Review – Star Wars: Empire Strikes Back
This is part five of my review series of each episode of Star Wars. If you’ve missed the start you can go here, or if you missed last week you can go here, and if you don’t care, you can stay right here.
Empire Strikes Back was the first add on to the franchise, it is an interesting structure because technically Empire and Return of the Jedi are a single story, which makes the end of Empire really the middle of the story. The middle of the story is the ‘all is lost’ moment – when the hero is at his lowest point. Think of the recent Marvel Phase 3 movies Infinity War and Endgame, the end of Infinity War is the heroes’ lowest point when Thanos is at his most powerful. Not all trilogies use this structure; the movies can be discreet stories like, for instance, the prequel trilogy is. It does seem to resonate more with moviegoers when this structure is used – in concert with good writing – as they have a couple of years to wonder how the heroes are going to get out of their mess.
As for the movie itself, one thing that stood out to me was Han’s character had developed a lot. His first action is the ride off into the snow to rescue Luke. While this is part of his character from A New Hope, Han is considerably more altruistic. We also get to see why Han was boasting about his piloting skills in the last movie because he really can outrun the Empire’s big ships.
By watching the movies in episode order, it degrades many of the surprises in this film. The audience in 1980 did not know who Yoda was, they did not know that Vader was Luke’s Father, so these revelations hit home with much more force (pun intended) in the first viewing. Hell, when I watched these movies for the first time both of those reveals had been spoilt for me just because of how much Star Wars has permeated culture. You really can’t watch this movie for the first time the way it was in 1980, and if you watch them in episode order you already know the reveals, which makes it seem as though the characters are acting silly.
Yoda playing games isn’t so hard to fit into the story, but Vader’s reaction to learning that his son survived Padme’s death is much more of a struggle to understand. Padme was his world, and yet we are led to believe that Vader is so twisted that he could kill his own son. While he was told that he killed his wife, when he didn’t, that is a far cry from deciding to kill his son. I don’t think that the character development is strong enough to justify Vader’s actions, but then again, I thought that about him killing younglings too.
The additions to the world in this movie are perfect examples of how to add to a franchise in a way that the audience will accept. All of the additions are on theme. Yoda is another exile Jedi like Obi-Wan was. Vader being Luke’s father may or may not have been in Lucas’ mind when he wrote the first story, but it fits so well into Luke’s fascination with his father (and not his mother for some reason).
Darth Vader absorbing blaster bolts with his hand is one of the most boss scenes in the film. One criticism I have with Star Wars is that Vader claims in A New Hope that “The ability to destroy a planet is insignificant next to the power of the force.” I have always wanted to see that explored, so new force powers always make me feel like we are moving in the right direction. Seeing Vader unharmed after being shot four times and able to grab the gun right out of Han’s hand (also four shots, four hits. Han’s killing it) shows the power of a force user against a normie. It does bring into question just how so many Jedi were able to be killed by order 66 though, but I suppose surprise is a powerful ally.
This is also the first movie to have Lando Calrissian in it. Lando is a lovable rogue who you feel is just trying to get by in a crazy universe. Even though he betrays the main characters, he is doing it for ‘noble’ reasons, which is why he is so endearing. When we get to Disney Star Wars, I expect that Lando will come up several times. He is the perfect example of how to add a character in-universe. He fits in so well because he is a consistent character with clear motivation. Yoda is an addition to the franchise as well, and we get to see the exact same thing. They are moving along their own path in the universe, and when they align with the main characters (it would also apply to conflicting with the main characters) their motivation hasn’t changed, only circumstance. Han goes through this same transition in A New Hope, and we get to see the consequences of his actions in this film. He is more altruistic, he has become a better man, yet his past still catches up with him.
Many people say that Empire is their favourite of the movies, I’m a New Hope guy myself, but you can see why. The universe is expanded. Characters are added. The lore of Star Wars grows, and there are no contradictions to established information. The little lines in A New Hope that made the world-building seem full and rich are opened up and explored, resulting in a richer and fuller galaxy than we knew before. We have wonder and excitement for the next story. If only every second movie in a trilogy could do that… but I’m getting ahead of myself.