Sunday, April 21, 2024

Star Wars Rewatch: Return of the Critic

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We come at last to what was, originally, the end of the road. From the dark, almost hopeless (and pretty near flawless) conclusion of Empire Strikes Back (ESB), Return of the Jedi (ROTJ) takes a much lighter tone at most times, and this has caused some amount of controversy among the fanbase as to whether or not it is a worthy conclusion to the saga. Many consider it to be the weakest of the original trilogy, perhaps even of the whole Star Wars canon. While that question was laid to rest after the belly-flop in quality that were the prequels, the fandom is still divided on ROTJ’s place in the franchise.

What were your feelings on the movie going in?

Gretchen: When I was a kid, ROTJ was my absolute favorite of the three Original Trilogy (OT) films, and I had mixed feelings going in. On the one hand, I really wanted to like it as much as I did growing up. On the other, I was worried it wouldn’t be able to live up to those expectations, especially given how much I love ESB now as an adult.

Ian: I’m with Gretchen. This movie was my favorite as a kid, and is maybe part of the reason why many fans give it the side-eye now. “It’s for kids,” you might hear them say. The climax juggles three different elements, one of which is swarming with teddy bears. It’s a little bananas when you think about it. That final reveal of Anakin’s real face is an image that will always stick with me though.

Zach: Again, because I’m the weird outlier who watched the prequels first, I never really had any feelings about ROTJ until I got much older. It also might have had something to do with the fact that I watched it first in my Gritty Edgelord Phase, so it was cool to hate the Ewoks. However, after reading a ton of meta and analyses of the franchise for The Force Awakens (TFA), I have come to have at least an appreciation for this movie. I genuinely like it now, so I was looking forward to this.

What did you think of the characters?

Zach: Nien Nunb is fantastic. I want a standalone movie about him and Lando. Gretchen, would you like to explode Luke feelings all over us?

Gretchen: The answer to that is: always. As ESB is Leia’s film, I think ROTJ is Luke’s. It encapsulates everything I love and admire about him. I wanted to be Luke when I was a child because of this movie. Here, he really comes into his own, and we get to see just how much he’s learned and matured since his whiny moisture farmer days. He’s calmer, more assured and confident; he responds to the Force far more intuitively (though still inconsistently, especially in battle situations), and seems to have found peace about both his father’s identity and the path he has chosen for himself.

I love that his costuming choice (misleadingly) points to a darker path for him: he’s all in black, like his father. The first we see of him he’s mind-controlling Bib Fortuna, warning Jabba not to underestimate his powers, and almost eerily self-possessed. He has his moment of struggling to control his anger over the potential deaths of his friends and sister, and he lashes out at Vader, but he resists. The moment where he throws away his lightsaber while triumphantly declaring himself to be a Jedi, “like my father before me” is just….it’s everything. He’s not only redefining the Jedi to include attachment—because he rescues his father instead of killing him like Yoda and Obi-Wan wanted—he’s also reminding his father of who he used to be. It’s such a stunning moment.

I have even more feelings about Luke Skywalker, but I’ll save them for an upcoming post on how his character defies the traditionally toxically masculine stereotypes often associated with male sci-fi heroes.

Ian: Luke’s entry into the movie is jarring knowing what we know now about the Force, specifically the Dark Side. He’s got his black hood, and he’s choking guards. One might expect his lightsaber to be red when he fires it up. I’ve mentioned the machete order in past reviews, and if you watch Revenge of the Sith (ROTS) right before this, it looks as though Luke might be headed down the same path as his dad. I’m not even going to get into the ramifications for the upcoming The Last Jedi (TLJ) because I’m certain that film is going to rip out our hearts and stomp on them but good.

Of course Luke turns out okay, and even “saves” Anakin, but I can’t help but remember Yoda’s prophetic words: Once you start town the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny. Luke manages to avoid it by the end of ROTJ, but there’s still a long way to go.

