Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980) – A Masterpiece of Betrayal, Family and the Philosophy of the Force

Star Wars The Empire Strikes Back p

      “The Empire Strikes Back” is truly the best of the Original Trilogy. It has the tightest story, it is desolate, there are stakes and it still manages to have hope. We also see why Darth Vader is the primary villain of the Trilogy as this one allows us the chance to see what it is like when Vader is charge and not reporting to Grand Moff Tarkin. It’s one of my favorites and the change that was made in one of the Special Editions of putting Ian McDiarmid in as the Emperor was good, though the new dialogue isn’t so good and the cgi Tie Fighters that were put in post production are distracting. The Original unchanged is still the strongest and that was the one I saw, like “A New Hope” and like I’ll be seeing “Return of the Jedi.”

      This film wasn’t directed by George Lucas and he was only one of the three writers behind it.

    The director was Irvin Kershner and written by Leigh Brackett, Lawrence Kasden and George Lucas, while being produced by Gary Kurtz.

     The story involves the rebels on the run, having escaped to Hoth to hide from the Emperor as they are still strong after the destruction of the Death Star. Darth Vader is hunting them, hoping to destroy the Rebellion for good and capture and turn Luke Skywalker to the Dark Side.

The Pros: The Soundtrack – The soundtrack is wonderful and John Williams captures the fear and terror the Empire so well as we are given the most desolate situation for the Rebellion as Darth Vader is successful in whatever he sets out to do.

The Cinematography – The cinematography is beautiful, especially the Battle of Hoth and the Duel between Luke and Vader. The use of mist and shadows to increase the fear and tension among our characters and heroes is done masterfully. Peter Suschitzky did a great job.

The Writing – The script is tight and fast and you can tell that Lucas was not the primary writer, though Lucas did do a great job on the script for the original version of “A New Hope,” to his credit. When he’s on a team he seems to be do better though.

The Empire – The Empire is powerful in this and we see Cloud City, the Rebels on Hoth and the pursuit of the Millennium Falcon. Part of the reason I enjoy this film so much is the Empire feels like a threat and they never stop feeling like a threat. They force our heroes to escape the Galaxy and no longer have a home base as the Empire has chased them away from all their safe havens, captured on of their Captain’s and friends (Han Solo) and injured one of their leaders (Luke). The Empire has a firm win, even if it isn’t a total victory. The stakes are raised in this.

The Rebellion – The Rebellion shows how resilient they are in this. We see that in the end, no matter how hurt they are (so many die in the Battle of Hoth) that they will keep going and resisting the Empire, and that is what makes them interesting.

The Battle of Hoth – The Battle of Hoth is my favorite “Star Wars” battle besides the assault on the Death Star. The AT-ATs are beautiful machines that are deadly and take a lot to take down. We also see how deadly the Empire is again as they walk all over the Rebels as above we see Star Destroyers from their fleet.

The Millennium Falcon on the Run – Han and Leia’s escape is a great arc. We see them forced together because they stuck around to make sure all the other Rebels escaped first and as a reward they are pursued by Vader himself through an Asteroid field and eventually by Bounty Hunters hunting them too. Through it Leia and Han fall in love as we see that they are both stubborn but have a huge respect for one another and notice how aware they can be with others. It is during the run we see Han grow up and stop pushing people away.

Cloudy City – Cloud City is a great location. It’s Lando’s base and business and is neutral in the war until Vader goes back on his deals with Lando and we see Cloud City join the Rebellion and resist Imperial oppression. It is a great arc as we see Cloud City is a selfish place but there is good here too when Lando saves our heroes and tries to save the friend he betrayed.

Luke’s Training – Luke’s training continues his heroes journey as we see him grow to look beyond appearances when Yoda reveals he is the Jedi Master and that his size does no matter as he raises Luke’s X-Wing out of the Swamp. In this we see Yoda is always forcing Luke to face himself and learn to let go, which Luke is not able to do as Darth Vader’s torture of his friends leads him leaving Dagoba even when Obi-Wan’s ghost and Yoda warn him how dire of a mistake it will be.

