Saturday, May 11, 2013

Return of the Jedi Turns 30

A film that the late, great Roger Ebert once called a “picaresque journey through the imagination,” Return of the Jedi is the third film in the original Star Wars trilogy, releasing May 25, 1983. It is the follow-up to the dark, critically acclaimed Empire Strikes Back, which hit theaters in 1980, and the revolutionary space opera Star Wars, which changed cinema forever in 1977.

In Jedi, Luke Skywalker, with the help of Princess Leia, Chewbacca, C-3PO, and R2-D2, formulates a plan to rescue Han Solo from the grotesque crime lord, Jabba the Hutt. Meanwhile, the Empire is building a second Death Star, a structure the Rebels plan to destroy. The furry, diminutive Ewoks on the forest moon of Endor lend the Rebel forces a helping hand (or should that be paw?) in shutting down the Death Star’s shield generator. Best of all, Luke confronts his deadly father, Darth Vader, who redeems himself in the end.

Most sci-fi/fantasy fans seem to love Return of the Jedi, which was directed by Richard Marquand and written by Lawrence Kasdan and Star Wars creator George Lucas. However, the film has been criticized in some circles for repeating the primary plot point of the original Star Wars: the attack by Rebel forces on the Death Star.

Star Wars historian and novelist John Jackson Miller, author of the forthcoming Star Wars: Kenobi (LucasBooks, Aug. 27), disagrees with this assessment. “There was absolutely no reason for the Emperor not to have constructed a Death Star again—fixing the problems from the first time—so that's a natural direction for the story to take,” he said. “The assault on the Death Star is also significantly different on many levels, so I don't think it's similar at all.”

Certain Jedi bashers also point to the loveable, huggable Ewoks as a weakness, but Miller thinks they earned their rightful place among iconic Star Wars characters. “The Ewoks, we now know, were stand-ins for the Wookiees, which were too expensive to outfit and film,” he said. “But even so, there is something meaningful about showing how the least of the Empire's victims had the ability to stand up for themselves.”

When Return of the Jedi was being made, it was produced under the fake working title of “Blue Harvest,” which was used to hide the operation from fans, paparazzi, and curiosity seekers. As such, numerous “Blue Harvest” film production items were created, including buttons, caps, coats, invoices, and signs, all of which are rare and highly sought after by collectors today.

Also in great demand among is the “Revenge of the Jedi” poster. At one point during the production of Return of the Jedi, the name was altered to “Revenge of the Jedi,” but Lucas changed the title back to Return of the Jedi to better reflect the nature of the Rebel forces. Prior to restoring the film to its original name, Lucasfilm had printed thousands of teaser posters with the “Revenge of the Jedi” title. Although Lucasfilm stopped general distribution of the posters, the company sold remaining copies to Star Wars fan club members for $9.50 each. Today, a near mint “Revenge of the Jedi” poster is worth around $500-$600.
 “Revenge of the Jedi” action figure proof cards, manufactured by Kenner, are also highly collectable, frequently changing hands for as much as $400-$500 each. “Revenge of the Jedi” figures were never produced, but proof cards for those unmade figures “somehow” found their way into the hands of various Kenner employees.

“Revenge of the Jedi” production items are valuable as well, such as the custom-made jacket featured on the third season premiere of Storage Wars. Barry Weiss, known on the show as “The Collector,” paid $45 for the jacket, which he was later told is worth upwards of $3,000.

Regarding standard Return of the Jedi collectibles, here’s a listing of some of the more interesting items recently sold on eBay, along with prices realized:

Super 8mm Scope Feature Film: $630
Speeder Bike Pedal Car, a promotional item never sold in stores: $475.00
Imperial Shuttle toy from Kenner, near mint in unopened box: $455.99
Millennium Falcon toy from Kenner, near mint in unopened box: $399.95
Ewok Combat Glider from Kenner, near mint in unopened box (graded AFA 80): $180
R2-D2 action figure from Kenner, near mint on card (graded AFA 85): $299.99
Darth Vader action figure from Kenner, near mint on card: $299.99
Nicely preserved, unopened Return of the Jedi figures do indeed sell for hundreds of dollars apiece—especially when graded by the AFA (Action Figure Authority)—but loose figures can easily be found online, at toy shows, and elsewhere for just four or five dollars each.

The desirability of Return of the Jedi collectibles reflects the entertainment value and timeless nature of the film. “The space battle is wonderful, and everything that happens on the Death Star is moving and powerful,” Miller said. “The events on Endor are perhaps less gripping, although necessary to show that it's a team effort, and that the Rebellion is working in many places at once.”

Miller saw all the Star Wars movies in the theater, first-run, and he has special memories of watching Return of the Jedi with other fans. “The Jedi premiere was the only film I've ever been at when the audience all stood up during the climactic sequence, cheering Darth as he makes his decision,” he said. “That was a surreal experience for me as a high school freshman, and unique to this day.”

These days, Return of the Jedi is referred to as Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi, thanks to a second trilogy of Star Wars films, acting as prequels, that began in 1999 with Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. In 2015, Disney, which bought the property recently, will begin releasing new Star Wars films.
For those of us who grew up watching the original Star Wars trilogy, it’s hard to believe that Return of the Jedi is turning 30 this month. But, like one of those AT-AT Walkers in Empire Strikes Back, time does march on.

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