Critical Opinion: Return of the Jedi Original Reviews

Thankfully for fans of Star Wars everywhere, The Empire Strikes Back proved that you could go back to the well a second time (not counting the Holiday Special, of course) and recreate the magic of the Star Wars galaxy in a very different way. As 1983 rolled around the world held its breath as Return of the Jedi arrived in North American cinemas nationwide on May 25, 1983, (2nd June here in the UK) and fans played Wookiee hookey and flocked in their droves to see the film. Commercially, Jedi was a monster success, breaking single day and opening weekend records with ease and catapulting the film swiftly up the all time charts. Indeed, by the end of the year the all time domestic top 3 read:

1: E.T

2: Star Wars

3: Return of the Jedi

But box office success, as welcome and indeed required as it was, wasn’t the only marker by which the film was judged. Star Wars had won over the public, and many of the critics, as the harder, more serious overtones of Empire equally divided opinions across the globe. But how would Jedi, a film more visibly pitched at a younger, toy hungry audience but loaded with serious undertones, fare with the critics?

Writing in the Chicago Tribune, Roger Ebert was certainly captivated by the second sequel, citing the swashbuckling spirit of the trilogy and the slew of imaginative ideas littering the screen.

“From the moment that the familiar ‘Star Wars’ introduction words begin to crawl up the screen, ‘Return of the Jedi’ is a childlike delight. It’s the best video game around. And for the professional moviegoers, it is particularly enjoyable to watch every facet of filmmaking at its best. It is that extra level of detail that makes the Star Wars pictures much more than just space operas. Other movies might approach the special effects. Other action pictures might approximate the sense of swashbuckling adventure. But in “Return of the Jedi,” as in “Star Wars” and “The Empire Strikes Back,” there’s such a wonderful density to the canvas. Things are happening all over. They’re pouring forth from imaginations so fertile that, yes, we do halfway believe in this crazy Galactic Empire long ago and far, far away.”

Return of the Jedi” is fun, magnificent fun. The movie is a complete entertainment, a feast for the eyes and a delight for the fancy. It’s a little amazing how Lucas and his associates keep topping themselves.”

And he celebrated the skill and inventiveness with which the saga was brought to the screen.

“From the point of view of simple movie-making logistics, there is an awesome amount of work on the screen in “Jedi” (twice as many visual effects as “Star Wars” in the space battles, Lucas claims). The fact that the makers of “Jedi” are able to emerge intact from their task, having created a very special work of the imagination, is the sort of miracle that perhaps Obi-Wan would know something about.”

Indeed he would, and Ebert was not alone in his praise for the film. Leonard Maltin of Entertainment Tonight was similarly ebullient about the third entry into the saga, while ringing a note of concern about the performances.

“Third installment in the ‘Star Wars’ saga is a sheer delight. Some routine performances are compensated for by ingenious new characters and special effects.”

Here in the UK film reviewer Wing Commander Pat Gibbs, writing in The Telegraph on 3rd June 1983 — the day after the films UK release — was less complimentary about the film.

“His “The Empire Strikes Back” of three years later was the expected sequel, of comparable technical efficiency but no longer seeming so original; and it is with some alarm that I read now that Return of the Jedi, which completes the trilogy, by no means brings the series to an end. For in the new film the former flair and invention are lacking, making the prospect of the two more trilogies planned on the same lines very daunting.

“While a certain amount of drama is found in these revealing scenes, it is somewhat dissipated in the romantic relations between Leia and Solo (which result from Luke disclosing that Leia is his sister). The dialogue given to the lovers is laughable, and their performances match it. So what is presumably intended as a great romantic finale comes to little, which might equally be said of the film as a whole.

“The appeal, perhaps, will be strongest to the young. The invited audience at the Press show was predominantly juvenile.”

Clearly no love for the film or of the series there. Writing in the Washington Post on 22nd May 1983 Gary Arnold was far more engaged by the material, discussing the impact on contemporary culture the three films had had, a point worth mentioning thirty plus years later as we still revel in today.

Return Of the Jedi,” a feat of mass enchantment, puts the happy finishing touches on George Lucas’ “Star Wars” saga. It was worth the wait, and the work is now an imposing landmark in contemporary popular culture — a three-part, 6 ¼-hour science-fiction epic of unabashed heroic proclivities.

To put it another way, “Return Of the Jedi,” which opens Wednesday at area theaters, is rather obviously (but irresistibly) calculated to permit a reunited “Star Wars” family — filmmakers and spectators alike — to have their cake and eat it. If the confection appealed to you in the first place, there’s certainly no reason for rejecting this lavish climax. But you may also find yourself reflecting that it’s not only the jubilant culmination of a good thing but also enough of a good thing.

A poster for Return of the Jedi features Leia, Luke, Han, Lando, Wicket, Jabba, and Bib Fortuna with Darth Vader looming large behind them.

