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Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back

#652 - Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back
Irvin Kershner, 1980

When the members of a rebel group are scattered during a battle with the forces of a totalitarian regime, one of them must learn an ancient warrior code while his friends go on the run.

If you were to ask the average movie-goer to name a sequel that was superior to its predecessor, then The Empire Strikes Back is liable to be one of the most common answers you would receive. Re-watching Empire for the first time in I don't know how long shows that, in a lot of ways, it's prone to the same flaws that would threaten to sink any other sequels. For starters, there's the fact that it's pretty clearly intended to be the middle part of a trilogy; though this isn't exactly an obstacle to it being a great film (you could make the same case for Evil Dead II, which is one of my all-time favourite sequels), it perhaps feels a bit too fundamentally transitional to truly stand out on its own merits. This much is definitely true of each of the three heroes' arcs that develop in the aftermath of their victory against (but not over) the Galactic Empire at the end of the previous film. Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) is still intent on learning the ways of the Jedi and must separate from his friends to do so, traveling to the swamp planet of Dagobah to learn under the guidance of wizened master Yoda (Frank Oz). Meanwhile, Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) are forced to make a hasty escape following an Imperial attack on the Rebels' latest home base on the ice planet Hoth. Between their belligerent romantic tension and the various risky maneuvers they have to take in order to survive, they arguably provide more of a straightforward plot to follow than Luke's extended training montage. All the while, Darth Vader (David Prowse being dubbed over by James Earl Jones) remains in constant pursuit...

One of the reasons why The Empire Strikes Back is so heavily lauded is due to the depth of the characterisation on display, adding complexity to certain superficially simple journeys. Luke's earnest desire to become a Jedi ends up being more challenging than he expected as he must not only contend with the physical rigours of his training but also the psychic toll it takes as he must confront his inner demons in the process. In doing so, the film definitely develops Luke far away from the wide-eyed farmboy he was in the last film. Han may not be the same self-serving mercenary that he was in the last film, but that doesn't mean that he is totally free of his checkered past, which comes back to haunt him in a truly devastating manner. Leia arguably draws the short straw as her arc is intertwined with Han's instead of standing on its own; having been established in the first film as a fairly capable freedom fighter in her own right, this time around she isn't relegated to merely being rescued but instead gets to serve as the idealistic foil to the cynical Han. To this end, Ford and Fisher provide good chemistry whether they're snapping back and forth at each other or steadily accepting their feelings for one another even in the most unforgiving of circumstances.

While familiar side-characters like Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), and R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) don't have similarly significant arcs, they still bring the same level of charm that was present in the last film. Vader also gets his motivations and background fleshed out further, helping to make him more complex than his obviously villainous appearance and actions would imply. The film is lean on new characters, but what few new ones it does introduce are good. Though Yoda's initial appearance and mannerisms threaten to cement him as comic-relief (and, to be fair, his first scene is still pretty funny), Oz naturally steps up and embraces the mentor archetype, providing a sensible mixture of stubbornly strict training methods, oddly encouraging words beneath his distinctive syntax, and of course plenty of signs of emotional depth beyond his outside appearance as a tiny, half-crazed hermit. The other main addition is Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams), the charismatic former associate of Han who has managed to leave behind the criminal lifestyle and build a legitimate business for himself. Though he starts off as a smooth-talking charmer, certain story progressions also give him a strong character despite his relatively limited appearances. Even minor characters become noteworthy - while Boba Fett became iconic despite his brief screen-time and relative lack of action, I think credit has to go to Captain (later Admiral) Piett (Kenneth Colley), who puts a very human face on the people working for the Empire as he must bear witness to Vader choking his colleagues to death on a regular basis while trying to avoid the same fate himself.

In attempting to juggle two separate narratives for the bulk of the film, The Empire Strikes Back can't help but lapse into some rather episodic plot structures. The first act takes a while to get going as it begins with Luke being attacked by a yeti-like creature and getting rescued by Han, though it does provide a memorable action set-piece as the Rebels must evacuate Hoth while fighting off Imperial invaders. From there, Luke's adventures on the swamp planet of Dagobah have a clear progression, though they are a bit oddly-paced and also seem to move slowly even when it's for reasons that do make sense within the narrative. Meanwhile, the plot following Han and Leia as they try to evade the Imperials in the face of technical difficulties and serious desperation does come across as a little padded. The entire sequence where they hide from the Imperials by flying the Millennium Falcon inside a cave-riddled asteroid is arguably the biggest offender in this regard, though it is at least redeemed by the fact that it provides a quiet breather and room for character development. Things do pick up once they arrive in Cloud City and the film begins to build towards its conclusion, but that's to be expected. Even then, inter-cutting both the climatic duel and the climatic escape can't help but feel imbalanced as one is definitely more interesting to watch than the other. At least nothing here feels as unnecessary as the Jabba the Hutt scene that was included in the original film's special edition.

Another favourable quality about The Empire Strikes Back is that its special edition has the least obtrusive alterations of the trilogy. Though you can pick some flashy additions to certain establishing shots or action scenes, it's handled with nuance and discretion so as not to stick out like a sore thumb as it does in the other films. The art direction and set design are impressive as always; while ice planets and swamp planets may not provide anything too distinctive, the detail put into their construction is still apparent even before the film reaches the sleek white corridors and gloomy orange-and-black factories of Cloud City. The action is definitely upgraded as well - the climax delivers a very promising lightsaber duel that overshadows almost everything else in the film, though the aforementioned Hoth sequence is also very impressive and I think I might honestly prefer it to the climatic dog-fight that served as the climax to the original film. John Williams also ups the ante as he not only provides new reiterations on the original film's score but also comes up with some solid new additions, especially the iconic "Imperial March" that serves primarily as Darth Vader's leitmotif.

Though I will concede that The Empire Strikes Back is still a film that can't quite stand apart from its predecessor, that hardly seems relevant as it amply builds upon the established world and characters to provide a film that at the very least measures up to one considerably high standard. It goes into darker territory without getting bogged down in vacuous nihilism, while the somewhat haphazard plotting is more than compensated for by the strength of many individual scenes. Characters that once filled broad archetypes are given greater definition and even new ones are granted surprising levels of nuance. Meanwhile, the space fantasy setting and its mythology that was only teased at earlier is expanded in ways that admittedly threaten to collapse in on themselves but fortunately work to sustain a film that goes above and beyond the high adventure promised by the original.