Thursday, January 12, 2012

Ewoks and Emperors: Or Why Return of the Jedi is, in fact, a Good Movie Part Two

We covered last week the range of opinions that are held in regards to Star Wars VI: Return of the Jedi, (ROTJ). About how it's unique in the Star Wars fandom for its divisiveness, as well as how it hints towards the marketing monolith that Lucasfilm has become.

I also asserted, then, that ROTJ doesn't suck, and at once proceeded to spend about four thousand words and an hour of your life that you’ll never get back explaining why it sucked.

You can blame the contradictory nature of the human psyche for that, I suppose.

Of course, in reality it was to point out that while I consider ROTJ to be a good film, it is certainly not without some, even many, large and often damaging flaws, most of which are so great that it is no small wonder why so many people leave ROTJ with feelings of dissatisfaction or disappointment at best or downright loathing at worst.

And really, it's these people I'm trying to convince with these posts. Not necessarily people who liked the movie—I mean, this would just be an article reiterating what we already know it I did—but to people who don't like the movie, or think it's just okay, or believe it didn't really fulfill the vision that the first two movies so skillfully set in place.

That's really the point here. Sure, ROTJ has flaws. Sure, they're numerous, and ponderous, and indications of where the series as a whole was going to descend to at the coming decades.

But, despite all that, is it still a satisfying end to such a great movie trilogy?

I believe yes. And now I will pretentiously tell you why.


POSTULATE I: Details, details, details.

Now this is probably the most nuanced and obscure portion of all the reasons for and against ROTJ's quality. But it really is overlooked in the criticism of this film in particular. Now, I must reiterate here, I’m not a student of film. I know what mise-en-scene and auteur theory is, but if you asked me to give a break by break, frame by critique of blocking or action flow—well, I’m not your guy. Basically, I can't do what this guy does.

But with the rudimentary working knowledge that I do possess, I can say with same degree of certainty that ROTJ, from a perhaps less nuanced but nonetheless important point of view, gets most everything right. The direction, the set design, framing, blocking, color scheme, it's all actually well done and quality work. It's not as if this is a prequel where everybody was shoved in front of a greenscreen and told that they would just take care of it later. A whole lot of toil and sweat went into creating these environments, creatures, and settings—yes, even the Ewoks.

Take Jabba the Hutt. Iconic design. Booming, unforgettable voice. Full-sized working puppet. The amount of labor and visual trickery needed to pull him off in 1983 without him looking fake or turning into a laughingstock is nigh-incomprehensible. It’s John Carpenter's The Thing but with a giant weevil instead of a shapeshifting abomination.

You see, despite everything else, ROTJ is a well-made film, at least in the most basic sense of the term. It's well directed well, lit well, sounds great. John Williams score is excellent, the acting's good (okay, Harrison Ford phones it in a bit, but Harrison Ford at half-power is still Harrison Ford) and so on. It's not a clusterfuck of badly rendered clones projected onto a green screen while Ewan Macgregor hopelessly tries to find some acting rhythm in an empty room with nothing to work off of. Nor is it a shaky-cam lens-flared CGI advert with robots that are entirely indistinguishable from one another. You can tell a lot of care, effort, and brainpower went into the sets and design, the action and the script.

Look at the second Death Star. In a pre-CGI world, how much time exactly did it take to create every single one of those hanging, unfinished struts jutting into empty space? Along the same vein, how much construction and film magic was necessary to create the harrowing, breath-taking race to the center of the Death Star?


Although, to be fair, ROTJ is ironically host to the single lamest effect in the series:

But that alone can't tip the balance into mediocrity; Richard Marquand's direction (however much of it was actually his, anyway) is unassuming but competent. I especially like the way he lights the Emperor's face—it's a small thing, but it's one of the many touches that make a movie feel real and a character feel menacing. The lighting really suggests the true evil of the Emperor. What we can see is scarred and rotted by his decades long involvement with the dark side (Note: until the prequels ruined that interpretation. But we’re going with this as if it’s May, 1983. Can we do that, please? Before all the mediocrity? –E). But beyond that there's nothing, just the swirling blackness of his cloak and the pitch-black shadows around his face. It really looks like the Emperor is cocooned in a vortex of pure evil; which, I'm sure, is the point. But the direction, and lighting, and even the way he is positioned (if you look at the window behind him in his Throne Room, it looks like a spider web, as if he's the center of all these events he's set in motion) all serve the purpose of making him seem threatening and, quite frankly, terrifying. These just aren't considerations that you usually see in a garbage movie; it doesn't mean that there hasn't been a bad film that thought things through to this level—but often they're of the overly-pretentious Art Theater type of films. You know, like the ones me and my friends watch every other Friday while mocking the masses for not “getting” them.

