After the stunning twist ending of The Empire Strikes Back, and an agonizing three-year wait for answers, the original Star Wars trilogy came to a conclusion with Return of the Jedi. Fan reaction to the movie depended dramatically on the age of the fan in question. Jedi took the series from its darkest moments to its lightest, featuring easy resolutions, familiar faces (and space stations), and teddy bears with spears.
As we continue our year-long Star Wars Discussion Series, Matthew Guerruckey, Donald McCarthy, and Lawrence Von Haelstrom are joined by Film Critic Ryan Roach to talk Jabba, Ewoks, and the conclusion of the Skywalker saga (for now).
Matthew Guerruckey, Editor-in-Chief: My relationship with Return of the Jedi has changed drastically since I was four-years-old. Of the original trilogy films, it’s the one that has aged the worst as I’ve gotten older, and most importantly, as I’ve been exposed to different (better) types of action movies. That reconsideration of Jedi will be important as we go forward in this discussion, and we’ll bash out all of the pros and cons of this installment as we go. I’ll try as hard as I can to be objective, but that will be difficult. In 1983, this movie was my entire world.
Return of the Jedi is the first movie that I have a really vivid memory of watching in the theater. I know that I went to a few other movies before it, and I have vague recollections of some moments from those experiences (I remember being dragged, screaming and crying, out of The Dark Crystal because those damn Skeksis freaked me the fuck out), but I remember every moment of watching Jedi for the first time. I was scared of Jabba, I wanted a best pal like Chewbacca, and I just plain wanted to be Luke Skywalker.
And, because I was a child of the 80’s, that love of the movie didn’t stop once I left the theater (any of the three times I watched it). I had the books, the Power of the Force toys, the bedsheets, the read-along books on cassette, and the Mad Magazine issue that parodied the movie (Yoda said “hell”, it was wild).
Return of the Jedi was the movie that made me love movies. By that point I had seen the original Star Wars many times, on home video or on television. I’d read the books, I knew the story, I played “Star Wars” with friends on the playground. But seeing that world, and those characters, that I loved so much projected larger-than-life in a dark theater was awe-inspiring. And there’s still a part of me that feels that way every time I sit down to watch a movie. No matter what I’m watching, there’s always the hope of the unexpected, and unlimited adventure.
Donald, you watched the original trilogy in a marathon session many years after its theatrical release. I wonder, what did you make of the final chapter?
Donald McCarthy, Features Editor: I can definitely remember watching it when I was seven. I had to wait a week to see it after watching A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back two days in a row due to my aunt’s schedule and she was the one with the VHS. My first memory is being terrified of Darth Vader without a helmet on. I had to look away and just listen to the dialogue. Otherwise, I really enjoyed it, especially the space battle outside the Death Star and the duel with Luke, Vader, and the Emperor (still my favorite fight in the saga). The space battle blew me away because of how many Star Destroyers there were. I was very confused about how the Death Star survived the Super Star Destroyer crashing into it, though.
For a while, Return of the Jedi was my favorite of the saga. I loved the Emperor and the idea of this evil Sith presence. I wanted to know more about where the Emperor came from and who those creepy old guys were that were leaving his chambers in one scene. And he shot lightning out of his hands? Where did that come from? I needed to find out.
The mythology of Star Wars fascinated me as a child so it makes sense that Return of the Jedi would be my go to film because it’s the one that is largest in galactic scope and the one that deals the most with history. Combine that with the feel of epicness in the confrontation between Luke and the Sith, a confrontation that felt like the entire galaxy was in the balance (it wasn’t, but I’ll get to that later).
Now that I’m older the weaknesses of Return of the Jedi are all too apparent. The Jabba the Hutt scenes drag on, especially before Luke arrives. The only positive part of the Jabba storyline is Luke’s entrance and the reveal that he’s learned much about the Force since The Empire Strikes Back. Otherwise, we have what amounts to almost forty minutes of time wasted on Jabba and his, frankly, uninteresting and overdone cast of characters. Outside of Jabba, none of the other minions get any characterization so they’re just there for decoration. This works in a short scene, like the cantina in A New Hope, but for forty minutes? No way.
