When Luke Skywalker abruptly abandoned his Jedi training at Dagobah to attempt to rescue his friends from the clutches of Darth Vader in The Empire Strikes Back, he promised Yoda to come back and finish his training. In Return of the Jedi, when he keeps that promise, Yoda inexplicably tells him, "No more training do you require. Already know you all that you need."
It doesn’t make any sense, but it’s clearly true. The film’s spectacular first act, centering on the brilliantly orchestrated rescue of Han Solo from the clutches of Jabba the Hutt, establishes Luke as a masterful, fearless, powerful warrior. Clad in clerical black, he strides unarmed into Jabba’s palace to deliver his ultimatum, and proves himself a worthy knight by both slaying a dragon and (again) rescuing the princess. Even when Jabba makes him walk the plank (add pirate movies to Lucas’ catalogue of inspirations), Luke stands at the plank’s edge and calmly issues one last warning.
Thematically, where the first Star Wars movie offered a simple vision of good triumphing over evil, and The Empire Strikes Back expressed the problem of evil and the necessity of sacrifice, Return of the Jedi tackles nothing less than resisting temptation, compassion for enemies, and the possibility of redemption for even the most evil.
Admittedly, Return of the Jedi doesn’t realize these lofty themes quite as successfully as the previous films did theirs. The moral and dramatic issues aren’t persuasively thought out or defined, and the climax is undermined by several crucial factors. It’s not clear why the act Luke struggles over would necessarily be so morally disastrous, or even why, given subsequent events, another character’s redemptive act is so tremendously important in anything but a moral sense. Also, that act is far too fleeting; what ought to have been a climactic, cathartic battle of epic proportions is over and done with in a matter of seconds.
And yet, in spite of these weaknesses, the sheer boldness and imaginative force of the film’s redemptive final twist redeems the film itself from many of its own limitations. Among the cinema’s most iconic villains — the Wicked Witch of the West; Hannibal Lecter; Nosferatu; Norman Bates; Harry Powell, Mr. Potter — Darth Vader’s story arc stands strikingly alone in its climax. Return of the Jedi also establishes a new villian, the Emperor (Ian McDiarmid), briefly introduced in The Empire Strikes Back, who is almost as vivid as Vader, and satanically wicked.
In spite of this, Return of the Jedi remains the weak link in the series. After the remarkably persuasive aliens in the first two films, including the convincing Chewbacca and the extraordinarily expressive Yoda, many of the creatures we meet in Return of the Jedi, especially the cut-rate Wookiees known as Ewoks and some of the sillier creatures in Jabba the Hutt’s retinue, came as a disappointment. On the other hand, needless to say, Jabba himself is an achievement of immense proportions, both literally and figuratively.
One of the film’s better scenes involves what may be See-Threepio’s finest moment in the series, as, using a blend of pantomime, sound effects, and the "primitive dialect" of the Ewoks, the droid recounts to a spellbound Ewok audience a synopsis of the entire Star Wars saga to date (giving the lie, incidentally, to his claim in A New Hope not to be much of a storyteller).
Morally, the scene is interesting because it means that when it comes to a fight, the Ewoks are fighting and dying in a cause they know something about, as opposed to being cannon fodder for whichever side happened to befriend them. Beyond that, it’s fun to watch the story through the Ewoks’ eyes (note the Ewok comfortingly hugging Han’s leg in shocked sympathy as Threepio relates the carbon-freezing incident).
Perhaps the most interesting thing about the climactic action of Return of the Jedi is how it ultimately subverts the doctrine of radical detachment preached by Yoda. Filial loyalty leads Luke to seek to save his father rather than destroy him, and his father’s parental bond to Luke becomes the path to redemption and the destruction of the Sith. Humanism and family, not Buddhist-style detachment, is thus the final word on the Star Wars mythos. Return of the Jedi may not be quite as strong as its predecessors, but it’s more than strong enough to bring the series to a triumphant close.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.