POSTULATE II: The villains are some of the best in the history of cinema.

It's hard to make a movie with three villains. Look at Spiderman 3. It's even harder to make a movie with three villains where every villain is a legitimate threat, is fleshed out, and gets a chance to shine. Look at Spiderman 3. Usually when you have three villains—three main villains, no less—the story becomes fragmented and messy. You try to have each villain do something evil, and you have to have the good guys take each villain out. Usually, this results in the filmmaker either, a) giving each villain a separate part of the movie to focus on, which allows each villain a chance to prove how much a bastard he is but can elongate the movie time and make the story a stagnate, incohesive mess, or b) try to coordinate each villain to have something to do with the overarching storyline in the interest of cohesion. You get a better story perhaps, but you risk casting one of your villains (main villains, need I remind you) to play second fiddle, and in turn, making them laughable.

Again and again, look at Spiderman 3.

What few people realize is how successful ROTJ is with a three-villain narrative. Each villain gets a chance to prove how evil a prick they are, then gets a chance to put the good guys in an untenable situation, and finally, gets their comeuppance in a most satisfying manner (Vader may be a stretch here, but I'll get to him in a minute).

Now ROTJ did have some distinct advantages to other movies that attempt a three villain scenario. First, the audience knew that three villains were going to appear since ESB ended. We knew that the rebels were going to rescue Han from Jabba's. So there's one. Likewise, we knew that we were going to meet this mysterious Emperor figure that had been hinted at in the first movie and partially seen in the second. That's two. And it went without saying that Vader was going to play a major role.

So not only did the audience expect three villains and were prepared for it, but the story lends itself towards having three villains. Hell, half the work on ROTJ was already done for the screenwriters in The Empire Strikes Back. We knew that Han was to be rescued, and so that would take up a good chunk of the screentime. Likewise, we understood the Emperor was going to play a major role, and that allowed a very simple crafting of narrative, wherein the Emperor masterminds this plan to destroy the alliance once and for all. The movie isn't perfect in terms of cohesion (Act I, Jabba's Palace, could be played at an entirely separate theater and nobody would be confused as to what was going on), but even so, ROTJ does a good job with not only having three villains but, more importantly, having three great, memorable villains.

I mean, let's not understate the fact here: each one of the antagonists in ROTJ has gone down not just in film history, but in the American cultural history. That's quite an achievement for any movie, especially one as critically divisive as ROTJ tends to be among fans.

I think this is good example of execution uplifting an already good idea. Where the filmmakers stumbled with the Ewoks, they succeeded swimmingly with all three of the antagonists. Look at Jabba the Hutt, for example. We know he's a gangster; we know he has lots of power and lots of influence. From Han's conversation with Greedo, we know that this figure is great enough to blacklist one person over an entire galaxy. That's a lot of mojo right there. And these are things the audience understands just from hints in the movies.

I think it’s prudent to note here how easy it would have been to make Jabba some pastiche of a guy in The Untouchables. That’s basically what he was in the original cut of the first movie, some Scottish dude in a parka; fortunately they did some good editing and realized it wasn’t viable.

Instead, they used the intervening five years to create the most bloated, disgusting, and memorable mob boss in cinematic history. A mutated slug with a booming voice, whose repulsiveness is only matched the by the odd fact of his elegance--genius. Then put him in a dark, dingy, sweaty palace reeking of hedonism; keep him in shadow and put a couple of slave-girls in chains dancing around his throne; oh, and no good mob boss is complete without a trap door leading to a death arena where a vicious clump of meat would be more than happy to bite your head off.

This is a tall order, but ROTJ pulls it off perfectly, and the proof of that is no more evident than in the effect Jabba's had on American popular culture. He has become a metaphor in his own right, cruelly able to satirize American obesity issues, or corporate greed, and shady business practices. Like Darth Vader himself, mentioning Jabba's name is sure to elicit a shimmer of recognition even from non-Star Wars fans. This pukey glob of fat has literally become a cultural icon and symbol, a poster child for all things corrupt and gluttonous. Not bad for a villain who is obliterated from the story less than a third of the way through the movie, and has, what, thirty lines of dialogue?


