Further thoughts on Return of the Jedi

In the past, I’ve discussed Return of the Jedi and compared its plot to the plot of The Empire Strikes Back.  I thought I was done with it, but it turns out the movie has more to offer than I have previously noticed, probably because I in the past I have spent too much of the running time looking at the seams on the backs of the Ewok costumes.

The other day, my son Sam (6) requested to watch it again and kept marveling at how swiftly it moved. No sooner had the good guys escaped from Tatooine than Sam exclaimed “Wow! The movie’s already at the ending!” What he was picking up on was the trifurcated nature of ROTJ‘s plot: it’s a 40-minute movie about the rescue of Han Solo, then its a 40-minute movie about the good guys’ adventures with the Ewoks, then it’s a 40-minute movie about the two-pronged attack on the forces of the Empire. Each one of these featurettes is tight, entertaining and beautiful to behold and no, I’d have to say that, taken as a whole, ROTJ is not a chore to sit through.

As I’ve mentioned before, there are a couple of large plot problems. The first is that Luke has only one goal: to become a Jedi by confronting Vader. It takes him 80 minutes to get around to addressing this goal. Yoda tells him, to his face, “You must confront Vader,” to which the logical response should be “All right, which way is he?” But instead Luke comes bounding into the Death Star Destruction Briefing Room and says “Hey, who’s going down to the Ewok planet? Can I come too?” The other major plot problem is that the Emperor keeps claiming that his plan is going exactly as he imagined, when he obviously is making all this up as he goes along.

Sample conversation:

EMPEROR: The rebels have landed on the moon of Endor, exactly as I have planned.
VADER: Yes, your majesty. My son is with them.
EMPEROR: He is? How do you know?
VADER: I have felt his presence.
EMPEROR: Really? I haven’t.
VADER: If you want, I’ll go fetch him and bring him here.
EMPEROR: Yes, that’s a good idea. Exactly as I have planned.

The Emperor has only one goal: lure Luke to the Death Star so that he can turn him to the dark side. This is, in fact, the only reason he has for building the second Death Star. Because, let’s face it, “Second Death Star” is the lamest idea imaginable. The first massive, impregnable Death Star got blown up by a rebel hotshot, what star-system is going to tremble at the thought of a second Death Star, one that’s still under construction? So the Emperor isn’t planning to use the second Death Star to blow up any planets, he’s using it solely as a big shiny object to lure Luke into his trap. I can see the meeting now:

EMPEROR: I need to get that Luke Skywalker guy here so I can turn him to the dark side.
VADER: Dancing girls?
EMPEROR: No, he’s too much of a straight arrow.
VADER: Double coupons?
EMPEROR: He’s a Jedi, he gets discounts all over the place.
VADER: Second Death Star.
EMPEROR: Second Death Star, that’s absurd, it would be a monumental waste of resources and manpower. The last Death Star made me an utter joke throughout the galaxy. Why on earth would I want to build a Second Death Star?
VADER: I’m just saying, if you want to attract Luke, the ol’ Death Star trick is the best bet going. In fact, I’ll tell you what — let’s only build it half-way! It’ll save us money, it’ll bring Luke here on the run and he’ll be really overconfident!
EMPEROR: Yes. Yes. This is exactly as I have planned.
VADER: (throws up hands in gesture of helplessness)

Princess Leia starts off this movie strong, disguising herself as a bounty hunter to free Han Solo, then strangling a gangster slug to death with a chain while dressed in a smashing outfit. But then what happens? She tags along on a mission with Solo, gets picked up by the Ewoks, finds out she’s Luke’s sister. The end.

Han Solo’s destiny is the reverse of this. His motivation through Act I is “to do something about being blind and getting fed to a monster,” which, in screenwriting terms, is what we call a weak motivation. As Act II begins, he volunteers (as a rebel general, no less) to lead a commando raid on the Endor moon to blow up the Shield Generator. His daring raid gets hijacked, like the movie, by the Ewoks, and the rest of his arc revolves around dealing with the Ewoks, hanging out with them (he spends all night sitting around listening to C-3PO tell stories, then complains about being pressed for time) gaining their trust and enlisting their aid in his guerilla attack on the Imperial troops.

