After the down-tuned-pulp pop space-opera of the original Star Wars and the astounding, apocalyptic depression of The Empire Strikes Back, what do George Lucas and his goons give us for round three? Neither fish nor fowl, but an extraordinarily and sometimes beguilingly stitched-together accident, a film loaded with and defined by peculiar tonal spasms and the kind of narratively-haphazard mess you just can’t get without a devoutly, almost feverishly passionate but mildly inept creative figure at the helm. Yes, Return of the Jedi is a travesty of writing on par with any of the prequels. But the real question is how it mobilizes its mess, whether it treats cinematic dysfunction as a liberating deliverance from acquiescence to middlebrow, mainstream cinematic perfection or as simple incompetence. Far from catastrophic but still strangely mishandled in ways both exciting and hindering, Return of the Jedi wears it fleet of script revisions and swamp of behind-the-scenes misgivings like a ball and chain. Every image, good and bad alike, are portals into the often dysfunctional production of this film as well as the obvious casualties of market success, both factors that are only barely hidden on camera.
Again, the sheer indifference to logic housed in Lucas’ rickety, haywire writing and his narrative structure, up to and including a thirty-minute mini-movie of a first act, is somewhat welcome, especially since new-hire director Richard Marquand isn’t doing anything to enliven the production visually speaking. In comparison to the subtle impressions of longing for more and minute recitations of hope in the former two films, the images in Return are flat, banal affairs. They’re mere receptacles for narrative and only capable of depicting events rather than commenting on them. Only a handful of shots (before the climax that is) engender any real feeling at all. Even then, the successful images are relegated to showpiece status this time out. They hardly intimate or signal anything at all beyond a would-be-over-powering surfeit of popular visual and aural stimuli. The beauty of select scenes is merely a way of fertilizing very shaky ground without actually shoring up any foundation to stand on.
Return is hobbled almost immediately by its protracted opening, an astonishingly pointless act of corporate-course-correction that renders the poetically tragic and nihilistic events of the end of Empire moot within half an hour flat. It’s also extremely obvious that this portion of the film was originally to entail its own separate feature, leaving us instead with the consolation of this anemic, minimized, half-start version before the film then uneasily staggers back to the starting line for no reason in particular. At least the same-year Search for Spock had the good faith to manifest the return of a major character thought dead – thereby retroactively sabotaging the courage of killing off the character in the first place – as the cumulative consequence of an entire film dedicated to returning that character. In Return, the whole affair is rather ineloquently an excuse for two dubious action scenes and a hasty back-to-school party for the three principals. By “rules of screenwriting” standards, its hurtful and diminished enough to lay out a salt circle in hopes of keeping it away from the rest of your film at any costs. But at least an air of cheerful indifference to convention osmoses through the sheer laziness of the writing.
From there, Return of the Jedi is an incontestably mangled affair, a mélange of spastic ascents and equally cavernous descents, a cinematic induction of whiplash. Again, there are some evocative images, but almost all of them are mutually exclusive to any moment featuring a human being. (This inability to couple its eye-candy to human consequences, of course, is what we’re supposed to say about the prequels, but it’s all over Return of the Jedi). That is until the final half-hour or so, when the film’s competing strands coalesce and induce a minor slice of pop-cinema mastery. No one likes the Ewoks, but the portion of the film which houses the cotton-candy-robo-bears is far more than an Ewok-delivery-vessel. A tripartite conclusion in the finest Star Wars tradition, land, space, and personal battles are intercut with a sublime mastery of cinema’s temporal qualities. Each mini-narrative stokes the fire of the others and comments on the minor achievements contained in each as they all mushroom into a coup de cinema.
The concluding ground battle on the fourth moon of Endor (not Endor itself, I am told) is a treat itself, all lush verdant greens spoiled by violent browns and the only film of the original three where Lucas marshals his provocative but also circumspect desire to vitalize the tactics of the Viet Cong fighting against an imperial US. Admittedly, although the political jerk seems in good faith, Lucas does so by caricaturizing the Viet Cong as robot bears, which is … a way you can go with your film I suppose. But the climax between Luke and his (we learn, in Empire) father Anakin aka Darth Vader is positively monumental, the apex of the original trilogy as the two are teased, taunted, and tested by Vader’s (former?) master Emperor Palpatine in an infernal, hellishly cold inner-sanctum of nebulous darkness. It’s a tremulous, calculating conclusion playing out in assaultive patches of empty space and gifted with an extreme awareness of the series’ essentially Shakespearean aura for proto-mythic drama. This particular climax is not only visually fulfilling but emotionally demanding. It boasts a cold, almost reptilian darkness and a diabolically elegant visual cruelty, but it eventually concludes with a modern reverberation of the cinematic Frankenstein’s monster when Vader does turn on his master and carry him to the grave in a final, crippling return of human empathy.
Even still, the finest half-hour in the entire film series is nearly spoiled by a cruel, incredibly sloppy resolution to the trilogy’s romantic triangle when Leia just dismisses all of the supple, pointed sexual tension in the earlier films (too uncomfortable for Star Wars, apparently?) with a single line of dialogue to Han about Luke being her brother. That doesn’t actually, or shouldn’t actually, negate the obvious desires between Luke and Leia percolating in the first two films, but the film is colossally timid here, refusing to tackle the retroactively-uncomfortable themes it naturally but unwillingly introduces. So it’s give-and-take, if you catch my drift. The film’s highs match and possibly even surpass the exorbitant splendor of the prior film in the franchise, but the lows? I’ve heard tell from other critics that the bit where C3PO explains Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back to the Ewoks is a cute if obvious meta-textual moment where Lucas lays bare the belief that we should be able to understand the events of any film even if we cannot understand the audio language which conveys them. Do I buy this joyous self-reflection of cinema itself? Insofar as it rings true, it is only because this particular sequence, wonderful if ham-fisted in Star Wars’ most traditional fashion, actually earns the compliment Lucas is paying to himself. But if this sequence does convince us, it may only be this sequence and a handful of others. In that sense, Lucas may be speaking to his ability to paternalistically sway us with his avuncular ways, to sell the comfort of snake oil in spite of his failings. Hats off to him, but in light of some of Return’s failures, his statement is not merely a welcoming, warming blanket. It cannot but sidle into that most central quality of the Hollywood blockbuster machine, the very idiom Star Wars birthed in the womb: the storytelling sequence, like much of blockbuster cinema, is a gross display of hubris.