Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1983)
A monster handler weeps over his dead pet. A small Ewok mourns the death of his companion. A cyborg father watches in pain as his son is tortured. Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi delights the viewer with the spectacle of its climax, one that has never been outdone in movie history, but it also lives in the small moments, which paint every corner of this magnificent universe with affection and sympathy. It is a masterwork for its exceptional use of parallel editing and incomparable design, one that gives us both the grotesque majesty of Jabba’s Palace and the dizzying exactitude of the space battle over Endor. However, it is the film’s overwhelming capacity for sympathy, such as the way it treats its villains with a kind eye and takes a moment to pause over the death of an unnamed alien, that makes its story so affecting.
Coming out three years after The Empire Strikes Back, which has come to be widely regarded by both critics and the public as the best film in the Star Wars saga, Return of the Jedi could never live up to the lofty expectations weighed upon it even in 1983. It was the climax of the most popular series of all time and had to tie up all the loose ends left by the cliffhanger of its predecessor. It also had to follow-up a film that had miraculously outstriped all the wild expectations placed upon it. Essentially, it had to be a miracle follow-up to a miracle follow-up, and for many viewers, both at the time of its release and in the present day, the film simply does not live up to the promise. But expectations can cloud judgment, and, in actuality, Return of the Jedi is not only a worthy finale to the Original Trilogy, but also possibly the best of the series.
For one, it is the first film in the Star Wars series to offer a glimpse into George Lucas’s pure vision for his universe, unburdened by limitations of cost or studio input. A New Hope was a phenomenon and The Empire Strikes Back reinforced the franchise’s power and sway over the imagination of the public. After that, Lucas was free to do anything he wanted with the final film of the Original Trilogy (and the planned final film in the series at that point) and with as high a budget as he wished. What Lucas did is make a kind-hearted adventure film to the scale of his imagination.
Taking place roughly a year after The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi functions as the culmination of the trilogy, bringing as much as possible to a close and tying up any loose ends raised in the first two films (that is, until Disney and company ignored the finality of that ending in order to spin out another three films). The film concludes the cosmic battle between good and evil, between the Light Side and the Dark Side, and gives us what we’ve been waiting for the entire series: Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) becoming a Jedi Knight.
To be sure, Luke is much closer to being a Jedi Knight at film’s beginning than he is at any point in the previous two films. Instead of the wide-eyed boy of A New Hope or the cocksure hero of The Empire Strikes Back, Luke here is quiet and confident. In Luke’s introduction in the film, at the entrance to Jabba’s Palace, his silhouette is eerily similar to Darth Vader’s (David Prowse) in the opening of A New Hope. In A Hew Hope, Vader enters a doorway through a cloud of smoke in the fallout of a battle. In Return of the Jedi, Luke also enters through a door, but he enters in silence, still powerful like Vader, but coming in peace. The message is clear: he is becoming what his father once was.
In so many ways, Return of the Jedi satisfies the build-up in the two previous films. The early sequences in Jabba’s Palace bring Luke, Han (Harrison Ford), and Leia (Carrie Fisher) back together for the first time since the early scenes on Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back. The arrival of Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) on the Second Death Star finally brings the arch-villain of the series out of the shadows and promises a final confrontation. The assembly of the Rebel Fleet at Sullust showcases the scale of the Rebellion and leads to the epic showdown between the Alliance and the Empire in their totality that was not possible in the smaller scale confrontations at Yavin IV and Hoth.
However, to get to Luke’s ascension to the mantle of Jedi Knight and to the final confrontation between the Dark Side and the Light, we have to return to where it all started: Tatooine, Luke’s boyhood home and the place where he first set out on his adventure “into a larger world,” as Obi-wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) puts it. Luke has to come to terms with his past and clarify his role as Darth Vader’s son before he can move on to where he’s meant to go. This is key to the hero’s journey, which sees the hero return to where he came from with special powers to help others.
Much like Luke, director Richard Marquand and George Lucas return to familiar iconography and narrative beats in the early moments of the film before racing towards the thrilling conclusion that takes the characters and the viewer beyond anything we’d seen before. Many commentators view this repetition as a weakness, but it’s not. This approach both brings closure to story beats from the previous two films while also commenting upon the very mythic nature of Star Wars itself. It is the first instance of Lucas making Star Wars about the repetitive cycle of good versus evil, something that the Prequel Trilogy would deepen, and the Disney Trilogy would make explicit in its repeated narrative beats and thematic interests.
