#7 in my Ranking of the Star Wars franchise.
I hadn’t seen this movie in a very long time. In fact, as a kid, this was my favorite of the Star Wars movies. It wasn’t the Ewoks, but, I think, the whole climax and every other action scene. It is the most actiony of the original trilogy. However, upon my revisit, I find myself with a far more muted reaction, and it kind of makes me sad.
The movie has no real dramatic structure. It seems to start in a similar way to The Empire Strikes Back with an extended sequence that feels a bit removed in terms of what will eventually come regarding plot but feeds into it well. However, it doesn’t do that much. It does re-introduce us to our characters who have gone through some changes since the last film (Luke, in particular, is a far more confident and adept Force user), and it undoes the ending of Empire by rescuing Han Solo. And yet, once off of Tattoine, the movie just continues as though they hadn’t been separated for months, Han has just been through a traumatic experience, and they just killed a major and notorious gangster. There’s a disconnect between the first major sequence and the rest of the film that I simply couldn’t ignore.
The emotional core of the movie, as far as I can tell because nothing else gets nearly this much attention, is the relationship between Luke and Darth Vader. However, it doesn’t get mentioned until about forty minutes in, and then it only occasionally pops up through the rest of the film. Almost the entire time on Endor, Luke feels like he’s just on the adventure in the same capacity as everyone else until he suddenly decides to break off. Really, the center of my problem is from the moment the heroes land on the forest moon of Endor until Luke hands himself over to Vader. It’s a meandering excuse for relatively pointless action sequences and the introduction of the Ewoks, which feels both unnecessary and laborious. The lowest point is when Luke talks to Leia about leaving to meet Vader. The scene is way overly serious and Luke’s reveal to Leia and Leia’s “I’ve always known” reaction feels like the writing of a pure amateur.
The Ewoks get a bad rap because they were created to help George Lucas make more money from toy sales, and that’s completely true. It wouldn’t be hard at all to rewrite all of the Endor sequence, excluding the Ewoks entirely, and it still works mechanically. As it is, the rebels feel incompetent because they land somewhere and then seem to get immediately lost on their way to their target and need the help of the local teddy bears. And, yeah, the image of the teddy bears taking down an Imperial garrison never quite rises out of silliness. The most embarrassing bit, though, is what becomes of Han Solo. He’s gone from rogue who shoots first to pining over a woman’s kindness to another man, ready to simply step aside and not fight for the woman he loves. He’s become pathetic.
And yet, there is still quite a bit to like. When we are dealing with Luke’s conflict between Vader and the Emperor, it’s handled quite well. It’s not perfect and could use a lot more screen time, but it works. The special effects are easily the best of the series. There are individual sequences that, when taken out of context, have appeal. The opening sequence around rescuing Han from Jabba makes a really good Star Wars short film with lower, but more emotionally meaningful, stakes and ends with a great action sequence. And the final battle (controlling for the Ewok silliness variable) is huge, complex, and really quite exciting.
Suddenly looking back at the trilogy at this point in my life, I’ve begun to wonder if Lawrence Kasdan was the great creative force that I thought he was. Yes, he wrote Empire, but he also wrote this. Maybe it was Gary Kurtz, who quit the franchise after Empire, who was pulling it all together, and Marcia Lucas, who divorced Lucas during Return, who cut it into the right form. Losing those two gave us a purer George Lucas, unfiltered by people who had greater understandings of how storytelling actually works.
Oh well, it’s a bit of a downer to revisit a childhood favorite and discover it’s not as good as it was when I was a kid, but it happens.
Netflix Rating: 3/5
Quality Rating: 2.5/4