Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back Review

*Caution! This review contains spoilers for not only The Empire Strikes Back., but the entire original Star Wars trilogy. But seriously, if you don’t know the plot of Star Wars, I don’t know what to tell you.*

Of all the Star Wars films, none is more acclaimed or beloved than The Empire Strikes Back. While the original Star Wars (retroactively christened “A New Hope”) may have had the biggest cultural impact, it’s the immediate follow-up that many consider to be the heart and soul of the series.

At the time of its 1980 release, Empire was to be the sequel to the biggest film in history. Expectations were understandably high, and many wondered whether Star Wars could deliver the same magic in a second go around. It probably didn’t help ease concerns that series creator George Lucas stepped down from the director’s chair for this sequel, handing the reigns over to Irvin Kershner, who initially turned down the offer, believing a sequel could only be a rehash of the original.

Thankfully, Kershner was ultimately persuaded and, along with the creative direction of George Lucas and a more confident cast, The Empire Strikes Back exceeded all expectations. Not only was Empire widely deemed one of the few sequels at that point to match or surpass the original (something that’s a bit more commonplace today), but it’s still largely embraced as the best Star Wars film. And with good reason. The Empire Strikes Back is the best Star Wars film.

Fittingly set three years after A New Hope, Empire sees the heroic Rebellion finding a new base on the ice world of Hoth. Darth Vader (voiced by James Earl Jones) – obsessed with finding the Rebel who destroyed the Death Star, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) – has commanded the evil Galactic Empire to dispatch a series of probe droids to find the Rebels’ new base.

Luke is investigating one of these droids in the barren wastelands of Hoth, when he is attacked by a yeti-like creature called a Wampa ice beast. Han Solo (Harrison Ford) is about to leave the Rebellion behind to pay off his debts to gangster Jabba the Hutt, but postpones those plans when he gets word that Luke hasn’t returned, and leaves on the back of a creature called a Tauntaun in search of his friend, risking death in the freezing cold.

Luke manages to escape the clutches of the Wampa, and before succumbing to hypothermia, sees the ghost of Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guiness), who instructs Luke to go to the swamp planet of Degobah to seek out Yoda, the Jedi Master who “taught Obi-Wan” the ways of the Force (let’s forget that the prequels forgot this little detail), and with whom Luke can finish his training and become the last hope of the Jedi Knights.

Han finds Luke in the nick of time, and the two are rescued by a search party the next morning. Unfortunately, a probe droid has found the Rebel base, and the Empire unleashes a large-scale attack on the base. Though the Rebels put up a valiant effort (in one of the most famous sci-fi battle scenes in film history), the Empire gets the upper hand, and the Rebels are forced to evacuate the planet.

Han Solo, Princess Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), Chewbacca the Wookie (Peter Mayhew) and C-3P0 (Anthony Daniels) all escape aboard the Millennium Falcon, but when the ship’s hyperdrive malfunctions, the ragtag group are forced to make some detours to evade the Empire, which will eventually take them to the Cloud City on the planet Bespin, which is under the command of Han’s old friend, Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams). Meanwhile, Luke Skywalker – with R2-D2 in tow – heads to Degobah in search of the mysterious Yoda.

It’s a simple story, but Empire greatly benefits from that simplicity in plot, because it allows the characters to take center stage. While the original Star Wars will always be delightful, it was (quite intentionally) a really simple hero’s journey. The characters were more archetypes than they were three-dimensional figures. The real joy of A New Hope was how the imagination of its created world presented that journey. By focusing its narrative on who the characters in this intergalactic fairy tale are, Empire gave this imaginative universe a newfound depth.

Luke Skywalker is no longer the whiny farm boy he was in A New Hope, and has matured into a renowned hero in the Rebellion. Princess Leia has similarly become more battle hardened. And most notably, Han Solo – while still the same roguish scoundrel in many ways – has become more selfless and heroic (take, for example, the aforementioned moment when Han could have wiped away his debt with Jabba the Hutt for good, but changes course to search for Luke without hesitation).