The Emperor, too, has become an icon of sorts. Oddly, not on the same level as Jabba, though I think this is mostly because Jabba represents some of the biggest problems we have in the West—overeating, greed, corruption, etc. We haven't really had a problem with insane dictators for about seventy years, meaning the Emperor is less relatable as a cultural mark. What the Emperor is, however, is a perfect example of how an actor can make a role.

I'm no expert on Ian McDiarmid—in fact I had to look him up on Wikipedia to make sure I spelled his name right—but he so perfectly nails the Emperor's role, feel, look, and manner that he is the one tolerable thing in all three prequel films; never is this prowess more evidence than his original introduction to the SW universe in Return of the Jedi. While the same role in the prequel films is enjoyable for its gleeful, unapologetic haminess in the face of underwhelming material, his role in ROTJ is memorable for making the Emperor appear to be, truly, the greatest prick in the universe.

Again, this is quite a tall order for McDiarmid to carry. Remember, this series already has a big bad guy, and a hugely famous one at that. Now the movie is introducing another, even bigger, bad, and has to convince the audience that this second antagonist is someone whom Vader himself would take orders from.

It's really interesting the way the filmmakers went with the character of the Emperor, although it might have been inevitable. You couldn't really go with an “ultra-Vader” or anything without it looking ridiculous and lazy, so they chose instead to make the exact antithesis of Vader. Where Vader is bombast, the Emperor is subtle. Where Vader brings fear through anger, the Emperor brings fear through cruelty. Where Vader is strong, the Emperor is crafty. Where Vader must rely on external sources of support—his suit, his lightsaber, his oxygen chamber—the Emperor only needs the Force. A lightsaber's not necessary (Note: again, going with OT logic here, and blatantly ignoring the PT, something I’ve become very adept at doing. –E) simply because he's so powerful in the Force. It creates this interesting dynamic between the two characters—Vader and the Emperor—here we have basically a robocop with magic abilities and a sword that can cut through anything taking orders from a—by the look of it—centuries-old man that needs a cane for long walks and appears like his flesh is about to slide off his face.


It gives the audience a double whammy of, “What, really, Vader takes orders from this guy?” and, at the same time, a feeling of apprehension: “This guy must be able to do some serious shit if he has Vader under the thumb like this.” And after garnering this reaction from the audience, you need a performance of the highest caliber to convince them, and this is where Ian McDiarmid’s understated yet very visceral performance comes through brilliantly. He plays the character with a subtle grace; he looks weak physically, yet something about his mannerisms, body language, the way he carries himself, implies that he’s much more frightening and powerful than immediate appearances. McDiarmid’s insidious growl is also a boon to the character, simultaneously making the Emperor sound like an old man and like every word he says is a snarl. Like he knows he’s condescending himself every time he has to speak to one of these peons, and that he knows he is better than they are. The arrogant swagger with which McDiarmid carries himself within the character is what truly makes us fear him; the makeup and the cloak just accentuates this fact.

Every word drips with malice, every action reeks with sardonism, every conversation hums with dismissal and disdain. Remember the first time Luke and the Emperor speak? How the Emperor casually swats him down, mocking him for his beliefs and his way of thinking? How effortless did it seem, and how easily did he completely stutter Luke, and it had nothing to do with visual displays of power. It was all subdued displays of prowess; words and confidence and the knowledge that he is in the right. That is the nature of the Emperor, and that’s what makes him such a worthy Big Bad in the Star Wars universe, the same universe that created Darth Vader. He doesn’t need demonstrations of his abilities to keep a hold over his subjects. He only needs his intelligence, his manipulations, and his influence. This makes him unique in all the realms of Star Wars, even from Yoda, who had to “show” Luke the power of the Force in order to get Luke to believe. The Emperor almost, not quite, but almost, convinces Luke of the advantages of the dark side simply by speaking to him and wearing him down. It’s only when it becomes clear that Luke’s not going to fall for it no matter what that the Emperor takes the gloves off, using an ability unique to him in the entire SW menagerie (well, before the PT, when everyone and their mom can shoot lightning from their fingers).

But what about our protagonists, you ask. Where do they fit into this equation? How do they make ROTJ a good movie? I'm glad you brought it up, now that you mention it...

