It feels like it's been more than two days since I started watching the Star Wars films for the first time. Each of them packs in so much that it's like I've watched far more than a mere three movies. I'm sad that it's over, but I'm looking forward to switching into something new.
The Star Wars trilogy was an awesome way to kick off my journey through popular culture. Mindblowing, gutwrenching, wondrous, dizzying - I think it's fair to say that I was completely swept up in what started as a simple narrative and turned into so much more.
Return of the Jedi is hard to place because so much of it is the best of what Star Wars is. It's an echo of Star Wars (the first film) in so many good ways; for me, it didn't feel derivative, but rather reinforced the elements of the original film. It builds on and raises the stakes from Empire Strikes Back. It finishes Luke's character arc in an oddly satisfying way.
The issue I'm having is that Empire Strikes Back is a very different film from Star Wars, and Return of the Jedi is another animal altogether. I like the first act of Return of the Jedi and the last act as well, but the middle has big flaws that distracted me from what ended up being an excellent film overall. I don't just mean the teddy bears (Ewoks, thanks Rachel) and the interlude with them. That could be shortened, I think, and they certainly could have given us better alien allies than an army of primitive fuzzballs, but there's a whole general issue with the second act that makes it fall through. I think I know what it is, too.
It's not actually an "act."
Star Wars gave us desert planet, Death Star, Dambusters. Three solid acts. Empire Strikes Back gave us ice planet, divided party (Jedi training/Vader's hunt) and the cloud city. Three more solid acts. Return of the Jedi has Han's rescue, and ends with the three-pronged strike on the Empire's power base, but the middle isn't a story. It's just setup. With teddy bears.
I said Luke got a satisfying character arc. Know who didn't? Han. I don't think they knew what to do with him in this movie and it really shows. He started as a chaotic neutral pirate, turned into a chaotic good romantic lead/daring hero type, and then... where does he go? Leia's story in this movie goes from being a slug's hostage to her relationship with Luke. Han gets sidelined from the story arc he originally had.
This might be a Lando problem. As much as I love the dashing dastard and his magic voice, he fell through when it came to what role he should have. It felt to me like they gave Han's actual job to Lando because they couldn't bear to split the (original) party. Han's faced off against the big ships and the original Death Star; he's done tricky dogfighting with a flying hamburger against the Empire's H-ships on multiple occasions. He's a key component of the new Rebellion architecture, having been with them since well before the ice base and getting treated like a key player of notable rank. Why is he not in his beloved (I still want one) ship planning to lead the strike on the DEATH STAR II himself? They give the job to Lando and suddenly there isn't even a ship to care about, just the cockpit. I miss the space chess space board.
The result is that one of my favorite characters and his large companion get sidelined into comic relief. He killed Serious Dangerous Man by accident, while blind, and things didn't get too much better for him from there. Luke obviously needed to confront Vader and Leia needed to lead Rebellion forces on a crucial mission - that's what they do. Han needed a daring job and a fast hunk of junk to do it in and they handed it off to Lando because they didn't want to split the party. Of course the result is that they split the party anyway, but more clumsily. All the interactions are in twos now. Luke & Leia, Luke & Han, Luke & Leia again, Han & Leia. The setup "act" just doesn't work because the storytellers ended up needing to waste the time of multiple main characters in one go for the sake of keeping them together. Leia gets shortchanged because of Han, who gets shortchanged because of Lando, and Chewy doesn't even get opportunities to not have time for people's shit. That's his thing! He got like... one. I think.
Also I really thought that was Leia's mom.
Now that the quibbling about story structure is out of the way, HOLY CRAP DID YOU SEE THAT MOVIE? I love the whole Jabba palace infiltration. All of it. Eyeballs and droids. That freaking tentaclehead frogneck guy. Na Jabba na badda. See I said I would remember to say it to people and I did. Jabba's obviously a puppet or mechanism of some kind and he's just huge. I can't imagine what it took to do that and I have no idea how they did those freakish giant snake cat lizard eyes but my god the alien expressions on him. That gross tongue. The Worst Santa laugh. OHH.
Jabba for Worst Orgasm Noise 2014.
Jabba for Just Don't Even Think About That 2014.
