The Good: Effects, The plotting of the beginning, The obvious benefits of wardrobe
The Bad: A lowered standard of character, The end of the film
The Basics: A terrible restructuring of characters to make plausible the plot events needed to resolve the incredible darkness of The Empire Strikes Back, not worth your time.
I have to give George Lucas points for effort; simply making Return Of The Jedi took moxy. Trying to follow up on a perfect film, in fact easily one of the defining films of the generation, is a daunting task and to try to conclude the events of The Empire Strikes Back is a vast undertaking. Return of the Jedi almost actually tries to do that, but it fails.
First of all, the plot. Two things needed to happen in Return of the Jedi to make it a conclusion to the storyline from The Empire Strikes Back: 1. Han Solo had to either be rescued or an attempt had to be made to rescue him and 2. Luke Skywalker must confront Darth Vader. Those two things are all that needs to happen to conclude the plot. Why then, does Return of the Jedi rewrite A New Hope? It's silly, the sudden advent of the second Death Star. In case you didn't keep track in The Empire Strikes Back the Empire has a pretty tight hold on the Rebellion and it's stomping them pretty well.
C-3P0 and R2-D2 head to the palace of Jabba the Hutt where they are turned over to the vile gangster. When a bounty hunter arrives and rescues Han Solo from his frozen prison on Jabba's wall, all of the significant Rebels end up in the custody of Jabba's forces. When Luke Skywalker comes to rescue his friends, he confronts the gangster head-on. Following the encounter, Luke departs to meet with Yoda and finish his Jedi training. As the Rebels learn of the near-completion of a second Death Star, Luke learns the truth about Darth Vader's revelation to him and the two move to a confrontation which will shake the galaxy.
The problem with Return of the Jedi is that it's written as if there has been a gap in time between the events of The Empire Strikes Back and it. Of course, there was, in real life. In the fictional realm of Star Wars, it appears there was too, but it's not reconciled well. It becomes a crutch to justify the character flaws and inconsistencies that run rampant through the film.
The obvious plot question is, "If Vader was trying to trap Skywalker using Solo, and he knows where Solo is, why doesn't he just surround Tatooine - where Solo is - with an Imperial presence and wait for Luke to come to him?" That is, why rewrite A New Hope with a rather implausible second Death Star as opposed to continuing the plots where they ended?
The answer to that question is, the characters from The Empire Strikes Back couldn't possibly defeat Vader or get Solo back. The only redeeming aspect is the amount of time between the two films is never stated. On a good day, you can watch Return of the Jedi and believe it takes place a decade after its predecessor.
Indeed, such a large chronological gap might actually explain how the whiny, snobby, Princess Leia became so very streetsmart and roguish as she appears in this film. Such a gap might actually explain why everyone trusts the untrustworthy Lando Calrissian. It might also be a fair amount of time for the psychologically wounded Luke Skywalker to become as collected and adult as he is here.
The fact is, other than writing off the complete recharacterization to a gap in time, there's no way to excuse the shoddy portrayal of the characters in this film. Between that and the unimaginative plotting, this film doesn't live up anywhere near as much as it had the potential to.
If The Empire Strikes Back truly left you hankering for resolution, watch the beginning of Return of the Jedi, the scenes on Tatooine through the end of the film's tenure on the desert planet. Pretend that it's years and years later and that somewhere in between Darth Vader was taken care of by Luke and you'll be much better off. Return of the Jedi is a disappointment for adults who were hooked in on the adult ending of The Empire Strikes Back.
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© 2010, 2001 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.