As the release of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker nears, so does the end of the third trilogy in the Star Wars saga. Thus, it is an ideal time to look back on each film that came before it, in chronological order, starting with the prequels. This is Return of the Jedi, the under appreciated third one.
The film starts on the familiar setting of Tatooine, the sandy planet where we first met Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). He, now a Jedi master, seeks gangster Jabba the Hutt who imprisoned Leia (Carrie Fisher) and keeps the carbonite frozen Han Solo (Harrison Ford) as a trophy. Luke quickly understands that bargaining won’t work, when Jabba sentences him to death, which our trio cleverly escapes with the help of Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams). It is a great way to start the film, even if it’s quickly undermined by everything that follows.
When this serious and fairly dark 30 minute sequence following the footsteps of The Empire Strikes Back sequence on Tatooine ends, the entire story shifts tone and place. The Rebel Alliance finds that a new Death Star is being built near the forest moon of Endor and we spend the rest of Return of the Jedi there.
Once there, our protagonists are met and joined by the indigenous population. The ewoks. These little teddy bears are partly used for comic relief, partly for selling toys and partly for actual story reasons. However, they get annoying fast, as way too much time is spend on them, even overshadowing Han and Leia’s arc in places.
The cast has never been better than in Return of the Jedi, and each actor gives the best performance in the trilogy. Luke with Vader are the front-and-center of the story, and their conflict not only as rivals, but also as a father and son with vastly different ideologies, feels visceral and real. Both of them communicate complex emotions with the slightest mimics. Leia gets pushed to the side in this one, but Carrie Fisher still makes her a compelling character and does the most with what she has to work with. Han Solo, at least partly, seems like he’s in a movie of his own. Harrison Ford steals the show in this one as his swagger charm mixes with perpetual confusion. It makes for some truly great and (unintentionally) funny moments. Han completely owns every scene he’s a part of.
The climax of not only Return of the Jedi, but the entire trilogy is a fight between Luke and his father, in front of the evil Emperor (Ian McDiarmid). The lightsaber combat is fantastic, hitting a sweet spot with its intricate choreography, while the fight still feels stripped-down and raw, making for one of the best duels in the entire series. For most of this fight, the Emperor, who has been hyped-up as the mastermind behind the Empire, just kinda sits there and laughs. Eventually, but very briefly, he uses his powers. To be honest, he’s kind of a letdown character as he doesn’t do much in the film and if he weren’t included, the outcome wouldn’t be that different.
Return of the Jedi offers a genuine and touching ending to the entire trilogy in the same way as it does to the story about a family broken down by a tragedy, that stands at its center. It may not be as fun as the action adventure that was Star Wars, nor a dark drama in the vein of Empire, but this film carves a nice niche for itself and blooms in it.