The Empire Strikes Back

The Empire Strikes BackSynopsis: It is a dark time for the Rebellion. After a devastating attack on their ice base on the frozen planet of Hoth, the Rebels are scattered by Imperial pursuit. Luke Skywalker seeks out the mysterious Jedi Master Yoda in the swamps of Dagobah, while Han Solo and Princess Leia outrun the Imperial fleet to the beautiful Cloud City of Bespin. In an attempt to convert Luke to the dark side, the evil Darth Vader lures young Skywalker into a trap. In the midst of a fierce lightsaber duel with the Sith Lord, Luke faces a terrible truth about the Skywalker legacy.

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The Empire Strikes Back 8.5

eyelights: the development of the mythology. the plot. the twists. the tone. the set design. the motion picture score. Frank OZ’s puppetry.
eyesores: some of the effects. some of the performances.

“I won’t fail you. I’m not afraid.” “You will be. You will be…”

‘The Empire Strikes Back’ is the first ‘Star Wars’ movie that I saw at the big screen. I was too young to see the original back in 1977, but I made up for lost time and was fully up to speed by the time its sequel came out. I still remember seeing this on a gray day in Montréal with my father, in one of those rare occasions when I could coax him into a cinema.

Naturally, I was wholly impressed at the time: at my age, I hadn’t seen anything of this scope before. Even my dad walked out with a smile on his face. He was so utterly impressed with Yoda that I ended up getting him the rubber hand puppet for Christmas, which he kept propped up for years and even drew for me. I didn’t get the appeal then, but I do now.

‘Empire’ has long been my favourite of the series. A lot more was going on than in ‘Star Wars’, not just plot-wise, but as far as emotional and aural excitement go. And I love its darker, more sobre mood. Plus there’s the no small matter of the mythos being explored and fleshed out a bit more. Even after George Lucas spoiled the series, ‘Empire’ retained its allure.

So, with a new sequel coming out, I thought that it might be the right time to revisit the film. I had no intention of rushing out to see the new movie (oh, I would see it, but there’d be no rush – I would likely be disappointed with it anyway), but seeing ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ in its original glory would be a fun thing to do.

And, thankfully, Harmy’s Despecialized Edition is around to save the day!

You see, some of us simply don’t want anything to do with George Lucas’ many Special Editions, the only versions of the original trilogy that the public has been allowed to buy since 1997; what we want are the movies as we first saw them, the way they were when we first fell in love with them.

So some guy who goes by the online moniker of Harmy decided to reconstruct the original films with as much of the original elements as possible. With the help of countless others, who provided him with untampered source material, he recreated the original ‘Star Wars’ trilogy just as we’d seen them.

Boy, let me tell, you… thanks to his efforts I enjoyed the movies more than I’d had in years!

(Nota bene: Since the ‘Star Wars’ movies have been already talked about to death, we decided to simply pick apart their strengths and weaknesses as we watched them – in list format and -mostly- in chronological order.)