Zach: On the one hand, I am curious about that potential path too. If Luke turned evil it would undo everything that this movie said, so I hope it does not turn out that way.

This is the Luke we know and love.

Gretchen: Without the Prequel Trilogy (PT), Vader’s moment of saving Luke seems far more about Luke himself then about Vader. The point is Luke was right about his father, and both saves Luke’s life and destroys the Emperor in the process. With the PT, there’s so much more pathos in that scene for Vader himself. Knowing Anakin was a slave, and then seeing him so servile to the Emperor, willing even to give over his son to his new ‘master’, breaks your heart. Then to see him break free from decades worth of believing he can’t change. Oh, and Zach sent me this fan edit where Vader says “Padmé once thought as you do” instead of “Obi-Wan once thought as you do,” and now I want to die. (Also, it’s more canonically accurate.)

Gretchen: Yoda and Obi-Wan are such assholes. When Yoda says Luke finding out about Anakin being his father is “unfortunate” he clearly means “because now you’re less likely to kill him, like I want you to” and not what he actually says. And Obi-Want, too, seems to think the only option is to kill Anakin. He’s hopeless, beyond saving, not even worth Luke’s time. Best just to send this young, hopeful kid off to murder his dad. Fuck you guys. I’m so glad Luke is a better person and chose compassion.

Ian: This puts Luke solidly into grey Jedi territory if you ask me. He’s willing to put himself in front of the Emperor himself to give Vader a chance to redeem himself. It’s a huge gamble, but one that seems very Light Side Jedi. On the other hand, Luke on Tatooine is arrogant and reckless, flinging threats around and murdering cronies left and right. He’s willing to do whatever it takes to save his friends. He has attachments, things that are taboo for the Jedi because of what it can do to someone emotionally. In this way, Luke hasn’t changed much from the novice who rushed to Bespin to save his friends even though it meant halting his training maybe forever. If this were the Republic era, Luke might have been kicked out of the order.

Zach: Exactly! Luke is both a rebirth and end of the Jedi. He leaves the past (Yoda and Obi-Wan) behind at the end of the movie, allowing himself freedom and love in the new family he has found with his friends, yet he still accepts part of their philosophy and training.

What do you love most about this movie?

Ian: Ewoks. I love Ewoks. Fight me.

Gretchen: Ah yes, the man-eating teddy bears. So great for children! Other than the characters of Luke and Anakin themselves, what I love most is how it zeroes in on the relationship between them. The way this film uses the parent-child dynamic as a microcosm of this galactic conflict works really well. I think we see in this film more clearly than any of the others that Imperial-Rebel conflict is an external echo of the struggle within our hero’s heart. Do I choose to give into a seemingly larger, overwhelming negative force (the Empire, fear/anger)? Or, do I keep believing in the Light Side/hope/goodness, even when all seems lost? The ground and space battles intercut with Luke’s conflict with Vader works so well to drive this home. It emphasizes that the difference between heroes and villains are the choices they make, not their genetics. Plus, complicated family dynamics. (Goddamn it, Lucas, this could have been even more powerful if Leia had been given better dialogue/characterization.)

Zach: Every scene with Ian McDiarmid as the Emperor. In a weird way, ROTJ is both the Emperor’s introduction and final appearance. The voice that he gave the character is just so unnerving and overwhelmingly evil. When previously voiced by Clive Revill, the Emperor’s voice is much more typical of a James Bond villain. Dare I say it, he sounds pretty normal. Compare that to McDiarmid’s take on the character. His voice sounds almost sticky, rough, gravelly, diseased, and thoroughly distinct.

Ian: He creeped me out as a kid, the Emperor. His name is whispered like he might be right behind you. And then when he shows up it’s like, what is this old weird guy? He’s just some old asshole. Then when he lightnings the shit out of Luke, you’re like, ok, I get it now.

