Remembering Return of the Jedi

This last weekend marked the 30th anniversary of the theatrical release of Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, which was released on May 25, 1983. Being a life-long Star Wars fan, it would be wrong for me not to do some kind of retrospective about this moment in modern geek history.

At the time of its release, Return of the Jedi marked the end of an era for me. Star Wars wasn’t just my gateway drug into all things geeky; it was a rehab-worthy addiction that began with Star Wars in 1977 and ended in 1983 with Jedi. That’s six years of toys, books, comics, posters, bubblegum cards, board games, magazines, t-shirts, Underoos, pajamas, bed sheet sets, window curtains, towels, wallpaper, drinking glasses, vinyl records, and dozens of other licensed items that I cannot recall at the moment. That list doesn’t include the release of Empire Strikes Back in 1980 and the subsequent theatrical re-releases of both Star Wars and Empire before the arrival of Jedi; each of these trips to the movie theater helped to spur the anticipation for anything and everything connected to the Star Wars franchise.

What might have been: Revenge of the Jedi poster

After spending so many years being obsessed with one franchise--a lifetime in the eyes of a child--things just weren’t the same after Jedi. At the time, George Lucas and Lucasfilm didn’t seem interested in continuing the Star Wars franchise (at least on the scale of another movie trilogy), so a pervasive feeling of finality had set in quickly after Jedi left the theaters. Marvel kept publishing issues of their non-canonical Star Wars comic until 1986 and Star Wars would appear every now and then on TV with the Ewoks and Droids cartoons and the Ewok TV movies, but the fan enthusiasm that permeated the years of the original trilogy had evaporated. There were no new movies on the horizon, so kids my age sobered up and moved on to other things.

Looking back, I don’t recall anything else like what the original Star Wars trilogy brought to pop culture, or any other series that provided the kind of final act that Jedi was. There have been plenty of fantasy and sci-fi trilogies since then, as well as noteworthy third movie installments in other film franchises, but none of them could match the mood of Star Wars. Sure, Lord of the Rings was a popular movie trilogy, but you could always read the novels if you couldn’t wait for the next movie installment; in contrast, you couldn’t read ahead in the Star Wars trilogy, so you had to wait three years at a time with everybody else for the next movie. There were also other movie-only trilogies such as the Back to the Future and The Matrix trilogies, but their mediocre second installments and overall lack of kid appeal quelled whatever excitement those series could muster.

George Lucas and R2-D2, surrounded by the original Star Wars trilogy in miniature.

Between its overall quality and uniqueness, as well as its significance both within the original trilogy and to the prequel trilogy, I think that Jedi is a gem of a film that deserves much more respect than it gets. At its heart, the Star Wars series is sci-fi pulp serial along the lines of Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers and the visual sophistication of Jedi is a celebration of that kind of storytelling. It featured a huge selection of new aliens (Jabba the Hut, Admiral Ackbar, the Rancor monster, etc.) and action sequences that pushed the envelope of what practical special effects were capable of during the early 80s. While these dazzling visual treats flashed by on the silver screen, story arcs came to an end, an empire lost its emperor, the Jedi were beginning to return, and a cast of characters who matured over the course of three movies made their final curtain call. If another movie trilogy provided a better ending than Return of the Jedi, I can’t think of one.


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