A long time ago in a galaxy we call our own, an anxious 12-year-old me sat in my bedroom floor. In front of me, a mass of Kenner Star Wars toys lay spread out like a Thanksgiving feast. My imaginary battlefield was littered with action figures by the dozens, a Tie-Fighter, an X-Wing, an Imperial walker, an AT-ST, even a Tauntaun for good measure. Yet another battle between the Rebel Alliance and the evil Galactic Empire was about to break out on our tan and beige carpet.
That may sound like a suspiciously vivid memory, but it’s really not. That was a routine event in my room. I was (and in many regards still am) a massive Star Wars fan. And I would play for hours, reliving George Lucas’ stories with my toys and making up some new ones as well. I once had Star Wars toys galore, Star Wars storybooks, Star Wars blasters, a Star Wars lightsaber, Star Wars pajamas, Star Wars posters, you name it.
And it was all because of the movies. I’ve watched the original trilogy more than any other movies in my life. And I remember the experience of seeing them for the first time. In the early summer of 1983, all I could think about was “Return of the Jedi”, the third and final film in Lucas’ original trilogy. You couldn’t gauge my excitement for it. It was off the charts. And the movie didn’t disappoint. Even better, it’s still just as good, even a little weightier considering all of the Star Wars storytelling we’ve had since “Jedi” was first released.
This time Richard Marquand directed from a script written by Lawrence Kasdan and franchise mastermind George Lucas. The story picks up after the events of “Empire” and hands us a terrific opening that is Star Wars in a nutshell. We get a classic location, our favorite heroes, alien creatures galore, a slimy new villain, and a daring rescue. It was a delightfully energetic jolt back into the world.
From there the movie sets the table for its big conclusion. We learn that the evil Emperor (Ian McDiarmid) and Darth Vader (David Prowse, voiced by James Earl Jones) are nearing completion of a new planet-killing Death Star. It sits under construction in orbit of the forest moon of Endor. The Rebels hatch a plan to destroy the Death Star similarly to how they did in the original movie. But to get a shot at the space station they’ll need to lower its protective shield which is powered by a generator on Endor.
Enter our heroes. Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), and Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), accompanied by droids C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and R2-D2 (Kenny Baker), lead a team to Endor to destroy the shield generator. In the meantime, Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), piloting the Millennium Falcon, lead the Rebel assault on the Death Star. The movie ends with an epic three-pronged finish as one team battles on Endor, another in space above, and Luke on the Death Star finally confronting Darth Vader.
While there is an argument to be made that the Endor scenes get a little bogged down with the introduction of a furry primitive tribe of creatures called the Ewoks, I love both the story’s buildup and its payoff. The back-and-forth editing between the three big climactic clashes in exhilarating and the story as a whole culminates in an epic finish that’s thrilling while also packing a strong emotional punch. And again, that punch is only amplified by the wealth of Star Wars storytelling since that has propelled Anakin Skywalker (aka Darth Vader) as a centerpiece of the saga.
Along with the fun space opera story and the great character work are the visual effects which were truly cutting edge for its time. Sure, some haven’t aged particularly well which is highlighted most in the high-definition editions that have released over the years. And some of Lucas’ digital tinkering definitely works better than others. But you can’t dismiss the amazing work of Lucas and the team at Industrial Light and Magic in bringing the story to life. Rewatching it for this review, I still found myself swept away.
Without fail “Return of the Jedi” ignites a near childlike enthusiasm inside of me every time I watch it. You can chip away at some aspects of the storytelling, and it’s not one of those sequels that holds up as stand-alone movie. But at that point Star Wars had firmly defined itself as a trilogy and “Jedi” offered a near perfect conclusion. Over time, fans have spent countless hours examining and dissecting it. Creators are still building upon it and expanding it. The influence of “Jedi” (and the original Star Wars trilogy as a whole) has gone well beyond the first three films and it still entertains legions of fans today. Much like it did 12-year-old me all those years ago.