Light Side of the Film

  • The Imperial probe on Hoth: Mmmmm… alien probing! Ahem… I really love its design, and the sight of it floating as it does really does it for me. Shades of 1953’s ‘The War of the Worlds‘ perhaps?
  • Luke on his tauntaun: It’s such a different sight than the way we last remembered him. And he looks equally cool.
  • The rebel base on Hoth: It looks über cool, sort of like the one on Yavin but white.
  • “I’d as soon kiss a wookie”: Ha! Nice one, Princess. Hopefully you didn’t offend Chewie though – you’d look horrible without arms.
  • Han solo’s confidence: Solo proves himself a good decision-maker and leader thanks to his confidence and decisiveness. He impresses immediately here.
  • The wampa’s lair: I know it’s just an icy grotto, but I love the look of it.
  • Luke is hanging upside down: I guess the wampa treats the grotto as his own butcher shop, and stores his meats from the ceiling for easier access, but the sight of Luke hanging there makes an impression.
  • Luke grabs his lightsaber out of the snow: Yes, this has lost a bit of punch due to the prequels, in which the Jedi are pretty much superheroes, but when we first saw this picture, we had no idea that Luke could use the Force to move things. It was mind-blowing stuff.
  • The transition between Obi-Wan and Han: As Luke is lying in the snow, he thinks he’s seeing Ben in his feverish delirium, and then Han comes running through that vision. It looks cool.
  • “And I thought they smelled bad on the outside.”: Ha! A great laugh, and without dumbing things down or doing slapstick.
  • “Well your Worship, looks like you managed to keep me around for a little while longer.”: The rising tension between Han and Leia is starting to smoulder, but it’s also funny because it’s a battle of egos.
  • “Who’s scruffy-looking?”: The insult was weak, but the reaction was funny, since Han ignores most of it due to his vanity.
  • Han’s black jacket: Let’s face it, Han’s one stylish mofo.
  • Leia’s elegant outfit: It’s certainly more practical than sexy, but it ‘s a classy outfit – for a snowsuit. She’s lookin’ good.
  • The Imperial March: For goodness’ sake, this is pretty much one of the most outstanding themes EVER created, and only this could distinguish itself next to the original ‘Star Wars’ theme. Its introduction is pulse-pounding and chill-inducing at once.
  • Darth Vader’s pod: It’s such a strange contraption and we don’t really know what its purpose is, but that adds more mystique to Vader. The moment we see him emerge from his mechanical bubble, we become even more obsessed with Vader; he has us in his grip.
  • Darth Vader chokes the Admiral: It’s become a bit vaudevillian, but it’s still funny due to the absurdity of Vader’s expectations and the reactions of his underlings.
  • Leia gives orders: She’s not as confident and commanding as she was in ‘Star Wars’, but I still loves me a woman who can take charge with the best of them.
  • The land battle on Hoth: This is just impressive-looking. It’s flawed, but it’s perhaps even more memorable than the ending of ‘Star Wars’ – the difference being that the stakes are lower and it doesn’t rest at the peak of the film’s crescendo.
  • The AT-ATs: They’re not exactly the most practical things out there (another sign that the Empire was on the wane – they couldn’t even hire good designers anymore!), but they look impressive, intimidating – like mechanical dinosaurs.
  • The snowspeeders: It’s a simple design, but I love their slick form. And they glide so sweetly over the snowy surface of Hoth.
  • The harpoon gun: I love the rebels’ creative use of the harpoon gun, in lieu of using force. Nicely done. Why they have one on a snowspeeder, and how practical it really would have been, is another story, however…
  • Leia won’t leave the troops behind: Yeah, she’s solid. She’s way awesome. I want to marry her. Damn you, Han!
