Before I write anything else about this movie, let me just give the utmost praise to it. The Empire Strikes Back is probably the greatest sequel of all time. I believe it deserved a Best Picture nomination at the Oscars in 1980. It has the best acting of all of the films and it took the world of the previous film, and expanded on it in a way no one thought was possible.
That being said, if you've read my previous reviews, you would know that this is not my favorite Star Wars film. It does not excite me as much as some of the others in the series, and in the grand scheme of things, this is pretty much Return of the Jedi Part I. This does not diminish the greatness of this movie, but it is something that's made it stand out less to me. But, I am my own person, entitled to my opinion and even with that feeling, I still love this movie and I will see if by the end of this review if I will say that this is the best Star Wars film, even if it is not my favorite.
I remember as a kid wondering why my dad did not have this one on VHS like the other two and I always wanted it in my collection. This is mainly due to me liking to have a complete set of things. But once he bought it for me, I remember being excited about finally seeing this movie, especially because it was my dad's favorite of the series, and still is to this day. But I also can't forget how bummed out I was watching this beginning as a child. It starts off much slower than A New Hope, Luke is attacked in the first two minutes, there's all this talking between Han and Leia, it just all seemed too slow and boring for me. I'm also not the hugest fan of snow, so the whole idea of an ice planet was horrible for me as a kid.
Now, we all know, time changes things and it can have an effect on one's perspective. As I've gotten older, I realize now, the suspense of Luke being attacked, the desperation of the rebels to have a base on an ice planet just to hide from the Empire, the development of the relationship between Han and Leia, and the fun of watching their relationship grow throughout the movie.
One thing I've also noticed after watching this movie now, is how much the film centers on Han in the first 20 minutes. Han gets a lot of screen time here and to me, he comes off as the actual lead of the film. Mostly, that is due to the fact that he is a natural leader. Leia even says it in the film. He did the same in the last movie, he was the take charge hero and it continues in this film. One thing I love is the character development in his early scenes and Harrison Ford is so great here. He clearly has feelings for Leia and wants her to admit her feelings for him as well. He later shows his concern for Luke when he hasn't returned to base and quickly risks his own life to go and find him, no questions asked. He's already begun to grow from the mercenary smuggler he was in A New Hope.
Meanwhile, Luke manages to escape from the creature that attacked him and he barely lasts out in the cold before passing out. However, the spirit, or rather Force ghost, of Obi-Wan Kenobi appears to him and tells him to go to Dagobah to train with Jedi Master Yoda. Luke is then saved by Han and they are returned to the base.
There is a later scene, where all three of our heroes are together again, and Han shines in this scene. You see his brotherhood with Luke, his friendship with Chewbacca, and his banter with Leia is hilarious. After, that Han and Chewie check out a probe droid and realize that the Empire is coming their way.
And in comes Vader! He may have had a visually great entrance in the previous film, but it is here where Vader truly becomes a terrifying and threatening villain (and of course it helps to have your own theme music!). Vader is bossing admirals around and force choking left and right, and in this movie he doesn't even have to raise his hand or be in the same room with the guy, he is just ruthless and it is amazing to watch, yet scary at the same time.
As the heroes prepare for evacuation as well as a battle, Han and Luke say their goodbyes and there is this wonderful shot of Han looking on as Luke walks away, showing how much he has grown to care for Luke and he wonders how Luke will be without him around. The following Battle of Hoth, has some nice action and it's actually pretty sad to watch the rebels lose, but then we saw that in the opening of A New Hope, and during the attack on the Death Star. The rebels have a presence, but the shadow of the Empire (no pun intended) looms over them at all times there are only glimpses of victory throughout this struggle and that continues in the next film too. I say all this to say that in all honesty, I have never been that impressed with the battle of Hoth and even though it's nice to see Luke take command and help fight, I am more invested in Han's story as he tries to get Leia to safety and ends up bringing her and Threepio with him along on the Falcon.
The film actually continues first with Han's plot. Like I said before in my review of Attack of the Clones, The Empire Strikes Back is as much Han's film as that one was Obi-Wan's. His plot line is a direct continuation of the previous action. The villain is chasing Han throughout the galaxy and it is their story that has more of my attention in the first half of the movie. Meanwhile, Luke's story with Yoda always seemed like a subplot because it was so distant from everything else that was going on.
That isn't to say I don't like Luke's storyline. It's actually very moving and you learn about the ways of the Force and Luke's inner conflict as he wonders what his destiny is. Not to mention how great the planet of Dagobah looks design-wise. It has a scary, yet sacred atmosphere to it. And this is the film that first introduced audiences to the great Jedi Master Yoda. Now Yoda is a genius creation and one of the best Star Wars characters of all time. After all the movies that followed it's great to see how comical of a character he was when first introduced. He comes across as a nuisance to Luke and R2 but when he says he will take them to Yoda and he sees Luke's impatience, he reveals himself as Yoda and completely changes in stance, voice and everything. He has some of the best lines in the movie and his teachings are a masterful crash course in how to be a Jedi.
The scenes are very revealing in terms of Luke's character growth. As an audience, we get to experience Luke deal with his inner fears and demons and frustrations and the best example of this is the cave scene. Its atmosphere is almost horror like and you wonder where Vader comes from when he heads towards Luke with his lightsaber ignited. Luke fights him and seems to behead him, which also is startling. Then the helmet explodes and reveals Luke's face, revealing it all to be a vision. This scene is just beautiful filmmaking. But the greatest of the scenes is most definitely the sequence with Yoda and the X-wing. Frank Oz did a superb job with Yoda and this might be Yoda's greatest scene in the entire series, just because it shows how powerful Yoda is and it ends with the awesome line of "That is why you fail."
