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The Empire Strikes Back

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1980

‘…unsatisfying by design…’

Is it OK to feel less-than-enthused about The Empire Strikes Back? Regularly vaunted by fans as the best of the Star Wars films, it’s a technical miracle, features a beloved cast, and has more than a fistful of iconic moments to savour. But Irvin Kershner’s beloved film has issues of its own; by offering an open-ended story, it smashed the convention of a film being satisfying in itself, and opened the door for today’s muddled world of reboots, remakes and re-hashes.

The Empire, of course, famously got booted up and down the street at the end of Star Wars in 1977, and strikes back in no uncertain style by tracing the rebels to the ice planet of Hoth. After twenty minutes of Luke (Mark Hamill) getting lost in the snow with Tauntauns and snow-beasts, he’s re-united with pal Han (Harrison Ford) and gal-pal Leia (Carrie Fisher) as Darth Vader commands his troops to attack in the form of the AT-AT Imperial walkers. Round about the 40 minute mark, Luke spins off the Dagobar system to a Jedi- boot camp under the tedious tutelage of ancient puppet Yoda (Frank Oz) while Han, Leia, Chewie and the droids try and stay one step ahead of the empire by hiding in an asteroid field. It’s hardly a spoiler to say that Vader catches Luke’s friends, and uses them to set a trap for Skywalker, one that Leia tips him off about by shouting ‘it’s a trap.’

The Empire Strikes Back is unsatisfying by design. The Rebels Get A Kick Up The Backside, with Luke’s arm sliced off, C3PO left in bits, and Han frozen into a block of carbonite, potentially dead. Those seeking to grow up with the saga loved the dark, adult tone without an Ewok or a Gungan to placate smaller kids, who were understandably gutted that the Rebels lost. The cast were mostly battling with well documented personal issues, and all appear somewhat subdued here compared to the other films; the effects are often brilliant, but generally variable, and the story moves by fits and starts. Even the bad guys who get introduced here didn’t last for long; Boba Fett hardly proved a villain for the ages, falling deep into a big hole 20 mins into the next film….

Questions remain. Why does Darth Vader freely discuss Annakin Skywalker in the third person without admitting that he is Annakin? Why, given that Vader built camp robot C3P0 as a kid, doesn’t he recognise the same robot when it turns up on Cloud City? Those who read the Splinter of a Minds Eye novelisation after Star Wars came out will know that George Lucas didn’t know either; the romance between Luke and Leia had to be removed once it was decided that they were brother and sister, leaving their passionate kiss somewhat high and dry here. The Empire Strikes Back may be a key film in the Star Wars franchise, but unlike the original, isn’t a stand-alone film in its own right. And while there’s lots to enjoy here, it’s a shame that it created a franchise template that wasn’t about pleasing the audience, but selling them on something else further down the line. This galaxy may be long ago, but in terms of resolving the stories involved, any notions of audience gratification have gone further away with each confusing rehash of these characters…

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  1. Interesting to see someone write about the movie’s flaws. Good for you! No movie is beyond criticism (I say the same to fans of The Dark Knight!). Anyhow, the thing is that you can’t take these movies too seriously. Like all franchises, the Star Wars films have continuity problems because not even Lucas could predict the longevity of his creation. Speaking of Lucas, he created some of the biggest plot holes with his sloppily written second trilogy (as you said, it doesn’t make any sense to have the androids in the pre-sequels). Apparently, J.J. Abrams didn’t learn anything from Lucas’s mistakes.

    • JJ getting this wrong is more surprising given that it seems to have been prized off Lucas so another team could make a complete bodge of it. The continuity is terrible, but the rot starts here. The notion of a family saga was not in the first film, and each course correction knocked two other elements askew.

      I do like The Dark Knight, but the last half hour isn’t beyond criticism.

      • Well, in all fairness to Lucas et al, SW is was sold as a space-opera, and just like any TV soap-opera, they made it up as they went along.

        BTW, J.J. also ruined Star Trek’s continuity with his new films. Why not create an entirely new story with new characters set after Next Generation? ST: Discovery completely destroyed what was left of the ST canon.

  2. “Why, given that Vader built camp robot C3P0 as a kid, doesn’t he recognise the same robot when it turns up on Cloud City?”

    ^ This one can be blamed on the prequels’ retconning of the original trilogy.

    “Those who read the Splinter of a Minds Eye novelisation after Star Wars came out will know that George Lucas didn’t know either; the romance between Luke and Leia had to be removed once it was decided that they were brother and sister, leaving their passionate kiss somewhat high and dry here.”

    ^ Ex-producer Gary Kurtz freely admitted in interviews that he left “Return of the Jedi” over creative differences with Lucas. Kurtz also said that Leia was never intended to be Luke’s sister; same with that midichlorian nonsense in “The Phantom Menace.”

