Review: ‘Star Wars: Episode VI — Return of the Jedi’ (1983) 40th Anniversary

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Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill as Han Solo, Leia Organa, and Luke Skywalker in Star Wars: Return of the Jedi

Credit: Lucasfilm

Somehow, incredibly, it has been 40 years since George Lucas and director Richard Marquand first brought his original trilogy to a close with Star Wars: Episode VI — Return of the Jedi. To celebrate, Lucasfilm and Disney have brought it back to the big screen for a limited time, allowing fans of the saga — and newcomers — a chance to see the film as it was originally intended: projected up big, to give this space opera all the grandiosity it deserves. But does it still live up to that 1983 debut?

Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill as Han Solo, Leia Organa, and Luke Skywalker in Star Wars: Return of the Jedi
Credit: Lucasfilm

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You probably know the story, but I’ll set it up anyway (who needs an opening crawl?). After Star Wars: Episode V — The Empire Strikes Back (1980) took our heroes down a darker path, ending with the revelation of Luke Skywalker’s (Mark Hamill) close familial relation to Darth Vader (James Earl Jones voice, David Prowse in the suit) and Han Solo (Harrison Ford) in carbonite, Return of the Jedi opens with a rescue mission for our favorite scoundrel.

On reflection, Empire leaving things in such a state of flux for our heroes would be almost unheard of now — especially Han, one of the core trio, being left very much in a state of peril. Yes, we have the likes of Avengers: Infinity War (2018), leaving things on a cliffhanger, but this was a bold swing for halfway through the trilogy.

Jabba in his throne room. Credit: Lucasfilm
Credit: Lucasfilm

Things open pursuing an answer to that question: what’s happened to Han? Returning to Tatooine gives things symmetry, especially with C3-P0 (Anthony Daniels) and R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) wandering once again through the desert. It’s the start of one of Star Wars most iconic sequences, as we explore the depths of Jabba’s Palace and meet the weird and wonderful denizens who dwell there. The vibrancy and invention on display still pops, with the rescue mission and the drip-fed introduction of key heroes (mostly, in disguise) a smart way to keep momentum while bringing in everyone we know and love.

They’re all excellent, of course, inhabiting these characters with ease but serving new beats in their own personal growth. Fisher’s Leia Organa is as steely as ever, but her love for Ford’s brusque Han gives her even more opportunity to showcase both her ferocity and her softness. The revelation of her importance makes total sense, although we never needed destiny or fate to tell us Leia was incredibly important to the galaxy. That much was obvious through her charisma, leadership, and glowing empathy.

Ewoks on Endor. Credit: Lucasfilm
Credit: Lucasfilm

The Jabba act of the story is, of course, a key cornerstone of Star Wars lore — a brilliant example of how the world Lucas built gave ample room for fans to fill in the blanks. Every person on that sail barge could have their own story; every nook and cranny of the palace holding an adventure. It seems reductive to say, but Return Of The Jedi brings so many key, foundational Star Wars moments which reverberate through the rest of the saga.

It’s just so resolutely Lucas; rich in setting and story, and earnest almost to a fault. The Ewoks receive criticism for being militant teddy bears. Of course they are: how else to make people sympathize with the underdog than to make them quite literally the most adorable little guys? But to reduce them to fluffy merchandise opportunities is to miss the edges. Yes, they can be goofy, and they can be cute, but they’re sharp-toothed. These teddies fight back, as evidenced by the skulls that adorn their homes and the fierce way they defend their home.

Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker taking off Vader's helmet in Return of the Jedi
Credit: Lucasfilm

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It follows through to Luke’s journey. He’s the obvious hero, but his black Jedi robes belie a man very much still in turmoil about his place within the galaxy. The revelation about Vader shakes his core and ROTJ is as much about his own personal reckoning as it is Vader’s path to redemption.

Watching again now, you see that conflict play out much more in his final duel aboard the Death Star II, as Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) cackles on. And what a performance that is: this movie is really the first time we see more of Palpatine, and McDiarmid sells in what sort of malevolent monster could be so powerful as to control even a Sith Lord as strong as Vader. He’s a leering ghoul, spitting out hate and manipulation as he attempts to puppeteer the Skywalker family, and the wider galaxy, into falling into place under his reign. It makes the third act, essentially one long finale, a long but heady mix of personal drama, epic space battle and guerilla forest warfare, as the fate of the galaxy hangs in the balance.

It’s a treat to see Return Of The Jedi return to the big screen, and re-live how exciting this must have been 40 years ago. As with the rest of the original trilogy, the storytelling, characters and vast scope of the galaxy make it timeless.

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