Welcome back – come in, come in. It’s the nice doctor on shift today so we have all the time in the world for me to tell you about one of my favourite films in the history of ever. And ‘Return of the Jedi’, I suppose. Sit down and make yourself comfortable: this is going to be good.
If you recall, last time I had some very nice things to say about A New Hope and Star Wars in general. But don’t worry, the melodrama doesn’t stop there. Prepare yourself because this waxing lyrical is going into high gear. It’s time for The Empire Strikes Back. This is Star Wars’ crowning five star film, if you ask me (which, if you’re here, you are). Empire is the first film I ever watched that didn’t end well for the heroes, but the villains. This makes perfect sense when you understand it’s part of a trilogy, but it was still something I’d never encountered. The villains may have the upper hand partway through, but by the credits it’s our heroes on top. Not in Empire. At the end of Empire, Han’s been frozen and sold to a giant slug and Luke has lost both his hand and his entire understanding of himself and how he relates to the world (delivered in one of the most famous film quotes ever, quite literally). Then, of course, Leia and Chewie have lost Han and the Rebel Alliance is on its last legs, which is pretty serious considering the state it was in at the start of the film.
Empire is one of those films where knowing someone’s favourite character can tell you a lot about their relationship to Star Wars. We’ll ignore the protagonists and look at the side characters. I’ve known people to pick the Emperor, Boba Fett, Lando Calrissian and even more obscure choices. Well, Lando’s understandable because Billy Dee Williams owns that role, but to pick Boba or the Emperor you have to know more Star Wars. The Emperor as an answer means you’re looking at the trilogy at least, and Boba Fett that you’re looking at the Expanded Universe (EU), or just really like implied badassery (seriously, tell me one badass thing he actually does on screen, but you still know he’s a stone cold badass). Who’s my favourite? I’m one of those with the even more obscure picks, it’s General Maximilian Veers, the guy in the AT-AT (or Walker if you insist). Why? Simply because he’s played perfectly straight – he’s an incredibly competent military commander who has a plan and executes it, which is a breath of fresh air when characters in his role are normally either played as incompetent boobs or ruthless, sadistic bastards, depending on whether the subject material is family friendly or dark and edgy. I know he’s just a bit part so simple competence is just a matter of good restraint in filmmaking, but still, I love him for it. That and, of course, I’ve read his EU backstory, which helps.
In fact, Empire is a beautiful example of how restraint often produces better results than the perfect translation of vision to screen. Empire has a classic three act structure, cleanly flowing from one to the next. First is Hoth, second is Luke on Dagobah and Han, Leia etc. in the asteroid field and third is Bespin. Empire, along with the rest of the original trilogy, is actually really simple when you boil it down to what actually happens. In truth, the plot takes a back seat to the characters and setting, which has always been Star Wars‘ true strength. The struggles of Luke trying to learn an alien philosophy when all he really wants is the strength to fight the Empire and protect his friends; Han and Leia’s antagonistic banter growing into respect and, finally, affection; Vader’s ruthless, maniacally obsessive pursuit of Luke. These are the things that make Empire the treasure it is, lightly sprinkled with glimpses into the lives and nature of the supporting cast. In chronological order we have Admiral Ozzel, a man who lucked into his rank through connections and blood rather than ability is choked to death for his final failure. Captain Needa, a man placed in an awful situation, when the Falcon eludes him through no real fault of his own, shouldering Vader’s wrath alone to spare the reputation and lives of those who serve under him. Boba Fett, a bounty hunter, scum of the galaxy turned to after Vader loses all confidence in the military to achieve his goals, a faceless monster with a reputation fearsome enough to warrant the warning “no disintegrations”. Lando Calrissian, a former pirate turned businessman who makes a Faustian bargain, trading his friends for the life he’s built for himself and watching everything he has slip from his grasp as the deal turns more and more sour. Can you tell I love this film?
And last and least we have Return of the Jedi. Jedi is simultaneously simpler and more complex than Empire. In Empire you have, in essence, two concurrent plots: Rebels flee the Empire and Luke learns the Force. At any given moment you can walk in and know what’s happening. Jedi, on the other hand, has only two acts: Tatooine and the forest moon of Endor (I’m not counting the Ewoks and the Battle of Endor as separate, as the bit before the fighting starts is just tedious filler) and the plots of both are completely divorced. Tatooine’s a personal quest to rescue Han and Endor is getting back to the actual Star Wars bit of fighting the Empire. Now, for me, Tatooine’s a bit too long, but that’s far and away not Jedi’s greatest flaw. The plot of Tatooine works out as something of a mini heist film, with some cheeky Leia fanservice thrown in, and Endor is its own kettle of fish with several disparate things going on in the final battle of the series. There’s the reconnaissance, the capture by and subsequent befriending of Star Wars’ Beanie Baby aliens, Luke’s revelation and surrender then the simultaneous fights on the second Death Star, space and the ground on the forest moon – the first inkling of a habit Star Wars has of trying to do too much at once.
Still, there’s a lot to like in Jedi, assuming you’re invested in the series or you’re six or seven-years-old. For the latter, there’s Ewoks (personally I believe the only good Ewok is the one that gets blown up) and for the former there’s the culmination of plot threads started in the better films. It still has the magic of Star Wars‘ main cast, but it’s lacking in the side characters we saw in Empire, at least for me. Still, Jedi is a satisfying, if not incredible, conclusion to the Star Wars trilogy. At least the trilogy that matters. The trilogy that generates the hype for The Force Awakens. Unfortunately, there’s another trilogy that generates the trepidation. The much maligned prequels. Between Star Wars and the prequels there was a lot of extra fiction produced, much of it well worth a look. Fiction which the prequels, of course, paid no attention to. Something The Force Awakens is equally guilty of, with the slight caveat that Disney is still publishing the old material, just under the descriptor “Legacy”. In all honesty, what was canon before this clearing out was a tangled mess at this point, so I can’t really blame the move.
And that’s it. No more. No, really, that’s it. What do you mean prequels? Heh heh, I’ve never heard of them. Please don’t make me, they’re what put me in this cell in the first place. Well, er, it’s time for, um, my meds. Yes. Meds time now, doctor’s coming. We’ll do the prequels next time, okay? Bye now – don’t remember to come back tomorrow!
WORDS: JAMES ARNOLD
Missed James’ exploration of ‘A New Hope’? Here it is, in all its glory.