“Star Wars: The Phantom Menace” Review!

We are officially in the last leg of the long journey to Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker, which means that the mighty Skywalker Saga, a story spanning forty years across films, books, comics, cartoons and video games is finally coming to a close – which in turn means that it’s time to reflect on that nine-part saga and take a good long look at the films that predate and inform Rise Of Skywalker‘s epic conclusion.

To do that, we’re going to have to discuss spoilers for each of the eight films in the Saga, so…SPOILERS AHEAD.

Star Wars: The Phantom Menace

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It’s finally time to explain my decision not to start my eight-part review of the Star Wars franchise with what is now technically referred to as the first movie. The idea of having to wade, Gungan-style, through three intermittently bad movies before getting to the series’ real gems was simply not appealing to me, so I took what we’ll call a detour – by going through the films in the order of release, rather than where they fall in the official timeline. But, of course, destiny arrives regardless, and now we have finally set foot on the soggy, pleasantly pastel planet where humans and sentient dinosaurs live together in harmony among a picturesque landscape of waterfalls, rainforests and Renaissance cities…yes, it’s Dinotopia.

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No, wait, that’s not right. Sorry, it’s Dinotopia’s identical twin, Naboo.

Here, amid all that lush greenery and damp air, our story begins: it is the story of a boy who would become a man who would become a machine, a child born into the world to serve a dark power’s nefarious purposes, a Jedi who would turn to the Dark Side of the Force and join the ranks of the Sith. Here, on the planet Naboo, begins the story of Anakin Skywalker.

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Wait, that’s not right either. Anakin’s story doesn’t start here. So then…why does the movie start here?

Unfortunately, there’s no good answer to that question, which lingers over the whole prequel trilogy. The point of the prequels was supposedly to go deep into the psyche of the man who became Darth Vader, to discover what went so horribly wrong in his life that he would turn away from the light and succumb to darkness. And yet somewhere along the way, director George Lucas realized that he actually wanted to make an entire movie about intergalactic politics and shipping blockades – and, uh, sure that has something to do with Anakin Skywalker’s journey to the Dark Side! How? Well…because Padmé Amidala, Anakin’s wife, came from Naboo, that’s how. And so the story of Anakin Skywalker actually begins with Padmé, the young, seemingly naive Queen of the Naboo people, being rescued from her home planet by the Jedi and…wait, you’re telling me we spend the first half-hour of the movie on a rescue mission to free Padmé only to find out in the film’s last thirty-five minutes that it’s not even the real Padmé?

This is, unfortunately, only one example of the problem with the prequel trilogy, but it highlights one of Phantom Menace‘s biggest structural flaws. Rather than focusing on the character of Anakin Skywalker (who was likable enough here, portrayed by Jake Lloyd), the movie wastes valuable screentime on supporting characters and three or four different political subplots that have no bearing on Anakin’s story whatsoever. This epic failure is comparable to Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes Of Grindelwald, a movie in which plot took precedence over character development, to the detriment of both – a huge, complex plot means nothing if there aren’t sturdy, strong characters to hoist it on their shoulders when the going gets rough and carry the audience’s interest across the finish line. In both Crimes Of Grindelwald and Phantom Menace, the “characters” are mostly cardboard cutouts barely capable of carrying a single scene, much less an entire movie.

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There’s a trio central to the story of Phantom Menace, but it’s sometimes hard to tell whether it consists of Anakin Skywalker, Padmé Amidala (Natalie Portman), and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) or Anakin, Padmé and Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson). Obi-Wan is the more important of the two in the long run, but he does virtually nothing in Phantom Menace except stand by Qui-Gon’s side and argue with him about whether or not Anakin should be trained as a Jedi. And then at the very end of the movie, he gets to kill the Sith apprentice Darth Maul in one epic lightsaber fight that makes his earlier irrelevance not only confusing but frustrating. As previously mentioned, Padmé is actually disguised as a different character for most of the film, while Sabé (Keira Knightley) wears her identity. Anakin isn’t in the movie’s first half-hour, and even when he does show up, he’s still initially a supporting character – at best, he’s a walking plot device until he takes command of his very own starship in the finale. Until the second film, I think it’s safe to say that most of this defining chapter in Anakin’s life is told from the viewpoint of Qui-Gon Jinn as he tries, unsuccessfully, to decipher the child’s parentage and account for his abnormally high midi-chlorian count (yes, this film also establishes that your strength in the Force is determined by the amount of alien blood-cells living in your body, which just…no).