The film’s opening shot makes clear this approach as it virtually recreates the opening of A New Hope. However, there is no Rebel Cruiser escaping from a Star Destroyer, only the Star Destroyer itself and the Second Death Star that takes the place of Tatooine’s moon in the frame. The mere presence of a Second Death Star is evidence enough of Lucas’s intent to repeat elements of the series’ beginning in order to craft its conclusion. But him and his fellow filmmakers don’t restrict the repetition to the mere narrative presence of the Second Death Star. He makes the formal construction itself echo the construction in the first film. This occurs not only in the opening shot, but also in the shot of Darth Vader’s shuttle approaching the hangar bay, which repeats the frame of the Millennium Falcon approaching the hangar bay of the Death Star in A New Hope.
The film then returns to Tatooine, where the series began, and we again have the two droids alone on a mission that only R2-D2 knows the full extent of. R2-D2 again projects a holographic message from one of the main characters in order to move the plot forward. We again have a shot of the binary sunset of Tatooine, however this time outside Jabba’s Palace and lacking any of the promise of adventure that it does in A New Hope. Hell, even a droid that appears in the Jawa Sandcrawler in A New Hope turns up in EV-99’s torture chamber in Jabba’s Palace, as if the intentionality of the repetitions weren’t clear enough. It’s as if Lucas is offering a repetition of his worldbuilding from A New Hope with an added upgrade.
If A New Hope drew on the mythic hero’s journey as one of its primary sources, in what is a highly allusive work, Return of the Jedi knowingly asserts itself not just as borrowing from these myths, but as a new version of the old myths. With Return of the Jedi, Star Wars is no longer simply influenced by the myths and the hero’s journey and Joseph Campbell’s work on archetypes. It has become one of those very myths and belongs in the same conversation as stories of the Greek Gods, biblical heroes, and the Buddha. The Death Star and Tatooine have become as iconic to twenty-first century culture as Icarus’s waxen wings or Achilles’ fateful heel were in earlier times.
This approach is best clarified in a scene on Endor where C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) recounts the events of A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back to the Ewoks, telling them the story of Star Wars in much the same way parents in real life recount their favourite bedtime stories to children. It shows how even within the world of the films, the stories themselves have the power to captivate and enchant an audience, and frame their understanding of the world around them (which is a tactic J.J. Abrams would capitalize on in The Force Awakens).
However, this reflection on the mythic nature of the series, the return to first beginnings, and the calculating repetition of imagery wouldn’t be effective if Return of the Jedi didn’t deliver on the adventure and spectacle that earns it its designation as modern myth. Luckily, Return of the Jedi delivers such things in spades. It’s simply one of the most satisfying movies ever made.
The expansive tone and filmmaking of Return of the Jedi is largely indebted to the financial success of the previous films. George Lucas was able to conjure a beguiling world with a limited budget in A New Hope, expanded that world in The Empire Strikes Back, and truly indulges his passions and idiosyncrasies in Return of the Jedi. This lets him play with different genre conventions and tones in Return of the Jedi in an attempt to capture the tonal fluidity of the serials of his youth. Thus, Return of the Jedi shifts between humour and tragedy, easygoing adventure and life-and-death struggle, more readily than any of the other films.
For instance, the early scenes in Jabba’s Palace have an almost Universal horror movie vibe, with the characters entering the dank dungeons of a villain’s monstrous layer and the art directors and special effects artists showing off the marvellous production design. Luke’s fight with the Rancor even satisfies the presence of a hideous beast that does battle with the hero, like a mythical hero in a Ray Haryhausen picture.
Once Han is freed and the heroes are reunited, the film takes on a more swashbuckling tone, with Luke’s daring attack on Jabba’s Sail Barge resembling a sword fight in an Errol Flynn picture. Luke swings between the vessels and fends off the villains with his sword while his friends help out, often in bumbling ways. How else to explain the slapstick of Han’s limited eyesight and his accidental killing of Boba Fett, which sacrifices the silent cool of a fan favourite in favour of a gag. Luke’s black outfit even looks like Errol Flynn’s in The Sea Hawk (1940). This tone picks up again on Endor when Luke, Han, and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) are captured by the Ewoks and prepared as a meal for a feast. The sight of them slung from sticks like pigs on a spit is straight out of a pirate serial, when the heroes encounter deadly cannibals on some faraway island.
