RETURN OF THE JEDI (1983)
Star Wars fandom was at an all-time high following the release of The Empire Strikes Back, and George Lucas wanted to ensure the second sequel was even bigger and better. However, he was also becoming eager to complete the saga and focus on raising his adopted children, which meant that the original plan for nine (or even twelve) movies was compressed into just six, with Episode VI being the last. However, this was not officially confirmed at the time, leaving many fans still expecting Episodes VII, VIII and IX years later.
Other cast and crew were beginning to grow tired of Star Wars, too, most notably Harrison Ford (he had only been contracted for two movies) who initially resisted returning as Han Solo and later asked (unsuccessfully) for his character to be killed off. While this may have given Han more depth, it would have been a bit of a slap in the face to the fans that had waited three years to see him rescued. Writer Lawrence Kasdan also suggested killing one of the heroes (possibly Lando) to add more danger, but Lucas wanted to keep the film upbeat.
The departure of Gary Kurtz as producer after the near financial disaster on Empire meant that Lucas was given more freedom to shape the movie to his singular vision. He worked much more closely with Lawrence Kasdan on the screenplay this time and the new director (Richard Marquand) and producer (Howard Kazanjian, an old USC classmate of Lucas's) he hired would allegedly more closely follow his instructions.
Aside from wrapping up all the dangling plot strands from Empire, the story would also have to deal with events that were originally planned for the third trilogy, such as the final confrontation with the Emperor.
Once the script was completed, production began under the covert name of Blue Harvest - Horror Beyond Imagination. This was designed to keep away fans trying to sneak on the set and also minimise costs as many companies would charge a higher fee if they knew they were providing services for a Star Wars film. To further maintain secrecy, the actor playing the unmasked Vader, Sebastian Shaw, was simply referred to as "the man".
The budget for the film was $32 million, significantly more than its predecessors. This gave Lucas the opportunity to have all the creatures and massive battles he had wanted in the first film but didn't have the resources for. Filming took place in Yuma, Arizona (standing in for Tatooine instead of Tunisia), the giant redwood forests of Crescent City, California (for Endor) and once again at Elstree Studios.
The working title for the film was Revenge of the Jedi, and this even appeared on some pre-release merchandise. Shortly before it was released the title was changed to Return of the Jedi. Reports differ as to whether this was because Lucas realised Jedi don't seek revenge, or because it was simply a ruse to fool counterfeiters.
Like it's predecessors, Jedi was released in late May, and the world was ready for what would be the last Star Wars film for a long, long time.
Rather than following on directly from the end of Empire as some might have expected, Jedi has a rather mysterious opening. We learn that the Empire is building a second Death Star. This plot development was immediately criticised by some as unimaginative, although the reason for it was that the Death Star was not originally supposed to be destroyed at the end of A New Hope.
When the trilogy started out as one movie, the attack on the Death Star was, of course, the climax. But when Lucas decided to just make the first third into a film, he needed an exciting end to give people closure in case the sequels were not made. This worked great for A New Hope, but meant that Lucas was stuck when he came to writing Jedi. While it might have been possible to think of a different climax eventually, Lucas elected to reuse the Death Star, but on a much bigger scale.
The opening scene has Vader arrive to inspect the half-completed battle station. When the officer in charge says he needs more time Vader warns him that the Emperor is most displeased with the lack of progress and says, rather humorously, "the Emperor is not as forgiving as I am". This line will turn out less ironic and more truthful, since Jedi is the film where Vader is at his least villainous.
When the story moves to Tatooine Lucas keeps the audience in suspense as the heroes slowly gather in Jabba's palace and the (admittedly convoluted) rescue plan unfolds. There's a Wizard of Oz feel as 3PO and R2 arrive at the palace. 3PO's indignation at learning he and R2 have been given away as gifts by Luke is quite humorous.
The introduction of the long-awaited Jabba and his court is nicely handled, though some viewers were disappointed that they were all a "bunch of muppets" to quote a line from Kevin Smith's Clerks (1994). There's also a rather bizarre scene of droid torture as a Gonk droid screams as its feet are burned.
Leia's entrance disguised as a bounty hunter is a good twist and it's nice to see her and Han reunited, even if she does let him fall flat on his face after coming out of the carbon freeze.