Gretchen: I know the word gets thrown around a lot on the internet, but McDiarmid’s Emperor in ROTJ truly is iconic. He’s terrifying and creepy. I want to take a shower after listening to him talk, and he never ceases to make me yell at the screen in the best possible way. He’s truly the perfect embodiment of the rottenness at the core of the Empire.

Zach: Before he chewed the scenery and became a prequel meme, the Emperor was the embodiment of true evil, the ultimate chessmaster. He knows Luke better than Luke knows himself. Yoda’s warnings that Luke is too much like his father are dangerously close to coming true. Luke loves, in every sense of the word, and is willing to do anything to save the people he loves. But the Emperor knows that controlling a person through others is only a temporary thing; when Luke attacks the Emperor, it is not so much to save his friends, since they are, to his knowledge, already lost. Luke trying to kill the Emperor is because of total despair: he has nothing left to fight for except his vengeance. Does that sound familiar to anyone?

Gretchen: YEP. He’s approaching Luke as if he’s Anakin writ small, which is both why he almost succeeds for a time, but also why he ultimately fails. Because he thinks that Luke has the same level of anger as Anakin once did. He underestimates Luke’s compassion, especially his compassion for his own father. By the time the Emperor had gotten to Anakin, Anakin had already lost faith in Obi-Wan and the entire Jedi council. Luke hadn’t lost faith in the ultimate goodness of his father. Where Anakin saw the glass half empty, Luke saw it as half full, and that’s why the Emperor failed. Because he didn’t see how Luke differed from his father.

Ian: As good as McDiarmid is, even in the prequels, I hate the hasty way in which he was turned into the shriveled mess we see in ROTJ. That scene where he melts his own face fighting Mace Windu is one of the more disappointing moments in ROTS. I always pictured him like some old wizard, slowly giving bits of himself away to the Dark Side in his secluded study, a sacrifice for more power. As time went on he became less a person and more an embodiment of the Dark Side itself; a wraith. The way he’s instantly turned into a gross monster in ROTS is a bummer.

Zach: PREACH IT. Also, Endor is a nice backdrop for all of this. A pristine garden world, but now corrupted by the evil of the Empire.

Ian: We have to stick to the Star Wars rule of only one climate per planet.

Gretchen: Always. Yet even the transition from barren world ruled by corrupt slug gangsters to the lush, vibrant, and untouched planet of Endor works well tonally. From the seat of corruption to a world that could become just as scarred and bereft of life. We fear not just for the corruption of Luke to the Dark Side, but of this planet. We want neither to lose their innocence, which is why the lighter tone to this movie also works well to me. They increase our anxiety about what Luke could become, and thus our cathartic relief when he’s victorious over the Emperor and rescues his father.

Zach: The Battle of Endor is, second only to the Battle of Coruscant, the most visually stunning space battle in the Star Wars canon. The battle is shot and interspersed with the events on Endor to keep the feeling of tension throughout the entire event. The new rebel ships introduced are also a fantastic representation of the diversity of the Rebel Alliance. Compared to the uniformity of the Imperial Navy, the Rebel ships come in all different shapes and sizes. I must admit, I prefer the sleek design of the A-wing fighters in this battle to the X-wings. You can also see the variety of TIE fighters, with new dagger-like wings and different configurations. It just goes to show how creative you can get with good art direction, instead of limiting yourself to the old stuff. (I’m totally not salty about TFA’s art direction. Not at all.)

Gretchen: I’d never thought about it that way, but I completely agree. That’s a really cool way to look at it.

Ian:They definitely pulled out all the stops at the end of the movie, and it’s masterfully edited between the battle on the surface, in space, and the psychological struggle in the throne room. When The Phantom Menace (TPM) came out, they tried to achieve that same level of complexity but with much less successful results. ROTJ is bombastic and over the top, but still holds on to that emotional payoff in a way that none of the prequel movies did despite their fantastic visuals.