POSTULATE III: The movie successfully and deftly completes the characters arcs for each of the trilogy's main protagonists.

This might look like a relatively minor point, but I do think that ROTJ's quality is supported by its treatment of the characters that it's supposed to be taking care of. Rather, that it continues the story of Luke, and Han, and Leia, and Vader, without betraying their characters or leaving us unsatisfied about their fates or the course their futures are going to take.

I guess the word I'm looking for is closure. The audience wants closure; they want to know the story has come to an end and they want to have it come to an end in a way that meets their expectations. Now this extends to more than the characters in ROTJ, but we'll get to that later. Right now, let's look at our heroes.

As with a three-villain film, it's hard to bring about a logical, visceral end to the arc of the amount of main protagonists in ROTJ. You can look at the Matrix films, for example, where after the first, the characters have no real growth or change. Their arc is stagnant. Neo's greatest change as a character, where we see him become something more, or at least different, than what he was, happens in the first movie. What happens over the next two? How does his character change, or grow, or even differ? It really doesn't. He becomes the One at the end of the first movie, and he is the One over the next two movies. It's stagnate, static, and even a little boring. By the time the third movie ends, we barely care about the character of Neo anymore, simply because he's the same guy that he was at the end of the first movie.

Do all characters have to have arcs? Well, it's never good to put down a hard and fast rule when it comes to artistic mediums, but I will say that unless you are making an intentionally ironic piece about the immutability of the human mind (A Confederacy of Dunces, maybe), I will say, yes, the main character of a movie has to change in some way be the end. It doesn't have to be a monumental change, but it does have to be some sort of shift where the character is a different place than they were when the movie started. You see this occur even the darkest, bleakest types of films and literature. Blade Runner. Gangs of New York. A Song of Ice and Fire. Hell, even something like Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson, as literary and as cynical as you can get, has the main character undergo some sort of transformation, no matter how minute.

I could write an entire other blog post on character arcs and why they’re so integral to narratives (Note to self: write other blog post on character arcs and why they’re so integral to narratives –E). But suffice it to say that, for whatever reason, they’re important. They matter. And viewed through that one fact, we can see how well ROTJ takes care of the characters we’ve come to know and love.

You see, when you have a series of…whatever, be it books, movies, even video games—you have this odd paradigm, wherein not only do you have to have an arc in each individual movie, but you have to have an overarching…uh, arc…that demonstrates the change the character has made through the duration of the series. This is especially hard in TV series, where many times a character has to have a “mini-arc” ten, fifteen, twenty times, one per episode, while at the same time constructing an over-arc where the character changes over an entire season.

So put in that light, ROTJ succeeds swimmingly in this aspect of storytelling, simultaneously giving the main characters an individual movie arc while completing the over-arcs set up by the previous two movies. To illustrate this, let’s look at Luke’s arcs in each movie. Now, this is a pretty simplistic overview of what occurs, but for the sake of argument, if you had to boil it down, Luke’s arcs would look like this:

ANH: Goes from a young, eager, immature, and yes, whiny moisture farmer to a hotshot hero of a guerrilla force fighting against an evil Empire.

ESB: Goes from a hotshot hero whom everything seems to go well for to a humbled, more mature person who grasps the magnitude of the forces he’s dealing with.

ROTJ: Goes from a mature, measured, patient warrior to a Jedi Knight, redeeming his father along the way.

Then the over-arc would be his journey from the first part of the ANH arc to the last part of the ROTJ arc: his journey from a frustrated kid to an honorable Jedi.

So if ROTJ does one thing very well, it’s that it takes each of the character and allows them to come to fruition, so to speak. Han finally makes the complete turn from scoundrel to hero, Leia becomes a more patient and self-aware leader (and the two of them accept their feelings for each other); and of course, the Rebel Alliance is victorious and saves the day.

Then of course there’s the icon of the entire series, and the way his arc is one of the best parts about the film.

POSUTLATE IV: Vader’s redemption is fitting and poignant, and my personal favorite thread of all three movies.

When the world heard the news of the now infamous “NOOOOOO!” added to the blu-ray release of ROTJ when Vader is contemplating throwing the Emperor over the edge into the pit of—whatever that thing is--well, I like most other fans had the required fits of outrage. How could he change this? Why would he change this? Is he trying to create some stupid link to that awful scene in Revenge of the Sith? Or is he just trolling us now?

