Most of this was written right after Force Awakens came out, it has been edited a little, but the feelings were heavily influenced by how recently I had seen it. It also should be said I’m not even a huge Star Wars fan. I like the original trilogy, and have strong feelings about it, but as far as tv shows, prequels, or even Rogue One goes, I could not care less. Also, this is finally a post not about a Disney Movie! (mostly)
The original Star Wars trilogy is often hailed as the greatest film series of all time. And that is mostly deserved. After all, the majority of the other great sagas in film are derived from literature. Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, The Godfather, even James Bond, the Dark Knight trilogy and Marvel’s ongoing Avengers mega-series starting with Iron Man 1 all the way back in 2008, are all derived from existing sources. And while other successful — both critically as well as commercially — series, such as The Matrix were original, and written directly for the screen, Star Wars stands as a series where all three films are considered (somewhat) equal. Outside of the Toy Story series, which also features three stellar films, only George Lucas’s other franchise of the 1980s, Indiana Jones, holds a similar distinction of having three well-received titles in a franchise, written directly for the screen. Even then, many consider Temple of Doom a low point of that series to an even greater degree than Return of the Jedi. I think Jedi is a better film than Star Wars, but it is the most divisive of the original trilogy.
Star Wars (now known as, and will be referred to as, A New Hope) does not feature very compelling drama. If you are invested enough in the characters, the big reveal near the end of Empire will come as a huge shock, and will give you much better insight into why Luke, of all the scruffy-looking nerf herders on Tatooine, is chosen to take down the Empire. This makes Jedi’s revelations and big moments a lot more compelling, but New Hope hardly even explains Vader’s role in the Galactic Empire, and Vader surviving while Tarkin dies sets up a sequel nicely. This, however, leaves something to be desired in terms of the Empire’s chain-of-command being explained. Attentive rewatches and accompanying novels clear this up, but simply watching the films can leave one unclear on the hierarchy of the Dark Side. The action is just as good as the other two films, and while the characters may seem inconsistent compared to their later selves, you cannot hold it against the film, as it was intended to be a one-off, not the start of the greatest (purely) film franchise of all time.
All this to say, while we look upon the Star Wars films with as much fondness as we look at Wizard of Oz, or the first snowfall of winter, they are imperfect. Character motivations are generally unclear, pacing is off, especially in New Hope, which, after an exciting introduction to the villain and a few heroes, has a tedious, overlong scene in which robots are kidnapped by sentient brown robes. Acting is a bit stilted, particularly Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher, who thankfully both become much more compelling by Jedi.
Despite the imperfections, the movies are all joyous to watch, flaws and all. Nostalgia be damned, if you never watched the films growing up (and I was far from obsessive. We never owned the films, and before The Force Awakens came out, I had not seen a single Star War since Revenge of the Sith was in theaters), you would still be hard pressed to not immediately want to tun on Return of the Jedi the second Empire Strikes Back ends and Han remains in the carbonite slab. The criticisms I have written about up to this point are not to speak ill of a beloved franchise, but to point out that a movie can have plenty of flaws and still be universally loved. It’s a Wonderful Life is a movie I find incredibly clunky, with its angel-centered framing device, but it is still a classic that endures to this day, mostly due to the amazing performance by Jimmy Stewart.
The Empire Strikes Back is the best film in the trilogy, and overall series, including the prequels and Force Awakens. Mostly, everyone agrees with this, so explaining why is almost redundant. Even the would-be boring scene of landing in the Dagobah system is exciting, with R2-D2 in immediate trouble, only to humorously dig himself out of it. The dialogue between R2 and Luke is very corny, but at this point, Mark Hamill is enough of an actor to pull it off. Also, the fact that this movie pulls off a romance between the main character’s best friends and it doesn’t feel tacked-on is another testament to the film’s success.
The most surprising sequence in any Star Wars film has to be Yoda’s initial appearance. Manic, elderly, and yet still mysterious, Yoda’s first scene is hilarious, and Hamill plays off him pretty well. He’s still not much of an actor, but he does fine here. It makes his death at the beginning of Jedi very effective, and not just because Luke is upset, but we are upset that Yoda will not be in any more of the film.
After some more training and backwards-speaking philosophical rhetoric from Yoda, the film then shakes off his weirdness, and for the rest of the movie, it’s crazy set-piece after another. Han gets frozen with forty minutes left in the film, and it isn’t resolved until Jedi. Luke’s hand is cut off, and he escapes Cloud City out of the basement, only to Force-call Leia, his sister (though we don’t know that yet) to come and save him. And the biggest moment in all of Star Wars happens: Vader is Luke’s father. While it is obvious to everyone now, watching the films, in order, fresh after 10 or so years gave that scene added oomph, even though I knew it was coming.
The last thing that makes Empire stand above Jedi is that the villains are far more mysterious. You see the back of Vader’s head — it’s ugly, scarred, and most importantly, barely visible. The reveal of the front of Darth Vader’s ugly head at the end of Jedi is now not very shocking. Moreover, the mystery of Boba Fett and Darth Vader as well as the looming question of who this Jabba the Hutt fellow is, keep the film moving forward.
Which brings us to Return of the Jedi. It’s a very divisive film, with many people considering it the weakest of the three. From a universe/world-building standpoint, this is absolutely correct. The characters introduced in Jabba’s palace are all colorful, disgusting, but ultimately, unmemorable, except for soft-serve head guy. Ewoks tend to have the biggest backlash of anything in the movie, but regardless of how cute they are, a silent, unknown group of forest mammals helping Han and Leia save Endor from certain apocalypse is, in my opinion, super cool.
Return of the Jedi’s biggest problem is not on the Forest Moon, but back on Luke’s home of Tatooine. The third act of Jedi is as effective as the endings of the first two films, little woodland creatures and all. Opening on Tatooine with Jabba’s insane revolving door of colorful monster slaves/entertainers/that guy with the weird pink snake head thing is actually the film’s low-point. We see this kind of gross, crazy band playing terrible music, (The Special Edition ruins this sequence further, with its awful CGI and even worse song, but the original is not great either) and there is just too much variety in the creatures at Jabba’s palace to really feel out which race/species actually belong there. Boba Fett, the formidable bounty hunter whose introduction at the halfway point in Empire Strikes Back was subject to huge fanfare, dies immediately. Afterwards, Jabba, the equally interesting and enigmatic villain, whose introduction has been teased since the Mos Eisley Cantina scene way back at the beginning of A New Hope, has a similar, anticlimactic death. I hope that anyone reading this has at least watched the original trilogy on old LaserDiscs/VHS tapes/2006 DVD sets that have the LaserDisc original cuts, or even better, in the theater back in the 1980s, so that the reveal in Jedi of Jabba the Hutt isn’t spoiled by Lucas’s ridiculous 1997 Special Edition addition of Jabba into New Hope (a completely redundant scene, as Han just had a very tense scene with Jabba’s bounty hunter, Greedo, so his debt to Jabba is well established). This is my biggest objection to the edits that Lucas has made to these movies since they came out. Jabba’s scene is the most pointless scene in the entire trilogy, and I absolutely hate it. The Blu-ray/Digital HD versions that are currently out are the ’04 Special Editions, and they contain this abomination.
But I digress. Return of the Jedi messes up the deaths of some awesome villains, but after the first 25 minutes or so, we’re rolling. Luke has to deal with Vader, his father, after rescuing his friends, and there’s a sweet space-motorcycle chase scene through the jungle. His final confrontation with Vader, after Vader has decided to save him and kill his mentor of 30 years, ends with Hamill’s best acting in the series. He carries more than his weight here as he realizes his father sacrificed his own life to save his. It is a touching moment, and despite being the end of a three-part action film series, the drama is a bit weightier than one might expect. Sebastian Shaw does a great job with his handful of lines, and the heroism of his last moments looms large over the ending of the film. It of course all comes to head when, upon meeting his now-sister, best friend and robot buddies back on Endor, the forest moon, Luke is finally at peace with the force, his father, and his old mentors Yoda and Obi-Wan. He looks over to the side and sees all three as “force ghosts,” a cheesy, yet still important moment.
