Photo Credit: Matt Ferguson (Cakes Comics)
The third and final film in any trilogy is an impossibly difficult filmmaking feat. To get it right is hard enough, but to perfect it? Only a few films can be credited with this accomplishment. One of which is the ever-beloved timeless classic that is Return of the Jedi. What is now Episode 6 in a vast franchise was once solely a potent finale to a trilogy that changed filmmaking and moviegoing forever.
Now 40 years on the pedestal, the film has gathered a bit of dust in regards to mainstream media, and with a theatrical re-release last month in honor of that anniversary, it’s about time to take it off and talk about it again. Return of the Jedi is equal parts effortless and calculated; the culmination of everything that makes Star Wars, Star Wars.
A Fearless Breath of Fresh Air
Perhaps the best example of this is the opening sequence in Jabba’s palace. It goes for nearly forty minutes, all spent in consistent tension. From Luke showing up in pitch black robes with a new green saber (and force choking a guard) to Leia disguising herself as a bounty hunter, and even down to the sort of dark spin on the Mos Eisley Cantina environment, the arrangement is an absolute clinic in visual excitement and fresh, swashbuckling storytelling. It also marks easily the most thrilling start of the original trilogy. A New Hope opens on a space chase, and Empire on the infamous Battle of Hoth, but Return’s dark first act still looks and feels like the biggest breath of fresh air when watching the trilogy all these years later.
Speaking of that look, this is arguably the best looking of all the Star Wars films to date. The opportunity to see this on the big screen was a once in a lifetime sort of chance, it puts into perspective how groundbreaking this trilogy, and especially this film, truly were. The shadowed colors and more mature concepts breaking into a world that everyone had been so comfortable with made for a finale that, until the final moments, felt unsafe.
The threats are familiar but the danger is new; for the first act, we don’t even have time to worry about Darth Vader and the Emperor. The issue at hand is Jabba, Leia’s capture, Han’s being frozen and then blind, and of course, Boba Fett. Those conflicts could’ve spurred a spin-off movie on their own, but instead we get the entire thing streamlined into the final film in a trilogy that hadn’t dreamed of being this busy up to this point.
Faster than a Pod-Race, Slower than a Trodatome
The best part is, it isn’t even a matter of trying to tie up a bunch of loose ends. This is the rare finale that doesn’t relay the need to finish things up. It does so in a natural, timely manner that ensures intentionality behind the chaos. Once the gang takes Jabba down, we’re immediately swept into the next adventure. Of course, we’re off to Endor to meet the Ewoks in a fittingly slapstick, off-the-rails introduction that, regardless of how you feel about them, cements them as one of the most unique species in the Star Wars creature-kingdom.
Between Han nearly being sacrificed by the furry little fiends (he can’t catch a break in this one) and the Death Star descending over the forest planet like a literal shadow of death, the script still squeezes in a tender goodbye to Yoda on Dagobah, where the tone loosens up and everything slows down for a moment. Everything happens at just the right time in Return of the Jedi. A film packed so full of things to do and places to be hasn’t since been this free and confident
No Such Lack of Faith
Unflinching confidence is the crux of this film. It takes a lot of it to execute everything up to this point, but to further lean into the silly tone invoked by the Ewok’s introduction throughout the last two acts, and then end it all on the powerful redemption and then immediate death of your villain? A villain who could’ve convincingly thrown it all away and fought for the dark side to the bitter end? Yet the ending works perfectly, finally showing a flicker of light in the darkness before it is reclaimed once again by an entirely new shadow. The film somehow makes everything in this space opera of unimaginable scale feel so unbelievably small in those moments following the climax.
The ensuing emotional heights remain unparalleled, from Luke truly meeting Anakin for the first time to the bittersweet galactic celebration that follows, Return of the Jedi hits home run after home run in its final act. This is only made possible because it had done so much up to that point, constantly setting balls on the tees along the way so that all it had to do was swing the bat when the time came.
Especially in retrospect, ‘Return of the Jedi’ marks an all-time high for not only Star Wars, but for science fiction cinema on the whole. The genre has been flooded with questionable efforts in recent memory (and so has Star Wars itself, really) so to have a reason to revisit the evergreen roots of all the trends that have been long misused and abused since is very welcome.
Even if you missed the theatrical re-run, watch ‘Return of the Jedi’ in any way that you can right now. Whether it be for the first time or the fiftieth, remind yourself of the standard. Even if it never gets that good again, it’s incredible that it even once was.
Movie-loving writer and aspiring filmmaker.