And it’s not like anybody else ever figures out what Anakin is, either. Even to this day, Star Wars canon is conflicted about where he came from – the predominant theory being that he was “conceived by the midi-chlorians”, meaning that, in essence, he’s the son of the Force itself. That’s all well and good, but why wasn’t it ever explained in the movie? The only hint we get about his parentage is one vague quote from his mother, Shmi (Pernilla August), who tells Qui-Gon that “There was no father. I carried him, I gave birth, I raised him, I can’t explain what happened.” Yeah, well, try. Any explanation would be better than simply giving us yet another unanswered question about the character whose backstory we were supposed to be learning!

I think that, even without making the movie about Anakin (since George Lucas was clearly resistant to that idea, for whatever reason), a compelling story could still have been told – if the actual focus hadn’t instead been directed on the impossibly complicated political system of Naboo, and their relations with the Gungan aliens, Viceroy Gunray’s Trade Federation and the Old Republic’s corrupt, bureaucratic system. Now, I love political intrigue: it’s one of my favorite tropes in sci-fi, fantasy or fiction in general. But intrigue has to revolve around character in order to work properly – simply having shipping blockades and assassination attempts and coups isn’t interesting, unless we care about the characters that these things are happening to: for instance, look at Game Of Thrones, which, in its first few seasons, expertly handled political intrigue by pitting fleshed-out characters against each other in interesting ways and giving them real motivations and agendas that audiences could become invested in. It’s hard to become invested in Naboo’s fight for independence when we know next to nothing about the handful of characters in the movie who actually hail from Naboo – especially when one of them is Jar-Jar Binks (Ahmed Best).

Now, I just want to preface this by saying that I bear no ill-will towards Ahmed Best, who was simply doing his job and the best that he could in extremely difficult circumstances: I wish him well, and I’m very glad to hear that he’s just landed a role as the host of a Star Wars game show on Disney+. That’s fantastic. But the character he happens to portray, the notorious alien by the name of Binks, is without a doubt the most pointless and pathetic character in the Star Wars universe – and it’s a big universe. But between his…jokes?…and his voice, and his unnervingly long tongue, there is not a single thing about Jar-Jar that helps the prequel trilogy in any way. Worse, he’s actually damaged the trilogy’s reputation.

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On the other side of the galaxy but almost as useless, the Jedi Order loses all of its mystique and magic when glimpsed in The Phantom Menace, where they’re basically just a group of squabbling elders blind to the disintegration of the society they’re sworn to protect. Seeing them here, at what was apparently the height of their glory, it’s hard to imagine they stayed in business as long as they did. It’s even harder to imagine that they could ever be brought back, or that they would be effective, if they were.

The Sith, however, have never looked so appealing as they did here, operating in secret from behind thrones and senate-seats across the galaxy, a cult based on the duality of master and apprentice. While the master himself, Chancellor Palpatine a.k.a. Darth Sidious (Ian McDiarmid) is busy getting “elected” to ever-loftier positions of power in the New Republic, his apprentice Darth Maul (Ray Park) is on assignment like a mysterious ninja, or a ghostly assassin, or a…phantom menace. While Maul would look cool regardless of his weaponry (dude’s literally a six-foot tall Dathomirian Dark Lord covered in horns and red-and-black full-body tattoos), having a freaky, double-bladed lightsaber probably doesn’t hurt his image. Sadly, while he was undeniably one of the Dark Side’s most photogenic champions (in the days before Kylo Ren), he was cut in half by Obi-Wan Kenobi at the end of the movie, preventing him from ever realizing his true potential. One thing that can be said of the prequel trilogy is that it had some epic villains – it just didn’t keep them around long enough to make much of a difference.

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And that’s the biggest problem with The Phantom Menace: huge potential, but nothing to do with it. It’s a movie that spends more time explaining the mechanics of pod-racing and the structure of the intergalactic Senate than the dynamics of its core cast of characters, or the psychology of our protagonist…who, as time goes by, becomes only more distanced from the audience, because he was never close to us to begin with.

