Seven Days of Star Wars
Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back
(PG, 124 minutes, 1980)
(PG, 127 minutes, 1997)
This is the sixth installment in a series of looks at each of the wide-released theatrical Star Wars films leading up to the premiere of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. This includes each of the films that comprise the saga’s story after the 2012 purchase of Lucasfilm by the Walt Disney Company and the April 2014 canon reset.
So far, the series has progressed through each of the films in reverse chronological order, starting with 2008’s Star Wars: The Clone Wars, and moving onward to Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith, Star Wars: Attack of the Clones, Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, and Star Wars: Return of the Jedi. Today continues the race toward the beginning with Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back, which is set three years after the events of Star Wars: A New Hope.
The Empire Strikes Back is usually the top film for Star Wars fans, and it’s not hard to understand why. In fact, it’s kind of difficult to find anything in this film that doesn’t work for me. It’s definitely the one I have seen the most out of the entire franchise, and it’s the one that packs the most punch for me. The characters and their motivations are so vivid, even among the secondary characters, and the settings are incredibly detailed and complex. Even the pacing, which is a major complaint from me with modern cinema, is top notch.
Similar to Return of the Jedi, I can’t remember the first time I saw this one, but I do remember my first (and only) experience with it on the silver screen. Just like Return of the Jedi, I saw the Special Edition on opening night back in February 1997, and it was phenomenal.
Out of all of the Special Editions, the changes made in Empire are the least jarring and made the most story sense. The best changes for me were the superficial modifications to Cloud City, including the more dynamic atmospheric lighting. It made the city look so much larger and expansive, and a bit less confusing in the later chase sequences.
Joss Whedon aired a criticism about the film back in 2013, noting that it doesn’t actually end. He does have a point there: Empire doesn’t actually resolve the primary conflict in lieu of pushing it off to Return of the Jedi. I’m willing to ignore that to an extent because of how far this film pushes the mythos and characters, and how closely the concept of a cliffhanger tracks with the Flash Gordon roots of the franchise.
I love The Empire Strikes Back. But, what do I really love about The Empire Strikes Back?
Han and Leia
The Han and Leia romance is really the centerpiece of the film, and it shows in every aspect. I love that the story gives us a strong woman who doesn’t like to admit that she’s not in control and a stubborn man who actually learns how to speak to her instead of at her.
It’s not that Leia has to cede control of her life, but more of the situation: From the moment when the Empire assaults Hoth, Han is in charge of trying to get the princess – a valuable member of the Rebellion – to safety. They run from the snow planet to the asteroid belt, escape the hidden danger of the space slug, hide themselves on a Star Destroyer and in the refuse, and seek refuge on Bespin. Along the way, Leia discovers that this simple blue-collar snarky smuggler actually knows what he’s doing in the galaxy and that he can be trusted. She’s not treated like cargo or a damsel in distress, but like a human being who needs help. When the tables are turned and Han is the one placed in danger, she does everything she can to rescue him.
To that end, this portrayal of Leia was the first female action hero I saw in cinematic pop culture, and she’s still my favorite.
Their love theme is also still one my favorite orchestral pieces ever, and that theme is in the very DNA of the film’s score. Even the chase through the asteroid field and the escape from Bespin use elements as their backbone. This is Han and Leia’s movie.
Yoda is my favorite character in the entire Star Wars franchise.
Luke takes an incredible journey in this film, bridging the gap between innocent farmboy in A New Hope and the contemplative warrior in Return of the Jedi. On that path, he receives a mentor in what seems to be a crazed hermit living on a swamp planet who speaks in fortune cookie clichés. It’s the wisdom that inhabits the character behind those sayings that I love.
Yoda is a puppet, but he feels so unbelievably real thanks to the talents of Frank Oz. The ears and the eyes convey so much emotion from the wise Jedi Master, and the performance felt so magical. Yoda’s musical theme is also a perfect encapsulation of the character, hiding the mystical power behind the almost whimsical and floating notes.
Yoda also reminds me of my late grandmother. She was my closest grandparent when I was growing up, and was kind and wise, stern when she needed to be, and had just a little bit of childlike magic behind her eyes.
The Duel at Bespin
Where I think that Return of the Jedi is the story that provides the greatest depth to Darth Vader, Empire is the one that defines his unparalleled power and legacy. At every turn, he is a match for the running Rebels, and he uses Han and Leia to lure Luke to Bespin through Luke’s attachments and the power of the Force. The parallel is striking: Anakin fell because of his attachment issues, and now his son’s attachments to precipitate another fall.
The duel is intriguing because Vader is obviously the cat in this game. He keeps whittling away at Luke’s defenses, toying with him, batting at him, and maneuvering him into the corner before making the killing blow. The trick here is that the killing blow is not a physical strike – sure, he slices Luke’s hand off to (literally) disarm him – but rather an emotional and mental strike. Vader defeats Luke emotionally by revealing a dark truth. He breaks Luke in a last attempt to lure him somewhat willingly to the Darkness.
That is how the Empire struck back.
Tomorrow’s entry in the Seven Days of Star Wars will wrap things up with Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope.
My Rating: 9/10
IMDb rating: 8.8/10