Sunday, May 16, 2010

Star Wars marathon: Episode VI

Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983, Richard Marquand)

And so the circle is complete. Balance has been restored to the Force. At the start of this saga the Jedi were the guardians of peace and justice throughout the galaxy, and a new generation of Jedi emerge at the tail end of our story. That, however, is merely a statement of facts. How the audience gets to that final point at which the heroes and their friends can celebrate their new found freedom, that’s an entirely different matter. It’s also no secret that several franchises, past and present, have begun in stride only to end in a disappointing fizzle.

In this final instalment, Luke, Leia, Lando (LLL, played by Hamil, Fisher and Billy Dee Williams respectively) and their sidekicks Chewie, R2D2 and C3PO must face off against the vile Jabba the Hutt in order to rescue a captured and very frozen Han Solo (Ford) from the gangster's clutches. Meanwhile, the Galactic Empire is equipping itself with a new, more powerful battle station, one they hope will finally vanquish the pesky Rebel Alliance when the two forces clash in a final battle on and above the forest planet of Endor. The war is approaching its climax, as is the father son confrontation between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader (James Earl Jones). This time however, Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) gets into the mix of things as well.

Episode VI is a challenging movie for me to watch. After 5 episodes, we’ve seen a lot of characters come and go. We’ve seen some highs and some lows, but overall, even when a given instalment caused some problems for me (such as Episode I), I still felt there was always enough for me to offer the movie in question some praise. Episode VI really, really puts that ability of mine to the test. As a chapter in a franchise I admire and more crucially as the concluding chapter, I find Return of the Jedi to be a disappointment. The issues I have pertain to the film’s surprising lack of imagination and problems with the script and acting. Things get off to a rough start right from the opening minutes, no kidding at all. The opening scrawl explains that the Empire is secretly working on a new weapon, even more powerful than the original Death Star. Immediately after the text dissolves into space, the camera pans down to reveal...a half completed Death Star. So the Empire ‘secret’ was another Death Star. I’m sorry, a Death Star more powerful than the original Death Star. Right, my bad. This lack of creative thinking doesn’t merely hurt the opening to the film, but the climactic battle as well. The rebels have found yet another weakness in the battle station via some blueprints. You guessed it, it’s another long corridor that ships can easily fly through with a huge core that not even the worst fighter pilot could miss. The film tries to create tension differently this time around by having the Rebel fleet depend upon the efforts of their fellow soldiers down below on Endor as the latter group, led by Solo and company, attempt to blow up a shield generator. Nice try, but I wasn’t feeling very much. There is also a strange and unintentionally funny scene during the climax when the Emperor invites Luke to behold the power of the new Death seeing it blow up a space ship? It seems to me the first Death Star did a lot more damage than that.

Of course, then there are the section of the story transpiring on Endor itself. After seeing some remarkable planets and locals in the previous films, Endor sort looks plain and boring. It’s a forest. I like forests, they’re nice to walk through and all, but I’m not terribly excited to see that as a major location for a Star Wars film. It doesn’t have the pizzazz of Bespin, Kamino, Coruscant or even Tatooine, which was populated by a host of bizarre and dangerous characters. The inhabitants of Endor are fuzzy little Ewoks. I shan’t go on a tirade about the annoying nature of these creatures, because I don’t find them to be terribly annoying to begin with. I honestly don’t. In fact, I have no qualms about Ewoks helping the Rebels in some small ways in their fight against the Empire. It’s the fact that the Ewoks completely demolish the Stormtroopers and their war machines that got under my skin. I’m pretty sure we see some Ewoks firing arrows from bows. Really? Is Stormtrooper armour that brittle? To be honest, the only action set piece which works on any sort of level for me is the assault on Jabba’s palace and hover craft. It offers some swashbuckling adventure, although even that sequence has some absolutely ridiculous moments. Boba Fett’s death? Oh please... There’s also a boring and, yes, annoying musical sequence which was crafted for the purposes of the special edition of the film released in the late 1990s. I have no idea what those 3 minutes are doing in the movie.