  • The Snowtroopers and Darth Vader: I guess I should list them the other way around, but the Snowtroopers are so wicked-looking that it was one of my favourite figurines as a kid. The combo of them and Vader making their way through the rebel base takes my breath away each time.
  • Han and Leia just escape Vader: So… damned… close. But the guy won’t break a sweat for it. Vader’s motto: Walk, don’t run. Also: Don’t run with lightscissors.
  • The whole rebel escape: That whole scene in which the rebels escape from the Empire is really exciting. It doesn’t make much sense when you think about it, but it’s still fun.
  • The asteroid field: Another exciting sequence is the whole asteroid sequence, the way the ships dance through them and sometimes crash. Let’s remember that it’s all meat and potatoes (especially potatoes) – there’s no CGI involved. But it also says a lot about Han and Darth Vader’s personalities. It’s a great scene.
  • The special effects in space: Seriously, this movie looks really good. The SFX team was as skilled as they were ground-breaking. This wasn’t just drawn in a computer. There’s amazing craft at work here.
  • The flight paths: Look at those ships move! Breathtaking.
  • Darth Vader’s helmet is suctioned back on: Another piece of Vader is revealed. We now know he’s human, and a bit battle-scarred. But, above all, it’s a slightly eerie moment, a moment of intrusion, something we shouldn’t have been privy to. The moment imprints itself on the brain.
  • Dagobah: I know it’s just a swamp, but it’s yet another example of superb set design. Dagobah looks terrific. I’d almost want to buy myself a pair of waders and visit.
  • Leia falls on Han’s lap in the Falcon: I love the scene because of its awkwardness – both the way Leia fell and they way she and Han behave afterwards. They’re just looking for an excuse to dry hump by this point.
  • Han’s seduction of Leia: Not so much the way he goes about it as the fact that he does. I’d have preferred it if she were the initiator, being a strong female character, instead of passively waiting for Han to make his move, but you can’t expect too much from male filmmakers in the ’80s.
  • “Wars don’t make one great.”: Well said.
  • The Emperor: Our first glimpse at the Emperor is a smack in the face. There’s someone more sinister and powerful than Vader? Holy !@#$
  • “I am not a committee”: Ha! I love the repartee here because it doesn’t try to be funny. It just is.
  • Luke’s training: The whole sequence is lengthy and talky, but it’s the centrepiece of the picture for me. It reveals so much more about the Jedi and the Force. Leia, Han and company give us the thrills, but Luke’s journey it the emotional centre and anchor of the piece. And of the series, ultimately.
  • Luke goes to visit the dark side: It’s such a strange scene, all gritty and even in slow motion. It just doesn’t fit in the movie stylistically, and yet that’s kind of what makes it so poignant. The Dark Side is something else
  • Darth Vader’s appearance on Dagobah: Holy !@#$! Vader’s here? His sudden appearance makes the pit of your stomach sink to your feet.
  • The lighting: This picture has a really nice look to it, with lots of shadows.
  • Boba Fett: Okay, most of us had no idea he’d appeared in the ‘Star Wars Holiday Special‘ first, so this was our first encounter. He looks amazing, he’s enigmatic, and he was the most popular figurine out there. Boba Fett rules. In moderation. Like Darth Vader, in fact.
  • “You must unlearn what you have learned.”: Words of wisdom that many of us could apply to many facets of our lives.
  • “Do or do not, there is no try.”: A bit harsh, and oft-repeated in pop culture, but a memorable line.
  • Frank OZ’s puppetry: The guy is a genius. Look at the way he brought Yoda to life! That he would later be replaced with CGI is a slap in the face.
  • “Apology accepted, Captain Needa.”: So ironic, so funny.
