The Empire Strikes Back: The Jewel in the Star Wars Crown

Bounty hunters, blizzards and betrayal. The Empire Strikes Back had it all. To mark the 40th anniversary of its release, Rebel Briefing’s Anthony Murphy celebrates his favourite film of the Star Wars Saga.

My love for Star Wars began in 1980 with The Empire Strikes Back. I was lucky to see A New Hope and Empire together as a double feature at my local cinema. I was four years old.

Reconstructing those hazy memories from a long, long time ago is tricky. But one thing is for sure – the impact of those movies, especially Empire, never left me.

Maybe it was seeing the ice planet Hoth for the first time, falling in love with the magical Yoda, or that shocking ending. Graphically and culturally speaking, Empire was stamped onto the canvas of my young imagination.

Decades later it remains my favourite film. But why? With all the magical movies in the Saga, why is The Empire Strikes Back (for me at least) still the jewel in the Star Wars crown? 

Pushing the Limits

It’s because Empire is the peak of quality. It goes beyond being one of the best Star Wars films; it’s one of the greatest sci-fi/fantasy movies ever made.

In his sequel, George Lucas boldly pushed the limits of storytelling and special effects. It could easily have been a rehash of the tropes and themes of the bright and bombastic original. Instead, it’s a darker, more mature tale. Lucas, Irvin Kershner, Gary Kurtz, Lawrence Kasdan and Lucasfilm ramped up the stakes, giving fans a new way of looking at the Star Wars universe. 

Movie Magic

Without a doubt, Yoda is the star of the show. The green sprite is central to the dramatic and spiritual development of the story, especially Luke’s education in the Force. Through him, we discover more about its power and the Jedi code.

Yoda’s lessons are spectacular and awe-inspiring. Seeing him lift Luke’s X-Wing out of the Dagobah swamp, and hearing him explain the Force – “Its energy surrounds us and binds us” – is pure movie magic.

For me, Yoda speaks the best line in the Saga: “Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter,” he says. From a spiritual point of view, it’s the purest description of the Force. This knowledge is a source of comfort to all those who have suffered loss or grief.

The Dark Side

And then there’s Darth Vader. The cybernetic Sith Lord is the antithesis of the organic and mystical Yoda.

In Empire, the dark side of the Force is everywhere. We see more of Vader’s skills and we meet the Emperor via hologram. We also catch a brief glimpse of what’s under Vader’s helmet. Remember Luke’s failure at the cave on Dagobah, too.

During his pursuit of Luke and his friends, Vader ruthlessly kills incompetent Imperial officers, unleashes dangerous bounty hunters on our heroes (Boba Fett – the coolest dude in the galaxy) and tortures Han Solo. We were shocked as Luke received the beating of his life at his hands.

With those four words (“I am your father”) we learned there was more to Vader than the pitch-black armour. We discovered he was once Anakin Skywalker, and he is humanised by his connection to Luke.

Because of that emotional climax, The Empire Strikes Back became more than just a story about good versus evil. Vader’s betrayal reduced the conflict to a human level, setting father against son. For Luke (and the fans), things were never the same again.

Moral Victory

As Vader’s son, Luke’s character became richer and more complex as a result. In the blink of an eye, he changed from naive idealist to scion of the (second) most evil man in the galaxy. From that point, fans accepted that Luke carried the dark side within himself. 

Despite his grim reality, Luke remains my Star Wars hero. Rather than surrender to the dark side, he chose an almost certain death to preserve his honour. By jumping into the abyss below Cloud City, not only did he surrender the last remnant of his innocence, he won a vital moral victory over Vader and the dark side. 

Empire’s immense last act launched the final stage (as it was back in the ’80s) of the Star Wars Saga. More than that, it set up Vader’s redemption in Return of the Jedi, and the eventual reconciliation between father and son. It was a new and modern mythology I totally bought into.

The Circle is Now Complete

From experiencing The Empire Strikes Back for the first time as a wide-eyed child with my family to collecting the toys and re-watching the movie on video at home (Special Edition included!), my appreciation and love for the film is just as strong and powerful 40 years on. After all, I have grown up with it. 

