Monday, December 7, 2015

The Empire Strikes Back Review

After writing my review of the original Star Wars last week, it's now time to move forward in my series of Star Wars reviews to The Empire Strikes Back. If I'm being honest, The Empire Strikes Back wasn't always my favorite Star Wars movie. Growing up I liked Return of the Jedi best because it was a whole lot of fun and it resulted in the ultimate triumph over evil. The Empire Strikes Back was always the dark movie with a depressing ending and thus as a young kid I didn't always gravitate towards it. However, as an adult I've now come to realize how amazing this movie actually is. As I stated last week, Star Wars is a very simple movie. As the quintessential good vs. evil movie, it's actually pretty black and white. You have your evil empire that has the ability to destroy planets with their new Death Star weapon and you have the good rebels trying to stop them. You also have the perfect underdog story as a whiny, farm boy becomes an unlikely hero and saves the galaxy. All of this works perfectly and is very beautiful. It also establishes an amazing universe that is a part all of our souls. The Empire Strikes Back takes all these characters and this story to a new level. This isn't just a dark and depressing story. It's deep and complex. It's thought-provoking. There's a lot more gray area than the previous installment. 

As far as the actual plot goes, we continue the trend of being very simple. After destroying the Death Star, the Empire isn't too happy to say the least, so the rebels decide to hide out on this ice planet called Hoth. They're of course discovered and thus ensues the battle on Hoth. This is a fun opening scene. We see Luke captured by the abominable snowman, After Luke escapes by using the force and his light saber, Han rescues him and takes him to safety despite his odds of survival, according to C-3PO, being very slim. After a brief battle against the Empire's forces, all parties escape and most of the movie becomes a large goose chase between Darth Vader and our small band of heroes because, after the events of the last movie, Darth Vader has become very obsessed with capturing Luke Skywalker. In our first brief shot of the Emperor towards the beginning, him and Vader determine that Luke has become their new enemy and Darth Vader has decided that he's going to try to turn Luke to the dark side. Following the instruction of Obi-Wan, Luke escapes to the Dagobah System to be trained by Yoda. Because of this escape, Darth Vader decides to use Luke's friends as a trap to get Luke to come to him and it works like a charm.

I want to cut to the chase here with this review and talk about Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker. We'll get to the other stuff in a bit, but this is relationship that is the meat of both this movie and the next. Going into this movie, all we know is that Luke Skywalker has a connection to the Jedi of old because his father, Anakin Skywalker, was a Jedi, a great pilot, and good friend of Obi-Wan. Darth Vader was a pupil of Obi-Wan who betrayed the Jedi, killing Anakin. That's what Obi-Wan told Luke, anyways. If they had stayed with this story and not thrown a huge twist at us, this would've still made for a good, intriguing story. Now that Luke knows the truth about his past and his father, wanting revenge on the man who killed his father is great motive to want to go after this guy. It also makes Darth Vader better than just your average villain. Not only does he look and sound awesome, but he was a Jedi at one point who betrayed them and killed Luke's father. Now Luke wants revenge. That's a good story. I wish I could remember the first time I watched this movie so that I could remember what my reaction was when I first learned that Darth Vader and Anakin Skywalker are actually the same person. But I don't. I imagine it would've been similar to my reaction when I first watched the movie Psycho and learned the secret behind Norman Bates. Utter shock.

Best twist in movie history with The Empire Strikes Back? I don't know. Possibly. The aforementioned Psycho might take that crown. But it's up there and it's certainly a game-changer. And of course you know that I have to mention that the actual reveal is one of the most misquoted scenes in movie history. Not only that, but it's also one of the most well-known misquoted scenes. By that I mean that every Star Wars fan will be anxious to tell you that the scene is misquoted. So is it really that misquoted? That's beside the point. But anywho, the whole conversation is such an emotionally powerful moment. "Obi-Wan never told you what happened to your father." "He told me enough. He told me you killed him!" "No, I am your father." WHAT?!?!?!?! The evil Darth Vader is the father of our hero??? Had that been done before in movie history? Has anyone dared to do it since without being seen as a rip-off of Star Wars? Earlier in the movie, Darth Vader had been talking to the Emperor and gave the suggestion that perhaps he could turn Luke to the dark side. Ha! That ain't gonna happen, right? No way our hero even thinks about joining Darth Vader. But does that change once we know they are related? "We can rule the galaxy as father and son," Vader suggests to Luke following the reveal. Does this suddenly become a tempting offer? What is Luke going to do?

