No. 1: Return of the Jedi

Note: Back to the Movies is a special feature on the FilmNerds blog in which Matt Scalici will be watching the Top 50 highest-grossing movies of 1983 in order from 50 to 1.

As our epic journey through the far, far away galaxy of the 1983 cineplex, we come to the year’s most successful box office hit (by far) and easily the most enduring cultural landmark of 1983 cinema. Return of the Jedi marked the conclusion of George Lucas’ groundbreaking sci-fi/adventure franchise known as the Star Wars trilogy…or so we thought back in 1983.

Lucas’ multiple reincarnations of the franchise, whether through the reviled “Special Edition” re-releases of the original films or the equally reviled prequel trilogy, have had perhaps more HTML dedicated to them than any other subject in the internet era. Fans have endlessly debated whether Lucas has destroyed his once great creation with his later work but in this post, I want to keep the discussion of what Lucas did later to a minimum. Today, I want to focus on a time in which the Star Wars films were still a pure, unadulterated work of unfathomable imagination and unparalleled creative depth. A time in which the release of a new Star Wars film brought with it the promise of new adventures with Luke, Leia and Han, new bizarre and alien creatures that were unlike anything we’d ever seen before, and to a lesser extent a long-awaited resolution to a rather compelling and surprising storyline. That time was 1983.

OK, perhaps I’m overly romanticizing how great everything was on Skywalker Ranch back in 1983. Yes, Lucas had suffered a run-in with the Directors Guild of America (it involved philosophical differences over Lucas’ decision not to include opening credits in The Empire Strikes Back) that prevented him from hiring his producing partner and good friend Steven Spielberg to direct the third installment of his mega-hit franchise. In fact, because the production would now be non-union, it wasn’t just Spielberg who wouldn’t be available to direct but most other proven directing talent in Hollywood as well. Lucas approached a couple of up-and-coming filmmakers with solid pedigrees, David Lynch and David Cronenberg, but both ultimately turned down the job to pursue passion projects (and yes, it ultimately worked out in both men’s favors). Eventually, Lucas hired little-known Welsh director Richard Marquand, a relatively inexperienced filmmaker who had absolutely zero experience working on a project of the scale and budget he would have for Return of the Jedi. There are varying reports of exactly how much of the directing Marquand did but for the sake of this post, let’s assume it’s somewhere in the middle with Marquand handling the day-to-day duties of directing but Lucas holding overall creative control.

Then there were the disputes over the story and how it should ultimately end. Lucas had a very difficult time deciding exactly how to handle the closing chapter of the trilogy and began pre-production on the film without a finished screenplay. There were reportedly some fairly heated disputes with both screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan, who along with Harrison Ford felt that having Han Solo die a heroic and sacrificial death would add great gravitas to the film, as well as his producing partner Gary Kurtz, who ultimately walked away from the project when he felt Lucas’ storytelling had become tainted by his consideration for things like merchandising and toy sales.

In the end, a script was settled on and while some have remained critical of the film’s tidy happy ending, there are more than a few sequences in Return of the Jedi that hold up today as absolute classic moments of 20th Century Hollywood.

Return of the Jedi will always be remembered first and foremost for the incredible, funny, dark and thrilling opening scenes of the film that center around the rescue of Han Solo from Jabba the Hutt’s palace. The character of Jabba had already been mentioned throughout the first two films and Lucas had been warning the audience that he was a bad dude who was not to be trifled with but it wasn’t until we saw him in all his disgusting and hedonistic glory that we could truly understand what Lucas had in mind when he was speaking of this intergalactic crime lord. Jabba is a combination of a Roman aristocrat and a Mongol warrior king. He eats small rat-like creatures alive whenever he gets a craving. He keeps a herd of dancing slave girls around that he either licks or feeds to his monster, whichever he feels will be more amusing at the moment. He’s a truly revolting character, almost to a comedic extent, and the visual presentation of him has a lot to do with his effectiveness.