Movie Rating: 4.9/10

“The Mandalorian: Chapter 6” Review!

While I was not fond of Rick Famuyiwa’s first episode of The Mandalorian, The Child, I feel he has done much to redeem himself in the story’s newest entry, The Prisoner, which sees our protagonist finally become…well, the protagonist. Though the episode does absolutely nothing to course-correct a show that still has no throughline, it at least gives us great action sequences and an eerily suspenseful prison-heist storyline to distract us from that detail: at this point, it seems highly unlikely that the show’s first season will do anything beyond the established formula of having each episode begin with The Mandalorian (Pedro Pascal) either having to fix his spaceship or earn money (money he never seems to use), achieving his goal by means of a detour or side-quest, and then leaving for another corner of the galaxy. While it’s not exactly thrilling, it’s at least got impressive world-building.

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And finally, it just might have a hero. Our lead character, the masked, emotionless, practical Mandalorian, has been set up as an enigma over the course of the last five episodes – but at the same time, he’s also been shown to be a rather clumsy fighter (in Famuyiwa’s previous episode, he was nearly killed by a rhino and humiliated by a pack of Jawas) and somebody who doesn’t tend to think ahead. But now, armored with beskar steel and armed with flamethrowers, garrotes and “whistling birds”, the Mandalorian is finally getting a chance to stand on his own two feet for once. The subplot in which he finds himself entangled today requires him to lead a small group of scoundrels and thugs into a New Republic prison-cruiser to free a dangerous hostage – and Mando actually works out a plan, executes it very well, and, when the tables turn, fights back with courage, wits, and a flair for the dramatic previously seen only in characters like Han Solo.

Baby Yoda is as cute as ever, and seeing his life constantly endangered by ruffians and ignorant idiots (one of whom even has the audacity to drop him!) is grounds for legal action against Disney. Famuyiwa appears to be the only director on this show who’s actually paying attention to the fact (that he introduced, in episode 2) that the Child is force-sensitive, giving him a cool little mission of his own in this chapter that makes him feel like his own character – one whose arc may very well be leading up to something, and at the very least is the cutest thing to come out of the Star Wars franchise since…actually, no, Baby Yoda is the cutest thing in the Star Wars franchise, period.

We need to talk about the episode’s big twist and ending, though, so let this be your warning that there are SPOILERS AHEAD!

After being commissioned by an old friend named Ranzar Malk (Mark Boone Jr.) to rescue a prisoner from the clutches of the New Republic, Mando is forced to take with him a band of strange, suspicious ruffians, all of whom seem to want him dead. Most notably, Natalia Tena portrays his former…lover? girlfriend?…a Twi’lek alien mercenary named Xi’an, whose hissing breath and throwing knives (not to mention, you know, the purple tentacles sprouting from her head) make her an instant classic, even if she is a bit grating after a while. It’s not a surprise that this crew doesn’t have Mando’s best interests at heart – it is a surprise, however, when they free the prisoner, Xi’an’s brother Qin (Ismael Cruz Cordova), who it turns out was imprisoned due to the Mandalorian’s interference. Mando gets shoved into a prison cell while his treacherous co-workers flee, trying to make off with his ship. But apparently they didn’t reckon with Mando’s newfound ability to pick locks by dismembering droids: he escapes and hunts them down one-by-one in a delightfully dark game of cat-and-mouse. All the while, assassin droid Zero (Richard Ayoade) is busy hunting Baby Yoda through Mando’s spaceship, having discovered the infant’s importance to the Bounty Hunter’s Guild. Thankfully, Mando is able to lock up his former friends and get back to his ship just in time to shoot the droid dead – but interestingly, Baby Yoda goes to use the Force just before the Mandalorian’s fatal shot, prompting questions about which character actually killed him.

