(Richard Marquand, 1983)
The Jedi-Sith material here really works. In fact, Luke Skywalker's (Mark Hammill) line when he finally rejects the Emperor and his offer of Intergalactic power is, I think, the best and most moving in the entire Star Wars series, carrying as it does the weight of a long-running storyline, and representing the ultimate triumph of good over evil. "I am a Jedi, like my father before me." That line gave me chills on this, my umpteenth viewing (though perhaps my first in a decade). It is just a shame that so much else made me cringe.
The first act is fine; a little too derivative of the Tatooine scenes in Star Wars: A New Hope in its sci-fi exotica and array of alien beasties, but with a strong spine of story as the rebel gang from the first two films combine to rescue a frozen Han Solo (Harrison Ford) from Jabba the Hut. It features a fine swashbuckling action scene on the skiff above the Sarlac pit, though the brief, brutal disposal of Boba Fett remains a frustration; sometimes George Lucas really didn't understand the appeal of his own creation. Marquand may be the most anonymous of the three directors to have made a Star Wars film; his work here is competent and sporadically slick but never any better than that.
The second act follows Luke back to Yoda on Dagobah while the Rebel plan to attack the new Death Star is laid out. It's here that the strange disconnect between the preceding The Empire Strikes Back and this film becomes evident. The spiky screwball relationship between Han and Leia (Carrie Fisher), perhaps the strongest element of the previous film, here seems tame and underwritten, almost as if the decision was made to change the course of a particular arc. Harrison Ford, so great in the first two films, looks uncomfortable here, and Han seems tired and a little self-parodic in his bravado and squabbling with Chewbacca. Leia is similarly declawed by this script, while Lando (Billy Dee Williams) never really had any personality in the first place, besides calling Han "old buddy" repeatedly. That leaves Luke and the droids. R2D2 is as central to the plot as ever - the notion that he is the true hero of the entire series is a persuasive one, given how often he makes key contributions to events - while C3PO gets a decent little showcase when he tells a wowed Ewok audience the story of the previous films in the saga, complete with Darth Vader breathing.
Ah yes, the Ewoks. The original story set the Endor action on the Wookie homeworld, but Lucas changed his concept, the assumption being that he saw the endless merchandising possibilities presented by introducing a race of warrior teddy bears to his saga. When I was 8 I loved the Ewoks. They were funny and seemed cool. As an adult, the mix of cuteness and sentimentality (one Ewok mourning a fallen comrade) is off-putting and feels decidedly at odds with the darker elements of the series. This is only made more obvious by the way the third act (brilliantly) cross-cuts between three distinct fields of action: we have Luke in conversation with Emperor Palpatine (Iain MacDiarmad) and Vader whilst simultaneously the Rebel fleet is battling an Imperial Armada near the Death Star and on Endor, Han, Leia and the Ewoks are fighting Stormtroopers.
The conversation between Skywalker and the Sith Lords eventually, inevitably turns into a lightsabre duel and the emotional turning point for all six of the Star Wars films, and Hamill does well in such an emotionally intense scene. Only for Marquand and Lucas to cut away to teddy bears fighting bad guys. Such is the nature of Star Wars, and the Ewoks are really the origin point of the disastrous introduction of Jar-Jar Binks in the prequel The Phantom Menace.
Likewise, Return of the Jedi is the film where the nature of what constituted Star Wars changed. After the relative sophistication and emotional complexity of The Empire Strikes Back, Lucas took a step back, dumbed down a little, introduced more kid-friendly elements, and watched the cash pour in. And while it looks often brilliant in comparison to many of the summer blockbusters which it influenced, it is an oddly frustrating, broken-backed film in its own right.