I can probably count on one hand the number of people I’ve met that think The Empire Strikes Back isn’t the best of all six Star Wars movies. It’s earned accolades for good reasons. The action is tight, exciting, and varied. Every character, including the villains, get their personalities and motivations fleshed out that much more. The writing is better, possibly because George Lucas didn’t write the script. The story is still credited to Lucas, though. It’s everything you have to love about A New Hope, but amped up on a more-than-shoestring effects budget and tempered by director Irvin Kershner, though Empire would eventually be known as pretty much the only good movie from Irvin Kershner. We also get introduced to two of the coolest characters in the Star Wars universe: Boba Fett and Lando “I’m sorry, I didn’t hear you, I was too busy being handsome and sexing your female relatives” Calrissian.
When I think about Star Wars, and I start remembering my favorite moments, far too many of them come from Empire Strikes Back.
Empire is one of those movies everyone cites in that age old discussion about the second entry in a trilogy being the best of the three. Irvin Kershner’s Robocop 2 would like to have a word with you on that, but it’s easy to see why Empire is the most lauded of the original trilogy. Almost everything is improves. Dialogue is better, now that it’s less sandwiched into expositional jibberjab. As I mentioned above, the effects budget is obviously vastly increased, given the sheer scope of the film’s action sequences.
Let me talk about those action sequences for a moment. After Luke gets rescued from the wampa, the film basically doesn’t stop for about an hour. We’ve got the Battle of Hoth and the asteroid field chase basically hurdling fast into each other, with only the occasional respite of Luke exploring Dagobah and learning Jedi magic. That’s a lot of forward momentum, and the film handles it fairly beautifully. There’s really no time to breathe, especially during the asteroid field chase. Maybe that’s another reason why the movie works so well. From the very beginning, when Luke is almost killed by the wampa, the film sends a clear message. You know all those guys you got to know and love in the last movie, little eight year old Alex? NONE OF THEM ARE SAFE. ALSO, YOUR PARENTS ARE GOING TO DIE SOME DAY. AND SO WILL YOUR DOGS. TREMBLE AS HAN SOLO IS FROZEN LIKE AN ICE CUBE TRAY GWEHEHEH. I’m not saying Empire is entirely the reason why people finally understand their own mortality, but it’s got a more compelling argument than all of this God business.
We also gain a deeper understanding of the ways of the Force in this movie. In A New Hope, we’re told that this is basically Space Magic, and that there’s good Space Magic and dark Space Magic. Easy enough. Now, though, we learn, through Yoda, that the dark side of the Force is less about being evil and more about losing control of oneself. The forgotten Jedi Order have gone from a few magicians with laser swords to being more like a group of monks, building power through study and meditation and careful regulation of the self, while not succumbing to baser urges and instincts like hate, jealousy, or fear. Rediscovering this fact, it’s no wonder I was so put off by the Jedi Council as introduced in the prequels, who seems mostly content to sit in a circle and debate while Sam Jackson isn’t allowed to shout at things.
The film also boasts John Williams’s most impressive score. There’s the familiar main theme and “Imperial March” showing up, of course, but listen to the music from the asteroid field.
This is kind of a fantastic piece of music and brilliantly paired with the asteroid field sequence. There’s a solid driving action to the rhythm, which sets the pace for the entire scene. We’ve also got the familiar notion of the Imperial ships denoted by the larger bass and brass lines (check around 1:37 for an especially great example of this), with the travails of the Millennium Falcon represented by the strings and higher woodwinds as it flits through and around the asteroids. We get the two major swells of music as the Imperial Star Destroyers loom closer to the Falcon, with that quick, almost out of nowhere surprise ending where the Falcon makes its crazy, brilliant escape. This is how much I love this score. I always fucking hated music theory back in the day, and I am all kinds of not shutting up about it right now.
Here’s the big problem I have with the movie, and it’s a problem that I gladly excuse when I can, but this feels like an appropriate place to talk about it.
I do not like that Darth Vader turns out to be Luke’s father. I won’t say I hate it, but I don’t like it.
At the time, I was floored by such a massive twist, and I just thought it was so cool! Here’s the thing, though. A surprise twist doesn’t necessitate good storytelling. It doesn’t fit well in the context of what’s been established previously. I won’t talk about Obi-Wan’s speech about Darth Vader in A New Hope, since that’s basically a smokescreen and general enough so that it makes a conceivable lie. What bothers me is the scene where the Emperor contacts Vader and tells him that Luke, the son of Skywalker, must die. This elicits no reaction from Vader, other than the notion of trying to turn Luke to the dark side instead of out and out killing him. I know the man’s basically a robot, but being told that your son is still alive might prompt more than just “Well, maybe it’d better if we don’t kill him, maybe?” Yes, Vader is a Jewish grandfather.
What bugs me about it is that it smacks of a late addition to the script, tossed in to add more pathos and shock to the trilogy’s overall arc. Something Lucas or co-writer Lawrence Kasdan thought up while the film geared up to production. I can even see it now. Someone walks into a conference room and says, “Hey, I just had an idea that’ll really be a GREAT way to end the movie!” Everyone pats themselves on the back and orders cigars and hookers in bulk from Costco. It doesn’t feel like an organic part of the story. There’s no real way to go back into the first two movies and look at certain parts and say, “Ah, yes, that’s a bit of a hint that Luke’s father wasn’t really dead all along!” Since I started watching these movies as an adult, this has always bothered me. It’s the one black mark the film carries, in my opinion.
So that was Empire Strikes Back. Overall, I think it absolutely deserves to be called the best Star Wars movie. It has the best writing, Vader’s twist aside, the best music, the best pacing, and Lando Fucking Calrissian.
Next time on Star Wars Retrospective, I’ll tell you why you should shut the fuck up about Ewoks taking down Imperial walkers when I watch Return of the Jedi.