Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi  had a hell of a mess to clean up. Its predecessor ended in shambles, with its heroes captured, dismembered, driven off, and generally unhappy. It fell to director Richard Marquand to take this gruesome story and turn it into something fun! George Lucas returns to pen and paper to finish off his saga with Lawrence Kasdan, and though the characters occasionally sparkle as they did before, something is off: Mark Hamill finishes Luke Skywalker’s epic arc with theatrical charisma, but Carrie Fisher, as the heroic Princess Leia, drifts through her scenes with one too many dazed smirks, and Harrison Ford sometimes looks more like a guest star on a children’s show than the dashing pirate Han Solo. Inspired flares of characterization pop up like isolated geysers, surrounded by scenes a bit clunkier and more routine than what had come before.
You were my brother, Gary! I loved you. Make no mistake: the film is nevertheless a joyride. Marquand’s visuals are nice and clean, and his cinematographer Alan Hume splashes wonderful spots of light and shadow across Normal Reynold’s sets. Puppeteer David Alan Barclay leads the technical achievement of the gleefully repulsive new villain Jabba the Hutt; Ian McDiarmid makes all of his lines quotable as final boss Emperor Palpatine. But modern viewers will notice that despite these memorable characters and decent filmmaking, a childlike atmosphere and cheap thrills permeate Return of the Jedi much as they will Lucas’s Prequel Trilogy almost two decades later. Former producer Gary Kurtz, who demanded nothing less than perfection for Episode IV and Episode V, had been replaced by Howard Kazanjian, who succumbed to Lucas’s inexplicable conversion into a merchandiser.
That business in Jabba’s Palace, it doesn’t—it doesn’t count. Brilliance must be searched for in this film: it’s hidden underneath a thick, semi-opaque glaze of cheap costumes (a burly alien guard is screaming its lungs out and its mouth isn’t even open) and gaudy camp. Star Wars was never known for its hyperrealism or adult appeal, but here everything is taken too far, as if the waiter holding the dish tripped. The bizarre fortress of Jabba the Hutt looks like a hookah bar designed specifically for furries, the council of the Rebel Alliance is intercut with one-liners like a blooper reel, and Luke reunites warmly with Leia right in the middle of logistics briefing. There are many decisions Marquand didn’t fully think through, but he’s saved by the strong screenplay and his aptitude for human emotion.
I have an okay feeling about this. The film is saved by its climax, which is both emotionally complex and deeply moving. Eschewing the B-movie creature action and soapy delivery of the previous hour and forty-five minutes, the finale (of both the movie and the saga) is constructed with human drama in mind over flashy action… although there is still plenty of that! After what is certainly the most adorable and heartwarming rendition of the White Savior narrative ever committed to film, Return of the Jediprobes deep into the mind of its hero… and its villain: while James Earl Jones is legendary for providing the evil Darth Vader’s voice, David Prowse, tragically under-appreciated, also deserves notice for his physical performance. By the film’s end, the sappiness, goofball antics, and production seams all fall to the wayside as the most influential story of modern western culture comes to a powerful (and quite temporary—thank you, Kathleen Kennedy!) conclusion.
(Shouts out to my man Billy Dee Williams!) Han, ol’ buddy… don’t let him down!