Which brings me to the Shield Generator. The Shield Generator, with its unprepossessing “back door,” becomes the locus of action in Return of the Jedi. The plot of A New Hope is driven by the construction, implementation and destruction of a moon-sized battle station, but the plot of Return of the Jedi is driven by a pair of sliding doors in the side of a hill somewhere in a forest. We’ve got to get in through those two sliding doors! How will we do it? If only there were a rebel army to help us! The Second Death Star, face it, barely figures at all into the plot of Return of the Jedi. It’s of minimal importance. Know how I know? Because it gets destroyed not by Luke or Leia or Han or the droids or even Chewbacca. No, the destruction of the Second Death Star falls to Lando Calrissian and this guy, a giggling, mouth-breathing alien we’ve never met before.

So the focus of Return of the Jedi is no bullshit Second Death Star; the focus of Return of the Jedi is more personal and, ultimately, more mysterious and, in part, goes back to this Shield Generator.

First, let’s divide the players of Jedi into three teams: there are the Rebels, the Imperials and the Ewoks. The Imperials dominate the galaxy with their impressive (if ultimately useless) technological marvels and employment of white, English guys, the Rebels have put together a rag-tag coalition of various species, technologies and whatnot, and the Ewoks are, literally, still living in the trees and fighting with rocks and sticks. So technologically, the lines are drawn: Upper Class (Imperials), Middle Class (Rebels) and Lower Class (Ewoks). The Middle Class, rebelling against the Upper Class, are forced to resort to employing the Lower Class to win their battle. They do not do so willingly — the Middle Class does not understand the Lower Class and their primitive ways, and would prefer not to associate with them. One wonders what is to become of the Ewoks in the triumphant new world after the victory of the New Republic. Will there be cuddly Ewoks, with their spears and animal skins, showing up in the new Republic Senate? Regardless of their role in defeating the Emperor, what kind of power would they have in a new Republican order, being so backward and primitive? It would be like the Tasaday having an ambassador to the UN.

There is also a strong religious component to Jedi. Again, separating the players into teams, what we find is that the Ewoks represent the Old God (which, ironically, includes C-3PO, a droid) (but not R2-D2, oddly enough), the Rebels represent the True God (that is, The Force) and the Imperials represent the False God (The Emperor). If we look at Jedi through a religious lens, it becomes a story about missionaries colonizing a new land and bringing their “advanced” beliefs to the funny, superstitious primitives. Luke becomes the rebellious Christ, representing the new covenant, throwing the moneychangers out of the temple, again, oddly, with the help of the superstitious primitives.

(Or, on a nationalistic level, we could say that the Empire represents Imperial England [which would explain all the English people], the Rebels represent the melting-pot United States with its crazy-quilt of races and ideas, and the Ewoks represent the Native Americans.  Which means that in Episode VII, all the Ewoks will die from Rebel-introduced diseases or be wiped out as the New Republic colonizes their moon to put up strip-malls and liquor stores.  A few hundred years down the line, the few surviving Ewoks will be granted casino licenses to assuage Republican guilt.)

No wonder the bulk of the movie takes place in “the forest” (after successfully negotiating an exodus from enslavement in “the desert”). It’s not “a forest,” but “the forest,” that is, the Forest Primeval. That is the Forest the Rebels and Ewoks and Imperials stumble around in while deciding the fate of the galaxy. Who is “right” in the Forest Primeval? Which god, which class, shall triumph? How will society evolve? Will we remain with our primitive superstitions, or turn to a False God with its powers to create False Worlds (that is, the Second Death Star) with is awe-inspiring technology, or will the True God prevail?

The Ewoks irritate not because of their character design or their “cuteness” or their obvious racial characteristics but because, for forty disastrous minutes, they derail the plot of the movie, keeping the protagonist from his goal (“I shouldn’t have come, I’m jeopardizing the mission,” frets Luke, perhaps not realizing how right he is) and thrusting Theme into a position of dominance over Plot.

