Friday, May 25, 2018

10 Reasons 'Return of the Jedi' Doesn't Suck

Sorry, Richard Marquand. Sorry, Bib Fortuna. But when it comes to assessing the original Star Wars trilogy, your episode tends to come out on bottom. There are multiple reasons why Return of the Jedi is a lesser movie than Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back. It lacks the freshness of the first movie, even resorting to duplicating a lot of Star Wars beats (most blatantly in flying the heroes back to Tattooine and rebuilding the Death Star). It lacks the relative depth of Empire largely because George Lucas was adamant about not overtaxing his fans brains, which he apparently assumed were fairly puny. Lucas was mainly concerned with drawing in a new audience of toddlers, whom he assumed would bully their parents into buying everything on the Ewok shelf at the local Toys R Us.

Despite the issues with Return of the Jedi, it would take sixteen years for there to be a Star Wars movie that genuinely sucked. Here are ten reasons why it may not be fair to say that about Return of the Jedi.

1. The Ultimate Monster Menagerie

Although Star Wars is likely the most popular movie ever made, it has a sloppy legacy because George Lucas is notoriously dissatisfied with it (hence those terrible Special Editions). One of the biggest bugs up his butt is the fact that the assortment of Bug Eyed Monsters populating the Mos Eisley Cantina weren’t up to his standards. This zany sequence still managed to become one of the film’s most beloved, but one has to admit that there is a slapdash quality to some of the rubber-masked aliens. And if this is not apparent upon viewing Star Wars for the first time, it will become apparent after seeing Return of the Jedi because that sequel’s menagerie of monsters is so markedly superior. In crafting the Jabba’s palace sequence, a creature design team that included Joe Johnston, Phil Tippett, and Chris Walas redecorated our fantasies and nightmares with aliens bizarre (Squid Head, Ree-Yees), comical (Salacious Crumb, Sy Snootles), genuinely frightening (Bib Fortuna), or a combination of all those qualities (the Gamorrean Guards). And one creation was so stunning that he warrants an entry on this list all to himself…

2. Jabba the Hutt

…The most impressive new member of the Star Wars monster menagerie had to be that sleazy gangster we’d been hearing about since Han Solo blasted Greedo in a shady nook of the Mos Eisley Cantina. It’s a good thing that Jabba the Hutt’s sequence was scrapped from the first film, because it is highly unlikely that the limited budget and creature design team of Star Wars would have produced anything as impressive as Phil Tippett’s immense puppet that required three operators. No impractical effect could ever convey the fearsome girth of Jabba the Hutt, and inventive sound design using a subharmonic generator to overload the low end on voice actor Larry Ward’s bellow makes Jabba sound as massive as he looks. No creature in a Star Wars movie has ever been so impressively designed or executed. 

3. Act I

Before moving on from the Tattooine-centric first act of Return of the Jedi, let’s just give a cheer to the whole damn sequence. Yes, it’s fairly irrelevant to anything but the need to defrost Han Solo. Yes, the heroes’ plan to accomplish that doesn’t make a lot of sense. But there’s no question that it provides the film’s highest concentration of fun action and visuals. It allows all of the heroes to have wacky introductions. R2-D2 and C-3PO are sold into slavery for some reason. Leia and Lando masquerade as scum and villains as if they’re in some sort of intergalactic episode of Mission: Impossible. Luke gets to sashay through the shadows and assume his role as way cool Jedi, and when this does not go quite as planned, he gets to face off against the film’s second most impressive monster during the exciting and tightly choreographed Rancor Pit sequence. The melee aboard the dessert skiff is a lot more chaotic, and features one of the film’s sloppiest blunders by dispatching Boba Fett so unceremoniously, but it is the film’s jolliest, slap-happiest fight sequence—the closest a Star Wars movie ever came to morphing into The Cannonball Run.   

4. Luke Grows Up

We’ve already touched on the coolness of Luke in his Jedi guise, but let’s give it a little more attention, because really, without it there’s not much to the rest of Return of the Jedi. Luke was a bit of a whiney teen in Star Wars and Empire, but he matures in Return of the Jedi (having your aunt and uncle burned alive, learning your dad is Space Hitler, and Frenching your sister will do that to a person). Luke was the main character in the first two movies, but he doesn’t really become the most interesting one until Jedi. Unfortunately, this is partially due to the way Leia (once so fearless and fierce), Han (once so charming yet morally conflicted), and Lando (ditto) are reduced to cardboard support beams this time around. Luke more than pulls his weight, though, by slaying the Rancor, “masterminding” the weird escape mission at Jabba’s joint (good thinking hiding your light saber in R2D2’s head, Luke!), and facing his bad dad amidst an ethical crisis of tremendous consequence for the galaxy. Mark Hamill’s performance has aged well too, though it probably helps that he wasn’t forced to whine shit like “Awwww, you’re makin’ a mess.”

5. Admiral Ackbar

Another of the movie’s best performances comes from what is essentially a giant red snapper puppet. Yet Admiral Ackbar unfailingly conveys strength and leadership when he could have just begged for a sprinkle of Old Bay Seasoning. After such nondescript specimens as General Dodonna, General Rieeken, and his own dull-as-sawdust costar General Madine, Ackbar is the first Rebel military leader who makes a strong impression, getting into the fray during the Death Star attack, expressing panic when famously discovering that he has led his fleet into a trap, and arguably providing the sincerest emotion in the film when he flops back into his command chair with a small exhalation of relief near the completion of a very tense mission. But I guess it’s tough to not make a strong impression when you look like a big fish.

