A little while back we were invited onto the Master’s Of None podcast for one of their Sucks or Rules shows to debate the 4th worst Star Wars movie, The Empire Strikes Back. I took sucks, Art took rules. Unfortunately, due to my computer’s crappy Skype connection and some other technical difficulties, the episode had to be scrapped.
You can read my argument below. Conveniently, Art’s side of the debate will not be reproduced here.
My argument is based on two suppositions:
A) Star Wars (aka A New Hope) is a perfectly told story and, for the time it was made at least, perfectly executed.
B) The Empire Strikes Back is not only considered the best Star Wars movie, but widely considered the best sci-fi movie ever made. Not only do I think it doesn’t stand up against the original film (or even, to some extent, the one that follows), I don’t think it’s a very good film period.
And by “not very good”, I mean actually kind of sucks gundark poodoo.
My argument is further broken down in the following three points:
1. An unfocussed story.
Unlike A New Hope—which has an A-to-Z plot that’s streamlined as an X-34 landspeeder—Empire Strikes Back meanders around the alphabet without any real direction. After a bunch of throw-away sequences (like the pointless asteroid belt chase), it eventually ends up somewhere in the middle of a story, around the letter M with Han Solo frozen in carbonite, instead of at Z with the defeat of the Empire.
Or at least it should have ended with a definitive event that provides some open-ended closure, whetting the palate for a sequel while being a fulfilling episode in itself. Instead you are left hanging with one of the most frustratingly anti-climactic cliffhangers in cinema history.
2. The film doesn’t stand alone.
Anyone who’s hasn’t seen the first film will be able to follow the basic plot just fine. But at some point they’re going to need someone to explain to them exactly who the random ghost in the tundra is and just what the Empire is all about.
The usual argument against this is “But it’s the second part in a trilogy, you can’t expect it to stand on its own.” And I would accept this argument if the assertion being made merely was that Empire is an excellent sequel. But I don’t accept this reasoning when the argument being put forth is that Empire is one of the best science fiction films ever made or even that it’s the best Star Wars movie. It would absolutely need to be able to stand on its own in order to claim either of those titles.
Too many unnecessary questions are raised by Empire. Mainly, “What’s so bad about the Empire anyway?” Taken on its own A New Hope, even in point form, does a much better job of giving you a sense of how the Empire affects the lives of your average galactic citizen and what the Rebels are fighting against.
On Tatooine there’s a subtext that—even on a planet at the far reaches of the galaxy which no imperial bean counter should even care about—the inhabitants feel an oppressive domination.
On the Death Star, Grand Moff Tarkin describes how the last vestiges of a token democracy have been dismantled and in Leia’s holographic plea to Obi-Wan you get the sense of what’s at stake.
A New Hope excels because it is a story bolstered by a rich, cleverly constructed subtext. Empire is entirely lacking in this use of subtext, instead relying on either the audience’s prior knowledge of the story or their willingness to just go along with the action.
“Oh there’s some good guys who are good but we don’t know what makes them good and some bad guys that are bad, supposedly, and they’re at war for some reason. Okay, got it.”
Yes, it’s easy to understand there’s a war being waged and maybe that’s all you need to be able to follow the story. But with a great film you do more then just follow the story. You feel the story. The audience is in the middle of a galactic war but does the audience ever feel what’s at stake?
There are no starship captains with broken necks slumped against corridor walls, no charred skeletons of aunts and uncles, no needlessly slaughtered Jawas, no desperate poverty on the mean streets of a space port on a remote desert planet. As far as we know the Rebel Alliance are terrorists who’ve just bombed the Galactic Trade Center and killed thousands of civilians.
Sure, Darth Vader and the stormtroopers look spooky and the Imperial officers look like Nazis, but unless you’ve seen A New Hope you don’t know just how nasty they really are. And though it’s easy enough to accept the Rebels’ struggle, it’s harder to feel involved with it or to feel threatened by the Empire.
This results in—
3. Vague character motivations.
In A New Hope all the character motivations are crystal clear. Luke Skywalker wants adventure, Obi-Wan acts out of knightly duty, Han Solo is motivated by money (mostly due to his outstanding debt to Jabba the Hutt over dumping a shipment of smuggled goods) and Princess Leia is an idealist.