Luke never knew his father, but your father is your father. You only get one of them. Luke's reaction to the reveal is one of shock and disbelief. Knowing he's backed into a corner, the only thing he can think of doing is falling into the whatever it is that he's above, landing him in the whatever thing he lands, to be quickly rescued by Leia, who he has an obvious force connection with. The force is strong in the Skywalker family. Which begs the question, if Darth Vader felt such a strong connection with Luke and thus figured out that Luke was his son, why didn't he feel the same thing in the first movie when Leia was right next to him? I guess I'll forgive them for that. Moving on. Once Leia rescues Luke and Luke is lying there in the bed, trying to call out to Obi-Wan as he wonders why Obi-Wan never told him the full truth, another conversation happens between Darth Vader and Luke, this time from a distance. "Father!" "Son!" This is a young, innocent son crying out to his father and the father responding back. Luke never never his parents. He grew up with his aunt and uncle. Darth Vader never knew his son. In this moment, a deep, strong, emotional connection is made. It's obvious that both of them yearn to live in a family setting that neither of them had, but is now available to them. Yet this can't happen because they are both fighting on opposite sides of the war.

Wow. Just wow. This is definitely one of the best on-screen relationships in movie history that takes two characters that were already great and transforms them into two of the most interesting characters in movie history. I want to spend a bit more time on both of them individually. First Luke. As I stated in my review of the first Star Wars, a lot of people have noticed the fact that Luke is a really whiny character. But this isn't a bad thing. There's this thing called character progression and Luke's progression throughout this trilogy is beyond beautiful. Already in the beginning of this movie, we can tell that he's progressed a ton from where he was at the beginning of the first movie. He gets trapped by the abominable snowman and is hung upside down in that cave, waiting to be dinner, but he uses his knowledge of the force to get his light saber and free himself. But he's still far from being a Jedi, which is why ghost Obi-Wan tells him to go to Yoda to continue his training. Yoda, by the way, is fantastic. Knowing that Luke won't recognize him when he gets to Dagobah, he decides to act like an annoying little creature and pester the heck out of Luke to see how he will respond. Yoda concludes that Luke doesn't have patience. He's not ready to be a Jedi. He's too old. He almost refuses to train Luke because of these things, but ghost Obi-Wan argues with him, reminding Yoda that Obi-Wan was the same way when Yoda began to train him. That's right. Yoda trained Obi-Wan. Not Qui-Gon.

So Yoda gives in and trains Luke, but Luke is obviously very troubled. He's also very vulnerable, which is shown by one of the most thought-provoking scenes in the movie. There's a point during the training where Darth Vader suddenly shows up in Dagobah and the two engage in a light saber duel, which ends in Luke chopping off Darth Vader's head, cutting off his mask, and seeing that it is himself, Luke Skywalker, that's behind the mask. I don't know if this was a vision or what, but it shows that Luke is not ready for a confrontation. He needs to stay there with Yoda and continue his training, which is what Yoda and Obi-Wan beg him to do. Luke feels that his friends are in trouble. Yoda tells him he is sensing the future and suddenly Luke decides that he needs to leave immediately leave to go save them or else they are going to die. His desire to go save his friends is respectable, but it also shows that his immaturity. He shouldn't have gone. He should've listened to the much wiser Yoda, but he didn't. He goes after his friends and as Leia says once he gets there, "Luke, it's a trap!" Yeah, it's Leia that says that classic line first. But even though he shouldn't have gone, all these experiences help him continue to learn more and more, which will show in Return of the Jedi. But even so, he is still able to put up one heck of a fight in his first actual meeting against Vader. It's amazing watching Luke's journey during these movies and because of these we get an amazing payoff in our finale.