The Shield Generator, then, becomes a metaphor for the “shields” constructed between classes, religious beliefs and friends. There is a shield between the Rebels and the Ewoks, between Vader and Luke, between Han and Leia, between Vader and Obi-Wan. When Han destroys the Shield Generator (nice that the Shield Generator is an invention of the False God), all those shields vanish, allowing Vader to see the Emperor for who he is, Han to see Leia for who she is, and Vader to hang out with Obi-Wan and Yoda in blue sparkly heaven. This is all very nice and elegant, but as I say, the plotting of the middle act of Jedi is a disaster.

Some other thoughts:

1. I wonder what happened to Jabba’s criminal empire after Leia strangled him and Luke blew up his sail barge. It was enormous and powerful enough to make Jabba a force more powerful than Vader in the eyes of the Emperor (otherwise why would Vader worry so much about offending Boba Fett in The Empire Strikes Back?) (I mean, apart from the fact that he’s in love with him), such a thing is not going to simply dry up and blow away like so much roasted meat in the Dune Sea under harsh Tatooine binary suns. Odds are, an intergalactic gang-war erupted after Jabba’s death with many deaths, shady deals and spectacular shoot-outs. The gangster aspect of the Star Wars universe is under-served.

2. Yoda dies, and disappears. Obi-wan dies, and disappears. Vader dies, and must be lugged onto a stolen shuttle and hauled down to the Endor moon to be cremated (or barbequed — it’s not clear; the Ewoks, after all, do eat human flesh and threaten to eat Luke and Han earlier in the movie). I couldn’t care less, but this inconsistency confuses my son Sam. Why do some enlightened beings disappear at the point of death and other writhe in bloody agony? Qui-Gon does not disappear when killed by Darth Maul, hundreds of Jedi die like dogs in the dirt in Revenge of the Sith and do not disappear. Sam posits that only those who come back as ghosts get to disappear, and yet at the end of Sith it’s revealed that Qui-Gon has come back as a ghost — why didn’t he disappear? Darth Vader not only comes back as a ghost (just in time to witness his own cremation — that must feel weird), he comes back as his 25-year-old self. That seems to me to be enough magic to allow one to disappear at the point of death, but apparently not.

3. Leia tags along on Han’s mission to Endor. She dresses in Rebel Camouflage. Then she’s captured by Ewoks, and emerges in a lovely Forest Ensemble. Where the hell did that come from? Similarly, Luke goes on a speeder chase through the woods and wanders around with Han, yet when it comes time to meet up with dad, he’s got on his Don’t Mess With Me Jedi Black. Where do these clothes come from?

4. Luke asks Leia what she remembers of her mother. Leia gives him a sketchy description of an unhappy but loving woman. Odd, seeing as how Leia’s mother is also Luke’s mother and she died at the moment of their birth. Obviously, Leia, pressed into an uncomfortable position, has decided to make up a bunch of utter bullshit in the hopes that maybe that will make her appear more vulnerable and interesting to Luke. Then she finds out Luke’s really her brother — oops.

5. Luke, who’s supposed to be a Jedi (or near enough), is a terrible negotiator. He constantly tells his enemies his plans and opinions, giving them plenty of information and tools against him. I like Luke as much as the next guy but Qui-Gon would punch him in the mouth for that bullshit, and I’m surprised Obi-wan “Truth From A Certain Point Of View” Kenobi puts up with it too. Of course, then again, Qui-Gon is the Jedi who was too principled tosteal a Hyperdrive Generator from a slave-owning junk dealer, so he’s a lame-o too. Obi-wan, though, there’s a guy who decides not to tell his own apprentice (and future savior of the galaxy) that the most Evil Guy in the Galaxy is his father because it serves his purposes. Now that’s a negotiator.


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Comments

45 Responses to “Further thoughts on Return of the Jedi”
  1. greyaenigma says:

    Because, let’s face it, “Second Death Star” is the lamest idea imaginable. The first massive, impregnable Death Star got blown up by a rebel hotshot

    Luke > Death Star. The Death Star can destroy planets, Luke can destroy the Death Star, womp rats, and convince his father to do some heavy lifting.