Dagoba – Dobaba is a fantastic location! It is dark and smoggy and full of life. You get why Yoda chose this place when he explains how the force flows through all life forms. It is foreboding but beautiful in it’s own way too.

The Characters – The Characters and their arcs are what make this film a classic and a favorite. More is done with them than in “A New Hope” and we see the choices they make that change them and help them to grow.

Obi-Wan Kenobi – Obi-Wan is back as the mentor sending Luke to Dagoba and warning him about the challenge of facing Vader when he is not fully trained (which he would know having failed to kill his friend). There is a sadness to the character too as he can’t do anything a ghost but communicate with those already in connection with him.

Yoda – Yoda is awesome and Frank Oz owns this role. He’s a compelling character, unlike the CGI one-dimensional pillow sitting Master we got in the Prequels. Yoda is a trickster yet full of wisdom as he pulls Luke out of his comfort zone and forces him to confront himself and what it means to use the Force. It is this film that made Yoda one of my favorite characters, and we never see this level of depth from the character again.

Lando Calrissian – Billy Dee Wililams is awesome as the gambler who turns on his friend Han to save his people. He’s complicated and when you see the operation he runs you get why he made that terrible decision as he no doubt saw it as one life versus many. By the end he realizes he’s been tricked though and joins the Rebellion and tries to save Han to begin to atone for his betrayal. I really liked this character, he’s smooth, suave and owns his own city.

Boba Fett – Fett is great. I really like his original voice as it shows someone who has been through a lot. His voice is raspy and we get an idea how deadly he is when Vader orders capture only and no disintegrations to Boba. Boba is the one who figures out how the Falcon escaped the fleet and tracks them to Cloud City. In the end he succeeds and is able to bring Jabba Han’s frozen body.

Princess Leia – Leia is more passive in this after the Battle of Hoth than she is in Empire but we see she never stops being the one who figures things out first. She doesn’t trust Lando and we learn she is right to do and she comes around to Han showing that at this point Han has become a good person. She also tries to warn Luke, though Luke doesn’t listen and walks into Vader’s trap in Cloud City. She also saves Luke when Luke communicates through the Force to her.

Han Solo – Han is the main character of this film. He goes from the guy who is still selfish and just wants to have his old life back again, but each time rises to help the Rebellion, whether it is saving Luke in the Blizzard or finding the Imperial Search Droid. This eventually leads to him protecting Leia as slowly they fall in love as Han begins to show more awareness towards others from doing insults to treating Leia and C-3PO with only respect. Han learns to listen and in the end he is frozen in carbonite as he has finally found love with his partner Leia.

Darth Vader – Vader is driven in this and we see soon learn why as Luke is his son. Everything he does is to bring Luke to him so he can turn him to the Dark Side so he will no longer be alone. There is a sadness to the character in this as we see his scarred body when his helmet is being put on, which gives him vulnerability, though he never stops being ruthless. Whether is is taking over Cloud City, destroying the rebels on Hoth, the torture of Han and Leia to bring Luke and the cutting off of Luke’s hand. Vader is destruction contrasted with vulnerability and it makes him one of the most compelling villains of cinema.

Luke Skywalker – Luke grows up a lot in this as we see him discover the Force is not easy to learn and that he has so many hangups he needs get over. In the end we see him mature though as he loses his friends, the Rebellion (when he seeks Yoda for training) Han and in the end his hand and his innocence as he learns he is the son of the Dark Lord Darth Vader. This breaks him and completes the destruction of his worldview that Yoda began when he showed him size and appearance has no bearing on the force. In it he experiences betrayal from Obi-Wan and not telling him the complete truth and the realization that they were right, he was not powerful enough to kill Vader and now he doesn’t know if he ever can as he no doubt still lives his test in Dagoba where his killing of Vader in the forest revealed himself underneath the helmet. That vision hits much closer to home now. Vader is blood and family and was once a powerful Jedi who turned. If Obi-Wan’s best friend turned, than what hope does Luke have? None of this is outright stated but it’s implied in the scenes and drama that unfold in the Duel.

