It’s hard to say how many words have been written over the course of Internet history about the Star Wars movies. I can’t say for certain what the first site ever constructed for the web was, but I imagine it was either a photo gallery of Cindy Crawford bikini pics or a fansite dedicated to Boba Fett. So I imagine that ranking the Star Wars films has happened at least a dozen times before. Maybe a few more.
All of the movies recently got released on Blu-ray, however, and Lucas’s babies seem to once again be a popular topic of conversation, so I figure what’s one more time gonna hurt? Plus there has always been one popular opinion long held by the Internet faithful that has stuck in my craw. The original Star Wars (now titled A New Hope) is universally viewed as being a watershed moment in modern culture, a groundbreaking film that launched one of the most successful franchises of all time and changed the way that people make movies.
Return of the Jedi though, it’s often mentioned as being the weakest of the original trilogy. People say that it’s where Lucas lost his way and started making action figure movies with toy stores more in mind than movie theaters. Though we can all agree that The Empire Strikes Back is the strongest of the original Star Wars films (can’t we??), I’ve always felt like Jedi was my second favorite, and a more than satisfying way to end the series.
What do they have in common?
They’re both Star Wars movies. Duh.
Why is A New Hope overrated?
A New Hope is essentially a movie about a whiny, dope of a farm boy named Luke Skywalker being dragged along on a pretty great adventure. A New Hope has certainly got a lot of good things about it, but it’s got a giant hurdle to get over in what an unlikable wimp its protagonist is. Thankfully the movie eventually introduces you to Han Solo, a properly badass adventure movie character who you can happily root for, but Solo takes quite a while to get to. You’re 45 minutes into the film before Luke even gets on a speeder and goes into town to see someone get their arm cut off. That’s a lot of time spent whining about power converters on a one-bantha farm and hunkering down in the mountains with the Star Wars equivalent of Osama Bin Laden. For first time viewers, A New Hope does enough world building to keep that first act interesting, but after the zillionth time you’ve seen it, the temptation to hit the fast forward button and get to the good stuff starts creeping in. I would say that A New Hope is the worst of the original trilogy when it comes to rewatchability.
The middle portion of the film has a promising sequence where Luke and company smuggle themselves onto an Imperial ship to rescue a desperate princess, and it can be fun largely due to the roguish antics of Han Solo, but when you break it down it’s highlighted by an old man turning into clothes instead of fighting and an embarrassing scene where the heroes get trapped in a trash compactor full of knee high water, a bunch of floating foam rubber, and (somehow) a giant, tentacled sea beast. Whatever sort of beast could live in six inches of water isn’t really something that I would find threatening, especially if I had a good blaster by my side. Plus the whole scene gives Luke another opportunity to degenerate into a screeching weasel, “3PO, 3PO, WHERE COULD HE BEEEEE??”
And then when we get to the climax. It’s easily the least effective of the Star Wars films. We spend this whole movie hearing about the mystical powers of the force and anticipating Luke learning how to use his lightsaber (and maybe grow some hair on his genitals), and then a lightsaber duel doesn’t even factor into the climax. Lightsabers are about the coolest thing I’ve ever seen in my life, and Luke doesn’t even pull his out at the end? Refund! We spend the whole movie introducing Darth Vader as the most extreme villain on that side of the galaxy, but he and Luke never even come face to face. This is the guy who ordered Luke’s aunt and uncle to be roasted into brisket, he brutally chopped down his mentor’s clothes with an unfeeling swipe of his lightsaber, and then Luke never even gets to confront him before he goes flying off? What a gyp!
Adding to the ridiculousness of the climax is the plan that the rebels employ: just shoot this one place and the entire Death Star will perish in a chain reaction of explosions. The most dangerous weapon ever conceived, that has been built as the ultimate threat for the entire movie, and that’s all it takes to explode it? I don’t know what deus ex machina means, but I’m going to say it right now anyway. The end basically amounts to a couple of planes flying in a straight line down a trench and then Luke managing to hit a target with his guns after getting about a minute and a half to compose himself and take aim. That’s not exactly impressive. And don’t even get my started on the inherent racism of Chewie not getting a medal at the end like everyone else. I’m not sure what Alderaan was like, but if it was populated with Neo-Nazis like its Princess, then I’m glad it got blown up.