The Empire itself has built the Death Star, not because they’re inherently, cartoonishly evil, but because there’s a clear subtext they’re losing control of the galaxy and drastic measures are needed.
In Empire though everything, assuming you have not seen the first film, is a lot more vague.
For some reason Han has an unexplained bounty on his head which he inexplicably needs to clear up even though he’s well-hidden on an ice planet.
Luke wants to become a Jedi, whatever that is, and there’s some guy named Ben, whoever he is, who appears to him in the snow. Is he alive? Is he a ghost? Why does Luke think this hypothermia-induced hallucination is a reasonable thing to act on? How did Luke make his laser-sword leap into his hand?
This Leia woman seems to be an important leader even though her main role is not letting Han know she fancies him. Otherwise she’s dead weight.
For some reason Darth Vader is out to get them all because, well, he wears a black hat and needs something to do. Maybe Because a few dozen troops freezing to death on an iceberg are such a threat to an entire galactic Empire.
Other than Boba Fett hunting Solo for a double-dip at the bounty, none of the characters have clear, believable, well-defined goals.
This wasn’t the case in A New Hope which is a classic quest story. The protagonists, individually and as a collective, have a goal (to destroy the Death Star) and the action of the film moves inexorably towards that end.
In Empire Luke has a goal—to find Jedi master Yoda—which he achieves in about five minutes. He has the ultimate goal of becoming a Jedi, but that happens in another film. Well, it actually happens between films and we don’t even get to see it.
Meanwhile Han and Leia are… well, what are they doing anyway? Running away, I guess. Though being chased is a classic plot device, it’s not fulfilling on a narrative level. There’s no pay off when the protagonists achieve their goal, the chase is just over. And though it is a plot device that can work in certain types of film—such as horror—epic fantasy-adventure is not one of them.
Vader actually does have a goal of sorts. He wants to find Skywalker and turn him to the dark side. Fair enough. I’m not sure it will work, but thank god someone is trying to achieve something tangible here.
So naturally he goes about this by chasing Han and Leia across the galaxy instead. Seems like a bit of a convoluted way to go about it, but what else does a fleet of Star Destroyers have to do? I mean, besides trying to wipe out that tiny rebellion they were spending untold resources trying to find who escaped in another direction entirely. Of course, pointing this out to Vader wouldn’t be a smart career move.
The whole narrative is flipped on its head. The protagonists are supposed to have goals and the antagonists are supposed to stand in their way. That is how narratives are structured. Here we have the protagonists standing in the way of the antagonists’ goals. While this switcheroo could be produce interesting results in a bleak, post- modern art film full of nuanced characters and subtle plot twists, it doesn’t work in an epic adventure tale. It is like Raiders of the Lost Ark being told from the point of view of René Belloq instead of Indiana Jones.
This is, ultimately, what The Empire Strikes Back suffers from. Instead of a central goal for the protagonists to achieve, there’s a series of situations they’re forced to deal with. While heroes need stumbling blocks placed in their path to make their quest interesting, the audience needs a clear idea of what they’re trying to accomplish—even if they don’t achieve their goal.
I have no problem with Empire having a tragic ending where the bad guys win. But the bad guys don’t really even win here. At best they’ve just been a pain in the protagonists’ necks. Vader doesn’t turn Luke to the Dark Side or crush the rebellion, the rebels don’t do anything but run around and get their asses handed to them. The only character who actually achieves anything is Boba Fett and he is, at best, a peripheral player.
Ultimately, this loops back to point #1 that the story is unfocussed. The overarching lack of focus in the film is a direct result of the foggy character motivations. The “most frustratingly anti-climactic cliffhanger in cinema history” wouldn’t have been if Han Solo’s capture had any real significance to a greater story.
Obviously, he’s a charming rogue the audience loves and seeing him frozen in carbonite is a bummer. But, as far as we can tell, this has no bearing on a rebellion he didn’t really seem to want to have anything to do with. Removing Solo from the fight doesn’t really gain the Empire anything. What the Han Solo cliffhanger actually achieves on a narrative level is detracting from the impact of Vader’s revelation that he’s Luke’s father.