The Duel and Reveal – The reveal of Vader as Luke’s father is powerful as is the lead up to it. In it we see how Luke has learned a lot but everything Vader says about the Dark Side being more powerful seems to be true. He walks all over Luke, using the environment against Luke and getting into his head with the final reveal of that vulnerability we saw when Vader was without his helmet. “Together we can rule the Galaxy as Father and Son.” Vader does care even though he is this ruthless machine who sees life, whether it is Imperial or Rebel as expendable…he makes an exception for Luke because there is good in there. The duel is beautiful too as the Lightsabers are light in the dark and mist that covers the areas of Cloud City they fight in. It is my favorite duel of the series without a doubt because it isn’t just great action, it is great action with a purpose.

Philosophy of the Force – The Force is all about letting go. It is when the illusions of size, appearance and strength are mastered that you can master the world. This is shown in starting with the basics where Luke’s mind and body and strengthened but he isn’t able to let go as it is fear for his friends that leads to the loss of his hand and in the end he loses one of his friends anyway, showing that Yoda and Obi-Wan were right that leaving would change nothing.

The Ending – Han is captured by Jabba, the Rebellion has been chased out of the Galaxy and is on the run and has no safe haven and Luke is left to consider the words of his father and is given his first dilemma…can he kill Vader to save the Galaxy or is that price to high? The Rebellion has a new ally in Lando though as Vader is left to deal with the loss and escape of his son.

Okay/Pro: The Droids and Chewbacca – The Droids are alright, same with Chewbacca. They are support roles with R2 saving the day in the end when he fixes the ship so the Falcon can jump to Light Speed. They weren’t bad but compared to all the other characters I found them distracting at times, with the exception of Chewbacca and R2 sometimes. C-3PO was largely annoying.

The Emperor – He pops up once to show that Vader reports to a higher power but I never felt threatened by him in any version. He’s a force in the background but we’ve seen the things Vader has done. The Emperor in the Original Trilogy is just there as the symbol of the Empire’s power. He was used much better in the Prequels and his rise, I’d have liked to see him do more but he wasn’t a con.

    This is my favorite of all the “Star Wars” Films and I’ll be very surprised if “The Force Awakens” manages to beat it. So much is accomplished in this film and we learn so much about all our characters as they are put through their greatest tests and from those tests humanity and growth is revealed. This film is one of my all time favorite films and is beloved by so many for many for the reasons I describe above. Watch the Original if you can, the Ties are distracting in the “Special Edition” as is some of the added dialogue. Less is more and that is what the original version captures as it is wholly focused on our characters and their struggles. Suffice to say, I highly recommend this film.

Final Score: 10 / 10. The things that are okay do not bring down the score in this instance as everything else is solid.

Star Wars The Empire Strikes Back

Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977): A Hero’s Journey and a Classic

Star Wars A New Hope Poster

         It was really difficult finding the original unaltered “Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope,” but it was worth it. The bad CGI in the Special Editions completely took me out of it when I tried watching one of them first and the old organic feel to the Original gave the series life and made the world feel lived in. The only thing that really needed to be changed was just polishing up the picture as some shots didn’t look as great as they could have due to the film at the time…but it was worth it. “A New Hope” is easily one of my all time favorite films after watching it again after not seeing it for years, and I’ll get into the reasons why.

      The film was directed and written by George Lucas and produced by Gary Kurtz.

       The story involves the Rebel Alliance stealing the Death Star plans from the Empire leading to the ship’s capture as Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) hides the plans in R2-D2 who escapes with C-3PO to Tatooine. It is there Luke (Mark Hamill) buys them and finds himself pulled away from his life on the farm when the Empire kills his Aunt and Uncle and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guiness) and he must escape and get the plans to Alderaan.

The Pros: The Soundtrack – John Williams’s score is part of what truly makes this film a classic. Tension is always rising throughout the film and it happens from his use of sound to add mystery and shock when we are Tatooine to the threat of the Empire whenever Vader or the Death Star arrive on the scene. If there had been no dialogue and only this score it would be a favorite film.

