Our ongoing series looking at movies that took the blockbuster genre to the extreme and perhaps to excess. Note that these reviews may contain spoilers.
By John J. Joex
Rating: 3 ½ out of 5 Stars
Most people evenly vaguely familiar with the Star Wars movies know that Return of the Jedi is the third and final movie in the original trilogy of films from that franchise. It picks up where The Empire Strikes Back left off with essentially a cliff-hanger ending and we find Luke Skywalker confronting Jabba the Hut who has Han Solo in captivity (delivered to him frozen in carbonite by the Empire at the end of the previous movie). Luke, with the help of the droids, Lando, Chewbacca, and Leia (posing in her infamous gold bikini as a slave in Jabba’s service) succeed in freeing Han then they head to the forest moon of Endor where they learn that the Empire is constructing a second Death Star. On the moon, they encounter the small, furry, teddy bear like creatures known as Ewoks who at first appear menacing but who ultimately help them with their assault on the Imperial forces.
Return of the Jedi is for the most part well regarded among fans, but it has become infamous because of Lucas’ decision to include the cuddly-cute Ewoks. And while I do like the movie and felt like it still carried on the tradition of the first two films in the series, I also recognize that it represents a turning point for the franchise and perhaps movie-making in general. The first Star Wars film helped kick off the Blockbuster era (along with Jaws two years before it) when movie-goers raised their expectations and began to demand spectacles of the same caliber. And these followed in the late 70’s and into the 80’s even if they did not always deliver the same ingenuity, and sense of awe that we saw from the early entries in the era. By the beginning of the 80’s, Science Fiction and Fantasy had started to prove itself as a strong Box Office draw and Hollywood took notice. And then the films started to become more and more about big profits than any sort of artistic expression, or for that matter even just trying to tell a good story. And in many ways, Return of the Jedi represents a pivotal point for this shift in the Hollywood machine.
With the first Star Wars film, George Lucas succeeded in capturing the magic of the old serials like Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon as well as the pulp space opera’s like E.E. Doc Smith’s Lensman series. And he brought this fantasy fully realized to the big screen with special effects like audiences had never before seen. Then with The Empire Strikes Back, Lucas delved into the characters and the Star Wars universe and began to really build on his epic tale. But both of these movies were driven by a palpable inspiration and ingenuity that translated to the screen and drew the audience into the story and the fantastic worlds he had created. The inspiration, and perhaps sincerity, began to wane with Return of the Jedi, though. Star Wars had become a major industry by this point, not just from the revenue for the films, but all of the merchandising with toys, books, comics, etc. And the business demands started to dictate the course of the franchise, superseding the needs of the story arc it had previously established.
Many Star Wars fans know that the original plan had Return of the Jedi heading to the Wookie home planet where the final battle against the Empire would take place. Lucas changed his mind, though, and delivered the instantly marketable Ewoks instead. A dubious choice for many reasons which perhaps ultimately backfired seeing as the Ewoks have not had sustained marketability whereas the fan-boys would continue to snatch of the Wookie products that might have followed from the movie. In any case, this represented Lucas making a decision for one of the major films in his beloved franchise which elevated merchandising over story and further exploration of the universe he had created. Where inspiration had driven the story previously, now calculated maneuvers took over. Already, long-time partner and co-producer Gary Kurtz had exited from the Star Wars films because he felt that Lucas had shifted away from the epic tale he had begun and more towards the franchise as a product. And Jedi seemed to prove that out. It also had greater implications for the movie industry in general because a franchise that had at one point seemed the savior and guiding light for Science Fiction and Fantasy on the big screen, delivering a breath of fresh air and a new direction, had now succumbed to the thinking of Hollywood machine. From this point forward, too often the marketable product took precedence over its artistic or aesthetic value.
And even if you accept the presence of the Ewoks (who actually did not bother me quite as much as they do other people), Return of the Jedi still fell short when compared to the previous two movies. The Star Wars franchise has always been derivative, but the first two movies excelled at taking something old and making it seem fresh and new. This came in a large part from the sincerity that still fueled George Lucas up to that point. The dialogue may have been trite, but it was not copy-and-paste. The scenes may have had a familiar ring to them, but they weren’t retreads. With Jedi, though, Lucas’ muse lagged and the film started to fall stale in places. He even had the audacity to throw in a redo of the first movie’s attack on the Death Star, only amped up to the nth degree sequel style. Lucas now had more than enough money to produce whatever special effects he wanted and the ingenuity that had triumphed over technical short-comings in the previous films disappeared. Jedi was definitely the most technically superior of the first three films, but fell a bit short at delivering a satisfying story.
Still, the movie has its charms and it at least managed to fly above the absolute corporate cynicism of the prequel trilogy that would follow over fifteen years later (and make a mint for Lucas and the movie studios). But the film also marks a shift in the direction of the Blockbuster era that Star Wars had played a major role in kicking off a few years prior. Pomp, spectacle, and marketability took the lead from this point on. And not to say that no films of merit followed, but the artistically vapid ones became much more common as the Blockbuster era shifted into high gear.
Recommendations for films to view instead of this one: Go back and watch Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back then just imagine all of the possibilities on how the story could have ended!
Buy the Original Star Wars Trilogy on DVD from Amazon.com: