Watching The Last Jedi in the theater a few weeks back, it occurred to me that I hadn’t seen The Empire Strikes Back, which Last Jedi resembles, in a very long time. I last recall watching it at a friend’s house in the summer of 2000, but we talked about women through the whole thing and may have even switched it off before the end. That means it may’ve been twenty years since I last paid attention to it, which would’ve been the special edition in the theater. So we’re looking at about half a lifetime.
Which is odd because Empire is widely regarded as the best of the Star Wars movies. Really, how could I have seen every single prequel and sequel since and not revisit Empire? Yes, it’s a heavier film and not self-contained, but I’d rather not die knowing that I’d seen Jar-Jar more recently in the last two decades than, say, the carbon-freezing chamber. So, I put that particular affair in order.
So does Empire live up to its reputation after a jaded adult viewing?
Rather than answer with a 5,000-word essay, here are bulleted observations.
- Empire begins with the following loose ends from Star Wars: (1) Darth Vader is alive and evil, (2) the Empire is still around, (3) Luke hasn’t been trained as a Jedi, (4) Leia is a single female character in a movie full of boys, and (5) we don’t know that Han has paid his debts to Jabba the Hutt, but it’s implied that he was able to.
- The opening crawl says Luke is the leader of the rebellion. He’s not; the crawl lies.
- Luke finishes scanning for lifeforms from his tauntaun and then is attacked by a lifeform.
- For the theologians out there: Are Force ghosts one with the Force, or are they partly themselves and partly the Force? In other words, are Force ghosts homoousios or homoiousios to the Force? If they’re the same as the Force, then the Force on its own starts the plot in Empire, which is pretty cool.
- Han has formally joined the rebellion, which is out of character. It would be more believable if he were just making cargo runs for it.
- Han wants to pay off his debts, which is a fine motivation for his character, but it doesn’t make much sense. If the rebels can’t deter bounty hunters from capturing or killing Han, then they can’t be very threatening to the Empire.
- What’s Leia’s job? She isn’t in charge of the rebellion because Han gives his notice to General Rieekan, not her. (Or is Han really that misogynistic?)
- Leia’s only role in Empire is to be Han’s love interest. She only affects the plot at the end when her unearned Force powers give her a vision of Luke dangling from a Cloud City antenna. Aside from that, if she weren’t in the movie, most of Empire would have turned out the way it did (except Lando may not’ve bothered sticking his neck out for just Chewbacca and C-3PO). I don’t think movies need to pass the Bechdel test to have good female characters, but Leia is a central character and plays less of a role in Empire than any other Star Wars film.
- Moreover, the overall Star Wars narrative is about the rebellion defeating the Empire, and the rebellion is Leia’s setting, so under-developing her is a big mistake.
- Very little of Han’s and Leia’s arguing is romantic witty banter. At one point Han manipulatively ropes Luke in to his attacks on Leia, “I must’ve hit her close to the mark to get her all riled up, huh, kid?” High five, bro! She should’ve sent him to the front lines to face the AT-AT walkers. #MeToo
- If Leia had been developed as the alliance’s leader, then Empire could’ve gone with the more plausible odd-couple romance. “What’s this piece of junk doing in my hanger, Solo?” she yells. Works much better and stays true to Star Wars‘ tendency towards sexually tilted dialogue.
- Leia is my favorite character in Empire. She’s more Han-like than Biff Tannen Han. She gets some of the best character beats and sarcastic lines in the movie. “Would it help if I got out and pushed?” she asks Han when he can’t start the Millennium Falcon‘s engine. When its hyperdrive stalls, Han panics, but Leia just rolls her eyes—which is all she can do—asking, “Still no lightspeed?” When Vader puts Han into carbon freeze, she never turns away. My favorite beat happens before Han is frozen. The camera looks at Vader but then it cuts for a second to Leia, who glares at him with a look on her face saying, “I will fuck you up for this.”
- What is Leia princess of? Alderaan’s new asteroid belt? She saw it blown up in front of her face and it never comes up again. Maybe she feels guilty? What a wasted opportunity to explore the character.
- It’s too bad Leia forgets that planetary bases are easy targets for the Empire/First Order. Would’ve forced Disney to get creative with Force Awakens and Last Jedi. Even in Return of the Jedi the rebels operate from a mobile fleet. Dumbasses.
- Giving the three protagonists privileges to do as they please and abandon the rebellion at their convenience works when you’re a kid but doesn’t make much logical sense, hence Empire‘s backgrounding of Leia.
- Otherwise, Empire‘s beginning is solid. Lots of attention to detail as to how the rebel base works and the rebels’ contingency for evacuating it.
- Han teaches us that nothing proves you’re an alpha ape like bullying a protocol droid.
- C-3PO, for his part, is also inconsistent, suffering disrespect when he’s helpful and trivializing the other characters’ suffering when he’s not.
- Han makes several decisions to advance the plot, of the rabbit-out-of-a-hat variety. They work for his character, but somewhat stunt the B plot.
- Luke makes three decisions: (1) “borrowing” the Alliance’s X-wing to go to Dagobah, (2) abandoning his training to rescue his friends (Empire‘s fulcrum), and (3) choosing to fight Vader when he could try to escape.
