Seeing Return of the Jedi On The Big Screen Finally Made Me Love It

The 40th anniversary re-release of one of my least favourite Star Wars films offered cinematic spectacle and new insights, leading to a reappraisal...

I like Return of the Jedi less every time I don’t watch it. As big of a Star Wars fan as I am, the final instalment of the original trilogy has never grabbed me as much as its two predecessors. Then the prequels released and I was the perfect age to love them like the older generation loved the originals. I watched them endlessly, the prequels, and then A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back, too, but never quite finished the series. After Empire, usually it was right back to The Phantom Menace. I did sometimes watch Return of the Jedi but never to the same extent, and with each skip I convinced myself I disliked it more and more. 

Then the Disney acquisition happened and a whole bevy of new films and series arrived. Overall, controversially maybe, I enjoy the sequels and added them to the rotation. Yes, Return of the Jedi stayed bottom of the pile, other than maybe Solo, and I’d happily rewatch Rise of Skywalker over it. If you haven’t stopped reading after that last sentence, I’ll continue. News came from this year’s Star Wars Celebration that Return of the Jedi was to get a theatrical re-release to mark its 40th anniversary. The Force Awakens in 2015 was my first time watching a Star Wars movie on the big screen and I was happy that I would finally get to see one of the originals or prequels at the cinema. But why did it have to be Return of the Jedi?! I would prefer any other. Still, I went to watch it.

“See it again… for the first time.” That was the tagline used for the special edition re-releases of the original Star Wars trilogy back in the nineties. I’d always scoffed at it but walking out of seeing Return of the Jedi at my local multiplex that is exactly how I felt. I had seen it in a way that made me appreciate the film like never before. I had a blast. You can easily spend time picking every aspect of every piece of Star Wars content apart; such discussion makes up a significant portion of the Internet. Yet that matters not when your butt is in the seat and the music starts playing.

At its best, Star Wars has a raw cinematic power that can cause any flaws to subside. The visuals, the pace, John Williams’ music, the sound effects, all of it coalescing into an almost hypnotic display. As basic as it sounds, not pausing the film, not getting up for a snack, not glancing at my phone, the film engrossed me completely. Despite the nearly-full screening being composed of people who have likely seen the film many times before (I could tell from the t-shirts and waving lightsaber toys) the jokes still got laughs. It was a reset for me, a shedding of anything I thought I thought about the film and just enjoying it like a new experience, which wasn’t too hard considering I hold the smallest amount of nostalgia for it.

I still have issues with the film, but they no longer define the experience of watching it. The second act remains sluggish; the second Death Star is an egregious repeat of the first film, more so than Starkiller Base is in The Force Awakens; Han is a shadow of his former character; Events and connections, from Yoda’s death to Leia being Luke’s sister, feel contrived to quickly bring the series to an end. But I don’t care because that speeder chase through the forest on the big screen… wow. The sudden cuts back to the space battle above Endor are a hell of a jolt. How can that Ewok shaking his dead friend be so sad? Luke, the most uninteresting of all the franchise’s protagonists, igniting his green lightsaber for the first time is a fantastic moment and I felt more connected with his plight than before. From initially watching it off a taped-off-the-telly VHS to recently a much-lesser-watched 4K Blu-ray, the big screen was what I needed for Return of the Jedi to connect with me.

Watching it this time, the intense cinematic experience did even fix one major flaw I’ve always had with the film. The first act feels like a different story entirely, too separated from the Imperial plot and repetitive in each character arriving at Jabba’s palace one-by-one before the eventual, admittedly great, escape at the Sarlaac pit. Luke’s plan still baffles me and I’ve always gotten hung up on it. This time I realised that it is supposed to be a bad plan, that Luke thinks he’s now smarter than everyone but isn’t. Just as Luke has tricked Jabba into thinking him defenceless, Palpatine tricks Luke and the rebels in the third act. The Jedi is humbled and shown a true master manipulator. Maybe this is obvious but I had never compared Luke and the Emperor in this way. It unlocks new aspects of Luke’s characterisation, from naivety to overconfidence to another way he is lingering on the threshold of the dark side, and links the two very different parts of the movie together. Luke falls for the same stunt he pulled. Suddenly, the film clicked into place for me like never before.

I’ve always enjoyed the throne room scenes in the third act, they are top tier Star Wars, and even Vader’s unnecessary “No” couldn’t stop the finale from being emotional. I don’t think I’ve actually even seen the original theatrical cut of the film, this special edition is all I’ve ever known, with its new songs and CGI aliens, so I was actually happy to see it on the big screen: if I’m to reappraise the film it should be the same version as the one that I’ve watched, and avoided watching, for years. The characters dance in celebration and the credits roll with one last triumph from John Williams. The audience applauded for this forty-year-old film, me included.

Did you see the 40th anniversary re-release of Return of the Jedi? Let me know in the comments and be sure to geek out with me about TV, movies, and video-games on Twitter @kylebrrtt.

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