It’s been 40 years this month since The Empire Strikes Back was released, and for the most part the second film in the Star Wars series was dedicated as the best: the darkest, the most complex, the most mature. Directed by Irvin Kershner, this is the episode of Star Wars with the highest score of reviews on Rotten tomatoes (94%) and viewers on Imdb (8.7), and that which is supposed to elevate the saga as a whole. “It’s because of the emotions aroused in Empire”, wrote Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times when the film was reissued in 1997, “that the whole series takes on a mythical quality that resonates with the first and third. It is the heart. “
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I wish I could agree. It may seem like a contrarian take, but it seems obvious to me that the best film in the Star Wars series is, in fact, Star Wars. (I know we’re supposed to be calling it ‘A New Hope’ these days, but it was called Star Wars when it came out in 1977, so it’s pretty good for me.) Also, it seems obvious that the Empire strikes back is the source of all the franchise’s problems. Whatever problems we groan about when we discuss the many prequels and sequels, they can all be traced back to 1980.
I should add, before too many people try to stifle Darth Vader-style Force on the Internet, that I would not say that if I were not in awe of what George Lucas has accomplished as a writer, director and producer of the original Star Wars. This swashbuckling adventure! These emblematic characters! This world lived with its wealth of history, mythology, politics and technology! I’m not completely satisfied with Alec Guinness ‘toupee, but otherwise Lucas’ masterpiece becomes more astonishing with each re-watch.
Then came The Empire strikes back – a darker film, of course, but also slower, heavier, more artificial, convoluted and repetitive. Again, I am not evil here. In 1980, several critics were disappointed, including Vincent Canby of the New York Times, who said that the sequel was not “as fresh and funny and surprising and witty” as Star Wars. According to him, it was “a heavy, expensive, long and essentially mechanical operation”.
I wouldn’t go that far, but let’s be reasonable about it. The production design is clearly not at the same level as Star Wars. The rebel base on the ice planet is pretty much what you would expect from a rebel base on an ice planet; the plain white plastic corridors of Cloud City could have been recovered from the studio’s bins after the film Star Trek. These gaps are masked by the atmospheric cinematography of Peter Suschitzky. (Master of shadows, reflections and deep colors, he would continue to be David Cronenberg’s director of photography.) But even Suschitzky’s work on spine tingling couldn’t improve the derived story.
It betrays Star Wars, destroying much of the good work that was done three years earlier
Key Star Wars events include Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) knocked out by a savage alien; Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) captured by Darth Vader (the body of Dave Prowse associated with the voice of James Earl Jones); Luke discovers the Force of a Jedi master in an isolated cave; a lightsaber duel that ends badly for the good; a “scoundrel” abandoning the rebels before changing his mind; and a long battle between the ranks of the Rebel Alliance and the heavily armed Empire. Change the order of these events and you get The Empire Strikes Back. And while the writers, Lawrence Kasdan and Leigh Brackett, did a smart job of revising and redesigning our favorite scenes, that hardly compares to Lucas’ success in imagining these scenes in the first place.
“Set a bad example”
But this is where things get complicated. My complaint with The Empire Strikes Back is not that it sticks to the winning formula established by Star Wars: that’s what most sequels do, after all. My complaint is that it also betrays Star Wars, destroying much of the good work that was done three years earlier. My non-Jedi anger bubbles before even the first scene – at the start of the “opening ramp” of the introductory text, to be precise. “It is a dark time for the Rebellion,” says this preamble in prose. “Although the death star was destroyed, the imperial troops chased the rebel forces from their hidden base and chased them across the galaxy.”
Haaaaang a minute. “Although the death star has been destroyed”? “Although“? The sole objective of the heroes and heroines of Star Wars was to destroy the Death Star, a planetary spray spacecraft crucial to the Empire. One of their great cheeses announced that” fear from this combat station “would keep all dissidents in line. Another hailed it as” the ultimate power in the universe. “But now the rebel demolition of ultimate power in the universe is canceled with a” Frankly, that is not the case. And it is only the first of many cases in which the Empire strikes back asking us to pretend that Star Wars did not take place.
Remember this scene from Star Wars where an imperial admiral mocked Darth Vader for his “sad devotion to this former [Jedi] religion “? Forget it – because in The Empire strikes back, we are told that the emperor himself is devoted to the same religion. And what about Obi-Wan Kenobi? Do you remember how he got started training Luke to become a Jedi Knight in part because his former pupil, Darth Vader, turned to the dark side of the Force? Narrative logic demands that the ghostly Obi-Wan continue to train Luke in The Empire Against -attack and send his new apprentice to fight against his old one. Forget. The poor guy has cold shoulders so that Yoda can train Luke instead.
It twists the saga of politics to staff, from space opera to the soap opera
Watching Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back one after the other is like watching a hijacking: you see a juggernaut being held and led in another direction. You can feel that Lucas and his team are no longer focusing on the current film – they are preparing the third part of what would now be a trilogy – and they are no longer interested in star wars. Despite its title, The Empire Strikes Back rarely concerns the Alliance against the Empire, it is a question of who is linked to who and who is in love with whom (the two sometimes overlap). He twists the saga of politics to staff, from space opera to the soap opera. Is it possible to say if the Empire is doing better or worse at the end of the film, after all this supposed to fight back? Not really. None of this, apparently, compared to the burgeoning statement: “I am your father!”
If the Empire had been unique, I could have forgiven it now. But what about all the many films that have used it as a model – all the films that have tarnished Star Wars by contradicting its myth and obsessing over its family trees? Any of the boring dramatic revelations that have tried and failed to be as mind-blowing as the one on Luke’s lineage? I was annoyed when Qui-Gon Jinn was introduced to Obi Wan’s past in The Phantom Menace, annoyed when Rey became Palpatine’s granddaughter (or something) in The Rise of Skywalker, annoyed when the emergence of the all-conquering First Order in The Force Awakens reduces everything Luke, Leia and Han Solo have done to a footnote. But I accept that the writers and directors of these films were only following the bad example of The Empire Strikes Back.
It’s not just the Star Wars movies that made the exasperating mistake of prioritizing building franchises rather than just making a good movie, either. Sherlock Holmes’ sister or James Bond’s childhood friend. Think of all those superhero blockbusters that are wasting time preparing for the next episode in the series. I’m sorry, but the Empire strikes back for everyone. Seek your feelings, you know it’s true.
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