Why is Return of the Jedi underpraised?
Within it’s first five minutes Jedi gets to the infiltration of Jabba the Hut’s palace and the rescue of Han Solo, a heist sequence that goes from Jabba’s weird Roman orgy living room, to down in a dungeon with a Rancor, and then all the way out to the desert to a Sarlac pit. Put it all together and just that first heist set piece trumps any of the big action moments in A New Hope. And who is it that comes strolling into Jabba’s palace wearing a black robe and sporting a new, composed demeanor? Why it’s Luke Skywalker, who is no longer shrieking, crying, and grossly overacting to get across the fact that he is an inexperienced youngster. For that reason alone I think that Return of the Jedi should rank above A New Hope in the pantheon of Star Wars tales. And if you want to compare the tragic fate of the Rancor to the vague tide pool creature that lived in the trash compactor, then Jedi trumps A New Hope in creature-based threats as well.
I’m also a big fan of the speeder chase through the forest of the Endor moon. As far as rebels getting chased on fast moving vehicles by imperial soldiers, that sequence is constructed way better than the trench run of the Death Star in A New Hope. It shows off some strategy and resourcefulness on the part of our heroes. It’s not just a matter of being chased, not knowing what to do, and then thankfully having the Millennium Falcon show up at the last minute to save your bacon. That speeder chase took great action movie scene blocking. And it’s not even the climactic sequence of the film; it’s just a second act treat.
Granted, the action climax that we get here is another assault on another Death Star, but it’s superior to the first one in every way. This is a multifaceted plan that takes a lot of guts and ingenuity to pull off. Not only does it take a desperate assault against greater numbers to get into a Death Star that can no longer be blown up from the outside, but it takes a ground assault to take down the complex’s shield generators as well. I guess the Empire pulled their heads out of their asses this time. The assault on the second Death Star isn’t just a couple of fighters traveling down a trench; it’s an epic naval battle that plays out before our eyes. And the “It’s a trap!” is a holy shit moment that A New Hope’s third act doesn’t come close to matching.
All of that pales in comparison to the throne room scene though. The throne room scene, shared between Luke, Darth Vader, and the Emperor, is the most epic, affecting, awesome stuff that exists anywhere in any Star Wars movie. You’ve got the universe hanging in the balance, struggle between the good and evil natures that exist in all of us, interpersonal father/son dynamics, all with the stakes cranked up to 11 and the tension thick enough that you could cut it with a lightsaber. The throne room sequence is Lucas’s masterpiece (as directed by Richard Marquand). It’s the one bit of filmmaking that actually lives up to the Kurosawa movies he was aping. This interaction between these three characters is the most important thing happening in the universe, even as a gigantic space battle rages on in the window behind them. When people talk about space opera, this is what they’re referring to.
Evening the Odds
The biggest reason Return of the Jedi gets dumped on is the Ewoks. And I agree, the Ewoks suck. They take Star Wars’ whimsical tone and pour sugar on it until you get a stomachache. Watching them take down imperial Storm Troopers with sticks and rocks is a level of dumb that Lucas and his compatriots wouldn’t reach again for a good number of years. But they don’t sink the entire film. And Storm Troopers not being able to take down a forest full of indigenous little werewolf versions of Chucky dolls isn’t much dumber than Han and Luke being able to run around the Death Star in A New Hope with thousands of soldiers around, none of them able to connect with a blaster shot.
I think that the awesomeness of the space battle and the throne room scene, which both happen concurrently with the Ewok assault on the shield generators, are more than enough to make up for its lameness. I would agree that the Ewoks are the lamest part of the original trilogy, but they’re not enough to keep Return of the Jedi from being the second best film of the series. If it helps, just listen to Yakety Sax while you watch the Ewok stuff. Yakety Sax makes anything funny.