Sunday, December 20, 2015

The Empire Strikes Back (1980) Review

The Empire Strikes Back is a masterpiece and in my opinion, the real reason why the series became a cultural phenomenon. Whilst the first movie was a wonderful adventure film that tingled many filmgoers' imaginations, this one is a work of art and takes the whole franchise to a completely new level.

Here, we see that fun, imaginative world expanded. Instead of just a clear-cut journey from one place to another and an explosive finale at the end, our heroes are separated and hunted down like animals by the increasingly obsessed Darth Vader, whose attentions have turned on young Luke Skywalker. The heroes are caught off guard and have to survive and escape for the majority of the movie instead of fighting.

Luke, whose training was cut short, is sent by the ghost of Ben Kenobi to the murky, swampy planet of Dagobah with R2 to meet Master Yoda, an 800-year(or more) old Jedi in exile. There, Yoda puts him to through multiple mindbending tests to determine whether he really has it in him to defeat Vader and the Emperor. Meanwhile, Leia, C-3PO, Han and Chewie are relentlessly pursued by the Imperial fleet as their hyperdrive is damaged and have to conceal themselves within an asteroid field. As time passes, Leia and Han develop their budding relationship.

It's the intricacy of the plot that really makes this movie for me. This isn't a jazzed up 70s sci-fi flick anymore, this is the very reason why Star Wars is described by Wikipedia as a space opera. It's a deep, thoughtful film and manages to build a proper mythology for the series. Not backstory, mythology. The previously fantastic element of the Force becomes by something different, something deeper. I don't know what to call it, but when Yoda spoke of the Force surrounding us, I could almost feel it myself. It wasn't just telekinesis anymore, it was all-encompassing, like God. Perhaps that's what the Force is... God's influence. Perhaps the Jedi and the Sith are like angels, chosen by the Force to bring justice to the galaxy. Some choose good, some choose evil.

The friendship of Han, Leia and Luke has become a strong, deeply-rooted family between the two films and you can see they've been together long enough to develop a symmetrical relationship, with jokes and meanings that nobody else is likely to get. And before you ask, I'm not counting Chewbacca since that would also mean counting C-3PO and R2-D2 and they haven't really changed since the previous film and are not emotionally tethered to the plot. They're important to the team, but as backup players.


Mark Hamill has improved considerably as Luke Skywalker, who now has a position of authority in the Rebel Alliance. Though he still has his cockiness(which Yoda comments on), he is clearly an adult and doesn't face Vader out of recklessness, but out of personal dedication to his friends over the Force.

Harrison Ford as Han Solo is great. Whilst his macho behaviour towards Leia can be cringeworthy, it makes the scenes where we see his real feelings all the more meaningful and beautiful. I also love how he's sort of a mentor to Luke in addition to being his best friend, a continuation of his offer to Luke at the end of Star Wars to come and join him on the Millennium Falcon.

Carrie Fisher's Princess Leia might be the only returning character I didn't entirely enjoy. In the last movie, we see her as a strong, competent and slightly posh politician and sparks flew between her and Solo almost instantly(also with Luke, but... you know). I liked the way she could suddenly pull the carpet from beneath Han's legs, yet appreciate his ways when things got tough. Here, however, it feels more like Sean Connery and any old Bond girl. She's not tough and independent, she's "tough and independent", but Solo's obviously gonna get the girl. Yes, the scene where Han is frozen in carbonite is heartbreaking and I wish we had more of that romance, but Han's actual wooing her is just sort of creepy.
I also hate how she completely refuses to listen to Lando's side of the story and immediately treats him as a traitor when it's obvious that Lando was only doing what was best for his people and was facing freaking Darth Vader!

Speaking of the former, this is Billy Dee Williams's debut as Lando Calrissian and wow, he was never this annoying when I was a kid. Seriously, he's like Han, but without Ford's subtlety, just constantly showing off and wearing every emotion on his sleeve. His looks to Leia... eugh. Also, his first lines("Why, you...") were badly written, true, but the delivery was equally bad. I don't know if I've just outgrown him or what. As a kid, he was cool and suave and he still is likable, but... he's just really bad. Sorry.

James Earl Jones returns as Darth Vader and boy, does he get menacing. In the previous film, Vader was a cool villain, kind of like General Grievous in Revenge Of The Sith later, but here he turns downright terrifying, particularly in his iconic confrontation with Luke Skywalker in the carbonite chamber. He only has two modes of fighting: disinterested and furious as hell. At first he toys with Luke, learning about him, tiring him(NOTE: I spent over half a day trying to figure out the word for "entertaining to buy time" and I still can't bloody do it) and then when Luke starts becoming even a slightest threat, completely rams him with attacks until he is beaten, bringing Obi-Wan's and Yoda's fears into reality. And then that reveal... I've seen it before, I've known it since childhood and it gave me such chills...

Frank Oz is magnificient as Yoda. It's actually quite funny how different he is in this film from how the public has come to perceive him. In his original incarnation, Yoda is not an intelligent, old, constantly frowning Jedi Master who likes to tell other people how they feel, but more like an eccentric mr. Miyagi. He's cranky, weird and in a way, tired. You can see he's lost so much that the Force is the only companion he has left. So when Luke shows up, he doesn't take any of his crap and only trains him at Obi-Wan's request, even though he's supposedly their number one chance of beating the Emperor.

Speaking of the devil, we also briefly see the Emperor in this movie in a perfect introduction scene where he calmly discusses his plans with Vader. It's a quiet and mysterious scene and a terrific counterpart to the Luke/Yoda scenes. Clive Revill and Elaine Baker make one hell of an impression and their portrayal of the Emperor is one of a subtle holographic cloud of malevolence, looking down on Vader with taunting, monkey eyes. As much as I adore Ian McDiarmid's portrayal in the other movies, I kind of wish we'd have seen more of him.


Whilst John Williams always composes a cool, dynamic, yet memorable score for every movie, likely none of them are as well-remembered and brilliant as the Darth Vader theme, the Imperial March. It's a masterpiece within a masterpiece, a haunting, dark and brutal piece of music that fits the character to a tee.

The special effects in this movie obviously prosper from having a significantly increased budget thanks to the popularity of the first one. There's still a few moments where you go "ohhh, that really doesn't look good now." such as the Wampa scene(one of the few really good Special Edition changes) and the AT-AT walkers done with stopmotion animation.

But there's no denying that on a visual level, the movie looks glorious. The sets are magnificiently thought out, semi-surreal and colorcoded, making them just futuristic and memorable enough to work. Balance is the key here and this film has it down pat. The environments seen in this film are alive, each with their own soul and atmosphere.


All in all, the film is, as Obi-Wan would stay Star Wars's first step into a larger world and one of the most classic blockbusters of all time.

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