Return of the Jedi (1983) | Review by Pauline Kael

Some of the trick effects might seem miraculous if the imagery had any lustre, but Return of the Jedi is an impersonal and rather junky piece of moviemaking

Fun Machines

by Pauline Kael

Some of the trick effects might seem miraculous if the imagery had any lustre, but Return of the Jedi is an impersonal and rather junky piece of moviemaking. There doesn’t seem to be enough light, and the editing isn’t crisp (particularly in the first third). Jedi features a tribe of potbellied woodland creatures, the furry, cuddly Ewoks, who suggest a cross between koala bears and puli dogs; the Ewoks help their friend Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) by toddling about the forest bashing her enemies—one fiercely determined Ewok scrambles into an aircraft that looks like a kiddie car, and he becomes a daredevil ace. The sequence should be magical, because God only knows how all this was done, but the images are muddy and the slapstick is repetitive. The forest is unenchanted and, like the other settings, in the desert, all too earthly. And though we want to be able to remember this glade full of raffish little Teddy bears, the effects are gruelling; they tend to cancel each other out. This is partly because of what has become recognizable as the George Lucas approach to fantasy: it’s bam bam pow—he’s like a slugger in the ring who has no variety and never lets up. This third film of the Star Wars trilogy (which, we are told, constitutes the middle section of a nine-film cycle) is, except for a slow beginning, paced like its predecessors and like Raiders of the Lost Ark, which Lucas also produced. But I think that the groaning exhaustion that had me sighing with relief when Jedi was finished can also be blamed on its British director, Richard Marquand (Eye of the Needle, the TV series “The Search for the Nile”). Every time there’s a possibility of a dramatic climax, a chance to engage the audience emotionally with something awesome, Marquand trashes it—and not deliberately, as Richard Lester might, to show us that he’s too hip for that, but out of what appears to be indifference yet may just be a weak visual imagination. Even the scene that should be the emotional peak of the whole mythic trilogy—the moment when the young protagonist, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), removes the black visor and the helmet that have concealed Darth Vader’s face—has no thrill. There isn’t a gasp to be heard in the entire theatre. Luke looks into the eyes of his nightmare father, and he might be ordering a veggieburger.

In The Empire Strikes Back, when Han Solo (Harrison Ford) was frozen into sculpture—his face protruding from a bas relief, the mouth open as if calling out in pain—the scene had a terrifying grandeur. Though Empire, released in 1980, didn’t have the leaping, comic-book hedonism of the 1977 Star Wars and, as the middle, bridging film of the trilogy, was chained to an unresolved, cliffhanger plot, it was a vibrant, fairy-tale cliffhanger. The director, Irvin Kershner, brought the material a pop Wagnerian amplitude; the characters showed more depth of feeling than they had in the first film, and the music—John Williams’ variations on the Star Wars theme—seemed to saturate and enrich the intensely clear images. Scenes from that movie linger in the mind: the light playing on Darth Vader’s gleaming surfaces as this metal man, who’s like a giant armored insect, fills the screen; Han Solo saving Luke’s life on the ice planet Hoth by slashing open a snow camel and warming him inside; Luke’s hand being lopped off, and his seemingly endless fall through space; Chewbacca, the Wookie, yowling in grief or in comic fear, his sounds so hyper-human you couldn’t help laughing at them; the big eared green elf Yoda, with shining ancient eyes, who pontifically instructs Luke in how to grow up wise—Yoda looks like a wonton and talks like a fortune cookie. The effects in Empire appeared to be integral to the story and the characters; in Jedi the effects take over. Everything has lost its tone: when Leia finally frees Han Solo from his living death as sculpture, the scene has almost no emotional weight. It’s as if Han Solo had locked himself in the garage, tapped on the door, and been let out.

