Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980, Irvin Kershner) A
Following the destruction of the Death Star, the Rebel Alliance, now with Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and Princess Leia (Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher respectively) as major players within their ranks, continues its war against the galactic Empire. The former’s remarkable victory in the ‘Battle of Yavin’ (it was about time I displayed some sort of geek knowledge) has only doubled the Empire’s resolve in crushing the resistance movement. What’s more, Darth Vader’s humiliating defeat at the hands of Luke Skywalker during the attack on the Death Star has propelled the sith lord on a hunt for the rebel hero. When the Empire’s probing droids discover the Rebel’s new hideout on the snowy planet of Hoth, it spells the beginning of yet another large scale battle between the two rival forces...
Fans of the Star Wars universe claim Episode V to be the best in the film series. Fans of the movies alone believe it to be the best. Casual fans of the franchise seem to enjoy it the most. People I know who don’t care that much about Star Wars remember The Empire Strikes Back most vividly. There is indeed a general consensus surrounding this instalment and anyone who argues otherwise is looked at as if they had gone mad. Would I even dare attempt to knock Episode V off of its high and shiny pedestal? Might I not think so highly of this much beloved sci-fi action classic?
I actually don’t think Episode V is all that...
Who am I kidding? Episode V is, in my mind in that of so many other people, the strongest chapter in the Star Wars saga. But I don’t think it’s just the best chapter in the franchise, I think it’s a really good movie in its own right. There is fantastic imagination on display, with every location and set piece proving to be a character unto itself, a small bit of bubbling life in a large and densely populated universe. The snow planet of Hoth, with its bizarre and dangerous inhabitants, the mammoth-like walking tanks used by the Empire for their ground assault on the Rebel’s not so secret hideout, the muddy swamps of Dagobah where the most powerful jedi ever resides, that freaking weird tree that is haunted by the dark side of the Force, a giant worm of teeth living within the caves of an asteroid, a mining city which floats in the clouds, the carbon freezing chamber, etc. Even if the characters themselves and the story were less than stellar, I would probably still really like the film for the ingenuity and creativity that went in into the production. If you’ve been following the marathon thus far, you know we’ve seen some beautiful sets, costumes and visual effects. With the exception of the cloning facility from Episode II, I think Episode V takes the cake with regards to fantastic locations and the cultures that bring them to life. Some credit should go to the cinematography. Of the instalments we've studied thus far, I think Empire has the best look in terms of lighting, camera angles and editing.
But locations and set design aren’t the only qualities which make the movie great. Lucas’s script and Kershner’s direction bring a darker tone to the saga which we haven’t seen since Revenge of the Sith. The heroes, especially in the later stages of the film, always seem to be a step or two behind the villains. Even in the moments that one would think to be lighter in tone, such as the scenes that develop Luke’s training with Yoda, are haunting. The beautiful planet of Bespin, which at first has a sense of sweep and romanticism to it, ends up being more than a little nightmarish for the protagonists.
Not only are the visuals more impressive this time around than in the previous instalment, but so are the performances and character arcs. That even goes for Luke Skywalker, as played by Mark Hamil. His acting in Episode V alone is not enough to convince me that he is a solid actor as a whole, but at least he manages to carry his own, somewhat, this time around. Granted, that frustrating and annoying whiny attitude makes its way into the performance, but not nearly as often here. He is genuinely beginning to take on the path of a jedi, with the importance and weight of such a role clearly pressing down on him. We see a more mature hero, a more adult Luke who takes on some mighty challenges, from defending the Rebel outpost on Hoth against some of the Empire’s most frightful war machines, accepting the challenge of training as a jedi under the supervision of the great Yoda, and finally rushing into a head-to-head confrontation with the one and only Darth Vader in order to protect the ones he loves. Although I still find Luke somewhat difficult to truly ‘like’, he’s far more tolerable here. Once again, it is Han Solo and Princess Leia who are the stars of the show. Some of this probably has to do with the fact that script doesn’t give them anything to except escape the clutches of the Empire. Unlike Luke, they don’t have any significant quests to complete. They’re essentially fugitives on the run, and through this we are privy to some more character driven moments between the two. Han is still relatively brash, but he suspects that Leia has a soft spot for him, and frequently tries to play that to his advantage. Leia, ever the strong and independent minded woman, tries valiantly to stand her ground. There are some very entertaining and even touching moments between the two, which interestingly enough reminded me that Lucas can write some good dialogue, something he proves all too rarely.