The returning heroes have grown more complex, and Empire does what any great sequel should by also changing up the character relationships. Luke is far removed from his companions (save R2-D2) for most of the film, which immediately changes the character interactions from those of the first film.

“After watching Empire again for this review, I realized that the series really could have used more interactions between Han and C-3P0. It’s the funniest character relationship in the series.”

A romance begins to blossom between Han and Leia (which avoids falling into the cheesy realms of later Star Wars romances). Without his counterpart R2-D2 by his side, C-3P0 is left to annoy Han with his uptight paranoia, which leads to the funniest dynamic between characters in the entire Star Wars series (it’s a wonder why Han and C-3P0’s relationship doesn’t get more recognition). Even Chewbacca, who can only speak in roars, gets a bit more character to show, revealing more of his gentle giant nature as he cares for a damaged C-3P0.

“That’s good. Like that. Like that.”

Some new characters also add to the proceedings. Most notable of all is Yoda (performed and voiced by Frank Oz), the diminutive Jedi Master is probably the series’ most charming character, and most likely the best puppet character in movie history. Yoda’s wisdom gives the film much of its soul, and unlike subsequent appearances by the character, Yoda also provides some great comedy here.

Lando is another new character who adds more dimension to the world of Star Wars. Though many fans (unfairly) remember Lando for his eventual betrayal of Han Solo, they fail to remember his reasons for it. Lando is loyal to his friends, but given that his Cloud City has come under the occupation of the Empire, he isn’t left with much choice but to turn his friends in for fear of what would become of his people should he cross the Empire. In a series where good and evil are quite clearly defined, Lando provided a sense of gray morality to the proceedings.

“Awkwaaaaard.”

Unfortunately, not every new character introduced in Empire adds depth to the Star Wars universe. This is probably one of my most unpopular opinions, but the villainous bounty hunter Boba Fett feels like an entirely throwaway addition. I don’t necessarily dislike Boba Fett, but I feel he’s a character who never begins to reach his potential, something that would become a kind of trend with Star Wars villains. Inspired by Clint Eastwood’s ‘Man With No Name’ character, Boba Fett really doesn’t live up to his inspiration. Sure, he looks the part of a badass – with battle-weary armor and a mask that creates even more mystery than Vader’s – but he’s never really given the chance to do anything of note. Sure, he may be the bounty hunter cunning enough to track down Han, but that’s as far as the character goes. When push comes to shove, Boba Fett is never allowed to do anything to justify the character’s bafflingly immense popularity. On the flip-side of the coin is Imperial Admiral Piett (Kenneth Colley), a more understated villain who – despite his limited screen time – feels more like an integral foe.

“No flips. Just wisdom.”

Perhaps the most interesting “character” of all, however, is the Force itself. The Empire Strikes Back is the only Star Wars film to delve deeply into the philosophy of the Force and the Jedi (thanks in no small part to Yoda and Luke’s interactions). Because of this, there’s something more contemplative to the Star Wars universe presented in Empire. The Star Wars prequel and sequel trilogies would eventually turn the Force into little more than super powers, but in the original trilogy – and most especially Empire – the Force was something more meaningful. If A New Hope was the simple hero’s journey, and Return of the Jedi was the closure to the story, then The Empire Strikes Back is the entry that truly lets us know how the Star Wars universe works, what it’s all about, and what’s at stake.

This emphasis on the philosophy of the Force, as well as its added dimensions to the series’ key characters, is what makes The Empire Strikes Back the heart and soul of the Star Wars saga. What’s almost as impressive is how the film also distinguishes itself from its predecessor aesthetically.

I don’t know whether it was a conscious decision on the part of George Lucas and company, but setting the film’s first act in a frozen wasteland serves as an immediate contrast to the deserts of Tatooine from A New Hope. Then later we have the heavenly scenery of Cloud City and the murky swamps of Degobah, giving Empire the most varied locations of any Star Wars feature. Combine that with the amazing visual effects that still hold up forty years on, and the revolutionary puppetry of Yoda, and The Empire Strikes Back remains one of the most visually captivating films of all time.