I think what gets me the most about the movie is Harrison Ford’s performance as Han Solo. Brash, pompous, egotistical but also charming and loyal in the previous two chapters, Ford just doesn’t look like he’s putting in as much energy in Episode VI. I recall watching the bonus features on the classic trilogy DVD set s a few years back and learning that Ford thought killing off his character at the end of Episode V was the best idea. Lucas and company eventually convinced the actor otherwise, but judging by the energy or lack thereof in his performance, you could have fooled me. It doesn’t look as if he was entirely convinced he needed to be there. He’s given much poorer comedic dialogue and moments this time around as well, which doesn’t help. I should point out that Carrie Fisher gives a strong performance however. She seems to really believe in the project and doesn’t disappoint at any moment in the film. It’s just unfortunate and her co-star and love interest wasn’t in the same spirits.

Episode VI offers a climactic faceoff between Vader and his son Luke, with Palpatine looking, fully expecting to take immediate advantage of whomever should emerge victorious. It’s a strange scene that plays out at an odd pace. Palpatine sits on his throne for the better part of the scene while tauting Luke about how he should try to strike him down and give in to the Dark Side of the Force. Our young Jedi Knight does his best to control his emotions and withstand the psychological and emotional onslaught. It’s an interesting way to handle the Light Side/Dark Side conflict, and I understand what it is the filmmakers are going for. I don’t think it results in a very fun scene, but it’s unique. Part of the problem lies with Marquand’s direction. It feels a bit flat, a bit uninspired. This affects some of the other moments in the movie, such as the battle between the Stormtroopers and Ewoks. For example, I can imagine how on paper the notion of ‘Ewoks pummelling Stroomtroopers with rocks’ might have sounded rather daring, but on film it looks absolutely ludicrous. Certainly from a visual standpoint, Episode VI is a downgrade from Episode V. The current film is not blessed with some of the brilliant cinematography and lighting that Empire had. It all feels rather plain.

It took quite a while before we got to a film in this marathon which I didn’t like very much, but here we are. As much as I had problems with Episode I, which was the last time I bickered so much about a Star Wars film, there a lot of important things going for it such as the action, the visuals, the story setting and Liam Neeson. Plus, it had some genuinely original elements, such as the pod race sequence. Episode VI doesn’t even always provide satisfactory action scenes, not to mention that it blatantly rehashes some major elements from Episode VI. If I were to make a James Bond reference, this reminds me of Diamonds Are Forever following up on On Her Makesty’s Secret Service. While the Bond example irks me on a far greater level due to my emotional investment in that franchise, this is eerily similar. By the time the movie ended, I wasn’t thrilled, nor could I immediately recall any moments that struck me in any particularly positive way. Interestingly enough, the position I hold on Episode VI is not a new one. In all honesty, even as a child I always felt something was amiss about Jedi. A second Death Star, those silly looking pig guards at Jabba’s palace, the Ewok battle, etc. I thought all that stuff pretty much sucked way back when I was 10.

It’s a shame the marathon couldn’t end on a high. We were on such a hot streak for a while. Only one more to go and we would have had one glorious marathon. Alas, it wasn’t meant to be. Even after a 5 year hiatus (approximately), Episode VI still leaves me rather bummed out. I say we don’t allow this disappointment to overshadow the fun we’ve had up until now. The Star Wars franchise is wholesome entertainment, with the exception of Leia French kissing Luke of course. The film display impressing imagination, character development and great action overall. I had a wonderful time revisiting these movies, even when they weren’t up to par. Bill, thank a bundle for doing this with me. When Between the Seats and your Movie Emporium join Forces, nothing in the galaxy can stop us. Only one question remains:

Sith or Jedi?

Done here? Find out if Bill got lost in Jabba’s palace at Bill’s Movie Emporium.

1 comment:

Bill Thompson said...

You know, I didn't think of many of your qualms, but I do agree with them. It's because of your complaints, and mind, that I've always wondered why people lump this in with the great classic trilogy.

In true Star Wars nerd fashion I choose Potentium, but since I don't want to leave you shaking your head, always go Sith over Jedi, always.