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Magical & Monstrous, the 'Star Wars' Finale Is a Triumph

By Gary Arnold
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 22, 1983

"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.

In fact, the joyous mood at the end of "Jedi" is about a split-second away from getting slightly ridiculous. Where the preceding chapters, "Star Wars" and "The Empire Strikes Back," awakened unexpected pleasures -- of a humorous, endearing kind in the first case and an ominous, intriguing kind in the second -- "Jedi" comes as a robustly diverting relief. Lucas' luck holds, along with his filmmaking standards, but it's not difficult to see that "Jedi" pushes that luck about as far as it ought to go.

"Return of the Jedi" should not be mistaken for an innocuous and wholesome good time. The movie has its ferocious features and may throw a quick, paralyzing scare into the littlest kids (and squeamish parents, for that matter) by beginning with some ravenous, menacing monsters. One of the odder aspects of Lucas' fantastic imagination is a lofty threshold of tolerance for monstrously slimy critters.

This tolerance can take a marvelous comic form, as it did in the cantina sequence in "Star Wars," a setting echoed and enlarged in the first episode of "Jedi." C-3P0, R2-D2, Princess Leia, Lando Calrissian, Chewbacca and finally Luke Skywalker arrive in relays at the palatial dump of Jaba the Hut, lord of the underworld on the desert planet Tatooine. Their mission, of course, is to rescue Han Solo, decorating a wall of Jabba's rec room while still suspended in the "carbonite" hibernation where "Empire" left him.

Jabba himself, or itself, is a loathsome triumph for makeup artists Phil Tippet and Stuart Freeborn -- a gigantic, bloated slug who pops miniature monstrosities into his mouth, emits resonant belches and takes an alarming but, thank the Maker, apparently unconsumable fancy to Leia. (This strange yen becomes a funny excuse for keeping Carrie Fisher in harem-girl scanties.) That insult Leia delivered in "Star Wars" about "holding Vader's leash" comes back to haunt her in Jabba's abode, where the foul host keeps her at the end of a chain. But she gets an appropriate measure of revenge, and good riddance to the biggest baddest worm in movie history.

While "Jedi" appears to go overboard with monsters in its kick-off episode, it later proves to be a cautious, solicitous crowd-pleaser, keenly aware of the value of protecting an investment in audience trust and good will. Ultimately, "Jedi" even backs off some of the more tantalizing possibilities suggested by the cliffhanging scenario of "Empire." This inhibition appears to grow out of consideration for the feelings of the juvenile audience, which can enjoy an abundance of thrills and close calls while resting assured that nothing catastrophic is going to be fall the heroes.

"Jedi" is payoff time for the filmmakers in many respects: as the final chapter of the saga, it allows them to cash in on all the material accumulated in the earlier chapters. However, the price is a tactical retreat to the identical battle lines drawn at the conclusion of "Star Wars." After getting Han out of Jabba's clutches, the heroes prepare for a climactic assault on a new Death Star, a wonderfully jagged construction being built near a forest planet called Endor. Thus we revert to the combat mission already carried out so impressively in "Star Wars." (There is more than a single irony to the title "Return of the Jedi," and not all of them are intentional.)

Not that there aren't enhancements: the final aerial attack, concentrated inside the Death Star's vast system of tunnels and vents, is again a breathtaking, exhilarating special-effects achievement. The good guys are split three ways: Billy Dee Williams as Lando leads the pilots at the same time Mark Hamill as Luke is isolated on an Imperial Starfighter, determined to have it out with Darth Vader and the Emperor. And the rest of the gang is busy trying to take out an Imperial installation on Endor, from which a protective shield is beamed to surround the Death Star.

But the battle is also treated rather more cavalierly than its forerunner in "Star Wars." One has a vaguely disconcerting sense of the Emperor going on a bit longer than needed in the vein of "You cannot resist the Dark Side of the Force, so don't even try, Young Skywalker" and Luke repeatedly answering in the vein of "That's what you think, tyrannical one," while everyone gets his bets down on which side Darth Vader will finally throw his strength. On the plus side, there's a lovable new collection of beasts. Known as Ewoks, they're a tribe of fuzzy, diminutive warrior bears who dwell in the treetops, join the heroes in their crusade and easily emerge as the most winning addition to the "Star Wars" menagerie.