Despite the original Star Wars picture having perhaps the most recognizable soundtrack in film history, this is another area in which Empire outshines its predecessor. John Williams outdid himself with his compositions here, with new tracks like Yoda’s Theme bringing new levels of emotion to the series. Perhaps most notably, it can be surprising to remember that The Imperial March was first heard here and not in the original film. It’s hard to imagine Star Wars without The Imperial March, because it’s become so strongly associated with not only Star Wars, the Empire and Darth Vader, but villainy in popular culture as a whole (remember when the classic episodes of The Simpsons used to segue into a Mr. Burns scene with the tune?). It might just be the most iconic musical addition a sequel has ever made.

The action scenes are as memorable as ever. The battle on Hoth – with those wonderfully impractical AT-ATs, is as iconic as the Death Star battle of the first film. And Luke Skywalker’s final confrontation with Darth Vader – which crescendos with that most famous of plot twists (so famous, in fact, that it’s hard to consider it a twist by this point) – sets an epic high for the swashbuckling of the series (even if I may be in the minority who thinks the rematch in Return of the Jedi is even better).

Miraculously, The Empire Strikes Back is also the Star Wars feature that has been the least affected by retroactive special effects. Whether this was due to George Lucas understanding the high regard Empire is held in, or by sheer happy coincidence, I can’t say, but The Empire Strikes Back has only seen minimal added effects throughout the years. There may be a few shots here and there that feature a tweak or two, but very few that stick out like a sore thumb.

The two notable changes didn’t even occur in the 1997 Special Editions (which began Lucas’s obsession with re-editing Han’s shootout with Greedo in A New Hope, and added that obnoxious musical number to Jedi), but in the 2004 DVD release.

The first of these alterations is somewhat understandable. When Empire was first released, Lucas was still unsure of who or what the Emperor was. So when Vader contacts his master in the film, the original version saw the Emperor’s holographic appearance as somewhat experimental and indecisive. So as time passed and Return of the Jedi had firmly established Ian McDiarmid’s interpretation of the character, the re-edits added McDiarmid to the scene. That’s fair and understandable, though I wish the newer version’s hologram of the Emperor weren’t so visually prominent (it’s pointlessly giant), as it kind of takes away the mystery surrounding the Emperor, which takes a little something away from his introduction in Return of the Jedi (similar to what happened to Jabba the Hutt with A New Hope’s re-edit, though this isn’t as bad, considering Vader’s interactions with the Emperor still give the character a sense of presence and mystique). I think keeping the Emperor’s hologram at a distance and slightly obscured (as it was in the original cut) would keep some of that mystery alive for new viewers.

The second such edit is less forgivable. Having Jango Fett’s actor from Attack of the Clones re-dub Boba Fett’s dialogue to keep continuity with how the prequels retconned Boba Fett to be a clone of his “father” just comes across as silly, and feels forced.

Still, none of the changes in Empire have the same kind of negative effect as those made to A New Hope and Return of the Jedi. It was the best Star Wars upon its original 1980 release, and it’s been the least tweaked and tainted since, essentially securing its sacrosanct status.

From its epic battles to its character-driven narrative, The Empire Strikes Back took Star Wars to all new heights. Heights which, sadly, the series never achieved again (Return of the Jedi is still an exceptional threequel, but has perhaps more content than it could juggle). Empire is Star Wars matured, while not losing its childlike sense of wonder. It’s darker without feeling edgy. And it’s deeper without losing the fun. As impactful and influential as A New Hope was (and is), it was but the learner. Now, The Empire Strikes Back is the master.

Impressive.

Most impressive.

