Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Review: Return of the Jedi

Directed by: Richard Marquand
Produced by: Howard Kazanjian
Screenplay by: Lawrence Kasdan & George Lucas
Story by: George Lucas
Executive Producer: George Lucas
Cinematography by: Alan Hume
Production Designed by: Norman Reynolds
Edited by: Sean Barton & Duwayne Dunham & Marcia Lucas & George Lucas
Costumes by: Aggie Guerard Rodgers & Nilo Rodis-Jamero
Music by: John Williams

Cast: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Billy Dee Williams, Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew, Sebastian Shaw, Ian McDiarmid, David Prowse, Frank Oz, Alec Guinness, Kenny Baker, Warwick Davis & James Earl Jones

1983 / 134min / Rated PG (for Sci-Fi Action Violence)

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away...

Luke Skywalker returns to Tatooine in order to rescue Han Solo from the clutches of Jabba the Hutt. Meanwhile, the Rebel Alliance prepares for a surprise offensive against the Empire's latest weapon; a new, more powerful Death Star.

The Empire Strikes Back proved a big enough success that George Lucas moved forward with his plans to finish his trilogy, once again personally financing the next film. Lucas brought back Lawrence Kasdan to help him write the script while tapping Richard Marquand to direct. The third and final film in the trilogy was given the title Revenge of the Jedi, as Kasdan felt that Return of the Jedi was a "weak title". However, despite promotional materials being produced in the lead-up to the movie's release, Lucas retitled it Return of the Jedi feeling that Jedi don't seek revenge.

While leads Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher had already been contracted for a third movie, Harrison Ford was not and doubt arose as to whether or not he would return for the finale since his star power had greatly risen following the success of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Ford returned, however, though he believed that Han Solo should be killed partway into the picture, with both he and Kasdan believing it would instill doubt about the fate of the rest of the characters. Lucas disagreed, wanting to provide a happier, more uplifting ending in order to encourage merchandising. Many elements of the original script were dropped or changed; most famously, the moon of Endor was to be home to the Wookies, but they were changed to the smaller Ewoks.

Return of the Jedi's climactic third act was to also serve as an epic finale to the trilogy as a whole, calling for huge special effects sequences that had never been done before. To help give Industrial Light & Magic as much time as possible to produce the effects, producer Howard Kazanjian scheduled principal photography as soon as possible, leading some members of the crew to doubt their ability to prepare in time.

With the father/son relationship between Luke and Darth Vader at the heart of the story, Lucas has said that Return of the Jedi is the most emotionally charged of the three original Star Wars films.

Over the years Return of the Jedi has often been derided by the fan community as the weakest of the original Star Wars trilogy, with many calling the film either ok or outright bad. While some of the criticsms leveled at Jedi are justified, others are exaggerated, fueled by the disappointment that it didn't live up to it's predecessors's standards. Without a doubt, Return of the Jedi isn't on the same level as Star Wars or The Empire Strikes Back, but it is nevertheless still a strong but flawed outing that still provides a satisfying conclusion.

The biggest flaw in Jedi can be found in it's plot. While Star Wars and Empire were both tightly-written and plotted affairs, Jedi is somewhat thin. The first act is dedicated entirely to resolving Empire's cliffhanger as to the fate of Han Solo. While the sequence of Han's rescue from the clutches of Jabba the Hutt is entertaining, it feels rather detached from the rest of the movie. The first act of both Star Wars and Empire not only served as an entertaining adventure but also helped launch the main plot of each movie. Aside from wrapping up Empire's loose ends and displaying Luke's new Jedi skills, the first act does little to the movie's Big Picture, acting as it's own separate adventure and forcing the rest of the movie to restart and build it's own momentum.

This wouldn't be so much of an issue if it wasn't for the thin plot that dominates Jedi's middle portion. Recycling the use of the Death Star only emphasizes that Lucas had not originally intended to destroy it at the end of the first film, having done so in the event that the original did not warrant a sequel. Having a second Death Star is fine and increases the stakes, but it's destruction becomes the whole point of Jedi, the concept feeling rehashed. Not helping matters is that the Endor plotline is thin and does little advance the characters.

