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Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Review: Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back

For May the Fourth Be With You, also known as Star Wars Day, I sat down with the family and watched the greatest of the Star Wars films. Episode V has been acclaimed by many as the greatest and the best of the entire Star Wars film saga, and there are many reasons for this, aside from it being a darn good film. But I think that there is one, central factor which propelled this film to the top: George Lucas, for the most part, kept his dadblamed hands off it.

Empire takes place some three years after the evens of A New Hope, where Luke Skywalker and his friends are helping out with the Rebel Alliance. Luke's a commander, Leia's doing here ting, Han's trying to call it quits to pay back his debts, and Chewbacca, R2-D2 and C-3PO are hanging around. But after a devastating Imperial attack leaves the Rebel Alliance scattered, and Luke receives a vision of Obi-Wan Kenobi telling him to go to Dagobah to find some guy named Yoda, our heroes are split. Han, Leia, Chewie, R2 and 3PO are on the Millennium Falcon trying to get away from Darth Vader and the Imperials, and Luke is learning the ways of the Force. Will our heroes get to safety? Will Vader be vanquished? Will Luke quite snogging his sister already?! Seriously, George Lucas has a really messed up idea of romance. (To be fair, neither of them had any idea at the time that they were related, but it's still gross in any context.)

Dispensing with the ranting and raving, this is undoubtedly the best of the Star Wars films. Why? Because it was the one film that George Lucas kept his mitts off of the most. I don't know how he managed to do what he did with A New Hope, but all the other films that he had at least a degree of direct involvement in were sub-par at best and complete poo at worst. Case in point, the prequels, and to an extent, Return of the Jedi. He works best when he's in a strictly writing capacity, or even better, in an advisory role. Empire was directed by Irvin Kershner, produced by Gary Kurtz, and co-written by George Lucas and two other people. But for all this faults, Lucas is the man responsible for the whole Star Wars thing, so kudos to him for that.

But this all fails to answer the question of why specifically Empire is a great film. First of all, it knows when to be fun and funny, and when to be serious and dramatic. I remember watching Empire of Dreams on New Year's Day, and Kershner said in that documentary that the movie had to have humor, but not gags. That's exactly what I saw here. In addition, the film has some great suspense, keeping you on the edge of your seat at just the right moments. It moves along at a fast pace, giving the viewer a thrill a minute right up until Vader says that thing he says that everyone knows. If you don't, you need to see this movie before people begin laughing at you and spoil it for you anyway.

Re-watching this movie made me realize that Star Wars is most accurately described as a science fantasy war epic. I know that the prequels did a lot of "Doing in the Wizard" and leaned heavily into soft science fiction, but the genre is really evident here. We've got the space ships and laser guns from science fiction, the magic, swords, and pop-philosophy mumbo-jumbo from fantasy, the war from the... war, and the epic from the journeys and trials that the characters go through.

One of the principal achievements of this film, however, which it shares with the other films in the original trilogy, are the effects. They were cutting edge for their time, and still look great today in a world awash with CGI. You've got the Battle of Hoth and the asteroid chase scene, but the real draw in terms of special effects is Yoda. Voiced by Frank Oz, this very emotive puppet was what would make or break the film, as noted by the filmmakers in Empire of Dreams. Happily enough, the Yoda puppet actually expresses more emotion than Mark Hamill, Luke Skywalker's actor, at times, and Oz totally sells it.

Speaking of Mark Hamill, he's probably the source of the film's only real flaw. I'll be the first person to defend him as a great voice actor. He did play the Joker in Batman: The Animated Series and in the Arkham games, not to mention flipping Fire Lord Ozai in Avatar: The Last Airbender, but here, he's a pretty hit or miss actor. I've heard that it's probably because he was less experienced back then, and I buy that, but I still think that even Hamill got across some great emotion, which the movie has in abundance, in his final scene with Darth Vader. In fact, every actor from James Earl Jones as the voice of Darth Vader, to newcomers Billy Dee Williams and Kenneth Colley as Lando Calrissian and Admiral Piett, respectively, did a great job in their roles.

Suffice it to say, Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back delivers the second (or fifth, depending on how you look at it) act in an epic story which serves as the climax of the original trilogy, giving us a cast of fully developed characters, amazing effects, incredible acting, and dynamic action and adventure. I cannot say enough about how it is very easily the greatest and the best of all of the Star Wars films. It is also, I think, one of the greatest films ever to grace the silver screen.

RATING: 9.5/10

Fun fact: Admiral Ackbar from Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi is not the first person to shout "It's a trap!" Princess Leia actually says it when she first sees Luke at Cloud City, yelling to him, "It's a trap!"

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