It’s Tuesday, and while Star Wars Week has reached its midpoint, our retrospective review series of the Saga is almost over. That’s obviously terrible – BUT it does mean that you get to read all about The Empire Strikes Back! Woo!
It’s widely lauded as the best movie in the series, as well as the darkest, funniest, edgiest, coolest, whatever – lots of people just love Empire, and certainly for good reason. The debate on just why that is has raged on for over thirty years; most people agree that it’s a combination of the reasons above, but I put forth a shocking revelation: it’s because it’s all about humanity!
Groundbreaking, I know.
However, my aim in this review series has been to pick out elements of the movies that aren’t talked about as much. With this, facets of the film’s humanity are often discussed heavily (for example, it’s darker and more adult tone), but the root of it isn’t. So, uh, let’s get started.
It’s pretty obvious from both the title and the above poster that this movie is all about the Empire. However, that doesn’t make it a celebration of evil. I first caught onto the whole humanity theme during the scene where we see the back of Anakin’s real, bald, vein-y head. It’s one I’ve seen dozens of times before, but it was only now that the sheer vulnerability of Vader actually dawned on me. A New Hope portrayed him as the ultimate evil; remorseless, mechanical, dangerous. Yet, as this scene and Return of the Jedi‘s ending show us, he’s just an old, damaged man. It’s something incredibly powerful, and will always be one of the most defining elements of the Saga to me.
What this image also conveyed to me was that Empire would tackle a subject which Hope didn’t really touch: what makes bad guys tick? Vader is no longer the black-clad, towering terror (well, he still is, but a little less so) because we now see that it’s all a facade to hide what’s underneath. There are several instances where the tough Imperial bad guys act afraid or nervous around Vader, emphasising how they can shit their pants too. To be fair, I would be scared as well – he kills at least three of them on-screen in the film. Even the Emperor is revealed as just a really, really old guy with a hood. The primary theme of the previous movie was to analyse the nature of heroism and not really bother with the villains. Empire subverts this by stripping back this imposing and evil force which had been presented to us so famously in that very first shot; while they may be powerful and they certainly do strike back, at the end of the day they’re all just human – like the Rebels. What gives the movie a slight edge on a thematic level is how it does the exact same for our heroes.
There’s a hell of a lot of failure in The Empire Strikes Back. The Rebels fail to protect their base on Hoth. Luke keeps failing in his training with Yoda, refusing to fully commit to the Force, and he eventually fails to even complete the training. Han, Leia, Chewie and C-3PO fail to outrun the Empire and are eventually captured. Lando fails to keep his friends safe and hands them over to the Empire. Leia and Chewie fail to stop Han from getting carbonite-d. Luke fails to beat Darth Vader (and fails to keep his hand, I guess). Obi-Wan even fails to keep Luke from heading off to Cloud City, and, to an extent, Yoda fails to teach Luke.
You get the point.
The reason for all of this isn’t just to make it “dark” and “cool” and “edgy,” as most Star Wars fans are likely aware. It’s to reflect the second step of Joseph Cambell’s hero’s journey which is, you guessed it: failure. It essentially brings A New Hope down from its high-horse-of-hope to Earth, which is always filled with difficult trials and tasks which we have to overcome. Overall, this is what makes this franchise great. While we do like to see characters accomplishing great things because they believe they can, we also don’t. The hero’s journey works because, deep down, the necessity to relate to characters requires them to screw up a couple of times, because that’s what we do. I’m a firm believer that hope means nothing unless it’s validated by failure; Empire represents this perfectly. That’s also most likely why it’s the favourite of so many people, just like how The Dark Knight, Spider-Man 2 and The Two Towers often top similar ‘best of’ lists. It simply speaks to our human nature, even if we don’t like to admit it.
However, as a movie, I’m gonna have to give A New Hope the edge which goes against my opinion of many years. Let me be clear – I fucking love this film. The scenes on Dagobah have always been my favourite. The fact that Yoda looks, sounds and feels so real is a testament to the skill of Irvan Kershner and Jim Henson, and his zen-like, mythologically-rich quotes (“luminous beings are we, not this crude matter!”) will always resonate with me and give me chills. And then there’s John Williams’ rousing score! And how Yoda lifts the X-Wing out of the swamp when Luke turns his back – everything just works and it’s so amazing and, and, and…
While that – and the acting, and the visuals, and Darth Vader, and Luke’s characterisation, etc – is all well and good, the thing that actually weighs it down for me is all the stuff on the Falcon. That may sound like heresy to some of you, however it was never as captivating as the scenes on Hoth, Dagobah or Cloud City. It’s basically a lot of character interactions with some flying around. I’ve got nothing against shutting a bunch of characters in a room and have them talk, but only if it has a productive outcome for the story. The most notable thing to happen on the Falcon is Han and Leia making out, which isn’t directly intertwined with the location. It always seemed like a missed opportunity that the characters weren’t on some kind of mission or adventure; perhaps they could have escaped with the rebel fleet and been tasked with finding/retrieving/stealing something from the Empire. Or maybe their aim was to find the rebel fleet and they end up lost on a dangerous planet. What would have happened to them if the Falcon’s damaged engines and hyperdrive had gotten a little too much and they actually crashed somewhere, leaving them stranded?
My point is, there’s a whole friggin’ galaxy of stuff to explore and help these guys develop and grow, but all they ended up doing was land in a space worm. I’m sure it had something to do with budget, but it’s still pretty underwhelming, especially considering how one of Empire‘s big objectives is to expand the universe we had already been introduced to, which it delivers in spades (cooler space battles, cooler ground battles, another Jedi in Yoda and his teachings on the Force, another new character, Cloud City, “I am your father” etc). I’ll have to get around to finishing J.W. Rinzler’s The Making of The Empire Strikes Back that I started last summer.
Oh, and one other thing – Han’s seduction of Leia is still kinda creepy.
Aside from that, there’s still a lot of good stuff to The Empire Strikes Back. It’s great to see Luke falter and doubt himself after experiencing the high of blowing up a Death Star; like I said, it gives him humanity and ultimately strengthens him. The determination we see in Darth Vader to find Luke takes on a whole other meaning when he utters those iconic four words to him on Cloud City, and it’s arguably here that we see his feelings begin to grow clouded, not in the middle of Return of the Jedi. He may still be totally evil but his attachment to Luke clearly shone through when he begged him to join the Dark Side. C-3PO, R2-D2 and Chewbacca are as fun as always; Leia is a badass; the opening on Hoth is still great and the lightsaber fight between father and son is still chock full of emotion.
Ultimately, The Empire Strikes Back is a brilliant movie, and will always stand in the highest regard amongst Star Wars films. This is because of all of those things I’ve just discussed, but also because it accomplishes what it wants to achieve, which is something vital to consider whenever you’re critiquing a film. Its goals are fairly simple: expand on the established universe and develop the characters through various trials and tribulations.
I’ve yet to read anything which argues that the movie doesn’t succeed in this.