Considering how popular it was when it first released in 1983, Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi is remarkably controversial among Star Wars fans today. Why is that? And how does the finale of the Original Star Wars Trilogy compare to the rest of the franchise, nearly forty years on?
Let’s take a look at this sci-fi classic.
How to Respond to The Empire Strikes Back
For starters, we can’t forget that Return of the Jedi came on the heels of The Empire Strikes Back, which had astonished fans three years earlier and ended on a cliff-hanger. It left two big questions on every fan’s mind: 1) what happened to Han Solo, and 2) was Darth Vader telling the truth when he claimed to be the father of Luke Skywalker? Seeking answers to these questions, fans were sure to flock to cinemas.
All the stars were confirmed to be returning, led by Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Billy Dee Williams. Veteran director Richard Marquand was brought in to helm the project and composer John Williams returned with another sweeping soundtrack.
George Lucas was already two-for-two in his epic sci-fi series, but all that really meant was that the bar was high and Return of the Jedi had a lot to live up to. As April 1983 rolled around and movie trailers started appearing on TV, Star Wars fans around the world were beside themselves with excitement.
Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi
And then, on May 25, 1983, we finally had the chance to return to that galaxy far, far away.
The film opens with a special effects tour de force as a new Death Star is being built. It seems the evil emperor still has big plans for galactic conquest, and that opening scene re-introduces his Dark Side apprentice, Darth Vader, who reigns as the biggest baddie in film history. The movie then quickly cuts to our heroes as they take on Jabba the Hutt. One by one they infiltrate Jabba’s palace in an attempt to release Han Solo from his carbonite prison. Princess Leia, Luke Skywalker, Chewbacca, R2-D2 and C-3PO, and even Lando Calrissian are all there in an action-packed opening act where they eventually manage to defeat Jabba the Hutt and rescue Han.
So, first question answered, in typical Star Wars heroism and adventure. But then Luke returns to Dagobah to find Jedi Master Yoda nearing death, with barely enough energy to confirm that yes, Darth Vader is Luke’s father. Second question answered, and Luke learns that, in order to complete his Jedi training, he must face Darth Vader again. Obi-Wan Kenobi appears as a Force ghost to reveal another shocking truth: that Princess Leia is in fact Luke’s twin sister, separated at birth to protect them both from the Emperor.
Luke returns to the Rebel Alliance in time to join their daring attack on the new Death Star. Han leads a strike team to the nearby moon of Endor to knock out the Death Star’s shield, while Lando leads the fleet in a direct attack. Luke goes off alone to face Vader and is brought before the Emperor himself. Nothing goes to plan and our heroes find themselves in three desperate, overlapping battles as Han fights Imperial troops on Endor, Lando fights the Imperial fleet in orbit and Luke fights a battle of wills against the Emperor (and lightsabers against Darth Vader).
Finally, the Rebels get their break with the help of the Ewoks, a teddy-bear species on Endor befriended by Leia. The shield is destroyed and Lando leads the space attack just as Luke gains the upper hand against the Dark Side. As the Rebel Alliance achieves victory, Darth Vader turns against the evil Emperor and throws him to his death, saving Luke before dying in his son’s arms as Anakin Skywalker one last time.
How does Return of the Jedi stack up?
All in all, Return of the Jedi is an epic adventure that leans heavily on the swashbuckling energy of A New Hope but weaves in the darker themes of The Empire Strikes Back. But did it pull off the hat trick for the Original Star Wars Trilogy?
Return of the Jedi in 1983
I was in that generation who saw the Original Trilogy in theatres, so I experienced the original thrill of Star Wars. My family couldn’t even get into Return of the Jedi the first night we went, as it was already sold out hours before showtime. When we finally got in a week later, the entire theater was like a fairground. Packed to the rafters, the audience was loud and excited, and someone was playing the Star Wars soundtrack on a boombox near the front. When the movie finally started, it did so to an enormous cheer, and I remember how not two minutes of the film could pass without gales of laughter or more cheering. Hundreds of us watched, riveted, as the saga’s third act played out, and when the credits finally rolled we leapt to our feet as one, roaring our approval with a standing ovation.
Think about that. If you were born after 1980, when have you ever, ever, experienced that sort of audience response in a movie theater? Return of the Jedi was a smash success, both at the box office and in the hearts of Star Wars fans. It answered the questions left by Empire, it delved deep into the battle between Light Side and Dark Side, it pushed special effects to a new standard of excellence, it closed out the most epic trilogy in movie history and it still delivered the heart of what Star Wars is: pure, entertaining adventure. Critical reviews from the time were mostly positive, and those that weren’t came from critics who didn’t like Star Wars to begin with.