Which is probably Jedi's second biggest flaw; character development is at a minimum. Aside from Luke's journey which is still done convincingly and remains at the heart of the picture, the rest of the characters feel like pawns being moved from one place to the next as the plot demands. Han and Leia's relationship takes a backseat with little done to push them beyond where they were at the end of Empire. Also an issue is Han's characterization, which seems to have been softened and lost a lot of the bite that made his character so charming and loveable.

Also disappointing is Darth Vader's diminished role as he takes a backseat to the Emperor, played chillingly by Ian McDiarmid. Vader's turmoil over his feelings for Luke and his loyalty to the Emperor is necessary and part of the story's heart, but it seems to lessen the menace that made him so terrifying in the last two pictures. Perhaps that's the point, but it would've been better if it had been more gradual than how it was done here.

The performances of the cast are once again excellent, though they seem to be lacking the same fun pep of the previous installments. Harrison Ford seems slightly off in his performance, having lost some of his sharpness. Carrie Fisher is once again excellent as Leia, though she too seems to be lacking some pep. The rest of the cast is still on point in their supporting roles, with Billy Dee Williams relishing in a more crucial part than in Empire. As mentioned before McDiarmid as the Emperor is excellent and steals every scene he's in, giving the Emperor enough menace that it's understandable as to why even Darth Vader would now to him.

When all is said and done, Return of the Jedi is Mark Hamill's film, with Luke's growth and maturing in the middle. Hamill does excellent work with the material, though at some points when the drama is at it's peak his range seems a little limited. Still, he convincingly portrays Luke's development, the character who has come the farthest since their first introduction in Star Wars.

It all leads, of course, the third act, a special effects bonanza of a finale that interweaves three simultaneous battles that proves fittingly epic to wrap up the trilogy. The special effects are once a big improvement over what's been done before, with Industrial Light & Magic's work proving second-to-none. The action is breathtaking and gripping, the stakes having never been higher. The third act is the film'a highlight, though is still not perfect.

Many fans take issue with the presence of the Ewoks and the role tht they place in Jedi. While they don't bother me as much as many people, I do take minor issue with their presence in the final battle. It's not so much that they fight side-by-side with Han, Leia and Chewie, but the surprising level of preparedness they display for such a last-minute endeavor. I find it somewhat hard to believe that they could prepare battering rams and cut down so many large trees, moving them into such perfect position to use against the Imperial soldiers with such little notice. Still, it's still fun to watch and John Williams's forest battle music is amongst my favorite of the series.

Each of the three battles is resolved quite satisfactorily, with the battle between Luke, Vader and the Emperor proving the emotional high point. The ultimate resolution and Vader's climactic acts are poignant and believable, accentuated perfectly by Williams's score. The final scene between Luke and his father is quite touching and a very satisfying conclusion to the story. Of course, it's the space battle that provides the requisite explosions and finishes the trilogy with quite a bang for a very fitting conclusion.

Enhancing it all is John Williams's fantastic score, which masterfully weaves together each of the series's themes in such seamless fashion while successfully adding new ones to the mix. Of note is the powerfully emotional theme for Luke and Leia, signifying the new development in their touching relationship, while a theme for the Emperor is quite haunting, especially in it's use at the end of the movie. The Ewok theme borders of cloying but Williams keeps it restrained enough to still be fun. The thirty minutes of nonstop action for Jedi's finale is quite a feat and the performance of the London Symphony Orchestra is top notch.

Despite it's flaws, Jedi receives too much of a bad rap. After the high standards set by both Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, it would be near-impossible for the conclusion to not disappoint on some level. Still, Return of the Jedi is quite entertaining and provides a very satisfying conclusion to one of the best movie trilogys of all-time.

Story: 4 / 5
Plot: 6 / 10
Dialogue: 4 / 5

Characterization: 7 / 10
Development: 6 / 10
Acting: 17 / 20

Pacing: 4 / 5
Tone: 4 / 5
Overall Enjoyment: 8 / 10

Music: 10 / 10
Visuals: 10 / 10

TOTAL: 80 / 100

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