There are few movies with which I have a more mixed reaction than Return of the Jedi. Its best parts are really great; its worst parts are a tedious slog; and that ambivalence is slathered in nostalgia for a series I obsessed over as a kid.
As I watched this time, I felt my internal meter for its Is It Good? rating dropping, minute-by-minute. “Shit, this is not a Very Good movie. Is it even Good? Worse than that?”
Much of the film’s first half is plagued by damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t storytelling that is the curse of sequels to movies ending with cliffhangers. We know Han Solo will survive the carbonite, but either A) the movie can make it easy, rendering his defeat in Empire Strikes Back retroactively cheap, or B) we can drag it out into a 35-minute heist. The film goes for option B. It’s not a horrible piece of film to open the movie (I especially love Luke’s sassy confidence), but it’s brutally long, and it means the story proper takes forever to actually get moving.
Things gets worse from there. Luke’s promised return to Dagobah is so half-assed I actually laughed out loud. Yoda drops some exposition and just fucking dies.
So now we’re a whole 45 minute into the movie, and we finally learn the conflict this time around: The Rebels need to… destroy a Death Star? Are you kidding me?
By the time we land on the jungle moon nearly an hour into the movie, I was pretty checked out. Stuff that should have bothered me (like Leia’s new roles as outfit model/eye candy/damsel in distress, so far removed from her strength in A New Hope) didn’t faze me at all. Even the much-beleaguered Ewoks are just one more symptom of the movie’s real problem:
It was designed in a board room to sell toys and sell tickets. Not tell a story.
Every scene is packed with cheesy aliens just begging to be collectible figurines. Characters have marketable new outfits. Lando gets more play than in Empire to even less memorable effect. The movie stuffs in a few pointless twists for no clear reason, because, hey, the kids liked the twists last time! Seriously, can someone give me a good narrative justification for why Leia needs to be Luke’s brother? I feel like people don’t complain about how contrived this is nearly enough.
Luke turns himself Darth Vader, and everything changes. I had truly forgotten just how terrific the subplot of Darth Vader, The Emperor, and Luke having a battle of wills is. It’s operatic, almost spiritual stuff, featuring some of John Williams’ most evocative moments of the film. A brilliant capstone of the elemental good vs. evil struggle that defines the series.
While I’ve always thought it was lazy as hell to make the big bad guy a cackling old man in a grim reaper robe, one can not heap enough praise on Ian McDiarmid. I say without reservation that he does the best acting of the series, elevating a thin character with some of the most menacing line-readings you will ever hear. Give this man an award.
So, yeah, Return of the Jedi’s problems are legion: Harrison Ford can barely get through a take without yawning or rolling his eyes — odd after he was so electric in Empire. The speeder chases lack the majesty or visual grace of the battle on Hoth. Admiral Ackbar says “it’s a trap!” (Okay, I actually love that moment.)
But when the credits roll as Luke stares upon the pyre of his dead father, shadows of grief and regret and longing on Mark Hamill’s face, fireworks in the sky… Damn, I still kind of love it.
(Viewed Harmy’s Despecialized Edition)
- Review Project: 2009 Top 100
Very Good (6/8)
Note: This review was originally published elsewhere. Please excuse brevity or inconsistencies in style. If you have questions or feedback, please leave a comment or contact me.