As a lead up to Star Wars: The Force Awakens, FBTB is going to do something crazy (and likely something that a whole bunch of other sites are going to do too), and review the previous movies. Why? Because shut up, that’s why. We are going to take a slightly different take, other than just eviscerating the PT and fawning love on Empire Strikes back, and actually look at some of the impacts that it has on the toys and stuff we really love. Plus, it gives us an excuse to make fun of Jar Jar. It’s basically win-win.
I’ll be honest… I was very tempted to make this into a one sentence review: “It’s awesome, now shut up and go watch it again.” I’m sure some people like to argue against the fact that The Empire Strikes Back is the best of the Star Wars movies. Those people are wrong. The Empire Strikes Back is the best of the Star Wars movies. Mind you, it’s not my favorite, but being the best and being a favorite are not required to be the same thing.
A whole lot of ink has been spilled as to why this movie is the best of the bunch. The fact that Lucas didn’t write the screenplay; he wrote the original story and did what he does best, have ideas… but ultimately let other people expound on them and make them better. Leigh Brackett (initially, until her death) and Lawrence Kasdan ultimately wrote it, Irvin Kershner directed, and Lucas focused on the special effects with ILM.
This is less a review, and more focusing on what Empire does well (and, honestly, where it sort of misses). It may be a little shorter, because it’s well established that I would rather talk about Ewoks anyway.
Honestly, Empire Strikes Back should have been a failure. A New Hope set the bar impossibly high for whatever followed, and had redefined movies entirely. I mean, the original was still in theaters when the sequel came out. It also immediately struck a much darker tone that the first, established by the opening crawl…
It is a dark time for the Rebellion. Although the Death Star has been destroyed, Imperial troops have driven the Rebel forces from their hidden base and pursued them across the galaxy.
Evading the dreaded Imperial Starfleet, a group of freedom fighters led by Luke Skywalker has established a new secret base on the remote ice world of Hoth.
The evil lord Darth Vader, obsessed with finding young Skywalker, has dispatched thousands of remote probes into the far reaches of space….
Destroying the Death Star didn’t end the war (you have to do that twice for it to work), and the full might of the Empire is now being thrown to wiping out the insurgents. Vader is obsessed with finding Luke, who’s name is out there as the one who destroyed the base and left him as the only survivor (while smelling like feet wrapped in bacon looking for a cell signal). We get that right away in the fact that this opens with the fleet launching droids, and one of them smacking into Hoth.
If you haven’t read up on the new universe, as there is no Extended Universe (thank the Darksaber for that), the Marvel comics series have focused extensively on the time between A New Hope and Empire (with the exceptions of Kanan, which is set during the Clone Wars, and Shattered Empire, which is after the Battle of Endor). Princess Leia focused on her quest to gather the survivors of Alderaan, Lando focused on him being Lando, Star Wars on Luke trying to find out about what it is to be a Jedi (and generally getting his butt kicked), and Darth Vader on his quest to not just find who destroyed the Death Star, but to find the truth about the boy named Skywalker.
It’s actually a very interesting glimpse of Vader in the comic, and one that makes the Sith dynamic far more interesting. There are close, and somewhat disturbing parallels, to an abusive relationship. Vader in the comics, and honestly, in this movie, is a broken man. He’s been beaten down and the Emperor has disdain and contempt for him. He’s someone that’s failed to protect the Death Star, and failed to rise as past his station as a Sith Apprentice.
On the other hand, the Rebels are clearly on the run… they recently arrived on Hoth, and are still setting up, when the Empire discovers them. We also get one of our earlier “um, okay” moments in the whole addition of the Wampa, and a scene that absolutely didn’t need to be expanded on in the Special Editions. Yes, I know that the whole thing was basically put in to cover for Hamill’s car accident, but still, it could have been done in a crash of the Snowspeeder, honestly. It does give us some very important looks at Luke’s raw and incredibly power in the force… capable of doing things untrained like pulling his lightsaber.
