Star Wars Retrospective: The Empire Strikes Back

star wars the empire strikes back review logo episode v george lucas ivan kershner lawrence kasdan original trilogy

The Empire Strikes Back! One of the earliest major movie sequels, and widely considered to be the best Star Wars movie of the saga. (I wonder if it’ll retain that title in a week’s time. Part of me thinks it will, but at the same time, I rather hope it won’t – wouldn’t it be nice if The Force Awakens really was that good?)

One of the more interesting things about the opening of this movie is that it’s actually set three years after the end of A New Hope; there’s something of an implied history there, between the characters we were introduced to in the previous movie, which is used to interesting effect here. There’s clearly been a lot of development and progress in their stories – and, once again, a wider world is being hinted at. For Luke, Leia, Han and Chewbacca, their story didn’t stop when the Death Star exploded; they’ve been out there, living their lives, fighting against the Empire ever since. It makes the whole world a little wider.

In fact, that’s something this sequel does a pretty good job of throughout, in terms of expanding the size of this Galaxy. Take, for example, Cloud City. We meet Lando Calrissian, an old friend of Han’s, now in charge of a mining colony; once again, we’re seeing glimpses of a whole other world. There are fleeting references to Han’s life, before he became a leader in the Rebel Alliance – he’s now Captain Solo, in fact – which serve as some impressive character development as well, by contrasting who he is now with who he once was. The Bounty Hunters too fulfill a similar role – they hint at a much seedier side to this galaxy, and also to the Empire itself. Before, everything has been a much more clinical, powerful depiction of the Empire – but now Darth Vader needs these people? What sort of madmen are they, so lacking in restraint they need to be specifically instructed “no disintegrations”?

Actually, it occurs to me as well that this is the first time we see the actual Emperor in the Original Trilogy (it’s a cameo by Ian McDiarmid, though I’m not certain if that’s from the original or a George Lucas edit). That was really fascinating – you can see, immediately, how big of a deal this character is when Darth Vader himself kneels before him, calling him master. The audience knows, right from the off, that this character is a very big deal, and very dangerous indeed.

star wars the empire strikes back review hoth han solo rebels harrison ford irvin kershner george lucas lawrence kasdan

It is, of course, great to see all of the characters from the previous movie back once more – like I said, Han, Leia, Luke and Chewie have all evolved slightly from their previous appearance, but they’re still recognisably the same characters we got to love previously. Notably, though, their journeys and evolution continues throughout, as each character embarks on their own discrete arc.

Han and Leia, in this movie, get a lot closer to being romantically involved; it’s one of the most important relationships of Star Wars, I think it’s fair to say, and this film does a lot of work to show the beginnings of a relationship between them. It’s far better than that of Anakin and Padme in Attack of the Clones; although Han and Leia spend a lot of time being confrontational with each other, the movie manages to draw on the aforementioned implied history to demonstrate that this is conflict stemming from an actual bond the two share. You can see it in the beginning of the film too, where the pair of them both spend time looking across at each while they think the other can’t see them. It’s a far cry from “creepy teen makes woman he last saw ten years ago extremely uncomfortable, until she suddenly decides she likes him (and then he murders people)”.

Luke, of course, starts his training as a Jedi here – you can see at the start of the movie, when he’s in the Wampa’s cave, that Luke has been practicing with his command of the force, but there’s obviously still a lot for him to learn. (This is actually a nice, tense scene in the beginning, given that Luke is clearly exerting himself when trying to get the lightsabre – we’ve got just enough doubt as to whether or not he’ll manage it for the scene to be suitably tense.) It’s really interesting to see Luke’s journey and development into becoming a Jedi, under the tutelage of Yoda, and it goes a great way towards furthering Luke’s journey as a hero.

Yoda makes his first appearance in the Original Trilogy here, initially appearing to be little more than a strange comedic character – the Jar-Jar of his day, if you like. It’s a great bit of misdirection, and serves really well to throw us off balance with the introduction of Yoda; he’s so different to what you’d be expecting, after everything Obi-Wan has said and Luke has assumed, that when that strange little green hermit appears, there’s no way you’d ever assume that he was, in fact, the greatest Jedi Master of them all. It’s a great way to structure the reveal, actually, and challenges all the audience preconceptions of everything we think we know about the force.

star wars the empire strikes back review yoda dagohbah frank oz puppet yoda irvin kershner george lucas lawrence kasdan

The most notable thing about this movie, though, is the work it does with establishing Darth Vader as one of the greatest cinematic villains of the 20th Century. Actually, in fact, not one of the, but the greatest cinematic villain of the 20th Century (only a Sith deals in absolutes!), with The Empire Strikes Back often cited for its impressive depiction of the villains.