But Mando doesn’t just want to get back at the traitors for trying to hurt his adorable little baby – he wants vengeance, and he gets it, big-time. Flying back to Malk’s base, Mando delivers up the promised prisoner, as well as a little parting gift: a New Republic tracking beacon that quickly alerts an entire squadron of X-Wing fighter pilots to the base’s location. Mando gets out of range just before the entire place is blown to pieces. It’s the first time we’ve gotten a glimpse of what the New Republic looks like after the Empire’s fall – and honestly, they look about the same as when we last saw them (except that these particular X-Wing pilots just so happen to be played by Mandalorian directors Dave Filoni, Rick Famuyiwa and Deborah Chow).

Possibly the best part of the episode was seeing characters trying desperately to unmask the Mandalorian – and failing miserably. Even after being taunted and mocked (and even called a Gungan, the worst possible insult in the Star Wars universe), Mando steadfastly refuses to ever remove his iconic helmet. Whether that’s because of plot purposes or because Pedro Pascal simply doesn’t want to have to actually film any scenes, we don’t know and probably won’t find out until the show’s final episode – if even.

So, The Prisoner doesn’t add much to the series’ tenuous idea of a plot, and whether or not characters like Xi’an will turn up again sometime in the future is still an open question: but it does give us an incentive to care about the Mandalorian himself – which, uh, probably isn’t a bad idea, considering that five episodes in, he was undeniably the most boring thing about the show named after him. We’re nearing the first season’s conclusion, and hopefully it’s an epic ride.

Episode Rating: 8/10

“Star Wars: Return Of The Jedi” Review!

We are officially in the last leg of the long journey to Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker, which means that the mighty Skywalker Saga, a story spanning forty years across films, books, comics, cartoons and video games is finally coming to a close – which in turn means that it’s time to reflect on that nine-part saga and take a good long look at the films that predate and inform Rise Of Skywalker‘s epic conclusion.

To do that, we’re going to have to discuss spoilers for each of the eight films in the Saga, so…SPOILERS AHEAD.

(Before we begin, be aware that I’m going through the list by order of release date: I understand that George Lucas wanted movies 4, 5 and 6 to be movies 1, 2 and 3 and to be treated as such – but they’re not good enough to warrant that distinction. Sorry, George).

Star Wars: Return Of The Jedi

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The final chapter in the original Star Wars trilogy sags under the burden placed upon its shoulders by the two previous installments in the Skywalker Saga. Why? Because it follows the same basic principle of The Force Awakens, but without the benefit of coming out some twenty years after the original film – rather than looking like a dreamy, nostalgic callback to former glory, Return Of The Jedi instead feels mostly like a frantic cash-grab, capitalizing on all of A New Hope‘s flashes of ingenuity but ignoring that they cease to be ingenious when repeated time and time again. It doesn’t help the film’s image when you discover that George Lucas rewrote the entire movie to maximize toy sales, something that we’ll discuss in detail.

But first, because I don’t like to be negative about a franchise I love – does Return Of The Jedi have any redeeming qualities?

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Well, yes. Most films do. Even The Phantom Menace has some good moments (can’t think of any off the top of my head, but I’ll have to think of some for my review of that film). But unfortunately, most of Return Of The Jedi‘s great moments are overshadowed by the larger flaws they contrast. For instance, having Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), Darth Vader (voiced by James Earl Jones), and The Emperor (Ian McDiarmid) get in a three-way battle to the death is a great idea, and lends itself nicely to some very cool scenes of action, lightsaber wizardry and Force-lightning madness. However, the fact that this battle takes place on a cheaper, less intimidating knockoff of the Death Star, whose crucial design flaw is basically identical to that on the first Death Star, rendering the object pointless and boring…well, that’s not quite as much fun. If you’re going to reuse old ideas, at least make them bigger and more epic – maybe don’t downgrade from “a weapon the size of a moon that can blow up other planets” to “a partially-constructed weapon the size of a large asteroid that can blow up spaceships one at a time”. Honestly, if you’re going to build a new Death Star, at least have the courtesy to give it to Alec Guinness (who reprised his role as Obi-Wan Kenobi) after you’re done using it, so he can promptly annihilate the entire Star Wars fandom – how he got roped in to doing a third Star Wars film, I have no idea, but it’s evident from his bored, mechanical line-readings that he was doing his level best to make the film unwatchable (apparently, early script drafts had him joining the action as a Force-ghost and helping to defeat The Emperor, but Guinness didn’t like using special effects. You can’t have it both ways, Alec; you’re either an expository ghost or a CGI wizard – there is no middle ground).

