It’s clear that George Lucas had more or less run out of ideas by the time Return of the Jedi rolled around. You have the destruction of a new Death Star, a return to Dagobah (all so that we can watch Yoda croak out a few hints and then die), another Luke-Vader duel, another familial revelation (Leia is Luke’s sister!) — we’d seen it all before. The only truly new element — and isn’t this a sad commentary — was the teddy-bear-like (and much-derided) Ewoks. Dramatically and imaginatively, Jedi is on about the same level as the Lucas-produced Willow. Despite all the characters and crosscutting and shifting allegiances, Lucas really didn’t have enough story for a trilogy (let alone two trilogies).
Jedi kicks off with a visit to Jabba the Hutt’s lair (of course, Jabba’s appearance here is now robbed of its mystery because Lucas inserted him into the Special Edition of Star Wars, but never mind) and some Raiders-style swashbuckling aboard a desert skiff. Director Richard Marquand tries for Spielbergian thrills and mostly botches them — with Luke improbably deflecting laser blasts from mere feet away and Han slowly, slowly regaining his sight, the action is just flat-out clumsy — but at least it’s a shot of adrenaline, if a derivative and shallow one. Once it’s over, though, Jedi plunges into boredom, never to return.
The boredom infects the actors. Harrison Ford shows it most obviously, sometimes looking downright disdainful of his surroundings; the raffish grin of Han Solo has been replaced by the sarcastic I’m-getting-paid-for-this-shit grin of a furiously bored Jack Nicholson straining to keep himself amused in the hallways of the Overlook. Ford never looks so disgusted and lost as when he’s surrounded by the nattering teddy-bears of Endor: he may have been receiving a dark vision of his future as a half-an-actor headlining kiddie movies (possibly why he went for Witness with such gusto two years later). Carrie Fisher has never looked more radiant than she does here, not just in her fan-favorite slave-outfit scenes but in the forest of Endor, her hair cascading down her back; she looks like a faerie princess, and by then Fisher had completely dropped the clipped diction she employed in Star Wars — she sounds womanly, earthy. But she, too, sounds bored. She can’t even manage to work up much surprise at the news that Leia and Luke are siblings. (Ironically, Ford’s best moment here comes when Han finds out; he seems more stunned than Luke and Leia.)
As for Mark Hamill — what the hell happened? He gives what is immediately recognizable as the most irritating lead performance in a blockbuster film in recent memory. What happened to the eager Luke of Star Wars or the frightened, unsure Luke of The Empire Strikes Back? His Jedi prowess has made him smug and arrogant. “This is the last mistake you’ll ever make,” he snorts at Jabba (“Yeah, and this is the last blockbuster you’ll ever make,”¹ the less charitable among us may retort to the screen). Yet if we’re meant to see that Luke is heading for a fall because of his new cockiness, nothing comes of it. He flies back to Dagobah to finish his training with Yoda, and he also apparently has premonitions of his own death (“Soon I’ll be dead,” he tells the Emperor, “and you with me”) that don’t come to pass. Exactly how much of this script was rewritten and then not reshaped? We’re continually set up for a darker denouement than we get. (Recall, too, that for a while the pre-release title was Revenge of the Jedi, even though Luke takes no revenge — though he may have at some point in the early drafts, I assume.)
Jedi is an indistinct blur of event and hype (yes, hype — the script keeps hyping itself, telling us of terrible things that are going to happen but never do). The luscious visual majesty of Empire is gone, replaced by lots of blinking-lights interiors and leafy Endor exteriors (it was a bad mistake to set most of the outdoor scenes in a forest that looks pretty much the same from scene to scene, and aren’t there any life forms on this moon of Endor besides the Ewoks and some lizards?). We waste some time when Luke, Han, C-3PO and R2-D2 are captured by the Ewoks (gee, some Jedi — Luke can’t get out of a crude net?), and we waste some more time when the Ewoks take C-3PO as a god and decide to sacrifice Luke and Han to him. Meanwhile, Lando Calrissian and a gloopy-faced alien command the Millennium Falcon, leading Rebel forces into the Death Star Version 2.0. (Despite Lando’s and Han’s checkered pasts as mercenaries and scoundrels, they have conveniently been made generals in the Alliance, which apparently isn’t too picky about leadership.)
What we’re all here for is the final confrontation between Luke and Vader, which doesn’t have a tenth of the emotional heat and urgency of the duel in Empire. Luke keeps saying he feels the goodness in his father, which is mighty big of him considering dear old Dad was responsible for the deaths of Luke’s aunt and uncle, and the destruction of his sister’s adoptive home planet. (If Leia has any feelings of revulsion at the news that the man who made her watch the genocide of her people is her father, we aren’t briefed on them.) The climax is ridiculous — the Emperor is the embodiment and vessel of the Dark Side, and Vader just picks him up and drops him down a hole? Yeah, that’ll take care of him. But, improbably, it does, and we get a scene where Luke sees Vader — Anakin — with his helmet off. What’s underneath is just a bald guy who went wrong; I think his countenance should’ve been left to the imagination, but then one of the selling points of Jedi (as if it needed any) was that we’d finally get a peek behind Vader’s mask.
The real mask, though, is Lucas’s. If Luke is Lucas, then what we see onscreen is an arrogant man whose triumph comes with little effort — Dad saves the day, redeeming both himself and Luke’s idealism. What little idealism there was left in Lucas, anyway. Jedi expresses nothing so much as distrust of the audience to the point of giving it whatever worked before. Lucas had started to become Anakin — tired-looking here, and ready to leave. Lucas was certainly ready to leave the Star Wars saga behind, but he would later return to it, of course, seeming more tired and insecure than ever. Excitement, adventure — Lucas craved not these things, not any more.
¹Until 2015, anyway. That’s still a long, arid 32 years, man.