Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

Note: This is the first entry in a series of reviews covering the first seven Star Wars films. Hopefully I’ll finish this series before the next movie comes out haha

I assert there are only 2 GREAT Star Wars movies. Both were not directed by George Lucas, one of the most overrated directors (NOT creative writers) of our time. Star Wars Episode V, as directed by Irvin Kershner, is indisputably the best in the saga.

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With the latest entry in the Star Wars cinematic universe with Episode VII: The Force Awakens, which topped Jurassic World for biggest opening weekend this holiday season, I feel compelled to say my thoughts on the highly praised and highly successful movie. I’m in no rush to do the review though because I want to talk about it spoiler style, so I’m basically delaying my review with this one to give you guys the opportunity to see it first. Like, if you haven’t seen it, what are you doing with your life? Stop reading this post and go freakin’ see the thing. Seriously. It’s great.

It might be puzzling that I’m reviewing the fifth–not the first nor the fourth–but I’m reviewing Episode VII next and the only movie I really need to reference heavily in that review is this one. Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back has all the magic of the series contained within itself. It is not only the standard for all Star Wars films to come, but the standard for the entire sci-fi fantasy genre. It’s the film that got me single-handedly into Star Wars.

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One of many revealing scenes in the movie has Darth Vader preparing to meet with one of his admirals. The admiral peeks in as Darth Vader puts on his helmet, and there, we get a glimpse of Anakin Skywalker. Or rather, what’s left of him. One of the first clues that his costume is not made for intimidation, but rather, for his very health. His gasps for air which once painted him with vile and animosity now represents his frailty and weakness. Perhaps more importantly, his humanity.

Out of all the best villains from the science fiction genre–Schwarzenegger as T1’s Terminator, Agent Smith from The Matrix, Spielberg’s Tyrannosaurus Rex from Jurassic Park–none have the relatability of Darth Vader, one of the best villains put to screen. While he is menacing with his force grips and intense pursuit of the Rebel Alliance, he shows his softer side when it comes to Luke Skywalker, his son. Needing to find a way to transport Luke to the Emperor, he tests the carbon freezing machine at Lando Calrissian’s Cloud City on Han Solo.

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One may find this act to be out of caution rather than compassion, but when Darth Vader finally confronts his son, he goes easy on him. He only becomes vicious and resorts to the force as he becomes increasingly agitated by Luke’s resistance to him, eventually slicing his hand off with a lightsaber. His dialogue with Luke once he has him cornered confirms every hint that Kershner and Lucas dropped for us beforehand.

Luke, you can destroy the Emperor. He has foreseen this. It is your destiny. Join me, and together we can rule the galaxy as father and son.

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Darth Vader is unhappy with his life. He does not want to serve Lord Palpatine forever. He believes in fate. Perhaps he believes he is merely playing out his own destiny, and thus, cannot reconcile a change into the light side with all the crimes he has committed. But for whatever remains unclear, what is clear is that Anakin Skywalker would rather spend time with Luke than continue fighting the Alliance.

Never in my LIFE have I seen a cinematic villain assume his role so willingly, acknowledge it, and forcibly change my impression on him as quickly as Darth Vader does in a couple sentences. “I am your father” was also shocking, but the words that follow are the ones that completely change the dynamic of our supposed villain and questions everything we ever thought about him. And yet, all of this was foreshadowed and thus, feels like a natural progression of the story. This is storytelling at its highest, purest, and most distinguished form.

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Yes, the training with Yoda was a fascinating study into the “force.” I like how there are real consequences for Luke going against Yoda’s wishes to stay on Dagobah to finish his training instead of helping Han Solo and company. Yes, the (only) lightsaber duel that occurs perfectly at the emotional peak of the film rivals any other lightsaber duel put to screen. This movie was made in 1980! Yes, the love story between Han Solo and Princess Leia was charismatic and charming. Loveable R2D2, CP30, and Chewbacca imbues the film with lightheartedness characteristic of the Star Wars trilogies. Yes, the adventure covers many exotic and interesting locations. But what cannot get enough emphasis, and doesn’t get enough attention, is why the movie’s villain makes the story turn and the characters click. I love this movie so much that I could talk about all the individual components that make it great, but I would probably be just reiterating the household thoughts of the general critic circle. If those reviews haven’t convinced you yet of its greatness, I hope I’ve at least made a strong enough argument for its villain. Darth Vader, as depicted in Episode V, is simply the best villain to come out of the science fiction genre.

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This is one of those rare sequels that chooses to take a darker, more sophisticated approach rather than a louder, more expensive approach. The result is predictable, but stunning. Not only does the dark ending to our tale, which has Luke handless in one arm and Han Solo trapped in carbonite, add much needed intrigue to the very original Star Wars film but all the new additions are welcomed. From bounty hunter Jango Fett to the Walkers that invade the rebels in Hoth, there are a plethora of reasons as to why this sequel flat-out out-does its predecessor.

Over the years, DVD and Blu-Ray releases have digitally edited certain action sequences and backgrounds. However, this is a fruitless effort because I believe this movie is more than just an effects presentation. It is timeless because of its commitment to characters and story. And while it will (barely) not garner the most coveted title on Taestful Reviews as one of Kevin’s Favorite Movies due to conflict of artistic taste, it is definitely a film worthy of its iconic name and legacy.

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Final Grade: A (98%)–Intrigue and darkness define the deeper and more mature sequel, timeless in the way it has sustained Star Wars craze 35 years since.

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