    QED.

    • Todd says:

      That means that Obi-wan > Luke, because he can kick off early, hang around as a sparkly blue guy and get Luke to do all the work. Smooth move, Obi-wan — my respect for you and your Arrogant Asshole ways increases daily.

  2. teamwak says:

    Great stuff. I love the Revolution analogy. Does that make the slding doors the Delaware then?
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    • Todd says:

      There’s not much to suggest that the Native Americans helped the colonists to defeat the British, although a few did famously “dress up” as Native Americans for the Boston Tea Party.

      • mikeyed says:

        Is this a buffalo Bill-esque situation when the rebels need good disguises, which of course they’ll use for all future covert activities, Ewok skins.

  3. kusoyaro says:

    re: your “Sample Conversations”.

    Ha, too bad there wasn’t an open writing call for Robot Chicken Star Wars 🙂

  4. curt_holman says:

    Death Stars

    I expect you’re familiar with 50 Reasons Why Return of the Jedi Sucks.

    A trivial matter that bugs me about the Death Star(s) is the difference between how many people CAN populate one vs. how many people obviously DO. Because it’s a hollow space station the size of a small moon, a Death Star could theoretically accommodate hundreds of millions of individuals. (Think of the population of New York City, and imagine how many hundreds of New Yorks could fit comfortably within a single Death Star.) But I doubt that as many as a million Imperial Stormtroopers, support staff, droids and evil English officers populate either Death Star in either movie. It just seems like a big waste, to me.

    And given the vast quantities of no doubt unused space on a Death Star (like a deserted office building on a planetary scale) it could possibly be the ideal place for a hidden Rebel base. It would be the last place the Empire would look.

    Or maybe the Death Stars are just more hollow than they appear.

    • adam_0oo says:

      Re: Death Stars

      And given the vast quantities of no doubt unused space on a Death Star (like a deserted office building on a planetary scale) it could possibly be the ideal place for a hidden Rebel base.

      Seeing as how I have never heard anyone else suggest such a thing, I will assume you have thought of this yourself and I will say that is BRILLIANT SIR! Really, good stuff.

    • teamwak says:

      Re: Death Stars

      Possibly the greatest theory ever!

      Well done, Sir!

      🙂

    • Todd says:

      Re: Death Stars

      I expect you’re familiar with 50 Reasons Why Return of the Jedi Sucks.

      I was not familiar with this. Thanks for the link.

      Much of what the writer carps about is true, but I still believe that most of those things would shift from “things I hate” to “stupid things I love” if only the plot of Jedi wasn’t the trifurcated mess that it is.

  5. adam_0oo says:

    You know, the fact that these show up all the time is great, I think these are some well thought out arguements that don’t blame faults of the movies on “Lucas’s bad writing,” but try to reason it out.

    However, the fact that these conversations on these movies show up months and some times years apart leads me to visualize the Alcott household, around 4:30 on a Wednesday, and from the den you hear a muffled voice shouting out “And another thing…”

    • Todd says:

      Sam’s interest in the Star Wars universe has remained constant for the past year or so, but my opportunities to sit down and watch the movies with him are relatively few and far between. The toys, comics and video games keep him occupied the remainder of the time.

      George Lucas is Sam’s First Filmmaker, the first name he has recognized as a force behind a movie, indeed, the gateway into filmmaking itself as an art form, and for that alone I will always be grateful. When he asked to watch Jedi the other day I said “Really? Why that one?” and he said that the Ewoks interested him. The Ewoks!

      Watching these movies again with a six-year-old boy is a revelation. In some ways he’s the ideal audience for them, and the experience has allowed me to see the six-year-old in Lucas, which is often the most useful way to analyze these images. Lucas began as a techie and designer, and the technical and design aspects of the Star Wars universe are the two unfailingly brilliant aspects of them. The narratives may occasionally be stupefyingly stupid, but the design is a never-exhausted cornucopia of generosity, innovation, elegance and wit.

      • planettom says:

        I think that’s why I like PHANTOM MENACE more than most; I watched it with my niece and nephew who were approximately the same age I was when the first STAR WARS came out, and they were enchanted by it.

