Sunday, January 1, 2017

Star Wars 5: The Empire Strikes Back (1980, Movie Review)

        Every once in a while comes a movie that changes the way we look at movies, and the 1980 motion picture “Star Wars 5: The Empire Strikes Back” is one of those gems that changed the way we viewed movie sequels, which I’ll discus in more detail in just a moment. This film is widely regarded as the greatest entry in the entire Star Wars cannon and is often labeled as one of cinemas greatest movie sequels of all time. But I’m here to share my own personal opinion on this film, not what everyone else thinks. So how do I feel about “The Empire Strikes Back”, well, obviously I love this movie, and consider it a great classic, but I honestly find it to be the least great of the original trilogy. That’s not to say that I have any major problems with this movie, I just don’t enjoy watching it as often as the other two films. It doesn’t have quite the same charm of the first, and it doesn’t leave as powerful an impact as the third, but it’s still pretty damn good. 

     Here’s the set up, after Luke Skywalker destroyed the Death Star in the last film, he’s led many Rebels to take action against the Empire, and now his actions have put him on the top of Darth Vader’s hit list. Now Vader’s obsession to capture Skywalker leads him to go full force in bringing down the rebels, and caught in the cross fire are Han Solo, Princess Leia and the rest of Luke’s friends who just can’t escape the looming shadow of the Empire. Meanwhile, Luke is contacted by the spirit of Obi-Wan Kenobi, who sends him on a mission to find a Jedi master named Yoda, who can complete his training. The film then falls into a slightly repetitive pattern, as we frequently cut back and forth from Luke in his training, to our other hero’s on the run, and Darth Vader on the hunt. It’s not bad, in fact the pacing is very good, and we spend just enough time with each group of characters to make it work. It’s just that the story telling here can feel a little repetitive at times and that’s an issue that the other two movies didn’t have.     

    Here’s another minor problem I have with this set up, sense our hero’s are separated throughout the majority of the film, they don’t get to interact with each other like did in the other films. In fact, has anyone else ever noticed that Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia never talk to one another throughout the whole movie, sure there’s moments when their briefly seen in the same room together, but they never actually get in a conversation or exchange dialogue with one another. Thankfully, Han and Leia’s relationship is very subtle and effective, which balances out. I do love watching our hero’s constantly on the run, because as we follow them on their adventures they almost begin to feel like family, and the Millenium Falcon begins to feel like a home. Another ace up this movies sleeve is Darth Vader who’s now in full command and more badass then ever. He isn’t following under the orders of Governor Tarkin like he was in the first film or looming in the shadow of the Emperor like in the third film, now he’s large and in charge. I especially love how nice and shiny his helmet is this time as opposed to that dull rusty look of before.

      Another highlight is the new cast of characters that have become celebrated Star Wars icons among fans. One of my personal favorite characters is Lando Calrissian played by Billy Dee Williams. He’s first introduced as an old friend of Han Solo, and provides for our hero’s, only to betray them to the Empire. While that was a low blow, you never get the feeling that he’s a bad guy, or that he has bad motives, and you can clearly see how much his actions are ripping him up inside. Thankfully he dose prove himself a loyal friend by aiding our hero’s in their escape. The characters story arch is good enough, but it’s the actor Billy Dee Williams who’s just made of awesome, and brings the character to life with so much wit, charisma and charm. 

     Now let’s talk about that mysterious masked bounty hunter called Boba Fett, who’s tasked by Darth Vader to hunt down Han Solo and his allies. Well, he doesn’t do a whole lot in the film and Gorge Lucas never meant for him to be anything more than a cool looking background character, yet his legacy has expanded so much through comic books, video games and novels that he’s become a cult icon. Yes, he’s a personal favorite of mine too, which is baffling because he does so little in the movie. Sure he captures Han Solo, which leads into the next film, but he doesn’t really interact with the characters, never fights anyone, doesn’t do anything particularly bad ass, and yet he still leaves a big impression. Maybe it’s his cool design, maybe it’s that voice, or maybe it’s the fact that he’s the only stand out supporting villain in the series. Either way, Boba Fett is just plain awesome, and his story has grown so much in the expanded universe that it just makes me wish he had a bigger role in the actual film series.     

      But the best character who completely steals the show with every scene he’s in of course is none other than Jedi master Yoda. Holly cow, I firkin love this character, and apparently a lot of other people do too because he’s probably the second most marketable character in the series behind Darth Vader. His look and design was just perfect and who better to supply both the voice and puppet work for the character then Frank Oz, who many probably know best as the voice of Miss Piggy. I especially love how Yoda is introduced, first he comes off like silly comedic relief, then he starts to get a little mysterious and maybe even a touch scary as he warns our hero of the dangers and fears he’ll face. Then we finally see him as the wise and motivating teacher that he was built up to be. Personally, I think he might just be the greatest wise, fictional character of all time and everything he says is so humble and honest that you just hold on to everything he says. Who can forget his classic line “NO, try not, DO or do not, there is no try.” 

