battle above Endor. There are certain moments where you could almost convince yourself you’re watching a modern blockbuster. Angles you wouldn’t think possible with models are beautifully captured here. The action is fast paced and dynamic, never looking static like certain shots from A New Hope. It is by far the longest and best of the original trilogy, and stands proudly among the best of even the more recent films.
Now we turn to the more flawed aspects of the film.
I’ve already spent time gushing over Ian McDiarmid’s performance in the prequels, but now we get to talk about his initial big screen debut. At this point in the trilogy, other than a holographic conversation, we’ve only heard of the Emperor. Now, we finally get a full fledge performance from the guy behind the Empire and fortunately it doesn’t disappoint in the least. Sidious is everything we could imagine the evil behind the Empire could be. He has glowing, evil eyes, an old and wretched looking face, and cackles like a true, menacing villain. The character works beyond just appearance, though. Sidious is truly the most calculating character of the series. During the films masterful showdown between Vader and Luke, Sidious spends his screen time drawing out all the anger and hate Luke has dwelling in him in such a calm fashion. As father and son clash with the galaxy hanging in the balance, Sidious sits comfortably in his throne, utterly assured that regardless of the victor, his reign will continue. He was truly a villain worth building toward. Vader also returns for the final installment of the original trilogy with David Prowse, James Earl Jones, and Sebastian Shaw all working together to give Vader his most nuanced and powerful performance yet. Also, Hayden Christenson stops by to say hi. With the true nature of his relationship with Luke now in mind, we begin this film looking at Vader in a completely new light. His desire is not to kill Luke, but to convert him and together kill Sidious and resume galactic rule. What initially seems like a power play is ultimately revealed to be an inability to neither kill, nor watch his son die. This, of course, leads to Vader’s demise, but also to his redemption. As his iconic helmet is removed, he is revealed to be a sympathetic, beaten old man. The man audiences spent so many years hating and fearing dies as a father asking for the forgiveness of his son. It is a genuinely moving moment and a phenomenal ending to a great character. None of this would have worked without the actor on the other side of this giving an equally great performance, yet Mark Hamill manages it, giving his best performance of the trilogy. From the moment he steps into frame, garbed in black, we can tell there is something different about Luke. He has a newfound confidence and authority, and is able to back it up with an increased ability to use the force. Luke’s transformation across the trilogy from naïve moisture farmer to noble hero of the rebellion is a truly remarkable one that I think is too often downplayed, even amongst fans. Hamill is able to bring a level of maturity here that elevates his performance in this film above the rest.
What doesn’t work:
With A New Hope, Lucas was able to provide the quintessential example of pacing and structure in an action film. There is almost no fat on that film, and it moves forward energetically with a sense of style and aplomb. All that to say the near structural perfection of that film makes the structural flaws here all the more perplexing. While I admitted that the rescue of Han from Jabba’s Palace is exciting and has gone on to become quite iconic, it’s an odd way to begin a film and eats up far too much screentime, the entire first act actually. The rescue plan seems to have no direction and is essentially just Luke getting captured while trying to convince Jabba to let Han go. This leads to Jabba forcing Han and Luke to walk the plank and into the deadly Sarlacc pit. By the time this sequence is said and done, with Han rescued and Tatooine in the rearview, we are already 37 minutes into the film. Already near a third of the way through our final installment of the trilogy and the actual plot of the film has yet to even be introduced. After this opening sequence, Luke speaks with Yoda just before he dies and learns that Leia is his twin sister. After this revelation, we learn of a new Death Star nearly finished and “fully operational” hovering above Endor and protected by a shield generator on the moon’s surface. It is upon arrival on Endor that the films structural problems and pacing issues it creates become more readily apparent. The film sits and is content to sit for almost the remainder of the film. This is where we’ll be from just before the halfway point to when the credits roll. Not to say there isn’t anything that works on Endor, as the aforementioned speeder bike chase is a fantastic sequence. The addition of the cuddly Ewoks aren’t even as bad as people make them out to be. In fact, barring their unrealistic military victory over the Empire and I’d say they’re quite an enjoyable addition. They don’t, however, warrant the rest of the film, though they are essentially given it. The rest of the film, other than the space battle and Luke’s epic confrontation, consists of our band of heroes having close calls with stormtroopers, then running to capture something over here, then getting captured over there, then escaping and running back over here. Almost everything on Endor feels like filler because the film improperly built up to its climax. It is such a far cry from the energetic momentum of the first film and the mature storytelling of the second.
As a film, it really isn’t bad, but it isn’t great either. It is incredibly enjoyable and is mostly fantastic where it counts. It’s just unfortunate we have to wade through the existent flaws to get there.
Three down and five to go, we slowly make our way toward the best of the best. Stay tuned next week to see how the series has improved on its quality since the release of Return of the Jedi.