The Cinematography – The cinematography is beautiful! Whether it is the opening shot of the Star Destroyer chasing down the Rebels or the final Death Star run the scenes are filmed in such a way that tension is created and our villains and heroes are clearly illustrated.

The Special Effects – The practical effects are what make this film work. From models of space ships and actual explosions that in the process gave us actual stakes, which sadly has been forgetten in so many films that are overdependent on CGI (Hello Prequels).

The World – The World is ,awesome! There are clear sides (The Rebels and Empire) but outside of those sides there are threats all around. If you are droid you could be captured and sold by Jawas and if you are a farmer killed by Sand People and the Imperial Influence is everywhere. Even if you are in the outskirts of Tatooine (like the Lars were) they will find you and kill you.

The Galactic Empire – The Empire is an awesome threat! We have the Emperor dissolve the Imperial Senate firmly establishing that the Governors like Tarkin now control their sectors of Space and the Death Star to enforce terror on any revolting populace. Darth Vader is the hand of the Empire too and we see him deal with threats easily, only being stopped by a surprise ally to the Rebels in the last battle.

The Rebel Alliance – These guys are small and use planets like Alderaan as safe havens since they can’t take the Empire on militarily. We see this when they are quickly dispatched in the opening and at the end when Vader kills most of the X-Wing Pilots who are attempting to destroy the Death Star. They are flexible though and driven as we see Leia sacrifice her home of Alderaan when she lies to the Empire about where the Rebel base is.

The Characters – The characters are amazing and feel fully fleshed out. They have wants, needs, desires and trials. Honestly after watching the Prequels it’s hard to imagine that George Lucas actually wrote this script. It’s quick, understands people and has heart to even the small characters like droids.

R2-D2 and C-3PO – These two are the odd couple with R2-D2 being fully in with the Rebellion while for 3PO is just doing his job as an interpreter. They care for each other though and any time they get separated you see the joy they feel at being reunited again. These  two go through a lot…from discrimination in Mos Eisley, near capture by the Empire at the beginning, captured by Jawas and in R2’s case nearly destroyed by Vader.

Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru – Knowing what happens in the future I get why they were so protective of Luke. They knew if he left he could face the same trials as his father and end up corrupted and lost. Sadly what they didn’t realize is that no one is safe from the Empire as a Stormtrooper group kills them. I liked their dynamic with Owen as the disapproving father figure and Beru as the supportive mother.

Chewbacca – Chewie is a small role but he is wonderful as Han’s support. We see him willing to risk himself as a prisoner to infiltrate the Death Star and see how deadly he is on countless occasions. He is the only one who tends to accurately hit Stormtroopers most of the time. Our other heroes are as accurate as the Stormtroopers themselves.

Grand Moff Tarkin – Peter Cushing is great as Vader’s boss in this as we see him kill an entire planet (Alderaan) just to make a point to Leia that the Empire doesn’t have compassion and that the only way to rule is through fear. He doubts the power of the force (due the Jedi being hunted to near extinction no surprise there) and even his arrogance isn’t misplaced. He only dies because Luke destroys the Death Star at the final moment when they are about to destroy the Rebel Base on Yavin. What an awesome villain.

Han Solo – Han Solo is the rogue who has an arc from being a very selfish guy (only being in it for the money and doing the good thing to survive and not out of any kindness). He changes over the course of the film as Luke’s idealism rubs off on him and when he realizes that he can’t leave the Rebellion to die (after experiencing how deadly the Empire was first hand there was so much selfishness there too). Harrison Ford owns this role and this is one of his most memorable characters. He is funny, witty, sarcastic and the only one who able to match wits with him is Princess Leia who he starts out having an antagonistic relationship with (like Luke) but who in the end he becomes friends with. Han is ruthless and smart as we see him kill the Bounty Hunter Greedo before Greedo can collect the bounty on Han’s head.

Princess Leia – Leia is a tough character who I wish we could have got to know more. Her homeworld of Alderaan gets destroyed, she is tortured by Vader and the Empire…but she never gives up the Rebels. She is also a quick thinker and helps Han, Luke and Chewie escape when the Imperials have them pinned. Carrie Fisher is fantastic in this role.