In its day, Return of the Jedi was an absolute triumph.
Return of the Jedi today
But if you look at most articles written today in the 2020’s, Return of the Jedi doesn’t usually rank as a “triumph” anymore. It’s still revered as a member of the Original Trilogy but it definitely gets the bronze medal in that contest, usually by quite a large margin. Some critics will even go so far as to call it “junk” or “butt” or “garbage” when compared to A New Hope or, especially, Empire.
From what I gather, Jedi is criticized mostly for being an intellectual lightweight after Empire’s “true” exploration of the Dark Side. Much is made about how Harrison Ford is wasted in this third movie, or about how Boba Fett was wasted, or about how the final twist in the Skywalker family tree (Luke having a twin) was unnecessary. And boy, don’t get modern fans started about the Ewoks…
I’m genuinely curious about the age of these critics. Did they see Return of the Jedi in theaters in 1983, or did they grow up in the decades that followed? This matters, I think, because part of the power of Jedi is the way it delivered the final chapter of the Star Wars saga as it was back then. Today, with two additional trilogies and hundreds of hours of video streaming content – all of which have expanded the Star Wars universe, subverted the original story and, frankly, made up some crazy stuff we never asked for, Return of the Jedi can seem a bit shallow. But remember that fans (and George Lucas, for that matter) didn’t know anything about what was coming in later films and series – all we had was the three movies. And when viewed as a package, each one delivers and each one plays its role to perfection.
So yes, with all the developments in Star Wars since 1983, Return of the Jedi may seem to lack something for some folks. But that isn’t Jedi’s fault – that’s the fault of fans forty years later imposing their future perspective on a film from a different generation. Can we pick apart Casablanca by modern movie standards? Absolutely. But would we?
Return of the Jedi and the next generation
When I went to show my two boys (aged 4 and 5 at the time) Return of the Jedi, I had a hard time. Mainly because Empire had sent them both crying in fear from the room. My plan had been to show them the (then) six Star Wars movies once per week, but it took nearly a month for them to get over Empire and believe that Daddy didn’t just want to terrify them again. It was finally Ewok pictures that convinced them to take a chance, and my persistence paid off. They loved it, and their journey through the Original Trilogy was complete.
For the new generation, Return of the Jedi is still a good movie. It has a fine balance of thrills, chills and laughs, and if some of the special effects fall short of 2020 standards, the quality of the story-telling more than makes up for it. Because yes, Jedi is still a good story. Maybe the film would have aged better if Lucas had gone with his first idea of Wookies instead of Ewoks, and maybe grown-up fans wouldn’t be so critical today, but honestly, the Ewoks are just a side-show. And the kids still love ’em.
The last Star Wars episode to hit that balance just right
One thing does stand out, though, in all the criticisms of Star Wars Episode VI – it still ranks higher on any list of best Star Wars movies than the majority of the films from any other trilogy. Sure, the Ewoks might be annoying, but they’re freakin’ epic heroes next to Jar-Jar Binks. Sure, Harrison Ford might not have been given much to do character-wise, but have you seen how John Boyega was sidelined in Last Jedi and Rise of Skywalker? And sure, Boba Fett could have done more, but Darth Maul stands as the archetype of missed potential in a Star Wars movie villain.
At the end of the day, Return of the Jedi is still part of the Original Trilogy, and those three films stand head and shoulders above any competitor. Later Star Wars episodes often missed the mark when trying to be something – Phantom Menace pandered too much to kids; Revenge of the Sith was too afraid to go dark; Force Awakens was too derivative; Last Jedi was too subversive…
Return of the Jedi walked that fine line, delivering a fun, exciting adventure that managed to go deep into some serious character study. It completes the redemption of Darth Vader, making it the proper conclusion to not just the first three movies but also the first six. It wasn’t until The Rise of Skywalker retcon that Jedi’s triumphant conclusion was ever in doubt – and if you needed a reason to question the Disney purchase of Lucasfilm, this is it.
The Skywalker Saga ended on a high note with Return of the Jedi, as the lives of Anakin Skywalker / Darth Vader, his son Luke Skywalker and all the characters we came to know and love came full circle. No matter which edition you watch, Jedi was a box office smash, a fan favorite and a thrill-ride of an adventure.