Star Wars: Episode V- The Empire Strikes Back (1980) Review

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One of the best sequels of all time. My favorite Star Wars movie and my second favorite movie of all time. The Empire Strikes Back for many including me, is peak Star Wars. For the franchise this was uncharted waters of whether or not George Lucas could actually pull off making a successful sequel in an era where sequels weren’t that common especially successful sequels. He took a different route in bringing in a writer to help script in Lawrence Kasdan and bringing a director to direct his vision with Irvin Kershner. The advantage of this was that George was handing over the reins to a new crew to produce his vision but with more technical skill than what George himself has. The Empire Strikes Back ended up becoming the most successful sequel ever at the time and is widely regarded as the better film between itself and the original. It hosts what some would argue being the greatest movie twist of all time and “the last great movie twist”. It also ends on a cliffhanger with many questions left unanswered only to be revealed in another sequel. Ultimately this was a big gamble. Although the first movie ended up being a massive success, there was no guarantee that the sequel would perform as well as the original and ending on a note that requires the success of this film is bold and an incredible success. I actually have more fun with some other movies in this franchise, however Empire has always been my favorite. Does it hold up after rewatch?

This almost a perfect movie in my mind. It’s not your typical kind of sob story or based on a true story drama kind of perfect Oscar movie, but as far as a summer blockbuster goes, this is really the best of the best. This movie takes everything from the first movie and completely elevates it to another level. Going back to my feelings towards the previous movie, I couldn’t quite figure out why I always went to this movie first rather than go to the original to begin my rewatch. I think this is definitely a major reason why. While the original film is very good and a classic and in some eyes the best of the series, it’s this movie that absolutely elevates every aspect and brings us an overall better movie. It has more depth, more character, better action, and more iconic moments. It’s not the big twist that does it for me. It really is the character development and the depth that impact my perception the most. Following a timeskip we are brought back to our heroes who have taken more to their roles in the rebellion. Luke is more confident and not who he was when he first started his journey, but still clearly has much to learn. Han is still the overconfident smooth talking smuggler that is just trying to get away from the rebellion, but his plans are thwarted by his own personal feelings towards Leia. Leia isn’t just your princess in distress, she’s also more confident but with more genuine emotion than she had in the first film. Surprisingly she has more genuine emotion when going back and forth about his and her feelings than she does after watching her homeworld explode. That would be a point for Empire. It gives us these updated version of our characters early on in the film, but needs to set up moments and storylines for them to grow, but before that we open with an awesome action scene on the snow planet Hoth. The rebels aren’t going to win the battle so they begin their escape with Leia going with Han and Luke going on his own with R2.

It took only a few minutes into the movie for us to get Luke’s setup with the ghost of Ben showing himself and telling Luke to go find Master Yoda. While Han and Leia’s storyline sort of just happens, it is good that slowly elevates to being highlight moments for the movie overall. With Luke going to find Yoda, we know we’re going to get time for him to train to become a Jedi which means we’re going to get more depth and information into the Jedi lore. This is immediately and elevation over what we got in the first film. A New Hope set up the groundwork and the mystery, but it was Empire that took that groundwork and solidified a foundation for the Jedi that we know today and fall back on when trying to understand them. There is incredible depth with the symbolism and the meaning behind the meaning in Yoda’s lessons to Luke. Not only for Luke, but for us, this movie teaches lessons of a Jedi and lessons of the real world. A simple line from Yoda “Do or do not. There is not try.” This line alone says so much about perseverance and personal drive to accel at what you do and to keep pushing forward. Not to just do something with no confidence, but instead, if you can feel it to be true than you can do it. That was just one line. While I find some of the other films being good case studies, this one is a case study on a totally opposite spectrum. You could study everything about this movie from each individual line to how certain scenes are executed and interpreted. There are so many layers that you could get a different meaning each time you watch the movie.