An actually riveting cliffhanger would have been Luke being captured by Vader or, more chilling, Luke choosing to go with him. That would have been a real No way! What’s going to happen next? scenario. Instead Lando tells us exactly what the audience has already figured out is going to happen next, “Princess, we’ll find Han. I promise.”
Though not actually a terrible film, what I’ve tried to argue here is that Empire Strikes Back isn’t close to deserving the reputation it holds. The bottom line is it doesn’t achieve what it sets out to do—to continue the stories of existing characters in a compelling way; to give them more depth and enrich the universe they inhabit; and do it by telling a satisfying story.
From the standpoint of achieving what it sets out to do, A New Hope is entirely successful and even Return of the Jedi does a better job. At least Jedi makes no bones about being a simple adventure for children. Empire‘s attempts at paternal Greek tragedy and exciting matinee adventure story both fall short of the goal. The lead-up to the Luke’s story’s famous pay-off is clumsy at best while Han and Leia’s flight from the Imperial Fleet is frankly boring.
Every time I watch Empire, I find I’m rooting for Boba Fett (When a glorified action figure with four short lines and about 2 minutes total screen time is your most popular character, you know your film has problems).
Now for some detailed nit-picking.
- Was a frozen wasteland really the only (barely) habitable planet the rebellion could find to hide out in. In an entire galaxy, there had to be some other distance rock they could have picked. One that wasn’t -40 all the time.
- The Wampa is ridiculous. Why does it glue its prey to the ceiling of its cave? Why wouldn’t it devour Luke instantly? I guess it had a Tauntaunto eat first. But it’s still a little absurd to believe he was saving Luke for a late afternoon snack. More importantly, when it swipes Luke off his Tauntaun, there’s never been a monster arm that’s more obviously just a bunch of fun fur glued to a broom handle. Some of the effects in this movie are shameful.But more importantly, why is the Wampa sequence even in the story? The only purpose it serves is to explain the changes in Mark Hamill‘s face due to an auto accident.If the story is true, and there’s some debate about the veracity of this, the trick doesn’t work. Han should’ve at least said, “That monster really rearranged your face, huh kid?” But even if it is true, then the whole sequence is far too obviously hamfisted into the story anyway. They’d have been better off to just pretend Luke didn’t suddenly look radically different instead of letting it dictate the plot. So ultimately what does the whole Wampa episode achieve? It slows down the narrative. A New Hopebegins with the Star Destroyer attacking the rebel spaceship Tantive IV, likewise Empire should have begun with the attack on the rebel base right out of the gate.
- But even more absurd than the Wampa are the Tauntauns. First, ignore that it makes no sense the rebels would patrol on the backs of animals and expose themselves to the elements instead of flying around in snow-speeders. And second, forgive that the Tauntaun’s body shape seems illogical for traversing the tundra (well, nature is actually pretty weird. Maybe kangaroo-goats make sense).What’s really baffling about Tauntauns is how they seem singularly ill-equipped to deal with the climate. Surely humans should freeze to death before the wooly, indigenous creatures with a hefty layer of fat? And what are Tauntauns feeding on anyway? There’s no vegetation and they’re clearly not carnivores with those stubby arms and bovine teeth.
- But getting back to snow-speeders. Why do they have harpoons and tow-cables anyway? What would you ever harpoon from a moving aircraft? Wouldn’t it be a drastically bad idea to tether yourself to heavy objects in mid-flight?
- Sillier still, I have always contested the “all-terrain” worthiness of the All-Terrain Armoured Transport (AT-AT)or Walkers. I think Hoth might actually be the only planet flat enough for the Empire to effectively use them. Surely they’d topple in Tatooine’s sand dunes and they’d get bogged down in Dagobah’s swamp. Not able to lift their feet very high, they’d trip on any terrain that wasn’t a tundra or a salt flat.Furthermore, assuming they get the troops transported to wherever the action is, how do the troops get down from the belly? Do they rapel? Do the AT-ATs kneel like elephants? Is there an elevator platform?Whatever the case, a much better design would have been a Sandcrawler—which actually looks like it could traverse all-terrain (might even be aquatic judging by the prow-like design of the front). Like all the technology in A New Hope, the Sandcrawler just makes perfect sense. Unlike the cool-looking but impractical Walkers, you really believe someone might have built it. The only question it raises is why tiny Jawas would build something so big. In which case it makes sense that it was a surplus (or stolen) Imperial troop transport.But the spindly legs aren’t the most baffling design feature about the walkers. The rebels use their speeders’ tow-cables because the armour plating is apparently too heavy for their blasters to penetrate. Well, too heavy until the tow-cables trip them and then a single shot to the head makes the whole thing blow up. Which almost makes more sense than when Luke tosses a grenade into an AT-AT’s belly and its head explodes. How the hell does that work? When it comes to the walkers, unlike the mechanics in A New Hope, logic is entirely thrown out the window.