Another treat is of course the villain who takes center stage: Darth Vader. Voiced once again by James Earl Jones, the dark lord of the sith is absolutely diabolical in this movie. He no longer just looks cool and sounds cool, he acts like a real jerk. Not only is he the leader of the pack, he is a ruthless leader at that, opting to Force choke all those who fail him. He rests in a strange meditation chamber (without his helmet on! Tease!) and calls his minions outright stupid when things don’t go as planned. He captures Luke’s friends and submits them to torture just so Luke can feel their pain and fall into the villain’s trap. He continuously twists Lando’s Calrissian’s (Billy Dee Williams) arm in a sour deal the Bespin administrator has made with the devil. There are even some brilliant moments in which wit and cruelty meld into one. I’m thinking of course of my single favourite scene in the entire 6-part saga (hint: ‘Apology accepted, Captain Needa.’). I think there are some very interesting things going on with the character of Vader in the movie, and not just from a ‘oh, he’s such a bad ass!’ standpoint. I like the fact that he is on the hunt for his son, Luke, promising the Emperor (in a brief cameo by Ian McDiarmid) to compel young Skywalker to join the dark side otherwise the boy shall die. Interestingly enough, once Vader has Luke at his mercy after a ferocious battle, during which Luke has made it pretty clear he’s not ready to make the jump to the Emperor’s team, Vader reveals that he and Luke could overthrow the Emperor and , spoiler alert, rule the galaxy as father and son. Certainly a good amount of greed is pushing Vader to behave this way, but I like to think that something else is going on. After all, it is the Emperor who gave Vader the opportunity to be as powerful as he is, should his allegiance not lie with his current master? Family ties run deep and can always stir the emotions, sometimes in ways we least expect them to...
After some decent actions scenes in Episode IV, the Empire does indeed strike back with some rousing chase and battle sequences that left me hungry for more. The asteroid chase between the Millenium Falcon and some Tie Fighters is both exciting and tremendously well executed from a film production standpoint, and of course there is the famous Battle of Hoth, in which the Rebels try to defend their base of operations from an the devastating and memorable giant walkers driven by the Empire. We hadn’t seen a good ground based battle sequence in quite some time, so it was nice to watch this one unfold. Even the opening sequence of the film (which, when one thinks of it has almost nothing to do with the rest of the movie) is great, with Luke having to escape the cave of a yeti-like creature who took the young jedi captive. The list of qualities found in the film can go on and on. Yoda, who behaves like a crazy old hermit upon meeting Luke, is a lot of fun this time around. Lando Calrissian is an interesting element to the mix in that he is emotionally forced to betray his deal with the Empire once he realizes that the latter never had any intention of keeping its end of the bargain anyhow. We see the return of fan favourite Boba Fett, who inexplicably has earned a grand reputation within the hardcore Star Wars community despite the fact that the chap has no more than perhaps 7 minutes of screen time and utters about 3 lines. I personally don’t care much for the character, but his armour does look nifty.
Yeah, when it comes to Star Wars, it’s difficult to find anything better than TheEmpire Strikes Back. The film’s tone if spot on with a mixture of hope and despair, the action is very intense, John William’s score is powerful and beautiful, and I feel the major characters are given their due and are allowed to breath a little bit more this time. As escapism, Episode V is near perfect. It’s swashbuckling adventurism at its best.