Okay anyway, back on track. The palace and its Monster Manual full of random oddities is something I missed from Empire Strikes Back. That movie spent its wonder time on different things, but I really do love the imagination these filmmakers have and getting to see it just splayed out pointlessly for pure screen-filling goodness is like getting bacon on pizza. Not bacon bits, actual bacon. The fact that everything's so much weirder or creepier in Jabba's palace than it was in the bar just packs on the value, since it establishes the darker environment and tone of the film through this unique visual language of freaky aliens. Still hate that turkey lizard thing though. Monkey rat. It's just like every part of an animal at its worst all cobbled together. Fuck that thing.
Luke's entrance is just hugely ominous and the fact that he echoes Vader's favorite sorcery just hit me right in the oh god no. I love how cleverly everyone's inserted for the plan, though of course we get shortchanged on Lando again. I defended you on this count last time, Star Wars; don't keep failing me by making Lando a diversity hire when he could be so much more. The effects for Han's unfreezing were uncomfortable and creepy and of course Worst Santa showing up is one of those things you kind of know is going to happen but are putting off admitting.
The action sequence over the Pit of Oh God Why is pretty awesome. I'm going to say I was really disappointed with Serious Dangerous Man. I may have to rechristen him Serious Dangerous Muffin since he ended up being about as serious and as dangerous as one. I could have sworn they were going somewhere with him but he only showed up to turn into a burp. No really go back and watch it I swear to you I remember a burp.
I kind of knew and was putting off admitting (hey there it is again!) that Yoda would die in this film and not in a cool way. I just didn't think they'd have an opportunity to crack him out against the Empire, and I didn't think they would bother coming to find him. It would be hard for Luke to move forward effectively either to the good side or to the Dark Force if he still had a teacher helping to give him a moral compass. I have this theory from something said in the last film that the sort of spirit form Obi-Wan has can't enter places filled with the Dark Force, which is why he's not in the movie after revealing the weird secret to Luke.
I do think it could have done without that particular reveal. I can only guess at the motives. Eliminating Luke from a love triangle in a fair way? Possibly. Setting up a sequel that I don't believe happened? Possibly. I don't think it was needed for his character arc or as a plot point in the ending, but this is my first time through and I'm just going by one viewing where I was also typing, so I can't say for certain.
The Emperor I didn't guess would be a major villain from the first two films. I really thought we'd be getting sort of a person version of the letters of transit, a hostage the Rebellion could go after to end the war. Instead he's like the Dark Force made "human," this shambling corruption of life in a heavy cloak with just creepy staring yellow eyes (seriously he just stares) and I'll get back to the ending.
The teddy bears I don't get. I know they have better ideas. Was this a "for the kids" thing? Because some of the war scenes with the Ewoks are not kid friendly. That scream was vile and I was not happy to hear it. Kudos to the sound guys who come up with these things.
I didn't mention the green lightsaber. I LOVE the green lightsaber.
So yes. Ewoks. I think it went on too long with them and more of their scenes than I would have wanted were spent using Han as comic relief. You know what else didn't get me in the middle of the movie? The tree jet things. They're relentlessly stupid. I wouldn't use one of those on a highway, let alone in a forest. They have this extended chase sequence that doesn't feel like there's any stakes involved, just a vague notion that they're going to "report back" or something. Turns out the Emperor knew all along anyway so there's no redemption there. As methods for splitting the party go, I put them slightly below Arbitrary DM Pit Trap Slides. They know how to put together a good action scene and it's not like they were hurting for them. Why have this at all?
I liked the idea of the three-way attack. The Imperial leaders needed to be distracted from the other efforts (even if that only half worked), the shield was a great plot device that added real tension and I loved the concept, and of course a massive space battle is a thing of beauty and I will require many more of them in the future. I feel like the forest war isn't what I wanted to see out of the final battle, and that's not down to just the teddy bears. The two leg walking tanks are flimsy and awkward and don't have anywhere near the menace that the big ones from Empire Strikes Back do. The Empire's troops are morons who get overtaken with primitive technology and are relying on numbers against a technologically inferior foe. The actual Rebels don't do anything of consequence in the engagement, even though Han was supposed to have a group with him.
So let's skip ahead because I'm all about this ending. Luke in the Emperor's throne room is all kinds of tense and dire. The staging is far away from the main source of light - the elevator, the only point of escape - and faces out into that cracked void. The Emperor is just this shrunken thing; all his power (at this point I will get to that I promise) is in those hateful yellow eyes that just bore into Luke and fill him with dread, and in his big nightmare cyborg puppet.