I learned life lessons from it – sometimes the bad guys win – and incorporated Yoda’s wisdom into my worldview. Because of Empire, I love movies, photography, design, writing and storytelling. 

Today I’m a proud dad to a four-year-old boy, and tonight we’ll sit down and watch The Empire Strikes Back together for the first time… as father and son. The circle is now complete.

A Saga Out of Balance

It’s a wrap! After 42 years and nine movies, the generation-spanning Skywalker Saga has come to an end. Is The Rise of Skywalker a fitting finale? To quote Obi-Wan one last time, it all depends on a certain point of view.

In a nutshell, fans of The Last Jedi will loathe it, while haters of Rian Johnson’s fandom splitting Episode 8 will love it.

And therein lies the problem – we were given three different films written and directed by two vastly different filmmakers.

Sadly both The Rise of Skywalker and the sequel trilogy suffer because of it.

Rebel Briefing will probably receive a one-way ticket to the Spice Mines of Kessel for saying this, but the trilogy missed the influence of George Lucas or someone of his stature.

With no creative deity overseeing production, The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi, and The Rise of Skywalker are a mishmash of story ideas. It’s clear Disney did not have a game plan for the trilogy.

Blasters to Stun

Before you set your blasters to stun (or worse), the original trilogy (OT) gets a pass.

Yes, you can argue Lucas did not have the OT mapped out from the beginning, but he did have a vision. A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi were based on stories by him – Luke Skywalker learning to become a Jedi to defeat the Empire and redeem his father.

It doesn’t matter that Empire and Jedi were made by different directors, Lucas, The Maker, was in charge. He was the constant. Because of this, the trilogy felt cohesive.

It’s the same with the prequels.

Like the Emperor, Lucas exercised total control over his universe. In true auteur style, he handled every creative aspect of production.

Again he knew the story he wanted to tell: how Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader, and how the Empire rose to power.

Love or loathe them, there’s no denying the prequel trilogy had a coherent and cohesive story arc.

The films gave fans new stories that expanded the Star Wars galaxy.

In contrast, the sequel trilogy feels thrown together and not uniquely original.

The Force Awakens borrows heavily from A New Hope, and The Last Jedi is The Empire Strikes Back.

The Rise of Skywalker takes us on a lightspeed journey of story and plot corrections that bring us back to the same place in Return of the Jedi, with our heroes killing Palpatine at the end.

No Jedi Master

With no visionary Jedi Master overseeing production on the sequels, JJ Abrams and Rian Johnson had the freedom to write what they wanted.

As a result, the trilogy never seems to know where it’s going.

Abrams may have had a plan for what came after The Force Awakens, but he surrendered it when he handed the baton to Johnson on The Last Jedi.

Johnson even admits there was no story map given to him beyond the first instalment and that he was allowed to take the story in a new direction. As a consequence, his brave efforts to write and direct a different kind of Star Wars film subverted what Abrams established in The Force Awakens.

For many, he changed the story too dramatically…

Perhaps Abrams (or someone else) should have mapped the trilogy from beginning to end before handing it to other filmmakers.

We know George Lucas had an outline for the new trilogy before he sold it to Disney. It’s intriguing to wonder where he would have taken the story.

Return of the Sith

In The Force Awakens, Abrams treated us to his mystery box of puzzles – who are Rey’s parents, and who is Snoke?

These mysteries were answered by Johnson in The Last Jedi, leaving Abrams nowhere to go in the final film. He was painted into a corner.

As a consequence, and to possibly appease to fan anger, he walked back much of Johnson’s work.

The best example is the question of Rey’s parentage, which was laid to rest in The Last Jedi.

Instead of being a nobody from nowhere, we are told Rey is the granddaughter of the Emperor. This is despite there being no allusion to the presence of Palpatine in the previous films.

Admitting he was hamstrung by the killing of Snoke, Abrams says he had no better choice but to bring Palpatine back.

Why not make Kylo Ren the supreme villain of the trilogy? So much for a coherent plan from the beginning.

