Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Star Wars Memories 09: Return of the Jedi--I am So Over This


This is what I wanted. It's what
we all wanted. Payback.
In the three years between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, a funny thing happened to me: puberty. It was the full deal, turning me into a sasquatch and making me hyper-aware of every girl in the state. I couldn’t ditch my youthful trappings fast enough. Well, not exactly ditch. More like, shift around in the closet and hope no one noticed or remembered.

That was the artificial atmosphere that I took with me to see Return of the Jedi. I had to go see it. I wasn’t crazy. But at the time, I’d been into Star Wars for half of my life. I felt like I’d outgrown the movies. I wasn’t sure. I mean, most of the time, I wasn’t watching Saturday Morning cartoons, either. Things were different, now.

But of course, I had to see this movie, if only to find out what happened to Han Solo. I was excited to return to Tatooine, and I was over the moon at the prospect of a showdown with Boba Fett. It was, after all, inevitable. Besides, Luke now had a robot hand, and there’s no telling what cool stuff it could do, right?

Even at the age of 13, I could tell the fix was in. I did not watch Return of the Jedi with an uncritical eye, even back then. Worse, I watched it with an intact sense of propriety and ownership—me, at the age of 13. But I was not alone. See, I was a kid when Star Wars started. (To my way of thinking), I wasn’t a kid for Jedi. I wanted to see something more in keeping with my evolved situation. After all, it was Star Wars (really Empire Strikes Back) that told me to man up by cutting Luke’s hand off and giving him some crushing news. But he soldiered on. We all do. You get your bionic hand and you deal with the new information.

So, I wanted to see where this all was going. My opinion of Jedi is virtually unchanged in 32 years: it’s a failed masterpiece. I walked out of the theater, really pissed off, in 1983. The only thing that has abated in the intervening years is my righteous indignation. In its place is a knowing cynicism about the power of money and how much of it is needed to cause an artist to amend their thinking. Another first lesson for me on the relationship between art and commerce.

This is what we ended up with.
It's got moments, but on the whole...
 Jedi starts out good enough. The rescue of Han on Tatooine had to be the first thing covered, or we would have collectively lost our damn minds. And what an opening it is—right into the heart of Jabba’s palace, for a reworking of the Cantina scene from the first movie—a reminder that we are in another world—and a promise of future derring do in the scene with Leia, Chewie, and Lando. When Luke shows up, we’re as skeptical as Han is: “A Jedi Knight? I’m out of it for a little while and everyone gets delusions of grandeur.”

One of the better lines in the movie is the reunion of Han and Luke in Jabba’s Palace after Luke dispatches the Rancor. “Together again!”
“Wouldn’t miss it.”
“How’re we doing?”
“Same as always.”
“That bad, huh?”

This kind of dialogue has always been my favorite, because it speaks to character and also establishes history. This isn’t the first time these guys have been neck-deep in trouble. The stories and situations that conjures up with just a few lines of dialogue make the scene infinitely more rich.

Out on the barge, when Artoo proves once again why you never leave home without him, and Luke gets his lightsaber and that wonderful music cues you in, things get awesome. I have no idea what Lucas was thinking when he put Leia in her “slave” costume. Clearly, Jabba was humiliating her. I never took away any other implication than that, initially, but it’s worth noting that the second she is able to do so, Leia strangles Jabba with her own chain—that’s some brutal, up-close and personal shit, right there. Since the story literally makes zero mention of it afterward, maybe this is all just part of the “get Han back plan.” It doesn’t have to be an abusive or deviant thing, no matter what the subtext implies.

However, at the age of 13 I was far less concerned with the liminal space between Princess Leia and Slave Leia and one hundred and twelve percent focused on the instant Boba Fett steps off of the barge, fires his jet pack, and moves to engage Luke Skywalker, heir to the Jedi mantle.

