Saturday, May 25, 2013

Concluding the First Star Wars Trilogy

It is really difficult to make a truly strong movie trilogy.

Sustaining the momentum is the problem, and that third installment really seems to be a stumbling block. I can understand that. Most of the time, it seems to me it is best to let a great movie stand unencumbered by a mediocre followup ... or two. I can think of only a few really good sequels, let alone a third edition.

But that doesn't keep people from trying to recapture lightning in a bottle anyway.

To an extent, that is what I thought when "Return of the Jedi," the third Star Wars movie, was released 30 years ago today.

As I have written here before, the original "Star Wars," which was in theaters in 1977, caught most people by surprise. It was based on a sci–fi novel that few outside the sci–fi followers demographic group knew anything about with a cast of largely unknown actors.

If memory serves me correctly, "Star Wars" started off slowly, then gathered momentum in the summer months of 1977. By the time I saw it, talk of a sequel had gained momentum, too. I don't remember exactly when it was announced that a sequel — 1980's "The Empire Strikes Back" — was being made or when it was announced that a trilogy of films eventually would be completed.

My guess would be that the trilogy plans were announced first — mainly because my memory is there was a lot of talk of a trilogy well before "Empire" made its theatrical debut. Certainly, there was talk of a third movie when I was making plans to see the second.

And, to be fair, I thought the sequel to "Star Wars" (which was subsequently renamed "A New Hope" with all of the movies in the series considered episodes of George Lucas' Star Wars franchise) was pretty good.

I suppose my attitude at the time could best be summed up in a comment I heard one moviegoer make as we left the theater — "What a wonderful movie! I can't wait to see how it ends!" Everyone who saw "The Empire Strikes Back" was prepared to be left hanging for another three years.

I didn't grow up in the age of movie serials — my parents did so I suppose they could tell you if the Star Wars trilogy of the late 1970s and early 1980s did a good job of re–creating the experience.

I can only speak of how I felt about "Return of the Jedi" in the context of the movies that preceded it.

I am no sci–fi fan. I do like some books and movies in the genre, but that is usually because the book and/or movie offers more than splashy space battles or strange intergalactic creatures.

And, at its core, the Star Wars story was always about the struggle between good and evil — within cultures, within galaxies, within individuals — more than it was about space. Space was merely the backdrop.

"Return of the Jedi" did a pretty good job of tying the loose ends from the first two movies together. In those first two flicks, for example, Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) always faced a hard choice between two suitors (Harrison Ford and Mark Hamill). When Luke (Hamill) and the audience learned that Luke and Leia were siblings, that opened a face–saving way for Luke to bow out and Leia and Han Solo (Ford) to be a couple.

I guess movie audiences always had the feeling that Leia and Han would wind up together. Han was the roguish swashbuckler type, the bad boy who always seems to get the girl — in real life as well as the movies. Luke, meanwhile, was the honorable, dependable country boy who fought his father and then redeemed him.

(Incidentally, Fisher has confirmed that a personal trainer is helping her prepare for the seventh Star Wars film, and Ford apparently has all but acknowledged that he will participate in the movie, too, which should be interesting. I'll bet no one imagined a geriatric Leia and Han 30 years ago.)

"Return of the Jedi" was a reminder that a Lucas project, like a Steven Spielberg project, could be counted upon to give moviegoers more than a taste of the latest bells and whistles in moviemaking. It certainly delivered in that regard.

I have always thought the special effects in "Return of the Jedi" — while modest by 2013 standards — represented the state of the art at the time. In fact, I felt the special effects were the real stars of "Return of the Jedi." The scene I always think of is the heart–stopping, high–tech (and high–speed) bike chase through the trees. The actors were merely along for the ride.

But I could live with that. Lucas and Spielberg have always been like wide–eyed kids whenever technology gave them a new toy to play with. They can hardly wait to have a film project in which to try it.

The part about "Return of the Jedi" that I found objectionable was the way new creatures were introduced into the story — flimsy, transparent excuses for commercial mass–marketing of Star Wars toys. The introduction of the gremlinesque Yoda in "The Empire Strikes Back" was only the first step in an evolving strategy that included the creation of the teddy bear–like Ewoks who fought alongside the rebels in "Return of the Jedi."

As I say, the first "Star Wars" caught everyone by surprise, and marketers had to scramble to catch up. By the end of 1977, there were Star Wars action figures and lunchboxes and that sort of thing, but I've known enough sales people in my life to know that most of them must have viewed the summer months of 1977 as a lost opportunity — one they were determined not to let slip through their fingers again.

When "The Empire Strikes Back" was still in the planning stages, I'm sure those sessions included marketers who could tell the people who would be writing the script and designing the costumes what the surveys of the day indicated would be most popular with various demographic groups.

And high on that list, I believed then (and still believe today), was what surveys indicated would appeal to children. That was an approach that was refined in "Return of the Jedi" — and greatly expanded upon 16 years later when the first episode in the prequel trilogy hit the theaters.

And yet ...

In many ways, I felt that "Return of the Jedi" may have been the most adult–oriented of all the Star Wars movies, not just the ones from 1977 to 1983. For example, it took a long, hard look at Luke Skywalker and the hatred that burned within him. Given Luke's passion for fighting the Empire and being the ultimate Jedi warrior, I guess audiences had long suspected there was a seething rage within him, and "Return of the Jedi" confirmed it.

There were some fearsome visions in that movie when Luke confronted the truth.

I'm sure they inspired some nightmares for younger viewers. "Return of the Jedi" may have inspired a successful line of toys, but it wasn't quite a kiddie movie.

There is a lingering perception that "Return of the Jedi" was the weakest of the series' original three movies, but I think that is truly a relative matter.

There was a segment of the population that could be counted on to come to the theaters no matter what anyone else said about it. By 1983, Star Wars devotees knew what to expect from a new movie in the series, and they simply would not allow themselves to miss an opportunity to watch Hamill and Ford wave light sabers or spaceships wage laser battles.

To bring non–Star Wars viewers to the theaters — which it did, earning more than $400 million at the box office — it had to have more. It needed a plausible story.

It was weak in parts, but it was entertaining enough to be a worthy finale for a successful movie trilogy.