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‘Star Wars’ Revisited, Part 2: ‘The Empire Strikes Back’

Copyright Lucasfilm

Pre-viewing thoughts: Of all of the Star Wars movies, “The Empire Strikes Back” is the one I’m approaching with the most trepidation as part of this series, because it’s the movie where my opinion is the most out of sync with the general consensus. “Empire” is most frequently cited by Star Wars fans and general movie buffs alike as the best of the series, with the first movie coming in second. I’ve never really agreed with that notion. Don’t get me wrong; I like “Empire” a lot, and there’s a lot to recommend it, but it’s never been my favorite of the original trilogy. When I was younger “Return of the Jedi” was the one I watched the most, and as I’ve gotten older I’ve grown to appreciate the original “Star Wars” more, but “Empire” has never connected with me in the same way. I don’t really know why that is, and it’s something I’d like to try to figure out, so hopefully rewatching it now will give me some insight. Here we go.

Movie diary:

  • 00:00- I’m going to likely be taking fewer notes with this one, because “Empire” is one I really want to see how and if my assessment of the movie has changed at all in recent years.
  • 1:00- The value of the title crawl as a device for exposition is really pretty strong; it fits with the pulp adventure feel George Lucas was aiming for, and it’s a good way to knock out some of the early setup business and jump right into the action.
  • 2:00- Right away, John Williams lets us know we’re in for a different ride. The ominous, subdued score is a far cry from the rousing battle music that “A New Hope” opened with.
  • 4:00- The wampa attack on Luke and his tauntaun is a pretty good jump scare, though it’s a subplot I’ve never really been a fan of. “Empire” has a bit of an odd structure, which may be part of my hesitancy to name it the best of the series.
  • 6:45- “I’d just as soon kiss a Wookiee.” Once again, you’ll be missed, Carrie Fisher.
  • 8:15- Han’s decision to go out after Luke even after saying he had to leave the Rebellion to get the price off his head is a nice bit of character work. It shows that he, Luke and Leia have remained close after the events of “The New Hope” and that he’s more willing to risk his own life now.
  • 9:30- I will say this for the wampa subplot: Luke using the force to pull his lightsaber to him and free himself is a great moment, and it shows that he’s growing stronger in the Force, leading to his vision of Obi-Wan and eventual training with Yoda.
  • 12:15- The look on Carrie Fisher’s face as the base doors are closed, sealing Han and Luke outside in the cold, is a great bit of non-verbal acting. She clearly cares for both of them.
  • 14:30- “I thought they smelled bad on the outside.” Even as he’s in danger of freezing to death along with his friend, Han always has a one-liner ready.
  • 17:30- Han seems genuinely wounded when Leia calls him “scruffy looking,” and Ford has great timing with the line. Lucas neither wrote nor directed “Empire,” and the dialogue is all-around less clunky and more natural (though to deny his role in the movie when he served as producer and received a “story by” credit would be a disservice to him).
  • 18:00- The smug look on Luke’s face when Leia kisses him is great.
  • 19:30- It’s hard to not gush constantly about how good John Williams is, but seriously: The first appearance of “The Imperial March” as Vader’s giant ship literally overshadows the rest of his fleet is perfect. “Empire” is the movie that really cements Vader as the villain of the original trilogy, and he gets a fantastic piece of music to give him that extra touch of menace.
  • 23:30-“You have failed me for the last time, admiral.” Vader does not suffer fools lightly.
  • 24:30- The whole Hoth battle sequence is stunning, far and away the best large-scale ground battle of the series. It’s also a much larger battle than anything in “A New Hope” at this same point in the movie. “Empire” definitely ups the scale with the “war” part of “Star Wars.”
  • 31:30- Han returns to the command center to make sure Leia’s OK, even when she questions why he’s still there and after he’s repeatedly said he doesn’t really love her. It’s a classic “can’t you two see how much you two like each other?” moment.
  • 32:45- Luke takes down an AT-AT himself even as things fall apart around him. Our farm boy has become quite a soldier.
  • 38:30- The asteroid chase is another great set piece coming hard on the heels of the big battle. Like I said, “Empire” ups the scale quickly. And Williams is masterful as ever with the music.
  • 41:00- “Empire” also gives us a bigger variety of locations than “A New Hope.” Whereas before we had a desert planet, a space station and a forest planet, in “Empire” we get an ice planet, a swamp planet, an extended sequence in an asteroid field and a floating city hovering above a gas giant. Lots of imagination on display from the production designers.
  • 44:00- Mark Hamill has never really gotten the praise he deserves as Luke, I think, in part because it’s a less showy role than Han, Leia or Vader. Especially in “Empire” he has a number of scenes where he’s acting opposite a droid and a puppet, not exactly the easiest thing to do, and he’s got a complicated arc as Luke learns to become a Jedi, faces Vader and then has his world blown apart from underneath him. Hamill excels throughout.
  • 47:15- Frank Oz is the best as Yoda, and he did it all with just his voice and talent for puppeteering. Frank Oz is the man.
  • 47:30- “Wars not make one great.” Yoda’s first lesson for Luke, and Luke doesn’t even know it.