Probably the most difficult thing facing the director of a fantasy that is dependent on mechanical effects is how to make the images flow. George Lucas couldn’t do it when he directed Star Wars, but he kept the movie hopping, by cutting it into short, choppy scenes. Kershner is a master of visual flow, and, joining his own kinks and obsessions to Lucas’s, he gave Empire a splendiferousness that may even have transcended what Lucas had in mind. Maybe because of the cascading imagery of Empire (which was almost as impassioned as John Boorman’s Excalibur, and was also funny), Marquand’s work looks especially klunky and drab. The characters seem to be robbed of their essences. Chewbacca’s personality has drained away. The spark is gone from Yoda’s eyes; the little green sage looks swollen and baggy—he has been given horrible fuzz all over, as if he were a peach—and the way he’s lighted he isn’t even green. Billy Dee Williams’ Lando, the gambling man, has been made a general in the rebel forces; perhaps the high rank is meant to compensate for his being on the margins of the movie. (He checks in now and then to remind us of a war that’s supposed to be going on somewhere.) Worse, the bravado is gone from Han Solo; this sad palooka is so callow he seems to have regressed. Leia, older and sleeker now, looks at him affectionately, like an indulgent mother who has learned to live with her son’s dopeyness. The director doesn’t appear to have any use for him: when Han Solo is freed from the block of stone, he’s blind, and the picture doesn’t even bother to emphasize the moment when he regains his sight. This must be the only movie ever made in which the romantic lead has his sight restored to him in an aside.

Leia herself has acquired more importance in the scheme of things, but in a rather unsatisfying way. We’ve been assuming that men become knights because of their valor, and Luke, striving to become a Jedi, has been tested over and over. Yet Leia becomes strong and wise—a fighter—because of her lineage. The scriptwriters (Lawrence Kasdan and Lucas) remove the trilogy’s moral underpinnings when they tell us that you can become a Jedi knight, with the Force to do good, by heredity. (It’s a very un-American notion.) Throughout Jedi, we can see that Luke is meant to be maturing and gaining wisdom, but, like Han Solo and Leia, he’s colorless. In Empire, these three seemed capable of real exhilaration and real suffering. In Jedi, they’re back to being comic-strip characters wandering through a jokey pastiche of the Arthurian legends.

The movie is openly silly, with obvious parody references to The Wizard of Oz, The Adventures of Robin Hood, King Kong, Tarzan, the Ape Man, and everything else, including itself. Some of the silliness is in the ingenious manner of L. Frank Baum, and it’s wonderful: the Ewoks fighting off the Empire’s soldiers by the strategies that Robin’s men used in Sherwood Forest; the Ewoks taking the chatterbox C-3PO, in his gold-colored casing, for a god and putting him on a throne, whereupon he proceeds to draw upon his memory bank and tell them the story of everything that has happened in the three movies—he turns it all into bedtime stories for drowsy Teddy bears. (That’s the most endearing idea in the trilogy; it’s like something Mark Twain couldn’t quite work into A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.) A batch of new creatures turn up, and one of them, an ogre, Jabba the Hutt, might have come out of a woodcut by Tenniel: he has a walruslike body, a pyramidal head that merges with it, and—superb touch—the wrinkled eyelids of a dowager. And he has a tiny companion perched on him—a parrot-like monkey, or is it a winged Chihuahua? But most of the new critters— monsters that the epicene Jabba has gathered around him at his underground castle—haven’t been given much semblance of life. Some, such as the minotaurs, are drooling, cartoon heavies in masks; many have opaque, shoe-button eyes or seem Muppety; others haven’t waited to be adapted by toy manufacturers—they’re stuffed animals to start with.

