Luke Till You Puke
In the last chapter of the Star Wars trilogy, Return of the Jedi Special Edition, an intergalactic window display of creepy and cuddly critters upstages the human characters. All the conflicts are resolved between the virtuous Rebels -- Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), Han Solo (Harrison Ford), and Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) -- and the wicked Imperials, notably Darth Vader (David Prowse, with the usual ominous vocal help from James Earl Jones). But from the sequence set in Jabba the Hutt's palace, where Jabba keeps the carbon-frozen Han Solo as a wall hanging, to the celebration of victory on the forest moon of Endor, full of teddy bears (whoops, I mean Ewoks) on parade, the movie has a stifling, overstuffed quality, like FAO Schwarz at Christmastime. This episode may, like the others, be set "a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away," but it might as well be taking place at a toy store near you.
After the perilous beauties of Irvin Kershner's The Empire Strikes Back, this movie seems not just disappointing, but spoiled. Unlike their script for the second movie, Lawrence Kasdan and George Lucas's screenplay doesn't deepen the saga's themes or characterizations, it merely summarizes them. And Richard Marquand's direction is crude compared to Kershner's -- at best it has the cheerful brusqueness of a wind-up drum major. Actors we've seen rise from amateurishness to conviction here streak toward complacency and self-parody. Creations that popped eyes in Empire, like those elephantine Imperial Walkers, do little more than prop up eyelids. John Williams's score, which in the earlier films evoked comparisons to Prokofiev (and not just Prokofiev's film music, but his ballets), shrivels in the emotional vacuum. (Alvin and the Chipmunks would have turned paws down on the Ewok music.) For those who want nothing more from the climactic episode in a series than "closure," Luke does confront the Dark Side of the Force. Leia learns why she loves him like a brother. And that one-time renegade Han Solo is redeemed, body and soul. But it's pretty much pro forma: a graduation sans honors.
What made The Empire Strikes Back hopeful as well as thrilling was that everything about it tended forward. As executive producer and guiding spirit, Lucas, emboldened by success, introduced a heightened intensity and a hint of ambiguity to the good guy/bad guy derring-do; Kershner directed with an attention to movement and performance that gave the film a fabulous panache. But Empire also went ten million dollars over budget, with Lucas footing the bill. Determined to avoid that kind of pressure, he organized a tighter schedule for Jedi and hired a director whose previous feature (Eye of the Needle) displayed neither emotional nuance nor visual ambition. Still, pragmatism alone can't explain the movie's flimsiness.
At the time, Lucas said he liked this script so much that he was almost tempted to return to directing in order to do it himself. Perhaps he thought the emotional aura of Luke's Jedi training and shocking lineage would carry over into the third film. Instead, the aura evaporates, because the landscape is cluttered with action figures and the action itself doesn't express anything except a hankering for speed and thump and an affection for genre movies. A dungeon-and-monster scene out of sword-and-sandal movies, a gangplank escape out of pirate films, even (in the one exhilarating sequence) a race on "Speeder Bikes" that's like the meanest game of chicken in a motorcycle flick -- they're all mere exercises in design and kinetics. The pastiche approach works fully only when Marquand, Kasdan, and Lucas can lift a dramatic idea from another film wholesale -- as they do in a sequence of C-3PO bedazzling the Ewoks, which could be called The Droid Who Would Be King. When the moviemakers know a scene bulges with meaning for the entire trilogy, they keep it simple: Luke's final confrontation with Darth Vader and Vader's boss, the Emperor, has barely any spectacle at all. But by then the movie's own focus has gotten lost in space.
And a movie series that lives by visuals can die by visuals. The climaxes in Jedi are terminally unimaginative. Luke gets electro-zapped as routinely as R2-D2 does; the Emperor literally gets tossed out of the picture. And am I the only one who thinks the unmasked Darth Vader resembles W.C. Fields's Humpty Dumpty in the 1932 Alice in Wonderland, with a gashed shell and a harmonica stuck in his mouth? (He's played by the terrific Sebastian Shaw, who was 78 when this was filmed; four years later he had a showcase part in Clare Peploe's sensuous comedy High Season.)
If you liked the Death Star in the first film, I guess you'll like it in the third film. That's the plot device: The Empire is building Death Star II and enticing the Rebels into attacking it. But before the good guys get enmeshed in sabotaging its deflector shield and (once again) soaring into the coruscating guts of the main reactor, our heroes have to look up at the gelatinous guts of drooling Jabba the Hutt, who threatens to execute Han and all his friends. The Jabba sequence is a typical movie-brat gross-out jamboree, filled with sanitized S&M thrills (robots burned and pulled apart) and a kiddie's view of grossness and lasciviousness. The biggest audience reaction comes when little boys and girls yell "Yuk!" as Jabba lounges lewdly against Leia. (Say that quickly, three times.) Jabba has a slimy, villainous charm; if you've seen the Special Edition movies in succession, you can't help note that the mammoth puppet Jabba of this movie has far more visceral comic impact than the computer-generated Jabba of Star Wars Special Edition.
He also has more oomph than any of the actors. Hamill glides through, and the only new twist Fisher reveals is the curve of her torso in her harem outfit. Charles Champlin's official logbook, George Lucas: The Creative Impulse, which contains nary a discouraging word on any Lucasfilm project, quotes Harrison Ford complaining, "I had no idea of what to do with my character.... I thought my character should die. Since Han Solo had no momma and no poppa and wasn't going to get the girl anyway, he may as well die to give the whole thing some real emotional resonance. But George wouldn't agree to it." In the cutesy-to-cuddly Jedi, the rebels win the political war and lose the aesthetic one -- the opposite of what transpired in the brooding, stirring Empire. As far as art goes, the tally is Empire 1, Jedi nothing.
Return of the Jedi Special Edition.
Written by Lawrence Kasdan and George Lucas, from a story by George Lucas; directed by Richard Marquand; with Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Billy Dee Williams, and the voice of James Earl Jones.
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.