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Star Wars, Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back
In discussions of the full Star WarsThe modern blockbuster: it's a concept so commonplace now we don't even think about the fact that before the end of the 1970s, this kind of movie -- huge spectacles, big action, massive budgets -- wasn't really made. That all changed, though, with Star Wars, a series of films that were big on spectacle (and even bigger on profits). A hero's journey set against a sci-fi backdrop, nothing like this series had ever really been done before, and then Hollywood was never the same. Saga, discussion will inevitably turn to which film is the best of the series. Most will settle on either Episode IV: A New Hope, with its simple but effective Hero's Journey, or today's entry in the series, The Empire Strikes Back, with its darker tone and somewhat bleak conclusion. Each film has its strengths and merits, but I can certainly see the argument being made for while Empire might edge out A New Hope for the title of best in the series.
Like A New Hope, Empire has a relatively simple A-plot/B-plot structure that keeps the story zipping along with very little filler or distractions. In fact, in a number of ways Empire reuses the structure of A New Hope -- an opening, action-filled sequence that sets the tone, Luke off on his own adventure while the other characters deal with the evil Empire, and then everyone coming together for a rousing climax that sees Luke taking on the Imperial forces. About the only thing that's really different is that the heroes don't come out on top this time (spoilers for a 40 year old movie everyone has already seen).
I can appreciate this from a writer's standpoint. Keeping the structure similar to the first film allows viewers to settle back in to the story beats of the Galaxy Far Far Away, to feel comfortable in the familiarity. Bearing in mind that back when this film was released home video was still a nascent thing. Essentially, once the original Star Wars left theaters, viewers had no way to get another taste of the Galaxy Far Far Away until Empire came onto screens (discounting the Holiday Special, of course), so the film had to get viewers settled in quick, remind them on the important characters and get the story zipping along like they remembered. Empire is smartly written to accommodate this.
Although we all know this movie, for those that want a refresher: After a battle at the ice planet, Hoth, where the Rebel base is located and where the Empire has sent their best ships to take out the base and crush the Resistance once and for all, our teams of heroes split off from each other with the promise of meeting up later. Luke heads off to Dagobah, a swampy planet where, supposedly, a great Jedi master named Yoda lives. Luke needs to finish his training in the ways of the Jedi and, at the behest of Obi-Wan's Force ghost, Luke heads to the swamp planet. Yoda, once revealed, is hesitant to train Luke, finding him too old and too impetuous to be properly crafted into a Jedi Knight. Eventually he relents, though, and Luke goes through his paces, trying to get his powers under control.
Meanwhile, Leia is forced to flee the Hoth base with Han aboard the Millennium Falcon. They are immediately best by Imperial forces and forces to fend for themselves lest they drag the Empire with them to the Rebel rendezvous point. After a few near-miss encounters, the heroes fly the Millennium Falcon to Cloud City, a base where Han's friend, Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) acts as the leader. Unfortunately for our heroes, the Empire got there first and, soon enough, the plucky band is captured. Luke, sensing their danger, is forced to head to Cloud City to fight the Empire, which culminates in a duel between Luke and Vader for the fate of Luke's friends, and Luke's very soul as a Jedi as well.
While the structure of Episode IV and Episode V are similar, there are key differences that set the two films apart, differences that I think make Empire the stronger film. For starters, the entire plot of the film doesn't hinge upon a giant super-weapon (the Death Star) that the heroes have to destroy. This is one of the few films in the series, in fact, to not worry about super-weapons (like the Deathstar Mk II or the Starkiller Base from future movies). Instead of focusing on a simple fetch quest or a big boss to defeat, the entire point of the movie is that the heroes are on the run and they just have to find some way to escape with their lives. They aren't worried about striking a blow or taking down the Empire, they just want to live. That is a much more relatable plot line.
By that same measure, so much of this movie is more relatable than the previous film. Luke, for instance, has gone through a big transformation from the yearning, needy, aw shucks kid he was in the previous film. Here is more mature, more assured, and much more likable. While his wide-eyed wonder at the powers of the force was accurate, and probably paralleled what a lot of kids in the audience felt, it didn't exactly make him interesting. Here, though, he's warm and funny but he also suffers for his training, taking his licks and getting back up. It's a great character renovation that makes Luke into the proper center of the films the series needed him to be.
Han and Leia also get their own renovations. Here, based upon the chemistry the two had in the previous film, the movie pairs them up as love interests. While some could argue this wasn't needed -- certainly Leia doesn't have much to do in this movie other than act as a prize for the Empire or a love interest for Han -- it is enjoyably acted. Ford and Fisher play their parts well, getting a delightfully mean banter going that still conveys the deep emotions the two feel for each other. While I do wish Leia had a part equal to Han -- the ruffian gets to play the hero more than once, and even gets a "heroic death" moment (that the next film does ruin) -- the two sell their story and that goes a long way to carrying their plot line.
