Longtime friend and colleague Joe Shearer and I were set to cover Star Wars: Episode VI — Return of the Jedi separately for this series. But because Star Wars is largely about people coming together to fight the good fight, we figured we might as well cross laser swords! Given our age difference, we thought it would be fun to bridge the generational gap, geek out and compare notes on when we first fell in love with this film.
Joe: Return of the Jedi was one of the first movies I remember seeing in theaters. If I recall correctly, it was also the first of the Star Wars movies I actually saw. I was born in 1977, the year the first Star Wars came out. I don’t remember it or the hype of The Empire Strikes Back in 1980, but I certainly remember Return of the Jedi. I have a very vivid memory of sitting in the Eastwood Theater on the east side of Indianapolis, jittery as hell waiting for it to start. And everything about that movie was incredible: Luke Skywalker’s sleek black suit, the speeder bikes, the Ewoks and, above all, Luke’s new green lightsaber. It was spectacular, and it remains one of the most satisfying conclusions to a highly hyped blockbuster film franchise (of course, today it’s known as a segment of the Star Wars franchise).
Sam: Your introduction to it was much cooler than mine, which was on video. I wore out that VHS tape, which I always watched from the very beginning to end. So I still vividly remember the trailers, including the one for the making-of documentary, From Star Wars to Jedi, which featured the creature Salacious B. Crumb practically popping out of the television and saying, “Hello in TV Land.”
Although I love all of the original Star Wars films, I’ve always had a soft spot for Return of the Jedi. I tend to lean toward offbeat sequels. To me, Jedi is the Alien 3 of the original trilogy. Like that film, it opens on a boldly bleak note and in a prison environment, with Han Solo frozen in Carbonite and Princess Leia enslaved after trying to rescue him. Also like Alien 3, its settings are dingy and devoid of hope. Jabba the Hutt’s lair always made my skin crawl. It’s a dirty den of nightmarish creatures. Hutt’s snake-necked henchman stands out in my mind. The sandy abyss known as the Sarlacc Pit also haunted my dreams.
Hell, this is just the first act of the film. What stood out to you as it began to unfold?
Joe: The entire opening sequence at Jabba’s palace, the Sarlacc and the opening gambit to rescue Han was brilliant. It shows the growth in Luke’s powers between Empire and Jedi, as well as his growth as a leader in spearheading that mission, and it spotlights how the Rebellion has grown between films. They’re more organized and focused, and they sense the Empire’s vulnerability.
Sure, it was also kind of harebrained and meant to mislead the audience, too, but it was done well. Also, finally showing Jabba the Hutt and this cast of alien scum did a lot to expand the universe as well. Cynics can talk about how those characters were created to have action figures made for them, but it’s also done in service of a story. It’s all simple but masterfully done.
Also, at this point I should mention that while I hadn’t seen A New Hope or Empire, I was very aware of the stories and the twists through other media. I had Empire trading cards and picture books galore that told the entire story. Times were a little different then.
Sam: I knew the twists before watching the films as well. It was also hard for me to avoid Star Wars references when I was growing up. One that stands out in my memory is the scene in Tommy Boy in which Chris Farley imitates Darth Vader’s voice by speaking into a desk fan and saying, “I am your father.”
Speaking of Vader, what was it like seeing him for the first time on the big screen in this context, seeing him drift from the Dark Side?
Joe: Darth Vader was the most fearsome entity in the galaxy. Quite honestly, the moment that stands out most to me about Darth Vader isn’t in Jedi but in Empire, when Lando Calrissian sets up Han, Leia, Chewbacca and the Droids with Vader waiting for them in the dining room. That moment was really scary to me as a kid. But Vader here, at the outset of Jedi, is polished and shiny and ready. The Emperor’s visit, and Vader taking the knee for him, is a telling moment.
I’d like to touch on the big sticking point that so many Star Wars fans pick on: the Ewoks. In short, I’m just going to say they are unequivocally awesome, and whether George Lucas created them to sell action figures or not, I don’t care. They disarm potential adversaries with their charm and cuteness, then butcher them mercilessly. It would be fun to see an R-rated Ewoks fan film or something sometime. But their story is fun and lighthearted and a good contrast with the other main arcs.
The intercutting of the three stories — the Ewoks / Han / Leia / Chewie vs. the Imperial Troops on Endor, the ship-to-ship battles closing in on the Death Star, and Luke / Vader / Emperor in the Death Star’s throne room — is spectacularly done, and keeps up tension with all three stories. The dogfight is thrilling, and the effects were spectacular even for its time. The lightsaber battles have been wonderful since Empire, and hold up today, and the planet-side battle was fun and emblematic of the whole struggle — new friends who seem ragtag but have heart and spunk and the will to survive.
And I never took issue with Han not being in the Falcon. Putting Lando in there is almost like poetic justice, seeing as the ship was his first. And as the newer films have shown, the Falcon doesn’t belong to Han: She belongs to us, the fans.
Sam: Amen on the Ewoks. The “But the Ewoks are stupid” response is the “But her emails” of complaints about Star Wars.
It’s interesting that Jedi was your big-screen introduction to Vader because he’s the most vulnerable in this one. You can see the cracks in his armor, and his mission to steer Luke toward the Dark Side feels more like an effort to simply reconnect with him. Their confrontation near the end is the most emotionally-charged lightsaber battle in the original trilogy. I still get goosebumps as the angelic, Greek chorus-like voices cry on the score and the Christmas-colored lasers collide.
This climactic scene shows the greatest power of the Star Wars films — their ability to bridge the gap between the epic and the intimate, the personal and the universal. In this scene, we see that the film isn’t about a big fight for the galaxy; it boils down to the tension between a father and son and the history between a brother and sister. Mark Hamill makes Luke’s anger our own when Vader threatens to turn his sister, Leia, over to the Dark Side. We’ve all felt the weight of seemingly inescapable family conflict, and it’s incredibly palpable in this scene.
The defeat of the Emperor and the unmasking of Vader is the heart of the film. When Luke peels it back to reveal his frail old man, evil fades and all that’s left is the human spirit. Although many people like to rag on the party scene at the end of the film, I’d say it’s definitely earned. It represents what Star Wars is ultimately all about — a celebration of humanity.