Empire Strikes Back, Weak 3rd Act

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ESB might be most people's favorite (including mine) but ANH is the better crafted film. The 3rd act of ESB was botched as well as some other parts.

Most everything is fine until Han and Leia are turned over to Vader at Cloud City. After that, the story sputters along, gaining little traction. Unfortunately, Lando and Leia's escape from Cloud City isn't as exciting as Luke's duel with Darth Vader, and Vader's revelation to Luke was never set up properly.

That's why, I believe, ESB wasn't as well received as ANH at the time of its release. It wasn't until people looked at it in hindsight and with repeated viewings that it became the majority's favorite. And they covered up its flaws with rose-colored glasses.



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It's worth noting that A New Hope only has the one climactic action sequence with the Death Star trench run, which focuses mainly on Luke while Leia stays at Yavin IV watching from the sidelines and Han shows up at the last minute. Most other films in the franchise have involved switching back and forth between main characters fighting different battles at the same time, so it's all about finding the right balance. Besides, most sequences in any movie struggle to match the "excitement" of seeing Luke finally go up against Darth Vader. At the very least, Leia's escape still needs to be depicted in case so as to set up the moment where she shows up with the Falcon to save Luke - it may not be capital-E exciting, but it still serves a narrative purpose and its juxtaposition against Luke dueling Vader helps the pacing of the latter sequence. Also, you're going to have elaborate on how exactly Vader's revelation isn't "set up properly", because leaving aside the idea that it's meant to be a reveal that shocks us as much as it shocks Luke (who has no reason whatsoever to suspect that the father he thinks is dead is actually the Emperor's legendary right-hand man), it's not like it doesn't get foreshadowed at all (albeit with cryptic imagery such as the bit in the Dagobah cave where he sees his face in Darth Vader's helmet).

Besides, I was under the impression that Empire wasn't received that well at the time because it was such an incredible downer of a story compared to the bright hero's-journey fun of Hope. It does end with one hero frozen and captured while another one loses his hand and learns the horrible truth about his father. It was a family-friendly fantasy movie where the heroes straight-up lost their battles, which was quite the rarity in 1980 (before the whole concept of trilogies with clearly-defined middle sections like Back to the Future or The Matrix were really codified). A lot of the hindsight appreciation comes from how Empire and its "downer" nature didn't necessarily mean that it was a genuinely bad movie and that, once people got over their initial disappointment, they learned to appreciate the things that the film did really well.
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Perhaps ESB gained more popularity after the release of ROTJ?
Possibly. But I don't think the disappointment of RotJ contributed to ESB's later popularity. I think ESB became everyone's favorite because Darth Vader a bad-a** and the deep connections characters made i.e. Han and Leia, Luke and Yoda, Luke and Vader etc. ANH is better crafted but ESB has more powerful character moments..



It's worth noting that A New Hope only has the one climactic action sequence with the Death Star trench run, which focuses mainly on Luke while Leia stays at Yavin IV watching from the sidelines and Han shows up at the last minute. Most other films in the franchise have involved switching back and forth between main characters fighting different battles at the same time, so it's all about finding the right balance.
I don't think having parallel stories is the problem. Parallel stories work fine. I think the problem starts when Lando's men surprise the Imperial troops and he asks them to 'quietly' take them away. This is Star Wars, not a spy movie. In Star Wars, stealth is rewarded with action, not more stealth. It should have been an ambush to match the one in the Detention Block in ANH (with music appropriate to ESB's tone, of course - or no music at all).

Besides, most sequences in any movie struggle to match the "excitement" of seeing Luke finally go up against Darth Vader.
I don't think that's it. Escaping in the Millennium Falcon is a very exciting scene. It just doesn't have the build up to make it climactic. I think the action in the sequence as a whole just started too late.

At the very least, Leia's escape still needs to be depicted in case so as to set up the moment where she shows up with the Falcon to save Luke - it may not be capital-E exciting, but it still serves a narrative purpose and its juxtaposition against Luke dueling Vader helps the pacing of the latter sequence.
Oh, I think Leia's escape sequence is essential! It just had a poor start. It should have started with an action scene.

Also, you're going to have elaborate on how exactly Vader's revelation isn't "set up properly"... it's not like it doesn't get foreshadowed at all (albeit with cryptic imagery such as the bit in the Dagobah cave where he sees his face in Darth Vader's helmet).
Vader's obsession in finding Luke was never truly addressed at any point in the film. The most logical place to do this would have been Vader's conference with the Emperor. The Emperor should have questioned Vader's motives at pursuing Luke at such a high cost to the Imperial fleet, which the audience would have been wondering as well.