But what really stunned me were the reactions in favor of the change. There weren't many, but there were a few. People who said that they liked the addition, that they thought Vader's silence at the ending was a little wonky and this more clearly expressed what was going on...I was in shock. Really, I was.

Art is endlessly subjective, and no one is ever going to agree on the quality (or lack of quality) of any given work. There's always going to be someone, somewhere, who doesn't like something that everyone else does. Sometimes for tangible reasons, sometimes merely a feeling that settles in their gut they can't quite explain, but that turns them off of whatever work is in question. It's the same reason that I just couldn't get into The Hunger Games. I read the first book, and while I can see why it's popular, why people like it, and why it's objectively good, I just...couldn't...get into it. Not enough to keep reading the series anyway.

Now, I made that point to make this point: I'm probably a little too close to this issue to be objective about it. In my mind, the way Vader's redemption is handled is nothing short of perfect, right up there with the best parts of the series. I have always felt this way; and so it was with this frame of mind that I raged over the change Lucas made to the blu-ray edition, and that shocked me when I saw people, however few, think that it was a welcome addition. There are certain things that affect objectivity for everyone, and that includes me. I was so embroiled in what I perceived as ROTJ's tonal bulls-eye when it comes to Vader's arc that, even though I consider myself an objective person, it did not even enter my mind that others would not agree. I just wanted the seven people who stumbled upon this blog while searching Google for Lasix eye surgery to know that, because in my opinion, this issue is the biggest selling point for ROTJ, and the biggest thematic reason why it can be called a good movie. Every scene, every moment that even tangentially deals with this issue is spot on, so much so that we're going to look at every scene in turn.

SCENE I: The Opener

Yes, the first scene of ROTJ has a lot to do with Vader's redemption arc even though, ostensibly, it appears to have little to no impact on the proceedings.

But what it does do is provide framework. It lets us know that the Vader in this movie is still the Vader we've seen over the last two...and frankly, the conversation he has with the Death Star commander is Vader as his malicious best. Half mocking, half intimidating, wholly in control.

What I really appreciate about this scene is the direction and the dialogue. You can see the terror on the Imperial Commander's face as he swallows that lump in his throat, and the way the shuttle door opens and Vader's revealed with the Imperial March echoing behind him, through clouds of hissing smoke like he's coming from hell itself, and a low, upward angle implying his dominance and power. It's all tonally perfect, it all feeds the audience information about how Vader as a character is still the bastard we've come to know and love.

The dialogue, too, is some of the best in the movie, simultaneously threatening and subtle. I especially love that line at the end that Vader says: “I hope so commander, for your sake. The Emperor is not as forgiving, as I am.” That’s pure ironic dialogue at is absolute apotheosis; not only does this make Vader look like a prick, as if he's just toying with the Commander for no reason other than his own giggles, but it doubles as a means of selling the Emperor's evilness before he even appears on screen.

SCENE II: Dagobah.

The second scene dealing with Vader's redemption comes on Dagobah, in both Luke's conversation with Yoda and with Ben Kenobi. This scene is important because it highlights Luke's own struggle that he's had over the past year between ESB and ROTJ. He still doesn't believe, or part of him doesn't want to believe, that Vader is his Father. But once it's confirmed, he's forced to reconcile the disjunct: his father is Darth Vader. But to become a Jedi, he must defeat Vader, possibly even kill him. This sets up the conflict that Luke has: he has no desire to kill his father. None whatsoever. Instead, he wants to redeem him, believing “there is some good in him.” This is important, because he seems to be the only one that thinks so. Yoda doesn't think so, and when Luke mentions the “good in him” to Kenobi, Kenobi only reiterates that he's more machine than man, and twisted, and evil. The Emperor certainly doesn't feel Vader can be saved, and Vader himself doesn't think so, not consciously anyway. Luke's decision to try and save Vader comes without support from any of his allies or enemies. It's something that he himself, alone, believes, and if he's going to carry it out, it's going to be on his shoulders alone. It's a bit of tangent to the main point here, but it demonstrates Luke's growth (read: arc) as a character that his resolve and determination have grown the way they have since ESB.

SCENE III: Where the F#*& is that shuttle going?