Fans and critics alike often mention how Star Wars was hugely influenced by adventure serials from the 1950s, but when the film actually begins to act like these serials, as in these aforementioned scenes in Return of the Jedi, the fidelity to this past style is shown as a weakness. But it’s not. It’s one of the film’s most appealing aspects, as it finds time to play with the childlike adventure of the sort in stories Lucas grew up with while also satisfying the more serious and modern aspects of its filmmaking.
In its largest moments, Return of the Jedi truly is a marvel of filmmaking. No pre-digital film has ever had as impressive special effects, and because of the advent of CGI, no film ever will. For example, the quality of the model work is apparent from the opening, with the scale of the Second Death Star and the hangar bay dwarfing anything in A New Hope’s version of the Death Star. Later moments in Jabba’s Palace showcase a wealth of fabulous creature design, with elaborate puppets and costuming adding texture to every corner of the frame. Lucas and Marquand’s mise-en-scene relies on deep focus, letting the viewer run their eyes over the whole of the frame and appreciate the hidden treasures hiding in the margins. The level of detail in Jabba’s Palace is astonishing, not least of which in Jabba himself, who is as marvellous a creation of puppet-based special effects as any ever realized.
And who can forget the spectacular space battle above Endor, where hundreds of cruisers and fighters do battle while waiting for the deactivation of the shield generator? The shot of Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) piloting the Millennium Falcon through a swarm of Tie Fighters and Rebel ships with the Second Death Star in the background of the frame—known for the line ”Fighters coming in!”—is the single most impressive shot of practical special effects in cinema history. It doesn’t simply double the scale of the model work in the previous two films; it completely outdoes them in every conceivable notion, in terms of the types of spacecraft on display and the sheer number of them. Its complexity has never been matched, even in the Prequel Trilogy and Disney films, when filmmakers have the aid of CGI to expand the scale beyond what is physically possible.
The camerawork is also precise in a way that is rarely mentioned when discussing the Original Trilogy. The depth of the frame in shots such as Luke’s arrival at Jabba’s Palace speak to the scale of the story on display. The editing is also stunning. The speederbike chase on Endor, where Luke and Leia chase down two scout troopers on the back of a speederbike, is one of the most astounding sequences in the series. The scene moves at a breakneck pace and remarkably blends back projection with convincing model work. Most astonishing is the fact that the momentum of the scene is almost entirely a result of editing. The filmmakers recorded a first-person perspective of a forest track, sped it up to incredible speeds, and then cut that between shots of Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher on the backs of stationary models. Such speed is created purely out of juxtaposition.
If I had to single out one formal achievement of Return of the Jedi, it would have to be the editing, which has pushed parallel construction like no other film. Everything from Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy to Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy and Inception and Dunkirk is indebted to Lucas’s work here alongside editors Sean Barton, Marcia Lucas, and Duwayne Dunham. You get a taste for the power of the film’s editing in the battle on Jabba’s Sail Barge, where the build-up of shots leading to Luke walking the plank into the Sarlaac and R2-D2 launching his lightsaber into the air creates a masterful tension. But the film’s climax, which runs for 30 minutes and cuts between: (1) Lando in the space battle above Endor; (2) Han and Leia bringing down the shield generator on Endor; and (3) Luke and Darth Vader doing battle on the Second Death Star, is the film’s primary achievement and forms the greatest climax in blockbuster cinema.
For those unfamiliar with the term, parallel editing means the constant cutting back and forth between several narrative threads in a film during a sustained sequence of action. This editing structure allows the viewer to follow these several narrative threads as they develop simultaneously. It’s something viewers might take for granted, but it had to be invented, by filmmakers such as D. W. Griffith. In essence, it uses the methods of cinema to let the viewer be in several places at one, even if all of these events overlap in terms of chronological time. However, when done correctly, as in Return of the Jedi, parallel editing not only lets viewers experience several different events that overlap with regards to timing, but it constantly escalates the stakes from cut to cut, ratcheting up the tension and putting all the sequences in dialogue with each other.
