A clickbaitier title you may never find on this blog, but it’s true all the same. Having binged all seven numbered films over Christmas (let’s call them the Skywalker saga for now), Return of the Jedi remains my favorite Star Wars movie, and I will now justify this to you.
Now, the favorite pic(k) in our own age is The Empire Strikes Back. That hasn’t always been the case, but it’s become customary to throw flak at Jedi because, among other things, A) Ewoks, B) It’s not dark like Empire was and/ and C) Well, George Lucas had the most influence in it so after the Prequels that means it must be bad. I know, I know, oversimplification, but I’m predominantly here to tell you why I prefer Jedi, not why other people think it’s the weakest film. I will, however, briefly (briefly for me, that is) address those points I just mentioned while also explaining how I feel Jedi works there as welll.
Just to be clear, I’m only citing my impression of the reasons others have for liking Jedi less. If these don’t apply to you, that’s fair, I’m not trying to Straw Man your concerns.
Firstly: no, the Ewoks do not ruin the film. Do they detract from it? Yes. But not enough to justify bringing them up every time we compare it with the preceding films. The main argument against them seems to be that they’re not serious enough, as if Star Wars is some grim-dark 40K imitator where the sole determiner of quality is how metal something looks. I’m sorry, guys, that’s really unfair to 40K. The truth is that the Ewoks never bothered me until, as a young adult, other people suggested I should be bothered by them. In other words, they’re only a problem because people say they are. They take up more screen time than they strictly should, but I personally despise how much time Jackson spent on Rohan and how heavily he neutered Gondor in The Return of the King compared with the book (I know the films aren’t the book, but if the book does something better I’ll damn well make the comparison). I haven’t heard anyone lambaste The Return of the King for that, though.
Would the time have been better spent on intensifying the orbital battle? Possibly. I personally would’ve had the Rebel Fleet send reinforcements to Endor under Imperial fire as a mirror to The Empire Strikes Back’s retreat from Hoth, but that’s not a suggestion I’m hearing. It’s mostly, “Meh, the Ewoks are too cheesy for my super-serious space opera with space magic and farmboy heroes, fnar!” Star Wars is, was and hopefully always will be a little bit campy. This is called “having fun.” We’ve got grim, dark and edgy out the ass these days to the point where I actually like the Ewoks MORE in retrospect. The Stormtroopers were never such formidable foes that having a bunch of literal teddy bears kill a whole legion was out of the question. Again, the time could’ve been spent better, but if you try looking for fault in things you’ll always find it eventually.
As to Jedi‘s darkness: Empire has the Rebels lose a single battle (this is only dark if you don’t know how wars work) and Luke loses to Vader after Yoda and Obi-Wan both explicitly say he’s not fucking ready. That’s not dark, that’s just good writing. It’s the same level of dark any competent story has, where the hero must be broken down so that he may rise again in the conclusion. Star Wars was never supposed to be a grim depressing series, which should’ve been evident from its main theme (which history tells us almost never works) of a tiny rebel band attaining victory over a vast, oppressive Empire. Now, yes, Jedi could’ve put Luke & Co. through the wringer further, but that wouldn’t have been Star Wars. Star Wars was always meant to offer us an uplifting ending.
Otherwise: Luke force chokes a pair of Gamorreans in the first few minutes of Jedi, which is horribly close to his father’s use of the Force (“A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defense, never for attack,” as Yoda says in Empire). Leia slowly strangles a giant slug, and it is not inspiring to watch. Instead of wielding the lightsaber, Luke’s reduced to using a rock to kill the rancor. Yoda straight-up dies and Obi-Wan says the Emperor has already won if Luke won’t kill his own father. During the battle of Endor, the Rebels spend the first half of it getting absolutely shredded. Ian McDiarmid delivered a chilling performance as the Emperor, and for me at least managed the incredibly difficult task of portraying a grandiose, purely wicked tyrant without becoming campy.
Luke teeters on the brink of falling to the Dark Side, in the process of which it becomes clear that Obi-Wan and Yoda were actually asking him to do something which might have driven him over the brink. Up until the turning point, it’s actually so grim that as a child I would skip ahead to the parts where the good guys started winning. Luke, the hero, gets electrocuted for what feels like eternity while his father watches, motionless. His moral triumph in setting aside his lightsaber earns him only a pathetic, writhing torture for minutes on end. This could only be darker if the Emperor actually won.
I reiterate: in Empire the Rebels suffer a setback and Luke loses a fight. Finding out Vader is his father was the biggest twist of the series, but has absolutely nothing on the bleakness Jedi uses that relationship to create. If you think Empire‘s darker, I respectfully but vehemently disagree.
As to George Lucas’ involvement: Ad hominem. There’s no more to be said. If Lucas made the film worse, that can clearly be covered in the film itself without discussing his meddling.
Here’s the thing, though, Jedi doesn’t just wallow in that darkness. At the exact moment when I thought I couldn’t take it, that I had to look away, there comes the turn. Vader, filled with silent, righteous anger, seizes hold of his master as if he weighs nothing and casts him into an abyss of his own making, down to his destruction. Everything from the pacing to the camera angles and, of course, the score by Williams are perfect. I cannot for the life of me think of how it could be done better. As an aside, and lest you think I’m being too soft on Lucas, the childish edit he made in his imbecilic special editions where Vader spoke during this sequence made me froth at the mouth and nearly shut off the movie. The idiot undermined a genuinely perfect moment, one so good it actually held up in spite of his best efforts. But that’s not in the original cuts, and those are what we’re discussing.
The Rebels rally and take down the shields, the Death Star’s core is destroyed. In the middle of this devastation, Luke stops to rest and his father insists he help him take the mask off. As Darth Vader destroyed Anakin in his rise, so Anakin destroys Vader by the simple act of dropping his mask. I might, if I strained, be able to come up with some minor nitpicks about the dialogue, but the melancholy of the moment is so perfect I can’t bring myself to look for them. Han and Leia’s romance wraps up, the Empire collapses after the death of its leader. The action, special effects and pacing are as good as any in the series, sometimes better (I personally feel lightsabers peaked in Jedi for effects purposes). It was a damn good ending from my perspective, and as close to perfect all through as any other film I’ve seen.
I could suggest some changes to the exact presentation of events and some of the minor plot beats, sure, but I could do that for the other films as well. Like I said, you’ll always find fault if you go looking for it, and I’m exceptional at finding fault.
For the record, I don’t fault you for your own choice, even if it’s Attack of the Clones. Just don’t start adding noooooooooooos where they don’t belong and you’re in the clear.