What do you like least about this movie?

Zach: Sorry Ian, but I exist in quantum uncertainty about the Ewoks. On the one hand, they can be called, at best, a pretty offensive caricature of indigenous people, complete with “Worshipping the White Coded Robot as a God” on the side. On the other hand, they are an indigenous people that throws off the yoke of their colonizers and asserts their sovereignty. Indeed, George Lucas himself said he modeled them after the Vietnamese National Liberation Front (commonly known as the Viet Cong).

That having been said, I do not think anyone can call them “cute harmless teddy-bears.” We see them playing drums with the helmets of stormtroopers after the battle, and we know what they wanted to do with Han. Anyone want some meat pies?

Gretchen: Oh my god, right? I’d forgotten just how dangerous they actually are. What with the man-eating and the instruments out of stormtrooper helmets. They might be cute, but they’re not harmless. I’m also with you on feeling torn about their depiction. It’s a mixed bag with some really offensive characterization existing alongside some compelling storytelling.

Zach: OK, I’m all in for saving Han from Jabba, but did it have to take so much of the movie and have all the needless complexity? The rescue takes up a whole third of the run time. I suppose it could be seen as an elaborate gambit designed to both save Han and eliminate Jabba by inserting Leia into his court, but still, I think it runs a bit too long.

Gretchen: I still can’t quite decide how it all works together to be honest. It could work as an elaborate gambit to take Jabba out as well as rescue Han, but I’m not sure that’s what was intended? I go back and forth about how much communication each of the members of the plan had with each other. Leia doesn’t seem to be prepared for becoming a dancing slave, but if she was meant to get Han out clean, why send the droids and Lando in as well? And I do agree, it takes up too much plot. As a side note, the scene where Luke and Leia swing away to safety was deeply confusing to me sexually as a strongly repressed queer teen. I really wanted to be Luke at that moment ‘for some reason.’

Ian: The rescue plan makes no sense at all. When I was watching it this time, I was trying to reason it all out. So Luke’s plan is to gift Jabba the droids, and then arrive to strike a bargain. If that goes south, he’s got his lightsaber stashed in R2, presumably to fight his way out. I’m guessing he assumes that he’ll be relieved of his weapons before being granted an audience with Jabba, but when he gets there he Jedi’s his way into the throne room with very little resistance. Why have R2 toting the lightsaber around? Why have the droids there at all? Luke could just John Wick his way in and free Han himself. But he’s trying to be more diplomatic. OK.

Then after the droids are in place, Leia brings Chewbacca in to gain entrance to the palace and then sneaks at night to rescue Han. What about the droids and Chewy? What if Jabba decided to execute Chewy? What if Jabba had scrapped one or both of the droids? Was Leia’s plan to rescue everyone, leaving Luke’s bargain as a plan B? If so then why send the droids in the first place? Was Leia’s plan the plan B? If so, why not wait until Luke’s plan goes south to bring in Chewy? Were Luke and Leia operating separately? What is Lando’s deal? He’s infiltrated Jabba’s security team. Why doesn’t he sneak at night to free Han instead of bringing Leia and Chewy into this? Did Leia really not know he was there until they make eye contact in the throne room? Did Luke know he was there? Is anyone talking to anyone else at all? Did I forget to take my medicine this morning?

It’s a good thing Jabba took them to the Sarlacc pit. What if Jabba decided to have them executed by firing squad right then and there? R2 is on the barge with the lightsaber. Who saves them then? What if Jabba had decided to do literally anything else? They must know how much he loves throwing people in the Sarlacc pit to have betted so heavily on that eventuality. They must have also known that R2 would be employed as a waiter on the barge. It’s a good thing they didn’t leave R2 behind. They must have known it would take the combined efforts of all of them to fight their way out and that’s why they all get themselves captured on purpose. Or maybe it was all a happy accident. Maybe the Force told Luke what would happen.