Empire is a story that plays heavily on the relationships and interactions between characters. Han and Leia, Han and Luke, Chewie and… C3PO, I guess. Unlike ANH, the action is a bit slower in this one. It’s not until the Empire arrives that we really get much action, and once we do, we get a ton of action. There’s Anakin showing off his natural leadership skills (also the impressive ability to murder someone through a view screen… something anyone who’s been on a conference call before can appreciate) and General Veers, otherwise known as the most competent Imperial Officer ever seen on screen.
The whole Battle for Hoth is a show of overwhelming force by the Empire, proving that they don’t need tactics, advantage, or surprise to win. The Rebels get away, ultimately, but lose a few pilots and a whole lot of equipment. That Ion Cannon can’t have been cheap, and there was plenty of other equipment left behind. I still mourn for Dack, though. Poor guy got red-shirted by an EPS conduit. He also had more lines (and a name) than the only other woman with a speaking part not named Leia (Stand by… Ion Control).
Empire also does more to sell Han as a Smuggler than flat-out stating it in ANH ever could. The whole float away with the trash, hiding in the asteroid belt, and actually getting to Cloud City are what made him awesome, not just the fancy belt. Sure, Boba Fett did the only competent thing we will see in the entire trilogy and caught him, but it’s still pretty impressive. Plus, more Vader leadership! Plus… the whole exchange about a committee is the greatest dialog in all of the movies.
I’ve argued for awhile that Luke is the most powerful Jedi to ever live, and think it’ll likely play into the future releases. Anakin was powerful, but also benefited from training. Luke had a couple of days and a training montage in the swap, started his training twelve years later, and showed raw skill. In the comics (again), this is played up even more, where he stands toe-to-toe with Boba Fett and Vader, and manages to survive. He wins ugly, but still survives. These are the same comics that show Vader bringing down ships with the Force and wiping out three squadrons with his piloting skills.
Later in the movie, Luke essentially holds his own for awhile against a far superior foe. Vader has years of training and practice, knowledge of the Force that Luke never will, and instruction and knowledge from the same two that have spent an afternoon correspondence session teaching his son. We never get a good explanation of why Yoda struggles with basic speaking syntax after hundreds of years around humans, but hey, he can lift an X-Wing. Also, this just serves as additional evidence of R2 just toying with Luke, since he obviously knows Yoda but didn’t say anything about it.
Somehow, this movie does more to establish the mythology of the Force and the Jedi than the prequels ever did, despite being before it and not dumping in as much filler. Maybe it’s because Empire is filled with information on consequence. It talks about the Dark Side, it talks about failure and trust, and more than that, it shows them actually doing things other than sitting in chairs and talking about the wisdom of children.
Empire also adds a tiny sliver of diversity to the lineup once we get to Cloud City, which in itself is just a beautiful (if rediculous) setup. Interesting side fact about gas giants… while they have all those clouds, the layer that you see Cloud City in would have a fairly low density compared to our own little planet. Bespin was a Jupiter-like Gas giant, which really can’t form with things like oxygen (which, you may not know, is important to us breathing creatures)… they form mainly out of hydrogen and helium. Even if oxygen and nitrogen somehow made it into the planet, they would sink into deeper layers, where the pressure and temperature would kill everything not made of Sun Crusher metal.
Also, the radiation would just cook them all.
Lando, however, is an interesting character in that he’s the first truly flawed character we see on screen. Solo is a rogue, Luke is inexperienced, and Leia is just awesome. Lando, however, is trying to protect his property and his people, and makes a deal with the devil to do so. Sure, eventually he comes around, but it’s not without cost.
The only part about the whole Cloud City thing which falls somewhat flat is the whole C3PO getting blown up by Stormtroopers. I get where it’s there to reveal something is up… but it’s just not needed. There was enough other stuff to let on that it was up, from how Lando was acting to the general delays in everything. It ended up just being an excuse to get Chewie some more screen time… something that I support, but wish it wouldn’t have been in comic relief parts. All of that can be forgiven by the “I know” line in the Carbonite freezing. Such a simple line, but it so perfectly caps off the interaction between Han and Leia throughout the movie.
