Thursday, May 25, 2023

Peak Cinema, Ewoks and All: Return of the Jedi at 40

I think the hardest thing to convey about the original Star Wars trilogy to those who weren't there when those films were first released is just how singular they were then and how much they dominated the genre competition. In regards to cinematic spectacle, there was nothing else like them. Released on May 25th, 1983, Return of the Jedi celebrates its 40th anniversary today and to understand how much Jedi stood out at the time, not just by being the conclusion of (what was then) the most popular movie trilogy of all time, but as an unmatched FX achievement, you have to look at its competition back in the summer of '83. 

Consider the fact that we're talking about the summer movie season, the time when studios are putting their biggest spectacles on the big screen. Then realize that the would-be blockbusters that Jedi was competing against among ticket buyers in the summer of '83 were the likes of the latest James Bond entry, Octopussy, the newest installment in the Man of Steel's saga, Superman III, and a big screen adaptation of The Twilight Zone. Nothing to necessarily sneeze at, in all these cases, but none of them could come close to the wow factor of Jedi. Honestly, it hardly seems fair.

The closest of that bunch to Jedi as far as providing pure cinematic razzle dazzle would be Superman III but, putting aside the fact that III was regarded as a comedic downturn for the series, just talking about it strictly in terms of its special effects, III just couldn't even begin to give Jedi a run for its money. Even though Superman III was a state of the art production, it still looked downright chintzy next to the eye popping spectacle of Jedi

The array of creatures, alien environments, and space battles that Jedi boasted served up the kind of visuals that nothing else at the time could match - certainly not the sight of Superman in a faux video game recreation. Compared to Jedi, just about everything else on movies screens then was, for lack of a better word, corny. The wizards at ILM were playing the game on whole different level. 

The fact is, the FX landscape was not on an even playing field in the early '80s. Today, there is a certain uniformity across the board in terms of FX proficiency. Sure, you'll have an outlier like Avatar: The Way of Water that leaps ahead of the pack but generally - on purely technical terms - one big FX film today is as well executed as the next. There isn't a vast discrepancy from one to the other. 

Whether we're talking Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 or The Flash or Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, whatever blockbuster audiences are watching this summer, they're all going to meet what modern audiences regard as the current standards of FX. These films might edge each other out on grounds of storytelling and acting and so on but FX wise they'll all be on equal footing. 

In 1983, though, FX quality could still vary wildly from film to film. For example, in the summer of '83, multiplex audiences had the option of paying the same ticket price as Jedi to see the much less technically proficient sci-fi offering Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared-Syn. You'd never have that type of discrepancy today but in '83, it wasn't unusual for the new height of FX achievement to be on one movie screen while on another screen in the same theater, you could see a film that was pure B movie schlock with all the seams showing. 

The crazy thing is, no one even blinked at that. Yes, we knew Jedi was light years better but no one was expecting anything else to be that good. Fans understood that anything ILM touched, most of all Star Wars, was operating on a whole other level. 

Today, it's taken for granted the fact that made for TV fantasy and sci-fi shows like Game of Thrones or Rings of Power or House of the Dragon can look every bit as stunning as The Mandalorian or Andor but in '83, it was understood that even on the big screen, nothing would be able to keep up with Star Wars and Jedi was the peak of perfection. Back then, we wondered if anything would ever top it. 

To modern eyes, Jedi no longer looks all that special. Not like it once did, at least. Watching it in 1983 was a such a different experience. The whole landscape was different then in a way that is alien to younger viewers. It would be like going to the movies today and having one theater showing a movie made with the most state of the art technology and in the next, a movie that was about twenty years behind the curve. Say what you will about Shazam! Fury of the Gods, for example, but on the grounds of its FX, there's no denying that it looks in line with the best of what's out there. 

I was fourteen when Jedi came out and I still remember how floored I was by it. Sure, there were elements that I was prone to nitpick (Ewoks simply did not seem cool to teens, sorry, even if I've come to appreciate the critters since) but, on a technical level, it was undeniably impressive. And there was nothing else out, not just that summer, but the rest of the whole year that even came close to it. 

Today, it seems like the big cinematic achievement of one month is pushed aside weeks later by the next film to raise the bar. No movie holds the crown for long. No matter how much a movie may set a new standard, fans are immediately jumping onto whatever's next (a process hastened by social media). Avatar: The Way of Water gives way to Guardians Vol. 3 which will give way to Across the Spider-Verse and then The Flash and so on. 

In the early '80s, though, genre fans weren't as spoiled as they are today, where fans take for granted that every other month a new watershed genre film will arrive and if it doesn't the state of cinema must be in peril. Back then, it was normal for a film to be seen as the big thing for not just a few months but for years afterwards. That seems so antiquated from today's chronically impatient "what have you done for me lately?" mindset. It's a way of thinking that might as well be from a long time ago and a galaxy far, far away. 

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