- Vancouver, British Columbia - As a kid, I remember having a particular dislike for The Empire Strikes Back. I always thought it was the lamest of the original three, generally characterising it as boring and uneventful. Yet, when I had watched it nearly five years ago, I remember coming away from it with a new appreciation, as if it the whole Star Wars legend made a whole lot more sense as a result of it. The debate around which is the best film of the three seems to be generally divided by those who hate The Empire Strikes Back and those who love it. I don't hear many people coming from an opinion that is indifferent about it. Nevertheless, this review will seek to weigh in on the second installment of the original trilogy.
The Empire Strikes Back tells the story of a Rebel Alliance that is still celebrating a great victory over the Empire after having destroyed the feared Death Star. The Empire seeks to make the Rebel Alliance pay a price for its resistance, leading to it sending out probes throughout the galaxy to find where the rebels are hiding. Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), meanwhile, is directed by Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) to seek out training from Yoda (voiced by Frank Oz) in order to become a Jedi, as it is apparently vital in the fight against the Empire and Darth Vader (voiced by James Earl Jones). Han Solo (Harrison Ford), however, needs to go pay off his debts to Jabba the Hut, while Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) is still calling the shots for the Rebel Alliance. I wish I could say more about Han Solo and Princess Leia's plot line, but theirs are a little unclear in the beginning of the film beyond resisting the Empire.
In The Empire Strikes Back, we gain a much better understanding of the workings of the Force, but sadly, it is essentially revealed to be little more than a borrowing of Eastern mysticism. It is strange, because on one hand, the involvement of the mystical Force in the story line can be quite strong. However, when it is reduced to its elements, it isn't that interesting of a concept. When one considers the powers of the force, it sometimes makes one wonder why Luke doesn't simply use the Force for everything. He often resorts to it when he is in a dire situation, when it is far more powerful than any of his visible weapons. Darth Vader, however, appears to live by it, preferring it to manmade weapons. In many ways, the Force is more appealing in A New Hope, because it is so much more mysterious and we don't know what can truly be achieved with it.
An element in The Empire Strikes Back that yours truly finds to be irritating is the romantic subplot between Han Solo and Princess Leia. It is among the most forced and irrational storylines in the whole trilogy, and while some cheer the romance, it is executed in such a way that it looks even stupider and more unnatural. It never feels like Leia is simply playing hard to get, but that she actually hates Han, but he is simply too thick to pick up when a woman doesn't dig him. And when they kiss, it is hard to not roll one's eyes. There is almost zero chemistry between the two throughout the film and the romance can be painful to watch.
The introduction of Yoda is enjoyable, particularly with the voice acting of Frank Oz, who is among the most gifted men in the business. As a kid, I remember being bored out of my mind with the training scenes in which Yoda educates Luke about the Force. As an adult, I understand the significance more so and I can appreciate it more. The saga needed a new angle, and it freshened up the series. A character that doesn't really make himself appealing is Lando. Even with how he turns to supporting the Rebel Alliance in the end, he is never particularly likeable. The film doesn't do a very good job of painting him as a pragmatic individual who is just trying to survive. We never really get the sense that he finds himself in a hopeless scenario, but that he is trying to convince our heroes of it instead. I know what he is a part of in Return of the Jedi, but as a character in this film alone, he leaves something to be desired.
The visual effects in The Empire Strikes Back are a vast improvement over those in A New Hope, but this shouldn't be entirely surprising when one considers what a massive financial success its predecessor was and how that translated into a more flexible operating budget for the production of the film. Plus in the most current release of the film, we don't really see much of any CGI effects being forced into the scenes. There was one scene early on in the film where it looked to be the case, but I was relieved that we didn't see much more of it throughout the film, or at the very least, if it was present, it wasn't so obnoxiously noticeable as it was in A New Hope.
The Empire Strikes Back improves over A New Hope with a much more impressive storyline. While A New Hope creates an entertaining hero myth around Luke Skywalker, The Empire Strikes Back shows more signs of preparing us for an epic battle to come. We know in the end that Han is not dead, and we also know that Luke is not about to give up in his fight against the Empire, even if Darth Vader is his father. At the end of A New Hope, I remember getting the sense that we're supposed to feel some level of finality to the story. I don't know when The Empire Strikes Back was green lit as the sequel to A New Hope, but I tried to watch A New Hope as a stand-alone film and in many ways, I felt like it was meant to be one with the opportunity that maybe it'd lead to a sequel, while not marrying itself too much to that hope. Of course, when the film initially released, it wasn't titled "A New Hope," but simply Star Wars.
The Empire Strikes Back is an improvement over A New Hope, while still not being perfect. With George Lucas no longer being in the director's chair or behind the writer's typewriter, it has a significantly different feel. The plot feels like it embraces a fantasy adventure feel so much more convincingly, which would seem to reveal Lucas' limitations in the writing department. The terribly cheesy lines and dialogue are not as common in The Empire Strikes Back, though there are still some present. George Lucas has no doubt had an immense impact on cinema through Star Wars, but that doesn't mean he is well suited to writing, directing and producing each installment of the saga. The Empire Strikes Back is an example of how a film can be sharper when other creative minds are consulted in the process.
Rating: 4/5 Sour Grapes