Like many of its fellow threequels, Return of the Jedi is commonly regarded as the runt of the litter. It's received the harshest treatment of any Star Wars film before the prequels, with Kevin Smith's character in Clerks going so far as to brand it "Muppets in space". But while you'd have good cause for feeling disappointed by Spider-Man 3, Superman III or Evil Dead 3, Return of the Jedi is a relatively strong third instalment, being as good if not marginally better than A New Hope.
It's widely documented that George Lucas had greater influence over the story of Jedi than he had with The Empire Strikes Back - an influence which many blame for its perceived inferiority. It's certainly easy to view the film in hindsight, seeing the Ewoks as the harbinger of Jar Jar Binks and Lucas as a man increasingly concerned with merchandising rather than filmmaking. But if Lucas was so keen to regain control, and so cynical in his intentions, why not just direct the film himself? The success of Star Wars gave no-one cause to stop him, just as it was with the prequels.
Instead, Lucas turned to Richard Marquand, who had recently garnered acclaim for Eye of the Needle. Marquand only came into contention after both David Cronenberg and David Lynch turned Lucas down; in an interview with the Hudson Union Society, Lynch recalled that the longer he spent in Lucas' company, the worse his headache got. Lucas and Marquand had a love-hate relationship, with Marquand describing the experience as "like trying to direct King Lear, with Shakespeare in the next room".
Because of Lucas' stronger presence behind the camera, Return of the Jedi is much closer to the spirit of A New Hope. It is much more of a broad pantomime, making less effort to question or blur the boundaries between good and evil. And there is a greater emphasis on spectacle, with the first film's many meetings being replaced by the tying-up of loose ends. But Marquand's compositions and camerawork are better Lucas' work on Star Wars, particularly in the panning shots on Endor and the scenes in the throne room. With this is mind you could say that Jedi suffers from the same problems as the first film, but is more refined and amenable in certain ways.
The film's opening act is really strong, complimenting the uncertain ending of Empire. Our protagonists are slowly revealed as all being in some kind of peril, Han and Leia's love is renewed only for them to be separated, and the story arc begins to come full circle with Luke returning to Tatooine. The musical number may feel like we have wandered into the Jim Henson workshop, but that's a hardly a bad thing. The scenes with the band are pleasantly diverting and the sheer number of different species on screen gives the impression of an expansive universe.
Not only is the opening narratively strong, but the set-piece at the Sarlac pit is well-orchestrated. For once Luke gets the chance to shine, showing the development of his character: the young naïve upstart, once hasty and foolish, has now become a bona fide hero. This section is well-paced to allow for humour and catharsis at the characters' escape and Jabba the Hutt's death. Some have complained about Boba Fett's demise being poorly handled, but it kind of makes sense for a character so murky and mysterious to be dispatched with such ironic flippancy.
After this opening act, however, Return of the Jedi begins to settle down into the familiar patterns of the Star Wars saga. From this point on, it's less a case of bringing something new to the table, and more about replicating the feel of the first film, albeit with better direction and improved effects. As a result, it's much easier to spot the swathes of exposition, and the film's tendency to flip between set-pieces and characters standing around talking. Alec Guinness does the best he can with his scene, but it's still essentially an exposition dump. The same goes for the speech before the battle, parodied to great effect in To Boldly Flee.
Not only is the exposition easier to spot, but the plot contrivances stand out a lot more. How is it that Leia can pilot a speeder when she hasn't done any flying in the previous films? How could the command team all find each other so quickly, having got separated in a forest that covers the whole planet? We can accept the idea of the Ewoks defeating the Empire, on the grounds that they fit with Lucas' running theme of the underdogs or 'little guys' winning the day. But why would the Eworks, who have never seen people before, have a dress that fits Leia perfectly? And if they could just sew something together, why is it far more detailed than their own clothes?
In my Flash Gordon review, I discussed the resemblances that Jedi bears to Mike Hodges' film. To some extent this is a coincidence, since Star Wars was greatly inspired by the original comics, but it's worth reiterating just how close the resemblances are. Both films have heroes in forest communities, both feature a beak-shaped monster with tentacles (in the Special Edition), and both boast imperial guards dressed in red with gas mask-style helmets. Flash Gordon was not a financial success in the USA, but considering its huge cult following and the popularity of Queen, it's fair to presume that Lucas saw the film, and was inspired by it to a generous extent.
In a way, the close resemblance to Flash Gordon also illuminates the central problem with the film. Flash Gordon got away with being so silly because it embraced its source material and was self-contained. But Jedi has the problem of needing to follow up and expand on the darkness of Empire, while also giving the audience plenty of good action and a happy ending. In the end it partially manages both, but also feels distracted and uncertain.
The core of the film - the darkest, most interesting part - is the conflict between Luke and Darth Vader before the Emperor. Not only do we get what is arguably the best lightsaber fight in the series, but these scenes rest on an interesting moral dilemma that picks up where Empire left off. Luke knows that in confronting Vader he risks giving in to anger and surrendering to the Emperor - but if he does nothing, he and all his friends will die. He is torn between repressing his feelings or using them to fight, in full knowledge that either choice could lead to his death. The fight keeps stopping and start to reflect his indecision, and the cutting between the robotic hands of father and son is a good symbol of what Luke threatens to become.
On its own, this scene or series of scenes is really well-played, well-acted and has a great deal of emotional tension. But this tension is undermined when Lucas surrounds it with two bigger, sillier conflicts, both fun to watch in their own way but on too big a scale to enhance the claustrophobia of Luke's conflict. It becomes a case of Marquand cutting every time a particular battle has run out of steam or reached a passingly dramatic line. Even if there was no other way to tie up the story, this third act could have been edited a little more sharply.
The performances in Jedi are all pretty likeable. Harrison Ford is particularly good, showing just how far Han Solo has come. The wide eyes he gives when Leia reveals Luke is her brother sum up the character, being both a cocksure signal of "she's mine!" and a genuine sign of his heart. Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher are both entertaining, with the former making a believable hero and the latter an interesting sex symbol. Best of all, though, is Ian McDiarmid as Palpatine. Like Alec Guinness and Peter Cushing before him, McDiarmid is fully conscious of the silliness around him, fully enjoying himself and entertain us in the process.
Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi is a flawed but enjoyable final instalment to the original trilogy. It doesn't break any new ground or develop the darker moments of Empire with any great success, but it avoids seeming hollow or perfunctory by refining all the good aspects of the first film and feeling all together better-assembled. Whatever the future holds for Star Wars, with Disney or whoever else, this remains a good way to bid farewell to the characters. If nothing else, there's a damn sight more to it than "Muppets in space."