- Unlike Hoth, at least Dagobah makes sense as a hide-out. It’s gloomy and made out of mud, but at least you wouldn’t be in danger of freezing to death. Though drowning looks like it might be a constant worry. But it’s still a pretty big, remote place to hide out in. So one has to question how Luke crash-landed—not only on the correct continent but— right in Yoda’s back yard.Fans will often cite The Force as having lead Luke to the exact right spot. Which is fine, except to believe that you have to make up this excuse for the film instead of the film showing this. A shot of Luke closing his eyes and “reaching out” would have been all it took. Instead he just angles his X-wing into a zero-visibility cloud bank and hopes for the best.
- On a production level, Dagobah is so obviously a sound stage it’s laughable. It might be all the dry ice that gives it away. Obviously they couldn’t shoot in an actual swamp because Frank Oz needed to be able to walk around below floor-level to manipulate the Yoda puppet.
- Yoda is terrible. He’s almost forgivable from an effects standpoint but he just isn’t quite convincing enough for me to forget he’s obviously a puppet. Especially as soon as he speaks. From that second onwards all I can see is Fozzy Bear. Okay, that’s not entirely true. At times I see Miss Piggy. Either way Yoda is not just so obviously a Muppet but also so obviously Frank Oz that I’m instantly shot out of the movie like R2 being spit out of the swamp.
- Worse, Yoda is a horribly racist stereotype of the inscrutable Asian martial arts master. Okay, he’s not as bad as the Trade Federation envoy in The Phantom Menace. One thing I’ll say for Empire is nothing is as bad as what’s in Phantom Menace.
- Even Luke’s terrible monologues in the swamp while he’s muttering away to R2 are more naturalistic than any of the dialogue in the prequels. But not much. Cringe-inducing lines like “But I wanted to go to Toshi Station to pick up some power converters” have nothing on Hamill’s painfully dire delivery of a truly terrible script here. The famously clunky dialogue in A New Hopewas at least economical. Alec Guinness was the only actor saddled with lengthy expository speeches and, well, Hamill finally gets the chance to prove he’s no Alec Guinness.Not his fault, really. Chewbacca and R2-D2 have all the best lines in Empire.
- One thing Empire supporters always cite as the film’s main strength is how it “goes darker” as if this is a get out of jail freecard. It’s not. Darker doesn’t instantly equal good. It still has to be done well.The first real instance of this new exploration of darkness is the Dark Side Cave. Which was apparently the best name they could come up with for this ominous nexus of evil power that makes Luke hallucinate a duel with Darth Vader. Apparently the Dark Side also makes everything happen in cheesy slow motion. And adds more of that dry ice atmosphere. The premise of the scene is okay, but the execution is one of the worst executed sequences in sci-fi cinema. And that includes the monorail model in Logan’s Run and all of Barbarella.
- Luke’s failure in the cave is another thing. Yoda seems disappointed but if you match up his timeline with Han and Leia’s, he’s been at it for about all of two days. Maximum. No wonder he’s a crappy Jedi. After he gets a vision of his friends being tortured by Vader and he rushes off to save them, he promises Yoda he’ll return to finish his training. How about return to start his training? What is this? Father Guido Sarducci’s Five Minute University?
- Even before getting to Bespin, there’s problems. Namely, the space slug. How did it survive in the vacuum of space? What was it feeding on out there? Unless it eats rock, there isn’t much for it to eat in an asteroid field where, we’re told, anyone would have to “be crazy” to venture into. If you’re willing to assume the asteroid belt is the remains of the slug’s home planet and the slug somehow survived that, you’re an idiot. I’m sorry, but that’s too absurd to be believed.