Leia's capture leads to the introduction of her most famous costume as Jabba's new slave girl. The simple yet brilliant costume idea has inspired legendary love (or lust) among male geeks - including Ross on Friends. While some may argue it slightly demeans Leia's character, it also gave the character another dimension, namely sex appeal!
Lando is also in the palace and helpfully lowers his mask at one point just so the dummies in the audience can tell it's him.
Luke's entrance is well handled, with the young Jedi clearly more experienced and even flirting with the Dark Side when he chokes the Gammorean guards. His confrontation with Jabba is full of tension and leads to the first action set piece of the film as Luke faces the fearsome Rancor.
This is the most elaborate of the monster sequences in the films up to that time, and while the special effects aren't completely successful it's an exciting scene and the coda with the Rancor keeper crying over his deceased pet is a nice touch.
Our heroes are taken out to the desert for execution in the Sarlacc and Luke's rather crazy plan finally comes to fruition. R2 shoots Luke's lightsaber over to him as he walks the plank and then all hell breaks loose. The sequence is exciting, though the need to make the film suitable for all ages results in Luke just waving his lightsaber at bad guys rather than cutting through limbs.
The chance to finally see Boba Fett in action proves disappointing as, after trying out his jetpack and a few other gadgets he promptly gets knocked into the Sarlaac by a blind Han Solo. Fett only has time for a cowardly yell before he is devoured (the Sarlacc even burps!). More satisfyingly, Leia strangles Jabba with her chain in revenge for making her wear an itsy-bitsy bikini and having to deal with his lascivious tongue.
On Dagobah, it's a hard person that won't feel at least a little misty-eyed when the 900 year old Yoda becomes one with the Force. Afterwards Obi-Wan's ghost appears and in an exposition heavy scene explains that he basically told a big fib about Vader killing Luke's father. He also reveals that Leia is Luke's sister, leading to a number of uncomfortable moments in hindsight from the previous films, including the rather passionate kiss between Leia and Luke near the beginning of Empire.
Obi-Wan's excuse of saying he told Luke the truth about his father "from a certain point of view" and the soap opera revelation about Leia would later be criticised by many viewers, but they were probably the simplest way for Lucas to resolve the plot strands in a short amount of time.
The middle section of the film is rather slow as the characters assume their various roles in readiness for the final battle. There's a poignant moment where Han thinks he's seeing the Millennium Falcon for the last time, though this is never paid off. Rumors abound that this was in reference to original script ideas to kill off either Han or Lando, but Lucas wisely decided that killing off any of the main heroes would put rather a downer on the triumphant ending of the film.
Things pick up a little when the heroes arrive on Endor, especially when we're treated to the obligatory speed scene - a fantastic chase through the forest on speeder bikes. The speeder bike chase and the later space battle set a standard for thrilling effects that it would take years for anyone to top. The speeder bike chase was filmed, rather simply, by a steadicam operator walking slowly through the forest and filming one frame per second. When played back at 24 frames per second this made it look incredibly fast.
The aftermath of the chase leads to the introduction of one of the most controversial aspects of the film - the Ewoks. Lucas makes good use of his cast of little people, though the Ewok's dead eyes are rather creepy. The capture of the heroes by the Ewoks, who want to make them their feast, is rather unnecessary to the overall plot, though it does climax in a funny scene where 3PO is made to look like a god thanks to Luke's Force abilities.
Once the Battle of Endor starts, the film masterfully cuts between three different story strands with almost non-stop action for the last forty minutes. The Ewoks vs Stormtroopers battle overcomes the cuteness and sheer unbelievably factor to actually be a pretty crowd-pleasing action sequence. There's even a tragic (though some will find it humorous) moment where one Ewok falls and doesn't get up again.
The space battle is the most visually stunning part of the film, and even tops the Battle of Yavin in A New Hope. The battle flirts with chaos as thousands of ships fly across the screen, but manages to stay just the right side of coherence.
However, the most emotional part is the final confrontation between Luke and Vader as the Emperor watches. While the Emperor is somewhat of a pantomime character - his constant goading of Luke is obvious and ruins his own plans to turn the younger Skywalker to the Dark Side - the scenes have a powerful kick.
