WFTB Score: 14/20
The plot: Darth Vader’s obsessive pursuit of young Luke Skywalker forces the Rebel Alliance away from the sanctuary of their base on Hoth. While Han Solo and Princess Leia try to escape the clutches of both Vader and bounty hunters, Luke follows Obi-Wan Kenobi’s posthumous command to find Jedi Master Yoda on Dagobah. He’s amazed by what he discovers, but Luke has a much greater shock in store…
It may have looked as though Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) had struck a decisive blow against the Empire when he destroyed the Death Star at the climax of Star Wars; but Darth Vader (Dave Prowse and James Earl Jones) escaped, leaving him free to pursue his particular interest in Luke, in whom the Force is strong. Meanwhile, the young man is earning his battle scars protecting the Rebel base on the ice planet of Hoth, though he’s still dependent on the heroics of Han Solo (Harrison Ford), whose pressing need to flee the clutches of Jabba the Hutt is balanced against his equally urgent desire to woo (or wind up) Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia. When the Empire’s inevitable attack arrives, Luke, Han and Leia – together with old friends Chewbacca, R2-D2 and C-3PO (Peter Mayhew, Kenny Baker and Anthony Daniels) – help the Rebels to escape; but while the Millennium Falcon crew (including Leia) brave an asteroid belt to avoid capture, Luke answers the call of his late mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) and travels to Dagobah in search of Yoda. Luke’s initially astonished to find Yoda (Frank Oz) is a wizened little green creature with eight centuries under his belt, but a quick demonstration of Jedi powers convinces Skywalker to stay around for training, R2-D2 chiming in with electronic commentary. Luke’s senses are troubled by visions and he races off, convinced that Han and Leia’s lives are threatened by Darth Vader; but how can this be, when they have reached the safety of Cloud City and the hospitality of Solo’s ‘friend’, Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams)?
The problem with reviewing a film as famous and as obsessively loved as The Empire Strikes Back (or Th’Empire Strikes Back, as I fervently hope they call it in the north of England) is that there’s a massive weight of orthodoxy bearing down on the review. Peer pressure virtually insists that I describe the film as better directed and better written than Star Wars, simply because George Lucas handed the directing reins to Irvin Kirshner and got Leigh Brackett to pen the screenplay (Lawrence Kasdan worked on the script after Brackett’s death in 1978). Well, to hell with peer pressure – but I agree.
To a degree. To deal with the direction first, there does seem to be a more cinematic bent to the film compared to Star Wars, particularly in the thrilling battle on Hoth, which allies aerial photography and stop-motion animation to wonderful effect as Luke and friends battle the fearsome AT-AT walkers. This sequence is worth the price of admission alone, but Kershner also finds time to concentrate on the personalities; to my eye at least, his use of close-ups lets us know the characters’ emotions to a much greater extent than Star Wars (and witness the eerie scene of Luke fighting Vader on Dagobah, only to find he has cut his own head off). Watching the Special Edition*, it’s tempting to generalise and say that Lucas is more interested in the big picture than the ‘human’ stories; but would this movie have looked much different if Lucas had directed it? I doubt it very much. That the film looks more polished and has snappier, more involved action scenes (on Hoth and in space) is probably down to the crew perfecting techniques they learnt making Star Wars and, as a reward for the phenomenal success of that film, a bigger budget.
This is true of the screenplay too (and remember, Lucas still wrote the story). Th’Empire presents a group of fighters on the back foot, living on their wits to escape the clutches of an immeasurably stronger enemy. Everyone has grown up in the years since Star Wars, and the mood of desolation and gloom (especially on Hoth) is fitting. Fisher and Ford have grown into their roles, while newcomer Billy Dee Williams competently portrays moral ambivalence by effectively wielding his swishy cape. The more adult sensibility, for example Han keeping Luke warm in the entrails of an animal, or the dubious looks on the faces of Vader’s hastily-promoted Generals, goes a long way to making this film a more satisfying experience than its predecessor. Additionally, free from the duties of exposition, The Empire Strikes Back can get straight into the heart of the matter. Will Han and Leia declare their feelings for each other? Will Han live to fight another day? (The Carbonite freezing process is inspired.) Why is Vader so keen to bring Luke to the dark side? On that topic, Vader’s increased presence is very welcome, as he is a superb villain, fully deserving of his iconic status. Luke and Vader’s battle is exciting and tense, as is the white-knuckle aftermath. As for the film’s big reveal, that secret must be the most spoiled spoiler in movie history, but you won’t hear it from me (just in case) and its impact at the time of the film’s release should not be underestimated. Of course, John Williams’ score is as strong as ever, robustly reinforcing the visuals.
Then there’s little Yoda. Unless you’re a hardcore Jedi nut, the Force is really just an alternative name for super powers or magic, and its mythology is only interesting if you have a financial interest in Lucasfilm. But in his puppet and vocal work, Frank Oz makes the funny green creature a real delight, tinged as he is with echoes of both Fozzie Bear and Miss Piggy, yet still able to convey immense sadness. It’s just a shame that he’s pitched against sulky Mark Hamill, who still lives up to his role of ‘kid’ and is outshone by just about everyone, including the bleeping tin can he travels with. Also, while the creatures on display are generally of a higher quality than in Star Wars, I wasn’t enamoured with the snow monster, or the fact that the Millennium Falcon hides inside a giant space worm. And there are still an inordinate number of silly hats.
So, yes, I will follow the herd. The Empire Strikes Back is the best Star Wars film, with the best action sequences, best lines (Leia: ‘I love you‘; Han: ‘I know‘), and no Ewoks. On the other hand, it’s still not pitch perfect – it sags ever so slightly in the middle, and the darker tone throws 3PO’s camp carping into unwelcome relief – and as the middle entry in the series inevitably feels incomplete. Second movie, second time lucky, but the second coming of cinema? Not by a long chalk.
NOTES: As was the case for Star Wars, the Special Edition is only a partial success. Here, computers have cleaned up the film (especially matte lines) to great effect; but in the creation of a much busier Cloud City, the filmmakers only make the new effects look fake, and the old scenery look cheap.