Star Wars: Return of the Jedi (1983)
With all the prequels and sequels now made, I doubt how many people today understand how final Return of the Jedi actually was. For a large part of my generation is a major even and, since we were in that grey preteen area, it also marked a point where we were growing out the toys, unless that was specifically where our interest would someday lie in collecting. I, for one, had all the action figures (except for that weird Snaggletooth one that came with the Cantina set from Sears), and were buying figured from Jedi before I even saw the movie.
Honestly, it was some time before I saw the movie as well. Things were not that good for a lot of families in 1983, particularly if the breadwinner worked in the steel industry. Things had changed drastically. Three years prior my parents made sure they took me to the best theater in town, Cine Capri, which had a giant, curved screen and was perfect from the 70 millimeter first run of The Empire Strikes Back. This time around I got the novelization as a birthday present, as my parents knew they weren't going to be able to afford to take me when it came out. Luckily movies stayed in the theater longer back then, as it was at least July or August before I finally got to see it.
After seeing it, I knew that was it. The idea of doing a prequel trilogy and then another three sequels was always a big rumor, but realistically by the end of the 1980s no one thought it was ever going to happen. The actors were getting older, and the books (now mostly relegated to the Legends category) carried on the story in various ways. Some of the books were even good, with Timothy Zahn's Heir to the Empire series going on to influence the whole series even after the reboot of the canon. Arguably Boba Fett became cooler due to the books, as he didn't do much in either Empire or Jedi, and about every side character got at least a short story - or a short backstory in The Encyclopedia of Star Wars, which eventually evolved into Wookiepedia.
There were video games that added to the world, a couple forgotten TV movies after Jedi that featured the Ewoks, and on and on. The point is, when it came to the movies, Return of the Jedi managed to do what few third films do and wrap things up. Certainly, it's the least of the first three films, but it largely avoided that third film curse. Barely, I should say, as the production was just as troubled as any, with questions about whether Harrison Ford would come back and George Lucas constantly butting heads with director Richard Marquand. Fans of the series did grumble about the Ewoks and Lucas did nothing to hide the fact that a lot of characters in there were meant to sell more toys, but there was still enough great story in there for him to be forgiven.
A year after the events of Empire, Han Solo (Harrison Ford) is literally hanging around in Jabba the Hutt's palace on Tattooine. C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) are sent by Luke Skywalker (Mark Hammill) to bargain for Solo's life, with the droids being given to Jabba as part of the offer, but the crime lord refuses. Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) attempts her own rescue using Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) as a Trojan horse, but her plan results in her replacing Jabba's previous slave girl Oola (Femi Taylor). Finally, Luke himself arrives and his friends are rescued.
The rescue is important due to new information received about a second Death Star under construction around the forest moon of the gas giant Endor. Not only is a good portion of the Imperial fleet on wild goose chases trying to find the main Rebel convoy, but Darth Vader (David Prowse) and the Emperor (Ian McDiarmid) are overseeing the final stages of the construction personally. While Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) leads an attack on the Death Star itself, Han, Leia, Luke and the Droids head down to the moon to shut off the shield generator. However, their plans are not unknown to the all-seeing eye of the Emperor, who has his own plans for Luke and hopes to destroy the Rebel Alliance once and for all. However, an important bit of aid may come from an unexpected place, and help tip the balance of power in the Galaxy.
Like the rest of the movies, I did see it in its original theatrical run, and then again both of video and in revivals of the original version in the theaters, as well as the Special Edition when it came out. Originally, there was one thing the Special Edition did well; it got rid of the music for the Ewok celebration at the end, and featured a number of locations celebrating the Empire's fall, with all new music. It was a vast improvement, and one of the first times anyone saw Coruscant on screen. Lucas had wanted to have scenes from the Empire's capitol planet originally, but had no idea what to call it; Coruscant is one of those aforementioned gifts that Timothy Zahn gave to the series, and here we saw an early version, as by the time this came out it was known that, after 25 years, Lucas was working on the prequel trilogy. This also means that Sebastian Shaw was still the actor who played Anakin Skywalker's force ghost - something that wasn't a surprise, as his action figure, like Boba Fett and the Emperor, was sent out as a special mail-in offer.