When Luke finally unleashes his anger and chops off Vader's hand, it's easy to feel how close he is to crossing over to the Dark Side. The next moment, where Luke finally tosses away his lightsaber and tells the Emperor he's failed, is as powerful a pacifist message as you'll find in a film with Wars in the title.
The other battles coincide nicely, with Han and his team blowing up the shield bunker just in time for Lando and the Rebel pilots to begin their attack on the Death Star. When the Falcon and other ships fly inside the superstructure of the battle station it's a stunning sequence that would have been impossible even a few years earlier.
Back in the Death Star, the Emperor unleashes his Sith lightning on an unprepared Luke. As Vader silently watches his son being fried by lightning, the conflicted emotion of the character is felt strongly even behind an inexpressive mask (John Williams's score can take much of the credit too).
Vader, in the most triumphant moment of the whole saga, finally turns on his master and throws the Emperor down one of those inconveniently placed bottomless pits that are always appearing in the films. Vader's redemption means that the returning Jedi the title refers might not be Luke but Anakin, who returns to the light side for his final moments.
Luke escapes the Death Star just before Lando and Wedge (the latter is the only minor Rebel to survive all three movies) blow it up after starting a chain reaction. The shot of the Falcon narrowly outracing the exploding battle station is thrilling and would be often imitated in later action films (though, less logically, with humans outrunning fireballs on foot).
With the Death Star destroyed and the Emperor defeated, there follows the resolution of the love story (as Han finally learns Luke is no competition) and a moving scene with Luke burning Vader's body, before the standard celebration scene. It's a real joy to see all the heroes together for what may be the last time.
As Luke watches, we see the ghosts of Obi-Wan, Yoda and Anakin standing together, showing that all is well in the galaxy once more and hinting of the adventures of these three deceased characters in movies that at that time were yet to be made.
While most of the characters in Jedi are given a satisfying resolution, there are a number of flaws that prevent the characters being as well rounded as in the earlier films.
Han and Leia in particular have a lot less spark this time. It's hard to say whether the problem is with the actors or the script (maybe a little of both) but Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher both look bored in many of their scenes. Perhaps Ford's desire to move on and Fisher's then drug problems meant their hearts weren't really in it, and the script doesn't have much for their characters to do once the heroes escape from Jabba's palace.
Mark Hamill seems to put in more effort, but he lacks the charisma to carry the film entirely on his own. Luckily, Luke's journey in the film is strong enough that it doesn't really matter. His black outfit nicely hints at his possible turn to the Dark Side.
Lando steps effortlessly into the hero role, although it's odd his betrayal in the last film is never really addressed. Lando and Han never have a reconciliation onscreen (though this may be because a scene of the characters returning to the Falcon on Tatooine in a sandstorm was cut).
David Prowse and James Earl Jones both excel once more as the body and voice of Vader, though it's somewhat disappointing to see the Dark Lord reduced to a virtual lackey. Perhaps to foreshadow his redemption, he doesn't really do anything evil in this film (a scene of him force choking a guard was cut out).
Sebastian Shaw gives a respectable performance as the unmasked Anakin, though it's difficult to accept this aged British thespian as the man inside Vader's suit. Perhaps if Irvin Kershner had directed (he imagined Vader as more scarred and grotesque) we would have had a more interesting unmasking.
Of the new characters, Jabba is an effective villain, living up to the aura created around him from previous mentions of the character. He was reportedly based on Orson Welles and Sydney Greenstreet. The effects used to create Jabba's voice help make him such a memorable villain. He's almost like Don Corelone reimagined as an alien slug.
The Emperor is a classic hissable villain and while Ian McDiarmid's performance is at times campy, it was remarkable that the actor (only 38 at the time) was able to portray an ancient, decaying personification of evil so effectively. It was a real casting coup by Lucas, made even more apparent when it came time to make the prequels fifteen years later.
Wicket, who gets the most screentime of the Ewoks, was played by little Warwick Davis, who would go on to work in several other Lucas productions. The young Davis only got the role after Kenny Baker, who was originally supposed to take part, came down sick.