        Also, at some point I realized they’d never seen INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM, though they had seen the other two, and were unaware that there was this other Indiana Jones movie. They really liked it, and it caused me to up my opinion of the movie somewhat. I did skip the heart-ripping-out-scene and the Indy-drinks-blood-from-a-skull scene, which, actually, improves the movie considerably.

        • Todd says:

          I disliked Temple of Doom when it came out, then caught the last half of it on cable in a seedy motel room in Beaumont, Texas. I couldn’t stop watching it because the plot is just too damn compelling, no matter how silly or ugly it is. Now it’s my favorite of the three Indiana Jones movies.

  6. greyaenigma says:

    2. Yoda dies, and disappears. Obi-wan dies, and disappears. Vader dies, and must be lugged onto a stolen shuttle

    “He’s more machine than man, now.” Which could also explain why he comes back as his young self — back when he was last fully human, and therefore, most in tune with the force.

    allowing Vader to see the Emperor for who he is

    I think he’s known who the Emperor was since midway through Episode III, but he finally comes to terms with who he himself had become. And for a brief moment in his life, he finally has no one to call Master.

    • rennameeks says:

      Qui-Gon doesn’t disappear in Episode I either. Supposedly Lucas was going to provide an explanation for the differences in deaths in the prequels, but that didn’t happen.

      My theory? Willingness to die. If they wanted to, they became one with the Force. If not, then they didn’t.

      • Todd says:

        Where does Yoda say he’s willing to die? All he says is he’s 900 years old. He sounds exactly like what he is, a crotchety old man puttering around his hovel on Dagobah.

        Yoda sucks. He’s a loser. Obi-wan could kick his ass.

      • greyaenigma says:

        Good point.

        Although supposedly it was Qui-Gon that figured it out first, and then taught Obi-Wan and Yoda. Maybe he hadn’t figured out the fading thing at that point?

        But then, how did Vader learn it? Posthumously?

      • ladylavinia says:

        Qui-Gon doesn’t disappear in Episode I either. Supposedly Lucas was going to provide an explanation for the differences in deaths in the prequels, but that didn’t happen.

        There was an explanation . . . in ROTS. You weren’t paying attention. Christ!

  7. Anonymous says:

    I read Shadows of the Empire the novel/video-game promotion that ties between Empire and Jedi and the main villain in that book is Prince Xizor, the head of the most ruthless gang in the galaxy. So presumably, there was no gangster void after Jabba’s death.

    • mikeyed says:

      But Xizor DIES in Shadows of the Empire, so there’s MORE of a void.

      • Todd says:

        It wouldn’t surprise me at this point to learn that Obi-wan, master mind-fucker of all time, staged his own death and made Luke go overthrow the Emperor so that he could swoop in, under a new name and with a surgically-designed new face, to become the underworld overlord. Now there’s a movie.

  8. gdh says:

    It wasn’t just Lando and Fishface who blew up Death Star II: The Wrath of Khan. You forget the ever-overlooked Wedge Antilles. He played an important role in every major battle of the original Star Wars trilogy (Yavin, Hoth, and Endor), yet gets no damn credit. But then, Star Wars has always been about the crazy obsessions of a small group of destiny-obsessed people trumping everything else and screwing with the lives of all the unimportant other people in the galaxy. Sith or Jedi, they’re both more trouble than their worth for the citizens of what passes for government in the Star Wars galaxy.

  9. mikeyed says:

    I always thought it was because obi-Wan was prepared to die, so he just through in the towel and poured what was left of himself into becoming a ghostie. That’s why Obi-Wan made so many visits, otherwise Qui-Gon could’ve done the same.

    I was always slightly disturbed by Han’s passive role all throughout the Endor excursion. It seemed out of character and sucked the energy out of Han and Leia’s dynamic. Han should’ve been able to call on pirate buddies for help on Endor, but no, the Ewoks kidnap him and he plays along… Lame. I expect more of my Correllians

    • Todd says:

      It’s especially surprising considering that Harrison Ford was a bona-fide star by the time Jedi came out. He’s stuck getting kidnapped by teddy bears and stumbling around in the forest while Lando — Lando! — gets the job of blowing up the Death Star with his giggling, mouth-breathing alien co-pilot.