 

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Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope Review

*Caution! This review contains spoilers for not only A New Hope, but the entire original Star Wars trilogy. But seriously, if you don’t know the plot of Star Wars, particularly THIS Star Wars, I don’t know what to tell you.*

Star Wars – retroactively known as ‘Episode IV – A New Hope’ is the most famous movie ever made. That may sound hyperbolic, but you’d be hard-pressed to argue that statement. Sure, there are other iconic films like The Wizard of Oz, Casablanca or Gone with the Wind that put up their own arguments to the claim. But I think, in the end, the very first Star Wars feature wins out. It has as indelible place in movie history as any of those films, plus it has had an additional impact on pop culture (and just culture in general) that the others couldn’t hope to attain. Ever since its release in 1977, Star Wars has changed the way movies are made (much to the chagrin of more prudish types who seem to take offense at the idea of people wanting movies to be fun). By combining fantasies and fairy tales with a science-fiction setting, and adding elements of classic movie genres like westerns and samurai films, George Lucas created a movie that ended up being more than a movie. Between the impact it made on filmmakers and audiences, the influence it’s had on pop culture and media, the dedication its created towards its mythology, and the longevity it has had in all the above categories, Star Wars is in a league all its own. While many of the edits and alterations George Lucas has made to Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope since its original release may remain polarizing, the film itself has held up incredibly well all these years later.

Taking place “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away,” Star Wars weaved a rich mythology into a coming-of-age hero’s journey. The story centers around a young farm boy named Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), who lives on the desert planet Tatooine with his aunt and uncle.

Meanwhile, a great conflict rages across the galaxy. The tyrannical Galactic Empire has constructed the Death Star, a space station with the power to destroy entire planets. The Rebel Alliance has managed to retrieve the plans for the Empire’s new super weapon, which are in the hands of Princess Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher). But Leia’s ship is quickly boarded by Imperial Stormtroopers – lead by the wicked cyborg Darth Vader (voiced by James Earl Jones) – so the princess entrusts the plans to a little droid named R2-D2 (Kenny Baker). R2, along with the panicked and uptight protocol droid C3-P0 (Anthony Daniels) evacuate the ship via an escape pod, while Vader and his forces take Leia hostage to uncover what happened to their stolen Death Star plans.

The duo of droids end up on the planet of Tatooine where they are taken by hooded scavengers called Jawas, who ultimately sell the droids to the uncle of Luke Skywalker. When Luke uncovers a hidden message from Princess Leia within R2-D2 requesting the aid of an ‘Obi-Wan Kenobi’, Luke begins to suspect there’s something more to these droids than meets the eye.

R2-D2 soon runs away in search of Obi-Wan Kenobi, with Luke and C3-P0 in pursuit. During their search for the droid, Luke is attacked by Tusken Raiders, who are then scared off by a hooded figure before they can do any more harm. When Luke comes to, this figure is revealed to be Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guiness), who then tells Luke about his history with Luke’s father (though he may leave out a few key details).

Obi-Wan tells Luke that his father, Anakin Skywalker, was once a great Jedi Knight. Under Obi-Wan’s tutelage, Anakin became powerful in the ways of the Force (“a mysterious energy field created by all living things”). But another pupil of Obi-Wan’s, Darth Vader, was seduced by the dark side of the Force, betrayed and murdered Luke’s father, and has become a servant of the Emperor.

Luke soon discovers in horror that during his absence, Imperial troopers – searching for the droids and the stolen Death Star plans – have murdered his aunt and uncle. With no family left, Luke decides to accompany Obi-Wan on his quest to save Princess Leia and learn the ways of the Force to become a Jedi Knight like his father.

“By combining the “friendly giant” archetype with, well, a dog, Chewbacca instantly became one of the most beloved characters.”

Luke, Obi-Wan and the droids search for a pilot to take them to their destination in one of the film’s most iconic scenes (the Mos Eisley Cantina, whose many alien patrons made it the best “look at all these wild creature designs” moment in movie history up until Hayao Miyazaki took us into the bathhouse of Spirited Away). They find such a pilot in a smuggler by the name of Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and his co-pilot, a ‘Wookie’ named Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew). The group then departs for Leia’s home planet of Alderaan, only to make the horrifying discovery that the entire planet has been destroyed by the Empire. Their quest then takes them aboard the Death Star itself, where Princess Leia is being held captive by Darth Vader and Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing).