This is a shame because, at the end of The Last Jedi, we are told bloodline didn’t matter. It implied that the Force isn’t just the domain of a few notable and noble families, but a power able to manifest itself within anyone, from the lowest stable boy to a lonely desert scavenger.

What’s more, Palpatine’s return reduces the sacrifice Anakin Skywalker made at the end of Return of the Jedi.

After all, the previous two trilogies were about the rise and fall of Anakin.

Most annoying of all, his contribution was reduced to a single (off-screen) ethereal line.

The Safe Zone

For many, The Rise of Skywalker was a welcome relief after the shocks and revelations of Episode 8.

But by returning to the safe zone established in The Force Awakens (coupled with the return of Palpatine), the trilogy takes a step backwards rather than a giant leap forward. It goes back to a place of thematic and emotional safety. There’s a frustrating lack of imagination – The Rise of Skywalker feels like an attempt to correct what went before.

What we are left with is a trilogy that does not connect with the previous two. Because of this, the Skywalker Saga feels out of balance.

The Phantom Menace at 20

WARNING: If you hate The Phantom Menace with the fury of a supernova, this is not the article you are looking for.

It’s hard to believe The Phantom Menace turns 20 today. The years have flown by like a quick lap of the Boonta Eve podrace.

Two decades on, it still remains divisive. But, with The Last Jedi now the punching bag of the Star Wars universe, The Phantom Menace can breathe a sigh of relief that it’s no longer the most hated film of the franchise.

So, on its 20th anniversary, maybe today’s the day to talk about its legacy.

Yes, it has flaws. It can be argued the movie is the product of a ring rusty filmmaker who hadn’t written and directed for 22 years.

You can, of course, find plenty of criticism and vitriol online if that’s your thing – enough to fill the hold of a certain Corellian freighter in fact – but I’d rather focus on what the movie gave us rather than what it didn’t.

A Different Beast

Anticipation for The Phantom Menace was 16 years in the making. Crushed under a tidal wave of hype and expectation, its fall was inevitable.

For many, it was a different beast to the one they expected. Fans were angered by the slow and deliberate story. Instead of civil war, we got trade disputes and dry politics instead of balls to the wall action.

Controversially, George Lucas started the prequel trilogy with the story of a nine-year-old boy.

And Midi-chlorians? Let’s not go there.

The thing is, we were given the singular vision of an independent filmmaker famous for preserving his creative freedom to tell the stories he wants. Remember, it was Lucas’ dogged determination that got Episode IV: A New Hope made way back in 1977.

The Phantom Menace was a similar vision – a movie free of meddling studio execs insisting on something safe and familiar (probably a carbon copy of A New Hope). Lucas gave viewers his personal vision for Episode 1, made the way he wanted it. In modern Hollywood, this should be applauded.

World Building

Lucas’ vision, imagination and world building in The Phantom Menace are magnificent. It’s still a bold, innovative and visually stunning movie.

Stylistically and tonally, it’s deliberately different to the original trilogy (OT). Design director, Doug Chiang, describes it as being “richer and more like a period piece, since it was the history leading up to A New Hope.”

Unlike the straight-forward narrative and military/industrial style of the OT, the film gave us a somewhat wider, complex and nuanced story.

Design wise, the renaissance architecture of Naboo is rich and glorious – you can almost feel the Mediterranean-like sunshine and vibrant culture.

The art nouveau-inspired Gungan underwater city is beautiful and alien, in contrast to Coruscant, with its cosmopolitan skyscrapers and urban crawl.

We shouldn’t forget the sleek aesthetics of the Naboo starfighters or the Nubian royal starship, either.

We visited Tatooine again – led down the backstreets of Mos Espa and invited into the homes and workplaces of its denizens.

Nor should we forget the exhilarating and reverberating visuals and sounds of the pod race as it screamed across the desert landscape.

Then there’s the movie’s rich costume design, suggesting a society more sophisticated than the one seen in the OT. Queen Amidala, her Orient inspired outfits and makeup, coming to life on the screen.