  • The Star Wars mythology: It’s developed tremendously on Dagobah, and that’s why it’s such a significant part of the picture and trilogy. Without it, the series would be nothing but lightsaber duels and starship battles. Which, let’s face it, would probably be fine with most ‘Star Wars’ fans. Le sigh… as Yoda himself says, “Adventure, excitement… a Jedi craves not these things!
  • “There is another…”: Holy !@#$! There’s another? What a revelation!!! And yet it’ll be overshadowed by a more jaw-dropping one at the film’s end…
  • The sets looks real: !@#$ CGI. Build the sets. Make the worlds look real. Look at the work, the detail, the craft on this picture…
  • “Having trouble with your droid?”: Han’s response is silly and dismissive, but it’s funny. That Lando wouldn’t probe further indicates that he knows more than he’s letting on.
  • Darth Vader’s appearance on Cloud City: Holy !@#$! Vader’s here? Now we know there’s trouble, especially since Lando has clearly betrayed them. Crap oh crap… Vader’s definitely not going to invite them for tea and crumpets… not even evil tea and crumpets!
  • Han’s blaster shots blocked by Vader’s hand: What? He can do that? Holy !@#$! Of course, it’s meaningless now that the Jedi have become superheroes, but at the time this was jaw-dropping. These guys were in serious trouble!
  • “This deal is getting worse all the time…”: You feel Lando’s despair, but you can’t help but laugh at his realization that he is completely helpless here. Karma, man, karma. Never make a deal with the devil. Anyway, ‘Robot Chicken’ had a good time with this one.
  • “I feel terrible.”: Talk about understating things! You can’t help but chuckle at Han’s stoic demeanour.
  • The whole Carbonite sequence: The lighting, the steam, the set design, the implied risks involved, the looks of worry, the whole procedure itself = unforgettable.
  • “I love you.” “I know”: So in character, and thus so funny; it’s as close to being emotional as Han is going to get. But it’s a dick thing to say, contextually. You might as well stomp on her heart. ‘Family Guy’ totally aced this one.
  • Darth Vader stops Boba Fett from shooting: With just a quick gesture, Vader makes it clear that Boba shouldn’t interfere. Such a nice move.
  • Han’s freezing in Carbonite: I know I already mentioned it, but it’s such a dramatic moment that it deserves a mention by its lonesome.
  • Luke confronts Vader: Holy !@#$! Luke is facing Vader head to head. Tell me you didn’t $#!t yourself when you first saw this unfolding!
  • Set design for Luke vs. Vader: I’m overstating this, perhaps, but some sets are so remarkable that even if they’re all amazing, they require their own mention. Such is the case for the whole set design of Luke and Vader’s confrontation. Some of it is of dubious usefulness, but who cares? It’s all eye candy!
  • “The Force is with you, young Skywalker, but you are not a Jedi yet.”: Ooh… bold. And he obviously knows something. He’s a powerful and scary dude.
  • The lightsaber duel: It’s the first and only real one of the picture (Dagobah doesn’t count) and moderation is always best. Speaking of which, it’s more of a samurai sword fight; it’s less athletic than subsequent lightsaber battles. And that’s what makes it so good.
  • “Now, release your anger. Only your hatred can destroy me.”: Brrr… Vader’s one scary dude.
  • Darth Vader chucks things at Luke telekinetically: Now we’re starting to see just how powerful he is. And Luke is clearly no match for Vader; he’s barely holding on. How will he survive this, let alone vanquish his enemy? Little did we know…
  • Luke flies out the window: Holy !@#$! What just happened? How will survive that fall?
  • The great reveal: Holy !@#$! Vader is what? Holy !@#$, holy !@#$, holy !@#$!
  • Luke’s hand: $#!t… Luke is not going to win this one is he is? How will he survive this now? Man, Vader totally handed him his @$$ in a hat.
  • John Williams’ music: Yes, “The Imperial March” is one of the greatest themes of all time, but Williams’ score is brilliant from start to finish. Without his genius the film would have a fraction of its potency. Bow down before the master.