Now it's time to talk more about Darth Vader. Specifically, I want to take advantage of this moment to explain what it is that makes a great villain, because Darth Vader is one of the best villains in movie history. First off, Star Wars is really good at making good villains. Grand Moff Tarkin is a good villain. The Emperor is a good villain. Jabba the Hutt is a good villain. Even in the prequels, Darth Maul is a good villain. Count Dooku is a good villain. General Grievous is a good villain. If you look evil, sound evil, and/or act evil, you can be a good villain. Darth Maul is someone we knew absolutely nothing about and he didn't really talk, but he was painted black and red and had the spikes on his head. Add in his scowl and the double-sided light saber in which he was boss at and he was a villain people loved. Dooku was played by one of the greatest actors in history who knows how to act like a villain and so even though his character was poorly written, Christopher Lee made him a good villain. Grievous was the sweetest looking droid in all of Star Wars who fought with four light sabers at once. That was pretty boss. Grand Moff Tarkin didn't look spectacular, but man was that guy was cold. He carried himself as if he had no soul and even garnered respect from Darth Vader. The Emperor looks like the most evil man alive, speaks like the most evil man alive, is cunning and manipulative, and shoots electricity out of his fingers. That's a good villain. As far as Jabba goes, well we'll talk about him more next time.

All of these guys are good villains, but in my opinion a great villain is someone who has the attributes of a good villain, but they also have something more. They are villains where the audience actually has an emotional connection to. If you want a good example of this, go watch any Hitchcock movie ever. The villains in Hitchcock's thrillers aren't just people doing bad things for the heck of it. They all have a very human element to them. There's a reason why they are who they are and that reason often is very emotional and almost relatable. You feel bad for them. You don't approve of what they're doing or the choices they've made, but they have a whole lot of depth to their characters. It's not just an evil person doing evil things because the story requires an evil person doing evil things. This is something that a lot of comic book movies recently fail at. They need a villain for the superheroes to fight, but instead of giving them depth and making them relatable, they just give them awesome, unstoppable powers and call that good. As much as I love and enjoy the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a lot of their villains are very unmemorable. But then there's Loki, who has a ton of depth to him and is such a fascinating character. That's a great villain. Norman Bates in Hitchcock's Psycho is a very deep character with a lot of psychological issues that make you feel bad for him. Understand the difference?

Now to tie this all into Darth Vader. In Star Wars, Darth Vader is a very good villain. His whole persona is very grand and ominous. The mask. The helmet. The outfit. The cape. All of that being black, the color that represents evil. It's fantastic. Then we have the voice by James Earl Jones. Man. That voice is one of the most epic voices in movie history. When his goal is to sound evil, dang does he sound evil. And then the way he acts is pretty much pure evil. He was a Jedi. He was a friend of Obi-Wan. Yet he betrayed and killed many Jedi, almost causing the complete downfall of the Jedi Knights. That is evil. He also shows no mercy. He's perfected the force choke. He is pretty dang good with a light saber. This is such a good villain. But then The Empire Strikes Back goes ahead and gives this villain so much depth. He's not just a villain. He's a father. He was a good friend to those around him. He had a lover who he probably cared a lot for. Yet for some reason, he was seduced by the Emperor and betrayed his friends and family. His lover died. His two kids were hidden from him. For many, many years he let whatever it was that was troubling him consume his very soul and he turned pure evil. Yet when his son Luke comes into the picture, suddenly his human element starts to show again. He's not just a villain, he's once again a father. And we see that he has a desire to be a father and have a good relationship with his son, despite him still being consumed with this darkness. All this combined is why Darth Vader is so great.

Yes, I've gotten this far into this review and I've only really talked about Darth Vader and Luke. Well, this is my one opportunity to review this movie and so this was completely necessary in my mind. I needed to dive deep into Darth Vader and Luke because that relationship is why this movie is so good. Even if the rest of the movie around them was kinda cheesy, their relationship alone would've been enough to carry this movie. But the thing is, the movie around them is far from being cheesy. It's actually pretty dang good. And there's really only two storylines going on in this movie. We have Luke's adventures that I've talked extensively about and we have Han and Leia's adventures. That's it. And the whole group starts together on Hoth before they go their separate ways and later reunite at Cloud City. Yes, the themes of the movie are deep and complex, but the storyline is simple. I think there's a lot of power to having a storyline that is simple as opposed to some of the prequels where there's four or five different storylines going on at the same time. I'm not saying a complex story is inherently bad, but when you can pull off simple and deep, you usually win most of the time. If you go for a complex story, you run the risk of losing your audience's interest.

