Stars: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Billy Dee Williams and Anthony Daniels
This is the fifth entry in my Star Wars I-VII Runthrough, which aims to look at the entire series of feature films with three things in mind: quality, progression and the fan theory of Jar Jar Binks as ultimate villain. Hello, Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back!
Three years after scoring a major success with the destruction of the Death Star in A New Hope, the Rebel Alliance has been forced into retreat. They’ve established a new base on the ice planet of Hoth but the Empire are actively searching for them and Darth Vader is especially keen on finding the man who blew up his space station. Probes discover the base and battle commences as the rebels attempt to evacuate and regroup.
Primary characters are Darth Vader, the Sith Lord who commands the Empire wherever we see it; Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and Princess Leia, three friends fighting for the Rebel Alliance; Chewbacca, Han's Wookiee co-pilot; C-3PO and R2-D2, the usual pair of droids; and Lando Calrissian, a friend and adversary of Han's who now runs Cloud City, a mining colony above Bespin, to which he takes the Millennium Falcon for repairs.
Even with another model Star Destroyer to kick things off, this film oozes quality immediately. Star Wars quickly became a fan favourite and an unprecedented success because of its energy, its imagination and its mythical grounding, but there are clear flaws that can't be ignored. While I still prefer A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back is clearly the better film.
For a start, it’s a slower and more thoughtful piece but with more invention. There's also actual science fiction in amongst the space opera and fantasy. There’s real depth to be found, both to the story and its characters. And yet, it's still almost as iconic as its predecessor with a whole slew of memorable lines, the double whammy of ‘I love you' and 'I know’ merely my favourite. There's also ‘Do or do not; there is no try’; ‘I have altered the deal; pray I do not alter it further’ and, of course, ‘I am your father.’
What's more, things aren't necessarily what they seem. Escape plans actually seem clever and believable. Twists and revelations make sense. Characters may have more than one motivation and we might be able to believe them all. Even when something clichéd comes along, like the pursuit through an asteroid field, at least there's drama and further invention within those scenes rather than just a dumb chase. It's worth mentioning that the rocks are more widely spaced and not exploding, like the time Obi-Wan chased Jango Fett in Attack of the Clones. C-3PO even provides their odds of survival.
Ford gets his teeth into Solo more than Fisher gets hers into Leia, but then he does have opportunities that she doesn't. She does bring a number of angles to Leia but she's stuck tagging along with the others for much of the picture. At least, while this is going on, there's some actual sexual tension generated between the two of them, which highlights just how sexless the previous four films were. A mere couple of scenes between Han, Leia and the brief third wheel of Luke show up the romance of Anakin and Amidala as laughable hokum. They had two movies, a marriage and kids, but even Anakin's shift to the dark side to save his wife carries less romance than the bickering between Han and Leia.
After the underwhelming battle between Obi-Wan and Vader in A New Hope, it's refreshing to see a much better one between Luke and Vader here. It uses multiple locations and actual moves but it's still a far cry from the spectacular choreography of the prequel trilogy. Some would call that a good thing, of course.
There are less continuity errors here, partly because it's not Episode IV and partly because Lucas was creating a trilogy at this point and had continuity very much in mind. It was clear while watching A New Hope that he was making one movie and a number of things that are meaningful to us today were nothing but background or irrelevancies to him in 1977.
Most obviously, he built up a back story that has Darth Vader revealed as Luke's father, something clearly not intended in the previous film, and a more coherent explanation of the force. Beyond The Phantom Menace's midi-chlorian shenanigans, the force wasn't really a coherent concept even in A New Hope, but it's grown massively this time out. Luke receives a near death vision of Obi-Wan, who tells him to go to the Dagobah system and be trained by Yoda. He does so and the film gains a notably spiritual side to play along with the space battles. Star Wars always feels best when it has both sides in play.
However, while there are less continuity errors than in A New Hope, there are still some, many of which involve the droids. Once again, R2-D2 is not recognised by a character who ought to know him; this time that's Yoda. C-3PO meets a droid who looks exactly like him; given that The Phantom Menace tells us that Anakin built him, did he do so from a Radioshack kit?
A number of characters show up for the first time here. One is the Emperor, looking haggard in a holographic transmission; he remains far away and mostly out of mind with Darth Vader front and centre for the Empire. Watching after the prequels, he also looks rather cheap.
We briefly meet Boba Fett too, who tracks down the Millennium Falcon for Vader and takes Han in carbonite to deliver to Jabba the Hutt; I don't believe he's actually named, though it is a speaking role, but people knew who he was at the time because he'd been introduced in cartoon form in The Star Wars Holiday Special.
Jar Jar Binks
Still no Jar Jar. See yesterday’s notes.