Arnold also broaches the matter of ‘happy endings’, a worthwhile discussion given that originally a number of the lead characters and beloved vehicles were to meet their fates during the climax of the film.

“Lucas’ apparent reluctance to take any big chances with the scenario in “Jedi,” which shies away from the darker, tangled implications of the unanswered questions in “Empire,” is easy to comprehend. He’s so protective of the public attachment to his dream world that he resists taking many fresh risks or unfamiliar paths. The stakes are so huge that he’d be foolish to deny the audience a 100 percent reassuring wrap-up.

If Lucas had been merely 80 percent reassuring, he might have broken millions of young hearts, and he’s obviously loathe to break a single one. “Jedi” couldn’t end the “Star Wars” trilogy on a happier note, so I hope the movie going public will return the generosity and assure George Lucas that he’s done it and can now move on to something different.”

Writing in the Chicago Reader, Dave Fehr compared the film unfavourably — and today quite ironically — to Disney and to raiders of the Lost Ark, which he also seemed less than impressed by.

“With its feints at horror and pathos, the third Star Wars film (1983) is the most Disney-esque in its emotional outline, yet that outline is buried beneath an obnoxiously hyped-up pace (a la Raiders of the Lost Ark) that reduces the emotions to rubble. There is hardly any point in discussing the direction of a picture like this, in which almost every shot has been predetermined by the requirements of the special effects, yet director Richard Marquand (Eye of the Needle) fluffs the two or three real opportunities he has, rendering the long-delayed character climaxes with a chilly indifference. Interestingly, the advent of sexuality in the Star Wars universe (with the revelation of Carrie Fisher’s navel) is coupled with a resurgence of infantile imagery (with the swarms of teddy-bear Ewoks). If the trilogy has grown at all over its course, it’s in terms of commercial calculation—even the confusions of the narrative seem deliberately planted to encourage repeat viewings.”

Not a fan, but Nick Cramp of BBC Movies was as he praised all aspects of the film, including the performances of the lead actors.

“”Return of the Jedi” (originally called “Revenge of the Jedi” before creator George Lucas decided that revenge was not Jedi-like) completes the initial Star Wars film trilogy.

The Rebel Alliance must destroy a new Death Star built by a resurgent Empire, while Luke Skywalker faces the evil lord Darth Vader. But first he must rescue his friend Han Solo from the clutches of vile gangster Jabba the Hutt. This film marks a return to the heroics of “Star Wars”. The sombre, complex tone of “The Empire Strikes Back” is discarded in favour of a simpler, episodic approach. The action is aided by the stunning effects work of Lucas’ ILM company. Set-pieces abound, the assault on Jabba’s sail barge and the final attack on the Death Star are particularly noteworthy.

However, the episodic plot and abundant spectacle do not drown out the human interest. Such is the strength of the characters Lucas has created that their dilemmas remain centre stage. The conflict between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, which forms the core of the film, is particularly powerful.

Strong, albeit simply drawn characters are well realised by the actors, who all acquit themselves perfectly. The Emperor, when he finally makes his appearance, is memorably grotesque and menacing. Special praise must go to Darth Vader, voiced superbly by James Earl Jones; this character has the charisma of true villainy.

The “Star Wars” phenomenon has been seen as timeless modern myth-making; it has also been seen as the triumph of infantilism and a knockout blow to serious film-making. Whatever the verdict, “Return of the Jedi” is a fitting climax to the most successful space adventure of all time.”

Writing in Variety on 18th May 1983 James Harwood was not blown away by the conclusion, feeling that the finale of the second trilogy lacked heart but noting that its success financially was assured.

“There is good news, bad news and no news about “Return of the Jedi.” The good news is that George Lucas and Co. have perfected the technical magic to a point where almost anything and everything — no matter how bizarre — is believable. The bad news is the human dramatic dimensions have been sorely sacrificed. The no news is the picture will take in millions regardless of the pluses and minuses.”

Over at the New York Times on 25th May 1983 Vincent Canby laced his review with sarcasm (and a neat allusion to the then-hit show Soap) as he asked a number of questions about the plot and the characters.

“Will Han Solo ever fly again or is he forever doomed to remain a wall decoration in the pleasure palace of Jabba the Hutt? Does Princess Leia do her own hair or does she pay someone to make it look that way? Who, or perhaps what, is Salacious Crumb? When will Luke Skywalker become a true Jedi knight? Where does Yoda do his shopping? Will Darth Vader sacrifice his only begotten son so that evil might triumph? And, speaking of Vader, when he takes off his mask, what is underneath? James Earl Jones? David Prowse? A cantaloupe?

“All but two of these questions – plus dozens more you never thought to ask – are answered in Return of the Jedi, the concluding film in George Lucas’s phenomenally popular space-fantasy trilogy that began triumphantly with Star Wars (1977) but slowed down a good deal with The Empire Strikes Back (1980).

