Back With a Vengeance
A Film Review of Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back
What is it about The Empire Strikes Back that makes it practically everyone’s favorite Star Wars film? Sure, it was a bit dark and edgy before those adjectives seemed to become synonymous with financial success in Hollywood. Yes, it featured our heroes in a constant state of weakness where they seemed to lose time and time again. Undoubtedly, it revealed one of the most shocking plot twists in film that made audiences scream “NOOOoooo!” just like Luke. All of these points certainly contribute to the enhanced intrigue about this film, but I would propose another, less obvious explanation for why this gloomier chapter in Star Wars surpasses its upbeat predecessor: the screenplay wasn’t written by nor the film directed by George Lucas.
No, this isn’t the point in the review where I go off on the professional deficiencies of Mr. Lucas as a filmmaker. He’s the one who invented this entire reality, with specific ideas for characters, arcing plot, circumstances, visual details, the flow of action and countless other aspects of this ever evolving story. And you want him to write the screenplay and direct it, too?!? If there’s one lesson we can all take from Empire is that filmmaking is a collaborative art form and sometimes ego needs to be placed aside not necessarily for the good of the production, but at least for the sake of efficiency through delegation. George Lucas had a ton of responsibility for these Star Wars films, but sometimes when one individual is so close to everything and has too much on his or her plate, there’s no guarantee that full effort and attention to detail will be put into each and every one of those jobs. Enter screenwriters Leigh Bracket (background in noir and westerns) and Lawrence Kasdan (who would go on to write Return of the Jedi and Raiders of the Lost Ark) who channeled this chapter in the Star Wars saga into a more sophisticated exploration into the hero’s journey regarding choice and the obscured line between right and wrong. Enter director Irvin Kershner (background in documentaries and TV production) who was able to tame the cynic fire between Han and Leia into genuine onscreen passion. Fresh perspectives offered this already rich fictional universe an upgrade in the drama department.
That’s not to say this film somehow backs down from its action/adventure roots. Ground combat on an ice planet gives the audience a brand new setting and slightly different action from what we’ve seen before. Acrobatics and stunt work played a more prominent role throughout. Space combat continued to be thrilling and the climactic light saber duel was just plain better than before. However, the dramatic moments in this film were as important and interesting (if not, more so) than every action sequence. Obviously, the heroes we remember from A New Hope have altered statuses by the beginning of this film, but the changes they all undergo during Empire display unique vulnerabilities for them all not just by their failures, but how they rebound from them. The hero’s journey is futile without setbacks, for it is in his or her failures where lessons are best learned.
Excellent space combat sequences rule once again, though exclusively dominated by the Millennium Falcon. Good ground combat sequences on Hoth. An excellent upgrade to Luke and Vader’s duel despite being purposely obscured by shadow for professional stunt work stand-ins.
Plenty of high and low angles provide excellent coverage shots for action sequences. Cockpit perspective shots deliver enhanced movement within the frame. Close ups, though static, produced some of the most impactful and iconic images of this entire saga.
Kudos to Mark Hamil for playing off a puppet for the majority of his scenes with the same vigor he would with a live actor. Same goes for Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford for taking their relationship to the next level. How do you top a heartbreaking “I love you” scene? With a “someone happens to be someone else’s father” scene. Simply, the best ensemble performance in any Star Wars film, period.
The best puppetry I have ever seen makes Yoda more real than any animated iteration of that character. “I’m not afraid. Yeah? You will be. You will be.” Thank you Frank Oz. Billy Dee Williams plays a suave, backstabbing scoundrel quite well without being scruffy looking.
Victory once again to John Williams. All of the melodies used during the third act in Bespin are some of my favorite orchestrations of all time.
Excellent once again with the carbonite chamber battle being an obvious highlight.
“Moving” = 30/33
It’s too bad the technology isn’t sophisticated enough to remove the claymation tauntauns because as much as those beasts may smell on the outside, they stink even worse to look at.
Shear brilliance once again with models, puppetry and stunts.
It was really neat to see the different uniforms sported by the bounty hunters invited to the convention on Vader’s star destroyer. Leia’s snow bunny and Bespin garb were functional and attractive. Was it weird seeing Lando jump right into one of Han’s spare set of clothes at the end?
Hair & Makeup
Hair styles for Leia were good, but Han’s were better. Luke’s mop still needs some serious attention.
I really wished we could have seen more of Bespin from the outside. Hoth was surprisingly interesting despite the whiteout. Space combat through an asteroid field and in between a giant asteroid’s caverns provided a much needed scenery shift from the stars. Dagobah was creepy and slimy and the furthest place you’d expect any Star Wars activity to be happening.
Spending more scenes inside the Millennium Falcon is never a dull time, but the true stand out is the variety of styles and color palates present throughout all of Bespin’s interior locations.
“Picture” = 26/33
The group gets splintered by necessity and agenda while evading Imperial capture to continue the rebellion.
Vader and the Imperials are relentless in their pursuit of Han, Leia and Luke, but the best dramatic conflict occurs on Dagobah between Luke and Yoda and Luke with himself.
Can there be victory in defeat? There may be no moral victories in professional sports, but there can be in Star Wars when you can say you survived to fight another day.
The variety of tonal shifts throughout gives the dialogue an eclectic range of formality, to crassness to raw emotion and deep meaning.
Expository details are camouflaged a bit better in the plot progressing dialogue.
Han, Luke and Leia are growing, but the introduction of an elderly Yoda and a painfully underused Boba Fett take the cake.
Parents out there can totally understand the frustrations of Obi-Wan and Yoda. Teens know what Luke’s talking about.
“Story” = 28/34
Overall MPS Rating: 84/100
Heroes who are invincible are difficult to identify and sympathize with because they are not shown to hurt the way normal human beings hurt. Han gets tortured and frozen in a Lego brick. C-3P0 gets obliterated. Leia gets her heart broken and Luke gets his hand chopped clean off. Despite fighting the good fight, our heroes get dominated as much as they could be without being killed and that’s a huge emotional swing from the epic victory shared by all in A New Hope. Vulnerability, frailty, insecurity, mortality; these are the things audiences make instant connections with which makes us care about the characters before us and wonder where their ultimate fate lies regardless of the fantastic nature of the circumstances that surround them.