As we anxiously await the opening of The Force Awakens, we Star Wars fans are praying JJ Abrams and company will wash away the sins of the prequels and restore peace and order to the galaxy.
The original trilogy was the most influential piece of entertainment for my generation. Before owning a VCR, I listened to an album narration of the Star Wars soundtrack. I wore out the grooves on the LP, so dialog has been ingrained in my memory (What’s the serial number to the garbage masher on detention level AA-23? 3263827, of course). The Empire Strikes Back might be one of the very few movies in which the sequel was even better than the original. With its ultimate cliffhangers, waiting three years for the final chapter was an exercise in character-building.
But even the most ardent fan, when being completely candid, can admit that the last of the three movies wasn’t up to par with the other two. Even as a twelve year old, though I couldn’t put my finger on it, there was something profoundly unsatisfying when the final credits rolled. I can finally concede that Return of the Jedi is a deeply flawed movie. Not Phantom Menace bad – but an extremely disappointing Final Act.
The tragedy is that Jedi could have been saved with a few smart re-writes. I’m not talking about using the original plot in which Han dies, Leia takes the throne, and Luke – having been drawn to the Dark Side – wanders into exile (as proposed by Empire producer Gary Kurtz). Lucas’s meddling in the process is well-documented and, after creating previous masterpieces, it was impossible to tell him his vision was lacking.
Let’s maintain the basic plot line of the Return of the Jedi film and make it a worthy conclusion to the greatest trilogy on celluloid.
1. Second Death Star – Aside from being derivative of the first film, there is nothing intimidating at this point about a Death Star (and a half-built one, at that). Upon seeing it, my kid brain said, “Oh yeah. Just shoot some photon torpedoes down that ray-shielded exhaust port.” Anyone who can bullseye a womprat can take that thing out. The trouble with the script is the audience has to believe the Empire is bigger and stronger this time if there’s going to be any tension in the story.
The script needed a different superweapon: something new, something deadlier, something invincible. For example, how about a device that creates a black hole which will suck in whole solar systems? Maybe it takes a series of triangulated space stations to create the black hole, so you have to blow them all up? Anything else. The Death Star explosion from Star Wars is one of the most famous visuals on the screen. How can you top it? (You can’t.) Blow up something else.
2. Leia is Luke’s twin – Yoda’s comment to ghost-Obi-Wan in Empire that “there is another” was a tantalizing plot twist, leaving all to wonder who the second living Jedi was. When it came time for the payoff in Jedi, the writers made a huge rookie mistake: telling instead of showing. When Luke finally returns to Dagobah, ghost-Obi-Wan says, “BTW, you got a twin.” And Luke says, “OMG. Is it Leia? STFU!” Which left the movie audience all going, “WTF?”
Why not build the suspense for the audience by only telling Luke he has a twin, but not who it is? We, the audience, would all wonder who his brother was. Could it be Han? Or some other minor character (like Wedge)?
The dramatic reveal would come in the final reel. Han, Leia, and the rebels are pinned down by the Imperial forces. All hope seems lost. They can’t reach the switch that does whatever thing they’re supposed to be raiding this base for. Suddenly, Leia reaches out and instinctively uses the Force to throw the switch. Not only does everything blow up, but we all get the shock of the reveal: Leia is Luke’s twin. That’s supremely better than Ben and Luke playing 20 questions.
3. Ewoks – No need to spend a lot of time on these teddy bears and their rock-and-tree trunk counterattack against the Stormtroopers. Why not make Ewoks scary, slimy, slippery? Make them like vipers or bears or Klingon-wookies and ratchet up the danger on Endor. Jedi continues to miss the opportunity to create tension by increasing the conflict. Instead we got “Yub Nub.”
4. Han Solo’s dialogue – Even after his dramatic rescue (a whole sequence I'm still not sure was as thrilling as it should have been), Han Solo seemed like he was still in carbonite the rest of the film. Go back and listen to all his dialogue. Virtually every line is an attempted joke. And not the “boring conversation anyway” wise cracks of a rouge smuggler. There’s no swagger in Han. Instead he’s reduced to C-3PO’s role: mediocre comic relief. This is clear in the scene when Han tells Threepio to translate instructions to the Ewoks. You can’t tell which of them the straight man is. Worst of all, the jokes aren’t that good.
5. Vader’s redemption – For two movies, Darth Vader was downright scary when he came on screen. Like “cover your eyes” scary. The thought of Han, Leia, and Chewie walking into that Cloud City dining room was enough to make a little pee come out of me. The American Film Institute named Darth Vader the #3 villain of all time, right in front of the the Wicked Witch of the West. So why is Jedi watering down this single cinematically-powerful character with an Afterschool Special of “My abusive dad isn’t a bad guy” and “his boss is way more evil than him”?
First off, this means the bad guy in Jedi is the Emperor. No one in the audience is afraid of the Emperor. They’re only afraid for Luke because Vader is standing next to the Emperor.
Secondly, the writers have spent two movies making Vader the baddest bad guy ever, but one-handed Luke says, “There’s still good in him.” Are we really supposed to say, “Hey, Luke might have a point. He can’t be as incredibly, horribly, epically evil as we think he is. Maybe he’s just misunderstood”? (Paging Rhianna…) How could the audience possibly think, “Yeah – it would be so satisfying if the villain we’ve come to fear and hate since 1977 finally said, ‘I’m proud of you, son.’”?
The problem is we have never seen any redeeming value in Force-choke-happy Vader, so “having good” in him is unbelievable to the audience. Even if it were cinematically possible to turn audience opinion around that the Emperor is the real villain and Darth Vader needs saving, why would a writer want to? Which brings us to -
6. The final showdown – At this point, we have been waiting two and three-quarter movies for that final epic show down between Luke and Vader, the one that completes the story arc and resolves the conflict once and for all. Let’s put aside the whole throwing down the light saber, and the electricity fingers. This duel is pretty f’ing boring. It’s just the two of them trading parries when so much more should be happening to heighten the tension and the excitement.
In Empire, Luke and Vader fought in semi-darkness (if there’s one thing scarier than seeing Vader, it’s not being able to see Vader). They dodged carbonite. Objects flew through the air at Luke. They finished the fight on a mile-high catwalk. The duel in Revenge of the Sith was incredible, with Anakin and Ben fighting on conveyer belts with pulverizers and on floating chunks of magma on a river of lava. What happened in Jedi? Luke fell into the basement. Like the Death Star itself, the plot device was a weak rehash of the original. Why can’t Luke and Vader fight in a room that’s on fire (paging Indiana Jones) or have Stormtroopers blast at them as they parkour through the unfinished construction? Duel on hover boards? Send in a swarm of killer bees? SOMEthing...
Luke needed to finish off Darth Vader like a hero should, not drag his wheezing body back to a shuttle so he can have a peaceful death…a death that left us saying, “Are we supposed to be happy for them?” It would be like Dorothy saying to the melting witch, “You know, I kind of liked you.”
It’s easy in hindsight to pick apart the deficiencies of any movie, especially one as iconic as Return of the Jedi. But the film was not fatally flawed. It just needed an Artoo unit, in the form of a rewrite, to reactive the hyperdrive.
What revisions would write into the movie if you could?