“The movie also introduces a number of new animated creatures, which are probably already in your corner toy store and will make a mint in subsidiary rights for Lucasfilm Ltd., the Star Wars parent company. The most attractive of these are some small, teddy-bear-like creatures called Ewoks, which serve the functions once left to friendly pygmies in old Tarzan movies.

Return of the Jedi doesn’t really end the trilogy as much as it brings it to a dead stop. The film is by far the dimmest of the lot. Let’s face it, Luke, the magic’s gone.”

Standing where we are in 2014, the magic most definitely has NOT gone, but to be fair back in 1983 that was effectively – as far as the public was concerned – the end of the road, at least for the foreseeable future.

A theatrical marquee displays showtimes for Return of the Jedi.

Legendary film critic Pauline Kael, writing in The New Yorker on 30th May 1983, had once described Empire as the most beautiful film of the year. But her appreciation for Empire failed to reach out to Jedi as she bemoaned a lack of character and noted film makers desires to tie-in their movies to video games. A criticism more relevant than ever in 2014, but back in the 8-bit days of the Atari in 1983 it seems a touch harsh.

“If a producer wants backing for a new project, there’d better be a video game in it. Producers are putting so much action and so little character or point into their movies that there’s nothing for a viewer to latch on to. The battle between good and evil, which is the theme of just about every big fantasy adventure film, has become a flabby excuse for a lot of dumb tricks and noise.”

Around the world media outlets commented on the film. Jimmy Summers over at Box Office saw Jedi as “An exciting, technically astounding wrap-up to the ‘Star Wars’ trilogy. The probability of success is about as definite as death and taxes.” while Steve White of The Worcester Telegram said “‘Return of the Jedi’ is a triumph of movie wizardry; a snappy, dazzling celluloid comic book, capturing our emotions between its magical pages and holding them within a prison of wonderment. It’s a virtual toy box of dreams and surprises for children and adults of all ages.”

Sheila Benson of the Los Angeles Times gave perhaps the most complimentary comment of them all when she stated that “With ‘Jedi’, George Lucas may have pulled off the first triple crown of motion pictures.” High praise indeed (and quite correct of course).

Scott Cain at The Atlanta Constitution made a less than complimentary comment regarding the music of John Williams, missing somewhat the nature of recurring themes both in the soundtrack to the films and the nature of Lucas’ writing which purposefully laid down themes which play out not only through the three films but- over time – the prequel trilogy as well “John Williams’ music consists almost entirely of themes and variations on themes he composed for the two earlier movies. This, unfortunately, will be a complaint that many people will make against ‘Return of the Jedi’. They will feel that they have seen and heard it all before.”

Perhaps the most insightful comments come via Stephen Hunter writing in The Baltimore Sun as he identifies the backbone of what makes Star Wars work as a modern mythical tale.

“The ‘Star Wars’ films have a mystic allure. They are clearly designed to appeal to the best in all of us and to exemplify universally admirable virtues—courage, the strength to fight against evil, romance, belief. They are built around the notion of a magic force in the universe which might be God or might be gravity; this force, in turn, is serviced by a knights’ order that is almost a clergy. The entire cosmology is rent by a titanic conflict between good and evil.”

Of course, there was to be a happy ending as Jedi would roll on to take $252,583,617 at the US box office on it’s initial run (a lifetime North American gross of $309,306,177, making it the 41st most successful film in the States and adjusted for inflation the 15th with what would be in todays numbers a staggering $748,712,900 compared to Empire’s adjusted figure of $781,517,900 and Star Wars $1,417,832,000.

It also took a glut of awards, winning a Special Achievement Oscar for Visual Effects, while at the Saturn Awards it took honours for Best Actor for Mark Hamill, Best Costumes, Best Make-Up, Best Science-Fiction Film, and Best Special Effects. BAFTA awarded it the Best Special Visual Effects award, it won a HUGO for Best Dramatic Presentation and perhaps most importantly it won Favorite Motion Picture at the People’s Choice Awards.

There’s no getting away from it, more than either Star Wars or Empire before it, Return of the Jedi divided critical opinion. Ending the saga after the cliffhangar drama that was Empire was always going to be tough, and with the advent of superior visual effects the spectacle always threatened to overtake the story. Indeed, Jedi would turn out to be the pinnacle of optical visual effects, never challenged in the 8 years until ILM turned their efforts fully over to the digital domain. But there’s no doubt that in the Star Wars galaxy, Jedi has had a HUGE effect, giving us a menagerie of characters which are among the most beloved in the saga, classic moments, THAT bikini, a classic soundtrack and our first true ending with the closure of the original trilogy. That it would return 14 years later in the Special Edition and be tinkered with once more for the Blu-ray release only shows the strength with which the film holds up today.


Various images and interview snippets via Remembering “Return of the Jedi