Zach: That, or Luke is on Palpatine levels of Batman Gambit.

Gretchen: At least it worked out better for Luke than it did for Palps.

Zach: Leia’s new characterization. I read an article once that said Leia’s commanding personality in ESB was construed by too many fans as “bitchy.” As we all know, no professional woman can ever escape being named a “harpy” in some way. So, when writing ROTJ, Leia was given a much softer personality, more traditionally feminine, one might even go so far as to say submissive.

I think the scene that really shows this is the assembly of Alliance Command. We saw Leia Organa as the leader of the Rebellion, the ultimate authority of Echo Base. Everything that the Rebellion did went through her, and she took a personal role in preparing the evacuation. She was even the last to leave, even as stormtroopers were within the base. Compare that to this scene. Mon Mothma and Admiral Ackbar brief everyone on the Death Star II and the mission to destroy it, and she not only had no information about this before, but she had no idea that her best friend/lover had volunteered to lead the strike force. She did not even volunteer to be on the strike force until Han announced he was leading it. It all smacks of sexism, and I loathe it.

Gretchen: PREACH. Poor Leia. Everything she gained in scripting in ESB, she loses in ROTJ, and even comes down a few notches from that. Her behavior is almost entirely in service to Luke and Han. The only thing that makes her demure dress and long hair bearable is the recontexualization of it in Leia: Princess of Alderaan. The same goes for Leia’s slave costume and Bloodline. Basically, Claudia Gray fixes all the bullshit of Leia’s scripting after the fact and knowing what she does is the only way I can tolerate sitting through it, though that doesn’t make the movie in itself any better for how it handles her character. This was such a disappointment after how powerful a character she is in ESB.

Ian: I’m kind of bummed now that we don’t get to see Leia live up to her full potential as Anakin’s daughter. She and Luke share a psychic link of some kind, and that link extends at least to some extent to Han, but we never get to see Leia slingin’ a saber or wielding the Force as a weapon either offensively or defensively. There is still one film left, but I kind of doubt we’re going to see that from her, and part of me always wanted that. One could argue that her strengths as a Force user are more empathetic than physical, but still. It feels like a missed opportunity.

Pretty much all downhill from here, unfortunately.

Was this the best way to conclude the saga? Why or why not?

Gretchen: Maybe it’s because I was raised on the OT (VHS tapes of the THX version, mind you, not the Special Editions), but I honestly can’t imagine any other ending. If I could beef up Leia’s role/not undermine her character and maybe shorten the bit at Jabba’s palace, that’s really all I would change. I think the lighter tone works well for a story that’s ultimately about hope and believing in people even when no one else will. While I don’t think the OT meant it this way initially, the redefinition of the Jedi has it’s roots in ROTJ. Luke embracing his connectedness and attachment while still claiming the Jedi mantle is a revolution. As a trajectory for the off-screen future of these characters (even in a world without the Sequel Trilogy), I think that’s a powerful place to end. The stage has been set for a new order, a new way of regime free from the Empire’s tyranny, and a new life for our heroes. I love what that represents.

Ian:I couldn’t have said it better myself. It was very satisfying as a conclusion to me, and in my heart of hearts, I always imagined that if there were ever more stories to tell they wouldn’t involve the Rebels and Empire again in this way.

Zach: Exactly.

There has been much frothing over the digital add-on of Hayden Christensen to the finale, in addition to the new score that replaced “Yub Nub.” What are your thoughts?

Zach: Oddly enough, I am actually 100% OK with these changes. I understand that editing out Sebastian Shaw as a Force Ghost was a poor decision, but for those of us who grew up watching the Prequels first, it was actually a really profound moment. Anakin is now completely free, and is restored to his old self, happy and reunited with Obi-Wan. I might have actually shed a tear when I first saw it.