    • Cool, I’d wondered about Kurtz’s departure. It all gets a bit murky when watching retconned versions, since one never knows what information has been added after the event. Both of these issues seem to be to be the result of a childish desire to twist everything into a family saga, when the best films worked without these connections. I guess this is why most films and tv show have a tight ‘bible’ to keep everything right.

  3. As a fan who’s into some of the more obscure parts of the franchise, like the old EU canon, I’m not a fan of how we’ve put this film on this impossibly high pedestal, and I think part of that is because it’s such a culturally significant film/an important part of film history.

    Per why Vader refers to Anakin in the third person, my understanding is that Vader was a completely alien persona created by the fact that he had done unforgiveable things (just exactly what, no one knew when the film came out … it would be decades before we’d learn of his killing of younglings, how he thought he killed his wife, and most of his close friends). This is expanded in both canon and the old EU works, and that’s kind of the issue with Vader’s characterization; most of the really interesting things about his character were fleshed out far after the OT came out, like for instance how a large source of his power as a Sith comes from his hatred of himself.

    It’s a shame, too, because the sequel trilogy does rely heavily off of this retroactive development, but doesn’t really introduce it well. Namely, Kylo Ren’s obsession with Vader but rejection of Anakin Skywalker only makes sense if you understand Vader as a persona separate from Anakin.

    • Oh my, that makes sense but also it doesn’t. It seems to me as if that dialogue from Empire just doesn’t fit with the ‘twist’ of Anakin being Luke and Leia’s father, and we’ve now had at least six movies and innumerable books, comics and more trying to retcon that scene. For me, there’s small continuity errors, and then there’s massive ones that knock the whole canon universe into a cocked hat, and this is one of them. So does nobody else know that Anakin was Vader? Has Ben forgotten too? That all seems hard to swallow.And yet your answer is the only one I can come up with, and it’s pretty convoluted. I guess my takeaway was that even as far back as Empire, the series was already struggling to resolve plot tangles that only get worse the more effort is made to explain them. As noted, when JJ calls me, I’m going to suggest a reboot from before Empire, and just have Luke, Han and Leia as freedome fighters against the empire, and not have all this daddies and mummies stuff. There’s zero about ‘family’ in the first film, and that’s the way I like it.

  4. you think your Paddington Bear folks are going to be upset! 🙂 Brave of you!
    Star Wars is a difficult film series. For folks like myself the canonical films grew worse with each iteration. By the time Ewoks arrived, indeed, we were snorting with derision. This film was actually one of the better ones in the long tale of crappy films. There was the heritage of martial arts films, there was still the minor love story between the princess and the hero (to be tossed away as if being created by the seat of the pants), and there was the fantastic ATAT. Granted as a teenager these things hit the spot and never could really again.

    My favorite nominal follow on the franchise was Rogue 1. Wonderfully put together, stylishly upgraded, and very enjoyable. Also, no baby yoda.

    • I hear you, and I have Rogue One down as the second best in the canon. But many seem to feel that the rot set in with Jedi, while I feel that there are signs here of an uncertain control. But yes, the AT-AT’s are like nothing seen before, and the mood is gloomy and gritty. I guess that’s why at this point, the Ewoks got their own films so the rest of us could ignore them. I’ve yet to hear a good word about these little critters…

      • there’s a particularly schmaltzy moment with the Ewoks when after much cute teddy-bear war damage done to the empire – we’re treated to a sad Ewok rolling a dead Ewok over and grieving. Huh? Were we supposed to be worried about them? I thought they were teaching us war is fun! :p

        • I’ve seen both Ewok movies, and the efforts to spin pathos, meaning and gravity from these evil looking teddies have to be seen to be believed.

  5. Bold review. Get set for a tsunami of Paddington bear proportions. I suspect that watching it on the big screen cuts down the number of objections but that isn’t an option readily available. You certainly make some good points but I would have to watch it again to come out wholeheartedly on your side.

    • Just dropping off my will to my lawyer this afternoon, will probably have my car brakes tampered with by Ewoks.

  6. First off, let’s make it clear that I love this movie and I really liked this piece. For years I’d have told you it was favourite film ever, back when I was able to answer that question. I don’t think we can judge it for continuity issues that have arisen with later films but our acceptance of theses inconsistencies may be what has lead to the shaky levels of concern shown for everything flowing together in the most recent trilogy. The dour ending of Empire is part of what makes it great and if it had aimed to stand alone then this would have been truly audacious, as it is it may have lead to Hollywood’s bad case of sequelitus. The only real problem is the giant space worm that almost swallows the Falcon, I’ve had a problem with that since I was 7.