The Ewoks themselves received mixed reactions. To some they're a charming addition to the pantheon of little aliens in Star Wars, to others they're pandering to kids and a blatant attempt to sell toys. Either way, they represent a theme close to Lucas's heart, that of the triumph of a primitive society over a technologically advanced enemy. Knowing that Lucas developed an early version of Apocalypse Now with USC classmate John Milius (later released in 1979 with Francis Coppola as the director), it's easy to read Jedi as his Vietnam movie.
One day during the production the Ewok actors could not be found at their hotel. The rest of the crew panicked until the actors came out of hiding on the set wearing "Revenge of the Ewok" shirts.
Denis Lawson's Wedge would become a cult hero to fans, and Jedi is the only film in the trilogy where he gets to take his helmet off.
The dialogue is a mixed bag. While some of it is very good, especially in the final confrontation between Luke and Vader and the Emperor, it generally lacks the spark of the previous two films. A good example is the conversation between Luke and Leia on Endor right before he leaves to confront Vader. While the conversation has some interesting tidbits (especially Leia mentioning her mother for the first time as "very beautiful, kind, but sad") it feels a little too much like a soap opera, and not a particularly good one.
Marquand seemed like an odd choice to helm such an ambitious film. Apparently Lucas originally considered Steven Spielberg (who was unable to direct because it would be a non-guild film) and David Lynch for the job. The latter choice would almost certainly have resulted in a very different and interesting film.
It's difficult to say how much of the film shows Marquand's directorial style, since Lucas was much more hands on with this film than Empire, even directing some scenes himself. Indeed, even though he didn't direct he reportedly spent as much time on the set as he did during A New Hope, because there was so much to oversee.
Marquand did come up with some good ideas during story meetings; such as having the heroes introduced mysteriously one by one. Jedi has a different feel from the other two films, but this could be attributed to the passage of time and the maturing of the cast and crew.
Marquand expressed interest at the time in directing more Star Wars films if they were ever made, but he only directed three more films after Jedi, including the entertaining thriller Jagged Edge (1985) before tragically dying at the age of 49.
The locations are less exotic than in the previous films, though the desert of Arizona isn't a bad stand-in for Tatooine. The redwood forests of California, while nice to look at, don't really have an alien feel. The sets too have a samey quality, with most of the action taking place on the Death Star or other familiar locations.
While some of the makeup is a little rubbery (particularly the Gammorean guards), the menagerie of aliens in Jabba's palace gives good value for money. Even better is the makeup that transforms McDiarmid into an 85-year-old Sith Lord. Few young fans realised at the time that the actor was less than half that age.
The editing of Jedi is very successful at escalating the suspense and action, especially in the superb final act. The cross cutting between different battles would be emulated in many later adventure movies. None of the deleted scenes from the film have yet surfaced, though images have been seen from them.
The most interesting omissions are the heroes returning to the Falcon at the beginning during a sandstorm (the only scene to feature a full-size mock-up of the ship) and one of the Emperor's Royal Guards using his force pike on an Imperial officer. There was also an extended opening sequence with Luke building his lightsaber in Ben's old hut and receiving a vision of Vader. Williams's actually scored this scene before it was abandoned.
The visual effects are the best of the trilogy. Though it has to be said that the obvious matte lines around the Rancor take some of the believability away from the otherwise impressive rod puppet. Lucas tried a man in a suit for the beast at first (a la Godzilla) but that proved unsatisfactory. The end space battle contained more elements than had ever been optically combined before in a film.
While it's perhaps not as original as the other films' scores, Williams skillfully weaves together the familiar themes. In particular, the reuse of the Binary Sunset theme for Anakin's funeral pyre is a nice touch, tying together Luke's dreaming of adventure in A New Hope with the end of his adventure in Jedi. Of the new themes, the Emperor's theme is an ominous use of male choir, Luke and Leia's theme makes a nice counterpoint to the other two romantic themes of the trilogy (Leia's theme and the love theme from Empire) and the Parade of the Ewoks is fun if a little childish.
Like the other films, the plot of Jedi went through many changes before production. Originally the confrontation between Luke, Vader and the Emperor was going to take place on the Imperial capital of Had Abaddon (later renamed Coruscant). The Ewok battle was a rethinking of Lucas's original idea to end his first story treatment with a battle on the Wookiee planet.