Return Of The Jedi is truly disappointing because of how many awesome what-if scenarios were originally going to make their way into the film: scenarios that would have to wait until decades later to be realized onscreen, because George Lucas was afraid that taking risks would minimize the sales of toys, action figures and other Star Wars merchandise. Most shockingly, the trilogy was at one point intended to end with Luke Skywalker removing his father’s mask – and claiming it for himself, having been so corrupted in his fight with The Emperor that he became a Sith Lord, channeling the Dark Side of the Force to turn on the Rebellion, leading to Han Solo’s heroic death during a raid on the Imperial base. Even after Lucas scrapped that idea (it was too sad for a kid’s movie, he claimed), there were still plans for the film to end on a bittersweet note, with Leia in charge of a last, desperate band of Rebels and war-torn heroes, while Luke would abandon the cause and go into hiding. While many of these concepts later found their way into The Force Awakens, they don’t fit particularly well in that film, coming off a trilogy that actually ended triumphantly, with the Empire destroyed, the Jedi supposedly restored to power, and the galaxy at peace. J.J. Abrams’ sequel trilogy is largely founded on an alternative version of Return Of The Jedi that never saw the light of day, a version that allowed for a sequel.

Even Lucas’ film, however, feels like it has multiple parts that belong to a completely different movie. For instance, the thirty-minute long detour on Tatooine to rescue Han Solo (Harrison Ford) might just be an excuse to revisit what is arguably the franchise’s most iconic locale, but it definitely seems to be setting up Solo’s story to actually…go somewhere. But beyond helping to shut down the energy-shields surrounding the Death Star, Solo is largely unimportant to the story. He’s still great, because he’s Han Solo – but why was it so important that we spend half an hour saving him from the clutches of Jabba the Hutt, without any real payoff? Why, unless he was originally intended to do something essential, something heroic – something that would have resulted in his death, and thus fewer toys sold?

This is, unfortunately, the very same trap that J.J. Abrams and his team could fall into with The Rise Of Skywalker. Not with regard to toy sales, I don’t think, but they must similarly feel like ending their trilogy on anything other than a victorious high note would be disappointing after so much buildup. But I sincerely hope they have an incredible plan for the franchise’s climax, and it will be satisfyingly poignant, triumphant and original: if The Lord Of The Rings could end with a decent portion of the main cast setting sail into the West, than so can Star Wars!

There are a couple of characters for whom Return Of The Jedi is not a total mess: Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), who is finally revealed as Luke Skywalker’s twin sister, and has some strong emotional moments handling the ramifications of that revelation – not to mention more action scenes than she’s ever had before or since, from single-handedly strangling Jabba the Hutt to a crazy speeder-bike chase through the forests of Endor, picking off stormtroopers; C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), who has one hilarious scene in which, mistaken for a deity by the Ewoks of Endor, he ends up nearly condemning Luke, Han and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) to become the main course at a sacrificial banquet in his honor, because he’s too polite to refuse; and the oft-quoted Admiral Akbar (Timothy Rose), the Mon Calamari alien who becomes the first high-ranking non-human member of the Rebellion, gets one infamous line of dialogue, and then is seen afterwards partying with the Ewoks. Good for him.

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In Return Of The Jedi, George Lucas’ hand once again reaches in from the future to clumsily tinker with the special effects – and here, he has one particularly egregious use of CGI as well as one addition that I have to grudgingly admit is a nice way to keep continuity between all his trilogies. The former is the notorious addition of an entire alien musical number in Jabba’s palace, one which is apparently supposed to make the giant slug’s cavernous lair seem more like a family-friendly dance hall than a den of vice. The latter is the replacement of original Anakin Skywalker actor Sebastian Shaw’s Force-ghost with the likeness of Hayden Christensen, who portrayed Anakin in the prequel trilogy: while that change has always been controversial, I feel it’s actually a nice touch – as are the scenes of celebration in several prequel trilogy planets such as Naboo and Coruscant, lending the victory scene a larger, more epic scale. There’s also a couple of weird little alterations, from giving the Sarlacc a head to digitally shaving off Darth Vader’s eyebrows.

