10/5/09

R094 Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi

(1983, SciFi, color)

Riffers:

Mike Nelson, Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy

The Death Star, so named because living on it means almost certain death.

Rating: ***1/2

In a Nutshell:


Another Death Star built, another Death Star destroyed. Oh, and teddy bears.

Summary:

One of these is the most popular convention costume of all time.  Guess which one.I’m sure you’re already familiar with the backstory, but just in case, reviews for the previous episodes are here, here, here, here and here. (Also here. But that one’s non-canon and pretty shameful even by the prequels’ rather low standards, so forget I mentioned it.)

The final (middle?) episode of our out-of-sequence saga begins where the previous one left off—with Captain Han Solo (Harrison Ford) encased in carbonite. Thus far, his new inanimate life has been spent as a wall decoration in the filth-drenched, synth-pop palace of a giant alien slug named Jabba the Hutt. Core cast members arrive one and two at a time to cajole/threaten/offer services in exchange for Han’s release. Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) got there before the movie started and entered Jabba’s service as a guard. Droid comic relief characters C3PO (Anthony Daniels) and R2D2 (himself) arrive in the opening scenes and are press-ganged.

Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) and Chewbacca the wookiee (Peter Mayhew) attempt a scam where Leia pretends to be a bounty hunter collecting on Chewie. She’s accepted into his court and then turns off the carbonite juice (I guess) to free Han while no one’s looking. Except that people are looking, and catch them in the middle of a celebratory freedom smooch that really should have waited until they’d made it outside. Jabba locks up the newly de-carbonited Han with his buddy Chewie, then dresses Leia in a metal bikini and forces her to be his love slave.

Finally, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) arrives. Luke, if you’ll recall, got all Jedi-ed up during The Empire Strikes Back. He uses a Force power or two while trying to negotiate everyone’s release and gets dropped in the Rancor Pit. The rancor (a slimy, superimposed rod puppet) eats an anthropomorphic pig and then goes for Luke. This earns him a bone in his soft palate and a heavy steel door to the head. Jabba gets angry and sentences everyone to death.

Well, everyone but the droids (because they’re useful) and Leia (because she’s hot even by alien slug standards, I guess). The rest are flown into the desert to be dropped into a giant carnivorous “space-anus” (Kevin’s description) called the Sarlacc. R2 tosses Luke a lightsaber while the others grab weapons from the guards. Leia strangles Jabba with her neck chain in the ensuing chaos. Eventually, everyone who’s not them dies. Our heroes explode the corpses and drop the pieces into Sarlacc just to be thorough, and then head back to the rebellion. Except for Luke, who takes a little side trip to Dagoba so he can sit by Yoda’s deathbed (performed by Frank Oz) and rehash the previous film’s plot points with the fuzzy blue ghost of Obi Wan Kenobi (Sir Alec Guinness).

Iconic.  And slightly mysogynist.Now the real movie starts. The Emperor (Ian McDiarmid) and his lackey Darth Vader (body by David Prowse, voice by James Earl Jones) have been busy building a new Death Star, whose half-completed husk now orbits the forest moon of Endor. The Rebels are ecstatic. Not only will a single strike destroy the Empire’s superweapon du jour, but the Emperor himself as well. All they need to do is land a team (led by Han, Leia, Luke and Chewie) on the surface of Endor and deactivate the energy shield protecting the Death Star Mark II. Then Lando can lead the Rebel Fleet in for the kill.

This plan does not proceed without hiccups. On Endor, Luke realizes that the Force allows him to sense the presence of his evil father Darth Vader and vice versa, so he turns himself in to Imperial troops to protect the others. The others, in the meantime, have befriended the local natives, a race of alien teddy bears called Ewoks. When the time comes to deactivate the shield, our heroes encounter far more Imperial stormtroopers than they anticipated and are quickly captured. When Lando shows up with the Rebel fleet, the shield is still operational. An Imperial fleet moves in behind them, trapping them against the shield.

On the Death Star itself, the Emperor gloats about how he set the whole thing up in an effort to lure Luke specifically and the Rebellion in general to their dooms. Luke seethes with anger, which pleases the Emperor. Apparently, when you get a Jedi Knight too angry he becomes infused with the Dark Side of the Force, which turns him evil forever. This will make him an ideal candidate for Imperial service.

Naturally, the Emperor started gloating too early. Turns out there are, like, a million alien teddy bears down on Endor, all quite willing to die for the Rebel cause. The sheer voluminous mass of them bears down on the stormtrooper legion like a fuzzy tide of squeaky comic relief death, allowing Han et al. to destroy the shield generator only slightly behind schedule. Lando leads the Rebel charge into the Death Star’s porous hull.

Luke, in the meantime, has defeated his father in single combat and still refused to give into the Dark Side. The Emperor starts the process of torturing him to death with fingertip lightning bolts. Vader’s slumbering goodness is stirred by his son’s pleas for help; he rises and throws his evil master down a bottomless shaft. Luke says a tender goodbye as his father dies, then drags the corpse to a shuttle and flees the inevitable explosion.

Planets across the galaxy cheer the Empire’s defeat while all the surviving cast members party down with the Ewoks. Luke burns Vader’s body and smiles wistfully at a poignant convocation of fuzzy blue Jedi ghosts, including Obi Wan, Yoda, and his de-Vadered (and heavily retconned) father.

Thoughts:

Furry, improbably death from above!Return of the Jedi is easily the silliest of the original trilogy even without the murderous teddy bear hordes. Jabba’s palace, with its porcine guards and alien cabaret, qualifies it for that title all by itself. And speaking of the alien cabaret, why do 75% of alien species have human secondary sexual characteristics? (Answer: because titillation is a vital component of space opera.) I guess it’s better than Star Trek, where the need to get Kirk laid in every other episode pushes that percentage close to 100.

Thankfully, Return of the Jedi lacks the tedium that afflicted its prequels. Sure, the lengthy Jabba sequence is entirely unnecessary, but it’s also a complete and classically structured story, punctuated by thrilling, comprehensible action sequences. (It helps that the dancers never stop to discuss politics.) The Ewok battle at the end is more laughable than dramatic, but it still knows how to engage and hold its audience. If I had to write a three-word review, it would be “goofy but exciting.” I guess that puts it closer in tone to an Indiana Jones flick than the Empire Strikes Back.

Mike, Bill and Kevin deliver another very quotable Star Wars commentary. A few of my favorite lines: During Vader’s guard-lined first arrival on the new Death Star, “Security is tight after a terrorist tried to smuggle sand onto the death star,” (Mike). During the desert sequences, “Kind of reminds me of Lawrence of Arabia, if it had been made by a mentally deficient badger,” (Bill). After several cackles from the Emperor, “His laugh is less ‘Evil Guy’, more ‘Grizzled Prospector’.” (Kevin). The riffing feels a bit sluggish during the first half of the movie, but it kicks into high gear when we get to the Ewoks. Kevin in particular has it in for them, with “Do you suddenly smell a million wet skunks in a blender?” “How is the Ewok civilization any different from Burning Man?” “Nude, but heads covered; are their privates up there?” and the obligatory Planet of the Apes reference, “A planet where koalas evolved from men?” The riffers seem to find Endor’s warlike teddies inspiring, and step up with a hilarious second half.