Imagine it: you’ve taken off from school and waited in line all day to see “Star Wars: Return of the Jedi,” the last installment (ever!) in the “Star Wars” saga. You’re wearing your favorite “Star Wars” shirt, have your bucket of popcorn and jumbo-sized soda, and a primo seat in the auditorium, the best possible vantage point from which to watch the end of the trilogy unfold. No more than twenty minutes into the movie the lovable rogue Han Solo (Harrison Ford) dies fighting the evil Galactic Empire, sacrificing himself for the good of the Rebellion. The shockwaves from his death ripple through the audience and a very clear warning is issued from the filmmakers: no one is safe. Co-screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan fought for this to be a reality. So did Ford, who had grown weary of the character. But series overlord George Lucas said no. As Harrison Ford put it in 2010: “George didn’t think there was any future in dead Han toys.”
This was one of a number of decisions that George Lucas made while constructing “Return of the Jedi” that would forever alter the spirit and tone of “Star Wars.” What had been a rollicking throwback to Saturday morning serials had, with the sequel, “Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back,” become deeper, darker and more spiritual. It was, in short, a downer; a profoundly brilliant, meditative downer. Lucas wanted to turn that around with the third film, so he did everything he could to make it lighter, brighter and more acceptable for families. It was the beginning of the end of “Star Wars” as we know it.
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When filming began on ‘The Empire Strikes Back,’ Lucas was distracted. The massive amounts of money that the first “Star Wars” had brought in turned him from a filmmaker into a company; he had to oversee and manage his own Galactic Empire. Unlike the original film, which Lucas both wrote and directed, ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ was being handled by a creative team that consisted of director Irvin Kershner and screenwriters Lawrence Kasdan and Leigh Brackett. They were able to experiment and take chances, which they did, with gleeful abandon. The film doesn’t end with some huge battle sequence, the Rebels taking another hard fought victory from the Empire. No, it ends with one hero being incased in a liquid metal ice cube, another character betraying his friends and another getting his hand sliced off by a murderous madman that moments before was revealed as his father. Now that’s entertainment.
By contrast, all accounts suggest that Lucas haunted the set of ‘Return of the Jedi.’ Director Richard Marquand was relatively inexperienced when it came to the film’s complex visual effects, so Lucas hung around and was at the very least a second unit director and at the very worst a legitimate co-director, with Marquand saying in 2005 that the experience was “like trying to direct ‘King Lear‘ with Shakespeare in the next room.”
The indigenous race that populated the forest moon of Endor was originally conceived as a slithery band of reptilian lizard creatures, which would have served the story well – the evil Empire being brought down by something equally scary and slimy (but fundamentally misunderstood.) Lucas got skittish, though, and changed them to the lovable Ewoks – essentially Native American teddybears, ready to be snapped up and snuggled by countless children the world over. The laws of ‘Return of the Jedi’ weren’t governed by art or common sense or the needs and requirements of the screenplay – the revenue generated from action figures, boxes of novelty cereal and pajamas governed them.
Lucas found that the original title of the third film, ‘Revenge of the Jedi,’ was too harsh, so he softened that as well. It was ‘Return of the Jedi’ now. Everything in the “Star Wars” universe became cuter, cuddlier, and less dangerous, with the contemplative philosophical underpinnings of the previous film replaced with flimsy metaphysical hooey. Even the film’s climax faltered. The original film had one large-scale space battle that involved all the principle characters; it was cleanly told and easy to follow. For the sequel, things were stripped away even further – instead of a space battle, it’s a sword fight (essentially) and one that, since it has been pared down in scale, is even more emotionally involving. For ‘Return of the Jedi’ there are no fewer than three climaxes, happening simultaneously – the business on Endor getting the shield down, which involves Han, Leia and the droids; the space battle to destroy the second Death Star, where Lando is piloting the Millennium Falcon for some reason (with some bizarre alien sidekick co-pilot); and the big showdown between Luke and Vader and the Emperor, something that now involves lightning shooting out of people’s fingertips because the addition of lighting makes an epic cosmic swordfight even more exciting.
The problem with these multiple climaxes is that it’s hard to keep track of what’s going on, and worse yet, it’s hard to actively root for anything because you’re constantly being jerked around. In Lucas’ quest to make things more epic, he diluted them horribly. But even worse than negating the power of ‘Empire Strikes Back,’ ‘Return of the Jedi’ would actively influence the shape of “Star Wars” to come.
While the Ewoks are obnoxiously cuddly (they even have their own songs,) they would set the stage for the even-more-horrible Jar Jar Binks in “Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace,” a character created to go after the same demographic. Binks was a character designed to appeal to children and sell toys; he was the Ewoks but six feet tall and instead of an alien language spoke in a horribly offensive pidgin English. The sale of toys seemed to be a prime factor in a number of key decisions with the subsequent films; why else bring back cult icon Boba Fett (and introduce his father Jango Fett?) It certainly didn’t make any sense in the context of the story.
Speaking of story, the forked climax from ‘Return of the Jedi’ would be compounded exponentially in the prequels, particularly in the first installment ‘The Phantom Menace.’ That climax involves more a half dozen competing threads – there’s the siege of the imperial castle on Naboo, a large-scale ground battle featuring robots and the Ewok-like Gungans, the space battle involving young Anakin Skywalker (future Darth Vader) accidentally piloting his starship to victory, and a lightsaber battle involving several characters back on Naboo. There’s probably another subplot we’re forgetting in there somewhere; maybe somebody had to return a wig or something.
Since ‘Return of the Jedi’ made much more money than the dour ‘Empire Strikes Back,’ Lucas saw that as vindication. Everything in the ‘Star Wars’ universe following ‘Return of the Jedi’ would be patterned after what Lucas established in that film. There would be no major deaths besides the ones that we already knew about in the prequels, climaxes would be spread across multiple set pieces and planets, an emphasis on direct-from-the-toy-shop characters would trump any kind of psychological or spiritual complexity, and everything would be geared towards a single age group: little kids. The supposed historical value of ‘Return of the Jedi’ is that it closed out the original trilogy in grand fashion, with a swashbuckling, visually dazzling battle between good and evil. But it’s true legacy is that it ruined the ‘Star Wars’ franchise through a series of poor decisions that, instead of being quickly rectified, were repeated and elaborated upon until this very day. That’s a 30-year descent to the Dark Side.
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