Affection, dysfunctional power, and breaking the cycle of violence in Return of the Jedi

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Return of the Jedi (1983)
Dir. Richard Marquand

A freak show, and then a shitshow, Return of the Jedi is unstable and proud of it. It is easy to see a kind of stoned sacrilege throughout the film as it breaks imaginary promises with its audience and indulges the series’ worst impulses, but in spite of this it feels delirious instead of strictly contrary. The sincerity of its craft is in that it desperately wants to give everything it can- revelations, closure, but also new images, new avenues- and so it blunders and drags through its competing desire to move and entertain. Lucas seems to take Ballard’s ‘hobbits in space’ head-on by imposing the centrality of Jabba’s palace and later Endor, confirming that the science fiction author had a point but that was always the point. This decision may for many unveil the series’ impulse to fantasy corniness (and if you’re cynical, cynical merchandising), but these locations are filled with such an excess of life as to vibrate with it. (More distracting than Ewoks is Ford’s over-confident performance as a passive aggressive dad, grimacing himself into meaning). Whatever the take, the geographical separation of Star Wars‘ adventure mode from its dramatic tragedy effectively liberates both from one another, which is a freeing albeit gruelling artistic move.

There is no conflict

Everything not exciting in Return of the Jedi is instead professionally, gorgeously heartbreaking. The way the cameras track cinematically through a bleak restriction of colour to reflective blacks in the Empire sections are sculptural in a way that Empire never was. Similarly the use of sublime proportions (a grossly disproportionate scale between agent and environment) emphasises the Empire’s inhumanity, while the eerie second Death Star (a zombie or ghost) hanging in the sky reminds us that however massive their presence, they are self-destructive. Return‘s mattes are uniformly exquisite, but the painterly melancholy here is critical in setting the Empire up as something dysfunctional: victory isn’t so much about beating the bad guys as it is about removing the world from the hold of the powerful before it disintegrates with them. It is easy to read a simplicity into Lucas’ archetypes with Vader’s change of heart, and to find Luke’s inner conflict a means of dragging out tension over the inevitable, but seen as the conclusion to six films and not three their final scenes are devastating. ‘There is no conflict’- no, of course there isn’t, there’s just Anakin’s pathetic face looking caught out, looking like I’m sorry you’ve seen me like this but I’m glad you’ve seen me, and I know you love me, I know, and I’m sorry.

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