The Rise of Skywalker is almost here, and it’s supposedly the conclusion to the Skywalker Saga. So, I’ve decided to attempt a full canon rewatch before it releases, reviewing each chapter as I go. That’s all the movies, as well as the Clone Wars, Rebels, and Resistance TV series. We continue today with Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back.
This movie’s even tougher than the last one for me to “review” because it’s one of my all-time favorite pieces of fiction in any medium. It’s fantastic and magical on so very many levels. So basically, I’m just going to gush about a bunch of stuff I love and a handful of things that tick me off.
This is about as good as any movie sequel could possibly be. A New Hope basically works as a one and done. If that’s all Star Wars ever was, that would have been tremendously sad, but it would have worked. The good guys blew up the Death Star, there weren’t any real loose plot threads that needed to be tied up, the heroes won the day, everyone gets a medal (except Chewbacca) and we’re good to go. But Star Wars WAS a gigantic hit, so a sequel had to be made, and I’m so glad it went the way it did. This is what happens when someone else is allowed to execute George Lucas’s vision. It’s my favorite Star Wars movie, it’s my favorite movie sequel of all time, and it’s just a freaking masterpiece from top to bottom.
So, clearly I love this movie, but in the interest of being fair, let’s touch on the few things I don’t like first.
“That boy was our last hope.”
“No, there is another…”
I mean, I get this was about Leia (right?) But the line is delivered like it’s setting up some whole new unrelated hero. Like, why would Yoda say this about Leia this way when Luke is on his way to save her, and you guys were literally just telling him it’s cool to let her die if he honors what she fights for? It’s a bad line that doesn’t make much sense in the context of the scene.
And if you want to take it step further, wasn’t Obi-Wan there when the twins were delivered? Pretty sure Obi-Wan knows there is another. Thanks prequels, you made a bad line even worse. Boo.
I also have to say that the stop motion stuff has never really worked for me. I know that’s sacrilege, but even when I was a kid, it just stuck out. I think stop motion animation is amazing. Fantastic Mr. Fox is probably in my top ten movies of all time. Combining stop motion and live action though, that’s never worked for me. It always looks bad. The tauntaun in particular is one of those effects that was clearly the best that could be done at the time, but now, I would love to see them take another stab at those scenes with CG or puppetry or some combination of the two. I know that wouldn’t exactly be an easy task, but since when do I live in a world where fixing Star Wars movies is out of reach for movie studios, especially the infinitely rich Disney? These effects, to me anyway, have aged terribly, and considering I didn’t think they looked very good to begin with, it’s safe to say they bug the crap out of me today.
To a lesser extent, the AT-ATs stop motion bothers me too. This would have been a much easier fix I think because AT-ATs aren’t furry living creatures. We’ve now seen these awesome machines in a couple other live action Star Wars films and they’re super impressive when they aren’t moving with stop motion animation.
I think that’s about it. They changed a line where Luke tells R2 he should be glad he doesn’t taste very good which I was always fond of, but doesn’t exactly break anything, and Boba Fett’s voice change kind of irks me, though honestly it’s a lateral move at worst, but other than that everything they did for the Special Editions this time around was genuinely pretty fantastic. I think seeing the Wampa eat stuff and be all wicked looking is great. All the new shots added to Cloud City look really nice. But most importantly, the new scene with Ian McDiarmid as the Emperor for the 2004 DVD release was probably the single most necessary and welcome alteration imaginable. I remember seeing these movies as a kid and asking my parents who the heck the Emperor was when he shows up in Return of the Jedi. They said it was the Emperor, so I asked who the bug eyed dude was in the last movie, and they had to stop the movie and explain to me about how actors change and whatnot. Reshooting this scene should have been done back in the 1997 Special Editions, and I can’t believe it took them as long as it did, especially considering all the other stuff they felt needed fixing back in ‘97. I don’t love his makeup because it looks more like his Revenge of the Sith look, but whatever. Small annoyance in an otherwise fantastic continuity-fixing scene. Well done, team!
So, let’s see. What’s next? Hoth is great. The love story between Han and Leia is pitch perfect. All the tricks with the Falcon hiding from the Empire, Boba Fett following them, the asteroid belt, all of it. It’s as fantastic today as it was then. My favorite, though? Yoda.
This whole business with Yoda has always been the best part of this movie to me. Frank Oz is a freaking treasure, and Yoda being this weird little goofball to Luke to test his patience is genius. It’s played to perfection, the puppet is wonderfully weird, and discovering that this little goofball used to be a great Jedi master is such an amazing moment that can not be understated. This is the magic of Star Wars distilled to its purest form, and the epitome of cinematic perfection to me. No matter how many times I watch these scenes, Yoda and Luke is my #1 favorite thing in all of Star Wars.
But the Luke/Vader stuff is no slouch either. No matter how you approach watching this movie, as a followup to A New Hope, this lightsaber battle is leagues ahead of what Vader and Obi-Wan accomplished in the first one. Granted, the actors were old and Star Wars wasn’t an established money-making brand at that point, but still, watching Vader tear Luke apart with one hand is phenomenal. He underestimates him, which is just a thing Sith lords do apparently, but man, at the beginning when Luke comes at him and Vader basically forces him down one handed is so killer. Fight choreography aside, the ultimate conclusion to the battle is so surprising and epic it’s easy to look back on it and take for granted just how good it really is. It’s like the Super Mario Bros. theme song. Everyone knows the song, but when was the last time you actually listened to it, and I mean really listened to it as a piece of music. It’s actually amazingly well written, and pretty complex. It’s legendary not just because it’s attached to a legendary video game, but because on its own it’s a great piece of music. That’s how I feel about the whole Luke/Vader scene. Everyone knows it so well who really takes the time to actually watch it anymore? But seriously watching it now, and paying attention to all the details in the scene, from the music to the reactions to even the faceless acting of David Prowse in the Vader suit, is an amazing display of talent on every front. It’s crazy how freaking effective it all is, and I can’t wait for my kids to see it for the first time.