The connection between Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker is the original trilogy’s most powerful element, and the true heart of this story.  Luke is faced with many struggles and temptations, and is eventually brought face-to-face with The Emperor (who probably makes a lot more sense if you know who and what he is, thanks to the prequels). Luke’s battle to resist the darkness within him is fiercely compelling. Darth Vader’s redemption might seem to come out of the blue, but it does make sense when viewed in the context of future movies – as Vader watched his son writhe in agony beneath The Emperor’s whips of hellfire, it was impossible for him not to see in his child’s face the tortured eyes of Padmé Amidala, Luke’s mother and the love of Vader’s life – the person for whom he had turned to the Dark Side in a desperate attempt to save her life, only to realize that by doing so, he had actually brought about her anguished, ruinous death. Hearing his son’s pleas and realizing in a blinding flash that The Emperor was solely responsible for all the grievances, betrayals and nightmares visited upon him and his family, Anakin rebelled in that moment, ridding the Skywalkers of The Emperor, who had been their demonic guardian for three generations, giving up his own life to save his and Padmé’s children. It’s powerful stuff. Granted, audiences back in 1983 didn’t know any of that backstory: however, even without the assist of the prequels, you can easily understand and appreciate the poetry of The Emperor being destroyed by his apprentice, just as all Sith are and always have been.

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But of course, The Emperor is apparently returning in The Rise Of Skywalker…so does that make Vader’s sacrifice meaningless? Or is it a sign that as long as the Skywalker family exists in the galaxy, The Emperor’s malevolent spirit will haunt them? Probably best not to think about that yet.

In conclusion, Return Of The Jedi is not the best way to cap off a great trilogy, and not a good blueprint for The Rise Of Skywalker to follow – while there may be a handful of redeeming qualities in this movie, most of it is corrupted by the Dark Side of the Force.

Movie Rating: 5.9/10

“The Witcher” Final Trailer Review!

The final trailer for Netflix’s new, completely unhinged, absolutely massive dark fantasy epic The Witcher is – all of those things, times ten. But with Star Wars dominating the news cycle and releasing in theaters on the same day as the first season of The Witcher becomes available, will the series be able to find an audience? I think it’s got a strong chance, but it needs to have a hook that will intrigue viewers who haven’t necessarily read a Witcher novel, played a Witcher video game, or ever heard of The Witcher before in their lives. So far, it’s mostly been directing its marketing toward disillusioned Game Of Thrones fans – you want something a little violent, a little dark, a little edgy? This clearly has all of that.

But the final trailer leans more heavily on appealing to fans of the source material, throwing in a bunch of new concepts we really haven’t seen much of in previous trailers and teasers: concepts that don’t mean a whole lot to me, but sound pretty awesome anyway. The focus here is on the “lion cub of Cintra”, Princess Ciri, whose character appears to be the show’s central plot-point – the people of Nilfgaard want her dead, and Geralt of Rivia has been assigned with finding and protecting her. The powerful sorceress, Yennefer of Vengerburg, presumably fits in somehow, but I honestly don’t care what her purpose is – she’s fighting bad guys while wearing a gigantic, heavy fur coat: a skill-set I thought belonged solely to Jon Snow. If we get more of that Yennefer, and less of the Yennefer who just seems to be hanging around at the palace, whispering about death and destruction, then you can count me in. I may be jumping to conclusions, but I think I like what The Witcher is doing with its female characters: they look powerful, strong (in many different ways), and cool. There are also women of color in prominent roles here, something Game Of Thrones never had.

So what’s the hook? Is it Henry Cavill in a platinum-blond wig (I will never stop making fun of that thing, even if it does actually look pretty decent)? Awesome heroines? Magic? Even as the day of Witcher‘s release draws ever closer, I’m still not sure I can identify anything that will be able to pull in non-fantasy fans. Hopefully, this will be a surprise hit, but I’m nervous to make any assumptions yet.

Trailer Rating: 7/10

“Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back” Review!

We are officially in the last leg of the long journey to Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker, which means that the mighty Skywalker Saga, a story spanning forty years across films, books, comics, cartoons and video games is finally coming to a close – which in turn means that it’s time to reflect on that nine-part saga and take a good long look at the films that predate and inform Rise Of Skywalker‘s epic conclusion.