When we get back to Han's plot, there is so much going on and it's fun to watch these events unfold. Without spoiling too much or going to into detail, these are the list of events that happen. Han and the others are chased through an asteroid field, Han and Leia fall in love, They hide out in a cave, the cave turns out to be the mouth of a space slug, the hyperdrive is damaged, Vader talks with the emperor who wants to turn Luke evil, the empire hires Boba Fett, Han hides and goes to the planet Bespin for help, Boba Fett finds them and folows them there. All of these sequences are great and add much humor and excitement to the film to break from the depth and intensity of Luke's scenes with Yoda.
Vader's tactic throughout the movie is to use Luke's friends to trap him and it unfortunately works. While training, Luke sees visions of Han and Leia in pain and rushes to leave in order to stop Vader and save them. Yoda and Obi-Wan warn him not to leave, but his stubbornness prevents him from doing so. One thing that caught my attention when I got older is that Yoda exits the movie after this scene. He is such an important character with all these great scenes and then he's just missing from the entire third act of the movie. But where one character exits, another one enters.
Reaching Bespin, Han and company encounter his old friend, Lando Calrissian. Again, it's amazing to me that he doesn't even enter the film until well after an hour into the film and yet he has such great impact on the rest of the film and Billy Dee Williams truly creates a memorable character, giving him a pretty great arc, similar to Han's in the previous film. Once the heroes reach Bespin and enter Cloud City (an amazing visual achievement by the way), this is where things start to go wrong.
C-3PO is attacked by a strange group of workers there and is found by Chewbacca. At first this seems like a random event, but then when Han and Leia are invited for refreshments, they are met by Vader and it is revealed that Lando betrayed Han to protect Cloud City. Vader's deals with Lando constantly change and we see the frustration Lando has with it, making him a less despicable character. Han is then tortured and he becomes a test subject for carbon freezing meant for Luke. Of course, all of this is meant to get Luke's attention and it definitely works as Luke races off to go save his friends.
The carbon freeze scene is great for many reasons. One, Chewie's fury and then sadness is so emotional to watch. Han's orders to Chewie to take care of Leia show much he has grown. Vader is such a baddie when giving the orders to put Han in the freezing chamber and I get chills when the steam or smoke or whatever passes Vader's helmet. Han's classic line of "I Know" as a response to Leia declaring her love is the ultimate summary of his character and honestly he is never the same after this. The score as Han is lowered into chamber is so haunting and you feel the emotion as at the time audiences didn't know what was going to happen to Han. The part that always made this scene great to me is the look on Harrison Ford's face as he is lowered. He wants to assure them that he will be ok, but you also see the fear on his face and his ultimate acceptance of his fate.
After this, Lando finally decides to turn on the Empire and help Leia. Meanwhile, Luke enters Cloud City and faces Darth Vader in the most emotional duel of the entire series. Right from the start, you feel the atmosphere of it all and when Vader's voice comes booming you feel the fear. "The Force is with you, Young Skywalker. But you are not a Jedi yet." Fabulous voice work from James Earl Jones. The scene starts of slow but as it builds, the tension increases. The painful part about this section of the movie is that our heroes are continuing to lose throughout. Lando and Leia evacuate the city and try to rescue Han but fail, then they barely are able to escape on the Falcon. The duel doesn't go any better. At every turn, Luke is overpowered and outmatched by Vader. At one point, Vader only uses the Force to overpower Luke and it's almost sad to watch. The duel comes to end when Vader literally disarms Luke and cuts off his hand. Vader pleads for Luke to join him and when Luke refuses, Vader reveals possibly the greatest plot twist of all time.
The magnitude of this scene has been duplicated and parodied countless times over the years. I remember watching a behind the scenes video and even James Earl Jones was surprised and when he found out, Jones said, "Oh, he's lying!" It's a decision that changed everything going forward. What's even more stunning is that Luke doesn't even accept it, he just falls down and would rather kill himself than join Vader. Of course, Luke doesn't actually die, but you feel his pain.
He calls out for Obi-Wan but gets no response. Suddenly, something in him decides to call on Leia. The next shot showing Leia sense him in danger is so powerful to me and when she whispers his name, I just get so excited. Leia and Lando go back to rescue Luke and then R2 helps the Falcon escape the Empire. What's noticeable here is that this time, Vader doesn't acknowledge the admiral's failure to capture Luke. He just walks away in silence and you feel the disappointment in that and you actually care for a second about this cold villain.
The film ends with a slight glimmer of hope, with Luke getting a new hand and Lando promising to find Han, but the ending is so abrupt, leaving you with questions and the film is such a downer in the end, realizing all that has happened, and just like with Yoda, i get upset knowing that Han is out of the movie after all he had done throughout the film and having his fate uncertain was such a bold move.
I'm convinced! This is a great movie and it is the best Star Wars movie, even if it is not my favorite. I believe this film deserved nominations for Best Director, Best Picture, Best Actor for Harrison Ford, Best Supporting Actor for Frank Oz or even James Earl Jones, Best Cinematography, I mean, this film is just simply amazing. I give The Empire Strikes Back an A+.