Sunday, June 30, 2013

Return the Jedi To Sender

The Face of Episode 6

About two months ago on May the 4th, I promised to give an intellectual review of the socio-politcal themes in the Star Wars prequel trilogy, especially in Revenge of the Sith; while I’m still commited to writing said article, I’ve determined to postpone its publication to be a feature in a special week of sci-fi reviews (among which I’ll provide commentary on The Matrix, The Truman Show, Tron: Legacy, Transformers, and Inception).  In the stead of the aforementioned post, I’ve decided to fling dirt at one of the less honorable members of this legendary franchise, but rather than repeating old talking points and ridiculing either the first or second episode for the eleventy-first time, I’ve opted to do something novel and take aim at something normally regarded as inviolable Star Wars material.  Return of the Jedi not only boasts the worst title of all the series’ entrants (except the New Hope rebrand issued in advance of the prequels), but laid the foundation for those elements that viewers so reviled in The Phantom Menace.  It’s a great shame that an overpowering nostalgia has blinded fans to the sins of the former movie while leading them to lavish the latter with relentless loathing.

Episode 6 sets a precedent almost immediately for being unoriginal by opening on the desert world of Tatooine, the very planet that ushered in Luke Skywalker, Ben Kenobi, Han Solo, and Chewbacca in the first film.  At least Episode 1 took audiences to some new and imaginative locations like the underwater Gungan city, the elegant palace of Naboo, and the towering cityscapes of Coruscant, albeit with an appropriate detour to Mos Espa for the sake of revealing Anakin’s origins.  Bounty hunter Boba Fett has frozen the dashing, heroic smuggler Han Solo in carbonite and delivered him into the hands of the lascivious, slave-driving, gigantic slug Jabba the Hutt, a kind of unacknowledged precursor (or evolutionary descendant, from a historical context, to the universally maligned Jar Jar Binks.  Luke, Leia, Threepio, and Artoo make an unsuccessful attempt to rescue their comrade, with the result that the droids are conscripted as waiters, Leia is infamously stripped down to a bikini (Hutts have such a lowly sense of fashion), and Luke is nearly fed to a monstrous Rancor in one of the film’s only noteworthy scenes.  Fortunately, Lando Calrissian has their back, and with his help they’re able to rendezvous with the Rebel Alliance and travel to the forest moon Endor, the site of a newly constructed Death Star which they’ll blow up yet again after enlisting a tribe of sentient, droid-deifying teddy bears to aid them in their resistance against hordes of Imperial scum and villainy, whose blasters, speeder bikes, and walking tanks will be crushed beneath the natives’ impressive arsenial (that’s how debaters pronounce it, right?) of sticks, stones, logs, nets, and overwhelming cuteness.  Who needs boomas when you have an army of living stuffed animals that bear the visage of their creator, George Lucas?  As the Ewoko Birds fight stormtrooper drones on the ground and Admiral Ackbar navigates his Rebel starfleet right into a trap outside the Death Star remake, Luke engages Darth Vader in single combat for a second time, except this time he blabbers to his dad about how “there’s still good in him” while they fight to the death, or more precisely to the pain, the pain of losing another hand and enduring the shrieks of women who cry out, “Dear God, what is that thing?”  Luke himself swears, “I won’t fight you, father,” but fight he does, until the generically evil Emperor gives him quite a shock and Vader ‘redeems himself’ by bringing balance to the Force he once left in darkness.  The whole affair concludes with a joyous celebration in the teddies’ treehouse village, complete with dancing and the most obnoxious song in the whole Star Wars galaxy.

Return of the Jedi obviously wasn’t going to live up to the phenomenal Empire Strikes Back or even the original Star Wars, but few spectators anticipated how far it could really fall.  People will eternally mock the kiddy-friendly, quasi-racist creatures of The Phantom Menace, and while George Lucas certainly deserves rebuke for conceiving such revolting specimens as the Gungans and Neimodians, his record for animating “pathetic lifeforms” has firm roots in the original trilogy and specifically Episode 6.   From Jabba’s entourage of exotic, Twilek dancers and Muppet look-alikes to the cuddly, forest-dwelling dwarves of Endor, Return of the Jedi contributes more abominations to the sci-fi universe than the whole prequel trilogy combined (unless you count humans like Padme or Anakin).

The movie’s dialogue is insipid as usual, and the plot suffers from a lack of focus or concision.  Return of the Jedi essentially abandons the love story between Han and Leia that swept fans away in Empire Strikes Back, choosing rather to endorse an almost incestuous relationship between Luke and Leia and bestial romance involving the princess and a particularly handsome Ewok, who dies to every sensitive, Christian parent’s relief.  Yodi and Obi-Wan are briefly injected into the screenplay but get virtually no screen time, foiling the hopes of fans who enjoyed their more prominent roles in the first two movies.  Instead of developing these Jedi more extensively or other returning characters like Han, the Emperor, or Lando, Lucas and fellow writer Lawrence Kasdan devote most of the film’s script to introducing new heroes and villains that nobody cares about, a course that doesn’t work well in the final installment of a series.

Even though it closes out the trilogy with a bigger budget and newer technology than was available for the first two films, Return of the Jedi has underwhelming effects and fails to meet the standard of realism set by its forerunners.  The speeder bike chases are hampered by bad blue screen, puppets look cheesy and idiotic, and the ridiculous, climactic battle on Endor only makes the audience appreciate how well executed the Hoth invasion was in Episode 5.  The stilted acting by stars Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher doesn’t help matters significantly.

Despite its numerous flaws, Return of the Jedi will doubtless entertain those of under a certain age, but those adults who don’t harbor overly sentimental memories of their childhood classics should easily recognize this as the menace it is, a disciple of the Dark Side and a steaming pile of poodoo that will make you exclaim/groan/spit:

The Author’s Star Wars hierarchy:
1. Revenge of the Sith (A-) – The most politically rich and tragic installment also boasts the most complex character development.  Ian Mcdirmiad’s disturbing and unforgettable portrayal of the manipulative tyrant Palpatine elevates this well above the rest of the series.
2. The Original Clone Wars (A-) – Loaded to the brim with superbly choreographed action and excellent, hand-drawn animation, this captures the essence of Star Wars’ appeal and magnificently paves the way for Revenge of the Sith.  Full review here.
3. The Empire Strikes Back (B+) – Taking the series in a dark direction and fleshing out its main characters better than the original, it still has one of the best plot twists in film.
4. Star Wars (B) – An invaluable contribution to the science-fiction genre, its visual wonders and captivating universe are weighed down by an obnoxious farm boy, a walking carpet, a hothead pilot, and some other oddball characters.
5. The Phantom Menace (B) – Has at once the best lightsaber fights and most annoying cast of the whole series.  Look, don’t listen.  If only the negotiations were more short.
6. The Return of the Jedi (C)
7. The Attack of the Clones (C-) – In order to see approximately 5 minutes of clone action and Jedi acrobatics, viewers have to sit through 2 hours of soppy romance, banal dialogue, and exposition.  On the other hand, Christopher Lee turns in a great performance as Count Dooku.
8. The CGI Clone Wars movie (D) – Five words: Ahsoka, Ziro, That Little Huttlett.

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