Movie Review: “Star Wars: Episode V-The Return of the Jedi” (Irvin Kershner, USA 1980)

Introduction

Just as a fun project, I’m going to watch all previous Star Wars films except for Episode I and write reviews. I’ve seen the original trilogy before but I’ve never seen Episodes II and III. However, even the original trilogy I have not watched for a very long time, so this is definitely my first look at them with adult eyes.

I do not own the films, so I will not be watching the despecialized editions, though I would certainly prefer to do so. I really hope that Disney doesn’t continue Lucas’s refusal to release the original theatrical versions, because the corny digital additions really stand out as awful. I hated them in the mid ’90s and I’m not feeling any better about them 20 years later. Since they really stand out, I’m essentially going to ignore them in the reviews and just say here that they’re terrible, cartoonish, and unnecessary. And yes, I feel safe saying that even before I’ve finished re-watching them all. The prequels obviously do not have this issue–Lucas got to fill them with digital ugliness on first release.

I will be watching in Machete order, because (a) it sounds interesting, (b) it lets me start with some films that I know I used to love, and (c) it lets me skip the horror of Episode I. After I finish, if I feel that I can stomach it, I might try out Episode I, but I really doubt that I will feel able to do so. We already took a look at the original film, and next up in the Machete order is The Empire Strikes Back, the film that most Star Wars fans rank as the best in the series.

The Review

Star Wars was a simple fantasy fiction story, and its follow-up is also not breaking any new ground or providing any surprises. We left off with the Empire’s super-weapon destroyed, a major victory for the Rebel Alliance, but the villain Darth Vader literally adrift in space and Luke Skywalker having just begun to realize the abilities that Obi-Wan Kenobi started to awaken in him. The next film moves forward a bit in time, with Princess Leia now General Leia leading the Rebels with Han Solo and Skywalker at her side. Darth Vader has become obsessed with finding Skywalker, but Skywalker is only interested in enhancing his abilities with and understanding of the Force. Kenobi sends him to seek out his own old mentor, Yoda, who attempts to teach about the Force. It’s a pretty typical story of a kid seeking out a mentor for his craft and the truth is not much happens.

But the reason Kershner and writers Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan are able to get away with such a simplistic story is pretty simple: they’ve got a great twist coming in Darth Vader’s simple statement, “No. I am your father.” There are plenty of places where the film hints at the relationship between Skywalker and Vader, enough that some people could well have seen it coming (and I can’t pretend that it’s a surprise now–it’s far too embedded in pop culture to be any kind of surprise in 2016), but it’s not painfully obvious and because, even more importantly, it’s still a devastating emotional moment for Luke Skywalker. The young man we’ve watched take his first steps into manhood by trying to follow in his father’s footsteps has the rug pulled out from him in the most painful way imaginable, discovering that his mentor lied to him and his father actually went down the path of evil that his mentor warned him about. This payoff is so strong that it’s really all that happens in this film–it’s otherwise just filler within the overall narrative.

In general, this film tones down the fairy tale elements of the first film, coming across as more of a modern fantasy tale than its predecessor, which has its good and its bad points. It’s good that the characters get some more definition and depth but it’s bad in that it allows the simplicity of the story to stand out in a way that it wouldn’t if the film were a fairy tale in line with A New Hope.

The rough dialogue of the first film is this time pretty smooth. With Lucas not actually handling the writing, the dialogue becomes unnoticeable in a good way–it’s not like it’s a Jon Huston-written masterpiece but it also doesn’t have any of the problems and weaknesses of the first film. It’s still a bit heavy-handed, but that’s par for the course in the fantasy genre.

Lucas is replaced by Kershner, which is a definite upgrade in the director’s chair, but at the same time the brilliant Gilbert Taylor is replaced by Peter Suschitzky, who would later prove adept in helping David Cronenberg bring his nightmares to the screen but who never displayed anything like the imagination and flair that Taylor had. As a result, this film relies more on computerized effects, paintings, and the like instead of the more heavily practical effects and camera trickery and lighting used back in A New Hope. It’s a real visual downgrade that actually detracts from the film. However, the biggest visual problem is actually that the film is loaded with space fighting scenes and the fact is that those are very silly looking. Lucas and Taylor spent most of the dogfight scenes showing us close shots of the actors, but this time we are seeing the ships flying around and they just seem cheesy.

The acting throughout the film is rather different from the first film. The first film’s acting was generally poor, but where it was really most noticeable was with the small parts, where we saw people like Shelagh Fraser and Phil Brown basically play one scene so badly that they could significantly detract from the film. In this film, the small roles are unnoticeable. No one with too little screen time to show off real skill hurts the film, which is a strange but noticeable upgrade from the first film. However, the leads are a mixed bag. After Harrison Ford was so good in the first film, this time we see the over-the-top tendencies that would eventually overtake his career coming to the fore, to the point that Billy Dee Williams comes across more like the Han Solo we knew before than he does. Carrie Fisher’s over-the-top performance seemed rather fitting in the first film but as she transitions from Princess Toadstool to something more modern and recognizable, her performance doesn’t change and therefore goes from silly-but-apporopriate to just awful. And then there’s Mark Hamill. I said that he was better than I remembered in A New Hope, but in this film he really is everything I remembered: cartoonishly overdrawn in some scenes and incredibly wooden in others. He manages to stand illogically stone-faced in half his scenes and then wail and scream unbearably in the other half–a rare trick.

A New Hope still really stands as a fantastic fairy tale, even if it definitely has some noticeable flaws. But The Empire Strikes Back, while it fixes some of the first film’s glaring flaws, also loses out on some of its charm. Instead of a flawed-but-fun fairy tale, this one is an above-average sci-fi fantasy. It still works, but not as well as its predecessor. And in the end it has a real problem in that its devastating twist has become so much a part of popular culture that the film’s central point is rather lost.

Notes

  • As a kid, I remember thinking that Luke’s seeing Obi-Wan was just a mix of his memories and imaginings of Obi-Wan, things that came from his own mind. But this film makes it clear that Obi-Wan did indeed somehow psychically survive his physical death.
  • The puppetry work on Yoda is good but he’s still annoying. Frank Oz’s voice is fine but he still comes across as a standard issue old mentor, complete with annoying backward sentence construction meant to mirror that of a foreign speaker.
  • There seems to be less added to this film from later, but what’s added is still a bit annoying. And changing Luke’s line to R2-D2 from “You’re lucky you don’t taste very good” is one of the dumbest changes I could have imagined.
  • How does Luke get his light saber back later? I don’t remember even noticing that before but it’s gone at the end of this film.
  • This film is where we really begin with the Force waxing and waning to fit whatever powers or limitations Lucas wants from it at any given moment, something that would continue for the rest of the series. It’s pretty clear that there was no thought of trying to give it any sort of internal logic or consistency.
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