Myself, Ashling, and my friend Fiachra took in The Empire Strikes Back the other day. It’s generally considered to be the best of the six, I think it is fair to say, and it isn’t hard to see why. The film takes everything great about the first and expands on it, adds a darker and meatier tone to things, has a great script, extraordinary music and is just replete with amazing moments that settled into pop culture and general knowledge: Luke moving the saber with the Force, Vader killing Ozzel, the Battle of Hoth, the asteroid field, Han and Leia’s kiss, the space slug, the Dark Side grove, Yoda and the X-Wing, “I know”, the Vader/Luke duel, “I Am Your Father” and that final shot.
Watching Empire again, I remembered my reaction to my first viewing, which must have been when I was 7 or so. I was distraught: I think it was the first time I had encountered a story where the bad guys win at the end. Sure, Vader doesn’t get to bring Luke back to the Emperor and the final shots are hopeful, but the rebellion is scattered and beaten, Han has been carted off, as a popsicle, to Jabba, and Luke has taken on Vader and been comprehensively defeated, physically, mentally and emotionally. I think that it is something to be noted: how many films of Empire’s genre or general level of appreciation are films with such a downbeat conclusion? I believe that this is a very important part of Empire’s mystique.
But Empire’s greatness doesn’t concern me right now, its flaws do. I don’t need to justify my appreciation for Empire here, because I would just be preaching to a large choir. What do I think is Empire’s biggest problem?
Before I garnered opinions from a larger crowd, my answer was that Empire is replete with surface level details that start to damage it if you spend too much time thinking about them. That is, there are plot holes and plot elements that make very little sense. To name a few: the AT-AT design, the Luke/Leia kiss, the space slug that survives in a vacuum eating…something, the Millennium Falcon the large Imperial fleet can’t see attached to one of its ships, the Slave I that the Millennium Falcon doesn’t detect following it, the very little time that Luke spends training to be a Jedi, or R2-D2’s inexplicably simple repair of the hyperdrive.
It’s actually a credit to the quality of Empire’s major elements – plot, acting, visual direction, script, music – that the film gets beyond these things, easily passing my “Inception Test”, but they are still there, and for a film of the immense impact of Empire, it’s only natural that you’ll come to think about them.
Putting the question out there got some interesting responses though. I asked people to complete the following: Empire’s biggest flaw is…
“The clichéd “I am your father” twist.”
I suppose this is a cliché, but I think the Empire moment – probably the most famous moment in the entire saga, and a nominee for the same title for visual science fiction generally – has reached the point of being eligible for being a trope progenitor. No way unexpected paternity plot points would be as prevalent as they are without it.
“Darth Vader’s less threatening once you see him in combat”
I think every good villain has this kind of issue eventually, or at least every kind of villain in the style that Vader inhabits. Episode IV and V are at pains to maximise the threat and presence that Vader has, so I can understand that some of that might be lost once he engages in a proper extended duel, which are bound to look a bit slow and clumsy by today’s standards. But I’ve personally not had my image of Vader affected by this, since I think the way he approaches the duel with Luke – nearly always in control, and exerting a palpable sense of dominance throughout – fits him, at that point in the saga, really well.
“Seriously, I think the story objectively takes a while to get going. You have all the bullshit with the wampa before we get to the first real battle and even then it’s mostly unconnected with the over all story. And the locations are a little bit duller than in new hope and jedi. There’s no scene where they can show off all the weird aliens like they could in the other two movies. And some of the fact that the trilogy wasn’t super planned out comes through a bit, what with Luke’s sister straight up making out with him to make Han jealous.”
The way that the film’s opening unfolds is certainly something I noticed more this time around. You have the Wampa attack on Luke, Han back in Echo Base with Leia, Chewie and C3PO, Luke’s escape from the cave, Han riding out to find him, the vision of Obi-Wan, Han and Luke’s survival, the snowspeeder search, Luke’s recovery, the Luke/Leia kiss and the probe droid investigation/destruction, and only then does the film cut to a different locale and characters, the main force of the narrative coming into the play with the inciting act of the probe’s sighting of Echo Base. I acknowledge that this is a bit of a flaw, but it’s not something that bothers me as much as it did the above, because I think there is enough entertaining stuff in that segment to make up for it.
The locations being a bit duller is not something I personally agree with. Desert Tatooine isn’t all that different in scope than polar Hoth, and the only other planet in IV was Yavin: Empire has Dagobah and Cloud City to play around with. And I feel there are aliens and exotic lifeforms aplenty in Empire: Tauntans, Wompas, space slugs, mynocks, Yoda, the bounty hunters, ugnaughts etc.
No argument on the Luke/Leia thing. It’s just plain weird, and if Lucas was going to change anything in the special editions, I’m stunned it wasn’t that.
“Not enough Ewoks”
But there are ugnaughts! I mean, look:
Practically the same.
-I’d forgotten how important a moment Luke grabbing his lightsaber with the Force was. It’s the first time we see the Force used in such a manner in the saga, and Luke really has to work for it.
-I also noticed on this watching, more than previous times, how assholish Han can come off in his early interactions with Leia. It’s very much in that “It’s OK for me to be forceful and handsy because I know she’s actually into it” vein, and I can certainly see it rubbing people up the wrong way.
-Love those hard T’s, C’s, K’s and D’s in Vader’s lines. “He’s as clumsy as he is stupid…prepare your men for a surface attack.”
-Oh, and that delicious inflection in the soon after line: “You are in command now, Admiral Piett.”
-C3PO works so well as comic relief in this film, injecting just the right amount of humour into even the most intense scene. I think this is Anthony Daniels’ best film. “Never doubted you for a second. Wonderful!”
-Myself and Fiachra had fun speculating on how several decades of isolation might have affected Yoda’s sanity, or lack of it. But, considering how he changes tack once it is revealed he is, in fact, Yoda, it was probably part of a test of Luke.
-This is the film that really makes the Millennium Falcon, I think. You get to see more of its interior, some of its “surprises”, and you come to realise that it is really rundown and running on figurative fumes. That just gives it all the more character, and makes it seem all the more lived-in and real. Not unlike Serenity.
-“Much anger in him, like his father”. I’ve never really noticed that line before. It’s too vague to be considered proper foreshadowing, but it’s the first instance of Anakin Skywalker being described in negative terms.
-There is so much set-up and payoff in this film, and one of my favourite examples is our last look at Vader. He’s spent the film threatening and killing his subordinates who fail him, and then the Falcon gets away. Piett looks like he’s expecting an instant death sentence, but then Vader just walks away silently, more important things on his mind, which really makes his encounter with Luke hit home with the audience even more.
Nothing else to really say. In line with the sort-of machete cut watching order we decided upon, the menacing phantom is next.