- Luke’s vision of his friends’ suffering on Cloud City is remarkable because it means the Force plays an active role in the narrative. We can rightly ask what the Force’s agenda is. (It also helpfully gives Luke the coordinates to Bespin.)
- Vader’s seclusion pod is my favorite representation of Empire‘s theme of pockets of safety in a hostile universe. Unfortunately, this theme doesn’t really reflect the characters’ inner challenges.
- Vader’s executions are fun, especially Admiral Ozzel’s, but in no way do they correspond to the victims’ merits:
- Vader kills Admiral Ozzel for his exculpatory incompetence: Ozzel disobeys Vader by bringing the fleet in too close to the rebel base, even though the rebels are already alerted by the probe droid. More rebels would’ve escaped if Ozzel had followed orders.
- Captain Needa is killed for his inculpatory competence: He wasn’t responsible for “losing” the Millennium Falcon.
- Vader spares Admiral Piet for his inculpatory incompetence: Piet was supposed to disable the Millennium Falcon‘s hyperdrive and didn’t do a sufficient job.
- How much time elapses in Empire? It feels like no more than a few days, which can explain why Luke gets steamrolled by Vader. However, there could be a big time gap between the Millennium Falcon heading to Bespin and Luke having his vision of its fate, but it’s not specified and impliedly contradicted when Lando says, “They [the Empire] arrived here just before you did.”
- When Han lands the Millennium Falcon to the back of the star destroyer, I yelped, “Wait, that actually works??”
- I love the (original) matte-painting backgrounds for Cloud City. They are way retro.
- Timing error: Luke leaves Dagobah after the Millennium Falcon arrives at Bespin. It looks like it takes minutes for him to get there. On top of that, the narrative cuts to him approaching Cloud City twice. It messes up the pacing.
- Why is Lando developed—and better than Leia? He could’ve just turned the protagonists over to the Vader right after they landed on Cloud City. He doesn’t help his case by rubbing his “deal” with the Empire in the protagonists’ faces right before handing them to Vader. He could’ve been shot by a stormtrooper and it wouldn’t’ve made a difference.
- Boba Fett is only named in the credits, and just whom does he work for? If the Empire hired him, why does he get to take Han to Jabba the Hutt for a second reward? Why would the Empire bother handing Han over? Why does he shoot at Luke when Luke arrives? Not his monkeys. Whatever.
- Cloud City’s dizzying interior is so cool. The agoraphobia really amplifies the tension.
- Darth Vader’s plan for capturing Luke is not fully formed at the beginning of Empire but becomes more coherent over time. It might be lazy, and it’s common for adventure stories written from the protagonists’ perspectives to idiot-plot (or super-mastermind-plot) the villains. I think Vader’s incoherent plan in Empire works because it’s ambiguous, but it’s close.
- I could write an essay on the consequences of making the Emperor a Jedi.
- Vader has nothing to tempt Luke with to turn him to the dark side, which is a pretty glaring problem in Empire‘s A plot. If I were Vader, I’d scheme to put Luke in a situation where he has to tap the dark side to escape or die. Instead, it’s “Join me or die,” so Luke chooses to die. The end.
- Why does Vader offer to rule the galaxy with Luke after he tries to freeze him and mutilates him? He’s not persuasive. It’s almost like Empire is looking for an excuse for Vader to not kill Luke.
- Luke survives his plunge into the chasm, which is a neat death-rebirth trope, but it beggars belief.
- Why does the Millennium Falcon fly toward the super star destroyer before R2D2 fixes its hyperdrive? The visual effect is awesome, but it sure looks like the movie doesn’t think we’ll buy Force telepathy at a distance but won’t object to Lando’s stupid piloting.
- Amazing that Vader doesn’t give up on capturing Luke by the time the Millennium Falcon rescues him. Way more trouble than he’s worth.
- Once they’re safe, why does anyone still trust Lando, let alone allow him to take over for Han?
- Finally, it’s so sad that Leia ends the movie grinning over the phone with Chewbacca and not holstering blasters.
- Empire is the only non-prequel to date in which the characters don’t infiltrate an Imperial base or impersonate Imperial soldiers.
- I don’t think stormtroopers have any lines in Empire.
So, the verdict:
The Empire Strikes Back starts strong; its first act on Hoth is a tight, coherent tactical battle between Vader and Reeikan. But after Luke has his Force vision on Dagobah, the movie’s plot holes, timing errors, character problems, and multiple deus ex machina mechanics multiply to drag it down considerably. To be sure, Empire‘s third act is superbly executed and is visually stunning compared to Star Wars, and the Millennium Falcon‘s escape is probably my favorite scene in any Star Wars movie, notwithstanding the bizarre flaws noted above.
However, I’m not one to take fan consensus as truth. Empire badly needs a reason to tempt Luke to the dark side, and its failure to develop Leia is just malpractice. Maybe an intelligent reviewer can make the contrary case and explain to me what my plain, non-allegorical approach misses, but the emotional impact of Empire‘s plot reveals aren’t sufficient to carry it. For these reasons I now believe the original Star Wars is the better movie of the two.