In the original script (and novelisation) it was revealed that Uncle Owen was Obi-Wan's brother. This was dropped from the finished film and the family history would be changed for the prequels years later. Obi-Wan and Yoda also helped Luke during the final duel in early drafts, but it was wisely decided that Luke face Vader and his Emperor alone.
Jedi is commonly thought of as the weakest of the original trilogy, and it's hard not to argue with that claim. It lacks the freshness of A New Hope and the dark majesty of Empire. For the first time, tiredness seems to have crept into the production, and the Ewoks and other cartoonish elements indicate Lucas was beginning to aim the saga at a younger audience.
Having said that, it's still a very good film. Anakin's redemption and the overthrow of the Emperor are the emotional highpoint of the saga, made even more apparent after the prequels. Jedi could have been a better film if the story had been refined more and the actors given better direction. But what works in the film works great.
While most reviewers found things to praise in Jedi, the critical reaction was notably less favourable than it had been for the other two films. Critics seemed to resent what they found to be the increasingly juvenile tone of the trilogy and the blatant marketing of toys. The New Yorker called it "an impersonal and rather junky piece of moviemaking". Not that reviews mattered at that point, so engrained was Star Wars in the cultural psyche.
The film was released in over 1000 theaters in the U.S. (many more than its predecessors had debuted in) and broke records by earning $30 million over the long Memorial Day weekend. It went on to earn over $260 million in the U.S. easily beating the box office total of Empire.
Once excitement over the film died down, fans eagerly awaited news of the next Star Wars epic. Would it continue the adventures of Luke, Han and Leia, or tell the story of how Luke's father met the young Obi-Wan and then fell to the Dark Side? The answer would be a long time coming.
To tide fans over, Lucas was involved with several Star Wars projects for TV in the 80's. Two animated series were produced, Droids and Ewoks. The brief Ewok craze was also spun off into two TV movies for ABC, The Ewok Adventure (1984) and Ewoks: The Battle for Endor (1985). While not offering anything that new or exciting to the Star Wars mythology, the films were competently enough made to be released as theatrical movies overseas.
When Lucas gave up making Star Wars films, many people thought he had retired or even become a recluse. The truth is that Lucas, when not raising his children following his divorce from Marcia Lucas, was busy producing, developing his various companies (including THX, ILM, LucasArts games and Skywalker Sound postproduction services) and offering support to other filmmakers.
One subdivision of his company was the Pixar computer division, which created effects for ILM such as the living stained glass knight in Young Sherlock Holmes (1985). Pixar was eventually sold to Steve Jobs at Apple and would later become the highly successful animation studio.
Lucasfilm produced several major films in the '80's, including the animated Twice Upon a Time (1983). This was an inventive film using a unique "Lumage" animation technique. The plot is perhaps more complicated than it needed to be, with a variety of confusing characters introduced before the story has even begun. The film also uses live action (stock footage and stills) and is accompanied by a pop soundtrack. The story involves a plot to drop "nightmare bombs" on people and is full of twists and turns.
There're references to many other films, including Harold Lloyd's famous clock stunt and also Star Wars and Indiana Jones with the movies that play on the TV screen face of a villain. The film sends up superheroes with the sexist Rod Rescueman character. There're also some nice visual gags, such as the constantly transforming hero, Ralph (he shouts "Duck!" at one point and then turns into one). The voice work is quality and there're some great visual effects. However, the overall plot is rather uninvolving so it's not a surprise that it wasn't a hit.
Lucas also produced the animated film The Land Before Time with Spielberg and worked with his friend Walter Murch on Return to Oz, but took no official credit. Most of the films Lucas produced in the '80's after Jedi met with limited success at best, and Lucas was often blamed for the film's failures, even when he had little direct involvement.
The exceptions were the two sequels to Raiders of the Lost Ark - Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989). Again, these films will be discussed in the chapter for their director, Spielberg.
Lucas even expanded into theme park attractions, producing the 3D Michael Jackson movie Captain EO and Star Tours, a motion ride movie based on Star Wars at the Disney MGM theme park. Disney had even asked Lucas to help revitalise the studio at one point, but he declined. There are three Lucasfilm production from the mid-80's that I'd like to discuss in more depth - Labyrinth, Howard the Duck and Willow.
CHAPTER: THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK