The good, the bad, and the Force: Re-evaluating Star Wars – Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back
WE’RE at the big one now. This is the monster, the game-changer, the show-stopper. Widely acclaimed as one of the greatest films of all time and almost universally called the best in the franchise, it’s Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back.
Jozef Raczka: If I thought trying to prosecute The Phantom Menace was easy, now I’m defending The Empire Strikes Back. Seriously, this article writes itself. This is the film where it all happens: The Battle of Hoth, meeting Yoda, the best training sequence since Rocky, Lando Calrissian, Chewbacca’s emotional farewell to Han Solo and possibly the finest romantic exchange in cinema; Leia – “I love you.” Han – “I know.” Pretty much from the opening scroll through to that last shot of Luke, Leia, C-3PO and R2-D2 staring out into the limitless space beyond, I love this film.
There stand my reasoning why these films will forever be a delight to me. Obviously I loved all these films as a child; I was excited by anything in space with explosions. Anything. The real test is how the films hold up through the overly-analytical gaze of a recent film graduate. Every time I re-watch the original trilogy I find things I love and every time I re-watch the prequel films, I find new things that irritate me. Even George Lucas’ attempts to bastardise history by constantly editing it can’t dilute the sheer joy that these films bring.
Though it’s very much Lucas’ baby, the work of director Irvin Kershner, cinematographer Peter Suschitzsky and location manager Phillip Kohler can’t be downplayed. As impressive as the CGI worlds of the prequels were, they will never have the same charm as the sands of Tunisia remade as Tatooine or the breathtakingly sparse snow-capped landscape of Finsk, Norway that becomes Hoth. Where everything in the prequels becomes too smooth, too unreal, the use of real locations in these films affords sequences like the Battle of Hoth a level of expanse that effects cannot recreate. There’s also an imperfection to proceedings that is delightful; this is big, bold, blockbuster filmmaking but it doesn’t lose its sense of homespun charm that makes the world feel far more endearing and immersive.
Empire feels more confident than the original. Mark Hamill sheds the lost boy stare of the first film and shows a transition into the action hero the film desperately needed him to be; Harrison Ford continues to prove himself invaluable anchoring with affecting relationships with Chewbacca and Princess Leia, while Frank Oz becomes a secret weapon, bringing serene gravitas to his role of Yoda. This incarnation of the little green… thing is still, to my mind, the finest there will ever be, the stillness of the puppet creating an iconic mentor figure but also providing a cosmic centre to the series’ internal black and white morals.
Now there is one thing I haven’t mentioned as yet that I would be neglectful to not mention: “No. I am your father.” Yes, I am aware that in retrospect this twist might not be as shocking as it may have first seemed but the moment is pure cinema. The performance from Hamill is perhaps a little broad for some tastes but it is perfectly in tune with the ridiculous space opera surroundings and the way that, during dialogue, Vader is frequently shot with low angles, building a sense of empathy as we see the world from Luke’s point of view as he realises the monster his father is.
There are only a few sequels you can honestly say are better than the original. The Godfather: Part II, Terminator 2: Judgement Day, Captain America: The Winter Soldier & Evil Dead 2 are the only major examples that come to mind. Well, apart from The Empire Strikes Back. It takes everything the original built and added to it, expanding the universe and showing any modern sequel that wanted to be ‘darker’ just how to do it without becoming po-faced. All this and not a single Gungan in sight. Perfection.
Daniel Abbott: I’ve been given the unenviable task of submitting a negative evaluation of the one of the greatest movies of all time. Where do I even begin? How do I attempt to rationalise a critical takedown of Empire Strikes Back? It’s one of my all-time favourites, it’s the best film in the series and it inspired me to be Luke Skywalker when I was alone in the house, rolling over bedframes and trying to do that one-hand handstand on Dagobah. No luck.
It’s hard to imagine such difficulty when we consider the initial, decidedly mixed, critical reaction upon Empire‘s debut in 1980. Coming off the back of the innately hopeful, adventurous fare of A New Hope – at the time the highest-grossing film of all time – it must have been quite a surprise when the sequel burrowed a path in the complete opposite direction. Though not as dark as Revenge of the Sith, Empire proved that the galaxy far, far away wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows; the rebels didn’t blow up the Death Star every day. The title isn’t a joke; the Empire hits back, and hard. The bombastic optimism of the original’s concluding medal ceremony is replaced by Luke, robot hand around Leia, pensive, staring out at the galaxy from a rebel ship on the run.
Perhaps the tone could be considered jarring, wedged between the triumphant bookends of A New Hope and Return of the Jedi, leading to a lack of an immediate resolution. There’s also the rather disjointed narrative once the heroes are separated from each other; with Luke journeying to Dagobah and Han, Leia and Chewie on the run from the Empire, there’s the risk of upsetting the narrative balance with some abrupt scene changes. ‘The twist’, so shocking at the time, has become so culturally ingrained that it’s becoming increasingly difficult for newcomers to the series to have the full experience. Then there’s the fact that Leia snogs Luke, and that is totally not cool (you know why, but George didn’t at the time). Ew.
But here’s the thing. Most of Empire‘s flaws aren’t flaws in the film, they’re merely by-products of its brilliance. Things like the foibles of the expanded universe, the merchandising, the prequels… all the result of the seismic impact that Empire had, and it’s a testament to the quality of the film that I’ve seriously struggled to bring any aspersions against it. Boba Fett is massively overrated though.