My review of Star Wars: A New Hope brought mixed feedback. Whilst some people threatened to eradicate me from their lives, others agreed that the film has aged badly and is overrated. Almost everyone, however, expressed the view that The Empire Strikes Back is the best of the original trilogy. And they were right. But that’s hardly a huge achievement.
Following Luke Skywalker’s (Mark Hamill )destruction of the Death Star, the rebels are found hiding on the ice planet Hoth – and attacked by Darth Vader’s (James Earl Jones) evil Empire. In the confusion, Luke flees to the Dagobah system to be instructed in the mysterious Force by legendary Jedi master Yoda (Frank Oz). Meanwhile, Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) seek refuge with Han’s old gambling pal Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) – only to be ambushed by the Empire shortly after...
Empire is certainly a more mature film than its predecessor. There is a dark streak running through it, and some of the original’s more cartoonish characters have been replaced by more menacing and multifaceted characters like Boba Fett (Jeremy Bulloch) and Lando Calrissian. There remains an element of camp silliness, though, in the form of the ultra annoying C3PO (Anthony Daniels). Yoda is slightly less irritating, but it’s very difficult to take him seriously as a great warrior when he can’t even construct a sentence correctly.
Luke’s struggle with the ‘dark side’ is also hard to swallow. Thanks largely to Mark Hamill’s limitations as an actor, his rage and anger are more akin to teenage petulance. As a result, it’s impossible to imagine him succumbing to his darker urges – and even harder to imagine him as an evil, Vader-like figure.
His showdown with his father is, of course, a classic film moment. Their light sabre duel is beautifully choreographed, there is a genuine sense of danger (not least when Luke’s hand is chopped clean off) and it ends with one of cinema’s most famous revelations. The howl of anguish which follows it is, sadly, utterly unconvincing. Hamill really is awful.
Happily, the same cannot be said of Harrison Ford. His charismatic presence is (again) the best thing in the movie. His sarcastic wisecracking brings the whole enterprise back to earth; his cockily arrogant relationship with Leia crackles with electricity and his fraught friendship with Lando is entirely believable. If only George Lucas had built his films around the most interesting character he created.
As it is, Empire is full of memorable moments, one iconic battle and one of movie history’s finest improvised lines (Han’s presumptuous “I know”). It’s darker and dirtier than A New Hope, but is still a deeply flawed film which relies entirely on the notion that Luke is ever tempted to follow in Darth Vader’s footsteps. Unfortunately, that never seems likely. Not only that, but Lucas wraps up far too many loose ends ahead of Return of the Jedi, patronising his audience by leaving very few unanswered questions.