Back to Han and Leia, I'm sure you were wondering why I haven't talked about them yet. It's not because they aren't important. They aren't just the side order or the frosting on the cake. Their side of things may not reach the grandeur that is the story between Luke and Darth Vader, but it gets pretty close. First off is the romance. This is arguably one of the best romances in movie history. Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford have fantastic chemistry throughout the whole series, yet both of them have very strong personalities. Han is a very selfish person at the start of this series and Leia is definitely no damsel in distress when it comes to female characters. This is why the butt heads through much of the first and part of this second movie. But you can tell that despite this clash, they are slowly coming together because their is a mutual respect and attraction, even if neither of them want to admit it at first. Then they kiss for the first time and that is a beautiful scene, watching them finally come together. C-3PO coming in and interrupting the moment without even realizing what he's doing, before or after, makes the moment even better. Han sarcastically thanks C-3PO, trying to send the message that he interrupted, but C-3PO is totally clueless. Then after Han and Leia have finally come together, we have the tragic departure when Han is captured and put into the carbon-freezing. Their exchange is also one of the greatest moments in history. "I love you!" "I know."

In between this, of course, we have the introduction to another fascinatingly complex individual. Lando Calrissian. After Han and Leia escape Darth Vader by travelling through the asteroid field that will make every astronomer facepalm and landing on the asteroid that wasn't an asteroid, Han makes the decision to take cover in Cloud City with his buddy Lando. Then we get dive into this issue of trust. Han trusts him. Leia doesn't. Who's right? Leia, of course. It was a trap. Vader and Boba Fett got there first. But we as an audience are playing this trust game right along with them even after Han officially gets taken captive. Lando seems like a good guy, but is he? Would a friend betray another friend like Lando did? No. But yet Lando says he had no choice. We don't know what Vader threatened him with. Would Vader have killed him and everyone in the city if he had resisted? So was Lando actually in the right by doing what Vader said, then trying to help them all escape when the moment was right? I don't know. It makes him another fascinating character in a movie stuffed full of amazing characters, classic moments, and thought-provoking themes.

All of this brings me to my final point. I've talked about how great this story is. I've told you about about how well-written these characters are and how deep this movie is. It takes everything from the first movie and brings it to the next level. Return of the Jedi is also a good, fun movie, but it does take a slight dip in quality and I'll talk about it next time. But I bring this up because this is actually the one movie where George Lucas' stamp is less present. He wrote and directed Star Wars. He wrote and directed all of the prequels. He didn't direct Return of the Jedi, but he stepped in and helped write the screenplay. In The Empire Strikes Back, he essentially does none of that. He didn't direct. He didn't write the screenplay. All the credit he is given in the movie is story credit, executive producer, and editor. This seems like the movie where he did the most listening instead of the most decision making. Irvin Kershner is the director. Lawrence Kasdan stepped in to help write the screenplay. Is it a coincidence that the best Star Wars movie by far is the one where other people did more of the decision making? I don't think so. I have all the respect in the world for George Lucas because he is the creator of this universe. But I think the special editions, the additional changes in the DVD and Bluray releases, and the prequels are all evidence that this universe is better off in other people's hands.

In wrapping this review up, there have been many times where you have seen me use the phrase, "one of the best in history." I don't just say that to say that or because other people say that. There are so many aspects of this movie that are the top of the line when it comes to all movies, not just the Star Wars movies. But in talking about the Star Wars movies, I love the original Star Wars movie. I think it is fantastic. I even gave it a perfect score. You'll notice next week that I also love Return of the Jedi. Even though I have come to realize that it is the third best best movie of the original trilogy, I still think it's great. Yet the more I think about all these movies, the more I realize that there is absolutely no question as to which movie is best. It's The Empire Strikes Back. Sure there are people that are mad at it because it made them wait three years to figure out what happens next. You could point out that it is only half of a movie because it doesn't resolve hardly anything. But neither of those bother me. In my opinion, the fact that it presents all of these issues and doesn't solve them right away makes it even more thought-provoking than the other two that are more fun than deep. There's not really a score I could give this movie that does it complete justice and I'm not going to create a new rating system that goes up to 15 or 20 or something like that just for these types of classic movies. But yes, this is one of the best movies ever made in my opinion and as such of course I'm going to give it a 10/10.  

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