Then there’s the performances. Hamill has never been better, but Ford is on autopilot and Fisher doesn’t get a lot to do. The previous films worked so well because everyone was giving 100% and was given 100%.
Last, the second Death Star. Yes, it’s entirely believable that the Empire would build another one. But, no, it’s not at all dramatically interesting. I know early scripts had the battle take place on and around a volcanic planet where the Emperor was stationed and that would’ve been ten times more atmospheric than yet another Death Star.
I have also noticed there’s a lot more to enjoy, though. I like how the film’s ending centers around Luke and the Sith even though the outcome of the battle won’t affect the Civil War because the Death Star gets blown up. Had Luke not been there, the Emperor and Vader would’ve been killed either when the station blows up or when they try to flee. Therefore, the final battle with Luke and the Sith isn’t for control of the galaxy; it’s for the soul of the galaxy.
Unlike many others, I don’t hate the Ewoks. I like the idea that a supposedly “primitive” civilization is able to take down the Empire’s forces. It aligns with the original trilogy’s overall thematic approach of the little guy standing up to corruption.
Lawrence, has your perception of Return of the Jedi changed over time?
Lawrence Von Haelstrom, Contributing Editor: I was eight going on nine the Summer of 1983. By the time I saw Return of the Jedi, I was already pre-disposed to dislike it thanks to my older brothers. (Who would have been eighteen and sixteen then.) They hated the “teddy bears” and how stupid-looking Jabba turned out to be. (“He’s like this big slug thing.”) I aped my brothers’ arguments on the school bus and never made my own opinion about the movie.
While I re-watched Star Wars and Empire numerous times on VHS, I did not see Jedi again until the summer before seventh grade when, (here he is again) I visited my brother at his college apartment. The campus theater was showing Empire and Jedi as a double feature. This time, I was really sucked into the Luke-Vader-Emperor scenes. I still remember the anxiety I felt for Luke. ”Don’t let him make you mad, Luke! That’s exactly what the Emperor wants!” It was also fun as a twelve year old seeing the movie with a rowdy college-aged crowd booing at all the bad guys. (And, wait, a second, if Mike hated Jedi so much, what was he doing going to see it again anyway?! Maybe Mr. Cool Eighteen Year Old Brother was just repeating what other people had said to him.)
But even now, Return of the Jedi is my least beloved of the series. (Including the prequels.) So much of it feels so obligatory. Like Donald said, the first forty minutes with Jaba are just tedious. The sequence where our heroes are captured by the Ewoks is aggravatingly tedious. Han gets thawed because he was frozen, but so what of it? Lando flies the Millennium Falcon because...because why? One of the most interesting characters in Empire becomes just this person flying a spaceship--no more essential than the alien-Mickey Mouse guy sitting beside him. With all the promises the first two films make, Jedi fails in so much of its follow through
I don’t hate Jedi, of course. It is Star Wars. All the scenes with the Emperor are great. The speeder bike sequence is awesome. There’s a great sense of symmetry in the film. There are repeated images from the first Star Wars shown now in slightly different contexts. The film opens with the underside of Star Destroyer, the droids are again walking through the Tatooine desert. This repetition reminds us how far we have come with this story. Return of the Jedi ends the story where it should--the Emperor defeated, Darth Vader redeemed, Luke bearing the burden of returning the Jedi. The film’s flaw isn’t the Ewoks, it’s not Jabba’s krew of kritters, it’s not the rushed conclusions; it’s major flaw is that so much of it is just boring.
Ryan, we’re about the same age. How has the movie grown with you?