Obi-Wan Kenobi – Alec Guiness plays the wise, old mentor role really well in this and was my favorite character in the film besides Darth Vader. In him we see a tired old man broken from time, the Empire’s rise and the loss of his friend Anakin Skywalker. It is in Luke he finds hope for the future though so he teaches him the ways of the force and in the end sacrifices himself so that our heroes can escape. We see his goodness and nobility throughout and that he does have an awareness of the bigger picture, as he doesn’t even leave a body behind when he faces his old pupil Vader showing that he has become more powerful than Vader can imagine.

Luke Skwalker – Mark Hamill plays the winy farm boy who grows up over the course of the film. He is the idealist who just wants to do right by his Aunt and Uncle (he rejects being trained by Obi-Wan at first because of his obligation to them) but when circumstances force him on his quest he embraces it. This is Luke’s heroes journey as we see him use the force that Obi-Wan had taught him to destroy the Death Star, and it is his reminding Han of the good in people and in Han himself that leads to Han Solo saving him from Darth Vader and giving him the chance to destroy the Death Star. Luke goes from selfish to selfless, just like Han and changes this world for the better.

Darth Vader – James Earl Jones was perfect for the voice of Vader and Darth Vader is one of my all time favorite villains. We see that he is a man from the past (a former Jedi who goes into combat himself to fight unlike Tarkin safe behind the Death Star) and that he is a force to be reckoned with. When he sets the Empire on someone (the droids) they cause a path of destruction in their wake. Vader is that destruction and force and even the higher ups in the Empire (all the Admirals) fear him, and for good reason as we see him strangle a man who dares to question the power of the force. It is his courage and drive that make him a survivor to as when the Death Star is destroyed he is the only one who escapes as he was killing the X-Wings who had made the run to destroy the Death Star in the first place and as he escapes it’s hard for the victory celebration at the end not to feel empty. The Death Star was deadly but Vader was more-so…wherever he went, death followed.

The Force – The Force is what binds all beings together and allows those in touch with it to manipulate things around them, be they objects or minds. We see it in how Obi-Wan gets Stormtroopers off their back and when Luke forces the Torpedos down the shoot leading to a victory for the Rebellion. We also see Vader use it on countless occasions to destroy.

Okay: Leia’s Development – Leia loses her planet but we never see what that means to her. She has lost her parents as far as we know and that is never dealt with beyond her pleading for the life of Alderaan. Adding at least one scene could have fixed this.

Too Long with the Droids – The time with the Droids on Tatooine could have been cut in half. All it establishes is their odd couple relationship and that Tatooine is deadly, which we learn later anyway when the Sand People attack Luke. Adding Luke into the story earlier or giving Leia more development is what should have been done instead.

   This is a classic and one of my all time favorite films. Watch the Original version if you can. It is beautiful and there isn’t distracting CGI like in the Special Editions. It is fully focused on the characters and organizations being filmed which lends power and focus as we witness Luke’s Hero’s Journey as he helps the Rebellion win their greatest victory against the Galactic Empire. This film is part of what make “Star Wars” as a universe unforgettable.

Final Score: 9.6 / 10

Star Wars A New Hope

The Dark Crystal (1982): An Amazing Dark Fantasy About the Quest for Balance

The Dark Crystal

      Whatever happened to making films with ornate puppetry? I miss the days where special affects were a detailed person in a suit or a giant marionette giving a truly alien appearance to something but also giving it an organicness too where people or the puppets themselves can interact with one another. This was a Jim Henson film and it truly is amazing. It is in this film I saw how from it sprung the animatronics and suits from “Farscape” and other works connected to the Jim Henson Company outside of the “The Muppets.” This film really shows what you can do and how powerful they can be as a medium to tell stories.

     “The Dark Crystal” was directed, co-produced and original story by Jim Henson, also directed by Frank Oz and produced by Gary Kurtz with the screenplay by David Odell.