  • 50:00- In hindsight it’s obvious there’s more to Yoda than meets the eye, but Oz does a great job making him unassuming, especially since we (and Luke) assume a Jedi master would be an imposing warrior figure closer to Obi-Wan.
  • 53:40- “He will join us or die, master.” The knowledge that Luke is Vader’s son makes this line even more chilling. Vader is so ruthless that he will sacrifice his own son if Luke won’t join him in his quest for power.
  • 54:45- Yoda practically spells it out for Luke that he’s the Jedi master Luke is looking for when he talks about Luke’s father, which makes Luke’s impatience and stubbornness all the more obvious and shows how deeply he failed Yoda’s test of him. Luke has found purpose, but he has much to learn about the ways of the Jedi beyond being able to wield a lightsaber.
  • 56:00- Yoda sums up Luke’s personality quickly and with brutal honesty: “All his life has he looked away to the future…never his mind on where he was.” If Obi-Wan gives Luke the weapon of the Jedi and helps him learn the basics of the Force, Yoda is the one who teaches him the Jedi philosophy and mindset, which is what ultimately separates Luke from Vader.
  • 59:50- “I am not a committee.” Leia refuses to let Han belittle her, even as they’re trying to escape a giant killer space slug in an asteroid.
  • 1:03:00- Luke repeatedly fails all of the tests he’s given in the movie, and it’s always for the same reason: Impatience and overconfidence. He can’t see Yoda is the master he’s looking for; he brings his weapons into the cave (ignoring Yoda’s admonishment) and ends up killing a vision of himself, thinking it’s Vader; he can’t bring his X-Wing out of the swamp; and he ultimately loses to Vader in their final encounter. Only in “Return of the Jedi” does he learn to rein in his emotions, though not before almost failing in the worst possible way.
  • 1:13:45- Han hiding the Falcon by attaching the ship to one of the Star Destroyers is a nice move, and it fits with his nature as a former smuggler.
  • 1:18:30- Cloud City is a genuinely inspired location. And the first shot of it ahead of the setting sun as the Falcon flies in is a great visual.
  • 1:20:00- Billy Dee Williams is great as Lando. With knowledge of what comes later, it’s clear his charm is a smokescreen meant to disarm Han and Leia, but Williams still pulls it off with aplomb.
  • 1:21:00- 3PO getting blown to pieces by an unknown assailant is an immediate clue that Cloud City is not as hospitable as it appears.
  • 1:22:00- “I feel the Force.” “But you cannot control it.” Obi-Wan spells out Luke’s arc in the movie here, but it’s still a good moment.
  • 1:24:30- “That boy is our last hope.” “No; there is another.” You can argue about whether it was a good move to eventually reveal that Luke and Leia are siblings, but it’s set up here, even if it isn’t revealed until “Jedi.”
  • 1:27:15- It’s been foreshadowed, but Vader just sitting at the table waiting for Han, Leia and Chewie before shrugging off Han’s blaster shots is a great power move.
  • 1:30:00- Lando does try to help Leia and the others as best he can, given the circumstances. He’s one of the few characters in the series who operates (at least for a while) in shades of grey, especially since Han is now firmly on the side of the good guys.
  • 1:34:00- Han is the calm one even as he’s being led to the carbon freezing chamber. It’s a good moment for him.
  • 1:34:55- “I love you.” “I know.” One of the great unscripted moments in movie history, perfectly delivered.
  • 1:37:00- “I am altering the deal; pray I don’t alter it any further.” Only one person gets to tell Vader what to do, and it’s not Lando.
  • 1:40:00- The lightsaber fights definitely get better as the series goes. The duel between Obi-Wan and Vader in “A New Hope” was great from a dramatic standpoint, but the fight choreography is somewhat lacking, whereas the Luke/Vader fight in “Empire” is both convincingly staged and has a big dramatic payoff.
  • 1:44:00- Luke gets a couple good moments in his fight against Vader, but the scene where Vader just starts throwing stuff at him with the Force and beating him up shows how out of his depth Luke really is. Vader is essentially toying with Luke.
  • 1:50:10- “No; I am your father.” I don’t think I was old enough to appreciate the big reveal when I first saw “Empire.” Finding out your father is a monster who’s slaughtered countless people at the behest of an oppressive regime just doesn’t quite register when you’re 10 or 11. I understand it better from a dramatic perspective now, and it’s an important moment for Luke in his growth as a character, but it just doesn’t have the same emotional heft it should. That’s not the movie’s fault, but it’s an undeniable factor in how I feel about it, if that makes sense.
  • 1:56:30- “Ben, why didn’t you tell me?” Luke is shattered by his experience on Cloud City, so he reaches out to the one person he counts on most for answers, even after finding out Obi-Wan hid the truth from him.
  • 1:59:30- We’re definitely at a low point for our heroes, but the shot of them looking out as Lando and Chewie set out to find Han tells us that there’s still hope.

Wrap-up: I definitely think I have a greater appreciation for “Empire” after this viewing. It’s still not my favorite of the original trilogy, but I feel like going back and really looking at what the movie was trying to accomplish gives me a better understanding of it. “The Empire Strikes Back” does what all good sequels should try to do, which is add new depth to the characters while expanding the world in interesting ways. I don’t think it’s necessary that every middle entry in a trilogy be the “dark” or downer one, as has often been the case post-“Empire,” but if you’re going to take that approach, this movie shows you how to do it right.