Ryan Roach, Film Critic: Well, this was the first Star Wars movie I ever saw. (The only two movies I can remember seeing in the theatre prior to this were Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T.). I remember going to the theatre and being very confused, as we were clearly in the middle of a story. I knew who Luke, Leia, Han, etc were already, and I knew that Vader was Luke’s dad. I had even played with the toys and had a Star Wars lunchbox and everything. But I don’t think I actually knew that there were two previous movies until I sat there watching this one. I think I thought they were just this pop culture thing that just existed in the world.
All this is a long-winded way of saying I loved it. This one has always been my favorite. It impressed me then, it still does now. I certainly understand on an intellectual level at both the previous films are far better made. But Jabba was fantastic. I loved everything about the first act: the gang getting back together, the little sidekick on Jabba’s shoulder, the pig guards, the monster, the pit. It was all so, so good. And the rest of the movie has great highlights, too. The pods racing through the forest. C-3PO worshipped as a god. I think all the beats are there to give us a very crowd pleasing, completely earned happy ending. It’s not secret that I’m the least Wars-y on this or any other Star Wars discussion boards, so you can take my opinion and chuck it down a sarlacc pit, but this one’s great.
Matthew Guerruckey: Ryan, I’m glad it still holds up for you. I know that you’re more of a Trek guy than a Wars guy, and I think that’s the key: you can just enjoy the movie on its own terms, while we’re all a little more invested in the idea of what the movie should be. And that kind of thinking ultimately gets you nowhere. It’s like when the 2009 Abrams reboot of Star Trek came out. I’m an appreciator of Trek, but hardly a super-fan, so the fact that it dealt more with a “Hero’s Journey” narrative than social commentary or naval strategy chess games didn’t bother me (that sense of generosity doesn’t extend to the hot piece of garbage known as Star Trek Into Darkness).
I’m also glad to hear you love the scenes in Jabba’s palace, because I always have as well. Donald, Lawrence, I’m shocked that you guys don’t like that part of the movie. For me, Jedi doesn’t drag until Luke rejoins the Rebel fleet after visiting with Yoda and Ben on Dagobah (though there are significant narrative issues with that scene). The Jabba scenes are great, in part because our heroes have a clear objective (freeing Han from the carbonite) but also all of the weird characters and design elements of Jabba’s world. Jabba’s place is this bizarre den of iniquity, filled with creepy, leering puppets and half-naked dancers. It’s definitely like nothing else in Star Wars. The design of Jabba himself is fantastic. I love that this badass gangster is just a slug, who can’t even move, but who’s so powerful that he makes the entire world come to him to beg for his favor.
But, even more important, Jabba’s palace is home to my favorite scene in this entire movie, and one of my favorite moments in any movie: Luke walking the plank, catching it, flipping back onto the skiff, and going mental on all of Jabba’s guards with his new, green lightsaber. When I was four-years-old, that scene blew my mind. Especially the music, the way it transitions from the single, tense horn blasts to the full main title theme once we get our first glimpse of Luke Skywalker, Jedi Knight.
But, as with so many things that we’re covering in this series, part of the rush I get from that scene is that it meant so much to me when I was four-years-old, and the nostalgia of that feeling having lasted over thirty years. Setting aside that emotional connection to the movie, there really is a jarring change in tone from Empire to Jedi. To extend our Godfather comparison from our last two conversations, it would be like Francis Ford Coppola following up The Godfather Part II with an episode of The Little Rascals.
Empire is composed of elegant, foreboding danger. Star Wars is filled with swashbuckling adventure. Jedi has a lot of non-specific action. There’s a lot more stuff happening on-screen, but without a strong narrative drive, much of it feels inconsequential. Part of what makes the Jabba’s palace scenes work for me is that we know why our heroes are there, and we feel the urgency of their mission. The Luke vs. Vader scenes are great, because, as Lawrence said, they’ve had three movies of build-up behind them. We know the characters, we know the stakes, and we feel the urgency.