Jabba was, and remains to this day, one of the most complex and expensive puppets ever built. Designed by the brilliant Phil Tippett, the Jabba puppet cost over a half a million dollars to construct and weighed over a ton once completed. It was operated by as many as six puppeteers at a time, some inside the puppet, some behind the puppet and some off set using radio control devices. What Frank Oz did with his magnificent performance as Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back is equalled here by his Jim Henson Company cohorts with their work on Jabba. What’s most astonishing to me so many years later is how wonderful and real these puppet characters feel, not just Yoda and Jabba but all the peripheral make-up and latex creations that fill the edges of the room in Jabba’s palace.

I know I said I wasn’t going to talk much about Lucas’ later work but when it comes to puppets, I think Return of the Jedi has a lot to teach all of us today, not just Lucas, about the power of using real things over computer generated images today. As many of you know (especially if you are a nerd like me) George Lucas’ rationale for adding CGI effects to the “Special Edition” re-releases of the original films was that had he possessed the technology at the time, he would have used CGI instead of practical effects. In fact, Lucas states in his audio commentary on the 2004 DVD release of Return of the Jedi that whether a character is created via puppet or CGI, it will always be “fake” since they are both artificial and that if anything, the CGI character is more real since it can do things that a puppet cannot do, such as walk. This is where Lucas and I disagree vehemently. I think a piece of meticulously painted latex is VERY real and real in a way that a computer generated image could never be. Computers can do a lot of impressive things, sometimes things that no practical effect could ever do, but when it comes to creating a character, computers will never be able to duplicate the distinct movement of a living being, the “essence of life” if you will, in the way that a skilled puppeteer can. I won’t second-guess everything Lucas did with computers, but I’ll never understand why anyone could prefer a computerized Yoda and Jabba to the original puppet creations.

Among the other things Lucas got so very right in Return of the Jedi was the interplay between Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader and the evil Emperor Palpatine. While the Emperor was referenced in earlier films and even made brief appearances, he was never truly brought to life as a character until Ian McDiarmid took over the role and played him in person for the first time in the series. We saw McDiarmid earlier in Back to the Movies in a small but interesting performance in Gorky Park, in which he portrayed a creepy forensic scientist. Here McDiarmid takes that creepiness and adds a healthy dose of pure evil to it, overshadowing Darth Vader as the ultimate villain of the piece and giving Vader and his son Luke some common ground for the first time in the series.

Other than the typically cranky Vincent Canby and the notoriously nasty New York Post reviewer Rex Reed, most critics loved the film and while many felt it wasn’t as strong as the first two installments of the franchise, they were still blown away by its originality and pure entertainment value. In his 1983 review, Roger Ebert talked about the “density of the canvas” shown to us in Return of the Jedi, referring to the abundance of originality and imagination pouring out of Lucas and his team. Ebert was fascinated with the sheer volume of new and fresh ideas present on screen, even if they were mentioned only for a moment of referenced in a single shot.

It’s easy to take for granted today how rich and fresh these films must have felt when they were new. I don’t know if it’s really possible to go back and view these films with that same sense of newness, since so many things that have come since then have been so deeply influenced by them, from the Lord of the Rings films to Saturday morning cartoons. As you’ll hear in the podcast included below, even a first-time viewer of these films in 2011 can’t view them with the same fresh perspective as a 1983 audience would have since they have become so deeply ingrained into our popular culture today. Even if you don’t see these films, you can’t help but be exposed to references to nearly every individual scene within them just by being out there and consuming the entertainment.

There are things that are less amazing and fascinating in Return of the Jedi, whether it’s the slightly-too-cute Ewoks or the cluttered space battles or repetitive Death Star destruction sequence, but this film has more originality and creativity in its little finger than most sci-fi/fantasy films from the last 30 years could ever dream of having. It’s a clear reminder of a time when George Lucas wasn’t a figure that inspired cynicism. He was one of the great creative minds working in Hollywood.


DOWNLOAD: Back to the Movies Podcast – Return of the Jedi (with special guests Chris Rosko and Jason Roche)


Next Up: We take a look back at some of my favorite films, performances and moments from this epic journey through the films of 1983.