Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back Reviews
It's such a rarity for a sequel to be a better film than the original. The Bride of Frankenstein was probably the first. Recently The Dark Knight comes to mind. When it comes to The Empire Strikes Back that idea that a follow up could be a better film than the first one is expanded to another level entirely. Once again, the film is sprinkled with visions of the past on top of an already nostalgic ride.
The first act of the film follows out heroes from the first film being beaten by the evil Empire at their home base on the remote ice world of Hoth. Scattered for most of the film Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) along with their sidekicks attempt to outwit not only the Empire, but bounty hunters working for the Empire and Solo's debtor Jabba The Hutt. Meanwhile Luke Skywalker (Mark Hammill) travels to a swamp world known as Dagobah to train with the Jedi master Yoda (Frank Oz). All the while Darth Vader (David Prowse/James Earl Jones) is working to capture Skywalker and turn him to the dark side as an ally.
Amazingly, director Irwin Kerschner and writer Lawrence Kasdan are able to squeeze more adventure out of the franchise in this installment. The film hits the ground running and doesn't let up for the next two hours as a race across the galaxy, with slow down during Luke's training that keep the audience engaged by the small Jedi master. There is a balance throughout the film of adventure, romance, intrigue, and tragedy. No spoilers, but this film does not end as happily as the last. Like a typical second act, it throws its characters in the worst possible scenario leaving the audience wanting to see if their heroes can get out of this one.
The question that will always be debated as long as cinema and Star Wars is relevant is whether Empire is superior to Star Wars. As an upgrade in storytelling and effects it truly is. Instead of milking the film and the mega franchise it created, Empire builds on the mighty foundations set by that film from the summer of 1977. The age old pieces of building a second adventure that plunges their heroes in danger is as old as fiction is itself. In a nutshell, we were introduced to these characters in Star Wars. The Empire Strikes Back is the film in which we learned to love them, with all their little quirks and all. This film is an unexpected triumph that really cemented the entire franchise into popular culture. Yes, it's my favorite film. Yes, I do consider it a masterpiece.
With huge box office success and Oscar nominations on his hands, Lucas knew that the world would be a ripe for a sequel. But feeling overwhelmed during pre-production for what was then called Star Wars II, he made perhaps the best creative decision of his life: he backed off, and let someone else direct. This might all sound like schadenfreude, considering the scorn that I have poured on Lucas' skills as a director. But there can be little denying that The Empire Strikes Back improves upon its predecessor in pretty much every way.
Much of the success of Empire lies in Irvin Kersher's approach as a director. Kershner had no prior experience of blockbusters or science fiction, having made his name with small, low-budget indie character dramas. He expressed his surprise at being given the job, with Lucas reassuring him by saying: "you know everything a Hollywood director is supposed to know, but you're not Hollywood." Sadly for Kershner, directing this film proved to be a poisoned chalice: the only films he helmed after this were Never Say Never Again and Robocop 2.
The main difference between Lucas and Kershner, regardless of any gulf in talent, is that Kershner is far more focussed on the characters. Kershner was interested in what he called "the landscape of the human face", filling the screen with more close-ups that focus on people's expressions where Lucas would have the actors just run into shot with the camera some distance back. Even if the story was as silly as its predecessor, this decision at least gives the impression that we are going somewhere, and that there is a greater attempt being made at subtlety.
Fortunately, for Kershner and for us, The Empire Strikes Back does have a better story. The first film always gave the impression that our heroes were going to win, either by plot points directly in favour of them or by the enemies' lack of capability (e.g. the inability of Storm Troopers to shoot straight). This time, there actually feels like there is something at stake, with greater odds being stacked against the rebels. Setting the opening on a snowy planet creates a sense of hostility and impending death, with the inhospitable conditions reflecting the rebels' fragile predicament.