But what is Han Solo’s arc in this movie? What is Leia’s? What is Lando’s? Oh, they have stuff to do, but it’s all just action. These characters, so vital in the first two movies, only exist in Jedi to serve the larger plot of the Rebel Alliance vs. the Empire. Who they themselves are feels much less important. Han Solo, in particular, goes from being the coolest guy in the galaxy to an absolute dope. He’s practically a sitcom dad here, and an obviously pissy Harrison Ford (who did not want to make this movie) spends the movie mugging accordingly. Ford is a great actor. This is by far his worst performance.
Ford famously thought that he should have died, and watching this movie, I tend to agree with him. Or, if not a heroic death, Han should have been given a more important mission than the one he gets here. Donald, what do you make of Solo here, and what are the the other missed opportunities of Return of the Jedi?
Donald McCarthy: I don’t make much of Solo here, that’s for sure. I mentioned earlier how lazy Ford’s performance is in this film, but I didn’t consider his lack of a character arc until you mentioned it, Matt- good catch. The main character arcs in this film belong to Luke and Vader. They’re two of the strongest arcs in the film series and that’s probably why we’ve all been praising their scenes (thankfully, Lucas saw those scenes could culminate even better by adding in Vader screaming, “Noooooooo!” after the audience pleaded for it for decades- seriously, was he just trolling us at that point?). The flip side of that is the rest of the film seems a lot weaker in comparison.
I have heard how Ford wanted Han to die at the end of the film. It would’ve been a good decision, I think, but it’s not a necessary one. There are many other ways for Han to be integral to the ending. Leia, too. She seems to be more important because it is in this film that we discover she is Luke’s sister, but she doesn’t get too do much that feels important. Including Leia in the throne room scene would probably crowd it a little, but I would’ve loved to see her interact with Darth Vader at least once. Or, failing that, grapple with the fact that Darth Vader is her father. That has to do a number on a person.
The Jabba scenes do contain a clear narrative goal, as Matt pointed out, but I actually prefer many of the later meandering scenes with the rebel fleet and Endor. There isn’t one big reason that makes me dislike the Jabba sequence, but more a lot of small details. For me, it drags on far too long before Luke arrives and I’ve never felt attached to any of the characters in Jabba’s palace, although Jabba himself is well done and his death is classic. All the side characters and their gags border too much on the ridiculous and I have as little patience for them as most people do for Jar Jar.
Boba Fett is another issue in this film. The Holiday Special cartoon built him up as a new antagonist, Vader alluded to him being a huge threat in The Empire Strikes Back, and he look positively badass standing around Jabba’s palace, like he’s the Clint Eastwood of the Star Wars universe. But he gets killed by a blind Han Solo hitting his jetpack and sending him flying into the Sarlaac. What a wasted opportunity.
I don’t want to sound like I’m too down on Return of the Jedi. Some of my favorite films in all of cinema are in it! I just can’t kick the feeling that there is a much better film in here that could’ve come out with another rewrite of the script. Sure, Return of the Jedi won’t be the last Star Wars film anymore, but it is still clearly the capper to the original six films. Wouldn’t it have been grand if the final film in the Lucas saga was as strong as the two that came before it?
Lawrence, you and I seem to be on the same page here. What would you have liked to have seen in Return of the Jedi?
Lawrence Von Haelstrom: I think you’re right that a better movie was just one script revision away. The last time Han saw Lando, Lando had sold him out to the Empire. Han knew nothing about the rescue attempt on Bespin; he knew nothing about Lando’s involvement with the Rebellion in between the movies; he probably didn’t even know about Lando’s little maneuver at the Battle of Tanab! Rescue on Tatooine or not, Han would still be pretty upset at Lando. Shouldn’t there be at least some confrontation between Han and Lando, some apology, some explanation? One brief slug-and-hug between bros is all we need. And we don’t get that moment.
Donald is also right about Leia never getting a chance to acknowledge that Vader is her father. Luke could have at least invited her to their father’s funeral pyre. It also would have been cute if we got to see Chewbacca finally get his medal. (And, hey, Mr. Abrams, there’s still time to put that scene in Episode VII.) There are just all these small moments that could have made the film more satisfying.
