Saturday, May 4, 2013

The Empire Strikes Back

Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back
Director: Irvin Kershner
Starring: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, David Prowse, James Earl Jones

It’s fucking Star Wars.

Arbitrary Rating: 10/10

No, that’s not fair.  I should actually try to WRITE something, as hard as it may be. 

For those living under a rock, Empire picks up where A New Hope left off.  The Rebellion is still fighting the evil intergalactic Empire, but young Luke Skywalker (Hamill) is starting to develop his control of the Force with the help of Yoda.  Darth Vader (body by Prowse, voice by Jones) is relentless in his quest for Skywalker, however, and with all the power of the Empire at his disposal, their confrontation is inevitable.  Meanwhile, smuggler Han Solo (Ford), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), and Princess Leia (Fisher) part ways with Luke for their own attempts at outwitting the Empire.  The final showdown takes place at the spectacular Cloud City.

Easily the darkest of the three original Star Wars films (I won’t even bother mentioning the prequels in the same breath as these films), Empire is just plain awesome.  Whereas A New Hope rightly spends most of its running time in establishing the world of Star Wars, Empire Strikes Back is given more breadth to play.  There are many impressive set pieces throughout the film that never fail to entertain, and it does so in an extremely satisfying manner.

Take the opening half hour.  The ice planet of Hoth is stunning and entirely new, a world of white and ice and cold.  This alone is fascinating, but then we have the Empire versus Rebels battle on the snowfields.  The AT-ATs are a terrifying but ingenious piece of technology in the Empire’s employ, and they captivate me.  Seeing them for the first time in Empire Strikes Back is thrilling.  This section is full of adventure and survival and excitement.  Beyond the opening Hoth sequence, we then move to both an asteroid field with Leia and Han and Dagobah Luke and R2-D2.  The asteroid field is full of danger, especially with the incredibly charming idea of Han flying the Millenium Falcon into a gigantic space worm.  Here we face perils of gravity, flying asteroids, and the Imperial Starfleet.  Dagobah, on the other hand, is a swamp world, and through Yoda’s training, the tone is not exciting but quietly intense.  For the first time, we start to understand what the Force is all about as Yoda teaches Luke.  The film also dabbles in the psychological here, with Luke being forced to face his demons in order to submit to the Force.  The final sequence in Cloud City, again on an entirely new world made of gases and spectacular pastel clouds and sunsets, is full of betrayal and paranoia, as our band is reunited only to be captured by the Empire.  I love this diversity of settings.  It’s certainly more worlds, with an impressive variety between them, than we had in A New Hope, and even in Return of the Jedi.  The ice planet, the asteroids, the swamp world, and the cloud city.  Each episode is wonderfully developed and looks spectacular.  

I love the overall downbeat feeling to Empire.  As a young child, this was precisely the reason I didn’t care for the second installment as much as the others, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve grown into it and really come to adore it.  The Rebels are cornered at Hoth; they escape, but barely, and they are forced to abandon their post.  Luke’s training with Yoda does not go well, and we realize Luke’s journey to learn the ways of the Force will be long and arduous.  Luke and Leia meet setback after setback, culminating in their ultimate betrayal at Cloud City.  It helps put the Rebel fight against the Empire into perspective, and certainly makes the ending of A New Hope seem more a lucky chance than an evenly matched fight.  With a trilogy clearly mapped out, it makes sense that Empire Strikes Back beat down our heroes, because then we’d have no satisfying third act.  In terms of filmmaking as a whole, it gives Star Wars so much more depth beyond a simple, straightforward popcorn flick.  

Additionally, Empire Strikes Back is full of tantalizing little hints about things to come and the scope of the backstory of the world of Star Wars that make the story incredibly fun.  A New Hope, again, served as an introduction, and it was unclear if a sequel could get made, so by necessity it had to be self-contained.  But Empire – oh ho, we knew there would be a full trilogy, so part of the fun in Empire is setting the stage for future revelations.  George Lucas wisely holds back for the most part, giving us lots of little things but never giving away the farm.  For example, we see the back of Vader’s head, all white and scarred, for the first time.  We learn that Vader serves a higher master, the Emperor, a juicy little secret that we never knew in the first movie.  Yoda gives us the delicious line of “No – there is another” in reference to Luke being the last hope.  And finally, there is the ultimate revelation of the film, the relationship between Vader and Luke Skywalker.  All these things paint a picture of a larger scope than we had any idea existed in the first Star Wars film, and that’s brilliant.

Of all the characters, Vader is the one who gets the most satisfying development in Empire Strikes Back.  While certainly a threat in A New Hope, he shared his villainous screen time with Grand Moff Tarkin.  This time around, it’s only him.  We even get his own theme music, the Imperial March (alright, it’s not technically for Vader personally, but it feels like it is).  He’s far more the focus, and providing the central threat to Han, Leia, and Luke.  And what a great villain; swathed in black, in control of an unknowable power that he uses to kill members of his own side should they upset him, Vader is easily one of the greatest screen baddies of all time.  It’s so much fun to watch him come into his own in Empire Strikes Back.

I will never, EVER tire of the production design of the three original Star Wars films.  I love watching the spacecraft in these movies.  Taking a huge cue from Douglas Trumbull’s work in 2001: A Space Odyssey, the miniature work and special effects are immaculate in Empire Strikes Back.  I love all the ships: the X-Wing fighters, the Walkers, and especially the Imperial Star Destroyers.  Watching Star Wars, I feel like a kid in a candy store.  The sets are so much fun as well.  The brilliant whites of Cloud City are offset by the incredible darks and blacks of nearly every other set.  I love the steel grays of everything to do with Imperial ships, but also the junk yard feel to the Millenium Falcon.  The final duel between Luke and Vader is full of threatening red neon lights, giving it a hugely unsettling effect.  I just love watching this movie (and, I’ll add, I love the spacecraft effects precisely BECAUSE they are miniatures and NOT computer-generated). 

It’s rare to have a sequel that manages to capture all the joy of the original film and expand on it without cheapening the overall impact.  The Empire Strikes Back is an exemplary sequel, furthering the mythology of Star Wars and taking it to grand new heights.  I love this movie.

After all, it’s fucking Star Wars.

Arbitrary Rating: 10/10.

 (Reason for posting this today: May the Fourth be with you.)


  1. I saw an online article today saying that it was "Star Wars Day". That was the first I had ever heard of that and it made me wonder if May 4th was the day the first film was released back in 1977. Then the article ended with "May the fourth be with you" and I finally got it.

    While I enjoy this movie quite a bit, I still go with Star Wars as the best of the films, mostly because it had the hardest job - establishing this whole universe and making people take it seriously. (For the same reason I consider Fellowship of the Ring to be the best LOTR film, not Return of the King.)

    For what it's worth: a third film was not a given when Empire came out. After seeing the ending, we all hoped for it, but back then we simply didn't know if it would happen or not. Something we thankfully didn't know at the time was that Lucas sunk all his money into Empire to finance it himself, instead of going through a studio. If it had not made enough money he wouldn't have been able to make a third, or at least not without giving control of it back over to a studio to get financing.

    Can you imagine a world WITHOUT a Princess Leia slavegirl outfit? Oh, yeah, and that stuff about Han, too? My 18 year old self shudders at the thought.

    1. Ha ha, well I'm glad I could clear things up re: Star Wars day!

      I guess what I meant about the third film was that Lucas had clearly PLANNED a third film, if that makes sense. Thanks for the info about the third film, and I absolutely get that back then there wasn't the automatic "three film buy-in" from studios for anything. However, it's hard to watch Empire and not think that Lucas was totally planning in his head, at the very least, what was going to happen in the next installment.

      Still, thank god for the fact that Return of the Jedi exists. Thank god for tying up loose ends!

  2. You really made me understand all the reasons Star Wars fans love these movies! Beautifully written piece.

    1. Thank you very much, that's very kind! Sometimes it's hard to write about a movie that you REALLY love because how can words possibly sum up such feelings? Ah well, such is the challenge of movie bloggers!

  3. How the hell did I miss this review?

    God, but I love this movie. I love it to the extent that if I catch it while channel surfing, I'm done channel surfing until it's over, and I'm usually pissed that I missed all of the awesome Hoth stuff.

    How warm is the inside of a tauntaun? Luke warm.

    1. I am groaning at your joke. Well done.

      Since high school, I've loved these films, but what really struck me was how damn well they stand up. Prior to watching the first two films again in order to write this piece, the last time I saw the original trilogy was back in 2006 (following a very traumatic episode in my life), and I hadn't watched them since. Of course, since 2006, I've been gorging myself on all these Great Films, and I was a little nervous about seeing Star Wars again. After all, my movie watching had fundamentally altered. Would Star Wars still be as awesome as I remembered?

      The amazing thing - the truly amazing thing - was that not only was it as good as I remembered, it was actually BETTER. I actually think I love these films even MORE now that I've gone through all these hundreds of other great films. And that makes me so happy.