The rewatch of the Star Wars saga — done during my morning elliptical workout — is almost over, and I admit, it’s made the half-hour exercise routine go pretty fast. I’ve enjoyed revisiting these movies, and it’s geared me up nicely for next Thursday’s showing of Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
In this rewatch, we have the crown jewel of the entire saga: The Empire Strikes Back. Pretty much everything we love about Star Wars is front-and-center here, and this one stands up to the test of time as well as any classic film you can think of. Yes, it’s as good as I remembered.
That said, a few bits stood out as being a touch dated or clunky — but others really seemed to shine even brighter than I realized. Let’s break it down.
The Empire Strikes Back did a neat thing back when it was released. It gave fans exactly what they wanted while taking the fledgling series in new, darker directions. To meet fan expectations while crafting a new path is hard — trust me, I know — but this film handled it with incredible deftness.
So what did fans want? Star Wars created just enough of a universe to carry a fantastic story, while leaving so many things left open to speculation. Empire began answering those setting questions. It explored the backstory of the Jedi and their fall, it opened up more of what the Force could do, it gave an expanded look at the Empire and Vader’s role in it. We met the Emperor and Yoda, two extremely pivotal characters. We saw more of the universe beyond Tatooine and the Death Star.
And we finally got to see Luke and Vader cross lightsabers, just as they had in Kenner action-figure form in kids’ rooms across the world before Empire came out.
Oh, and we learned that bit about Luke’s parentage. Hence the new direction.
Dude, I still remember eight-year-old me sitting there in the theater, stunned. I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t want to believe it. Vader was evil and wrong and just how could he be Luke’s dad? In some ways, that moment helped me grow up a little bit, giving young-me a first taste of the gray areas beyond black and white. It also gave Star Wars as a whole this incredible depth and complexity that it struggled to live up to in the subsequent films.
But forget the other films for now. In that moment, it was amazing and intense. Pitch-perfect film-making. Nailed it. Even knowing full well, after 35 years, that Vader is Luke’s father, the moment still has resonance.
The big reveal was somehow made darker and deeper by what happened to Han Solo, who finally abandoned his selfish ways and fell for Leia, only to be frozen in carbonite and carted off by Boba Fett for Jabba’s bounty. The “I-love-you-I-know” moment is parodied and commercialized for a reason — because it freakin’ worked. In retrospect, Han and Leia made far more sense than Luke and Leia ever would (even without the next film’s big and awkward familial reveal).
So between Luke’s defeat and burdensome knowledge, and Han’s defeat and loss, Empire took the hero’s journey and put it on its ear. Heck, even Threepio took a hit in this one. But it made sense. The Empire could’ve become a predictable, punchless foil in the wrong hands, but here, it very much struck back — and struck back hard. The stakes were expertly raised, the tension heightened — Empire is as good an Act II as you’ll ever see in any story. Heck, I fully admit to cribbing ideas on pacing and such for my second novel, The Enceladus Crisis.
I did mention that there were some bits in Empire that didn’t age well. I think Leia’s character — really, the only meaningful female role in the original trilogy — was mostly, but not completely, positive in this film. We get to see her in charge on Hoth, which is awesome. She’s absolutely and unequivocally in command, and nobody says boo about it. In the middle, though, she kind of reverts to the love interest role, and can be a touch shrill besides — not a great look. Finally, though, she takes command again and kicks ass in the escape from Cloud City. Again, mostly positive, but with some meh moments.
Speaking of meh moments…some of Han and Leia’s romantic dialogue was less-than-stellar — what is it about Star Wars treating romantic tension like an awkward teenager? — and the bits of Yoda being an impish little jocular fellow fell flat. We kind of knew from the get-go that Lando wasn’t going to be a team player — though his redemption was more unexpected and fun.
That said, I think The Empire Strikes Back was, overall, a perfect middle act — so much so, it actually made it harder for the third film to live up to it. Even without the Ewoks.
Next up: Return of the Jedi. And by then, it’ll be time to pull out the old Star Wars t-shirt and get in line for The Force Awakens!