About the second Death Star: I get the criticism. Maybe instead of another Death Star, the Big Thing to Defeat could have been a giant cube, or a factory on a volcano planet, or the secret formula to a bio-weapon, or whatever. No matter what it might have ended up being, it would still be a Big Thing to Defeat. So, why not a second Death Star? Metaphorically it works. The first film just skimmed the surface, by the time of the third film we’re deep into the core. While the second Death Star is diegetically under-construction, over the course of the trilogy we see sequentially a completed Death Star then a skeleton of one. We’re seeing the dismantling of the Empire. I think it’s fine as it is.
(By the way, from the world of third grade bus ride arguments, I remember one kid trying to tell me that the Death Star in Return of the Jedi was the same as the one in Star Wars--it just didn’t blow up all the way. I still remember my frustration trying to explain that it was a new Death Star under construction.)
I also don’t hate the Ewoks. In the universe we’ve seen full of scum, villainy, smelly tauntauns, bounty hunters, failing hyperdrives, and rancors, they may be a little too cute, but story-wise they’re fine.
The film really is just a few extra moments, a few reconsiderations here and there, one more script revision shy of a truly great movie.
Ryan, what works/doesn’t work/could be better/could be a lot worse for you?
Ryan Roach: I agree with Donald that the lack of a payoff for the Leia/Vader relationship is a missed opportunity. Clearly, the womenfolk don’t merit much consideration in the world of the Empire. (Or in the world of Lucas). I think it was probably a mistake to make Luke and Leia siblings. Feels like something that was thrown in last minute to placate anyone who might’ve thought it was unfair that Han got the girl and Luke didn’t. Death Star? Whatever. Usually a movie series will bother to come up with a different Big Bad every movie, but hey. I don’t care. It was fine.
As for Boba Fett, I guess I’ll just confess now … I don’t get it. What’s the big deal about this character? He looks cool, I’ll grant you. But there’s no personality, no great one-liners, there’s nothing about him that sticks out at all. He was a plot device to capture Han, nothing more. I think this is the perfect example of one of the best cyphers in fiction. Every fanboy could project whatever they wanted onto him, and see whatever they wanted to see of themselves in him. I think the more of Boba, the less mysterious he is. Which is why the fan-service clone stuff in the prequels didn’t work, and why I have grave doubts about whatever he’s going to be doing in the new movies, once he escapes that pit.
I also agree with Ford that Han Solo should’ve died … but here in 2015, awaiting that next Episode, I’m very glad he didn’t. Though...he should die in Episode VII. He really should. I will have a ton of respect for the series if he does.
Matthew Guerruckey: Boba Fett begins and ends with his design. He looks like a badass, and the fact that he didn’t say much in Empire made him even more of a bad-ass. He was designed to bring to mind Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name from the Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns, which would have been great if he hadn’t been given such a slapstick death scene. So, again, we have something menacing in Empire dumbed-down for Jedi.
When George Lucas saw the finished cut of Star Wars, he whined to Richard Dreyfuss that he’d accidentally made a movie for children. Accidentally. That’s important, because Lucas’s opinion on who these movies are for has shifted throughout the years, usually as a way to deflect criticism. When people praise the Luke/Vader storyline, he’s happy to pontificate about Shakespearean themes and Joseph Campbell’s monomyth, but when someone questions Jar-Jar Binks, Lucas will say that these movies are and always have been for children. Then he presents us with the horrific image of Anakin Skywalker burnt to a crisp at the end of Revenge of the Sith. But Return of the Jedi is clearly a kid’s movie.
It was also, for sixteen years, anyway, the last Star Wars movie. Originally, Lucas has planned to basically keep making Star Wars movies forever. He’d planned at least nine episodes, and by some accounts as many as twelve. But making these movies took a lot out of Lucas, and by the time he got to Jedi, he was ready to wrap things up. So plotlines that could have stretched forward got hasty resolutions.
