The Empire Strikes Back is a movie near and dear to my heart. Growing up, I owned it on VHS (and still do) and watched it constantly, which is to say that I have no idea how many times I’ve actually seen it. It was that good to 8-year-old me, and thankfully, Empire remains a great experience some thirty-five years after its release.
Directly following the events of Episode IV: A New Hope, Empire opens with the rebels on the run from Darth Vader and his Imperial forces. Fighting with the rebels is Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), who uses their defeat as an opportunity to search out an old Jedi master, Yoda, on the suggestion of the Force-spirit version of Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness). Having sacrificed himself for Luke’s benefit during A New Hope, Obi-Wan’s new form allows him to communicate with Luke from beyond the grave and give advice perhaps in a way that would be more persuasive than if it were offered while he was still alive. Luke takes that advice, which allows his journey alongside the Force to really begin.
Everything about Yoda, from his demeanor to the way he moves, is magical to watch. I’m reminded of other, equally great fantasy films that utilized puppetry and animatronics, such as Labyrinth and The Neverending Story. Just like the puppets in those films, Yoda doesn’t feel out of place or not capable of interacting with real actors. On top of that, his scenes are shot and edited so well that even if the puppet itself was kind of crappy, I doubt it would show through in the final product. As for the character, I hardly see a resemblance between the Yoda depicted in Empire and the head of the Jedi Council in the prequels. One is a walking dunce cap, while the other exudes wisdom and strength with every thought and action. I’ll let you guess which is which. And let’s not discount the way Yoda initiates contact with Luke by purposefully annoying the piss out of him and eating his dinner. While funny on its own, the main purpose of his deception is to test what he already highly suspects of Luke—he isn’t overly fond of being patient. Teaching basic, important lessons such as this before any training has actually started demonstrates this is a being who clearly takes no shit from anyone, which might have been born out of remembering for nineteen years how badly he screwed up in the Clone Wars. No, I will never let him live that one down. Do, or do not. There is no try.
While Luke is busy cutting his own head off in a cave, Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Chewbacca, and Princess Leia (Carry Fisher) barely escape the Hoth system with their lives. They make their way to the Cloud City, where Han supposedly has an old friend, Lando Calrissian (Billy dee Williams), waiting to help them repair their ship. Long story short, once they get there, they’re almost immediately screwed over, and Vader ends up baiting Luke into coming to the city by torturing Han. Vader knows Luke can feel the disturbance in the Force, and sure enough, Luke heads right on over for what Vader hopes will be a nice carbonite shower.
The Force is with you, young Skywalker, but you are not a Jedi yet.
Instead, of course, we’re treated to one of the best duels in cinematic history. You can quote me or curse me on that; I don’t mind either way. I’ve heard people say they much prefer the newer, flashier, and longer duels in the prequels, but for me, it doesn’t get any better than the slow, methodical, hate-filled display of Luke and Vader’s first meeting. It feels way more like two people actually jousting, though I’m aware of the fact Jedis and Sith have superhuman abilities. In a live-action setting, I guess I just don’t feel the need to see them constantly use their powers on that scale. The volcano fight between Obi-Wan and Anakin in Revenge of the Sith is a great example of overkill, as it looks totally ridiculous and takes like an hour to get it over with. In contrast, the Luke/Vader duel only takes a few minutes and doesn’t rely on terrible effects that resemble a late-’90s video game cutscene. Overall, the duel in Empire Strikes Back manages to pack an emotional punch not present in the volcano duel or in the prequel movies in general. If I had to sum it up in one sentence, it would be that I could watch father and son clash lightsabers indefinitely and be absolutely content.
I’m sure more enterprising fans could tell you what’s wrong with this movie, but if I’m being honest, it’s perfect in my eyes. Is it technically perfect? Of course not, but I can’t think of anything that detracts from my experience. That mileage will vary, but I can say at the very least that The Empire Strikes Back is the best of the two trilogies. Just like A New Hope, Empire finds a good balance between humor, drama, and action and is elevated further by Luke and Vader’s destinies coming closer together.
As far as I can tell, destiny is a malleable thing in the Star Wars universe, and I usually prefer a little surprise over knowing evil is evil is evil, and good is good is good, end of story. Empire allows doubt to remain as to whether or not Luke will eventually turn to the dark side, even though he politely declines to join Vader. The only thing I can say for certain is that The Empire Strikes Back deserves every bit of praise it’s been given over the years, and if anything, it’s only grown in stature.
Read more from George Bell at Knights of Mars Roundtable