Nearly every scene with Darth Vader works towards furthering his screen presence as a villain; it’s particularly apparent aboard the Imperial Star Cruiser, through his interactions with the ship’s crew. The “promotion” of Admiral Piett is a stand out scene, I think – seeing as his predecessor is force choked on the viewscreen is a nice demonstration of Vader’s power, given that it shows he doesn’t even need to be in the same room as his victims to kill them. Similarly, I liked the fear we see in one of the other officers, as he talks of the need to apologise to Lord Vader – we then later see Vader standing over his dead body, simply saying “apology accepted”. It’s a very chilling demonstration of how powerful a villain Vader is.

We also have that twist to discuss. It’s very difficult to see it in terms of its original context now, isn’t it? It’s an idea that is now so ingrained in popular culture, the number of people who watch Star Wars for the first time without already knowing the identity of Luke’s father must be very few indeed. You can see, though, that it’s been set up right from the beginning – in the opening crawl, they establish that Vader has been obsessed with finding Luke since the destruction of the Death Star, which in hindsight is clearly because he knows Luke Skywalker is his son. Another interesting moment is when we see Vader putting his helmet on, and catch a glimpse of his ashen, scarred cranium – it hints at a past life for him as well, but also reveals that Darth Vader isn’t just a robot, and there’s a man behind the machine.

In revealing his connection to Luke, though, we do have a pretty monumental twist. It changes everything we thought we knew so far, and it’s clear this is going to have huge repercussions going forward into the next movie. It’s a genuinely fantastic idea, and I’m really glad that George Lucas came up with it (even if that wasn’t the original plan!), because it gives the story a lot of resonance.

star wars the empire strikes back review darth vader irvin kershner george lucas I am your father hd picture david prowse

The final ending is, ultimately, a defeat for our heroes – the greatest that we’ve ever seen them suffer. Han has been frozen in carbonite, and taken away to the vicious Jabba the Hutt. Luke has had his hand cut off, and it’s been revealed he’s the son of the most evil man in the galaxy. The rebel base on Hoth was destroyed, the rebellion dispersed, and we don’t know how many of them survived. Leia even kissed her brother without realising.

Truly, things are dark. And that means the ending of this movie is really, genuinely impactful.

The Empire Strikes Back is a really, really good movie. Again, I think I’d have to give this one another 10/10 (though I am not certain if, in terms of my own subjective enjoyment, I prefer it over A New Hope. I think A New Hope might just edge past The Empire Strikes Back, ultimately.)

Related:

Star Wars Retrospective

Facebook | Twitter | Blog Index | Star Wars Index

Star Wars Retrospective: A New Hope

star wars a new hope review episode iv logo george lucas original trilogy

And now, I’ve finally reached the original.

It’s staggering to think, actually, that this movie is nearly 40 years old – and then even more so when you think about the cultural influence it’s had. This movie, filmed on a budget of eleven million dollars, spawned a franchise that sold for four billion dollars. It lead to a further 5 films, two television series, and hundreds of books and comics. There’s going to be another five films, the first of which will be released this Thursday, and then god knows how many more after that. It’s a film that’s ingrained in the zeitgeist, with a greater pop culture presence than any other single movie that’s come before or after it.

It’s actually, genuinely, slightly insane. This movie has had an impact on such a grand scale, it’s touched the lives of so many people across the globe. It has huge, huge numbers of dedicated fans. Honestly, genuinely, the achievements of Star Wars are exceptionally impressive.

Thankfully, it’s also a very good movie.

I think a lot of people will have commented on this before, but right from the beginning, George Lucas does a fantastic job of conveying the sheer scale of his universe – or, rather, his galaxy. We open with Princess Leia’s ship, which looks huge… but then it’s completely dwarfed by the size of the Imperial Star Destroyer following it! Immediately, within just a few moments, we’re introduced to a whole new world, which is clearly full of possibilities. It’s a hugely effective opening sequence; perhaps one of the best I’ve ever seen.

star wars a new hope review george lucas star destroyer opening scene marcia lucas

And, honestly, it continues well from there. I genuinely don’t think there’s a single thing this movie actually gets wrong.

One of the biggest issues I highlighted with the prequel films was the pacing; there’s no such problem here. Star Wars is a really well-written film, that does exactly what it needs to do with its runtime. It’s consistently entertaining; I was never bored by it once. The plot moves along at a good speed – we dwell on each beat long enough for it to have a proper level of impact, but never long enough for it to drag. In short, it’s a supremely effective story, all well told and well presented.

You can see that at the start, beginning as we do with R2-D2 and C3PO. I was actually quite surprised by that, when I was rewatching this, because I didn’t realise quite how long it was that we spent on these two; there’s a significant chunk of this movie wherein the pair of them are essentially our main focal point. And this is never boring! That’s an achievement in and of itself, really, given that one of them doesn’t talk, and the other is very much a comedy character.

And, of course, this is maintained all throughout the two hours that the film is running for. It’s really, readily apparent quite how well this film fits together; the transition from space to Tatooine, to the Death Star, to the Rebel Base – it all comes together to create a brilliantly textured, lived in universe, which provides an excellent backdrop to this wonderful, almost mythic, story.

