Out of all original trilogy films, I was curious to rewatch this one the most, because I'm sure I had only ever seen it once, and remembered virtually nothing except the big scenes that even little green aliens on Mars probably know about. And something about the ice planet. Oh and this totally not awkward scene:
I found A New Hope rather slight and clunky, if not without charm, but Empire takes the series to a whole new level in virtually every respect - it's no wonder that it's widely regarded to be the high point of the series. For starters, even if I didn't know it I'd still probably guess that it wasn't directed by George Lucas. Watching A New Hope, I thought it was pretty obvious that the stiffness and staginess of the prequels didn't come from nowhere. I don't pretend to know much about the technical side of filmmaking, but Empire just feels different from its predecessor in terms of imagery and choice of shots; everything seems more organic and nuanced and visually exciting. Plus this is where the big Shakespearean family drama of the series really takes off, with that scene between Luke and Darth Vader which still has impact despite of the million pop culture references and parodies from the last 35 years.
Speaking of Darth Vader, he truly becomes a grand villain of mythical proportions, after spending the previous movie as Governor Tarkin's henchman. I was starting to think that maybe he was more impressive as a figure in people's collective memories and imagination, but no he really is an amazing onscreen villain. He is served well by the overall darker mood and the way everyone on the Star Destroyer is clearly scared shitless when he's around, because you never know when you might get demoted by Force choke.
I probably found the storyline with Luke's training on Dagobah with Yoda insanely slow and boring when I first saw the movie as a teenager ages ago, but re-watching it now I appreciated the way it expanded on the spiritual aspect of the Force, and the dark-fairytale, swampy set design of the place. Plus, after The Force Awakens, it's just gratifying to watch a hero actually work at getting good at something and fail along the way, instead of reaching instant god level. I also had a whole new appreciation for Han and Leia's romance, because after so many blockbusters with boring shoehorned love stories (looking at you Jurassic World) it's refreshing to watch a romance with the actual chemistry, emotion, unspoken undercurrents and snarky repartee.
The craft and artistry that went into the creation of Yoda is amazing; you can clearly tell that he's just a puppet and yet he's imbued with so much character and soul you forget it. Some of the other effects haven't dated well and some of the puppet creatures at the start of the movie are rather... hilarious, but you know what? I'd rather take a real-looking puppet with their jerky movements over the dated soulless CGI, any day.
Oh and I definitely forgot the bit at the start where Luke gets the Revenant experience inside the gutted white llama-like creature, way before Leonardo di Caprio made it cool.