      • randymonki says:

        If the documentaries are to be believes, I think Harrison Ford was sick of the whole thing (now that he was big time) actively lobbying for Han Solo’s to die and get quickly written out of the movie and any potential sequels.

    • ladylavinia says:

      What in the fuck are you talking about?

      God! Am I ever going to come across a criticism of the movie that sounds like it came from an adult, instead of a child?

      • mikeyed says:

        😛

        What the fuck are you talking about?

        God! Am I ever going to come across a criticism of somebody’s criticism of a movie that sounds like it came from an adult, instead of a child?

  10. Where do these clothes come from?

    It was brisk. They wore layers.

    I too have long been amused by the Emperor’s powers of clairvoyance, which seem to consist largely of going “The six of diamonds? Yes. I knew that was the card you would pick.”

  11. ladylavinia says:

    As I’ve mentioned before, there are a couple of large plot problems. The first is that Luke has only one goal: to become a Jedi by confronting Vader. It takes him 80 minutes to get around to addressing this goal. Yoda tells him, to his face, “You must confront Vader,” to which the logical response should be “All right, which way is he?” But instead Luke comes bounding into the Death Star Destruction Briefing Room and says “Hey, who’s going down to the Ewok planet? Can I come too?” The other major plot problem is that the Emperor keeps claiming that his plan is going exactly as he imagined, when he obviously is making all this up as he goes along.

    You know, of the six STAR WARS movies, “RETURN OF THE JEDI” is probably my least favorite. And I have some issues about the movie. But I also have issues with some of your criticisms.

    One, how on earth would Yoda know where to find Vader? I mean . . . honestly. There was no law that Luke had to go after Vader right away. How ridiculous!

    And then, there is your assumption that Palpatine was merely making up his plans, as he went along. Do you know this for certain . . . or were you simply making this up? Because it sounds like the latter. Does this criticism stem from some disbelief in the idea of clairvoyance . . . or what?

  12. ladylavinia says:

    Luke, who’s supposed to be a Jedi (or near enough), is a terrible negotiator. He constantly tells his enemies his plans and opinions, giving them plenty of information and tools against him. I like Luke as much as the next guy but Qui-Gon would punch him in the mouth for that bullshit, and I’m surprised Obi-wan “Truth From A Certain Point Of View” Kenobi puts up with it too.

    What the hell are you talking about?

  13. ladylavinia says:

    If you were going to be critical about RETURN OF THE JEDI, you could have at least written a review that did not seem like it came from the mind of a 17 year-old. I can’t believe that I had wasted my time with this.

    Hell, I can think of better reasons to be critical about the movie.

  14. igorxa says:

    i don’t know about leah’s clothes, but wasn’t luke in black under his fatigues? i’m pretty sure this is the case.

    as for leah’s memories of her mother, it’s probably not too far of a stretch to say that she’s recalling queen breha organa, wife of senator bail organa, her adoptive parents (jimmy smits!). i was also adopted right after birth and have zero recollection of my biological mother, and really only consider my adopted mother. and it would definitely make sense for queen organa to be unhappy, what with the empire taking over.

    i love your spin off idea for obi-wan. perhaps the prophecy was all about him to begin with. but here’s my question. if someone is supposed to bring balance to the force, then it should follow that light and dark should equalize, right? so what is achieved at the end of rotj? there’s only one jedi, and he’s on the light side. where’s the balance in that? is there a rogue darkie out there somewhere? if leah’s also force-capable, maybe she’s supposed to turn evil, or maybe luke is just the whiny little bitch we thought he was this whole time and he’ll turn. my point is, the end of rotj is left open ended. maybe obi-wan really is evil, and luke is finally eliminating all the competition so it’s just him and old ben, and ben will rule from beyond the grave with the icy hand of death, or something. i don’t feel like reading all those post-movie novels to find out, though. i prefer prepackaged big screen (and small screen) sci-fi.