Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Return to the End

I've reached Return of the Jedi. The end of the road, for about another 36 hours. Jedi is certainly the weakest of the original three Star Wars films, though that's in large measure because it has to stack up to two of the best movies ever made. On the grand spectrum, it's still pretty solid.

Return of the Jedi definitely tries to weave in elements of the two movies that preceded it. Sometimes, this is a solid asset. There's Luke and Leia, swinging on a rope across a chasm like in the original. There's the reversal of Empire's great "I love you / I know" moment, as Leia comes out shooting even while injured. But occasionally this feels like a drawback. Another Death Star? Been there, done that.

Certainly, the movie keeps a great emphasis on character, where it belongs. As in Star Wars, everyone gets at least one moment to be a hero -- even C-3PO in communicating with the Ewoks, and Chewbacca commandeering the Walker that turns the tide of the Endor battle. There are a lot of great entrances too. There's Vader's grand arrival in the opening (which then gets completely upstaged by the Emperor's arrival at the start of the second act). Han returns in flashy style, immediately followed by the reveal of Leia. Luke marches in with swagger.

Many subtle nuances speak to this importance of character. The Yoda puppet was deliberately not repaired when brought out of storage, its unsynced eyes fitting for the Jedi Master's failing health. Alec Guinness, who shot his Empire scenes alone on a blue screen, was actually on the Dagobah set with Mark Hamill this time around -- it was too important in that scene for him to have another actor to connect with. Han and Lando share plenty of banter, so the audience is clear that all is forgiven after the latter's betrayal in Empire.

Speaking of Empire, there are a lot of cliffhangers to resolve from that movie, which actually leads to some structural weirdness in Jedi's script. The whole first act is about saving Han -- though at least Jabba the Hutt had been talked about in both prior movies, so it feels like the payoff to a long setup. Luke needs to go back to Yoda, but we don't need another long training subplot, so Yoda is (in)conveniently dying just as Luke finds him. But things do smooth out once we're all on board the "take out the Emperor" train.

But there were some prequel-caliber dumb decisions being made in this movie too. Remind me again why Boba Fett is a thing? He's absolutely useless here, getting shot by a blind man before rocketing straight into the Sarlaac. Why is the Emperor so bad at coercion? Every time he's about to get what he wants and have Luke come to the Dark Side, he opens his fat mouth and wakes Luke up to what he's about to do.

Watching Jedi hot on the heels of Revenge of the Sith does affect the experience in interesting ways. CG doesn't necessarily seem like an inherent evil. Jabba works well, a slob so fat he can hardly move. But Wicket is the only expressive Ewok (his eyes blink, and you can see his tongue move); the others all are clearly guys in teddy bear suits.

It further heightens the sense of what disservice was done to the character of Padme in Sith when you see everything going on here in Jedi with Leia. Leia is the one who gets Han out of carbon freeze, who takes out Jabba, leads the speeder bike chase, and is first to make friends with the Ewoks. She's an essential actor in this story, unlike pregnant Padme, just along for the ride.

Having just watched Sith, Vader initially seems less scary as this movie begins. You picture whiny Hayden Christensen inside the suit. Fortunately, this is the movie where Luke himself is unafraid of Vader, so ultimately that settles in and kind of works. But the big surprise reveal of the Emperor's lightning powers is totally undermined if you've seen the same ability in two of the prequels.

As far as George Lucas' Special Edition treatment goes, Jedi really does have the most baffling changes. Why add the extended rock number in Jabba's palace? The "feed me, Seymour" mouth on the Sarlaac? Vader bellowing "NOOOOOOOOOOOO" before tossing the Emperor over the rail?

The worst alteration of all is replacing actor Sebastian Shaw with Hayden Christensen in the final shot, which seems to take Vader's conversion a step beyond atonement and into total erasure of all wrongdoing. The one tweak that sort of works is the depiction of celebrations on other planets in the Star Wars universe.

Return of the Jedi has its flaws, but it's ultimately a fun ride. I give it a B+.

And now, having rewatched all six, I hope I'm properly set up for The Force Awakens. I think it's been valuable, even watching the prequels, in calibrating my expectations. Originally, The Phantom Menace had to be "the movie that took me back to my childhood." It could never be that. Then the next two prequels had to be "the movie that saved Star Wars." They could never have been that. Now, I hope I'm looking at Star Wars like James Bond, or some other franchise. Some movies will be great, some will be terrible. You hope the next one you're seeing will at least be decent. But it's not like I was expecting the world when I went to see Spectre. Hopefully, that's the right approach for this weekend.

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