The movie caps off with the duel between Vader and a very green Luke, culminating in a new nickname, Stumpy. This fight doesn’t have all of the solid choreography and effects of the prequel fights, or the “two old guys smacking toy swords together” of Obi-Wan vs. Vader… but honestly, it’s the best of the fights thus far. We see more than just swordplay in this scene, and see Jedi using their powers. Luke can jump high, he’s more nimble and agile… but Darth Vader still has a dozen different ways to beat him, as proven by ripping the walls down and sending them flying.
You get the feeling in the end that most of this was for show… Vader has no intention of actually killing Luke. At long last, he sees his opening for overthrowing his master and taking command, and that means turning Luke to the Dark Side. Everything had been toying with him, to a point, even when Luke was actually holding his own in the fight.
Even in this, we see that Luke is already a better Jedi than his father ever was. Every time we saw Anakin tested, we also saw him fail that test. In this situation, Luke has just been whooped, his hand cut off, and his whole view of family and history thrown into disarray… at the same time, he’s offered an unbelievable opportunity for power and a real chance to go after the Emperor. Instead, he chooses to trust the force and jumps, somehow surviving the fall thanks to the fact that Cloud City is apparently made out of tornado slides.
The end also gives us a teaser to the next big shocker from Jedi, when Luke calls out to Leia and he hears her. I always assumed that the fighters broke off their pursuit just so the Falcon could rescue Luke (and then be recaptured), but the fact that they get away and Admiral Piett somehow didn’t pay the typical price for that was still surprising. There’s also the fact that the only technology that’s improved instead of regressed since the days of the Republic is that cybernetic hands now come with skin pre-installed. That’s pretty convenient. That and I’m sure everyone reading this sees that scene where the medical droid is testing the new hand and for a brief second imagines what it would be like to have a robot hand like that.
The ending of Empire is a mixture of hope and darkness. The cause of the Rebels has been harmed immensely, with the loss of their base on Hoth and the loss of Solo with them. Luke now has to deal with some pretty heavy stuff, and got his floor mopped by the second most powerful Sith in the galaxy. Yet there’s the fact that Lando and Chewie are already working on a way to get back to Han… though I always wondered why they would have to “find” Jabba the Hutt. Sure, restored scenes and all, but those things were still cut from the original. Was he ever not on Tatooine?
We also get a glimpse of a galaxy, one that’s spinning incredibly fast. While all the EU is gone, we do know, thanks to Clone Wars, that they can travel outside the Galaxy proper to at least close companions, like the Rishi Maze (where Kamino was at). Of course, distance and speed were also pretty fuzzy, since they’d have to be sitting like 200,000 light years away from their galaxy here to see it like this. So I’m going to go with “cool shot, don’t think about it.”
Empire, while the best movie, has also been the one that’s gotten the worst treatment by LEGO. Unless you’re a long-time collector and have rarities like that Cloud City set above (I don’t, sigh) or the Dagobah X-Wing (got that one)… you can make the assumption that the entire movie happens on Hoth. We’ve gotten more Snowspeeders than I’d care to acknowledge and something like eighty-four different Hoth base sets. There have been at three different versions of Han Solo with his parka and hood on… yet only one Dagobah Luke.
Most of the other sets that you could call from this movie are shared with other movies as well, like the ISD, the UCS SSD, AT-ATs and AT-STs, etc. The closest we’ve gotten to a non-Hoth set in recent memory is the Cloud Car Planets set or the Slave I sets that include Han in Carbonite and Bespin guards. I get that Empire doesn’t lend itself as much to big sets, but there’s still plenty of stuff fin the movie that’s not Hoth.
Ultimately, this movie is a very solid five out of five. Not only is it the best of the Star Wars films, it’s just simply a great film in itself. So, go watch it right now. It will give you strength to avoid all the spoilers…