The third scene in the Vader/Luke pathos is when the Rebels are attempting to sneak the captured Imperial shuttle past the Deflector shield. It's a small scene, and not extremely important in the overall picture. But it does establish that a) Vader knows Luke is on the planet, and b) doesn't really care. He lets the shuttle land, sure, but he immediately goes and tells the Emperor that Luke is with the Rebel force. This demonstrates that Vader still cares more about bringing Luke to the Dark Side than about Luke's value as his son.

SCENE IV: The Conversation

One of my favorite scenes with one of my favorite moments of the entire trilogy. So Luke has voluntarily surrendered himself to Vader in the effort to save him, as it were. What I like about this scene, specifically, is Vader's refusal. You can see that he sees himself as truly lost, and there's a sad note of desperation in his voice when he says: “It is too late for me, son.” It's a little moment, well acted by James Earl Jones, and it demonstrates a chink in the armor that Vader has put over himself. The dialogue before and after sounds confident and assured, but in that one moment, there's something haunted about Vader's character. It adds a lot of depth and lets the audience realize that maybe there is something there for Luke to grasp hold of, however small it may be.

You can see Luke's disappointment when Vader refuses his offer to come with him, but its disappointment that is not crushing. Rather, it steels Luke, and when he says, “Then my father is truly dead,” you can see that it honestly impacts Vader—leading to one of my favorite moments at the end of the scene, where Vader walks forward, leans on the banister, and just stands there, thinking. Again, very subtle, very well played—it tells us that Vader's been impacted by what was said, but it needs no dialogue or exposition whatsoever. It's just that tiny bit of contention that Luke is going to hope to exploit; and, as the audience, knowing that it's there is really going to help us buy Vader's eventual turn.

SCENE(S) V: The fight sequence.

Now I don't include the scenes with Luke, Vader and the Emperor mainly because those were mind games between the Emperor and Luke exclusively, meant to show the Emperor's manipulative capabilities and the honest-to-God struggle Luke is having in resisting him. Where the film returns to Luke's quest to bring his father back “to the light,” if I may go there, is when they begin the lightsaber fight.

Luke attempts to work on Vader psychologically, pushing him, trying to get him to realize that he's not beyond redemption.

But, surprisingly, it doesn't really work. Luke ends up just trying to hide from Vader in order to not fight him, and near the end is really struggling to maintain his control and follow his teachings...something that he ultimately fails in doing:

But he brings himself back at the end with some well-placed imagery (the comparison of the robot hands), and that brings us to the climax of this arc, and arguably the climax of the series as a whole.

SCENE VI: The Hurl

Film is a visual medium. I know I’m bound to win a bunch of awards for the originality of that statement, but I think it bears repeating here. Because this scene is perhaps my favorite in the entire saga, and the reason that it works is that it exploits all the advantages that film has over other mediums, and uses them to perfection to create the tone and ambiance that it requires.

I don’t like to vehemently disagree with others opinions. Really, I don’t. And like I mentioned, I may be too in love with this scene to possibly look at it objectively. But in my mind, this scene contains every advantage that film has over other mediums, and displays them at their finest.

The Emperor lets loose with a flurry of Force lightning. This is an ability that we’ve never seen before (hitherto, in any case), from anyone in Star Wars, even the powerful Yoda. This informs how serious a threat the Emperor is, that he is able to do this thing, unique to him in the OT.

It also works well as a storytelling element. It allows for the degradation and torture of Luke in an acceptable form. The Emperor probably could have easily killed Luke right of the bat, but he wanted to torture him, make him pay for not falling in line with the Emperor’s grand scheme. It was the overconfidence that Luke had mentioned coming into play: the Emperor was convinced that he would be victorious, and when he’s not, he reacts the way anyone with great power does with they are proven wrong.

It’s also this same overconfidence that proves his own downfall, in true poetic fashion. The Emperor never even considers that the henchman he made it clear that he did not mind replacing would turn on him, or that said henchman would never chose his son over his master. The Emperor was so sure of his hold on Vader that this did not even cross his mind—this moment plays because of the setup that’s gone on before, where it’s been made obvious that the Emperor thinks he controls and is control of the situation, of every little strand of the web he has spun.