In The Empire Strikes Back, when Yoda tells Obi-Wan Kenobi that “there is another”, he is not referring to Princess Leia. The idea, according to Lucas’s notes and story sessions, was that Luke did have a sibling, probably a sister, and she was off kicking ass in some other part of the galaxy. We would meet her in Episode VII or VIII. Making Leia Luke’s sister allowed Lucas to tie up that story thread, but it ignored everything that had happened between the two in the first two movies, and made their kiss on Hoth immediately creepy. In most story conferences, that’s as far as that idea goes.
“Hey, why don’t we make Leia his sister?”
“Yeah, sure, but they made out and everything.”
“Oh, you’re right. Let’s never do that. Ever.”
But George Lucas had the power, by that point, to do whatever the fuck he wanted with his movies. It’s the beginning of an instinct that would take him from one of the most respected storytellers of one generation to a punchline of the next.
And speaking of those questionable instincts, it’s time now, gentlemen, to talk about “Jedi Rocks”. Up until 1997, the musical number sung by Sy Snootles and the Rebo band was a funky, simple number called “Lapti Nek”. It was catchy and fun, but ultimately it just served to feature some more muppety weirdness in Jabba’s palace, and transition between the arrival of the droids and the arrival of Leia and Chewie.
But when Lucas revised Jedi for the 1997 theatrical re-release, “Lapti Nek” was replaced by something called “Jedi Rocks”. You can ignore “Lapti Nek”. You cannot ignore “Jedi Rocks”. It insists upon your attention, it literally gets right up in your face and demands to entertain you.
There is some bad shit in the Star Wars movies, in both the original trilogy and the prequels. None of it is worse than “Jedi Rocks”. And here’s the thing--”Jedi Rocks” was the most significant change to these movies ahead of the prequels. It’s not just a bad musical number, it’s a harbinger of doom. “Jedi Rocks” is a warning to the audience. “This is what George Lucas thinks is good now, guys, and none of us can stop him.”
But beyond my own personal distaste for that addition, there are a lot of changes made to Return of the Jedi, in the ‘97 Special Edition, and the later DVD and Blu-Ray releases, and none of them work for me. The original Ewok song is fine. I don’t care what happened on Coruscant when The Emperor died. And Hayden Christensen’s smirking mug does not belong next to Alec Guinness and Yoda.
And, also, in one of the more recent changes, I just plain don’t understand the addition of Darth Vader’s deep-throated “nooooo” before he picks up The Emperor. It’s not like people had been confused about Vader’s intentions for the years before they added that in. It’s not like people had followed Vader’s gaze from Luke writhing in pain to Palpatine gleefully firing force-lightning at him and wondered, “Gee, is Darth Vader conflicted here?” It was perfectly clear what was happening, and Vader’s silence in the moment made his reaction all the more sudden and powerful. Also, the “nooooo” just plain sounds stupid.
Donald, do any of these Special Edition changes work for you?
Donald McCarthy: The addition of the planets at the end works for me. I remember when I saw the special editions for the first time, I was really excited to see Coruscant and wonder what exactly it was (I hadn’t read any of the Expanded Universe yet) and if it would be in the new films. Now, I think it ties the series together nicely. I think the film loses something if it’s taken out and it’s one of the changes to the original trilogy that I think works both visually and thematically.
I can’t say much for the rest of the changes, though. I looked at the Star Wars wiki’s list of changes and very few stood out as good (Boba Fett flirting is odd, but it works for me; the insert of the shot where Luke hugs Wedge is a definite plus in my book), many stood out as pointless (the extra characters in Jabba’s palace), and some stood out as bad (the pointless addition of an extra mouth to the Sarlaac). I don’t hate “Jedi Rocks” as much as you do, Matt, but if Lucas was going to add something new, why that?! Why not a scene with the Emperor and Darth Vader, something he could’ve easily done since McDiarmid would’ve been up to it despite being older and all you need for Vader is a suit. He could’ve used it as a moment for the two characters to discuss some aspect of the prequels as a way to link the two trilogies together and, in 1997, cause tons of fan discussion. I’m not saying it’s needed, but surely it would’ve made more thematic and storytelling sense than “Jedi Rocks.”