Here is where the Special Editions become a legitimate problem. Outside of some misguided color correction on lightsabers, Empire remains almost entirely unscathed (Save for a rare improvement Lucas made to the films: inserting Ian McDiarmid as the Emperor in a key scene), but the New Hope Jabba scene is horrible, because it completely ruins the opening moments of Jedi. The music that Jabba’s Max Rebo Band now plays in place of the original cut is much more annoying. But Sebastian Shaw’s smiling force ghost of Anakin Skywalker in the final moment of Return of the Jedi being replaced with Hayden Christensen, whose emotionless death stare is eerily mismatched with Yoda and Obi-wan’s warm smiles, has to be the worst thing that George Lucas did when he went to remodel his beloved films. Luke only knows what Anakin looks like with Sebastian Shaw’s face. He knows, obviously, what Ol’ Ben and Yoda should look like. One could argue that Lucas wanted Luke to remember what Anakin looked like before he was evil, but here he looks more evil than Sebastian Shaw ever could. In addition, Shaw-Vader, as in the one Luke just saw a couple hours before, redeemed himself before his death, to become one with the force. His redemption was saving the chosen one, his son, the man that would bring order back to the galaxy. Therefore, Luke’s vision of Anakin, the force ghost, should be that of his father, Shaw’s Anakin, who has just ushered in the destruction of the Empire, by killing its leader, and NOT the Hayden Christensen Anakin that helped Palpatine start all of this.
Of course, we should all locate and watch Harmy’s Despecialized Editions of all three of these films, if only they were not only available through illegal channels. They are a painstaking attempt at reconstructing each film the way it was originally in theaters, with no Jabba in New Hope and no Hayden Christensen in Jedi. Basically nothing that George Lucas added to the films through the 1990s and 2000s that makes you wince. They are each fantastic and available in high-quality files, but since they are illegal, I will not link to them.
For my reference, I referred to this extensive, entertaining comparison of the ’97 Special Edition, ’04 Special Edition, Blu-ray cut and theatrical cut of each Star Wars film. Look first at the section on Jabba’s inclusion in New Hope, about 3/4 the way through the page. Other important things to look at here are how lightsabers actually can look much worse in the rereleases. Several more minor details (The sandcrawler looks better in every rerelease, some laser effects are better) were changed for the better, but most of the major changes (They did some weird things to Cloud City, the Max Rebo band is way worse in the special edition of Jedi,) hurt the films in big ways. Lightsabers are a mixed bag, as they often look better, occasionally look worse, and sometimes are somehow the wrong color. During the scene in the Falcon with Luke using Obi-Wan’s lightsaber, the thing is green! The Emperor in Empire is also totally crazy originally, and replacing him with Ian McDiarmid was a good call, even if the makeup is a bit off. Touching up lighting effects is fine, that could almost be considered remastering, but replacing actors, and adding pointless scenes that completely ruin later character introductions are things I strongly disagree with. I can’t help but feel that all of the creative energy Lucas poured into the Special Editions of both ’97 as well as the further ‘04 changes detracted from his abilities to actually focus on the prequels and make them good.
This post is not really a review of any one Star War, nor is it really for anything. I’m not even the biggest Star Wars fan out there, I just have very strong feelings about Empire, as well as Lucas’s tampering with the series as a whole. It’s a shame this series has been treated so poorly by its creator. Really, all I want is original, unedited films. The currently available films are inaccurate representations of the actual movies, and that’s a crying shame.
Star Wars, B
The Empire Strikes Back, A
Return of the Jedi, B+