It's hard to express the scale of Star Wars: A New Hope's reach, especially for its time. Some U.S. theaters kept it playing for over a year past its 1977 release date. The Empire Strikes Back was the highest grossing film of 1980, pulling in about $210 million — more than twice the money of second-place-finisher 9 to 5. The idea that somebody would go to see Return of the Jedi without having at least a basic understanding of the story of Star Wars likely seemed absurd.
Return of the Jedi was the first Star Wars movie I ever saw
Jedi earned the right to throw viewers into the deep end, and takes full advantage of the opportunity. Return of the Jedi doesn't just refrain from spelling out the plot: it refrains from even telling you who the heroes are.
Reader, you may not remember the first time you watched a Star Wars movie, but I do, vividly. I do, because the first Star Wars movie I ever saw was Return of the Jedi, and I had no idea what was going on. And that was completely understandable.
Take a moment to walk with me through the events of the infamous and daring rescue of Han Solo from Jabba's palace, as if you had never seen a Star Wars movie. You'll find Return of the Jedi frames all of its good guys like they're the bad guys.
We open with a couple of robots walking up to a forbidding castle, discussing how terrifying its ruler is. They gain entrance, encountering in swift succession a series of monsters, virtually none of whom speak English, and each of whom pale in comparison to the centerpiece of this show: a disgustingly recumbent seven-foot slug-man.
the price of the bear-man's freedom is negotiated
The endearing robots deliver a message from their master, an ominous man in black, only to find that out he has tricked them into coming here to be given away to this horrible slug. The next scene literally takes place in a robot torture chamber.
But let's get this plot back on track. At the sound of a gunshot, a masked alien leads a growling bear-man into the throne room in chains. With the help of one of the robots, who translates both the slug-man's burbling speech and the metallic clicks coming from the alien's snout, the price of the bear-man's freedom is negotiated.
then the alien pulls out a bomb
Then the alien pulls out a bomb. Every person in the room cries out in fear. The friendly, gold robot's voice rises to a terrified pitch. Sure, this monstrous crew hasn't exactly endeared themselves to you, but you don't want to watch them die horribly at the hands of a suicidal newcomer.
But it's fine: More negotiations take place. The alien puts the bomb away. The bear-man is thrown into a dungeon, where he howls pathetically. The camera gives you significant glances at two different ominously masked men (who are they? You have no idea) and an ugly statue.
We cut to night: the bomb-wielding alien sneaks through the throne room and brings the statue to life. Then it turns out the alien is a human woman. The statue asks who she is. "Someone who loves you," she says, instead of actually answering the question. She kisses the statue.
Then the slug-man's lackeys throw the statue in jail with the bear-man and enslave the woman.
Finally, another bad guy shows up.
The slug-man attempts to feed the man in black to a giant monster. The bad guy kills the monster, as its handler breaks down crying.
At this point in my first viewing of Return of the Jedi, I vividly remember turning to my dad and asking why that man was crying. He shrugged. "Maybe it was his pet." Child-me was aghast.
And that's why I've never watched Star Wars since.
Just kidding, obviously I've watched Star Wars since, and even in my first viewing of Return of the Jedi I eventually grasped who I was supposed to be rooting for and what they were trying to do.
Han Solo's rescue is a legendary, brave opening for the third film in a trilogy, one that already has to bear the burden of wrapping up Luke's Jedi arc, the promise of Vader's redemption, the fall of the Empire and the resolution of a love triangle. And what an opening!
It's positively the pulpiest sequence in the movies, a Frank Frazetta painting come to life, a Conan the Barbarian story where instead of muscles he's got Jedi training. And despite being from another era entirely, even for 1983, it works. It sings along, really, unlike the comparatively sleepy front half of A New Hope.
But after experiencing it firsthand, I've never forgotten the neat little narrative trick that the opening of Return of the Jedi plays, by dressing its heroes as the villains in narrative as well as costume.