May The Fifth Be With You: The Empire Strikes Back

James Proclaims (4)
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Today is not Star Wars Day. That was yesterday. But I’m still writing about Star Wars. Because I’m doing that all month. Or for as much of this month as I can manage. I explained why I’m doing this in a previous post, but in all honesty it’s not for any good reason at all other than that’s what I feel like doing at the moment.

Today I’m not writing about the original movie, the one some people call ‘A New Hope’ but which I still refer to as ‘Star Wars’. Today I’m writing about the movie which came next.

Which, to be clear, was not the atrocious 1978 ‘Holiday Special’ because that isn’t a movie. That’s something which defies explanation.

The second movie proper was ‘The Empire Strikes Back’. Although, of course, it is notionally ‘Episode V’ in the whole ‘Skywalker Saga’.

I love ‘The Empire Strikes Back’. It’s my second favourite of all the Star Wars movies and there was a time when I did pretend it was my favourite. But it wasn’t, because I always really preferred 1977’s ‘Star Wars’. I just said I liked ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ better because I wanted the cool kids to like me…

Anyway, as is now becoming a kind of unwarranted tradition, I must issue a ‘spoiler alert’.

Spoiler Alert – I’m definitely going to refer to plot details at some point and there is a chance that could actually ruin this movie for you. Because there was quite a shocking twist in this one. But it was probably only really shocking if you saw this film in the cinema in 1980, because frankly, since then, that once surprising revelation has become so ingrained in popular culture that even if you have no interest in the Star Wars franchise, you probably already know it.

As a follow-up to the greatest film of all time, this was a sensational effort (unless you’re of the incorrect view that ‘Citizen Kane’ is really the greatest movie of all time – then ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ would be an appalling follow-up). Most sequels rarely manage to live up to expectations but this one surpassed any expectations anyone could realistically have had. I imagine. I wasn’t actually alive when the first movie came out and I was only a little past my first birthday when this came out so I really had no expectations at the time.

One of the obvious highlights of the whole movie would have to be the climactic battle between Vader and Luke, which of course culminates in the former chopping off the latter’s hand and then telling him he’s his dad. Not the warmest of family reunions but still marginally better than when the same pater stood next to his daughter while his boss blew up her whole planet. Yes, he didn’t know she was his daughter at the time but it’s fair to say we’re not talking about ‘father of the year’ here.

Although the father-son relationship is not the only dysfunctional family dynamic on screen, given that Luke clearly fancies Leia, who is his sister and she is quite happy to manipulate this attraction by snogging him to make Han jealous. Now, obviously at the moment this particular kiss happens, they don’t actually know they are brother and sister. And it’s never officially revealed in this movie. But there are some pretty heavy-handed hints, so it’s obvious that George Lucas has already made that particular narrative choice. And I know Lucas didn’t actually direct this one, but it’s hard to believe he was ever that far away from the project.

But incestual kisses aside it’s all good.

This is, after all, the movie which introduced us to Yoda for the first time and very cool he was. Although I’ve read that he was viewed at the time by some fans with similar animosity to that levelled at Jar Jar Binks. But people grew to love Yoda quite quickly whereas some 21 years on, you won’t find too many people championing Mr Binks. Which seems about right.

Much of this movie is actually taken up by the romance between Han and Leia. Romance doesn’t always work especially well in Star Wars movies, so it’s a testament to how well this is done that so many people champion this as being the best movie in the franchise.

It’s hard to find fault with any of it really. If I was to level a small criticism at it, it would be that Darth Vader doesn’t show up until we’re twenty minutes in. But he’s well worth the wait, so it would be churlish to dwell on his tardiness.

I don’t think George Lucas really messed it up too much with his nineties CGI tinkering either. There are a couple of moments when it’s obvious but it’s not too distracting. The most noticeable change that I can recall is the insertion of Ian McDiarmid as Palpatine in place of the original combination of Marjorie Eaton in a mask as his face and Clive Revell as his voice. Which is fine, given that McDiarmid plays every other live-action version of Palpatine. Also, Boba Fett’s voice appears to have been altered to that of the bloke who played Jango Fett in ‘Attack of the Clones’, which seems a fairly unnecessary change but Boba Fett is so irrelevant that it’s hard to care.

I suppose one negative that I could throw at ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ is that this was the movie that made the prequel trilogy an inevitability.

Because although the first movie was always notionally, if not always explicitly, ‘Episode IV’, if there had never been an ‘Episode V’ then we’d have all just gone along with (what I believe was) Lucas’ original concept that it was a stylistic choice to suggest the original 1977 movie was a smaller part of some bigger space opera. Once you’ve established an ‘Episode V’ to go with ‘Episode IV’, then people are naturally going to want to see ‘Episodes I-III’. Until you make those episodes obviously. Then most people wish they could ‘un-see’ them quite quickly…

Having said that, ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ also ended on the cliff-hanger that made ‘Return of the Jedi’ an inevitability. And Ewoks aside, that is also a great movie.

And regardless of its legacy, ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ still has to go down as one of the best movies of all time. The second best in my humble opinion…

Best Character – Han Solo

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Carelessly gets himself frozen in carbonite some twenty-five minutes before the end of this movie, but up until that point this is really Han’s time to shine. Although Luke’s journey to becoming a Jedi is part of what makes this movie great, it’s really the scenes on the Millennium Falcon that are the most fun as they go from one hazardous scenario to another. And it’s Han’s mercurial ways that get them in and out of most of that trouble. Plus, his response when Leia tells him she loves him is one of the great lines of the whole sage. Although I should add a cautionary note that it’s not a line that works in real life particularly well.

Worst Character – Boba Fett

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Seriously cool action figure, easily one of my favourites as a kid. But he does nothing of any note on screen. His stupid death in ‘Return of the Jedi’ would make him a contender for worst character in that movie too, but he’s not in that one long enough and he’d already disappointed me so much in this one that my expectations were already much lower for him by the next one. His most irritating moment is when, shortly after Darth Vader has effortlessly deflected laser shots with his hand and used the force to steal Han’s blaster, Boba rushes in and stands menacingly by Vader’s side. Like Darth ever needed his help. Boba does look cool. But he isn’t cool.

Unsung Hero – Captain Needa

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With Darth Vader murdering his own crew for fun half the time, it takes real guts to admit your mistakes. But Captain Needa takes one for the team by assuming responsibility for losing track of the Millennium Falcon. He apologises to Lord Vader and to be fair, after he has choked the poor captain to death, Darth does accept his apology.

And that’s it for ‘The Empire Strikes Back’. Tune in tomorrow to see if I liked ‘Return of the Jedi’. Although I’ve obviously already acknowledged that I do in this post…