This brings us to the “other” story. I say “other” because it’s clearly not as compelling as the Luke arc that is going on opposite of the Han and Leia storyline. They’re trying to escape the Empire because the Hyperdrive doesn’t work so we get some chase and some hide and seek, but all of it is to give time for Han and Leia to have moments to grow on each other more and to develop that deeper relationship. There’s nothing wrong with that because it is a logical progression of their characters from where we left them in the last movie, but I just wish they could’ve had more to do in the middle of the movie. I was never a big fan of the space slug and the bat like creatures in its stomach. This story only gets more interesting when they finally make it to Cloud City followed by a sneaky new bounty hunter. We get introduced to Lando Calrissian (Billy D. Williams) Who may be more smooth talking than Han. It’s a very interesting dynamic and angle to take because with every move Lando tries to pull, we can see the subtle push back from Leia and eye rolling from Han because they now both have those feelings for each other. The first unexpected twist is when we find out that Vader has beaten them there and has made a deal with Lando. It shows how grey this world is where we can have a new character clearly connected to our hero that we feel like we should trust only to unfortunately betray us as soon as we meet him. It’s a perfect way to subvert the expectations of what a character like that would do in a typical movie. This all leads to one of the most iconic and emotional moments in all of history and arguably one if the most memorable moments ever in cinema history. Leia says “I love you.” And Han gives a simple “I know.” It’s improvised and on the surface seems like nothing more than an eye rolling line, but in reality it has comedy and heart in it at the same time. It’s funny because that’s something his character would say rather than “I love you too.” It’s heartfelt because as soon as he says it, you can feel the significance of that love between the two characters. He then is frozen in carbonite and taken away by Boba Fett. It’s amazing to me how much of an impact a character like Boba after can have with little screen time and hardly any dialogue. He’s now one of the most famous characters from the series.

We finally get to the final confrontation. Luke vs Vader. This is where I fell in love with Star Wars. While A New Hope gave us our first lightsaber duel with Ben vs Vader, it was slightly lackluster and made me want more. The duel between Vader and Luke however was absolute gold. Luke was nowhere near the level of Vader at this point as you can see with Vader mostly toying with him the whole time, but he put up a fight and gave what I believe to be one of the best lightsaber duels in all of the series. Obviously not because they were an equal match (because they weren’t) but instead because of the visuals involved. The Ben and Vader fight was more calculated due to their superior knowledge of wielding the laser sword. This fight was raw and gave more untamed ferocity between the two. Luke was fighting with emotion while Vader fought with tamed precision attempting to parry each of Luke’s strike. It was more so a game for Vader who was spending more time testing Luke and attempting to lure him to the dark side. All of this happening with incredible backdrop of that Cloud City carbonite room with its faint orange glow in a mostly dark room illuminated by the red and blue beams of energy from the lightsabers. All of this culminates to an incredibly appealing sequence that only gets deeper as we close in on the finale of the duel. With Luke cornered, Vader finally goes on the offensive and cuts off Luke’s hand. In a last attempt to lure Luke, Vader finally reveals one of the greatest twists in cinema. He is in fact Luke’s father. This performed expertly by Mark Hamill as we see pain and realization sink in with facial expressions alone. He decides not to join Vader and rather leave his fate up to the force as he lets go in falls below only to be saved by Leia and Lando. It’s at this point you start to realize how far our characters have come and what makes this movie so incredible. All of our characters go through in arc in this movie that changes who they are in a compelling manner and leaves us with more questions and even more character growth for the next film. It’s an incredible feat that not many movies achieve off of a sequel. 

The Empire Strikes Back is one of the greatest movies of all time. It’s my favorite Star Wars movie and it’s the most impactful movie on my life. It’s the movie that I remember the most and the one that really solidified my love for the franchise. If I wanted to, I could find issues in this movie but to do that would be to just look for an issue, not blatantly see one. Therefore, I find this to be the least flawed and most perfectly crafted of all of the Star Wars movies. 

Grade: A+

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