Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Saturday, November 14, 2015

Recent Watches: Return of the Jedi (1983)

When I was a kid, “Return of the Jedi” was my favorite of the “Star Wars” movies. Looking back, this makes a lot of sense. By the time “Return of the Jedi” came out, “Star Wars” was a huge marketing machine. Toys, bed sheets, lunch boxes, and even Saturday morning cartoon shows were just some of the ancillary products. Realizing this, George Lucas intentionally made changes to the final entry in his original trilogy in order to appeal more to kids. When the movie came out, not too many complained about this. In the days before continuing cinematic sagas were guaranteed, people were just overjoyed to have a new “Star Wars” movie, to finally see the conclusion to the story. Now, fan opinion is more divided. Some continue to love “Return of the Jedi” while others see it as a bit disappointing.

In the year since “The Empire Strikes Back,” this war among the stars has become more heated. Determined to stomp out the Rebel Alliance once and for all, the Empire has started construction on a new Death Star. Stationed above the forest moon of Endor, the Emperor himself is overseeing its construction. Meanwhile, Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia endeavor to rescue Han Solo from alien gangster Jabba the Hutt. Afterwards, the rebellion flies toward Endor, seeking to destroy the new Death Star before it destroys them. There, Luke has to confront his father.

Allow me to digress slightly and discuss George Lucas’ other well-known creation. The second Indiana Jones movie, “Indiana Jones and the Temple Doom,” was widely criticized upon release for being too dark. The third movie, “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” was made much sillier and softer in response. Despite most everyone liking “The Empire Strikes Back,” Lucas and his teams seemed to have made a similar over-correction with “Return of the Jedi.” Episode six wants to give people more of what they liked before. Perhaps there was a pressure to ensure the final part of the story would please everybody. Thus, we have a second Death Star, another duel between Luke and Vader, another visit with Yoda, another land war on a specifically characterized planet, and another character being revealed as a family member. At times, “Return of the Jedi” feels too safe. Its willingness to revisit elements from previous films – with less satisfying results – is a symptom of this.

One must also address the continuing toyification of “Star Wars.” George Lucas had an invested interest in this. Famously, 20th Century Fox did not believe the original “Star Wars” would be successful, instead betting on “Damnation Alley” to be their big science fiction film of the summer. Because of this, Lucas talked the studio into giving him full control over the “Star Wars’” merchandising rights. The massive demand for “Star Wars” toys, more-so then even the actual movies, is what made George Lucas a billionaire. Perhaps this is why “Return of the Jedi” seems to focus on introducing new vehicles, aliens, and gadgets. There are lots of new spaceships fighting among the Rebel forces. The movie features a lot more new alien species, some of them rather cuddly. Characters that look cool but actually add nothing to the story, like the Imperial Guards, are introduced. Presumably because the AT-AT toys were hella’ awesome, the movie throws in another walking vehicle, the far goofier looking AT-ST. Hell, Luke even gets a new colored light saber. Toyetic elements aren’t necessarily bad. There’s no doubt the mechanical and creature design of these films remain as top-notch as ever. Yet it’s a sure sign of the series’ changing sensibilities.

“The Empire Strikes Back” shocked the hell out of people by revealing that Darth Vader, the series’ most imposing villain, was actually the father of Luke Skywalker, the virtuous hero. That was a huge shock because it was so unexpected. In the concluding third chapter, Luke Skywalker gains another family member. Turns out Princess Leia is his sister. Unlike the Vader reveal, this revelation serves little purpose. Mostly, it just makes the universe seem a lot smaller. Apparently, everyone is related in a galaxy far, far away. A random farm boy on Tatooine, a princess of the Galactic Republic, and a high-ranking Sith Lord all being members of the same family strains belief. Of course, we all know the real reason Leia becomes Luke’s sister. It was to defuse the Luke/Han/Leia love triangle. To dispel all notions of the male and female leads getting together, to make room for Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher’s romantic chemistry. Mostly, it just ends up adding a kind of creepy incest subtext to the first two films. There wasn’t a more elegant way to bury that plot line, George?