    • I guess people were wowed by the space worm back in the day, but not me. I get that it signified the anything goes imagination of the franchise, much like the cantina sequence, but I just don’t get that a savvy type like han wouldn’t know his beloved ship was swallowed. He’s pretty blaise about everything else, surely he’d have seen this before?

      And yes, I wish all the Star Wars films had this dour tone and serious feel. I really missed it when it was gone. Rogue One was the film that caught that vibe. Empire IS groundbreaking, and game-changing, but I guess anything that leads to Jedi, with it’s cuddly-toy reprise of the first film, strikes out just a little…thanks for the support, I anticipated Paddington 2 levels of hate from the community!…

  7. The Star Wars Trilogy kept me entertained for hours as a child. Its not a perfect franchise, but that’s why I like it. It looks like Dune is the next step in evolution for a Star Wars fan and I can’t wait for that.

    • I think a lot of people fancy Dune for exactly this reasons. can’t imagine there’ll be Ewoks in it.

  8. Thank You (x3)! I’ve argued these exact points since the film came out in 1980. So little happens here. It’s just 20 minutes of snow battle, followed by 40+ minutes of Luke in training + Han/Leia running away, followed by 20 minutes of cloud city. The only thing if interest is the “revelation” that Darth Vader is Luke’s father (Darth=Dark, Vader=Father, anyone?). But the ending… it was more of a beginning. I’ve always argued that it was a placeholder and as such is a bad film – when measured on it’s own merits. I know people who stop the video after Luke is rescued – and watch the end of “Empire” as the beginning to “Return…”.

    I maintain the only good Star Wars film is “A New Hope.” The rest are fan service. (Well, EPs 1-3 were Lucas developing digital cinematography, but I digress).

    • I re-watched this last weekend, and am only recently evolving my thoughts to the place you already are! But I’m beginning to feel that Star Wars 2, as it was anticipated in 1978, was split into two bits and the first bit was Empire. And like Kill Bill, Twilight and Hunger Games, splitting one chapter into two is not a winner. Empire just doesn’t have the shape of a story, it’s mainly just irrelevant stuff. And we know from later films that you don’t have to sit in a swamp with Yoda to get Jedi powers; Rey gets them without any training at all. All the contradictor stuff that comes later ruins Empire’s worldbuilding….I thought it was just me, so thatnks for your comment, Greg, cheered me up to know I’m not the only one!

  9. I can’t look at the original trilogy at all objectively as I was obsessed as a child, even though that child found the Ewoks in Jedi embarrassingly infantile. But it seems unfair to criticise a film for the inconsistencies of the Films of Star Wars Yet To Come. As a six year old I was thrilled by the idea of Vader being Luke faaaather, what a twist. And wasn’t Lucas really doing it for the kids, at least before he started doing it for the grown up kids? As for the story arc plotting, the three SW trilogies are a weird mix. The original trilogy might have been loosely outlined if Lucas is to believed but there was enough malleability for it to remain intriguing, at least until the damp Jedi with recycled ideas and sickly cuteness. At least it fares better than the over-plotted prequels and as for the messy latest batch, any semblance of narrative consistency was sacrificed for the battling egos of the two directorial visions, the sum is less than the parts. But for six year old me, Empire can do no wrong.

    • ‘Unfair’ is my middle name. Totally get that this is a cut above most Star Wars films by dint of tone and iconic moments, and there’s no arguing with 6 year old you. I just noted in another conversation that Star Wars 2, as it was, feels like it was split into Empire and Jedi, and neither has the content required as a full feature. Lucas seems to have been talked out of the films aging with the audience, and told to skew towards little kids, which totally threw me off at the time. But the first film is the one that I feel is worth obsessing about, I guess it depends on where and when you saw them…

      • Very true – Empire was one of my first cinema experiences. As for target age, I reckon Empire probably is aimed at kids slightly older than Star Wars (New Hope), as it has a darker tone and the ending is a downer – no instant gratification as the credits roll here. Obviously Jedi aimed at the cuddle toy market as much as the action plastic figures market.

        I suppose I don’t feel as a general rule the middle part of a trilogy must necessarily be self contained or have rip-roaring finale, as long as it keeps the story moving and sets up the final part. So by that measure, Empire works fine, even though it certainly isn’t self-contained, and it expanded the universe and mythos (we only really saw Tatooine, the Rebel base and the Death Star in the first). My recollection is that it moves at a fairly good pace, even if it might not have enough overall content as you mention.

        But admittedly, I’m going from nostalgia and faded memory here. One day I must dig out my dusty DVDs with the non-anamorphic, unrestored but unaltered original versions, peer through the low-res murk and watch with a fresh pair of eyes.