Gretchen: That makes sense to me, and, I’m one of those grouchy fans about the change. Maybe because I grew up with Sebastian Shaw, I just can’t stand the substitution. I actually grumbled about it for several minutes after finishing the film this time around. From a logistics standpoint, it makes absolutely zero sense. Obi Wan and Yoda both exist as Force ghosts as they were at the moment of their deaths. I find it more powerful to see him whole as his present self. To me, seeing Sebastian Shaw represents Anakin finally getting to be who he was behind the mask and machines. In his death, he finally sheds the Dark Side and we see what he could have been as an older man had he not fallen under the Emperor’s sway. Happy middle-aged Anakin moves me more than happy 20 year old Anakin, and tells a more powerful story of healing to me. Because healing isn’t a ‘reset’ to who we were before. When we heal, we’re still changed forever. And I liked that about Sebastian Shaw’s Force ghost rather than Hayden Christensen’s.

Ian: Yeah, it doesn’t make sense to me. Why not then have Ewan MacGregor’s Force ghost up there? Or have Yoda in his prime (which now that I write it, I kind of want to see). It’s such a small change that it almost feels like Lucas trying to assert control over “his” movies in the most childish way. Like a direct statement to the prequels’ harshest critics.

Zach: As for the replacement of “Yub Nub,” John Williams’ new score, “Victory Celebration,” is infinitely better. “Yub Nub” was happy and all, but it did not do justice to the amount of what was achieved. “Victory Celebration” is triumphant, but also a little bit sad. So much pain was endured to get to this point, so many lives destroyed, but we have seen that good has triumphed over the ultimate evil, that no one is beyond redemption, and that light and love will always return to that galaxy, far, far away.

Gosh, I’m getting emotional.

Gretchen: I’m with you on both counts in this, Zach. “Victory Celebration” is a bittersweet ending, which fits the tragedy of the Skywalker family in this moment. Though I still find the new scenes a bit jarring because of how different the CGI is, I think the music itself is better in the Special Edition.

Ian: I’m most salty about the change to the song in Jabba’s palace. The old Jazzy number with the puppets is so much better than the cheesy CGI mess they put in for basically no reason. And the new song isn’t as good. Did we really need to see inside their mouths? Did we?

Overall Thoughts

Gretchen:. What is it with third installments in Star Wars trilogies and the domestication of strong female characters? (Ep IX better not follow this trend.) Still, I love it. It might not be the best Star Wars movie (that’s ESB), but it’s still honestly my favorite. Because Luke.

One of the most powerful moments of the film, if not the entire trilogy.

Ian: Yeah eleven-year-old me still loves everything about this. Logic problems aside, it’s packed with action front to back. The action set pieces are unparalleled, from Jabba’s barge to the speeder bikes to the final battle(s). There really isn’t a dull moment here. Even if it doesn’t all make sense it just kind of lunges ahead and I’m along for the ride. Luke’s fully-formed Jedi badassery is fun to see after watching him struggle through two movies, and despite the creeper vibe Han gives off at times, the romantic payoff with Han and Leia is still satisfying to me. For my money, the comedic elements are welcome, and are part of what was missing from the prequels. They can’t all be perfect, but some movies don’t have to be.

Zach: Perhaps a little less mature than I would like, and lacking any development with Leia, but overall ROTJ knows what it needs to do and it does it. It may not be a perfect ending, but I think it is a solid way to put a bow on the OT.

Gretchen’s Score: 9 – Squee-Worthy. When you are excited about everything here and what it could be and can’t wait to see more. Leaves the viewer with a spring in their step and a song in their heart.

Ian’s Score: 9 – Squee-Worthy. When you are excited about everything here and what it could be and can’t wait to see more. Leaves the viewer with a spring in their step and a song in their heart.

Zach’s Score: 8 – Inspiring: Any shortcomings are nothing but small dots on an otherwise perfect painting. Despite some minor issues, it’s on par with some of the best. I could definitely watch it more than once (or twice).

Images courtesy of Disney and Lucasfilm

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