Yes, this Star Wars day I’m reviewing the big one.
With the original STAR WARS, George Lucas discovered that magic formula. But because he stepped back from his creation, the first sequel grew beyond him and became the most balanced and emotionally resonant film in the entire series, and a clear fan-favourite. It also used to be the darkest and most complex too, but then the divisive LAST JEDI came out and brought with it some moments that made the finale of Empire look positively straightforward and jolly in comparison. While I’ve probably seen Empire more than any Star Wars film (I agree that it’s the best by quite a margin: no bucking the trend for me) I still get that same unadulterated thrill I got when I watched it on VHS as a child.
The evil Galactic Empire has regrouped after the loss of their ultimate weapon the Death Star and a fleet lead by the merciless Darth Vader (David Prowse/James Earl Jones) drives their rebel foes out of hiding. As Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) goes searching for Master Yoda (Frank Oz) in the hope of completing his Jedi training, Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) flee for their lives with the vengeful Imperial forces in hot pursuit…
A lot is made of the challenge of getting Ford and Fisher to fit in the same shot given the foot in height difference. I’m sure it was fun getting Hamill and Peter Mayhew in shot together as well considering their height difference is half again what it was between the star-crossed lovers. When Vader enters Echo Base he doesn’t look quite as badass as his introduction in the previous film as he can clearly be seen watching where he is stepping (after Prowse tripped and faceplanted on a previous take). Another less cool Vader moment has him order his ship to divert to a clearer sector of space so he can get full space-phone signal. Let’s be honest, a lot of the Degobah stretch is muddy (storytelling as well as scenery-wise) but we now know keeping characters’ understanding of the Force as vague and generic as possible works better than the Prequels’ over-explaining of everything.
Empire features my favourite scene transition in Star Wars: wipe edit from “We’d better start the evacuation” to the amassing Imperial fleet and the slow reveal (via all-encompassing shadow) of Vader’s Super Star Destroyer and the first use of John Williams’ unimpeachable “Imperial March”. I also love in this scene how quickly Vader re-asserts his authority not only to his men, but to us the audience after ending the last film in such an undignified position. While the officers squabble about the latest batch of probe data, Vader takes a quick glance over their shoulder and immediately knows “That’s it, the rebels are there!” and orders a swift, surprise attack. No other Star Wars film gets across Vader’s relentlessness and chilling clarity of purpose as well as Empire, from his casual offing of clumsy and stupid subordinates to wonderful sardonic and not-so-veiled threats like “Perhaps you feel you’ve been treated unfairly?” In a lot of ways this is Vader’s film as he drives almost everything that happens in it.
The Battle of Hoth is the perfect Star Wars action scene, combining miniatures, stop-motion and live action elements so seamlessly it’s only just starting to show its age after 38 years. It’s also a hell of a lot of tense fun. The climactic lightsaber battle from atmospheric carbon freezing chamber to claustrophobic maintenance tunnels and out to the yawning chasm over Cloud City’s outer shell for that revelation is perhaps the finest finale in any of the Star Wars movies. Williams’ score is also his richest and most memorable work over eight movies of rich and memorable work. The galaxy far far away is sorely going to miss him after EPISODE IX.
The little character details Irvin Kershner added to make our heroes feel less like a typed page of script rushed through hair and makeup certainly helps the key moments of character development to land. Dialogue becomes more fluid, ebbing in and out and overlapping with action as apposed to stopping dead when someone has to do something (with Lucas’ writing you can practically still see the stage directions). Han manages to thump the Falcon lights back to life before attempting more permanent repairs in the bowels of the shipping all while never once letting it interrupt his argument with Leia, Chewie and Threepio. Han and Leia’s blossoming romance only works because Kershner worked on Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan’s script, and with the actors, so they sounded human. All the best movie romances start from a point of loathing until, try as they might, all resistance breaks down and they give in (“I love you” / “I know”).
There’s a reason this has become the go-to great sequel template: it expands its universe and grows its characters with far more humour and pathos than the film it followed. Have fun revisiting whichever Star Wars episodes you choose to, unless you’re the kind of sicko who chooses to watch ATTACK OF THE CLONES again. May the Fourth be with you. SSP