This remarkable climax almost functions as a three-act narrative in itself and starts once Han, Leia, and the rebel commandos are captured at the shield generator and Lando and the Rebel Fleet realize that their attack on the Second Death Star is a trap; Admiral Akbar’s iconic line, “It’s a trap!” essentially cues the action of the sequence. From then on, Marquand, Lucas, and the editors cut back and forth between the three parallel narrative threads (the space battle, the shield generator battle, and the lightsaber duel) to build the momentum and showcase the sheer scale of this final conflict between the Rebels and the Empire.
The cross-cutting begins with Han and Leia’s aforementioned capture and Luke’s temptation by the Emperor. It escalates as we realize the Emperor has sprung a trap on all three groups of our heroes, with a “legion of his finest troops” appearing from the forests of Endor to waylay Han and Leia, while the “fully armed and operational battle station” of the Second Death Star uses its superlaser to eradicate the Rebel heavy cruisers. The next sequence of edits shows the characters pushed to the brink. We watch as the Imperials devastate the Ewoks’ primitive efforts to fight, most tragically in the shot I mentioned at the outset of this review, where an Ewok mourns a dead companion killed in a blast from an AT-ST. We see the Second Death Star blow away a Mon Calamari Cruiser. And we witness Leia get shot by a Stormtrooper.
The pressure builds and our heroes are in dire straights. Luke acts as the viewer surrogate at this point, listening to the Emperor recount what is happening to his friends and suffering the dread of defeat that the viewer is witnessing through the cross-cutting. Thus, the editing not only lets us witness what is happening to all our heroes, but it also emotionally aligns us with Luke, letting us feel the pain he does, which fuels the emotion stakes for what’s to come. We want to help the heroes we’ve spent two and a half movies watching fight the evil of the Empire, but we’re helpless. Luckily, Luke is not, and as if acting on behalf of the viewer, he takes up his lightsaber to fight.
Right after Luke crosses blades with Vader, the tide starts to turn. It cuts to the surface of Endor and we watch Chewie and some Ewoks commandeer an AT-ST and use it against the Imperials. Nearby, Han and Leia narrowly avoid death and Han hatches a plan to open the shield generator: “I got an idea.” There’s an immediate cut to Luke dueling Vader, more than holding his own against his fallen father. While this lightsaber duel is more thrilling than the one in The Empire Strikes Back, it’s also weighed down by the knowledge of a father fighting his son, thus imbuing it with tragedy (accented by John Williams’ use of choral tones) that is essential to the film’s redemptive final moments.
We cut back to Lando waiting desperately for the shield to go down and then back to Han, who tricks the Imperials to let the Rebels inside the command centre and sets the charges to detonate the shield generator. We return to Vader hunting Luke and trying to goad him to fight, succeeding when he realizes the truth about Leia and promises to turn her to the Dark Side if Luke does not surrender. This triggers Luke’s rage and defeat of Vader, but as Luke refuses to kill him, the Emperor takes action. The end is near and after we hear the Emperor say, “So be it, Jedi,” Lucas cuts to the shield generator exploding and Lando and Wedge commencing their attack on the Second Death Star.
From here on out, the parallel editing focuses only on the remaining conflict. Han and Leia have succeeded in their mission, so they’re left out of the next sequence, which cuts between the Emperor’s attack on Luke and Lando working to destroy the Second Death Star. Eventually, Luke escapes the Second Death Star just as Lando destroys it, and the film comes to a close in a final celebration with all the heroes present (including Yoda [Frank Oz], Obi-wan, and Anakin as force ghosts). Almost 30 minutes have passed since the battle commenced, but the breathless editing and constant momentum has made it fly by.