Like I said, introducing a bunch of cool shit you can make toys of isn’t necessary a bad idea. The first act of the movie is full of all sorts of awesome aliens and monsters to make rad action figures out of. And it’s the best part of the movie. Finally getting to see Jabba the Hut, after hearing about him for two movies, must’ve been very satisfying in 1983. He doesn’t disappoint either, the giant, decadent slug monster being appropriately imposing and horrifying. His palace is full of all sorts of weird creatures. The adorable Max Rebo, the hideous Bib Fortuna, the chattering Salacious Crumb, the pig-snouted Gamorrean Guards, the Rule 34-spawning dancing girls: All make an impression. After attempting to sway Jabba with his Jedi powers, the gangster attempts to feed Luke to the imposing Rancor. The hero fighting a giant monster positively recalls the sci-fi serials that inspired “Star Wars.” (The Rancor Trainer also crying after the creature’s death is another nice touch, showing that even hideous monsters are loved by someone.) In addition to being a lot of pulpy fun, it continues to show that our heroes exist in a wilder, more diverse universe then is always immediately obvious.

The battle above the Sarlacc pit is some of the most satisfying action in the film. The heroes leaping around the floating platforms is a dynamic sight. It’s great to see Luke actually kicking so much ass, slashing foes with his light saber and yanking henchmen out of windows. Once on Endor, there’s the exciting Speeder bike chase. Now iconic, the hover-bike race features lots of explosion and high-speed action. I wish all of “Return of the Jedi” was this good. The siege on the Death Star is fine, I guess. The model work continues to be excellent and the camera is more immersive then in Episode IV. However, the risks seems much lower. The Rebels’ victory seems more self-assured. The ground war on Endor has a similar problem. There’s some shooting and fighting but no actual sense of danger. By this point, the Stormtroopers are totally incompetent, defanged threat. The Empire seems like less of a universe conquering regime and more like a bunch of easily foiled cartoon bad guys.

Let’s talk seriously about the Ewoks. Before there was Jar Jar, the “Star Wars” character die hard fans despised the most were the Ewoks. Their marketability is plain. They’re four-foot tall teddy bears. They speak in adorable gibberish. Unlike many of the other aliens of “Star Wars,” they’re a primitive species, residing in grass huts and defending themselves with rocks and spears. This is how fucking cute the Ewoks are: One of them flies through the air on a ridiculous hang-glider. I don’t hate the Ewoks. Yes, they’re fairly preposterous. The way they defeat the Imperial Forces is, frankly, unlikely. Apparently, the Ewoks were meant to represent the Viet Cong which is either brilliant or incredibly tasteless. Characterizing them as primitive cannibals doesn’t help their case much. But their villages, suspended among the trees, are cool. Endor is a pretty neat location and the movie makes the most of it. Would I have preferred a planet full of Wookies, as originally planned? Oh yeah, for sure. But the sickly adorable Ewoks aren’t without their charms. They did, after all, introduces the world to Warwick Davis.

Something that made “Empire” so impressive is how intimate the struggles of its characters’ were. Luke Skywalker’s character arc – realizing his greatest enemy was his father and confronting his inner darkness – was especially compelling. “Return of the Jedi” seeks much of the same emotion. Luke spends the last third of the movie aboard the Death Star, egged on by his dad and the Emperor. This removes the hero from the final conflict. It also makes the Dark Side seem incredibly petty. The dilemma is supposed to play like this: Luke’s emotions are fiery and unbalanced. This leaves him at risk to the Dark Side and he must resist his anger and rage. Instead, this makes the protagonist look ineffective and inactive. When Luke grabs his light saber and goes at the Emperor, it’s what we want to see. We want a hero that takes action! The duel between Vader and his son plays like an inferior version of the fight from “The Empire Strikes Back.” The Emperor, though a visually imposing character, doesn’t do much. His ability to sway and manipulate people doesn’t come across very clearly. (His ability to shoot lightning bolts from his fingers, meanwhile, is hopelessly silly. How come he didn’t do that shit sooner?)