To do that, we’re going to have to discuss spoilers for each of the eight films in the Saga, so…SPOILERS AHEAD.

(Before we begin, be aware that I’m going through the list by order of release date: I understand that George Lucas wanted movies 4, 5 and 6 to be movies 1, 2 and 3 and to be treated as such – but they’re not good enough to warrant that distinction. Sorry, George).

Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back

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In Star Wars, the successor is always stronger than the predecessor: this is symbolized in both the Sith and the Jedi religions, where the apprentice always overcomes the master eventually, whether by force or fate – and it is symbolized in the film trilogies themselves, where each successive sequel is better than its precursor. And if A New Hope is the wise old Jedi master of Star Wars, then Empire is their fiery, free-spirited student (and that puts Last Jedi somewhere on an Anakin Skywalker level of chaotic energy).

A New Hope played by the rules, establishing a handful of lead characters, giving them a couple of fun, exhilarating obstacles to overcome, and then leaving them (and us, the audience) with a happy, satisfied feeling as we watched our plucky band of heroes rewarded with the highest honors. The Death Star had been destroyed, the terrible Darth Vader had been sent careening off into the depths of space, and Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) was, um, well, he was a Jedi or something, right?

Wrong. When Empire opens, it immediately establishes that the story is far from over, as the Rebellion finds themselves back on the battlefield, with Imperial forces surrounding them on all sides, hunting relentlessly for the man named Skywalker. Darth Vader (voiced by James Earl Jones) is back, with a terrifying new overlord vaguely referred to as the Emperor, and worst of all, Luke himself is caught in a hurricane of new emotions as he struggles between his desire to fulfill his Jedi training and his instinctive need to confront the power of the Darkness. Yes, while he might have been a beacon of hope and moral purity in A New Hope, Empire finds Luke wavering between good and evil, just as his father before him.

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That balancing act makes Empire a thoroughly satisfying movie from a thematic point of view, and gives Hamill and the character of Luke Skywalker plenty of fascinating material to work with – watching Luke confront reality and slowly begin to understand that his youthful dream to follow in his noble father’s footsteps will in fact lead him to the Dark Side is utterly thrilling: and the movie ends just when it needs to, with Darth Vader finally breaking the young Skywalker’s steadfast resolve and destroying all of his last, desperate delusions – forcing the audience, along with Luke, to see that the concept of “destiny” can be a curse as well as a blessing. I say again, this movie is thrilling.

In many ways, Empire is the precursor to the premise of The Last Jedi – it takes the established Star Wars canon, takes one look at it, and tosses it over its shoulder. But whereas the new trilogy has been plagued by a mess of many conflicting directorial visions and an unwillingness to follow through with Last Jedi‘s promise, George Lucas’ original trilogy wasn’t afraid to “go there”. It broke the sheen of romanticism that it had built around itself, took risks, and changed the direction of the franchise – for the better. But since it was only the second movie in the entire series, fans were willing to “forgive” all of that: eight movies in…not so much.

And it’s not like Empire just made the series a little darker and more mature. It did a lot – from introducing the series’ first black character in roguish, charming heartthrob Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams), to retconning one of the first film’s central plot points and making Darth Vader Luke’s father without any explanation (nowadays, Fantastic Beasts fans complain about having to wait a year or two to find out how Credence is a Dumbledore: original Star Wars fans had to wait about two decades to get answers – no wonder they’re embittered!).

In The Empires Strikes Back, the Star Wars story also moves away from the science-fiction serials and TV shows it had been based on, by taking what could very easily have been an episodic story and turning it into…a story that is definitely not episodic, but still insists on categorizing itself into episodes anyway, even forty years later. Empire builds the foundations of what would become the Skywalker Saga, by giving Luke a personal stake in the story and pitting him against a worthy enemy in Darth Vader.

