Movie Review | Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back
Why this order? In the build-up to The Last Jedi, I'll be working my through the films in what I believe is the best order to experience them: namely, Machete Order. There are two differences: 1) Rogue One has to fit in there, and 2) I'll also include The Phantom Menace for completeness.
Watching the Star Wars films in this order almost makes Empire Strikes Back feel like a return to the galaxy of Rogue One. It never actually gets quite that bleak, but Empire is unquestionably darker than A New Hope with the heroes on the run for pretty much the entire running time.
There have been plenty of gags made over the years about how ineffective the Empire seems to be in failing to stop the Rebel Alliance, but this is the second film out of three so far where the antagonists have come out on top - can you imagine any other series doing that now?
Another thing this movie does is something that various other franchises across multiple media have been criticised for doing: narrowing the scope and focusing on the characters, rather than the over-arching narrative (in this case, Rebels vs The Empire).
It's never a bad thing to give characters greater depth and generate deeper attachment in an audience, so it's a little strange that so many modern series receive flak for doing the same thing. Obviously, the success of doing this depends on the execution, and it works perfectly here.
Movie Summary: After the rebels are overpowered by the Empire on their newly established base, Luke Skywalker begins Jedi training with Yoda. His friends accept shelter from a questionable ally as Darth Vader hunts them in a plan to capture Luke. (IMDb)
Straight-up admission here: Empire Strikes Back is quite possibly my favourite movie of all time. It takes everything good about Star Wars, makes it even better, then adds even more great stuff on top. All this while continuing to expand the universe the story is set in too.
Just about the only complaint I could imagine anyone making about this film is that it puts the over-arching Rebels v The Empire story-line on hold. However, I don’t see that as a negative as there is so much amazing character work and development put in that it really doesn’t feel like a drawback.
Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher both put in even better performances than before, with some of the most incredible screen chemistry between a couple ever. The gooder-than-good girl falling for the roguish guy is as cliché as it comes, but it absolutely works here.
Mark Hamill also puts in a much better performance, clearly far more comfortable in the role than first time around. It helps that Luke is also a far more confident character as well, making him a lot more likeable as a central character than the whiny teen of Star Wars.
The film belongs to Darth Vader though – appropriate considering the movie’s title. The character utterly dominates proceedings and truly cements his reputation as one of the greatest screen villains, especially after possibly the most famous reveal in cinematic history during his duel with Luke.
The score reflects Vader and the Empire’s dominance, with the iconic Imperial March repeatedly used throughout, proving just as popular a piece of music as anything used for the heroes. It’s one of the most perfect combinations of score and character I’ve ever known in any form of media.
We also get introduced to Lando Calrissian in Empire Strikes Back, who Billy Dee Williams plays perfectly as a charming scoundrel similar to Han Solo, but different enough that they remain utterly distinct characters with their own clear-cut personalities. A fine line walked expertly here and in Return of the Jedi.
The film works so well because of how it’s structured, with the main cast all together at the start of the movie, before splitting them up to tell entirely separate tales before bringing everyone back together for the incredible finale on Cloud City, where one of the heroes falls and another is seriously injured.
I think one of the main reasons I love this film is because it is a story about the bad guys winning – or at least gaining an advantage – over the heroes. The very final scene allows the audience some hope, which stops things from becoming too bleak, but too many films trying to copy this film’s ‘formula’ tend to be a little too cautious and end up giving a more triumphant finale rather than committing to what the story needs.
Seriously, go and watch interviews with directors, producers or actors working on a sequel in any number of different genres using Empire Strikes Back as the example they are aiming for, yet the final product will very rarely come anything close to being as downbeat as this movie.
That’s not to say that it’s entirely humourless: the interactions between the majority of the main cast on the Millennium Falcon provide a steady stream of laughs, and Luke’s frustration with Yoda’s teaching style on the swamp planet of Dagobah is also amusing.
The trick is that all the humour is based on character so that anything funny seems like a genuine, natural response from the characters rather than a deliberate attempt by the movie to get a laugh from the audience.
The Empire Strikes Back is so good that I could keep going in praise of it for longer than it would take to actually watch the movie. Everything I have mentioned works perfectly, and I haven’t said one word about the battle on Hoth in the snow, the Falcon being pursued through the asteroid field, and barely anything about Luke’s lengthy confrontation with Darth Vader. There is so much quality packed into this movie, it’s almost difficult to believe – a genuine masterpiece.
Why a 10/10? Because it's The Empire Strikes Back, a movie held up in Hollywood as one of the most perfect examples ever of how to do a sequel correctly. It looks fantastic, it sounds amazing, and it's still as enjoyable an experience as A New Hope despite being far, far darker in tone.
There's a real cost to the heroes for their actions, reminding the audience that this might be a family-friendly franchise, but it isn't just escapism or a power fantasy for anyone.
As stated above, the only criticism I can imagine anyone having against this film - and one I would disagree with strongly - is that the Rebels vs The Empire story-line is put on hold. That's it. I really don't want to say it's flawless other wise, but I genuinely can't think of anything about Empire Strikes Back that could have been done better than it was.
Everything good about the first film continues here, if not better than last time, while adding so much to the galaxy that it's actually astonishing to think about if you take a moment and step back to look at what it did.