I realize this title is heresy. This is really a test to see if you can even try to make that case.
I’m one of those (flawed) individuals who believes that the original Star Wars film (A New Hope, if you must) is superior to its sequel, The Empire Strikes Back. This is a personal decision I’m not interested in debating, though I know the consensus that the sequel trumps the original in character development, plot lines, and production value. We’ll leave that aside for another time.
While the importance and relative value of Hope and Empire is debatable, what’s not debatable is The Return of the Jedi’s place in the pantheon. It is certainly the third, perhaps the fourth best film in the saga, and depending on how J.J. Abrams’s lens flares translate into galaxies far, far away, Jedi may be pushed even further down the list.
It shouldn’t be. Here’s everything wrong with Jedi: the Ewoks. They gave it that kid-friendly, collect-them-all aspect that really kick-started George Lucas’s much-maligned moneymaking world tour. It’s pretty much just the Ewoks.
What else is bad? The pacing is a little weird. We spend an awful lot of time on the opening rescue of Han Solo, then do the Dagobah retread and watch Frank Oz die in the swamp, followed by the whirlwind Rebel Fleet tour that feels totally decentered, and finally we alternate between three endings—all at the same time—rotating between the Emperor’s throne room, the Battle of Endor, and California Forest Moon Ewok Crawl.
The characters are all fine, still. Darth Vader is fascinating here, and the triad of him, Luke, and the Emperor all taunting/threatening/defying/cajoling one another remains, to me, a tragedic masterpiece act within the overall space opera. Luke (dressed in Hamlet’s Jedi robes) has grown up from the whiny kid, Vader has grown weary of being a robot (and an absentee father) while struggling to find a way to quit his job as the Emperor’s lapdog. The Emperor here is alternately hysterical and terrifying. He’s the perfect mix of crazy “grandfather” thrown into the oedipal power struggle of Luke and Vader.
The action in the movie is as good as it gets. Aside from Ewoks, there’s much less cheese than you might anticipate. It’s a great adventure, and that Jedi-Sith triad at the end of the film covers a multitude of sins.
And who doesn’t like to see possible incest get sorted out so cleanly? What a relief Leia was a little more in love with Han than her bro. Yeah, the ending is kind of a joke, but what do you do after saving the universe and narrowly losing it? You have to laugh, right?
In contrast: Empire has its own faults. It’s as episodic as Jedi, (though this is not really a fault if we buy into Lucas’s original “Flash Gordon” serialized vision). Thus we have ice planet, swamp planet, space time, cloud planet, space time. Basically the film equals its siblings in this, and in its pacing issues (I’d argue). The movie is terrific fun, of course, but it’s really not that different than Jedi.
The major difference here is the love story: there is one in this film. That’s it. That’s where your whole plot arguments stem from. Once again, I’ll give you that it’s a wonderful love story. It’s fun, it’s witty, it’s perfect, and it is really over by the time Jedi rolls around.
But this movie has its own Ewoks: Yoda. I’m not going to argue that point, because by now we’re all required to love Yoda. Still, he’s so obviously made for kids and toys.
And though Empire’s impact is tremendous in complicating its main villain (in the big reveal that Vader was Luke’s father), I still believe the throne room scene between Luke, Vader, and the Emperor in Jedi means more. In Empire, we still have our brave, rash hero and his nemesis/archetypal father. But in Jedi, our hero is in black, scarred (and disfigured) by facing his foe, and battling demons inside and outside throughout Jedi. Luke manages to finally become a complicated character in Jedi, something Han Solo achieved in Empire. Our protagonist becomes real to us in this last act. And not only him, but Darth Vader, Dread Lord of the Sith, finds himself battling between the same temptations Luke faces—the need for power and the desire to destroy it. The villain becomes a sacrificial figure. The Emperor, the uber-villain, simply cackles and watches most of this struggle play out. He’s both an audience surrogate and a manipulator of all plots, all characters. To finally see the man pulling the strings of an entire galaxy, finally, and to see him undone by the very forces he created, makes for a perfect ending.
Empire’s ends strongly: where in Hollywood do we see the bad guys win? In contrast the coda of Jedi (the celebration on Endor) feels silly. But the real center and ending of Jedi are the throne room scenes between three forces struggling to save or end the galaxy. And though it is dragged down by the uneven remainders of that sixth episode in the Star Wars saga (as fun as it is to watch Jabba choke, this might have been a completely different episode—just like the Battle of Hoth in Empire), I think this exploration of archetypal forces pushes Jedi into the top spot.
So I suppose I should say Return of the Jedi is the best forty-five minute film of the series.