We’ve also got a wonderful host of fun, strongly drawn characters, who really breathe life into this plot. There’s a reason, after all, why these guys are in the zeitgeist now; they’re iconic. Of course, a lot of that comes from the way in which George Lucas played upon pre-existing archetypes, and drawing from different aspects of mythos; you’ve got the young hero, the wise old man, the rogue, the princess. Star Wars does, after all, follow Joseph Campbell’s idea of the Hero’s Journey, almost entirely to a tee.

star wars a new hope review milennium falcon luke skywalker han solo chewbacca obi wan kenobi george lucas retrospective

But Star Wars is much more than a paint-by-numbers, regurgitated plot. There’s something genuinely special here, and you can see why it touched the lives of so many people. Luke, the wide eyed audience surrogate, is a pretty perfect protagonist – everyone has felt listless and unfulfilled, searching for something new, the same way he has. Everyone has wanted to just fly away and be a hero (or, well, maybe that’s just me). It’s a great performance by Mark Hamill, who does a really good job as Luke.

The same is true again, then, of Han and Chewie, or Obi-Wan (known also as Ben, for reasons I am not entirely sure of). Harrison Ford and Alec Guinness were, I think, probably the best actors of the main cast – Alec Guinness was nominated for an Oscar because of his role as Obi-Wan, I think? That sounds right to me. They’re similarly impressive characters to Luke; Han, the rogue with the redemption arc, eventually coming back to help the rebels, is a real moment of triumph that stands out as you watch the film.

It’s also particularly interesting watching this film, and seeing Obi-Wan, in light of having seen the prequel movies recently. There are certainly discrepancies, which are obvious from the dialogue, in terms of how George Lucas’ plans changed between the making of the different films – my favourite is how Obi-Wan speaks to Darth Vader, calling him “Darth” as if it’s his first name. (Mental gymnastics to make that work: it’s almost a way of mocking him, reducing him just to the Sith title, not acknowledging any other part of him.) For the most part, though, I do think that having seen the backstory from the prequels does add to the movie; at the very least, they don’t significantly detract from them.

star wars a new hope review retrospective darth vader lightsabre fight david prowse james earl jones obi wan kenobi alec guinness

We’ve also got an impressive, imposing villain in Darth Vader, who has some real and genuine screen presence. It’s interesting, actually, watching it back, because he’s a little different to how I remembered – weirdly, he speaks a lot more than I remembered. I’d always assumed that, in this movie at least, he was more of a silent villain, with the breathing being his distinct audio cue. But no, it is in fact James Earl Jones’ deep, booming voice that we hear here – and quite often, too. It was a nice surprise, actually, because that voice is one of the best parts about Darth Vader. It’s part of what makes him so imposing, and gives him such a commanding presence – in this movie, you can see the groundwork being laid for someone who’s going to be known as one of the greatest villains of all time.

Naturally, we can’t forget Princess Leia either, who’s really well played by Carrie Fisher. It’s an excellent performance – Leia is a great character, who’s a lot of fun. The fact Leia exists as a character is a pretty cool thing too; we’ve got a female character who leads the Rebel Alliance, and even though she’s captured, she in in fact demonstrably one of the most capable and competent characters there – arguably moreso than Luke and Han, even, who kind of blunder through the rescue attempt rather haphazardly (which, I must stress, is part of their charm!) before ultimately pulling it off. In any case, though, it’s a fun and engaging portrayal from Carrie Fisher.

The version I was watching was the… it was an edited edition, though I confess I’m not entirely certain when it was from. I’d wager it’s the 2011 set, which are most recent; if it helps anyone identify it, Han and Greedo shoot at the same time. Also, there are some weird animals walking around Tatooine, and one of them actually walks past in the foreground at one point, completely blocking the characters from view. I’d always thought the people complaining about the edits were overreacting somewhat – I’ve never seen the originals, and it’d been so long I didn’t really remember/notice the edits in the first place – but I do understand it a lot more now. They’re rather obtrusive edits, and one is lead to question the point of them; I can understand things like the inclusion of Jabba, which, even if not particularly well realised, was something George Lucas wanted the first go around. I question the wisdom of covering the entire screen with a CGI animal’s backside, however.

In the end, then, the first Star Wars movie is a very good movie. It is justifiably considered a classic, and it’s deserving of the reputation it has garnered over the years. Though there are certainly things I’d have liked to have seen it – more female or POC characters, Luke having a stronger/more sustained reaction to Owen and Beru’s (rather grisly) deaths, etc – that’s very much a case of me looking to find the sort of thing I’d want in a 2015 film.

Really, there’s only one score I can give this movie – and that’s 10/10.

Related:

Star Wars Retrospective

Facebook | Twitter | Blog Index | Star Wars Index