Wednesday, December 28, 2022

Return Of The Jedi - The Final Star Wars Film... Until It Wasn't

2022 marked the 20th anniversary of Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones and... well, I wrote a thing on that a while back, so I will spare you that piece of business here.

However, 2022 also marks the 30th anniversary of the third and final film in the original Star Wars Trilogy: Return Of The Jedi. And for seventeen years, it was exactly that; the last Star Wars film. Once the prequels came out, it merely became the final chapter in the Star Wars saga... until the arrival of The Force Awakens in 2015. Now I'm going to set aside all those other films for a moment - or at least, the majority of this write-up - so I can offer the following thoughts on Return Of The Jedi and why it was a satisfactory conclusion to the saga.

I was born a year before Jedi hit theatres, so I had never seen any of the original films during their original runs in cinemas due to the fact that two of them (Star Wars and Empire) were before my time. So during my younger years, my only exposure to Jedi was on good old VHS. My older brother had the CBS Fox releases and would later get the 1994 re-release, which was touted as being the final time that the Star Wars Trilogy would be available for purchase in its original form. 

It wouldn't be until a couple years later that the Trilogy would get the special edition treatment and people can say what they want about those versions, but they allowed me to do something that I had never done before and that was watch Star Wars on the big screen. And that was a tradition that continued onwards where my brother and I would watch every new Star Wars movie that would come out over the years on opening weekend... sometimes, even the same night. That's something I can be thankful for the special editions to kick off that tradition.

But I've already touched on that piece of business as well, so I won't spend too much time on that there.

Star Wars (a.k.a. Episode IV: A New Hope) was the first film release and people were wowed by the special effects and lore. The Empire Strikes Back focused less on the spectacle and more on deeper character moments and bringing the heroes down to their lowest point; much like any second act in a story should do. When we get to Return Of The Jedi, the heroes come together, overcome everything that is thrown their way, and eventually triumphs over the evil Galactic Empire. There are no loose threads, no holes to fill, nothing that has you going "That's it?" Jedi didn't have that.

There are some folks who would scoff at Jedi or call it a weaker film after Empire. The somewhat lighter tone might have been a reason for it, what with the introduction of the Ewoks and the generally more upbeat nature of the film. There is also a sense of retreading old territory with Jedi; we're back on Tatooine to deal with Jabba The Hutt and the rescue of Han Solo, the Empire is building another Death Star and the Rebels have to blow it up.

This is not something to defend Jedi as some great film or anything like that; that's not my intention. Honestly, as a film, Jedi is fine. It might not have the emotional twists and turns that Empire had and the Ewoks are an acquired tasted for some, but it's not quite as cringe as the sequels nor does it fall back into territory where actors spout out awkward dialogue and look bad doing, as was the case with the prequels or even the first Star Wars movie (A New Hope to you younglings). But the point of this whole spiel is not about whether Jedi is a good movie, but whether Jedi is a good ending to a saga. And this is where I will say that, yes, as a final chapter to the Star Wars saga, Return Of The Jedi closed the book on that story wonderfully.

And for the record, I have not seen the latest edition that's on Blu-Ray or Disney Plus. I know that I mentioned that I saw the films on Disney+ a while back when I did the Clones write-up, but I somehow missed out on Jedi. So I didn't get to catch some of the current version's changes. I suspect I'm going to be in for a fun time this coming May.

The best way that I can describe Jedi is that it's essentially a greatest hits compilation. We've got a Death Star to attack and the result is a Rebel force coming in to blow it up, but this time, the Empire is prepared and ambushes the Rebel bastards both in space and on the ground. On Endor, we've got smaller AT-STs (a.k.a. the chicken walkers) in the forest, giving us a conquerable foe that's still intimidating, the Skywalker story resumes with Luke and Darth Vader continuing their battles while the Emperor looks on, hoping to goad Luke to the Dark Side while Luke himself is trying to bring out the last spark of light within the former Anakin Skywalker; his father.

And what happens? Luke cuts off Vader's hand and suddenly realizes that he's going down the same dark path as his father, but ultimately rejects the Emperor's goading and keeps himself firmly in the light. The Emperor unleashes his dark power upon the young Jedi, igniting the spark that brings Vader to the light and makes a stand against the Emperor, tossing him down an endless pit, seemingly killing him. The Rebels overcome the odds and blow up the Death Star. The Empire is soundly defeated, their leader seemingly vanquished, and in his last moments before his death, Anakin sees the light. Where do we go from here? Who knows and most importantly, who cares?

Return Of The Jedi was a fine conclusion to the Star Wars saga. If this was the last Star Wars thing ever made and nothing came afterwards, then you couldn't have asked for a better ending. Would there have been more adventures? Sure, but that's what all the licensed stuff and Expanded Universe material was for. They've teased sequels for years, but honestly, every time I watch this film, I finish with a smile on my face and I go, "Yeah. I'm fine with this ending." As far as I was concerned, I didn't need any sequels to follow up on Jedi. What was the point of following up Jedi other than to ruin a perfectly satisfying epilogue with lesser chapters?

And this is where we bring the other movies into the fray.

Now we've had Ewok movies, but I don't count those as Star Wars movies, despite them being part of the same universe (or were - who knows, who cares?). And also, those were technically prequels. More like side stories. Let's consider these films spin-offs from the main series with only the fleeting connection to the main saga and even so, the point still stands. Jedi remains the final chapter in the saga.

George Lucas eventually conceived his prequel trilogy and whatever my issues with those films - most of it directed towards its middle chapter - but the prequels were what they were and they were the prelude to the saga - hence why they're called prequels - and didn't sully the satisfying conclusion that Jedi had put out there. Even if the prequels had been masterpieces or whatever, I still would've been fine living through live without a sequel trilogy. By that point, it was clear that Lucas had lost his touch when it comes to hands-on Star Wars and maybe we'd be better off with TV shows and Clone War cartoons that filled the void. And like I said, Jedi was the perfect ending to the Skywalker saga. It put a nice bow on that whole deal and if there were to be a sequel trilogy, it needed to have a good reason for being. It needed to provide reason for continuing a story that really didn't need that continuation.

Which probably makes this last trilogy all the more depressing.

But that's another story for another time.

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