Dark Side of the Film

  • Tauntaun stop-motion animation: So much potential here, but this animation is mediocre. It beats CGI, but barely.
  • The wampa’s attack: Man, this is so anti-climactic. So much potential for tension and danger, but no…
  • R2 now has radar: The Swiss Army Droid is slowly being developed. But… where are all the other functions it has in the prequels? Ah, the joys of reverse-engineering…
  • The so-called odds: As per Threepio, with the help of Artoo, first it begins with 775 to 1. I remember reading that, statiscally-speaking, 1000 to 1 are essentially impossible odds. So it sort of makes sense here. But then it gets more and more outlandish as the series progress, like a bad joke gone out of control.
  • “Ben.. Ben…”: Hearing Hamill croaking these lines always makes me roll my eyes.
  • The flying vehicles stand out on the Hoth landscape: I don’t know if they simply couldn’t mask this, but you can so tell that the crafts were added in – more so than in space (in space, no one can see you blue-screen). Oh well… it’s of the few fails in this movie and it doesn’t affect the plot or much of the excitement.
  • Luke and Han’s rescue: One moment they’re freezing outside, the next they’re being rescued. Then they’re back at the base in a blur. It’s too quick to have any meaning, to create tension. This would have needed to be fleshed out by a few minutes for poignancy’s sake.
  • “Laser brain” “Fuzz ball”: WTF? Who wrote this? A two year-old? “You’re a pooh-head!” “You’re a pee brain!”
  • The AT-ATs: Um… How exactly did the Empire get the AT-ATs to land on Hoth?
  • The AT-ATs’ brittleness: Can someone tell me how the AT-ATs could possibly trip? Being mechanical, don’t they just block when something impedes their movement? How could they move enough to lose their balance and trip?
  • The AT-ATs are so easy to blow up: So… after it trips, the AT-ATs suddenly don’t have shielding anymore? Is that it? It scuffs its knee and after that it just gives in?
  • Luke jumps out of way of the AT-AT: That was really poorly staged and doesn’t look real one bit. Might as well have had him flop into a wading pool – the scene wouldn’t have been less credible.
  • Luke sabers the AT-AT’s hatch open: It doesn’t make a cut or a hole… it just magically pops open the hatch. Hmmm…
  • The whole rebel escape: Why fly exactly where the Imperial forces are located? Shoot out from the other side of the planet, for goodness’ sake! You’re just asking for trouble!
  • The so-called odds 2: In the asteroids field, the odds are now 3700 to 1! Pffft! How much do you want to bet our heroes will fail?
  • Luke crash-landed exactly where Yoda is: Small Dagobah is. Coincidental Luke’s landing is. The other one, pull.
  • Yoda’s weird, senile: What the !@#$ is up with Yoda at the beginning of this encounter? He acts like a deranged Muppet! Even if he was testing Luke, he’s still acting very immature – and way beneath the wise old sage we’ve come to respect.
  • Yoda’s walk away from Luke: The damned puppet moves SUPER slowly, but in the next shot (so 4-5 seconds later) he’s something like 100 metres away. How did that happen?
  • The Emperor’s monkey eyes: As much as it’s cool to see the Emperor, he looks frickin’ weird here… I can already see the scene on his end: “Make-up! Make-up! I’m going live in 2 minutes! Can anyone fix me up? Ah.. !@#$ it… it’s only Vader, anyway; that freak looks even worse under that helmet of his.”
  • Hamill’s outbursts: On Dagobah, an incredulous and whiny Luke responds poorly to Yoda’s teachings. But Hamill makes him look like a petulant 10-year-old; he doesn’t feel much like a hero here, so much as an undeserving brat.
  • The Cabbage Patch doll on Luke’s back: What’s that bundle of crap on Luke’s back while he’s training? A bag of rolled up socks? A dead baby? Cripes… they could have tried harder to sell us this one…
  • “The cave is collapsing!”: That’s right… caves have teeth and close like a maw. What happened to your wits, Princess? Been hanging around Han too long? Brain’s gotten fuzzy?
  • Luke’s face in Vader’s mask: Here’s another effect that doesn’t work. Looks like someone tried to squeeze the rubber face into the hole after the fact and couldn’t quite fit it in.
  • Cloud City is a ghost town: When they first arrive, there’s really not a lot of people on Cloud City. In fact there’s no other signs of life. We see some later on, but not enough to call it a city. More like Cloud Truck Stop.
  • Threepio’s disappearance: So C-3PO disappears, but this is not noticed right away? Chewie kinda looks for him, half-heartedly, sees him nowhere and then forgets about it? What kind of dysfunctional group is this? “Thanks for watching my back, yo!” Way to make Threepio feel insignificant. No wonder he’s neurotic…
  • Chewie puts Threepio’s head on backward: Um… isn’t he supposed to be a techie? Based on this, I wouldn’t even trust him to plug my TV in, let alone fix my toaster.
  • Luke’s arrival: Luke just happens to arrive exactly where Han and Leia are being escorted. How convenient. Cloud City is smaller than my butt hole. And less populated.
  • Luke’s hand: Hmmm… I wonder where it went? Could it be concealed in that extra long sleeve that wasn’t even touched by Vader’s saber? Someone please get David Copperfield!

Or… maybe Luke was pulling a fast one on Vader and good ol’ Darth never wised up to it.

  • Luke’s reaction to Vader’s revelation: NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO! The reaction itself is fine, but Hamill’s exaggerated contortions make me laugh each time. Way to ruin the moment, dude!
  • Luke falls down pit/chute unharmed: Rookie luck? Or is there some sort of principle of physics I’m not getting here? Seems to me Luke should at least have come out of this with bruises, broken bones, maybe even bashed to a pulp.
  • The last minute coasting: Can you say “non-ending”? Those last few minutes are so anti-climactic. It’s really uneventful..

I’m a big fan of ‘The Empire Strikes Back’. Sadly, this time, I saw more of its flaws than I used to. Maybe it was my surprise reaction to ‘Star Wars’ that dampened its usual impact, but I liked it a bit less than I’d anticipated. Traditionally, I’d give it a solid 9.0, but I really didn’t feel like it this time. Still, it’s an awesome movie all the same.

And it’s one of the greatest sequels ever. What an amazing way to follow-up ‘Star Wars’.

Wow. Just wow.

Date of viewing: November 13, 2015

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