Star Wars, Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, 1980
Um, it’s Star Wars.
Seriously, do I need to say more? Oh, maybe I do. It’s ORIGINAL trilogy Star Wars. Anything outside of that–OK, I won’t get started. But we all know that this is still the best of all the Star Wars films.
This is the film that gave us dialogue that lives in pop culture history.
“I am your father.”
This is the film that gave us one of the best improvised lines of all time.
Leia: “I love you!” Han: (all together now) “I know.”
This is the film that established Han as a “scoundrel.” This is the film where not much was made of a sister kissing her twin brother full on the lips (we weren’t aware at the time, but I don’t recall hearing any “ewwwws” when Luke and Leia’s kinship was revealed in ROTJ. And don’t try to sell me that this subplot was planned all along). This is the film that introduced us to Boba Fett, and although I wasn’t taken with him, I know my friends, along with legions of other kids, loved the character. The film where we first see Luke and Vader duel! And perhaps best of all, this is the film in the hallowed franchise which proved that sometimes it’s better for visionaries to delegate rather than remain hands on, as George Lucas, for whatever reason, relinquished the director’s chair to Irvin Kershner.
The movie first crash lands on the icy surface of Hoth, where whites and blues mix to create a vast desolate but beautiful landscape.
Then there are arachnid evil probes and impressive elephantine AT-ATs.
New rebel fighter ships retrofitted for the cold.
Here it is the year 2013 and the Battle In The Snow still does not look dated, at least not to me.
(Bonus points if you can tell me what current insanely popular pay TV show the actor playing the Imperial commander appears in).
Then the movie drops us in the middle of a murky, damp and misty swamp in the Dagobah system, where we meet a diminutive pop culture giant who has a funny way of speaking and is a master of the Force.
After that, we travel to the beautiful cloud city of Bespin, a warm locale that always looks lit by “golden hour” sunlight.
Ironic that the most inviting of the three locations proves to be the most dangerous. I loved how this movie transported me to all these contrasting environments, a theme which continues in the subsequent sequel and the prequels (but we don’t speak of the prequels, ever).
Then there are the visual effects. I don’t care what anybody says…the asteroid sequence in Attack Of The Clones, with all its weightless CG, gargles monkey balls compared to the asteroid sequence in this movie. It is NO CONTEST.
Now, go back and watch that clip again, and this time, listen to the music. Listen to how brilliantly John Williams’s score meshes with the visuals. I contend that when you consider the visuals (which were completely non-CGI!!) as well as the music, the asteroid sequence is the best scene of all the Star Wars films. The score for this film, in my humble opinion, contains some of the best motifs in any of his work. It is absolutely beautiful. Outside of the title march from Superman, this is by far my favorite soundtrack by any film composer. How many times as a kid, when you were playing good guys and bad guys, did you hum this ditty:
And then, there’s the love theme. Williams created different love themes for each of the three original films and they’re all great, but this is one is magnificent. It evokes classic Hollywood dashing heroism, undying love and a touch of adventure. I mean, I cannot adequately express how this piece of music affects me, it does something to me on a genetic level; I melt, I soar, sometimes I well up, I’m taken away with this music. Here’s a clip from the soundtrack, “Rebel Fleet/End Credits,” which is heard at the end of the film; it’s all brilliant, but listen to the movement at :58, then go to 4:45 to hear how absolutely beautiful this theme is:
I mean…wow. Williams’s use of brass, timpani, swelling strings and his signature touch of pizzicato counterpoint, in this case with wind instruments (I’m guessing flute and piccolo) is just–I want to meet this man before I die. I could write an entire article on how John Williams inspired my love of music. The themes he creates for Yoda (heard at 2:28), for Lando Calrissian (heard as the group first meets Lando on Bespin and are walking through the city, right before C-3PO wanders off and gets shot), are all masterpieces.
Then there’s Yoda. Can you even remember a time when you DIDN’T know who Yoda was? Do you recall wondering, who the hell is that pointy-eared green thing that’s stealing Luke’s food? Can we move this along so we can find out who Yoda is? This film introduces us to one of the most well-known, oft-quoted characters in the history of pop culture. And compare the maquette in this film to the fully CG Yoda in Clones and Sith. Do you REALLY want to go there? The Yoda in this film gives a fully realized, nuanced and excellent performance. He comes close to stealing the show from the human actors. It is difficult to fathom that this is merely a puppet that has Frank Oz’s hand shoved up it’s ass. Well, Frank Oz also provided the voice, and he KILLS it. The only performance from a non-human character that is equal to or better than this is Andy Serkis’s Gollum. That’s it. Just like the asteroid sequence, this puppet demolishes the CG Yoda of the prequels.
This movie makes my list because watching it transports me back to 1980 when I was just getting out of grade school, ready to enjoy the summer, completely carefree and eager to see the new Star Wars movie. So many things just blew me away in this movie, most of which I’ve already described. I was surprised at how dark it was; who would have thought we’d see a severed head in a Star Wars film? And I remember thinking, after Lando, Leia, Chewbacca and the droids fail to rescue the carbonited Han from Boba Fett, that the movie must be extremely long because surely, they’re not going to make me wait for another two years to see what happens to Han. And then the end credits came up. And I was FURIOUS! I was LIVID! Oh, HELL NO! I HATED this movie for doing that to me.
But somewhere along the way, I got over it. And I paid to see this movie at least three more times (back then, in a pre-internet, pre-smartphone, hell, even a pre-VCR age, that’s the only way you could see a movie, actually in the theaters). I’m still waiting to see a Star Wars that will top Empire Strikes Back; so far, the only movie to top this one is Empire Strikes Back, the special edition, with re-tooled footage. I don’t mind the tinkering, as a matter of fact, I like seeing more of Bespin. There is one shot that bothers me, where Lando and Leia are running to save Han and they run by these windows which were originally solid walls. But other than that, as I’ve said, this is the best Star Wars yet. If J.J. Abrams wants to match this with his new Star Wars film, he better fire his Star Trek creative team (he should’ve done that already), and bring his A-game.