Ah, those blinking Ewoks. A long time ago, 1983 to be exact, Return of the Jedi was loved by critics and fans alike. Grossing more than $475 million worldwide, opening to rave reviews and sell-out audiences, the then third and final chapter of George Lucas’s landmark space opera was lauded the ultimate Star Wars experience.
28 years, three prequels and two messy special editions later and Episode VI, as it’s now been officially rebranded, seems to have aged about as well as a bottle of vintage semi-skimmed milk. Yes, the military might of the Empire is brought to its knees by a handful of teddy bears. Yes, the coolest bounty hunter in the galaxy is given a spectacularly uncool death in the first fight. Yes, the ‘surprise’ sibling revelation adds all kinds of uncomfortable subtexts to the first two movies, and yes – it ends with a stupid singsong, but ROTJ remains the most satisfying, exciting and downright entertaining film of the series.
Coming as it does after the Saturday matinee fun of A New Hope and the moral ambiguities of The Empire Strikes Back, Richard Marquand’s epic finale borrows the best of both before sprawling over a massive 45-minute three-way battle that ends with cinema’s greatest showdown.
Continuing the mid-season serial opening of Episode IV and jumping over the cliff-hanger ending of Episode V, ROTJ throws us straight into a daring jailbreak. With Han Solo frozen solid and sold as a wall ornament to the ‘vile gangster’ Jabba the Hutt, Luke plans an audacious rescue using R2D2, and a reluctant C3PO, as bait. He might look a cross between an inside-out toad and something you find in a festival portaloo, but Jabba remains one of great characters of the Star Wars universe.
Described by Roger Ebert as a ‘Dickensian Cheshire Cat’, the scheming, smirking muppet re-interpretation of Sydney Greenstreet finally gives the boring desert planet of Tatooine a real personality. Lording it over his seedy court and feeding drunks and dancing girls to his pet Rancor, Jabba takes pleasure in being bad. After Empire’s brooding gloominess, Jedi wastes no time getting back to good old-fashioned swashbuckling adventure – giving us pit monsters, bikini-clad princesses and Errol Flynn style acrobatics on the plank of a pirate ship.
The thrilling opening salvo is the last time we see the whole gang working together, and the last time Lucas has any room for simple adventuring. Splitting up to fight the Empire on three fronts, Han and Leia head off to the forest, Lando starts prepping for another Death Star run and Luke gets ready to stand up to his Dad. Splitting the action between dogfights in space, swordfights in the Emperor’s throne room and guerrilla warfare on the ground, Marquand brings the series to a close with an almighty bang.
Of all the planets in the Star Wars galaxy, Endor is surely the most believable. It might look like it was filmed in the woods behind George’s house, but it also requires the least suspension of disbelief – and the least green screen work. Which brings us to the Ewok question. It’s unlikely that anyone who already had an issue with them is going to change their mind, literally, in the blink of an eye – but Lucas’s latest Blu-ray tinkering is an attempt to address what seems to have grown into a problem of Gungun sized proportions for long-time fans.
They might feature in the brilliant Kurosawa influenced speederbike chase and they might take down an AT-ST with a couple of ingeniously placed logs, but nothing can save them from the levels of hatred levied at their furry little butts from grownup audiences – or protect their dignity from the erupting cheers each time one of them catches a laser blast to the face. In retrospect, it’s all too easy to blame cynical marketing and unblinking eyes for something that seems to fit perfectly comfortably within Lucas’s expansive universe. No stranger, cuter or inauthentic than any of the other Star Wars creatures – the Ewoks are surely long overdue for a reprieve.
High above the treetops, the real battle is just getting started. The greatest gift the prequels gave us was repositioning Anakin as the central figure of the series. Finally forced to confront the darkness within, Vader’s final battle with his son is a fitting culmination to the whole saga – losing none of its power to the bolted on backstory of the recent chapters. The new movies might have spinning Yodas and double bladed lightsabers, but you can’t beat Jedi’s epic family faceoff for pure visceral emotion – the moment when Luke starts slamming away at his father’s hand with tears streaming down his face sends shivers down the spine every time. Ruined by the addition of a 6.1 DTS surround sound cheesy scream as he sacrifices himself for his son, Anakin’s greatest moment is undone with a single Blu-ray tweak.
Irreligious tampering aside, the closing scenes of ROTJ represent the very best of Star Wars. With alien creatures fighting robotic walkers, Lando hurtling through the Death Star, love amid the laser battles, Tie Fighters buzzing around X-Wings, Han being witty, Threepio being annoying, the Emperor being camp and Luke and Vader locked in combat – lit only by the glow of their lightsabers – it’s the climax to end all climaxes. Matched with the best of John Williams’s ambitious, multi-layered score and pitched at a level of frantic intensity never yet rivalled in a Hollywood blockbuster it feels, more than anything, like the perfect end to a perfect trilogy.
Forget the Ewoks. Let Boba Fett go. Return of the Jedi is still the ultimate Star Wars experience – Search your feelings, you know it to be true!