In addition to the harsher opening, the story puts a series of obstacles before the protagonists which create conflict and make the story more interesting. There is no Death Star, which is relatively easy to find and destroy; instead there are far more manoeuvrable Star Destroyers, scattered all throughout the galaxy. Having the hyperdrive of the Millennium Falcon damaged means that there is no get-out-of-jail-free card for Han; he can't just leave the fight to go back to life as a smuggler, notwithstanding his feelings for Leia. And for the most part, there is no Luke to stand around being the hero. All of this may sound pretty elemental when written out like this, but it's worth listing these things considering how stake-free the prequels were.
Not only is the story better, but the dialogue in Empire is much more believable. We see the characters starting to move beyond their original archetypes, and as the higher stakes pull us in so they begin to feel more rounded. Harrison Ford is given a lot more really funny one-liners, turning him from a cocksure cowboy into a genuinely loveable rogue. His and Leia's conflict is very well-played, especially their (incestuous) love triangle with Luke and their (improvised) farewell in Cloud City. The supporting characters are more memorable too, with a number of fleshed-out imperial officers and of course Boba Fett (see my review of Attack of the Clones).
Not only is The Empire Strikes Back narratively stronger than Star Wars, but it is also genuinely darker. We're still in pantomime territory, with the lines between good and evil being clearly drawn, but as before we are conscious that more effort is being put in all round. Darth Vader stops being a souped-up Klytus, with Grand Moff Tarkin "holding his leash", and becomes more threateningly obsessive. His opening scenes during the Hoth battle serve to make him genuinely menacing, confirming that he is human but also reinforcing how callously mechanical he has become.
Vader's development is mirrored by that of Luke, who spends much of the film in isolation and anguish. The training he undergoes with Yoda serves to make the Jedi more complex, showing the pain that comes from being able to see into the future or feel another's presence. His confrontation in the cave dips its toe into debates about the duality of man, while in leaving he is asked to consider whether his friends' death would serve the greater good. You won't find deep existential quandaries in these scenes, but you do get a lot more than you would expect.
The action scenes in Empire are generally very well-paced. Since Kershner was not an action director, or had any great knowledge of special effects, we should give credit to Lucas and ILM where it is due. While the prequels were overflowing with effects but utterly devoid of direction, in Empire the two combine in near-perfect harmony. Lucas provides the eye candy, with impressive model shots and prop work during the battles as well as improved lightsaber and sound effects. But Kershner is always on hand to keep the camera on the characters, preventing us from feeling overwhelmed.
One of the big problems with the prequels was the lightsaber fights; they were so tightly choreographed that there was no emotional intensity to them, and hence no reason to care. But in Empire, the lightsaber battles reflect the mind-set and emotional state of the characters. The duel between Luke and Vader goes through three distinct rounds, so that unlike the duel in Revenge of the Sith, we are waiting with great anticipation each time they cut back to it. We also get the sense of Vader genuinely toying with Luke: he could just crush him like an ant, but that would be too easy.
This brings us, inevitably, to the twist. It's hard to imagine in 2012 how audiences would have reacted to the big reveal the first time around; suffice to say that when James Earl Jones read the script, he openly blurted out: "He's lying!". It's also hard to imagine, in an age where everything is leaked online, how this was kept a secret for so long. The original script that David Prowse delivered had Vader telling Luke that Obi-Wan killed his father, and Mark Hamill only found out a few minutes before shooting. Even after it's been parodied into the ground, it still has quite an impact, coming completely out of left-field and yet completely making sense.
There are a couple of problems with Empire which prevent it from being a great film. There are a number of contrivances in the middle section, designed to stretch out the pursuit of the Falcon; the Empire find and then lose the ship on several occasions, usually just so a character can be introduced (like Boba Fett) or killed off (like Captain Needa). Moreover, there is still the underlying sense of a film is taking itself a little too seriously, or at least that Lucas isn't aware that one can be dark and playful at the same time. It's a relatively minor quibble, considering the film's successes, but it's worth reminding ourselves just how deep into Flash Gordon territory we are.
Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back is a marked improvement over its predecessor in (almost) every conceivable way. The improvements in the visual effects are thankfully matched by the strides forward in character development and direction, which make this a shoe-in for the best film in the Star Wars series. Whatever the merits of the instalments either side of it, or the flaws of the series as a whole, it still holds up as a very good film in its own right, and the benchmark against which all the others should be measured.
"The Adventure Continues..."
Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back is widely considered the best of the old trilogy and the best Star Wars film period. I think the first two are so good that there really is no point labeling which one is better, just like with the first two Godfather films. A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back are both masterpieces in the science fiction genre, and both are just as fun and just as imaginative as the other.
The plot of this one centers around Luke's training to become a Jedi warrior under the guidance of master Jedi, Yoda, and also around the others battles with the Empire. Luke is forced to make a decision to save his friends or continue with his training and allow them to meet their end. Also, we learn a lot more about Luke's father, Luke himself and Darth Vader. The film also really gets you ready for the next one, with an ending that tells the viewer that there is a lot of action left to go.
Why this one is even more widely loved then the first one is obvious. The film introduces Yoda, a little green man who teaches the ways of the force and talks in a very roundabout sort of way. Also the film has one of the most famous plot twists ever, which is kind of ruined for anyone who first saw this movie after the 1980's. The twist everywhere, it is mimicked in movies like Austin Powers and countless others, I am sure. The movie is just as visually exciting and as plot and character driven as the first. With these added plot elements, it makes for an amazing experience.
This is again, like the first, a movie that everyone has seen and that the great majority love. It is a staple of the pop culture world and will e for a long time to come.
Darth Vader: Luke, you can destroy the Emperor. He has foreseen this. It is your destiny. Join me, and together we can rule the galaxy as father and son.
After the events of the first movie, things appeared to be slightly ok. The Death Star was destroyed and it seemed that the Rebellion was gaining some ground. However, when we hit the sequel we quickly find out that they're in trouble once again, hiding from the Empire on the ice planet Hoth while being ruthlessly sought after by Vader and the fleet. Once they're found, they are forced out of their new de facto home and into deep space. Due to the Millennium Falcon screwing up once more, Han, Leia and Chewbacca have to hide in an asteroid field while Luke crashes his X-wing into a swamp on Dagobah where he starts his training with the Jedi Master Yoda. Han pilots his group towards Bespin and safe haven with Lando Calrissian in order to get the hyperdrive repaired and Luke discovers how to access the force.
Going by the synopsis alone, the first movie is absolutely necessary in order to know just what the hell's going on, but Empire itself is standalone brilliance. A lot of this can be attributed to a changing of the guard in Irvin Kershner as the director. Don't get me wrong, George Lucas did a great job with the original; creating the far away galaxy itself along with some indelible images including the famous Darth Vader entrance and of course that fight scene with Obi Wan and Vader. But Kershner's subtle change in tone and style which increases as the film progresses gives the movie a darker, more enthralling mood which draws the audience in ways the first only managed at the height of its power. He shows no constraints of being in the shadow of Lucas, daring to imagine bigger and braver than ever before, pushing the effects to their stylistic limits. From Luke's abduction by a Wampa to the Millennium Falcon's experience in a "cave," every scene is packed with unforgettable moments provided by Kershner's epic and beautiful lens. The production design is also amazing, especially Bespin, a city in the clouds, which hangs like a beautifully textured satellite in an amber sky. These moments sparkle in the blu-ray conversion, each shot digitally scrubbed to perfection. But it's his handling of the undeniably darker moments which populate Empire which showcase his incredible talent. Moments like Luke's failure in the cave or Han's cold snap will stay with you long after the credits have rolled, made all the more memorable by Kershner's moody atmosphere.
John Williams, of course, delivers once more with a vibrant and rousing score which is impossible to forget. From the opening explosion of sound to the introduction of the now famous Imperial March (it's used for the first time in Empire), every single note is tailored to fit the action onscreen. He is our unseen narrator throughout the entire saga and some of his best work can be heard here. The nature of the music makes it possible to switch from heartfelt one moment to menacing the next, a signature of most of Williams' film scores and exemplified in the Empire Strikes Back.