But then we get the later changes. Ah, jeez. Hayden Christensen is unneeded for the scene. There’s no reason for him to replace Sebastian Shaw. Anakin, very briefly, became a Jedi at the end again and that’s why Shaw needs to be there. And “Noooooooooo!” What can I even say? Was Lucas trolling fans at that point? What’s the purpose of that change? Was anyone wondering why Vader didn’t give some sort of Shakespeare soliloquy at the end? Were fans pondering Vader’s silence?
Some of the small cosmetic changes are fine. They weren’t crying out to be made, but they were fine. Not a ringing endorsement, I know.
As the last of the six Lucas films, Return of the Jedi works and works pretty well. I’ve discussed many of its flaws, but the flawed nature of Return of the Jedi neatly sums up the series as a whole. There are questionable moments, and a few stupid ones, but we’ll always have the grand moments, like Luke slashing at Vader or telling the Emperor, “You’ve failed, your highness. I’m a Jedi, like my father before me.” That’s as big and powerful a moment as I could wish for.
Now, though, I’m in the position of asking, “What’s next?” I used to consider the books the answer to this, but with Disney’s upcoming films the whole ballgame has changed. I’m optimistic even though neither trailer has wowed me, but I also fear that, for all the flaws of the Lucas films, Disney will beat the hell out of this franchise and it will eventually end with not a bang, but a whimper.
Then again, who knows? Perhaps after the sequel trilogy Disney will play with other time periods in the Star Wars story and there will just be a central nine films. Part of me, though, will always view the original six as the true core and Return of the Jedi as an ending.
Lawrence Von Haelstrom: The story does end with Return of the Jedi. Yes, this ending has plenty of flaws, but it is still the ending. And as flawed as the prequels may be, they were made with Return of the Jedi in mind as the ending. I talked about the symmetry that Jedi creates with A New Hope, but even further, The Phantom Menace cleverly adds to this symmetry. Both it and Jedi conclude with a three part space battle, ground battle, lightsaber duel; the Tatooine podrace mimics the optics, cuts, and special effects of the Endor speeder chase. By intentional design, The Phantom Menace is the beginning and Return of the Jedi is the ending. Sure, we can wish for a better beginning and ending, but none-the-less, this is what we have.
So, there will be at least three movies that will try to continue the story and an unknown number of spin-off movies. My best hope for them is that they will be as good as Disney’s Marvel movies--competent and entertaining. I don’t expect anything more. What I get from the trailers is that Disney took stock of everything they know we all ready like about Star Wars--X-Wings, TIE Fighters, lightsabers--and made sure to make a movie that included them. If there’s going to be anything surprising, it’s going to be safe, calculated surprises (A lightsaber with extra lightsabers!) that will make a brief stir on Twitter, but will not be anything truly new and imaginative.
Because I’ve already gone this far off the topic of Return of the Jedi, I’ll go one step further and talk about the notion of “canon.” For the past thirty years there have been countless licensed Star Wars novels and comic books. When Disney announced that those would no longer be considered canon, or not the “true” story of Star Wars, many on the internet felt betrayed. The simple fact is there is no true story. Every single moment of Star Wars, no matter how important and inspiring to our lives and imagination some of them may be, were all made up.
Another step further off topic: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has a horrible ending. Immediately after one of the most powerful moments in the history of American Literature, Tom Sawyer shows up, Jim turns into a one-dimensional grotesquery, the action grows tedious, and everything ends up resolved a little too easily. Does the “true” story of Huckleberry Finn end when he decides to go to hell instead of betraying Jim? Does it include the horrible ending? Is the time Huck, Tom, and Jim went on an educational balloon trip around the world canon? Those questions actually don’t matter. None of it is true. But the good parts will always be real.
And I say all that to remind myself not to get upset with whatever Disney does to Star Wars. The good moments of the Star Wars films will always be good. They may not be true, but they will always be real.