During production of the prequel trilogy, George Lucas was fond of saying the entire saga had been about the rise and fall of Anakin Skywalker, right from the beginning. This is blatantly untrue. However, “Return of the Jedi” does create a redemptive arc for its villain. Darth Vader’s humanity is emphasized throughout the movie. We discover that he hasn’t killed Luke because he genuinely cares about him. Behind the robotic suit and terrifying voice, a human heart still beats. Vader turning against the Emperor doesn’t play the best. It comes a bit out of nowhere. One minute, Vader is passively watching his boss roasts his son. The next, he lifts the bad guy over head and tosses him to his death. Similarly, Vader being fatally injured isn’t delivered smoothly. All it takes to debilitate his system is a few shocks from the Emperor’s Force Lightening. However, the confrontation between father and son is touching. As Vader dies, he looks at his boys with his own eyes for the first time. The two have absolution, finding a common ground in the last minutes of his life. “Return of the Jedi” is too devoid of emotion and heart for most of its run time. Those few scenes, though, shows that it could’ve had more.

Considering what a massive cultural phenomenon “Star Wars” became, perhaps it was impossible for any film to be a satisfying final entry. Yet in its desperate attempt to please at all cost, “Return of the Jedi” seems to forget to create a touching final scene. Vader and the Emperor is dead. The Death Star has been destroyed. Our heroes are reunited. The bad guys lost and the good guys won. So what’s our resolution? Everyone parties with the Ewoks, Luke burns his dad’s body, three ghosts show up, and then we cut to credits. That’s… Underwhelming. For being such an epic story, there’s surprisingly little pomp and circumstance in these final moments. Compare the joyous ending of “A New Hope” to this one and tell me I’m wrong.

After relative little tinkering in the various re-releases of “The Empire Strikes Back,” George Lucas’ desire to fuck with everything returns along with the Jedi. The early scenes of Jabba’s palace are crowded up with more CGI creations. The Max Rebo Band now features some excessively distracting new characters. The lead singer has been entirely replaced, singing and dancing in a more outrageous fashion. And what’s with the hairy guy screaming directly at the camera? Christ, that’s annoying. The simplicity of the Sarlaac, a terrifying vagina dentata lurking in the middle of the desert, is mucked up with more tentacles and a beak. The Blu-Ray release added even more unnecessary non-sense. Anakin’s Force Ghost is now given Hayden Christenson’s face, a move likely to confuse first-timers who watch the series in release order. The Ewoks now blink for some reason. Some of the changes give the impression that Lucas is purposely screwing with the fan base. The celebratory climatic montage now features planets from the prequel trilogy. Among them is Episode I’s Naboo, the screeching voice of Jar Jar Binks’ obviously audible in the crowd. Before his heroic sacrifice, Darth Vader now screams the widely mocked “Noooo!” from Episode III. Why? Why do any of these things? At best, they add nothing to the movie. At worst, they are utterly distracting.

I should probably mention at some point that Richard Marquand, a thriller filmmaker with little experience in science fiction, directed “Return of the Jedi.” This was after David Lynch and David Cronenberg, both of whom likely would’ve made much stranger movies, passed on the film. Marquand gets little credit. Lucas mostly exited “Empire Strikes Back” after the scripting phase was done. On “Jedi,” he was involved every step of the way. It is Lucas’ sensibility, not Marquand’s, that defines the film. Maybe “Return of the Jedi” would have been better if Lucas had taken a back seat. That’s something we can debate endlessly. Though flawed, “Return of the Jedi” isn’t bad. There are plenty of entertaining or effective moments throughout. Its biggest sin is simply not being as good as either of the proceeding episodes. Perhaps no movie could’ve been a satisfying conclusion to a series this huge. I guess we’ll find out when Episode IX comes along… [7/10]

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