Leigh Bracket and Lawrence Kasdan's screenplay is brilliantly executed; funny when it wants to be, tender when it feels like it. They manage to nail the characters as well, especially considering the throughline being messed with here. It's a tough ask; moving the characters along just far enough so they still have somewhere to go but not letting them stay where they used to be. Han and Leia's relationship grows more complex but is as funny and natural as ever. Luke's evolution is particularly well done, after his slight air of childishness in the original, his character now becomes a man, becoming more complex and showing more depth. His journey on Dagobah shows this perfectly, as does his encounter with Vader later on in the film. Bracket and Kasdan certainly put him through the ringer in this one, but they have the confidence to put off the resolution until the next film. In the end, despite the characters having achieved some sort of next level, nothing here is resolved and there are more problems than ever before, a bold move by the writers who obviously have enough confidence in their audience to believe that they'll come back for the next one.
Of course, a huge part of Star Wars is the characters themselves, and the cast does not disappoint. Mark Hamill shows off his depth with his character's darker storyline, leaving behind a lot of the childish innocence of the original for a more mature but not quite functional Jedi. He also has a chance to let his humour shine through in moments like Leia's antagonistic kiss or his various encounters with Yoda. Carrie Fisher is pure fire as Leia, keeping up the quick talking impatient mode from the previous film. It helps that she's given a brilliant script by Bracket and Kasdan but in moments like her eventual kiss with Han, she is sheer perfection. But it's Harrison Ford here who really shines, in the role of a lifetime among all of his other roles of a lifetime, he looks like he's having the time of his life, shouting and grumbling about his ship's state of disrepair or trying desperately to make a relationship with Leia at some point. He's equal parts hilarious and heroic, a brilliant character played by an actor having way too much fun. Billy Dee Williams also turns in a great performance as Lando Calrissian, though he doesn't get the screen time he deserves until Return of the Jedi. And, as always, it's the unseen James Earl Jones who casts his shadow over the entire proceedings with the baddest bad guy of them all, Darth Vader. His wheezing mechanical breath is still as iconic as ever and his shocking twist brings a whole new level of depth to the film. He even gets his own theme song now! He is ruthless and calculating, as any villain should be, but he has an advantage in the fact that he has the coolest costume ever.
Whether you're in the purist's camp and will never say that Empire is better than the original or not, there's no denying the brilliance of The Empire Stirkes Back, what may be one of the greatest sequels of all time. Kershner's amazing direction, John William's score and everything going to hell in that ending: perfection.
Despite the draw of Vader and Luke's battle in Bespin, I'm gonna go with Han's freezing. Chewie's anguished cry, that exchange of "I love you," "I know." Star Wars at its best.
This is no cave.
I have a bad feeling about this.
I am altering the deal, pray I don't alter it any further.
Why, you stuck up, half-witted, scruffy-looking Nerf herder!
Who's scruffy looking?
Sir, the possibility of successfully navigating an asteroid field is approximately 3,720 to 1.
Never tell me the odds!
I don't believe it!
That is why you fail.
Don't get excited.
Captain, being held by you isn't quite enough to get me excited.
Sorry sweetheart, I haven't got time for anything else.
That's a good story. I think you just can't bear to let a gorgeous guy like me out of your sight.
I don't know where you get your delusions, laser brain.
Laugh it up fuzzball!
You have your moments. Not many of them, but you do have them.
Sir, it's quite possible this asteroid is not entirely stable.
Not entirely stable. I'm glad you're here to tell us these things. Chewie! Take the Professor in back and plug him into the hyperdrive!
Would it help if I got out and pushed?
You like me because I'm a scoundrel. There aren't enough scoundrels in your life.
I won't fail you. I'm not afraid.
You will be. You will be.
The Yoda middle section always kinda bored me I admit, slowed it down but I guess its needed hehe
Shame Kershner couldnt do the same with 'Robocop 2'.