Quick tangent, this bit about kids has been a real problem for me. Marketing of various Star Wars merchandise has for years been based on the assumption that everyone has seen The Empire Strikes Back. The secret’s out, so let’s just run with it, right? Except the secret isn’t out for new generations, and how awful would it be to find out Vader is Luke’s father via some dumb t-shirt instead of this amazing scene? It goes way dumber than that, too. Not only did this movie’s own numbered prequels effectively cut the legs off this scene for anyone wanting to watch in chronological order, but merchandise specifically aimed at children who could not possibly have been alive to see the movie when it debuted, or are old enough to even comprehend the meaning of the scene were they to see the movie before these toys and books, completely spoils the reveal. I personally own a children’s book that I’ve been reading to my son for years that I had to modify because it just flat out tells the reader that Vader was Luke’s father. Most 4 year olds aren’t grasping the gravity of that scene, and having it told to them via some kid’s book takes all the shock and surprise out of the actual movie scene. I’ve spent a lot of effort making sure that when my kids find out who Darth Vader really is, they learn about it the way I did, and most adults I know did. When Vader tells Luke, and not a moment before.
That so much of Star Wars, even stuff I love like Rebels, doesn’t have any qualms about giving up the secret of Vader’s identity is intensely bothersome to me. This scene is the most iconic piece of Star Wars there is, and maintaining its integrity should be of the utmost importance. It’s one of the best reveals of all time, and one that no parent should want to spoil for their children, let alone anyone else’s.
My son will be watching The Empire Strikes Back in its entirety sometime in the next few months… probably. He’s going to love Return of the Jedi, The Force Awakens (he already loves BB8), and The Last Jedi. But he can’t get there before he gets through Empire, and he can’t get through Empire until he’s old enough to appreciate the surprise of finding out Vader is Luke’s father. We tried watching it together not that long ago, but my 3 year old daughter was also in the room and she was dancing around and yelling like a lunatic the whole time, so we shut the movie off. I’ll show it to him when we can sit down and watch it together, in the dark, without a screaming toddler in the room. Rant over.
Okay, one more quick thing about Vader. When The Phantom Menace came out, a bunch of friends of mine were trying to convince our drama teacher that Darth Maul was more badass than Darth Vader. My friends were talking about how Maul can flip around, has a double bladed lightsaber, and was lifting bits off the ground to open doors. My teacher countered with “Darth Vader choked someone to death over the phone.”
That’s it, kids. Argument over. Thanks for playing.
Okay, back to work.
Can I also touch on just how much I feel for Lando in this movie? Everyone’s all down on him for betraying Han and his friends, but seriously, what were his options? He said to Vader that giving Han to Boba Fett wasn’t part of the deal in the first place, so chances are the Empire showed up with all its weight, including Darth freaking Vader, and effectively threatened Lando and his entire colony to get their cooperation in capturing this Luke Skywalker person, who Lando doesn’t know from a hole in the ground. It would require a mild betrayal of his old friend Han, but everyone would come out fine, and the Empire would leave Bespin alone forever. I get that they’re pissed at him at first, but after even a few minutes to reflect, shouldn’t they have realized this dude was just trying his best to get out of an unwinnable situation? The first thing Lando said was “They arrived right before you did. I had no choice.” They’ve met Vader. Dude isn’t lying. He didn’t have a choice. If he said no, he’d probably be dead and the Empire would have complete control of Cloud City.
Lando’s almost as much a hostage as Leia and Chewbacca, and honestly, Leia and Chewy should have realized that before choking Lando out. As the deal got to the point of actually putting Han and his friends in mortal danger, Lando fought back and helped get everyone out.
Lando’s a hero, and he deserved better way sooner than he got it.
This movie here stands as proof positive that someone other than George Lucas should have directed Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. Lucas did a fantastic job with A New Hope because it’s exactly what he’s good at. A mostly self-contained high-action/adventure romp. The Phantom Menace works on most of the same levels. Honestly if he had just had someone around to reign in stuff like the Gungans, Episode I would be great. But The Empire Strikes Back isn’t just amazing, it’s superior to the original in nearly every way. George Lucas is fantastic at building worlds and inspiring whimsy, but actually telling more complex stories doesn’t seem to work out too well for him. The basic structure of the story behind the prequels isn’t terrible, it was all in the execution, which was George. Empire was directed by Irvin Kershner, and it shows. It still feels like Star Wars through and through, but it’s even better. It’s criminal that the prequels weren’t treated the same way.
And I’m going to leave it at that. Sorry, no elongated opus today (he says nearly 2,000 words later). This movie speaks for itself, and honestly I’m ready to move onto the next one. It’s been a really long time since I’ve actually watched Return of the Jedi and I’m super excited to sit down with it and get started. I have some real issues with that movie (I still love it, but it’s got problems) and it suffered some heavy damage in the Special Edition process, so naturally, I’m going to have a lot to say about it. But for Empire, let’s leave it at this. It’s amazing, and I love it with all my heart.
Now bring on those Ewoks.