It needs to be revealed that Vader's motives are personal. Even if the audience suspects this already, it should be re-emphasized and the best place to do it is here. By not addressing the audience's puzzlement over Vader's destructive obsession, their 'fragile involvement' in the film would have been broken - even if just for a moment - causing the middle act to drag a bit.

...it's meant to be a reveal that shocks us as much as it shocks Luke (who has no reason whatsoever to suspect that the father he thinks is dead is actually the Emperor's legendary right-hand man).
I agree. But in order for a surprise ending to have it's intended impact, it has to be set up. Vader's revelation to Luke was not. The result was that audiences were bewildered, not shocked - which isn't what you want.

Besides, I was under the impression that Empire wasn't received that well at the time because it was such an incredible downer of a story compared to the bright hero's-journey fun of Hope.
That was probably true for many of the fans and the people in general but that wouldn't have affected the critics. The bigger problems lie in the film's execution. The inherent flaws in the pacing in Act III and the twist not being setup properly is what I believe kept it from being hailed as a masterpiece.



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I actually thought that the 3rd act was the strongest, and the second act was the weakest for me. The reason why the second act was the weakest, was because I felt that it had these subplots which meandered the story, such as C-3PO needing to be put back together which didn't add anything. And the Falcon ship was stuck in that meteor esophagus for too long.

I read on wikipedia that it got mixed reviews upon it's original release though, which is surprising.

But it is still a very good movie, and my third favorite in the series, after ROTJ being the first, and ANH being the second.



i agree, it was a weak third act yes, but nonethe less enjoyable, for me the saga hit the prime in empire strikes back i guess everyone agrees



I felt that it had these subplots which meandered the story, such as C-3PO needing to be put back together which didn't add anything.
That subplot is in the 3rd Act. Act III starts with that subplot.

And Han and Leah were only in the meteor for 3 scenes. Like was on Degobah a lot longer than that.



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Two things that give ESB the most staying power imo are

A. How well characterized and comfortably acted the main trio is. In the first one they feel slightly more like stock characters and in the third they're often reduced to being players in larger-scaled set pieces

B. The music, which has more unique/memorable bits than any of the other movies. Even the less "iconic" tracks elevate something like the still-pretty-good-on-its-own-merits asteroid chase into something more

The third act has my favorite two moments in the series "I Know" and the final shot which is just killer. The stakes of the Leia/Threepio/Chewie/Lando getaway do feel kind of low I agree, but the whole backdrop of Cloud City makes up for that to me. Also calling the Vader/Luke thing not set up enough seems unfair since the movie spends a lot of time on that before the "reveal"



Also calling the Vader/Luke thing not set up enough seems unfair since the movie spends a lot of time on that before the "reveal"
I completely agree with you as far as the characterization and music go. Empire definitely has more going for it than against it. It's my favorite in the OT.

But how do you feel that the movie "spends a lot of time on [the setup] before the reveal"? And if it was properly set up, why did the big surprise so underwhelm audiences in 1980?



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I was 24 when it came out. I'd already read an offhand reveal in Cinefantastique magazine about Darth Vader's identity which I didn't believe before the movie was released. I saw the movie on the first day, and I still didn't believe it - I thought Vader was lying. But I can tell you that the reveal was not underwhelming to the audience at that time. The actual ending seemed anti-climactic though after that bit.
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I'm in the same boat, I feel that personally, A New Hope is the more enjoyable movie, and the best one in the series. It's more enduring, more inspired, and it feels more complete considering it wasn't the first one in an extremely popular series at the time, it wasn't A New Hope yet. It was just Star Wars! I can sort of get behind how the final moments just seem like a bridge to the next film, a continuing problem that still exist today in modern blockbusters. However, I cannot get behind the idea of the third act being weak in general, some of it's just way too strong to go that far, at least to me.



I can sort of get behind how the final moments just seem like a bridge to the next film, a continuing problem that still exist today in modern blockbusters. However, I cannot get behind the idea of the third act being weak in general, some of it's just way too strong to go that far, at least to me.
Completely understand. There's definitely some strong stuff in there. It's just not paced as well as the rest of the movie. Often times a writer will rush the ending because of a deadline it he's just tired of the material. I think that's what may have happened here.



