Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back – Film Review

Overview

When you create a cultural phenomenon, the pressures to not only follow up the effort, but to duplicate the success, are quite intense. And when it came to what was, seemingly, a once-in-a-lifetime event like Star Wars, the expectations were very high indeed. What creator George Lucas gave us was to fine-tune the storytelling and movie-making craft and character study into a product of near perfection. Through these characters, we saw the real depth and nature of that galaxy far, far away. And the film’s central revelation chilled many viewers right down to the bone.

But what The Empire Strikes Back did, more than anything else, was to take the epic story and tell it from a more personal, character-driven perspective. The result is a tight, focused narrative that was darker, deeper and every bit as thrilling as the original film. It’s no wonder that now, roughly thirty years later, many look to The Empire Strikes Back as the pinnacle of Star Wars.

Review & Analysis

The primary story is a very simple one: The Empire discovers the hidden Rebel base, attacks, and our heroes must flee into the galaxy to escape capture, or worse. The story then follows our heroes as they try and rendezvous with the rest of the Rebel Alliance, which will mean relative safety, and rest. But of course, the journeys aren’t so simple. And they aren’t so easy. And this film is as much about the journey as it is the destination.

More importantly, this is a movie about balance. Watching Han and Leia desperately trying to outrun Imperial Star Destroyers and TIE Fighters through asteroids, space slugs and the angelic Cloud City makes for thrilling stuff. But it’s tempered by Luke’s equally traumatic personal journey on Dagobah as he meets with, and learns from, the ancient Jedi Master, Yoda. Both story threads rely heavily on the characters involved, pushing them to the thresholds of their limits and, in the processing, revealing a great deal about their personalities and inner motivations.

It is this personal journey which makes The Empire Strikes Back so compelling. Add in the deeply ominous and sinister specter of Darth Vader’s relentless pursuit of Luke Skywalker, and it’s quite clear why there is so much to this movie that fans love and adore. From a purely objective standpoint, it’s a complex personal tale that features an almost pitch-perfect execution from pacing, writing, acting (yes, even the acting here is very good), action, symbolism, theme, and, of course, music.

It’d be easy to launch into a discussion of just how good the action sequences are – from the Battle of Hoth, to the asteroid chase, to the Cloud City escape. But the real heart of this film is in its preponderance of interpersonal scenes. Whether it is Luke’s slow discovery of his potential and purpose, or Han and Leia’s almost majestic romantic entanglement, The Empire Strikes Back places a premium on getting into the real soul of each character.

For instance, we learn that Leia does indeed have a softer, more vulnerable, feminine side – a balance to her up front and in-your-face spirit she displayed in A New Hope. For his part, Han shows off a much more sensitive side as he tries to break through the ice (pun intended) of his relationship with Leia. And together, they manage to form a more complete whole – each helping providing something that the other needs. It’s romance like this that makes for a truly compelling story (you hear that, Attack of the Clones?).

As for Luke, his personal journey is one of enlightenment thanks to the memorable Yoda who is as adept at providing profound thoughts as he is at lifting X-Wing fighters out of muddy swamps. His comment about the nature of life, of the fact that “luminous beings are we, not this crude matter,” is one of many which provoke and inspire a deeper level of thinking. The philosophy and spirituality may not be as deeply presented as it is in, say, The Matrix, but it’s infinitely more accessible – which makes it all the more valuable to the viewer.

And when the threads converge in the Cloud City, the result is a truly climactic moment that is easily one of the most memorable in the entire history of cinema: Darth Vader’s revelation. But what makes the film is that its success doesn’t rely on the surprise of the confession, rather, it’s the buildup of wits and verbal spars (as much as it is about a lightsaber duel) that makes the confession hit Luke, and the viewer, like a boulder. And therein lies the greatest asset of this film. Not only does it have a good story to tell, but it tells the story with craft and skill.

As a case in point, consider John Williams’ score, featuring the sinister Imperial March, majestic Yoda’s Theme, and the lovely Love Theme for Han and Leia. Each is as indelible as the Force theme, Main Theme, and Rebel Fanfare which were introduced in A New Hope. And Williams’ skill at interweaving all of these themes is truly masterful. Lucas once said that he wanted the music to be as much a part of his films as music used to be in silent films. Indeed, in The Empire Strikes Back, you could just watch the visuals and listen to the music and still find a great deal to enjoy.

Overall Grade: A+

The Empire Strikes Back is, easily, one of the finest films ever made. From start to finish, there is a clear purpose, a tightly focused narrative, and sense of wonder and awe.

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