6. The Speeder Bike Chase

Two of the defining characteristics of Return of the Jedi are chaos and illogic, and these two elements reach a dizzy height in the thrilling speeder bike chase. Why the Empire thought it was a good idea to have its soldiers navigate the massive and unpredictably positioned trees of Endor on flimsy, super high-speed hover bikes is anyone’s guess. Maybe their victory at the end of The Empire Strikes Back left them feeling particularly arrogant or something. While the Empire’s main conveyance for the surface of the Sanctuary Moon makes little sense, it is unquestionably exciting to watch those awesomely attired Biker Scouts zip along with Luke and Leia. It is also the last truly exciting sequence in the film as it loses steam with too much intercutting of action (the final Death Star attack would have been a lot better of presented as a self-contained sequence like the one in Star Wars) and too many Ewoks.

7. The Emperor

Okay, there’s one other fairly entertaining element that keeps Return of the Jedi afloat during its final, Ewok-encrusted hour, and that thing is Ian McDiarmid’s ham-sucking turn as the baddest baddie in the universe. He’s the guy who makes Darth Vader quake in his ebony kneehighs. He’s the Emperor: a smug, giggly, craggy old bastard with piercing yellow eyes that drop him in the terrifying uncanny valley. In the prequels, the makeup and McDiarmid’s performance would both go over the top, resulting in a lot of unintended camp, but in Jedi the actor maintains enough control over his character to forge some fairly frightening moments. Even as a child I never for a moment believed that Luke would ever cross over to the dark side, but there is something seductive about the Emperor, and that’s largely due to McDiarmid, the only actor in the movie who actually seems like he’s having a good time (well, Anthony Daniels has his moments too).

8. Hearing Voices

John Williams ups the intensity of the Emperor’s scenes with a new addition to a Star Wars score: voices. What could be jarring for its seeming inappropriateness ends up powerful as a choir of lugubrious male voices roil the dread in the Emperor’s recurring theme (as a likely coincidental aside, the melody is almost identical to the recurring theme of another great, ham-bone villain: Twin Peaks’ Windham Earle).  The voices reach a dramatic climax during the “Final Duel” piece. Other uses of voices on the soundtrack are a bit more controversial, since not everyone is a big fan of Sy Snootles’ synth-soul cheese “Lapti Nek” or the Ewoks’ infamous “Yub Nub”, but both are infinitely preferable to their wretched equivalents in the Special Editions.

9. The Colors! The Colors!

While their iconic characters and hardware, soap opera developments, and cuckoo action get the majority of the attention, Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back are also great because they look great. Few films made before today’s age of overused blue and orange digital filters were easier to associate with specific palettes. Star Wars had its earth tones, grays, and blacks.  Empire was considerably more striking, quite possibly influencing the glut of orange and blue movies in the twenty-first century that miss the boat by cheating with digital filters that cannot approximate the tactile aesthetic of a film that achieves its color scheme through lighting, costuming, and set design. In a sense, Return of the Jedi is a step backward because it doesn’t have such a carefully considered look, but because of what preceded it, there is an aura of liberation around its more liberal use of color. When scribbling in your Return of the Jedi coloring book, you really could use every Crayola in the box: candy apple red for the Emperor’s guards and purple for his dignitaries, cerulean blue for Bib Fortuna’s fingerless gloves and sky for Max Rebo, mustard yellow for Jabba’s slimy skin, every shade of green in the box for Endor. As beautiful as Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back look, Return of the Jedi almost makes them seem fussy in retrospect.

10. Toyetic

The expanded palette of Return of the Jedi really got to shine when Kenner unrolled its latest crop of action figures in 1983. Not since the quartet of cantina creatures released in late 1978 were Star Wars toys so vivid, and the finer attention to details and accessories was a leap over what came before. Gone were the cheap vinyl capes and color schemes that didn’t match the figures’ screen counterparts (what were they thinking with Boba Fett?). In were cloth capes, accurate paint jobs, and body shapes of all sizes. You could really get your fist around the Gamorrean Guard, Rancor Keeper, Max Rebo, and Droopy McCool. There was no cheating when recreating Bib Fortuna’s draping appendages. Figures such as Leia in her Boushh and Endor uniforms and Lando in his Skiff Guard disguise had removable helmets. And for sheer number, Star Wars’ 20 different figures and Empire’s 30 were no match for Jedi’s vast variety of 46 even if some of the choices are bizarre (we get Prune Face but no Mon Mothma?). As for playsets, the Ewok Village certainly wasn’t as cool as the Death Star, but its construction was of infinitely higher quality than the Death Star’s cardboard walls and flimsy structure. The Imperial Shuttle wasn’t as cool as Empire’s AT-AT either, but it was bigger, and if one thing defines Return of the Jedi, it’s its bigness: bigger cast of characters, bigger characters (Jabba!), bigger line up of dizzy action sequences, bigger visual and audio palette, and bigger choice of toys than any Star Wars movie before it. While bigness for the sake of bigness is among cinema’s suckiest trends, Return of the Jedi mostly uses that bigness to its advantage, distracting its audience enough that we can walk out of the theater as the sucky Ewoks sing the sucky “Yub Nub” and still say, “You know…that didn’t suck.”

Return of the Jedi was released 35 years ago today. 
Click to enlarge to Jabba size.

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