Of course, within this final expert cross-cutting between the three-pronged assault on the Empire is the heart of the film: the redemption of Darth Vader and Luke’s becoming a Jedi Knight. This emotional pivot begins as Luke succumbs to rage when attacking his father, John Williams’ mournful score underlining the darkness overcoming our hero. Once Luke cuts off his father’s hand, he holds back from killing him, recognizing how both he and his father share a robotic hand. He throws away his lightsaber and refuses to become a Jedi Knight through violence. And it’s in this moment that he truly becomes one. This is what Yoda means when he says that Luke can only become a Jedi Knight after confronting Vader, albeit in his contradictory, Taoist-influenced way. He had to face his greatest challenge and refuse vengeance, thus refusing the Dark Side of the Force. And even the Emperor confirms that a transformation has taken place with his line, “So be it, Jedi.”
And it is through this act of goodness and self-sacrifice that Vader’s redemption is secured. To truly defeat Vader, Luke has to not kill him, but redeem him, offering up his own life in the process. And it’s only by laying down his life that he awakens the man in the machine and turns Vader back into Anakin Skywalker. After the generator is destroyed, the Emperor attacks Luke and we watch as the Emperor’s force lightning tortures Luke as he writhes on the ground in agony. Lucas and the editors cut between three shots here: Luke’s torture on the ground, the Emperor’s pure malice in attack, and Vader’s observation in the middle. This is the only point in the films where the viewer’s point of view is aligned with Vader’s, which is key, because it’s the moment where Vader is redeemed from the Dark Side.
After the Emperor says, “Now, young Skywalker, you will die,” the frame cuts back to Vader watching, his black helmet expressionless, and then back to the Emperor snarling with pure malice. Vader looks at his son and back at the Emperor, who is the face of evil personified, and he acts to save his son, throwing the Emperor down the shaft into the core of the Second Death Star, taking the brunt of his lightning attack in the process. In the 2011 edit of the film, Lucas adds a line here, having Vader scream “No!” as he saves his son, which adds a parallel to his “No!” upon learning of Padme’s death in Revenge of the Sith. However, the line is unnecessary because the anguish of Vader is plain from the editing.
Earlier, Vader denies Luke’s comment on his goodness, saying “There is no conflict,” but the conflict is plain on Vader’s face, even though it is still literally the same expressionless helmet that it’s always been. But through the ingenuity of the editing and the expert build-up to this moment, Vader’s anguish is not just present, but impossibly moving. Just as Anton posited that the Binary Sunset sequence on Tatooine in A New Hope is the ultimate example of the Kuleshov Effect, and the greatest minute in cinematic history, I’d make the same case for this moment, which demonstrates the power of editing by transforming an expressionless, robotic villain into a tragic, mournful father. Vader’s words in his dying moments a few minutes later only confirms the beating heart beneath the black metal suit: “You were right about me. Tell your sister, you were right.” By this point, we’ve seen the helmet come off and the mask give way to a scarred, weakened man. Vader has become a fragile human being and the hero’s journey is complete, but not without great cost.
This redemption is why Return of the Jedi is my favourite film. It’s expertly made, spectacularly entertaining, and a marvel of parallel editing. It’s among cinema’s most impressive technical feats and is an astounding work of formal construction within a satisfying adventure narrative. It never gets the credit it deserves for its technical achievement. But most of all, it’s a story of redemption. It transforms a dark, evil villain into a tragic human being. It is not Luke’s strength or ingenuity that saves his father and defeats the Empire, but his goodness and his love.
Perhaps this sounds mushy. Perhaps the presence of the Ewoks as innocents doing battle against the remorseless empire, the silly moments of humour and swashbuckling adventure, and the childlike faith in the power of goodness and hope means that Return of the Jedi is truly a more childish film than The Empire Strikes Back. Perhaps such pure notions are not allowed in serious works of art. But this very approach is what I love about Return of the Jedi. It culminates the story of Star Wars. It pays off the epic battle between good and evil and the journey of Luke Skywalker from a farm boy to a Jedi Knight. But above all, it creates a modern myth and puts at the centre of this myth the belief that pure, uncomplicated goodness can vanquish evil not through its destruction, but through its transformation. Such faith in goodness in as popular and influential a work as this is a rare and profound thing and a promise that there is hope in the darkness of the world.
10 out of 10
Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1983, USA)
Directed by Richard Marquand; written by Lawrence Kasden and George Lucas, from a story by George Lucas; starring Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Billy Dee Williams, Anthony Daniels, David Prowse, Kenny Baker, Peter Mayhew, Frank Oz.