I have stated multiple times that at one time this was my absolute least favourite movie within the series as a whole. When i watched it as a kid it was only because i had grown bored watching my copy of The Phantom Menace and would pop in The Empire Strikes Back out of sheer boredom. In viewing it i remember that i got up a lot of times to fast forward through all the boring crap (The kissing, Luke’s bitching and moaning while he trains etc.).
It was only recently that i viewed the film with a more mature mindset and was able to finally see the reasons why this is considered the best entry of the series.
(i do apolgise for the change of font at the bottom of the review, whenever i copy paste these things from word something terrible always happens and i’m not going to retype this all…)
For starters and as i previously mentioned, the SFX here are a lasting testimony to the glories of traditional special effects and what they could achieve before computers took over. All of the ships move gracefully with a palpable sense of speed and momentum, the AT-AT walkers on the flip side lumber and lurch with all of the weight you would expect of a machine of that size. It builds on the early experiments of A New Hope and leaves that film in the dust with technical wizardry alone.
To compliment the improved special effects, the film has a wonderful visual design. The cinematography is sharp and the lighting is suitably moody and lends the appropriate atmosphere to each of the sets and scenes. It has a tremendous blend of vivid contrasts of silhouettes and colours all working together: Darth Vader’s black and towering form in the pristine city in the clouds, or the marshy wet lands where Luke learns the truths of the force are examples that come to mind.
Star Wars has always been more Lord of the Rings then Star Trek and this movie i’d say has a lot to do with that feeling. Where as A New Hope is essentially a break into the castle and rescue the princess affair, it still really retained a distinctly science fiction atmosphere. In Empire the scenes involving Yoda in the swaps of Dagobah really bring to mind the feeling of other fantasy movies like Willow or the fire swamps in The Princess Bride, and although the force is introduced and plays a pivotal role in the original movie, here the test of the cave makes the force a tangible, touchable power, and Luke’s visions of the suffering of his friends extends what the force could be used for, as a result it is further spiritualised and more fleshed out than in the previous film.
Most importantly (for me at least) the characterisation of Darth Vader was overhauled and improved by the changing of his demeanour and the unshackling of him being a subordinate of Grand Moff Tarkin. In A New Hope he was always greasy, and yelling cause he was angry in a childish attempt of intimidation. He although showing his power with the force, was always held in check by the commander of the Death Star and as a result although visually more interesting seemed to play second fiddle to him.
In contrast to his showing in the original film Empire has him transformed into a sinister being by wiping that disgusting grease off (lending him an ominous metallic and inhuman visual appearance, and showing a hint of what is underneath the mask gives him an even more horrifying undertone), having him lower his voice and show his anger as a barely contained rage just simmering underneath the surface of an emotionless exterior (he always seems to be talking to his officers through clenched teeth), and actually having him call the shots results in having him have more depth and more importance to the plot. All of this adds up to an extremely memorable villain that is head and shoulders better than his presentation in the previous film.
Despite, the fact that with this outing they have more or less corrected everything i found to be an annoyance from the previous film there is still one major flaw that i simply can’t get over: Han Solo.
I once again just can’t get into this guy, he remains a arrogant, impolite asshole that i just can’t see the appeal behind. Not to mention that his sexual harassment of Leia honestly just nails home the fact that he is unequivocally a douche bag. Which is a source of some confusion and represents in my opinion a double standard when people talk about the prequels. This being specifically the fact that i’ve heard/read the complaint that we aren’t shown enough that Obi-Wan and Anakin are friends and have to assume that they have saved each other countless times and have developed a deep friendship beause they say so to each other. Well honestly i see that being played out here; i don’t see how anyone could assume that Leia has any feelings for Han other than that of a strained friendship. I am supposed to just assume a back story that i didn’t see play out in A New Hope that somehow makes it clear that she could even start to fall in love with Han. Out of the two movies i honestly get the impression that she will eventually choose Luke over Han as her mannerisms towards him show some level of affection that may turn into other feelings.
I can already see the counter argument that this is the story that tells about how Leia falls in love with Han. But again it comes down to the fact that Leia is more or less forced by Han to fall in love with him. He manipulates her by adding inflections and words into her conversations that are rebuked immediately and without a modicum of hesitation on her part. She does give Han a wistful look when he announces that he is leaving to avoid more bounty hunters, but any sense of romantic undertones is annihilated by Han’s stand offish attitude when not getting the response he wants from her. Then when Leia is alone and isolated on his ship he (uninvited i may add) invades her personal space, makes his advance, and steals a kiss. It is only after this scene that i can see any sense of affection or doubt that Leia has for her feelings of Han.
Whenever i watch this film i just want to grab Han by the shoulders and yell: “NO MEANS NO YOU FUCKING ASSHOLE”. I really get the feeling that Han just wanted Leia and he plays his little games with her until she is completely confused about it all until outside circumstances finally force her into relenting and saying “I love you”. Now this may all well be the intended point of this particular arc, but i really just can’t get behind someone who takes a person and pesters and manipulates their object of obsession until they can have them all to themselves. That’s what Frank T.J. Mackie teaches in Magnolia and i don’t like that at all.
As i mentioned previously, this duel improves upon the duel in A New Hope in every way possible. Its better choreographed, its setting is more interesting visually and thematically, its better shot, and it also carries more meaning towards the overall plot and symbolism of the series as a whole.
With the choreographer himself stepping into Vader’s shoes, then fight itself feels more natural, although Mark Hamill does swing a bit awkwardly, i’m more than willing to write it off as just a lack of practise on the part of the character. In place of bland gun metal corridors we have the duel unfolding in a hellishly decorated manufactorum, that then moves into a catwalk suspended over a giant chasm, my explaining of how this is better than A New Hope is unnecessary. With the better choreography in place the camera can relax and pick the proper angles to emphasise the motion of the characters and therefore relate the action much better than in A New Hope.
The thematic depth of the duel here i would say weightier than the previous duel. Not only does the Hero lose to the villain he also learns that Vader is his father. Luke quite literally goes through growing pains as he pays a severe price for his naivety and arrogance, On top of the physical punishment Luke loses his innocence when he is forced to know that the people that he thought were looking out for him hid some very important information from him about Vader. By the duel’s end he is a shattered image of his former self and is forced to grow up and realise that he wasn’t even close to ready to take on Darth Vader.
With all of the above this duel shows what an action scene can do for character and story development and it even looks good too!
With the improvements to visual design, directing, acting, cinematography, thematic depth, and narrative this really does stand as the best movie in the series. Its a shame that i only have come to appreciate it for the achievement it is only recently but i’d say better late then never.
However despite its pro’s the fact that my much reviled Han-Solo and his sexual harassment of Leia occupies much of the film, as well as the film’s necessary slow pace i really don’t find myself watching this one as much as i do the others in the series. And although my opinion of it has changed since i watched it the first time i still can’t fully shake the slight boredom that i get whenever i pop it in to watch it. As a result i give it a:
**** out of five stars