Friday, January 27, 2017

I Do Believe They Think I Am Some Sort Of God

Year: 1983
Director: Richard Marquand
Cast: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher
Run Time: 2 hours 11 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG

Capping off a trilogy is a tricky thing. Indiana Jones did it right, redefining the dynamic by roping in Sean Connery as Indy’s father. But so often a trilogy can descend into silly spectacle like Scream 3 or fade into relative anonymity like The Godfather: Part III. And how does one expect to follow two pristine entries like Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back? It’s a challenging proposition, so I don’t blame George Lucas & Co. for not really trying.

Ya burnt! Let’s get into my justification before the people with pitchforks find out where I live.

For the first time in the trilogy, things pick up more or less where they left off. Han Solo (Harrison Ford) is still frozen in carbonite, providing the sluglike crime boss Jabba the Hutt’s (Larry Ward) walls with quite the conversation piece. Leia (Carrie Fisher) is still in love with him for no discernible reason. And Luke (Mark Hamill) is still a whiny spacebaby, only now he styles himself as a Jedi Knight, despite never actually having finished his training with the ailing Yoda (Frank Oz). They rescue Han from Jabba’s wretched hive of scum and villainy, and rejoin the Rebellion to aid their mission to stop the Empire from completing work on a brand new Death Star.

Luke’s true test of becoming a Jedi master begins here: will he succumb to his hate and anger and become a pawn of Darth Vader (David Prowse body, James Earl Jones VO) and the wicked Emperor (Ian McDiarmid)? Or will he find the light and hope and crap that will guide him to the right side of the Force? A battle ensues on and in orbit of the forest moon of Endor, with Han, Leia, Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) and C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) fighting alongside a native tribe of teddy bears called Ewoks (Warwick Davis and a bunch of other people) to shut down the shield surrounding the star and Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) leading the space battle above, because I guess he was the only named character they had left and Obi Wan’s ghost (Alec Guinness) wasn’t gonna do it, as much as his death entirely fails to hamper his presence in the material world.

In another life, George Lucas probably would have been a ghost hunter.

Return of the Jedi has been the subject of much fan derision over the years. “The Ewoks are stupid! It’s just another Death Star!” I have an equally low opinion of the film, but for almost entirely different reasons. Although I agree that the Ewoks are poorly executed with their stiff, unmoving plastic surgery lips, their presence grants us a reprieve from the biggest weakness of Jedi: the human characters.

Luke, Leia, and Han Solo have never had particularly interesting arcs, because they’ve never really been asked to. But all of a sudden, it’s the end of a trilogy. Some kind of arc needs to be fulfilled, so the trio is tossed into a character development blender set to warp speed. Luke especially gets hit full in the face with his so-called emotional journey, squashed into the “inner conflict between light and dark” storyline implied by Empire. His endless, tedious exchanges with Darth Vader and the Emperor would be interesting if we had any insight into his character or the struggles this script pretends he has, but it’s just a mountain of New Age Forcebabble with completely incomprehensible stakes.

Return of the Jedi also lurches from a major gearshift tonally. Where Luke’s half of the story grows more needlessly serious and introspective, the rest of the film descends into the lunatic chaos of a cartoon. Yes, the Ewoks are a symptom of this, but they’re by a wide margin less irritating than Jabba the Hutt’s cabal of snickering evil puppets, which look like rejected goblins from Labyrinth. Or the dastardly calliope score. Or the hyperbolic screams every unnamed character seems to give whenever they’re knocked over.

But I kind of loved those screams, so I won’t dwell on that.

It’s taken me about a week to crank this review out, because I just can’t find it in my heart to give a crap about Return of the Jedi. It’s a thin endcap to a massive franchise, and that’s fine. It does enough to not stomp all over the massive legacy of Star Wars, both as a special effects spectacle (the land speeder chase on Endor is beyond reproach, even if it has some shaky rear projection) and as a blockbuster titan (They may not be up to much this time around, but there mere presence of the returning characters is magnetic enough to overcome that; and John Williams is mostly coasting on old compositions, but what compositions they are!) but it’s really just not that good.

I hate to say it, but it’s true. Return of the Jedi is all over the place, shoving characters into and out of its lopsided narrative at random (poor Boba Fett – I’ve never understood exactly why the bounty hunter who appears in five minutes of Empire is so darn-tootin’ popular, but he deserves better than the Three Stooges demise he’s handed here), lurching through a truncated repeat of the Death Star plot, and ladling a heavy second helping of family lineage intrigue that drowns continuity. It’s still Star Wars, so it’s at least an engaging popcorn space adventure, but Return of the Jedi was the first time the series showed signs that not every entry in the canon was going to be an out-and-out masterpiece.