- Perhaps more offensive than Fu-Man Yoda is that Lando is a total space pimp. Remember, blaxploitation films were still being made right up to the end of the ’70s. More offensive still, he sports some of the worst costume design in the series. One of A New Hope‘s strongest features is how authentic the costumes look. Tarkin’s uniform, Obi-Wan’s robe, Han’s vest and Luke’s karate gi are real clothes you don’t question for a second. Go ahead and compare them to sci-fi costumes prior to 1977 where everyone looked like one of David Bowie’s worst acid trips wrapped up in tin-foil. Lando’s tight polyester slacks and gold-lined cape might fair a little better, but they look like they came out of a community theatre’s costume trunk.
- Vader tests out the carbon freezing process on Han Solo to make sure it won’t kill Luke. Good idea. But why exactly would he even need to freeze Luke in carbonite? Why couldn’t he just have his stormtroopers stun him with their blasters. It worked on Leia just fine. It’s not like Luke is actually a blaster deflecting master Jedi at this point. Heck, Vader could probably just put him in a sleeper hold with his mind. The whole carbonite set-up is a needlessly complicated plan—though one that does drive the plot nicely.
- Due to the over-complicated nature of the plan, Luke gets away but not before Vader tries to convince him to turn to the Dark Side of the Force. Which is all well and good except Vader wouldn’t call it the “Dark Side”. Evil people don’t actually believe they’re evil unless they’re also completely insane.Grand Moff Tarkin was an excellent example of this kind of banal evil in A New Hope. When he blew up Alderaan it wasn’t for fun or even to be cruel, it was expedient. He’s heartless and ruthless and, for all intents and purposes, evil—but he wouldn’t see it that way. Tarkin would see himself as pragmatic, iron-willed and able to do “what needs to be done” where lesser men wouldn’t or couldn’t. Empire shies away from this real-world vision of true evil for a more digestible cartoon caricature.Vader might believe he used the Force in a different way from Obi-Wan, but he’d never think of it as the dark side. He’d call it “The Vader Method” or something more marketable. And even if he begrudgingly admitted to himself he used what Yoda and Obi-Wan called “the dark side”, he would never acknowledge that. The furthest he might go is to say Obi-Wan didn’t fully understand how the Force works. He’d never say to Luke, “Don’t underestimate the power of the dark side,” he’d simply leave it at, “Join me and we’ll rule the galaxy as father and son.”Which, really, is a much stronger argument than saying, “Come be eeeeevil. Mwah-ha-ha-ha.”
- And Vader isn’t even as “evil” as he was in the first film. When he crushes Captain Antilles’ throat with his hand and tosses him into the wall, you know this is a brutal, ruthless villain. He even tortures Leia (off-screen) with a creepy black robot you feel might be some kind of rape-droid. In Empire he doesn’t kill anyone with his bare hands (well, gloved hands) and those he does kill are just his own officers whose deaths are practically comic relief anyway. This time when Han is tortured (in an absurdly complex apparatus, by the way), Vader isn’t even present to get his gloves dirty. He’s a shadow of his former self, no longer truly menacing but simply “the bad guy”.
- It’s been said many times but it bears repeating: Saying “I know” when someone professes their love for you as you’re (possibly) about to be executed is a dick move.
- Also a dick move is hitting on the girl you know your supposed closest (human) friend has been hot for since before you met him. The way Luke crumples in his hospital bed when Han says “She expressed her true feelings for me” should have been enough to tip him off he was stepping on some bro-toes. Maybe when he says to Luke, “That’s two you owe me” he means Leia’s breasts. Well, Luke never had a chance anyway—pointless incestuous story revisions in the next movie or not.
- There’s something creepy about Han’s bedroom moves. Though the kiss in the Millennium Falcon does a pretty good job paying homage to the leading man/lady dynamics of movie classics from the ’40s, it does a little too good a job. Or the problem is inherent in paying homage to the “no means yes” psychology of those old love scenes. Here it’s not quite as bad as the rape-kiss in Bladerunner but it comes pretty close. I can’t remember if Harrison Ford pulls out the rape-kiss in Raiders of the Lost Ark too. He must. It seems to be his signature move.