As a matter of fact, one of the single most charming episodes in "Jedi" shows the Ewoks being familiarized with the "Star Wars" legends by C-3P0, who is mistaken for a divinity by the little creatures. It's a self-aware, allegorical interlude that nevertheless leaves a beautiful afterglow: C-3P0, initiates the Ewoks into a fresh, ongoing heroic mythology, just as the "Star Wars" movies have initiated a generation of young moviegoers around the world.

The principal characters are deployed in oddly whimsical, uneven ways. C-3P0 is far more effectual this time around, but there's a curious slip-up with R2-D2, who's deprived of the opportunity to make the kind of timely repair that saved the day in "Empire." Vader fades a bit into the background while the Emperor, played with savory nasty authority by Ian McDiarmid, is elevated to the role of supreme bad hombre.

Mark Hamill seems to have matured consistently in the role of Luke and provides the last installment with an attractive emotional focus. Hamill's sweet-natured assurance is augmented by a new, contemplative dimension in Carrie Fisher's Leia, but Harrison Ford seems to lose some command of Solo, who reverts to a tone of jaunty callowness.

Lucas and screenwriter Lawrence Kasden seem to have forgotten that they gave Vader a strong hint of dynastic ambition at the end of "Empire." Now he appears rather more content than he should to function as the Emperor's attack dog right up to nitty-gritty time. Obi Wan Kenobi and Yoda make brief, perfunctory appearances to clear up the lingering questions about Luke's parentage and the identity of "the other." No real surprises here, so it seems a trifle awkward to bring out these eminent sages to answer questions at about the level of "Who was that Masked Man?" Obi-Wan's continuing residence in the spirit world has also inspired the worst special effect in the picture: a glittery halo that surrounds Alec Guinness with too much nimbus. It's as if Obi-Wan had somehow ended up on an astral plane polluted with stardust.

Lucas' original stylistic triumph consisted of rejuvenating Hollywood's moribund action genres -- the swashbuckler, the western, the combat melodrama, the science-fiction serial -- by relocating them in a hi-tech future. The science-fiction adventure spectacle was on its way to becoming a new supergenre; in fact, the only one left with a plausible claim on heroic fantasy.

The cultural impact was even more far-reaching. Lucas succeeded far beyond his expectations at one of the motives behind the project: supplying kids with a fresh source of aspiration. "I saw that kids today don't have any fantasy life the way we had," he said in 1977. "They don't have westerns, they don't have pirate movies, they don't have that stupid serial fantasy life we used to believe in. It wasn't that we really believed in it…but I realized a more destructive element in the culture would be a whole generation of kids growing up without that thing…the fairy tale or the myth…a sort of wholesome, honest vision about the way you want the world to be…

"I had gone around to all the studios with 'Apocalypse Now' for the tenth time and they said, no, no, no. So I took this other project, this children's film."

Perhaps the strangest irony of Lucas' career is that instead of directing "Apocalypse Now," he filmed a science-fiction fantasy that helped close some of the psychological wounds left by the war in Vietnam. "Star Wars" tapped into inspirational depths that transcend political allegiance. It reflected politically uncomplicated yearnings -- to be in the right, to fight on the side of justice against tyranny.

"Jedi," directed with admirable gusto and sincerity but no discernible flair by Richard Marquand, tries to recapture the carefree, serendipitous rapture of "Star Wars" in certain respects that really can't be recaptured. The phenomenon has gone too far to avoid being self-conscious about its impact and reputation. The original may have answered a unique cultural craving in 1977, but the sequels are bound to be more and more dependent on whatever's happened in the chapters that preceded them.

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 moviegoing public will return the generosity and assure George Lucas that he's done it and can now move on to something different.

© Copyright 1983 The Washington Post Company

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