What strikes me is just how on point every aspect of this scene is, and its why it confuses me about the people who say (and they were very few, but they were there) that they preferred Vader’s added “No” in the blu-ray release, because they thought it was odd he didn’t say anything. But adding the “No” takes away the subtlety of the scene (as well as making us question why the Emperor wouldn’t hear a guy half a foot away from him say something that might, just might, signal that he’s about to be thrown off a bridge, but that’s another post). The filmmaker builds the perfect tonal pitch here, with every aspect of the scene’s design: the crackle of the lightning bolts, the pain on Luke’s face and the abject glee/profound hatred on the Emperor’s, the building music with the mournful choir, Luke’s desperate, echoing screams for help, and the dynamic pan-in of the camera on Vader’s face—all this works well together and in conjunction with each other part to create a moment where we don’t need dialogue to “get into Vader’s head,” or know his intention. There are things unique to film that cannot be said for any other art form, be it books or plays or music or painting. Film, solitary among art forms, can use multiple disciplines to its advantage: music, and visuals, and dialogue, and stages. All of this, when put in motion correctly, can help create a realistic moment in time, something that sticks with the audience subtly, resonating in their emotional core. And that’s why I think this scene is so good, because it accomplishes that. It also accomplishes getting inside the thoughts of a man with a mask over his face—if that’s not a feat worthy of praise, I don’t know what is.

But enough of me slobbering over this scene. Suffice it to say I think it works beautifully, and it’s one of the best parts of all three movies, from the Emperor’s first volley to his final scream, it all combined to make a seminal moment that showcases the greatest strength of film.

And finally, the number one reason that ROTJ is a good film—perhaps even more important than the scenes mentioned above, is:

POSTULATE V: Act III saves this movie.

I harped on the problems with the three-act structure, specifically for this movie, in my previous post, and they all still stand. But…

Okay, remember how when you were in school and were working on expository writing? You know, that writing test where you had to write a five-paragraph essay with intro, three support paragraphs, and conclusion? That rubric that you never had to use for anything ever again in life, and were laughed at for using in college? (Note: I’m not bitter. –E) Remember what did your teacher’s always say about those all-too-important three supporting paragraphs? Always put your best reason at the end, they said, Cause the person reading it will remember what you said last, best.

Now that’s a little trite and simplistic, but you know what? It’s basically true. Especially in longer works. The audience is willing to forgive a little second-act boredom for a kick-ass third act, and fortunately for the critical survival of ROTJ, its third act is undoubtedly kick-ass.

It’s amazing to me just how quickly the tension ramps back up after that god-awful Luke and Leia talk in undoubtedly the worst moment in the movie. First, we have that great scene with Vader and Luke that starts us off; and you know shit is really going down now, cause Luke’s going to the Emperor.

Then, almost immediately after, we have this absolutely wonderful scene with the rebel fleet, the Millennium Falcon flying amongst the cruisers, heading the dozens of fighters following behind—it’s majestic and sweeping, the music for this little scene is perfect; I mean, hell, it’s been over half an hour since we’ve seen these guys! We’re just happy they’re okay! Then they BLAST off into hyperspace and you’re like, “Oh shit here we goooooooooo!!!!”

The divide between Act II and III is just astonishing, but in a good way, I guess. Act III is so effective at building the excitement sorely lacking in Act II that it almost gives the audience whiplash; I mean, it’s a pretty effective wake-up call. And within minutes we’re fighting Imperial legions with squirrels armed with bows and arrows on the ground and blasting away at Star Destroyers above, interspersed with a tense dramatic showdown between the three Force-trained people in the series—God, what’s not to love? All the doldrums of the second act are forgotten in this grand conclusion to the Star Wars saga.

It also can't be overstated just how well Act III handles a three thread, shifting storyline. We have the Rebel assault on the Death Star, Luke's final confrontation with Vader, and the mission to blow up the shield generator, handled through intercutting the screentime of each thread together in ways to advance all three stories to their final conclusions at about the same pace. But in order to pull that off successfully, you have to maintain the tone.

Now what do I mean by that? Simply, you can't fit an uplifting scene and a depressing scene together. Or a comedy scene juxtaposed with a scene of horrific mutilation. Or a lament right beside a limerick. Basically, you can't do what this movie did, okay?