Darth Maul, also, with his gothic black robes, devil horns and red and black tattoos, evokes images of Japanese demons, while Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan’s Jedi remind us of Samurai.

Importantly, the production design and set pieces (the pod race and climactic lightsaber battle) are visually stunning – they serve the story, not the other way round.

Duel of the Fates

Gluing it all together is John Williams’ epic score.

The ominous, choral-led Duel of the Fates theme underpinning what is by far the saga’s best lightsaber battle; The fight between Maul, Kenobi and Jinn.

It’s a spiritual movie, too. Anakin Skywalker is the chosen one – prophesied to bring balance to the Force. Episode 1 foreshadows his fall from grace when he later betrays his loved ones and brothers in arms.

Carrying out the devil’s work is Darth Maul, his demon-like appearance again referencing the movie’s spiritual subtext. Even the title, The Phantom Menace, suggest higher powers at play.

Which brings us to Senator Palpatine – the real Phantom Menace.

The two-faced, calculating and Machiavellian politician is a different kind of antagonist. He’s a master manipulator and conspirator. Yes we suspect (know) his secret Sith identity, and we enjoy this knowledge at the expense of the Jedi Counsel and Galactic Senate. Despite his appearance, Palpatine is the movie’s strongest villain.

A Second Chance

The battle for the heart and soul of The Phantom Menace has been fought along two demographic fractures – Generation X and The Millennials.

Fans who grew up in the 1970s and 80s will probably always hate the movie. Their disappointment is real and ubiquitous – they are not for turning.

But, the ill-will towards Episode 1 has mellowed over time with a shift in how it is viewed.

For older fanboys, arguments about the film’s evils are now said and done. They have moved on, with many choosing to forget and ignore the movie (and prequels) entirely.

The others grew up.

Rightly or wrongly, George Lucas made The Phantom Menace for children – a new generation superseding those of the 70s and 80s.

When released, Episode 1 was probably the first experience of Star Wars these millennial kids had. Like the older fans of the OT, their childhood was shaped by the saga, but this time with heroes like Anakin and Padme (and dare I say it, Jar Jar Binks), not Luke, Leia or Han.

These younglings would eventually have access to six era-jumping movies and a new plethora of toys, comics and video games. Now in their 20s and 30s (some now with children of their own) these girls and boys can nostalgically look back and celebrate a childhood enriched by Star Wars, starting with The Phantom Menace.

A Warm, Fuzzy Feeling

Thinking back to the early summer of 1999 brings back happy memories. The world was saturated with Episode 1. From posters to Pepsi cans – the hype and excitement was unreal.

Fan fever was stoked with the release of the first trailer in November ‘98 when it burst on to the net. There were news reports of fans buying cinema tickets to see Meet Joe Black, just so they could watch the trailer then leaving the theatre before the film began.

Many fans were still buzzing after the re-release of the original trilogy in their special edition formats. The promise of a new adventure was overwhelming – The Phantom Menace could not come soon enough.

The best memories were seeing the trailer for the first time. It was recorded on VHS; every image and word dissected by me and my friends.

The soundtrack never left the CD player.

Who could forget also the awesome teaser poster of Anakin on Tatooine casting an ominous shadow of Darth Vader?

Variety magazine boasted Annie Leibovitz’s on set photos plus George Lucas’ first Episode 1 interview.

My family – mum, dad and brother – enjoyed an evening out on premiere day. It was a special occasion for everyone.

It didn’t matter that The Phantom Menace didn’t entirely meet expectations, it was Star Wars. The Force was back on the big screen.

Despite having issues with the movie (I still hate those battles droids), I get a warm, fuzzy, nostalgic feeling every time I think back to the summer of 1999.

Nostalgia plays a big part of why people love Star Wars – the happy memories. They go together like Chewie and Han.

A Certain Point of View

With the release of The Force Awakens, some fans (me included) have revisited Episode 1.

Watching it again with fresh eyes, it’s possible to rethink the legacy of The Phantom Menace.

