“You’ve failed, Your Highness. I am a Jedi, like my father before me.”
Reflections on Episode VI …
Return of the Jedi is not the first movie I can remember going to a theater to watch. That honor belongs to E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, on vacation in California – the same summer I discovered Pac-Man when my older brothers who had been out on the town came back and took me out to show me this arcade game that I just had to see. I don’t think it was really all that new by then, but it was new to us.
But Jedi is definitely the first Star Wars movie I remember seeing for the first time in theaters, not counting what must have been a catch-up double feature of A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back I attended with my cousins. It was also the first time I was ever allowed to go to any film’s midnight opening. I remember my brothers and their cool teenage friends took me out to dinner (Taco Bell? Or Jack in the Box, maybe) and then we lined up for an ungodly long time to see it at the old six-screen United Artists Cinema upstairs inside Phoenix’s Chris-Town Mall. And waited. And waited.
It all sounds like a lost episode of Freaks and Geeks. But I lived it. And it was every bit as great as it sounds. I was just too young and impatient to appreciate it.
That would be far from the last time I lined up for a midnight movie opening, but it was surely the last until The Phantom Menace came out 16 years later and established a new tradition of Star Wars lineups.
I have fond memories of the run-up to Jedi as well, tagging along as one or both of my brothers ran drug-store errands and allowed me to dawdle and obsess over the latest merchandising, from the ever-present action figures to stationery. One of my brothers made sure I got the movie’s comic-book adaptation, but that I held back from reading it until long after I’d seen the movie. The hyperspace hype train was nowhere near as crazy as it is these days, but I remember that it was still a pretty big deal.
The thing I remember most about Return of the Jedi is the title. I’m not talking about how it was originally named Revenge of the Jedi and then changed – no, I didn’t learn about that for many years. It was the meaning of the title. You see, I was convinced – absolutely, 100% certain – that “Return of the Jedi” meant that Obi-Wan Kenobi was going to cross back through the veil of the Force and kick Darth Vader’s wheezy ass. For some reason. Don’t ask why.
Disappointed, I was. But it was still fantastic.
Of course, we got confirmation of Luke’s parentage, The real question was: Would Han Solo be rescued from Jabba the Hutt? And I remember trying very hard to understand exactly a Jabba the Hutt was. My brothers insisted he was mentioned in Star Wars and the Empire Strikes Back, and of course they were right, but back then it wasn’t possible to just throw on a DVD and rewatch the movie just to see if they were putting me on, and when you’re 6 years old complex backstories and the effects of unseen characters tend to get overshadowed by the exploits of laser-sword-wielding space wizards and massive space battles.
I think The Empire Strikes Back has always been my favorite Star Wars movie, but Return of the Jedi is a close second for me. The arrival of the Emperor brings a new dynamic missing from the original film (again, a character who moves out of the shadows of rumor, like Jabba, although he has a brief appearance in Empire). Yoda’s death and the ensuing explanation from ghostly Obi-Wan about his “certain point of view” and Vader’s revelation in the previous film, and Luke’s twin sister, are incredibly powerful to this day. But the scene that defines Episode VI, for me, is the atmospheric one on Endor’s forest moon when Luke surrenders himself to Imperial forces and confronts Vader for the first time since their battle on Bespin. I remember that for a time I actually referred to the dark, forest-framed corridor where their man-to-man took place as “The Dark Side.” (Silly 6-year-old stuff again.)
The full-scale fleet warfare above Endor is a massive payoff after two films of mostly starfighter combat, and the final lightsaber duel on the second Death Star shows Luke’s progress as a Jedi Knight, and as a man who’s come a long way from the whiny farm boy on Tatooine. Jedi’s final act, with three simultaneous battles deciding the fate of the galaxy, has never been matched – The Phantom Menace tried, and didn’t even come close despite a decade-and-a-half of special-effects advancements.
Return of the Jedi ends with a party and with Luke seeing his father join his mentors on “the light side” of the Force in the afterlife. Later editions would expand this ending to include more orchestral music than the primitive Ewok tunes and insert scenes of celebration in cinematic locations across the Star Wars galaxy – Tatooine, Cloud City, Coruscant and Naboo – and to include Hayden Christensen as the spirit of Anakin Skywalker. I like them all, the non-“Special Edition” original version and the changed ones, though I definitely prefer to see the original Sebastian Shaw as the aged Anakin in the final scene. I think it was important to show that Anakin’s disastrous choices weren’t undone by the redemption that was, after all, his son’s hard-won victory – not his own.