Thursday 4 May 2023

Return of the Jedi on Star Wars Day

Happy Star Wars Day! Star Wars: Return of the Jedi is back in cinemas to celebrate the 40th anniversary of its original theatrical release.

Fans have returned to see it on the big screen making millions of dollars at the box office.

Nick Smith, our US-based stellar scribe, returns for this extra special celebration. Is the final chapter in the original Star Wars trilogy still as exciting as it was a long time ago...

Guest post by Nick Smith

I sit on my couch in my Darth Vader pyjamas sipping iced water from my Stormtrooper glass, ready to celebrate a big anniversary. 40 years. Four decades of living with a beloved, if imperfect, movie known by millions. A movie anticipated since I breathlessly left a screening of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back in 1980, wanting to know what would happen next; a movie teased with the working title of Star Wars: Revenge of the Jedi.

I was 11 years old when Episode VI of the Star Wars saga was released, a space-obsessed nipper with the Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back poster transferred on my favourite t-shirt, a subscription to Bantha Tracks (the official fan club newsletter) and enough pocket money to buy a Star Destroyer playset and a monthly monochrome Star Wars comic.

Speculation in the letters' page of Star Wars Weekly was rife. Was Darth Vader Luke Skywalker’s father? Who was the other hope (Chewbacca, maybe)? Would Han Solo (Harrison Ford) ever be rescued and live happily ever after with the Organa of his dreams?

Three years is a long time for a child and a heck of a long time to wait for answers to those questions. Marvel Comics helped fill those years with exciting new characters like Shira Brie and Fenn Shysa, the original Mandalorian. But as anticipation mounted in the spring of 1983, nothing seemed better than seeing a new Star Wars film on the big screen. When it finally arrived in June, this kid was not disappointed. I went to see it five times, with friends, with family and by myself. I was a happy fan.

Star Wars: Return of the Jedi had a lot of heavy lifting to do, answering those burning questions and wrapping up the trilogy in a satisfactory manner. It also had to top 1982’s bumper crop of sci-fi films, greenlit thanks to Star Wars’ success – Blade Runner (starring Harrison Ford), E.T., Tron, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn. The cream of this crop had a sophisticated edge that would help them stand the test of time. Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, with its straightforward storytelling and big happy family of Ewoks, lacked that mature edge.

A rebooted weekly comic was published to coincide with Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, reprinting American strips in colour. The technique wasn’t quite ready for prime time and the colours bled over the lines sometimes, and the comic geared more and more towards younger readers until eventually, I stopped reading.

As time went on, the movie itself suffered a backlash – the Ewoks were too cute and commodifiable, the plot was unoriginal (how did they build a second Death Star so fast?), Richard Marquand’s directing wasn’t as nuanced as Irvin Kerschner’s had been for the sublime Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (see Icons Unearthed: Star Wars). Compared to that latter masterclass in filmmaking, Star Wars: Return of the Jedi was seen as the weak sauce. I held a torch for it, though, riding a Caravan of Courage through a gauntlet of Sith-worthy negativity [I see what you did there - Ed].

40 years on, I wondered if the film would still hold the same charm it did after so many repeated viewings? Would I still find it as exciting as, say, Star Wars: A New Hope’s dramatic climax?

I chose to rewatch Star Wars: Return of the Jedi in the comfort of my own home, even though it was playing several times a day at my local movie theatres. I didn’t think the rest of the audience would appreciate my clapping and cheering, my Wookiee impressions and my tears at the end.

Yes, I blubbed!

For once George Lucas’ special edition tinkering paid off, showing victory celebrations across the Star Wars galaxy. And that’s how Star Wars: Return of the Jedi works best, as a celebration of the saga, a party for the power of the Force.

There’s a sense of fun throughout, with slapstick moments edited alongside wounded Ewok casualties and the Emperor (Ian McDiarmid) being deliciously evil. With hindsight, the film’s imperfections add to its charm. The dialogue is repetitive as if it needed one more polish, but Mark Hamill’s performance is so earnest that it works.

The Ewoks build a throne for C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and weapons to fight the Empire in record time, making them perfect candidates for a new HGTV show. Meet the hosts of ‘Flip this Forest!’.

At the village, Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) has either brought a dress with her or borrowed one from an abnormally tall lady Ewok. Harrison Ford’s reactions to his furry yub-nubbing co-stars, the revelation that Luke and Leia are related, and to almost becoming an Ewok edible, all make the movie worth a rewatch.

Despite the baggage, the parodies, the criticisms and comparisons, somehow Star Wars: Return of the Jedi succeeds in wrapping up a mythical story and concluding the adventures of Luke Skywalker without getting trite, balancing humour with pathos, light and dark.

Watching it and cheering the heroes on, I feel like a kid again, 40 years falling far, far away...

What are your memories of Star Wars: Return of the Jedi? Let me know in the comments below.

Nick Smith's new audiobook, Undead on Arrival, is available from Amazon (affiliate link).

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