So I started watching the original version of this movie right on the heels of The Empire Strikes Back, and realized two things at once:
a) I haven’t seen this in, like, ten years.
b) For good reason.
I’ve always been crazy about Star Wars, and Return of the Jedi was my unquestioned favorite through most of my childhood: the darkness and complexity of The Empire Strikes Back didn’t really grab me until I was in college (though I can remember begging my dad to rent “the one with the snow” when I was around four years old).
But don’t get me wrong, Return of the Jedi has a lot of good things going for it. The action sequences are impressive. The speeder chase through the forest is one of the best ever, right up there with the end of The Blues Brothers, with a rhythm to it so strong that music isn’t even necessary. The fact that it was filmed by a bunch of guys walking around with cameras strapped to their bodies, who then sped the film up “in post”, makes it even more impressive; movies are generally better when people go outside to film them. The throne room and the space battle is also pretty cool.
But, man, everything in between is just filler. Darth Vader visiting the Death Star in the beginning seems contrived—he wants to speed up the construction, a problem which didn’t seem to exist before his arrival and one which evaporates without any perceptive change right after he steps aboard. And then the droids coming to Jabba’s palace: why doesn’t Luke just go there himself with his lightsaber? Ah, right, because it’s contrived. Plus: Han Solo.
I recently read that before George Lucas turned to the dark side (before he became, as a redditor wrote, “the King Midas of Shit”), they had planned to kill off Han Solo, which Harrison Ford apparently also wanted, and I think they really should have: the unpredictable gunslinger from the first film, the deeply-flawed womanizing enemy of feminism who is nonetheless fairly charming in the second, is, like Leia, almost completely passive and emasculated: imagine the kind of film we would have had on our hands if Luke had rescued Han, only for him to get shot by Boba Fett—reduced, here, to slapstick prop, though he was frightening in The Empire Strikes Back—or swept aside in a rage by Darth Vader. Leia, devastated, sacrifices herself to save Luke, who abandons everyone and everything, walking off into the sunset. No second Death Star, no Ewoks, no goofy aliens, just ever-deepening gloom.
Instead the movie keeps Han Solo on life support. He forgives Lando for his betrayal completely, even though he has no idea that Lando later changed his mind; the last thing Lando said to Han was: “you’re being put into carbon freeze.” Then Han wakes up, meets Lando, and is like, hey, whatever, it’s cool, don’t worry about it, I hated you then, but because the scriptwriters were lazy I don’t care now, I know psychically that you had a last-moment change of heart. He doesn’t just say this: he even saves Lando from the Sarlacc Pit, without even thinking twice about it.
And then the Ewoks.
Imagine George Lucas pitching the idea for Return of the Jedi to some studio executive board room—Return of the Jedi, instead of Star Wars, before he was famous. “Guys, check this out,” he starts, “the movie ends in a forest with a bunch of dancing teddy bears!”
Apparently he wanted to use them to comment on the Vietnam War, showing how a vast technologically-powerful enemy can be defeated by small numbers of determined natives, but it just doesn’t work. “Guys, hey guys!” he continues, “what if we mixed death and violence with teddy bears?”
George Lucas obviously didn’t pitch this idea to anyone—or, if he did, his audience was too terrified (too job-dependent) to say the obvious. “George,” any rational unafraid human being would reply in this imaginary situation, “I think your idea is really, really, really fucking stupid.” Watching the famous Red Letter Media reviews of the prequel trilogy is not unlike watching Aguirre, Der Zorn Gottes: Kinski among the Conquistadores, Lucas among the production crew, the same look of “just stay the hell out of his way” painted on the faces of the underlings, the same look of absolute power corruption on the faces of the leaders.
No questioning, no criticizing.
And you know, obviously, wookies would have been better than ewoks. So why didn’t Lucas use them? Action figures. According to Gary Kurtz, when George Lucas transformed himself from Luke Skywalker into Darth Vader, he decided that selling action figures was more important than crafting a quality film, because you can make three times the money on action figures, as if the unbelievably vast box office profits from the Star Wars franchise weren’t already enough. Thus!, instead of wookies, we get ewoks. Instead of just Darth Vader, we have to deal with the Emperor (with his red guards). Instead of stormtroopers, we have the speeder bike stormtroopers. Instead of Leia, we have her wearing some bounty hunter getup. Instead of just people, we have dozens of crazy-looking aliens: in The Empire Strikes Back there were almost no aliens at all except for Yoda, whose movements are so remarkable that he is more or less an honorary human, leaping the uncanny valley and scrambling up the far side decades before CGI manages to do the same—if it ever does.
Basically, we can’t use wookies, because we already have them. We have to use something new, so we can mass-produce it for the kids. “Ewoks are the answer,” George Lucas said, later turning this phrase into a bumper sticker and slapping it onto the back of his minivan, screeching away into the dust and leaning out the window to scream back at us, the disheartened adorers-of-The-Empire-Strikes-Back: “SAYONARA SUCKAZ!”
I was going to end there, but I found this rather terrifyingly Orwellian George Lucas quote on wikipedia:
There will only be one [version of the films]. And it won’t be what I would call the “rough cut”, it’ll be the “final cut”. The other one will be some sort of interesting artifact that people will look at and say, “There was an earlier draft of this.” The same thing happens with plays and earlier drafts of books. In essence, films never get finished, they get abandoned. At some point, you’re dragged off the picture kicking and screaming while somebody says, “Okay, it’s done.” That isn’t really the way it should work. Occasionally, [you can] go back and get your cut of the video out there, which I did on both American Graffiti and THX 1138; that’s the place where it will live forever. So what ends up being important in my mind is what the DVD version is going to look like, because that’s what everybody is going to remember. The other versions will disappear. Even the 35 million tapes of Star Wars out there won’t last more than 30 or 40 years. A hundred years from now, the only version of the movie that anyone will remember will be the DVD version [of the Special Edition], and you’ll be able to project it on a 20-foot-by-40-foot screen with perfect quality. I think it’s the director’s prerogative, not the studio’s, to go back and reinvent a movie.
I think you’re wrong, George. The original versions of the first and the second movie will survive, since they are actually good: everything you’ve done since then will be thrown to the burping gullet of the Sarlacc Pit.