Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back Review

This past week marked the 40th anniversary of Empire, and as followers of my Twitter account will know (@NathanKenMajor for those wondering) that it also won a little competition I put together called the ‘World Cup of Films’ beating out close competitors The Lion King, Alien and Parasite. 

While this is only a small testing pool, given my modest follower count, it is nonetheless a show of public affection towards a film that many, myself included, consider to be the best in the Star Wars series, and given the gaps of my Star Wars reviewing on this site (I’ve only covered the new trilogy) along with an over-abundance of free-time, I thought the time was right to revisit the galaxy far, far away, and take a look at the Original Trilogy; and as an ironic tribute to the series blase attitude towards release numbering, I’m going to review them in the wrong order.

Following the rebels victory in the Battle of Yavin, and subsequent destruction of the Death Star, the alliance are regrouping and planning their next move. Meanwhile, the Empire seeks to crush the rebellion in retaliation for the embarrassment of the Death Star. All the while Luke is seeking his next move on the path to becoming a Jedi…

The Empire Strikes Back is one of the best examples of a sequel; one that takes everything established by its predecessor and expands it, introducing new worlds, new characters and new threats.

Not content with just being more of what made A New Hope the massive success it was, Empire instead seeks to up the stakes of the great struggle for galactic freedom while embracing a darker aesthetic and themes.

Another thing that gives Empire the edge over Hope, is the use of a different director and writer. As great as George Lucas’ strengths are, they don’t include direction and screenwriting, as evidenced by the Prequel trilogy, and some suspect dialogue in A New Hope which only gets worse over time.

Instead, Lucas hands the directorial reins over to Irwin Kershner, a somewhat surprising choice at the time, I’m sure, given his lack of experience in big-studio filmmaking, his background was as a mostly independent director of dramas, this previous focus on character development would serve him well in this production.

While George Lucas was responsible for the story again, the script was written by Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan. The former being an experienced science-fiction novelist, and the latter going on to become somewhat of a Star Wars legend, as he would go on to write (or co-write) Return of the Jedi, The Force Awakens and Solo. This was the start of his relationship with the series, and it is very apparent that the film had a much more proficient writer at the helm, especially in the dialogue exchanges.

So, with these prior weaknesses accounted for and altered, Empire takes everything built for it by its predecessor, and ramps it up a few notches.

Starting with the all-time great opening of the Battle of Hoth, the story isn’t afraid to put the heroes on the back-foot throughout the runtime of the film, in fact, that’s a recurring theme, the Empire always seeming one step ahead this time, perhaps having learned their lesson from underestimating the Rebels before.

This really is a bold move in hindsight, as it makes our heroes look flawed and fallible, and therefore, more human and relatable. We can see now that their trust was too quickly misplaced, but it’s because these characters decide to trust that makes them likeable, and makes us all the more affected when something bad happens to them.

The story of Luke’s journey to becoming a Jedi is also expanded upon here. Following the death of his mentor Ben, he’s haunted by visions of his deceased master, and encouraged by these visions to seek out Yoda, one of the characters introduced in this film that would go on to be beloved staples of the franchise.

While Yoda’s backwards speech patterns would go on to become as easy on the ears as a rusty chainsaw running along a cast-iron fence, his mannerisms are more subdued here, eventually anyway, when he actually settles into his role as aged, sage mentor, and drops his crazy, hungry creature act he initially adopts.

Once he becomes the character we all know him to be, he becomes one of the film’s highlights, giving Luke some timeless words of wisdom, as well as encouragement when he needs it, and admonishment at all other times.

It is during his stay with Yoda that he has his first face-to-face encounter with ‘Vader’ in which he comes to learn that there is more of himself in his enemy than he thinks, given Luke a moment of existential crisis, as well as giving the audience a BIG hint about the twist that’s to come.

Everywhere else, it’s classic moments and developments as far as the eye can see. The seeds of Han and Leia’s romance are sown, Vader’s ruthlessness is ramped up, and the action is tightened all-around to give us the ultimate peak of the Star Wars universe.

I could go on forever talking about all that is great about Empire, I mean, I’m nearly 900 words in and I haven’t even mentioned Lando Calrissian! Or Boba Fett, for that matter, in fact, the whole Cloud City section is pretty much peak Star Wars, it has a bit of everything in there; action, character developments and plenty of twists-and-turns.

In terms of criticism, I do have some, although not a lot. Boba Fett starts on his trend of being under-utilised, for instance, depending on your own personal capacity for tolerating C3PO, you might find the sequence that focuses on him in Cloud City a bit grating, that for me is the biggest low-light of the film, and if that’s your film’s biggest problem, I’d say you were doing okay.

Performances are also incredibly strong, Mark Hamill, who had the look of a deer in the headlights in the last film, looks more assured in his role as Luke Skywalker, the more he seems to relax into the role, the more engaging he becomes, especially while he’s being put through his paces on Dagobah.

Harrison Ford comes dangerously close to being out-charisma-ed by Billy Dee Williams, but not quite, and Carrie Fisher shows more of her characters spirit that has made her beloved by generations of fans.

While the Star Wars fandom resembles a festering sewer 98% of the time, the one thing it seems to agree on is that Empire is the best, as evidenced by the recent marking of its 40th Anniversary, and for once, the fandom might be onto something. It’s everything that made A New Hope great but expanded and tightened, and we all love a tight expanse.

Yes, I do think Empire is the best Star Wars film ever, nor do I think it will be topped for the influence it had at the time and continues to have 40 years later. The franchise may have started with a bang in A New Hope, but it was perfected by The Empire Strikes Back.

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