I know it seems like I harp on the prequels (mainly because I do), but considering these were the two movies that came (production-wise) right after one another, you can easily track where Lucas went wrong or lost his head. The ending of The Phantom Menance is an untenable mess. Entertaining? Yeah, sure—I remember being mesmerized when I saw it in theaters (oh, what a young, innocent mind I was). But similarly unaffecting, and, in part—beyond the lack of characterization the protagonists and antagonists have, and therefore the lack of empathy the audience has for them—is that the tone of the ending in The Phantom Menace is not cohesive. Ben Burtt says it better than I can:

“In the space of about 90 seconds, you go from lamenting the death of, you know, a hero. To 'escape,' to slightly comedic with Jar-Jar, to Anakin returning with his little tag. It's a lot, you know, and it's really a very short time...”

(Note: This whole featurette is fascinating at the least for seeing where The Phantom Menace went wrong. But the pertinent quote is in this section at about 5:20 --E)

The problem with this jolting whiplash is that it doesn't allow the audience to feel a certain way. Their emotions are strung back and forth so much that in the end they end up feeling nothing. And it's at this point where the movie becomes the bright pinwheel of flashing lights that bitter fans accuse the prequels of being. Emotional investment into a movie is what keeps us involved with it; it's what takes a movie from being mere satiating entertainment into something we remember long after it’s over. And a movie doesn't even have to go down in history or anything in order to strike an emotional resonance. But all good movies do have that emotional investment, where we care, and are affected, by what's happening on screen. When we don't, a movie is just nothing more than 10.00 out of our pockets a way to waste a couple of hours on a slow Saturday night.

And so that's the problem with The Phantom Menace's use of the multiple-ending technique: it's lack of cohesion kills the emotional involvement because we are asked to feel to many things in too short a time, and that keeps the audience at a distance.

How Jedi avoids this pitfall is, one, they have one less thread, which really helps, but mainly, the ups-and-downs of the narratives pretty much match each other. It's not perfect, I wouldn't say, but it maintains a pretty steady track with one another. When things go to hell for the Rebel fighters, they're going to hell for Han and Leia on Endor, and they're going to hell for Luke in the Throne Room. When everything starts to get better, it pretty much gets better for everybody—uh, save for Luke.

And then when everything starts to resolve, it all starts to resolve. The touching scene in the Death Star where Luke and Vader talk and Vader dies comes right before the Falcon et al. blow up the whole frigging joint. It's fitting really, almost symbolic of how the Empire has fallen and the series has come to a close.

And that too, I think, is a big reason why the multi-thread ending in ROTJ functions so well: because it was the right time and moment for an epic, multi-thread, planet-engulfing finish, with each of our main characters taking some part, however small, in destroying the second Death Star and outcome of the war. This is truly the end of a saga, and such an end begs for a huge, multi-faceted battle where the stakes are higher than they've ever been and our heroes all reach the extremist of lows. The ending of ROTJ works because it is the perfect sort of finish for this sort of journey. Big, loud, bombastic, and ultimately, satisfying. Tying up the ends and letting us leave the theater with a sense of closure that, as I've mentioned, all audiences desire at some level and in some form. Luke becomes a Jedi, his father has been redeemed, Han and Leia get together, everyone survives and celebrates at a Teddy Bear luau on the planet's surface, BYOB. It's a fitting conclusion to this tale that we have come to know and love, and that, in the end, is why Return of the Jedi is a good movie.


These are all big, reaching, momentous reasons, when you get down to it. But there are so many other moments in this movie that I could point out and wax eloquent on. How about the pyre Luke makes of Vader, and the haunting rendition of Luke's theme that plays over it as he watches the suit burn? How about the music as a whole, and how it rises and falls, explodes and tapers at all the right moments? How about the effects—that shot of the Falcon zipping away from the main reactor just as it explodes still wows me to this day (and talk about a good musical cue):

There are just so many moments, too many to delve into detail on in a blog post—too many to really say that ROTJ is not a good movie, or even is just a mediocre one. It’s not perfect, it’s not as good as the first two, but it deserves respect for what it is, and what it manages to do, some of it expertly.

To the seven people that happened upon this blog while trolling Ebay for bootleg copies of the Star Wars Holiday Special, I hope you’ve enjoyed this overly-capacious little nostalgia trip to the early eighties; now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a lecture to attend: The Dumbing Down of America by Mainstream Entertainment, presented by Lee Przyzewski.

Have to keep up appearances, you know.

Until next time,

Mr. E.


  1. Wonderful analysis!

  2. Thanks man, this was a great series of articles. I would be interested in hearing your quick breakdown of improving the act structure for Return of Jedi.