If anything it's the Empire that lacks focus in this film. While certainly we need to follow the heroes of this series, the Empire basically just acts like shadowy monsters for most of a movie that, by its title, should be devoted to their evil plots and plans. If a larger C-plot could have been written for the Empire, something to convey why it is these people have remained in power all this time, that would have helped this movie further develop the universe. As it is, even after this film is over, we only have the barest understanding of what the Empire is really like. Yes, there's an Emperor and he looks sufficiently evil (thanks to his makeover-via-Force Lightning in Episode III: Revenge of the Sith), but that doesn't really tell us much about thee Empire. The film presents a very child-like "good vs evil" tale, but it doesn't give us much depth to the villains.
Really, were it not for James Earl Jones the villains in this film would be laughably bad. Sure, they get the upper hand over the heroes by movie's end, but that's only because the Empire is somehow able to magically teleport themselves ahead of the Millennium Falcon (another detail that's just glossed over). The Empire is little more than a bogeyman in this movie, something people fear, who leaps out of shadows to cast evil and darkness. They aren't really effective, though, not on a deep, villainous level. That said, Darth Vader is, of course, amazing, with Jones doing all he can to sell the performance and make it something iconic and glorious. The Empire may be run by buffoons and idiots (as they say in Spaceballs, "I'm surrounded by assholes!") but Vader is a glorious one-man show.
And then there's the ending which sees Han more or less dead, Luke short one hand (after Vader takes it in their duel), and the Rebels on the run. It's a bleak place to end the movie, one lacking in the hope and jubilant energy of the celebration at the end of the first film. But then the heroes really weren't sure where they were headed or what lay ahead for them in the future. The way forward seemed dark, that "new hope" suddenly a little less bright, and it would seemingly take a miracle to defeat the Empire and save the galaxy for good. It's an ending fans really loved; they enjoyed the reality of the fact that heroes don't always win and villains aren't always defeated. The future was unknown and for fans sitting there in theaters, opening weekend, the anticipation for the third film must of been palpable. Where would the movies go? Could Han be saved? Who could possibly defeat the Empire?
Apparently, on that last front, the answer was: a bunch of teddy bears.
Continuity and Issues:
To make Han jealous Leia plants a big smooch on Luke. I bet, once they both realize they're related, they'll never mention that kiss ever again. Thanksgiving was probably also pretty awkward, all things considered.
When Luke meets Yoda, the great Jedi master sandbags, pretending to be a crazy, little, old swap codger. It's all a test, of course, because everything Yoda does is a test, or a ruse, or because Yoda likes to play mind games. This certainly played well back when this film came out as no one knew who Yoda was. Now, though, with the prequels, it's hard to see people having the same gleeful reaction to crazy old Yoda in the swamps. The prequels did ruin this bait-and-switch.
In the Special Edition of these films, the Emperor is portrayed by Ian McDiarmid, who has played the Emperor in every film except the original version of Empire. Lucas did this to create continuity between all the films, thus removing original Emperor actors Marjorie Eaton (the face of the Emperor) and Clive Revill (the voice of the Emperor).
Lando shows up for the first time in this film. That is unless you watch the films in order and already saw Lando over in Solo: A Star Wars Story. If you did, then you might be pleased to see Lando again. It's hard to say how much Solo did to enamor people to Lando more than they already were. He's a card sharp and a sleaze (in a charismatic, amiable way) mind you, so its easy to see people walking away from Solo going, "man, that Lando guy kind of sucks."
Certainly, if you watch the films in chronological, in-continuity order, it's hard to see how Han would ever trust Lando (let alone call him a friend). The two don't know each other at the start of that film, and by the end of it that are, at best, playful adversaries. It's pretty clear a second (and maybe even third) film was planned in the Solo series, all so we could get more time developing the dynamic between Han and Lando. But that movie didn't do well so this part of the Saga is left woefully incomplete.
The film, of course, plays up the fact that Luke isn't the only Jedi hope in the universe, that (as Yoda says), "there is another." This is obvious Leia, although the film plays it as a mystery. It's not a mystery to use, though, as we watched the prequels and we know these two are brother and sister. Way to spoil that, too, for us, George. Of course, the stunning "I am your father" moment is also ruined by the prequels too. SO many good surprises in this film taken out by over explaining in the prequel trilogy.
Luke loses a hand in this film. In retrospect, I guess that makes him a lot like his father. These people lose limbs at a stunning rate.