Return of the Jedi is by far the weakest of the Star Wars Trilogy, and it has nothing to do with the words ‘incest’ or ‘teddy bears.’ “But wait!” I hear you choke out as you spit out your C-3P O’s and shimmy out your plastic lightsaber. “It’s the Holy Trilogy! They’re all great!” Note how I didn’t dispute Episode VI’s greatness. All I’m saying is that we wouldn’t remember it with such fond keyboard banging if it weren’t for, you know, that other trilogy to become the yang to the chocolate-covered yin that popular culture ceases to exist without. Even the movie’s original reception wasn’t that good: if Rotten Tomatoes existed in 1986, the movie would’ve scored 33%. The Jedi Doth Return (Verily A New Hope and The Empire Striketh Back discussed here and here) knows the flaws of its material and seeks to correct them. How well does it do?
The main problem with Return of the Jedi stems from Luke’s costume, while also about something else altogether. Why is Luke dressed in all black? To show his slippage towards the dark side, right? He’s conflicted, he’s desperate, he might be going through a bit of an emo poet phase. A logical step from the end of Empire, where he doesn’t know who to trust anymore and the Dark Side seems more like a well-worn hammer than the ultimate do-not-go-here evil. Let’s recap. What happens a year after Luke-oh-what-a-bother? He finds and rescues his friend from spending eternity as a modern arts project. He visits Yoda and learns more truths from Old Ben. He goes to Endor, alerting Vader to the Rebels by his mere presence. He engages in a speeder chase. He’s captured by Ewoks and cons his way out of it. He turns himself in, saving his friends’ mission by surrendering to Vader. We’re at the end of Act 2 now, and when has Luke ever fell into or been tempted by the Dark Side of the Force? I don’t mind the Ewoks, and even don’t think the sister revelation is the worst twist ever, but this lack of development really separates Part 6 from Parts 5 and 4. It’s a lighthearted ending (for now) of the saga. I get that. The last third of the movie finally tries to talk about to Dark Side and what it means to Luke, and that doesn’t damper the mood so much as add a tasteful touch of vinegar to it. In an already crammed finale, Lucas jams the entire temptation arc inside, and we’re left with vague notions about what the Dark Side is and how Luke will fall for it. The entire running time up to this point, Luke’s self-sacrificing and noble and just as good as he was in The Empire Strikes Back– appealing for a hero, but not what the story needs.
To be fair, Obi-Wan does talk about the Dark Side winning if Luke doesn’t give into the Dark Side by killing Vader- a fun conflict, just that it took salutatorian-speaking role to the basic Rebels Yay Empire Boo. The Jedi Doth Return doesn’t add much to this problem. In a way, it kind of makes it worst. The lightsaber duel- its sudden beginning, turbulent middle, and triumphant end- is to me the best fight in the saga, and enough to redeem the film for me. The majority of that scene’s strengths derives from what’s not said: Luke’s turmoil, Vader’s conflict, Palpatine’s- actually, the scene would be a lot better if Palpatine shut up a bit. But, since this is Shakespeare, Vader’s big silent moment is over punctuated by him monologuing about who he is and what he’s becoming and what he must do, and oh god this was so much better when done in silence (on that note: seek any special edition but the 2011 Blu-Ray version). This interpretation at least talks about the big issues, but at the exact wrong time.
The book addresses more fan complaints about the trilogy than the others. Luke calls out Kenobi’s “from a certain point of view” B.S. right away, and sharp or dull readers will notice how Admiral “It’s a trap!” Ackbar ends all his lines. There’s even a monologue after Luke finds out about his sister where he compares his revelation to Oedipus’s (ok, an unnamed Tusken Raider of legend, but it’s Oedipus). Now there’s an interesting comparison, connecting himself to a tragic hero he most certainly is not because, as we established, Luke’s as pure as extra virgin olive oil. Still, this installment remains the most self-aware of the books, for whatever that’s worth.
I didn’t get any particular new insights or revelations from these books. But then again, I consider myself well versed (pun intended, not sorry) in Star Wars, so I’m not sure what could provide anything like that. This book trilogy is a dance remix of Star Wars- fun to play around with, enjoyable for the parts we recognize, but not going to unseat either original. Don’t downplay the tremendous research, rewatching, and revision required to make something that moves without effort or without needing footnotes. I’d love to read a prequel trilogy by this guy- provide, of course, that he takes the same critical eye and pen he did when revising the holiest of trilogies.