This two page spread exists because every kid I knew
who was into Star Wars meticulously collected every
scrap of information they fed us about Boba Fett.
See, I was an expert on Boba Fett. We ALL were. I had the sketchbook designs, showing all of the various weapons and lasers and missiles that were literally buried in his armor. Here’s a guy who looks Darth Vader in the eyepiece and speaks to him as if they are equals. He fears no one. He is (and we know this because we were told this in ad copy, on the back of gum cards, in print, and anywhere Kenner and Lucasfilm could tattoo the message) “The most feared bounty hunter in the galaxy.” Superfans, who had absorbed and memorized the lore of the back story, knew that the Mandalorian armor (what Boba Fett wore) was a special kind of shock-commando suit designed for Jedi hunting. In short: Boba has done this before. This was not his first Jedi round-up. I flashed on ALL OF THAT in the two seconds it took Boba Fett to cross the distance between the barge and the skiff and land opposite Luke, ready to do battle. This was going to be epic.

Epic, I tell you!

Aaaaaaany second now.

Wait, was Boba Fett going to actually shoot a Jedi? The guys who can knock blaster fire out of the sky with their lightsabers? Oh, well, maybe he was just testing Luke. Yeah, that’s it. Only it cost him his rifle, so that was kinda dumb. Now he’s using a tow cable to wrap around Luke. Okay, that was only going to last a few seconds. What he should do now is fire those wrist rockets! Or the flame thrower! Come on, Boba! Oh, damn, he got knocked down. By the deck gun’s stray laser blasts.

Um.

Okay, Luke is over there, now, and Boba Fett is about to shoot him! Wrist rockets? Flame thrower? Oh, damn, Luke, here it comes...wait, what? Did we just actually see a blind man accidentally hit Boba Fett’s jetpack and cause it to malfunction? Did Boba Fett just actually fall into the Sarlaac Pit? Did the Sarlaac Pit actually just burp?

You’ve got to be freaking kidding me.

According to one interview, Lucas did this because he was frustrated by his ongoing divorce at the time and didn’t want to deal with working out of how this battle between Jedi and Bounty Hunter would go down. If that’s the case, it becomes rather damning evidence for—but I’m getting ahead of myself.

That scene, about thirty seconds of film, made every Star Wars fan in the audience cringe. We were gypped! Ripped off! The adults tricked us! You promised us (implicitly, if not explicitly) a pay off, and, well, yeah, okay, now the sand barge is blowing up, and Leia just strangled Jabba the Hutt, and everyone is together again, but...couldn’t this have been done with a little more panache?

Luke goes back to Dagobah. He has some questions. As do we all. See, as shocking and as soul-splitting as the revelation that Vader was Luke’s father was, it fundamentally contradicts something that Ben told Luke in the first movie. We were all very concerned about this. After all, there were now three movies to keep straight in our heads. What would Yoda say?

We don’t know. He dies pretty quickly. But hey, cool, here’s Ghost-Ben, and while that seems problematic, it’s at least answering the question. Luke’s reply to Ben’s explanation carried the same tone as ours did: “From a certain point of view?” Really? That’s your take? Well, okay, we’re going to let that go, as well, because even though none of us had yet read Robert McKee’s seminal screenwriting bible, Story: Style, Structure, Substance, and the Principles of Screenwriting, we all instinctively knew that it made for a much better story to have Vader be Luke’s father.

And now we find out that Leia is Luke’s sister? Are we just supposed to forget that smooch in Echo Base on Hoth? Dammit, Lucas! Well, that does explain the telepathy scene in Empire. But please, enough with the surprise family nonsense!

Whew. Okay, moving on.

Okay, they are rebuilding the Death Star, and this time, they are putting Duct Tape over that pesky exhaust port. Now the Death Star will finally be the ultimate power in the universe. So, the rebels have to take it out before it’s finished. This is a good plan. What could possibly go wrong?

Family drama, is what. Admiral Akbar splits everyone up. Lando gets the Falcon for the big space fight. Han tells us he’s got a feeling we’re never going to see it again. I almost started crying right then. Either Han Solo is going to die, or the Millennium Falcon is going to blow up. Or both. Super Duper Darth Vader was right all along! Nooooooo!

All of this happens in a minute of screen time. Always in motion, is the Star Wars franchise.

Now the group is in the jungle, and they run across some stormtroopers in cool armor, on these amazing hover bikes. What follows is one of the best scenes in the movie, as Luke and Leia engage in a high-speed chase through the woods with crashes, some lightsaber fu, and great high speed photography. They get separated, of course, and then the story splits off into thirds. Luke goes to confront Vader (and the emperor). Okay, this is a good storyline, and we are interested in this. It's somber and melodramatic and is emotionally and physically what we were expecting, a promise made by Empire that was fulfilled by Jedi.

