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…