      One very important thing to note is John Williams musical score, which has always been a strength of the series, but now it’s even more fantastic than ever, thanks to all the bonus tracks he composed for the film. Personally, I think “The Empire Strikes Back” has the most classic music in the entire Star Wars series, including Han and Leia’s relationship music, Darth Vader’s classic empyreal march theme, Yoda’s mystical overture music, Cloud Cities haunting score, and my personal favorite is the overture music that’s herd when we first see the snow speeders, I always get so hyped when I hear that score. I also love that all three acts of the film have their own distinct locations. For act 1 it’s the frozen world of Hoth, for act 2 it’s the swampy world of Dagobah and for act 3 it’s the high-tech world of Cloud city. This is personally my favorite location of the entire series, Cloud city has an awesome design and the sets are still very impressive to look at today.

   Of course the highlight of the movie by far is the battle on Hoth. It is so firkin cool, I never get tired of seeing this. The Imperial walkers are simply the greatest battle vehicles of all time, and I love that their actual models with moving parts as opposed to all those CGI weapons we see now a-days. The tension is great, the buildup is great and after all these years, this battle still thrills. Unfortunately, nothing this spectacular ever happens again in the movie, which was a real problem when I was a kid. Going from a larger than life battle like this to all the talk with Yoda was so offbeat that it just got boring, and I often found myself turning the movie off, which never happened with any of the other films. Thankfully, now that I’m older, it’s not that big a deal, mostly because the story and characters still hold up very well. Actually, the rest of the action is still very good. The space ship chase in the asteroid field was great, I mean holly cow, we have ships dog fighting in a outer space, that’s awesome. There’s also an exciting encounter with a giant space slug that Han Solo mistakes for a cave opening.

      The climax is a big event, but it’s also really subtle. Princess Leia and the group fight of storm troopers in the city while Luke battles Darth Vader in their first light saber dual. It’s definitely an improvement over the last films dual as they cover more ground, but it’s not the dual itself that gets us hyped, it’s the classic twist reveal of Darth Vader being Luke’s father that really gets us thrilled. The movie then closes on a nail biting cliff hanger as the hero’s have been split up, Han is missing, and the galaxy is in worse shape than ever.   

     In many respects, this is the classic middle chapter that would set the template for several franchises to come. The middle chapter is the darkest and liveliest, with everything going wrong, the villains take over, the hero’s are beaten, and it closes on an epic cliff hanger that leaves audiences anxious for more. Even though “The Empire Strikes Back” wasn’t the first movie to create this formula, it is the film that most middle chapters from other popular series would try to duplicate, sometimes with success and other times they come off like pail imitations. The weakest Imation I can think of in recent years was “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest”, which followed the exact same formula down to the letter, but without any of the substance or humanity. On the opposite side of that coin, many franchise have beaten “The Empire Strikes Back” at its own game. The best I can think of was the season 2 finally of the TV show “Avatar: The Last Air Bender”, which had a story and series of events that were eerily similar to “The Empire Strikes Back”, and yet I felt it put this movie to absolute shame in its delivery, with darker twists, stronger character conflicts and one hell of a tense cliffhanger in which the hero’s really lose everything.  

      Before I sign off, let’s look at some of the special edition changes. I think this one has had the most favorable changes that fans aren’t as picky about. Subtle touches to the battle of Hoth were great, and I love the touchups on cloud city, giving it a hauntingly glowing sun-set for a backdrop, which allows for some really nice colors. I also like that we see more of the snow beast in the opening. In the original, he was kept off screen like in “Jaws”, which is okay, but this isn’t a monster movie and the scene is only two minutes long, so it just feels more satisfying to see this creature in all its glory. The most controversial change was with the hologram of the Emperor. In the original he certainly came off as more mysterious and creepy, but the actor wasn’t the same guy that would play him in the following films, and that always distracted me. So I’d rather stick with the 2004 DVD edition that inserted the actor from “Return of the Jedi” into the film, which just feels more appropriate to me.     

      Overall, “The Empire Strikes Back” still holds up remarkably well over the years. I still think it’s the least great of the original trilogy, but it still does everything a good sequel should do. It ups the darkness, develops the characters further, livens the story, introduces a cast of terrific new characters, and stands apart from its predecessor. Definitely a classic sequel, and one of the high points of the Star Wars legacy.      

I give Star Wars 5: The Empire Strikes Back 4 ½ stars out of 5, sorry if that’s not enough for you.   

           To Be Continued...

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