The second story is just as compelling. The fleet is amassing for the big fight, and our POV characters, Admiral Ackbar (one of fandom’s favorite Star Wars aliens) and Lando are raring to go. Only, there's problems! The Shield isn't down! The Empire knew they were coming! Who didn’t get goosebumps when Lando yelled, “That shield is still active! Pull up! All craft pull up!” and suddenly we see the Star Destroyers and Ackbar exclaimed, “It’s a Trap!” So, Space battle. Good. You know we’re on board for this.

The third story is all about how the Ewoks get involved in the fight. From the first second the Ewoks are on screen, I knew that Lucas no longer cared about Star Wars. Rather, he cared about getting paid.

See, one of the unintended consequences of the Star Wars movies was the massive amount of money made from the merchandise. Even back then, the numbers were being published and no one could believe how many millions of dollars were being generated by the toys. When Empire came out, far and away the most popular toy from that movie was anything having to do with Yoda. He was small, he was cute (in an ugly sort of way), he had the funny voice and the strange syntax problem, and oh! Did you know that Frank Oz was the puppeteer for Yoda? He also does Miss Piggy! If this suddenly sounds like your mother, that’s on purpose. Moms everywhere finally had a hook, an in, from which they could attempt to relate to their latchkey children. Something, anything, to make all of this space-gobbledygook make sense.

In short, Yoda toys; puppets, plush doll, etc, went like hotcakes. They were must-have items at Christmas. This would not have gone unnoticed by George Lucas.

Now there’s a third movie coming. Granted, at some point, there was supposed to be a planet of Wookies helping the rebels, and well, everyone likes Chewbacca, but that Yoda outsold the Chewie teddy bear six to one. If only the wookies were somehow smaller...cuter...hey, wait a minute...!

In short, the fix was in. Here’s how I know: Stormtrooper armor, we were told, was riot gear, designed to protect the clones from unarmed or lightly armored peasants. It offered excellent protection against things like sticks and stones, but was no match for well-aimed blaster fire. Right. Okay. Gotcha.

So, two movies later, here we are on the forest planet, and the stormtroopers are being mowed down, cut like sheaves of wheat before the scythe, as the Ewoks bring them down with...sticks and stones.

The last thirty minutes of Return of the Jedi is both the zenith and the nadir of the series. Every time we cut away from Luke struggling with his father in an awesome lightsaber duel, or the massive, impressive, so-very-cool space fight going on around the Death Star, and we head back down Endor to watch the stormtroopers getting slaughtered by teddy bears holding dirt clods, a part of my soul died.

This is not adult Mark, talking to you. Even at the age of thirteen (and perhaps especially at the age of thirteen), I knew this was bullshit. Star Wars opened my eyes to the infinite size of the world. Empire taught me how to shave. And Jedi reminded me that I’m still too young to drive the family car and father knows best.

In the end, Luke and Anakin get their resolution. Han doesn’t die. The Falcon survives the explosion. Super Duper Darth Vader was a bit fat liar all along. And the Ewoks are singing this song that sounds like something from Sesame Street. That was the final shot of the movie.

I wanted to like it. I felt as if I was supposed to like it. But at the time, I remember being supremely disappointed. Another life lesson for everyone who watched it, now it’s become part of the fabric of the movie-going universe, that the third movie in a trilogy will inevitably suck. That tradition started in 1983 with Return of the Jedi. A dubious honor, to be sure, but you have to include it as just one more thing the franchise gave the world.

After that, it was easy to wean yourself from buying Star Wars stuff. The Ewoks had arrived, and your younger brother and sister (including mine, now) loved that crap, but I sure didn’t. Worse, they didn't even try to hide the fact that it was aimed at little kids. It was inevitable that there would be Saturday morning cartoons featuring both the Droids and the Ewoks. Ugh. I am shaking my head as I write this. Did they think we were all stuck at age seven?

A thought was beginning to form in my head. Maybe, just maybe, George Lucas didn’t know what the hell he was doing.
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