Ryan, do you consider Return of the Jedi the ending? Are you looking forward to the story continuing?
Ryan Roach: I’ll tell you, I didn’t think much of the idea of the story continuing … until I saw that trailer. And while I am in no way a superfan of the series, there was something about that trailer that really tickled the childhood part of my lizard brain, and I’m fully on board with this. I want to see the old guard again: Chewy, Han, Leia, Luke, 3-PO. I mean, come on! It’s gonna be great, you guys. I really think it will be. No, it’s not going to be the same, it never is. But I think Abrams will do a much better job than Lucas did, and then we’ve got Rian Johnson for Episode VIII--there is much reason to be optimistic, here. And I think we can all agree that there’s no sacred religious text here that we have to worry about tarnishing. Between the “special editions” and the prequels, the legacy is already over. It literally can’t get any worse. So let’s see what happens.
Matthew Guerruckey: Yeah, I’ll agree with that, Ryan. At this point, Star Wars has been shitty for longer than it has been good, but all of that shitty extra material doesn’t take the thrill away from the Death Star trench run in A New Hope, or the Vader reveal in Empire. So if The Force Awakens adds depth to the existing characters, and gives them a great send-off, then that’s a fantastic way to please the sensibilities of older fans like me, while giving younger fans, who are seeing the movie at the same age that I was when I first saw Return of the Jedi, an entirely new world to explore.
And, besides, however “official” or “unofficial” an event is when it happens in one of the films, I’ve been putting up with ridiculous bullshit happening to these characters in the Extended Universe for years. Luke Skywalker fought his own clone, then he turned evil, then he turned back. He married some redhead. Chewbacca died when a fucking moon fell on him. None of that silliness changed anything about the original movies, and it never will. Even if Return of the Jedi is not the final end of these characters, it’s the end of the story that I grew up with, and for that, all weaknesses aside, it will always have a special place in my heart. It’s a dumb movie, but it’s an entertaining movie that wraps up the only story I ever really cared about, Luke’s, brilliantly. So do what you will, Abrams, we’ve already gotten our happy ending.
Donald McCarthy: That’s a good way of looking at it, Matt (although I enjoyed much of the Extended Universe until after The New Jedi Order and, as you will all soon see, I like a lot of the prequels). No matter what, we’ll always have the ending that Return of the Jedi gave us. The non-Lucas films will no doubt be different and I imagine they will feel different to an extent, too. I bet we’ll always be able to separate the non-Lucas films from the Lucas films, for better or worse.
To speak a little more generally about continuity for a moment, it’s worth noting that since these are stories, the ones you want to count are the only ones you need to. Just because the new films will continue the story doesn’t mean you have to view Return of the Jedi as just the end of a chapter; fans will be free to still see it as an ending- and many no doubt will!
I’ll admit that when I heard they’d be making more films I had some concerns. Over time, I realized that it doesn’t matter. I’ll always have the films I enjoyed and if the new movies turn out to be disasters I’m okay with Return of the Jedi as my conclusion, silly moments and all.
Lawrence Von Haelstrom: In our first two discussions we talked a lot about how the viewer’s imagination expands the story. Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back are filled with moments that ignite our thoughts and we make the story so much bigger than what’s on the screen. The ultimate flaw of Return of the Jedi is that it sets limits on our imagination. This is what Jabba is, this is the Emperor, this is what Darth Vader looks like. It’s the trouble with trying to conclude any serial. It’s always easier to set up another mystery, another cliffhanger--it’s much harder to conclusively end something and still live up to the vague-yet-thrilling sparks of our imagination. Return of the Jedi is an ending. It’s obligatory, but it is very often very effective. All good things must end, and this is our end. (For now.)
The original trilogy may be over, but Star Wars isn’t -- that’s right, kids, we’ll be discussing those oh-so-controversial prequel films, beginning in August with The Phantom Menace! Join us later this summer for that discussion, and share your memories of Return of the Jedi in the comments below!