Honestly, the storyline needs no introduction. Star Wars (more specifically, A New Hope) has become so iconic in pop culture and the public conscious, that even on the off chance you somehow haven’t actually seen it, you still know it.

When it was released in 1977, Star Wars completely changed the game. Audiences had seen nothing like it. From its revolutionary visual effects, original take on mythology, sweeping score, and refreshingly innocent imagination (films of the 1960s and most of the ’70s were predominantly grim and defeatist), it was an entertainment spectacle like no other.

A number of critics, cinephiles, and even filmmakers often ridicule Star Wars for “ruining” the movies. In actuality, the exact opposite is true. The ‘New Hollywood’ generation had their day in the sun, and though George Lucas was a product of that generation, it was his creation that allowed cinema to move forward and branch out. While there’s nothing wrong with artsy and auteur films, one can’t help but deduce that the reason the ‘arthouse’ crowd deride Star Wars and its ilk (other than to give themselves a false sense of superiority for going against the mainstream) is because their preferred style of cinema lost its dominant power because of it. They had their time on top, but couldn’t accept when times changed.

Indeed, Star Wars was that change. Perhaps most interesting of all in this scenario is that, despite the fact that Star Wars singlehandedly created the tent-pole film and made merchandizing movies a thing, Star Wars was still very much created with an auteurist approach. Star Wars was the product of George Lucas’s imagination, and with the visual designs fleshed out by concept artist Ralph McQuarrie, the film was built from the ground-up from the filmmaker’s vision. But, y’know, it’s fun and it’s in space and there’s magic, so I guess it doesn’t count as art. It’s just timeless for no reason, evidently.

In all seriousness, Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope has earned its iconic status. Again, its critics say it’s all about the visual effects, but while it’s true that said visual effects were the most revolutionary in all of cinema up to that point (perhaps they still are), that’s a narrow-minded view of things. The real reason Star Wars has endured is because of its aforementioned innocents.

By combining mythology and fairy tales with science fiction, cowboys and samurai, George Lucas created a fantasy world that not only appealed to children, but to people in general. Like any great work of fantasy, Star Wars bypasses age and cultural barriers, and touches on human emotion in simple but powerful ways through the imagination. The more prudish side of cinema would do well for itself to wizen up and accept that just because something “isn’t realistic” doesn’t mean it can’t be affecting on a very real level. Star Wars is as inspiring as it is entertaining.

That’s not to say that A New Hope is perfect, however, Some of the acting can be kind of cheesy, particularly by the three leads. While it’s commendable that George Lucas sought to hire ‘unknowns’ for his main characters (Hamill and Fisher were brand new, while Ford had worked with Lucas previously on American Graffiti, though he was still a newer talent at the time), the inexperience of the leads is more than a little noticeable at times. That may sound harsh today, given how everyone involved became a household name because of the film. But it’s also no secret that very few people involved with Star Wars’s production had any real high hopes for this ‘kids’ sci-fi movie,’ and that included its actors.

Whether it was the inexperience of the actors, their lack of faith in the material, or a combination thereof, there are more than a few moments where their acting is a little – shall we say – “lacking.” Thankfully, by the time The Empire Strikes Back came around, the actors had found their footing, and the unprecedented success of Star Wars meant those involved took things a lot more seriously.

That’s not to say that the acting is utterly horrible in A New Hope (this isn’t the prequels), with Alec Guiness serving as an anchor that helps keep the film grounded (Guiness being the only well-established actor among the heroes of the film, which is appropriate given the character). James Earl Jones’s voice work needs no explanation for its commanding presence, and Peter Cushing easily makes Govenor Tarkin an unflinchingly evil villain. Perhaps the most under appreciated of the lot is Anthony Daniels, who from the get-go made C3-P0 one of cinema’s great comic foils.

If there’s any other source of fault with A New Hope it’s – somewhat uniquely – not anything to do with how the film was made, but in the many unnecessary ways its been edited over the years.

