Meanwhile, Han Solo (Harrison Ford) remains encased in carbonite and hanging on the wall of loathsome Jabba the Hutt's palace. More than just a living sculpture, he stands as stark warning to anyone else who might annoy the bloated crime-lord. Into this den of iniquity rolls R2-D2 (Kenny Baker), accompanied by a pensive C-3PO (Anthony Daniels). Presented as gifts to Jabba, their sole purpose is to relay a message from Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), to the effect that he would appreciate the release of Solo. Jabba doesn't, however, think much of his suggestion, particularly when a bold bounty hunter brings in Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) to add to Jabba's collection. Fortunately though, the stranger is Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) and she's determined to rescue Han from his frozen hell. Unfortunately, she underestimates the perceptiveness of Jabba and soon finds herself chained to his greasy, reeking hide.
The only one remaining free from Jabba's clutches is Luke, now a Jedi knight. With his hand forced by Jabba, Luke (perhaps foolishly) strides into the dark lair and demands the immediate release of his comrades. Such confidence alone might swing the argument with lesser entities, but not with Jabba. He consigns Luke to meet his fate via the hideously nasty Rancor which lurks below; just another day's entertainment for Jabba and his minions, which include Boba Fett (Jeremy Bulloch). However, when that tactic fails it's clear that something bigger is required - perhaps the Sarlac? Here Jabba can happily dispose of his enemies in one foul swoop, blissfully ignorant of the fact that Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) is hanging around. With his help, Luke may yet save the day (causing pandemonium on the pleasure barge) and still have the chance to get back to Yoda (Frank Oz).
Situated as the concluding part of the Star Wars trilogy, Return of the Jedi is subject to an immense burden of expectation. Not only must it live up to, if not excel, the preceding films, it has to wrap up the loose ends, provide some surprises and still leave the way clear for another two possible trilogies. It's a tall order and, to its credit, Return of the Jedi pretty much achieves all that's required. In a return to the spirit of Star Wars, both the tone and storyline bear significant similarities to the first movie. There is a lightness and humour to the proceedings, a feeling of solid friendship and belief that the Empire can yet be vanquished. The inky shadow of Vader falls most strongly upon Luke, given the inevitable confrontation, yet even here there is room for optimism. Where Return of the Jedi scores over the earlier film is that it benefits from already well established characters, each of whom has a familiar history.
Capitalising on this, Return of the Jedi plunges directly into the action and rarely lets the pace flag. If the performances which give shape to the film are considered, the experience of the cast makes a noticeable difference. Hamill remains fairly rigid, yet the weariness which surrounds him complements the character of Luke perfectly. He's just as tired as might be expected for someone with his weighty concerns, forced to race all over the galaxy under the impetus of events beyond his control. Fisher is also generally improved, showing both steeliness and affection, though (like Ford) she seems under-used. The latter perhaps shows the most wear-and-tear, still mouthing the same cynical platitudes but without quite the previous brio. On the dark side, the trio which form Vader are fine, injecting a recognisable level of emotion despite the impassive face mask. The contradictions of his final struggle are especially well portrayed, making Vader appear almost human. He is, however, rather out-played by McDiarmid who, with sinister grimace and chilling demeanour, carries with him an air of palpable evil.
In conjunction with the human performers, extensive use is made of both puppets and people dressed up to look like aliens. Not since Star Wars has there been such an assembly of bizarre and striking life-forms, many of whom are barely glimpsed, and it makes a significant difference. By populating the film so extensively, the Star Wars universe takes on an extra dimension, stretching it beyond the petty affairs of humanity. While the classic non-human roles filled by Mayhew, Daniels and Baker spring to mind, it is the Ewoks on Endor which dominate. Contrary to popular opinion, these are no lovable, cuddly, delightful toy-like creatures. Instead, they're a primitive tribe with rituals, witch-doctors and a survival instinct, making them just as dangerous and bloodthirsty as anyone else. In this light, the Ewoks are an integral part of Return of the Jedi and undeserving of the opprobrium often heaped upon them.
The final area within which Return of the Jedi impresses is in its special effects, principally the overwhelming space and land battles. Much advanced over the earlier films, these engagements run smoothly, look realistic and generally take your breath away. A motion-sickness inducing highlight arises with the speeder bikes but, amazingly, the effects are consistently excellent throughout. Perhaps even more unusual than this though is the fact that the film is also well balanced, combining various plot strands, technical trickery and characterisation into a palatable whole. The only flies in this ointment are the over-played party at Jabba's and the ending, which would have been far more powerful and moving had the camera merely panned away from the pyre flames and rolled the credits. These are enough to diminish Return of the Jedi appreciably, though fortunately with little chance of undermining the whole. The Star Wars band-wagon has far too much momentum for that!