(Editor's Note: I wrote this back in April, but it seems pretty relevant this week.)
I've had Star Wars on the brain a lot recently, in large part in response to the news and speculation about the newest installment coming this Christmas. I've also been listening to the enjoyable Star Wars Minute podcast, and recently read Chris Taylor's stellar How Star Wars Conquered The Universe. Both have got me thinking a lot about Return of the Jedi, the film in the series that most fans (including myself) see as the start of a drop-off in quality. It's here where some of the bad tendencies began to express themselves: groan-inducing comic relief (Jar-Jar is the spiritual child of the Ewoks), uninteresting cinematography, recycled stories (second Death Star, anyone?), and immature, unconvincing handling of human emotions.
Of course, this is not what I thought when I saw the film on opening night in 1983 as an excited seven year old. Empire was one of the first movies I can remember seeing, and I saw the re-release of Star Wars the next year, in 1981. I was super-excited to know if Vader really was Luke's father, and whether he would finally be a Jedi. Vader's turn to good and unmasking blew me away, Jabba's palace fascinated me, and for a seven year old, the Ewoks were basically the greatest thing that ever happened. It is easy in hindsight to diss Jedi, but in its time it really gave the people what they wanted: a return to the fun and derring-do of the original film after the downer of Empire. After all, it was the 80s, and just as the second film reflected well the national mood in the midst of Carter-era malaise, Jedi's flashiness and singing Ewoks triumphing over an evil empire was made for the Reagan years. Too often people judge this film from the perspective of having watched it twenty times, rather than that first experience in the theater in '83 after so much anticipation. When I remind myself of its context, I can enjoy it so much more.
Of course, that doesn't change the fact that Jedi could have been a whole helluva lot better. You could start with the fact that Lucas' co-producer Gary Kurtz was gone for this installment. Film is an inherently collaborative medium, and too many people buy into the notion of Star Wars as the singular product of George Lucas' genius. A lot of other people made it what it was with their unique contributions, including composer John Williams, sound designer Ben Burtt, Kurtz, and a whole host of others. According to Kurtz, Lucas had neglected story in favor of toys and spectacle, and after clashing over the shape of the film, Kurtz left. His vision for the third film was darker and more emotionally sophisticated, with Han dying, Leia faced with political difficulties, and supposedly ending with a more ambiguous scene of Luke walking off into the sunset. (Screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan, whose work helped make Empire the great film that it is, is also on record saying he tried and failed to get this version made.) The Taylor book also implied earlier conflicts concerning cost overruns incurred by Kurtz in making Empire.
I don't get wistful about much, but when I think about the film that could have resulted from those ideas I wish that time travel was a reality and I could somehow go back and get Kurtz and Lucas to mend fences, and to somehow broker a deal between Lucas and the Director's Guild. Richard Marquand helmed Jedi, and there's a reason that name isn't exactly familiar. Because Lucas had not included an opening credits sequence to Empire, the Guild fined Lucas, who then quit, making it difficult for him to secure an American director for the film. Before that point, both Steven Spielberg and David Lynch were possibilities, and my mind reels at what those directors could have done. Instead we got Richard Marquand's unremarkable direction, compounded by (according to Taylor and Marquand) his tendency to go along with whatever an intrusive Lucas acting as uncredited co-director wanted. Worst of all, the film looks a little cheap in comparison to Empire, something brought about by Lucas' desire not to repeat the budget issues of the prior film.
It's easy today for Star Wars nerds like yours truly to mock Jedi, but they ought to remember the space it occupied back in '83. When today's adult nerds were little wee ones seeing this for the first time it was giving exactly them what they wanted. This film shows how making blockbusters for the whims of contemporary audiences is not the path to lasting relevance for a film, and how film-making is inherently collaborative. I really hope these lessons are being heeded by JJ Abrams and those others responsible for bringing Episode VII to the screen.