In 1997, to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the franchise, George Lucas released the ‘Special Editions’ of the trilogy, which featured added computer-generated effects into the films. Lucas claims that the technology that came about in the years since A New Hope’s original release gave him the opportunity to “fully realize his vision” for the films. But in execution, most of these edits feel like needless bloat that exist for the hell of it. And these edits didn’t stop in 1997, but have continued through subsequent DVD and blu-ray releases. Even now on Disney+, the film has received a minor new edit to an already heavily-edited scene (an edit that Lucas had originally planned for the film’s 3D theatrical release, before the plans for such releases were scrapped).

The scene in question is of course the notorious “Han shot first” moment. For those unfamiliar, the scene sees Han Solo held at gunpoint by the Rodian bounty hunter Greedo. In the film’s original cut, Han Solo shoots Greedo before the latter has a chance to pull his trigger. But in the many re-edits, the film has been altered to have Greedo shoot first (thus making Han shoot in self-defense), and later having both shoot at the same time. Because reasons.

It sounds like a minor issue, but it does have repercussions for Han Solo’s overall story arc in the original trilogy. Lucas claims having Han shoot first makes him look like a cold-blooded killer (which wouldn’t necessarily be true, considering Greedo definitely intends to kill him). But at this point, Han Solo is a smuggler on the run from mobsters. He’s a rogue. He isn’t supposed to be a true blue hero (if Luke were put in this situation, we’d have an entirely different story). That’s why as the series progresses and Han does become more heroic, it shows a great sense of character growth.

That’s not to mention that George Lucas contradicted his own reasoning when he made the prequel trilogy. Naturally, the prequels told the story of Anakin Skywalker before he became Darth Vader, turning him into a more tragic figure and ultimately making his redemption in Return of the Jedi more impactful.

The problem is, in the prequels, there are at least two instances when Anakin commits an unforgivable evil by murdering children. I don’t care if Vader’s last act in life is killing an evil sorcerer-dictator to save his son, if he killed children, that’s unforgivable. Meanwhile, Han shoots a guy who had the full intent on shooting him. It may not be heroic, but Han’s path towards enlightenment is a lot easier to swallow than Vader’s. So who knows why the edits have persisted after all these years.

I’m rambling a bit. The point is many of these ‘Special Edition’ edits have retroactively cheapened certain aspects of the series. Another instance is a previously deleted scene involving Jabba the Hut. When the scene was filmed, a human actor was portraying Jabba, but after the scene was cut and Return of the Jedi eventually established Jabba as a grotesque slug monster, the scene was re-inserted into the film with the original actor replaced by a CG Jabba. I can understand why Lucas may have wanted to experiment with the scene for the 1997 release, but it is kind of a shame it’s now just become a permanent part of the film, as it robs Jabba’s character of his mystique. Originally, the character was only mentioned in A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back, before Return of the Jedi finally revealed him as the loathsome mess of a creature that he is. It’s kind of sad knowing that generations of Star Wars fans haven’t experienced that build-up, instead being introduced to the character with his abrupt and unceremonious entrance in the largely unnecessary scene here (or in his equally unnecessary role in The Phantom Menace).

I suppose those are the majorly disappointing edits, with the rest mostly just being needless special effects (“Dewbacks! A rock in front of R2-D2! CG background droids!”). Though perhaps another example – and possibly one last middle finger by George Lucas before the Disney buyout – was the altered sound Obi-Wan makes to scare away Tusken Raiders. It’s intended to be the roar of a creature called a ‘Krayt Dragon,’ and in the original cut it indeed sounded like a roar. But ever since the 2011 blu-ray release, it sounds more akin to Ric Flair being sucked into a vortex. It’s just goofy.

Still, even with the most egregious of these edits, none of them truly take away from what a special film A New Hope is. The original special effects that are still present have held up shockingly well, the story is timeless, the characters – though archetypal – are given well-defined personalities and remain iconic. But it’s probably the sheer imagination of it all – from its mythology that so effortlessly weaves together so many different elements, to its childlike sense of wonderment – that has probably made Star Wars endure above anything else.

There are timeless movies, but only a handful of them can be so confidently described as such without a second thought. In many ways, Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope may be at the very top of that shortlist.

 

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