Although the dialogue of the first two films also alternated gee whizzes with flat exposition, I don’t remember the construction being so bald a series of “Meanwhile, back at” episodes, and I don’t recall broken promises, such as solemn pronouncements about Luke’s “destiny” which turn out to be all wet. In this kind of movie, in which practically everything is foretold, shouldn’t we be able to trust the prophecies that are intoned? Why else include them? And when Luke, dressed in a Hamlet getup, tells Darth Vader’s master, the Emperor of the dark side—who’s shrouded like Death in The Seventh Seal—“Soon we’ll both be dead,’’ it’s gibberish, an embarrassment. This Emperor, who commands legions of Storm Troopers, is an embarrassment anyway. He’s photographed too close in, so our time with him is spent staring at the variations in his makeup and the black liquid that the actor is sloshing around his teeth, trying for a ghastly look. There’s also an oddly callous development. In one scene, Luke, bargaining with Jabba for Han Solo’s life, casually offers the ogre a present: C-3PO and R2-D2. It’s as if Dorothy offered the wicked witch a swap—the Cowardly-Lion, the Scarecrow, and the Tin Woodman in exchange for Toto. Luke’s apparent willingness to betray his loyal friends comes across as mean, even if he intends it only as a tactic.

Chances are that none of this will make any highly visible difference to the children who are clamoring to see the picture. Empire left kids dangling; this one has the payoffs. And Lucas may be on to something: that for children (and some adults) a movie that’s actively, insistently exhausting can pass for entertainment. Lucas produces the busiest movies of all time; they’re made on the assumption that the audience must be distracted every minute. Return of the Jedi is packed with torture scenes, and it bangs away at you; it makes you feel that you’ve seen it all before. I don’t mean to suggest that Lucas intends to shortchange audiences; quite the reverse. He gives them a load of movie—so much that their expectations are rammed down their throats. But by now it’s clear that his conception of a good show for kids is junky at heart. Return of the Jedi is a fun-machine movie. It’s the new form of pulp, and when it’s made on the scale of Jedi slovenliness is an inevitable part of it. A picture with as many special effects as Jedi costs a major fortune, and to make it so that the tricks are not just approximations of what was hoped for could double that cost. One answer might be to plan films with fewer tricks, better scripts, and directors who love to see the sparks that actors can give off. Lucas’s answer is to pile on the effects—and, with the rumbling noises of things blowing up in Dolby, you’re physically under bombardment. There’s no blood in the killings in Jedi, but is killing without blood really preferable? The picture is indecently affectless: it ends with the triumph of the good guys and the grand celebration of a (bloodless) nuclear explosion—with no worry, no aftermath, no fallout.

The performers aren’t encouraged to bring anything to their roles, and they become dispirited: their faces go slack. Denis Lawson, the jack of-all-trades innkeeper of Local Hero, is one of the featured performers in Jedi, and you’d never know he was anything special; if the young Alec Guinness or Peter Sellers were in the role, you’d never know he was bursting with talent, either. (Returning to the role of Obi Wan Kenobi, even the elderly Guinness, with all his sly skill, barely makes an imprint on this picture.) The cast may be full of comic marvels who were never allowed to do anything but put on masks or sit behind a mockup of the controls of a bomber so that sound-effects wizards could fit the racket in. I can believe that kids will be excited by Jedi. They have lived their imaginative lives with the Star Wars characters for six years; each three-year wait has had to be filled with imagination, and so the characters have acquired depth. (Children may not have had such prolonged experiences with any other characters unless they’ve got into, say, the Oz books.) But I can’t believe that Jedi will give kids any deep pleasure, because there’s no quality of personal obsession in it, or even of devotion to craft. What a director like Richard Marquand does is take the fantasy out of fantasy.

It’s one of the least amusing ironies of movie history that in the seventies, when the “personal” filmmakers seemed to be gaining acceptance, the thoughtful, quiet George Lucas made the quirkily mechanical Star Wars—a film so successful that it turned the whole industry around and put it on a retrograde course, where it’s now joining forces with video games manufacturers. If a filmmaker wants backing for a new project, there’d better be a video game in it. Producers are putting so much action and so little character or point into their movies that there’s nothing for a viewer to latch on to. The battle between good and evil, which is the theme of just about every big fantasy adventure film, has become a flabby excuse for a lot of dumb tricks and noise. It has got to the point where some of us might be happy to see good and evil quit fighting and become friends.

The New Yorker, 30 May 1983; pp. 88-90


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Read More

Read more reviews by Pauline Kael

Weekly Magazine

Get the best articles once a week directly to your inbox!