This is helped by much in-depth analysis of the prequels online, specifically its defences. For those interested, you can unpack near academic levels of pro arguments. One of these is Ring Theory.

Put simply, it postulates the idea of George Lucas likening the saga to poetry. As he said in the excellent ‘The Beginning’ documentary “it’s like poetry, they rhyme. Every stanza should rhyme with the last one.”

Going further, Ring Theory argues the prequels echo their corresponding original trilogy counterparts – in the case of The Phantom Menace, Anakin destroys the droid control ship the same way Luke does with the Death Star. The key difference with the prequels being that the Dark Side wins.

You can find many intelligent and passionate defences of The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith at your fingertips. All offer a fresh and thought-provoking rethink of the films.

Best of these is The Prequels Strike Back documentary, should you be open to watching it. Remember; it all depends on a certain point of view.

The Clone Wars animated series can also take credit for breathing new life into Episode 1. It brilliantly fleshes out the prequel era, helping fans old and new in their acceptance of a story controversially told by George Lucas 20 years ago.

Acceptance

One of the most famous prequel bashers to rethink The Phantom Menace movie is Simon Pegg.

Calling the movie “a boring, turgid, confused mess,” he recently made a big u-turn in his acceptance of Episode 1 and George Lucas.

“For all the complaining that I’d done,” he says, “there was something amazing about his imagination. I do feel like his voice is missing from the current ones.”

Pegg’s contrition highlights the retro tone of The Force Awakens under Disney, and how different it is to the first prequel movie.

Love or hate The Phantom Menace, Mr Lucas reinforces a point made above: “My previous Star Wars films involved constant innovation. I worked very hard to make them completely different, with different planets, with different spaceships – to make it new.”

Episode 1: The Phantom Menace gave new depth to the Star Wars universe. It looked and felt different. It passed the torch to a new generation of fans, without whom there’d probably be no new movies to make and stories to tell.

The cycle will start again with young fans of the sequel trilogy.

At the very least, its legacy gives fans a great excuse to debate, discuss and dissect our favourite galaxy far, far away.

Happy anniversary.

Anthony Murphy – Editor, Rebel Briefing

Follow Rebel Briefing on Facebook @RebelBriefing or Twitter @RBriefing

A Golden Age for Star Wars fans

Star Wars 1977

Image: starwars.com

Star Wars fans are enjoying a new golden age. During the 70s and 80s Star Wars, like the Force, was everywhere – it surrounded us, penetrated us and bound our galaxy together. Then, after Jedi finished its cinematic run in 1983, nothing… the galaxy fell silent and the franchise entered its first dark age.

Yes, in the early post-Jedi days there were the Ewok movies Caravan of Courage and The Battle for Endor to tide us over. And yes there were the animated shows Ewoks and Droids. But it wasn’t the same. Star Wars was chugging along on nothing but simple nostalgia.

Despite George Lucas’ insistence that he had no desire to return to the saga after finishing Jedi, Lucasfilm, sensing a disturbance in the Force, soon began brainstorming new ways of resurrecting the fading franchise.

The first major step was to release Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire novel in 1991 as part of the Thrawn Trilogy of books. Set five years after Return of the Jedi, it reached No1 on the New York Times Best Sellers list. Zahn’s trilogy went on to sell 15 million copies. This climaxed with the release of Shadows of the Empire in 1996. The multimedia event, dubbed ‘a film without a film’, treated fans to a new novel, comic books, soundtrack, trading cards, video game and action figures.

Both projects proved to Lucas that there was still a big appetite for his galaxy far, far away. It also proved there was a new generation of fans hungry for fresh stories and merchandise. These were dutifully delivered via Expanded Universe. The galaxy, though, was about to get much bigger.

Having retitled Star Wars as Episode IV: A New Hope – followed by Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back and Episode VI: Return of the Jedi – fan demand for episodes I, II and III became a deafening roar. Now happy to oblige, Lucas once again turned his attention to the universe he abandoned in 1983.

The Second Golden Age

Enter the Star Wars Special Editions, which ushered in, from a certain point of view, the franchise’s second golden age.