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Completely understand. There's definitely some strong stuff in there. It's just not paced as well as the rest of the movie. Often times a writer will rush the ending because of a deadline it he's just tired of the material. I think that's what may have happened here.
Thats what you think happened and fair enough. My opinion is that it's the strongest and most emotional of the films, including the third act and I have revisited it often, sometimes with and without my rose tinted glasses. I wasn't aware that it wasn't as critically acclaimed as the first upon its release but thank you Iro and I agree with most of Iro comments relating to this. The third act is impressively brave in its narrative, seemingly evil trumping good, dark tone, and emotional power which all logically and superficially flow. The reveal is relatively subtle and works well for repeated viewing. Obviously a big deal having Darth Vader as Luke's father yet I dont feel the whole movie should have been a lead up to this, now hugely famous pop culture moment, as there's more than this going on. Having said that, trying to replicate it in ROTJ was dissapointing and a gimmick which is not how I see the original reveal. Again I would have to disagree with you, the music, the pace, the dialogue, the story, all very strong and fluent with the film as a whole, I would be close to calling it a masterpiece. If anything the writers mucked up with ROTJ, again relating the Leia gimmick, the Ewokes although originally I think they were meant to be Wookiees and others things i can't think of.



Thats what you think happened and fair enough. My opinion is that it's the strongest and most emotional of the films, including the third act and I have revisited it often, sometimes with and without my rose tinted glasses. I wasn't aware that it wasn't as critically acclaimed as the first upon its release.
I'm definitely not narrow minded toward other's opinions. I agree with you that many of the strongest moments in the OT are in this installment. I also agree that it's the most emotional. It simply has pacing problems mostly in the 3rd Act, and the surprise ending wasn't set up properly and therefor didn't have it's intended impact.

You're free to disagree, of course, but if you read the critics' reviews in 1980, very few of them were impressed. Empire Strikes Back is the lowest grossing film of the entire saga, out all 8 films! It was only after repeated viewings that ESB came to be appreciated - once people got over (or forgot) their initial feelings toward it.

Why do you think that is?

The third act is impressively brave in its narrative, seemingly evil trumping good, dark tone, and emotional power which all logically and superficially flow.
There are definitely many impressive moments in the 3rd Act. The duel between Vader and Luke is perfect. It's Leia and Lando's escape from Cloud City and the build up from when Han and Leia are turned over to Vader to Han being frozen in carbonite that were botched.

The reveal is relatively subtle and works well for repeated viewing.
This is my point. It only works well for repeated viewings - once you already know who Darth Vader is. It doesn't work very well the first time around, I believe, because it wasn't set up properly like a good surprise ending should be.

Obviously a big deal having Darth Vader as Luke's father yet I don't feel the whole movie should have been a lead up to this, now hugely famous pop culture moment, as there's more than this going on.
It would be inappropriate for the whole movie to be taken up with giving hints to the big reveal but the whole movie is taken up with Darth Vader's obsession with finding Luke Skywalker, even to the Empire's great expense, so it needs to be addressed at least once before the reveal.

The most logical place would have been Vader's conference with the Emperor. The Emperor should have echoed the audience's thoughts and asked Vader why he was using and risking all of the Empire's resources just to capture Skywalker when the rest of the rebel force were fleeing in the other direction. Then it could be revealed that Vader's motives were personal.

Again I would have to disagree with you, the music, the pace, the dialogue, the story, all very strong and fluent with the film as a whole, I would be close to calling it a masterpiece.
I'm afraid you've misread my post. I never said the film was bad as a whole. I even admitted it was my favorite. What I said was that it isn't as structurally solid as ANH. It has pacing problems "in the 3rd Act" and the surprise ending "wasn't set up properly." If it weren't for these main flaws, ESB would be a masterpiece and excepted so in 1980.

If anything the writers mucked up with ROTJ, again relating the Leia gimmick, the Ewokes although originally I think they were meant to be Wookiees and others things i can't think of.
Yes, RotJ is definitely the weakest of the OT. I could go on with the myriad problems in that sequel! As a side note, I don't think the addition of the Ewoks was a problem. It's actually a good idea. They provide perfect character arcs for 3PO and Chewbacca and Leia as well.

It was the way they were given too much screen time and too prominent a role in bringing down the Empire that audiences couldn't swallow and ultimately lead to many fans' resentment, causing them to begin to hate the Ewoks altogether.



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I liked it up until the furry convention, and Luke's NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO was cringeworthy. Otherwise it was pretty fun, but for me nothing will come close to the first in the franchise.

How was the carbonite scene botched? I dont recall having an issue with it.



I am one of the "It is all one movie/story" guys.

If part 2 sucks then it hurts part 1, if part 4 is great then part, whaaa? There are no better "parts or worse "parts"

It is ALL ONE conglomeration of sci-fi fun.

I love AND hate all the movies. They all suck and contribute, in different ways, the storyline is moved, like it or not.