  10. Some thoughts from a former Star Wars fan.

    1) It was only Luke’s hand that got cut off, not his arm. Let us be accurate in our descriptions, shall we? Because movies are that important 😉

    2) You are right that this was not the original story. When the collectible cards came out in the 90’s, they had a whole slew of “sketches” from ideas that Lucas had bandied around and man, they were all over the place. In regards to the other commenter who claimed Lucas had no trilogy written, I have to disagree. I think he had the big plot points. But the smaller things were definitely made up on the go. Once again, this is inferred from the CCG and other sketches that have been released over the years.

    3) re: not being a fan of Soap Opera. Star Wars is/was Space Opera at it’s core. It wouldn’t BE what it is without the family drama of Anakin, Darth Vader, Luke and Leia. I think that Lucas leaned too heavily into this in the prequels, but not in the original trilogy. It was satisfyingly clear and direct and held out hope and redemption even when Evil seemed in total control.

    4) retconning. This is why true Star Wars fans watch the ORIGINAL trilogy as it was released in theatres. It’s why I sought out the gold bordered legally questionable dvd releases, as what Lucas released on dvd changed things to fit his vision from the prequels. The prequels themselves simply show us the kind of philosophy that Lucas has in regards to movies. The newer supersedes the elder even if it makes no sense and destroys the past. Lucas started this process with the release of the “Special Edition” versions of the original trilogy on vhs back in the 90’s and that would have been fine if he’d stopped there. But he continued changing things on the fly when it suited his needs. Look at the Extended Universe, the book side of things, to see how that turned out. 25 years of books and stories and characters all tossed aside in a moment so he could do what he wanted with the sequel trilogy. So Lucas has shown that the past simply doesn’t matter to him so it shouldn’t surprise us that we sees flashes of that even in the original trilogy.

    I think that’s enough. Otherwise I’ll descend into a downward spiral of bitterness and hatred 😉

    • Great comment, I’ll deal with a couple of points before returning…

      1. In the original cinema version, the thing of Luke’s that Vader cuts off is his child support, not his hand. This was changed in future DVD versions to his vestigial tail.

      2) if I was in charge of the Star Wars universe, and just as well for the world that I’m not, I’d scrap everything after the first film as non-canon. There’s zip-all in the first film to suggest any of these characters are the same family, and it never made sense to me. There are lots of great family dramas, but there’s nowt in the first film that screams family saga.

      More controversial views to follow.

            • I’d shoot anyone first, it’s the Han Solo way. So my point is there’s no family drama in the original Star Wars. You just had to imagine who all these characters were and what brought them together. The notion that they are all the same family doesn’t work for me. So I’d rather scrap all the other films and just focus on making a series of popular, self-contained films featuring the various exploits of the rebels in conflict with the empire. Keep the vibe the same as the first film, no soap opera reveals. Lucas created characters that most of us love, he just wasn’t great at sequel-ising them. It turned out to be more difficult that it looked.

  11. A lot of the narratives make no sense because A New Hope was thought to be a stand alone film, and when it became a blockbuster they (Lucas) were sort of just making shit up as they went along. Lucas claimed he had the whole trilogy written down , but I sort of have my doubts. By the time young Anakin had created C-3PO Lucas had already lost his goddamn mind and was just shoving in “cute” ideas anywhere he could.

    • Lucas may have had a trilogy written down, but this clearly isn’t it. I’ve looked at it from several angles and there’s no way it makes sense for Vader to have built C3P0. Zero. Thanks for the comment, glad it’s not just me that cannot figure out these plot points…

  12. I believe it’s been a week, so I’m back! First of all: “Is it OK to feel less-than-enthused about The Empire Strikes Back?” No. No, it is not OK at all. It’s an enduring classic, the best of perhaps the best franchise ever made. Unlike A New Hope, say, it’s darker and much more interesting. It’s not simply good vs evil, but a more complex narrative. Its iconic, and rightly so, in my humble opinion. “I am your father”, one of the greatest reveals ever? Yoda? Han Solo in carbonate? The Rebels taking a beating was pure genius!

    • Ok, but not a problem that the character motivations are badly improvised and would never be clear again? That the film ends on a ‘to be continued’? That it no longer works as a stand-alone film OR as canon, since subsequent films retconning have made nonsense of the story? And it’s all a big trailer for Jedi, which was rubbish. Edit the bad bits out of Empire and Jedi and maybe make a good film out of what’s left. Not keen on Vader being Luke’s father, turns the whole story into a soap opera…apart from that, it’s fine.

  13. The Star Wars movies should have been my thing, I saw the original three and they never hooked me in, I did see some of Phantom Menace but only because I’d played a sit down video game of the pod race and had a great time. Don’t remember much else about it. Were movie franchises a big thing before Star Wars?

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