TL;DR: Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi is a tonally imbalanced, childish conclusion to an otherwise terrific trilogy.
Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 972
Reviews In This Series
Star Wars (Lucas, 1977)
Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (Marquand, 1983)
Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (Abrams, 2015)
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Edwards, 2016)
Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi (Johnson, 2017)
Solo: A Star Wars Story (Howard, 2018)



    But yeah, a lot of people don't like Jedi. And I'll even agree on some of the criticisms, especially regarding some of the background creatures in Jabba's palace. (There's a snake-thing hanging over Jabba that would look cheap in Flash Gordon, where the whole aesthetic is dedicated to cheapness.) And, obviously, the thing is structured in the weirdest way, though I tend to like it. Childish as the sentiment may be, it makes it feel jam-packed with adventure. (It certainly negotiates its overstuffed storyline with 1000% more elegance than most of our latterday superhero movies do. A low bar, but it is one it easily clears.)

    I sharply disagree about the characters, however. With the possible exception of Han, who got practically a whole movie to be Han last time, Jedi's the one with the deepest characterizations. Sometimes, that just means "getting to do anything," which is how Leia comes off so well in the first half of the movie--even if, as a culture, it's probably time to put science fantasy rape cosplay behind us, just taken on its own merits it's pretty fantastic. The Boussh twist is pretty amazing; and it puts her front-and-center in Luke's multi-tiered and (admittedly) dumbassed plan to free Han. Plus, egardless of how it's remembered, there's something awesome about Leia strangling a deviant space slug to death, and maybe even subversive, or at least weird: a rape-revenge subplot, 100% in succession with the gutter-dwelling feminist [sic] thrillers of the 1970s, planted right smack dab in the middle of your children's space opera. (And then, once that rape-revenge subplot is concluded, the action is more-or-less immediately removed to a land full of cute, fuzzy munchkins, who live in the California forests. Return of the Jedi is strange.)

    1. ...Ah, but then there's Luke, and the glorious denouement to his arc. It's all very vague and mystical, I'll absolutely grant that; but that's why it's so great. It's not, I don't think, about whether Luke is going to literally become Palpatine's servant. (If it is about that--and, hell, maybe it is, inasmuch as they do mention it like a dozen times in dialogue--then, yes, that is kind of stupid. And taking that idea into an over-literal story is one reason why the Prequels are so stupid--and, crucially, without possessing any of the power or resonance of the OT.)

      So: what it is, is a choice between violence and non-violence--or, maybe, more accurately, fury and peace. What I get from it, even if it's not 100% properly spelled out (or even if it's not entirely what Lucas intended), is that Palpatine and Vader aren't just space warlords, like Ming. They are, in their own way, principled--driven by their religious beliefs even more than their own hungers. (Though their religion grants sanction to their hungers.) Seducing Luke to the Dark Side is an end in itself, even if it means that, in the short term, they lose. Though Palpatine is probably not going to let Luke kill him, if Luke succeeded, his philosophy still wins. And Luke would kill him, eventually, even if Palpatine did manage to extort him into becoming his apprentice. Of course, Luke desperately wants to kill Palpatine, and to save his friends, and the whole galaxy--he wants to be a hero in the usual way, by vanquishing the bad guy with his laser sword.

      And that's why there's no more powerful moment in the whole history of popcorn cinema than the moment where Luke, at the end of the most savage of all lightsaber battles, driven by the best John Williams composition of the Trilogy (nothing new indeed!), lays down his arms and says, "I am a Jedi, like my father before me," completely accepting what that actually means--more wholeheartedly and more coherently than Ben or Yoda ever did, in fact. It means he loses; but it means he rises above the need to win.

      Now, I don't even agree with what that means, philosophically or politically, but I've got a soft spot for the cinematic Jesus--but Luke Skywalker is the best cinematic Jesus of them all. And that's why Return of the Jedi is the best Star Wars movie.

      And, also, because it has the raddest space battle. 10/10

      P.S.: I'm guessing you also watched the newest Special Edition, which, for my money, ruins large stretches of Jedi, possibly moreso than Lucas ruined A New Hope. "Jedi Rocks" and the "no" and the new ending song that overwrites the great Ewok victory theme... it's a big Goddamn mess, and occasionally actively embarrassing to watch. Especially "Jedi Rocks," which I learn from Wookiepedia is an example of a musical style called "jizz," and whose practicioners are called "jizz-wailers."

      ...Brennan, I'm starting to regret writing a 1000 word comment defending this.