The wrap-up to the first trilogy (chronologically, not narratively) should have served as a warning of the pain we were to endure upon the release of the prequels twenty years later. All of the flaws that dogged episodes I through III were visible in Episode VI for anyone who cared to look.
Of course, back then we simply assumed that it was George Lucas unable to top the success of The Empire Strikes Back. Maybe he hired the wrong director in Richard Marquand or, as we have often seen in the case of movie trilogies, the filmmakers can’t always write an ending that lives up to the promise of what’s gone before.
At the time, we weren’t aware of the rumors, maybe half-truths at best, that Lucas effectively ghost-directed the movie, but true or not, the executive producer’s hands are all over this installment much more so than The Empire Strikes Back, and it suffers for it. With the hindsight of three prequels to drawn upon, the reasons are more clear than they were in 1983.
The story opens with the rescue of Han Solo (Harrison Ford) from crime lord Jabba the Hutt. This sequence takes far too long because of an overly complicated setup, just to bring all the usual suspects into the act. The biggest letdown comes, however, when we finally lay eyes upon Jabba himself. We’ve heard of the titular boss of the Tattooine underworld for two movies, some of us have even seen outtakes from the first film, assumed his appearance would somehow match his fearsome reputation. The reality, that the Gotti of the Star Wars universe is just this giant, immobile slug, grinds your mental gears to a halt. God himself could not suspend sufficient disbelief to imagine this oversized muppet inspiring enough fear to become the overlord of any wretched hive of scum and villainy.
Jeez, I'm out of it for a little while, everyone gets delusions of grandeur!
Letdown number two comes during the opening crawl, when we learn that the Empire has built another Death Star. Repeating a major element from the first film leaves the probably not unfair impression that Lucas is just coasting at this point. A little effort the script stage could have provided the film with a novel threat to drive the story, but apparently Lucas could not be bothered.
Lastly, we get down to the final battle on Endor and the Rebellion’s unlikely allies. Yes, I’m talking about the Ewoks. Lucas had originally planned to use Wookiees for this part of the story, but he thought Chewbacca was too sophisticated for the audience to buy his people as a stone-age band of furry Tarzans. That’s all well and good, but Lucas’s replacement boggles the mind. It’s one thing to say that a primitive civilization could defeat a more technological one, but it’s quite another to think that dressing a few score of little people as plush toys is going to work on screen in that context.
There are so many other, little things that drag this movie down, things that might be hidden on you initial viewing by the pyrotechnics on screen. The dialog and characters lack the polish and sophistication that they had in the second film. The confrontation between Luke (Mark Hamill) and the Emperor (Ian McDairmid) seems like a rehash of the Luke/Vader duel in the second film. The big revelation in this film doesn’t seem to fit organically into the story or have any payoff, anywhere in the story.
I am enough of a fan of the first two films that I want to love this one, too. Unfortunately, Mr. Lucas’s choices at virtually every level of the production have made that impossible.