Just a quick reminder for those who are new, below is my watch order for the Star Wars films, and the goal is to re-review them all before Episode 9 releases in December! Links to reviews of Rogue One (3.5/5) and A New Hope (4.5/5)
For being the movie that most hail as the best in the series, I think Empire might be the one I’ve watched the least from the original trilogy. As a kid, it didn’t hold the same allure as Return of the Jedi or A New Hope, likely because of it had a darker tone than both of those films. Rewatching it as an adult, I was genuinely surprised with how well most of it held up, and how many pieces I missed as a child. As a narrative, Empire might be sandwiched between Hope and Jedi, but as a film, it stands alone.
The first thirty minutes of Empire are what I remember most from when I was a kid. There are so many memorable moments, from Han slicing open the tan tan, to the imperial walkers bearing down on the rebel base across the snowy plains. It’s those high-action scenes that stuck with me as a child, but as an adult, it’s the character moments in between them that truly make Empire great. Han had plenty of great one-liners in A New Hope, but he gets more character development in five minutes of Empire than the entirety of the previous film.
Even Luke and Leia who were a bit bland and predictable in Hope gain some much needed depth in this film, mostly through separation. The splitting of the main characters after the battle of Hoth allows the movie to cover a lot of narrative ground while also keeping the film snappy and interesting. There wasn’t a single point in Empire where I started to feel bored, which again, heavily contrasts my childhood opinions. Hamill still feels green through the whole thing, especially with his horrible “Noooo” scream, but he’s still miles better than in A New Hope.
Acting wasn’t the only thing to improve either. The effects in Empire feel more polished, and hold up well, despite the fact that over thirty years has passed. There are some notable exceptions, like blue halos around pilots when they look out their cockpit window because of the blue screen, but for the most part it’s unnoticeable. For once, I can say George Lucas’s tinkering actually helped this film out too. There are a few memorable moments that were added after the fact, and they help the film shine. Here’s a quick breakdown:
- Wampa Work – In the 1997 re-releases of the film, more shots of the Wampa were added with a person in a more realistic suit. This helped us get the shot of the creature with its arm off, and generally made the scene more cohesive. Bonus fact that I love about this scene, it is rumored to have been added to explain the scars Mark Hamill got from a car crash in between filiming Hope and Empire. Either way, great scene, and potentially great save from the film crew.
- Battle of Hoth – This battle was generally cleaned up a bit as some of the previous shots still had weird outlines on the speeders from blue screens, and the cockpits of the snow speeders were made transparent so we could see the battle beyond. In addition, there were a few extra CGI shots of the snow speeders added in throughout the first third of the movie. All of this served to enhance and didn’t negatively impact the film in my opinion
- Bespin – Another great addition was the CGI makeover Bespin was given. This makes the city look vibrant and generally more interesting. There are a few extra shots of ships flying in next to the falcon, and the exterior aesthetic looks far superior to the original.
- Boba Fett Voice – In the bluray re-releases of the films, Boba Fett’s voice was changed to match the Australian accent of the prequels. I really don’t have an opinion about this change, as I didn’t feel it served any purpose other than continuity in the films.
With all those changes in mind, the battles in Empire are memorable, and that’s great, because relatively speaking, there are less of them. Really, the film has three big action sequences: The battle for Hoth, The Falcon escaping through the asteroid field, and the final faceoff at Cloud City. Each of these scenes are remarkably unique, with none of the action feeling stale or too similar to another scene. The Hoth battle is quick paced with scores of rebels dying, plenty of explosions, and some great tow cable work. It’s one of the best in the series, and I’ll even put it above Scarif from Rogue One.
As a counter-point to Hoth, the chase scene through the asteroid field is almost more subdued, focusing more on the character reactions to the situation, rather than the action taking place around them. Hiding the Falcon inside the asteroid worm (I’m sorry for not looking up the creature’s name, is it Fred?) serves as another opportunity for dedicated character interaction and growth (see kissy kissy in the Falcon’s maintenance area). It’s an amazing set of scenes and still gets my blood pumping to this day.
Finally, the final battle between Luke and Vader is slow and methodical, just like Obi Wan on the Death Star. We get the opportunity to see how much Luke has learned, but also get the first introduction to the seductive powers of the dark side. This scene is really Vader’s first big emotional beat as a character. Before the Cloud City fight, he’s more of a generalized opposition, menacing and choking people (he chokes a lot of people in this movie), but not really showing any character traits beyond angry and disappointed. His conversations throughout the fight with Luke lay the groundwork for Vader’s eventual fall, but also raise the stakes for Luke, showing just how close to turning he could be.
Opening crawl to end credits, Empire Strikes Back is a masterpiece. The only real knocks I have on it are a few corny one-liners and some mediocre acting, but those are part of the charm of Star Wars in the first place. With a darker tone than most of the other mainline films in the series, Empire stands out from the pack and brings something different to the table. It also sets up the characters better than any of the other films, giving them good moments to interact with each other. In addition, it introduces some wonderful new side characters of its own and expands the already wondrous universe.