Unfortunately, some other choices Lucas made were not for the best. The Sarlacc, even in the first Special Edition, managed to be some weird pitcher-plant thing with tentacles in the middle of the desert; the later versions have added a beak that looks obviously stuck in there, as it does not mesh with the rest of the creature. Even worse was the musical scene inside Jabba's palace. Instead of just Max Rebo (Simon J. Williamson), Droopy McCool (Deep Roy) and Sy Snootles (Annie Arbogast), we now have a larger band singing a completely different song with some little furry thing that was obviously meant to entertain children. Worse, Snootles's mouth is up front, twisting unrealistically and looking all the cartoon it is, while unnecessary background singers are added. The original version looked as seedy as everything else, with participants largely going with the song or whatever until Oola's death, but here it looks like something that would have been found in the Star Wars Holiday Special.
Then, we have the ending. I mentioned I liked what the Special Edition, when originally released to theaters, did. As usual Lucas has gone and messed this up as well. We now have celebrations on Naboo and a number of other places, and Hayden Christiansen replacing Sebastian (who still plays the unmasked version of Darth Vader) as Anakin's ghost, almost as if Lucas wanted to kick sand in the faces of all the original fans of these films.
If I was a lot younger, and only knew the movies from these editions, I would be wondering why anyone liked them so much. In fact, when I see this and realize it is really the only way to see the series for most people today, it is no wonder that there is a generation that thinks the prequels are not that bad. Honestly, the Ewok celebration song was bad, but nothing the Ewoks ever did sunk to the level of Jar Jar Binks. The revamped Jabba's palace scene makes me reconsider if Jar Jar is actually bearable. After messing up Star Wars itself in a number of places, it seemed like everyone had learned their lesson when they left Empire pretty much alone other than cleaning it up. Obviously that was not the case.
Not all the problems lie with the retouching. The Sarlacc burps in both versions when swallowing Boba Fett (Jeremy Bulloch), and it's the second burp used for humor. It was as if it was intended to have a lighter tone after Empire, but as usual Lucas (and co-writer Lawrence Kasdan) are all over when it comes to tone. Largely this resolves itself after our core group leaves Tattooine and the real meat of the story begins. There is some humor regarding the Ewoks, but they are fit into the narrative rather nicely, and there are also some emotionally effective scenes with them as well. We happily get to see Lando in action and not just shunted off as a side character, and we really don't fall into the "damsel in distress" situation with Princess Leia. She resolves here situation with Jabba herself, and handles herself fine in battle. It should also be said that at this point, no matter what Harrison Ford thought about the character, he fit in perfectly.
Not to mention that the final confrontation between Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker, with the Emperor chiding Luke and trying to feed on his pain and anger to turn him to the dark side of the Force, is the stuff of legend. I am glad that the Emperor largely remained in the shadows for the trilogy, as McDiarmid pulls out all the stops to make an evil character that tops Darth Vader, as it should be. McDiarmid was also one of the bright spots of the prequel trilogy, so I'm glad Lucas did the smart thing of letting him fully inhabit the role.
Much has been said about a primitive tribe such as the Ewoks making the Empire look pathetic, but I think this is largely seeing things in hindsight. While there are individual troops that are mobbed by the creatures, much of the time with the Ewoks is spent with them doing something and then running like mad. The AT-STs are wobbly to begin with, and it's not unbelievable that a couple could be brought down with booby traps, but watching it again it is obvious the majority of the troops and walkers destroyed are after Chewbacca and a couple Ewoks commandeer one for themselves. They do much of the work. What the Ewoks largely do is provide a big enough distraction to keep the Stormtroopers disorganized.
The things that were left alone still look great; I'll take the giant animatronic Jabba over the horrible digital version in the Star Wars Special Edition any day. The AT-STs may sometimes look weird on their own, but I am glad they still maintained the original effects for them, as well as the Rancor. The speeder bike chase is still magnificently done, as is the attack on the Death Star.
I will never say that Return of the Jedi is perfect, but it does the job it was supposed to: it entertains throughout, tops the first two movies in a number of action set pieces and brings the whole thing to a nice, neat end, with a decade and a half worth of books, games and comics filling in all those "buts" that popped up when the real nitpicking started. As an 11-year-old, it was what I wanted and expected, and as an adult I would not have minded if this was the last movie we ever got in the series. As an older adult having seen what came afterward - well, in a lot of cases, it makes me wish that it had been.
Star Wars: The Return of the Jedi (1983)
Time: 131 minutes
Starring: Mark Hammill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, Billy Dee Williams, David Prowse, Ian McDiarmid, James Earl Jones
Director: Richard Marquand