Coming into this film, "Vader gets redeemed" was not on my predictions list because honestly. Even like halfway into the film it's still an idea that's not on the radar. Luke sort of throws it out there in the hallway and Vader's like "well no you're not just wrong you're very wrong indeed" and then he has no time for Luke's shit and we're off to see the evil space wizard. They start bandying about "the good side" like it's reasonable that Vader's just going to pop off and join the crew of the Millennium Falcon and play space chess with Chewy. Vader's a monster. Not even after all this time am I going to forget that Vader's a monster. Good side? No. At best he comes back to par.
The duel has all this stuff going on; there's Vader's theme, which gets eaten by what I'm calling the Emperor's theme - it's not even much from a music standpoint, just like six notes or something, but the lack of things going on makes it that much more oppressive. Vader may look like a monolith of total evil, but it's the space lich in the cheap throne who calls all the shots and everything's under his plan. The creepy one-eyed skull look of the DEATH STAR II only reinforces this kind of supernatural undead vibe, especially when it starts shooting lasers out of its eye like a ginormous space beholder. I didn't expect this to be the Emperor's movie, and on the one hand it's not because really he just sits there for most of it. He's passive. He can afford to be. It's not as effective as Vader from the previous movie, but then the message is different. Here's the corrupt heart of the whole evil shebang. He is the stakes. I watched the movie wondering why Luke would go see Vader and thinking the whole redemption idea was their easy way out (the Dark Force!) of forcing the confrontation a second time. Now I'm thinking that if Luke wasn't there to occupy Vader and the Emperor, the Rebellion would have gotten crushed. They would have been overseeing the whole plan. His role was to figuratively cut off the head. Well I mean they would have liked it if he were actually chopping heads but the point stands.
So there's Vader's theme, the Emperor's crushing, weighty theme, and then suddenly Vader breaks Luke and it gets intense and emotional and Luke's gone and you're sure he's not coming back. I don't even know how he did it, or if it was something out of the Dark Force that he was bringing down or what happened, but suddenly they're not on even footing and Vader even falls down. The final moment of sacrifice where Luke decides there's nothing worth letting the corruption take him over, where he looks down and he's got Vader's hand now, that's an incredible moment.
And then the dark lightning. That's just torture. The thing about the Force and the Dark Force in the movies is that they're invisible. Nothing anyone does with the Forces looks like anything, really. But that's the space lich and when he starts shooting lightning to torture Luke it was just like "I understand why the Dark Force is the easy way, the bad way, the scary way." You don't worry about weak minds like tentaclehead, you don't try to choke them down, you just point your hands and instant power. Nobody else does anything like that and nobody needs to - that's the Emperor's power, this evil so great he can take it out and hit you with it, to the point that it even disgusts Vader. What strikes me about his role is that everything he does is so impractical. He tells the DEATH TRIANGLE not to fight against the Rebellion because he wants to crush Luke's spirit. Hell, just the fact that he had another Death Star being built at all. How many means to destroy a planet do you need? Anyway, getting back to the point, we've seen Vader want to crush and rule and command and enforce; his first appearance had him as the strong arm of a better thinker. The Emperor's a different scale of evil, looking to corrupt, befoul and just spread fear and misery. I thought I had Vader pegged as the space devil, but Space Satan is right there in the form of that shriveled old stain on the galaxy. Even the way he died, with this eerie blue something exploding out of the pit, was fearsome and alien and surprising, like the Dark Force was within him and that's how he could do the lightning.
I said the first movie was "show" and the second was "do," and I feel like the weakness of the last one is that it represents "tell." There are lectures and setups and getting people and pieces into place (not to mention an actual retelling of the movies during the movie) but not a lot gets done on screen between the rescue and the finale, and the narrative's too involved to get away with showing things as a means to move it forward. Return of the Jedi also has two sections which are musical performances, which is weird, and more forced comic relief with less of the wit and awesome badass lines that I liked from the first two. It feels like a different movie, one that wants to be one of the other two but can't decide how.
Ultimately, though, I feel satisfied with the whole trilogy. It packs a lot of awesome into three movies which feel like nine movies and has an incredible scope paired with incredible imagination. I loved every minute of it, and really enjoyed writing these posts up for you all. The finale with the ghosts and the whole cast together for a final shot was wonderful. Vader's face was hideous. The Emperor and his lightning were hateful and horrifying. The big plot twist was shocking and hit me really hard. The explosions made me grin with sheer unmitigated glee. The droids made me laugh. The scoundrels made me cheer. The lightsaber made me oh who are we kidding you all know there's only one thing I can say here.
I love Star Wars.