The other day Devin wrote up a very good list of “superior sequels” (…ELS/Page1.html) in which he wrote this about The Empire Strikes Back:

The Empire Strikes Back – After Empire, Star Wars almost seems quaint. Irving Kershner and screenwriters Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan open up the Star Wars universe in a major way, and they present exciting new shades of gray into the proceedings. While Lucas’ original film was a reimagining of Flash Gordon serials, Empire feels weightier, bigger and more in line with printed pulpy space opera. Grown up and throwing away the formula, Empire is really the only Star Wars film that works for me anymore.

I couldn’t agree more, and I wanted to take this time to expand a bit on what Devin wrote and share my feelings on Empire.

I’ve probably seen Empire more than any other movie. There was a year back when I was in 7th or 8th grade where I was totally obsessed with it, and I would watch it at least once a week. It wasn’t that I was a particularly huge Star Wars fan (at the time, I was much more interested in the original Star Trek, and that was my preferred brand of nerdery), but it was just such a great movie. Everything in it works; it’s wonderfully directed; the performances are spot-on; the photography is excellent (even beautiful, once it gets to Cloud City); the effects work was groundbreaking at the time and still amazing today; its perfectly paced, which is a credit to both the script and the editing; and the music is iconic.

What really makes Empire interesting, though, is that it created the “Star Wars Saga.” Empire was so good, and introduced so many fascinating wrinkles into the story, that it not only created compelling conflict for sequels, but it retroactively made the first movie more interesting. Without the subtext that Empire added 3 years after the fact, Star Wars would be fun but forgettable—it’s almost totally hollow. Empire even set up some really interesting prequels, too.

Of course, none of that actually happened. Return of the Jedi is watchable only because its excellent last act pays off the story begun in Empire; otherwise it’s a boring slog of a film. The less said about the prequels the better, but the only reason they exist is because Empire opened the door for them.

There’s no doubt that Empire is a dark movie. In it we see Han Solo tortured on screen, Luke fail, the Rebellion scattered, and we find out that the guy who’s been choking his way through the Empire’s command ranks is the hero’s father. The funny thing is, it’s still a kids movie. Kids can handle that stuff. Sure it’s scary, even troubling, but that’s ok. Life is scary and troubling sometimes, and I think it’s healthy for kids to have films that acknowledge that, treat the conflict seriously, and respect them as an audience.

George Lucas either forgot or never knew how to make a kids movie, which is why everything that comes after Empire is such a misfire. Jedi and the prequels pull punches in a way that Empire never did. Look at everything that happens in Empire; there’s some crazy stuff in there. When Lucas wanted the prequels to “go dark,” he had someone try to sell Obi-Wan “deathsticks.”

And kids movies don’t have to have kids in them, which is another thing Lucas doesn’t understand. Empire has no children. The little guys playing catch with C-3PO’s head may be childish, but they’re not children, unless Cloud City has some seriously lax child labor laws. Then again, Lando* does keep his manservant locked in a closet, bound to his wristwatch, so anything is possible (Bespin is obviously governed by business interests, and you can never trust an oligarchy).

Kids like the prequels, sure, but kids aren’t very discerning viewers. I doubt many kids recognized at the time how great Empire is; I didn’t, but it left an impression. I will be curious to see if in 10 years any of the 5 year olds who loved The Phantom Menace on opening night still care about it in their mid-twenties.

I’ve always felt that The Empire Strikes Back is more than just a great sequel; it’s a perfect film. Perfect films are rare, and some great directors go their whole careers without making one. Considering how creatively bankrupt Empire’s offspring are, it’s amazing to think that George Lucas has his name on two back-to-back perfect films (The Raiders of the Lost Ark being the other). The man was obviously on to something. Still, it says something that Empire was the film over which he had the least control. Ah, what might have been… Instead we’re left with The Empire Strikes Back, the only truly great Star Wars film, and really all the Star Wars I need. (Well, maybe that and the end of Jedi…)

*Microsoft Word does not recognize Lando. It recognizes Skywalker, Han Solo, Chewbacca, Darth Vader, Obi-Wan Kenobi, but not Lando or Calrissian. Shame on you, Microsoft.