Duality. Remember that from my A New Hope review? Empire expands upon the concept by throwing in the big shocker that Darth Vader is Luke’s biological father, his mirror image on the Dark Side of the Force, and supposedly the destiny that awaits him too. Vader and Skywalker orbit each other in Empire, waiting for their inevitable moment of eclipse when one will destroy the other. They are two inextricably linked forces of nature, and the greatest champions that the Force can conjure (though, there’s been a lot of theorizing recently that The Mandalorian‘s Baby Yoda, born in roughly the same year as Anakin Skywalker, might actually have been Vader’s true equal and nemesis: a bit late for that reveal, I think, but interesting nonetheless).

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The theme of duality is also seen in the characters of Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) and Han Solo (Harrison Ford) who have a tumultuous and similarly circuitous trajectory toward becoming the series’ defining love story. While they’ve definitely got a lot of chemistry and romantic tension as they huddle in the frozen tunnels of their Hoth base-camp, it’s only when they’re separated from Luke that things get really interesting in their relationship – not only because it prevents all the awkward accidental-incest that might have otherwise resulted, but because it gives Leia and Han a chance to solve problems on their own, without Skywalker flying in to save the day every two seconds. And it only gets more romantic when, after nearly being crushed to death in the mynock-infested mouth of a giant space-slug, Han takes Leia to safety in the Cloud City of Bespin, only to be betrayed to the Empire by his best friend, turned into a tabletop, and sold to another giant space-slug on the far side of the galaxy. Meanwhile, on a much smaller scale, C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and R2-D2 (Kenny Baker), everyone’s favorite comedic duo, are separated and forced to survive mostly on their own – unintentionally mirroring each other’s hijinks from across the galaxy.

In Empire, we also get our first hint of Leia’s importance to the story and her mysterious connection to Luke, as she taps into the Force to see him hanging from the underbelly of Cloud City, just in time to rescue him (and yet we still pretend that Leia using the Force in The Last Jedi was a retcon). She is, of course, the infamous “another” that Yoda (voiced by Frank Oz) spoke of – the Skywalker who would outlive and outlast Luke, and maybe – just maybe – save the entire universe in its darkest hour. Since Empire, that has been Leia’s established destiny: her character arc, from those first few moments of force-sensitivity, has been leading her to a confrontation with the Dark Side, just like her brother. It’s no secret anymore that, if Carrie Fisher had not tragically passed away in 2016, she would probably have been revealed to be a Jedi in The Rise Of Skywalker, getting her very own lightsaber and wielding the Force. Depending on how much footage director J.J. Abrams was able to use of her in this film, she still might do some of that – but it’s hard to believe that we’ll see a conclusion to her story that doesn’t disappoint, considering what could have been.

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Well, that’s depressing. So…um…space battles, anyone?

Empire features some of the franchise’s most impressive action sequences, from the siege of Hoth (featuring one of my favorite Star Wars droids, the Viper probe) to the incredible, gravity-defying lightsaber duel between Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker in the Cloud City engine rooms, where words cut just as deep as weapons. It also introduced the world to bounty hunters like Boba Fett, who was so epic, he actually made a deal with Darth Vader to have Han Solo turned into a carbonite table and shipped to Jabba the Hutt in a flying iron, before being pushed into a Sarlacc pit on Tatooine and eaten…okay, forgive me for asking, but why did we all collectively decide to idolize Boba Fett? We’ve all been wondering why The Mandalorian is a pretty boring character, but has it occurred to anyone that they were never all that interesting? If I’m being honest, I was always more intrigued by that weird insectoid bounty hunter who showed up in one scene – who apparently was named Zuckuss? Yeah, I cared more about a bug-man named Zuckuss than I ever did about Boba Fett. Or his flying iron. Is no one going to explain why his spaceship was designed to look like an iron?

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Boba Fett’s iron isn’t the only weird thing about Empire, a movie that also features: Luke being abducted by a yeti and shoved into the stomach of a space kangaroo; Muppets from space twenty years before Muppets From Space; and Darth Vader’s bizarrely well-choreographed surprise dinner party. But I’m willing to suspend my disbelief long enough to enjoy this deliciously unpredictable morsel of a movie – one that makes you want to wash it down with a tall glass of Last Jedi; the only other movie in the Star Wars…(frantically searches for a word describing a group of nine)…nonad that mixes wonderment, drama and originality so perfectly.

Movie Rating: 9/10