      The story takes place in Thra, a fantasy world where a powerful Crystal cracked creating a perfectly good race called the mystics and a completely race known as the Skeksis. There was a prophecy made around this time that lead to the Skeksis to try and wipe the native Gelflings. They nearly succeeded in doing so if not for the Mystics taking in Jen and the Podlings taking in Kira. The story unfolds as Jen seeks to find the Crystal Shard and with Kira fulfill the prophecy and bring about a new world.

The Pros: The World of Thra – The World of Thra is a dark and fascinating world, where each culture and civilization is very distinct and has their own style and way of being. From the Mystics that are like Tibetan Monks with chants and a way of pacifism, to the cutthroat Skeksis who rule through might and the hidden Podlings who live hidden in the forest connected to nature and the nearly extinct Gelflings.

The Puppet Designs – The Mystics look like a mixture between a crocodile and a lemur, Gelflings look like an elf mixed with a cat, the Skeksis look like lizard-vultures and the Podlings look like tiny people. These puppet designs are amazing, but I wouldn’t expect any less from Jim Henson and Frank Oz as not only do the puppets look and feel real but they sound real too as the voices match up to the character designs really well. There are also the creatures, which all have an organic look to them, especially the Garthim, who look like a mixture between a large beetle and a crab.

The Voice Acting – Jim Henson and Frank Oz are masters of puppetry and the voice work behind it. Frank Oz plays the voice of the Witch

Equality of Heroes – There are two heroes, a man named Jen who was raised by the Mystics and Kira who was raised by the Podlings. Both of them are fighters and rescue one another in equal measure, more-so Kira at first actually, but Jen uses the purified Crystal to bring her back to life. She is the one who uses nature as a weapon as she learned how to communicate with animals growing up from the Podlings and Jen drives the story as the primary hero as he find the Shard of the Crystal and because of this is being chased by minions of the Skeksis.

The Characters – The  characters are very distinct in personality. Jen is the standard hero but he also hates too because the Skeksis destroyed his family. The Mystics are calm with Jen’s Master being the most calm and the Skeksis are all conniving and strategic, trying to one up one another and survive.

Balance – The overall quest of “The Dark Crystal” is the search for Balance. It was the Crystal getting shattered that made the Skeksis and Mystics become created because their original race had strived for power and control which made them unbalanced and lead to the annihilation of the Gelflings. In this their is balance in the end but also consequences. The Gelflings are still a dead species and we have no idea how many Podlings died in slavery under the Skeksis rule…also the Skeksis and Mystics are no more. Establishing balance lead to the formation of the original species and their leaving the planet in the hands of the Gelflings. It’s bittersweet, which I appreciated.

The Cons: Bland Jen at the Beginning – He is super bland when he first starts out and I didn’t believe his sorrow he felt when his master died. It felt too contrived and wasn’t expressed well. He gets better when we meet Kira but before that was a major issue I had with the film. This also took away from it a little as the bland elf-like hero (“The Hobbit,” “Lord of the Rings,” “Legend of Zelda”) who is an orphan is a pretty common trope and seeing it again made me a bit nervous at first going in.

Slow Start and Telling not Showing – The film starts out pretty slow which made it initially hard to get into it beyond how fascinating the world was. The telling rather than showing also detracted from it but fit the fact that in the end “The Dark Crystal” is a dark fairy tale.

Chamberlain – This is a Skeksis who attempts to become Emperor but is defeated. He tries to help Jen and Kira but it turns out it is only for his own ends. When he was exiled from his people I was hoping he’d change to show that not all Skeksis were evil slavers. Sadly the scene before he’s defeated has him trying to drink Kira’s life essence, so in the end he was wasted character potential making him a con.

   This was a great film and one of my favorites for sure! I have always been a fan of Frank Oz “What About Bob” and “Death at a Funeral” are two of my my favorite films. His voice work as Yoda and as many characters in this is also fantastic! Also this film really showed me that Jim Henson could do much more than humor. “The Muppets” are funny but this had drama and stakes and felt like a dark fantastical adventure, which was what it was meant to be. I miss the lost art of puppetry in films and hope it can come back, especially as this film shows you don’t need people to tell an amazing story with puppets and to create fascinating civilizations and creatures that are unforgettable.

Final Score: 9.3 / 10