Hitting cinemas in 1997 to mark the 20th anniversary of A New Hope, Lucas’ aim was to build on the enduring popularity of Star Wars. He not only wanted to renew the films in the minds of older fans, but connect with a younger generation of followers. The filmmaker also had another motive.

Having begun writing Episode 1 in 1994, Lucas and Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) required a canvas to test the special-effects needed to bring the prequels to life. The original films were just the ticket. Taking advantage of the breakthroughs in SFX technology, ILM went back to complete the trilogy the way Lucas always intended – he claimed A New Hope fell short of his ideal creative vision because of the compromises made due to time and money. What followed was a full-scale restoration project incorporating new visual effects and an enhanced digital sound mix across the entire original trilogy.

They were a huge success, going straight to number one on their opening weekends, earning $138, $68 and $45 million respectively. By the end of 1997, A New Hope was the eighth highest grossing film of the year. As for attracting new fans; the Special Editions were a triumph as newcomers enjoyed the remixed sound, crisp visuals and improved SFX for the first time.

Not all the changes in the Special Editions were well received. For diehard fans, the digital polish, additions and many controversial changes (‘Han shot first’) sullied the films, inciting considerable criticism of Lucas. What they did do, however, was revive the ailing franchise and serve as an essential springboard for the long-awaited prequels.

With production on the new trilogy in full flow, the release of Episode I: The Phantom Menace in 1999 ushered in a new, lucrative expansion of the franchise not seen since the release of A New Hope. This latest epoch boasted brand new films, soundtracks, toys, books, comics and animated TV shows. Star Wars was again at the heart of popular culture, inspiring countless magazine articles, blogs, podcasts, fan websites, costuming groups (the 501st Legion), fan-made films (Troops) and films about fans (Fanboys). Whether you loved or hated the prequels, the second golden age was now in full swing.

All was not well in the kingdom of fandom, though. After the hysteria and hype, criticisms of the Lucas scripted and directed prequels quickly began to sour the relationship between the maker and fans. Despite finding a new generation of followers, Lucasfilm could not silence the anger of older, hard-core fans who hated the films, particularly the goofy, kid friendly tone and over reliance on CGI. The relationship between Lucas and fandom, already strained from the changes made in the Special Editions, was coming to an end. ‘Lucas Bashing’ across the internet quickly became the norm as a million voices cried out in pain. It was to signal a harsh finish to the second golden age.

As the end credits rolled on Revenge of the Sith in 2005, the saga was put into cold storage. Once again the Star Wars universe began to contract and Lucas, fed-up with the online abuse, announced that there were to be no more films… ever.

For the best part of a decade fans laboured under the fact that there would be no more silver screen adventures from that galaxy far, far away. Then, out of the blue on the day before Halloween in 2012, came the shock announcement that George Lucas had sold Lucasfilm to Disney for $4.05bn. The creator, embracing retirement, said it “was time to pass Star Wars on to a new generation of film-makers.”

Enter the House of Mouse

Since the acquisition of Lucasfilm by Disney a new, third, golden age has dawned. Despite early scepticism and uncertainty, loyal followers of the Force have been treated to two new films, with many more on the way. The first two movies of the Disney era – Episode VII: The Force Awakens and the spin off movie Rogue One – were, for the most part, critical and box office smashes. Both were praised for bringing the saga back to its roots, relying less on CGI and returning to practical and traditional effects. They also brought back a sense of fun and adventure.

The franchise also continues to thrive on TV with the animated show Rebels, while the Expanded Universe, now known as Star Wars Legends, has been retconned. Looking to the horizon, a Han Solo film is in the works (due May 2018) and Episode VIII: The Last Jedi is in cinemas now. J.J. Abrams will also return to round out the sequel trilogy with Episode IX in 2019. And if that’s not enough to keep you busy, there’s a Ben Kenobi movie in development as well as Rian Johnson’s recently announced new film trilogy. Oh, and there’s a live action TV show to come, too. In short, Star Wars has been given a new lease of life under House Mouse. All that is required is to sit back and enjoy this period as the franchise settles into a new golden age.