Written by Richie Pepio
During the 124 days before the release of The Last Jedi, I’m reviewing all 124 minutes of the theatrical version of
The Empire Strikes Back. Join me and together we will watch Star Wars…
It's symbolic. It's straightforward. It's over-quoted and this over-quoting happens for a reason. This isn't the most beautiful moment in the Star Wars series and it isn't the most visually stunning either. But it's the game-changing shock that elevated Star Wars beyond a charming and clever homage to Saturday morning matinees. It's a moment that somehow makes Darth Vader seem as powerful as this image--
And makes Luke seem as shocked as this image--
In the 111th minute of The Empire Strikes Back, Star Wars becomes high art (or at least the highest form of pop art) and in the studio system there isn't a more crowd-pleasing or financially-pleasing honor than that. Minute 111:00 just might be the best 60 seconds in the saga. This willingness to take his story places others couldn't fathom is what set Lucas apart in the first place and, even though he's gone soft, this solidifies Empire as a sequel that's greater than its predecessor. This father-son moment allows the film to share a spot on critic's best-of lists alongside classics like The Godfather: Part II. Without this sequence, Empire Strikes Back would have just been a great cliffhanger: an entertaining flick that took the characters further on their journeys, and set up for The Return of the Jedi. Yet, the "I am your father" moment makes Empire the event that it deserves to be. And it was a smarter move to include the line here rather than save it for the climax of Return of the Jedi (as he's said was once considered). Cloud City isn't just a pitstop before bigger set-pieces in later movies. Vader's reveal is THE emotional climax that's just as explosive as a Death Star's thermal exhaust port.
Here, Vader stands on a precipice and gives Luke a terrible choice: join the Dark Side or die. As Luke considers his options, the audience is also on edge. Nowadays, maybe it's a bit cliche to place the hero and villain on the edge of a literal cliff, but Star Wars is often at its best when it unabashedly follows its gut. There's nothing overly complicated about this. Just a father and son coming to terms with the truth in their own ways. Yes, Vader wanted to capture Luke and take him to the Emperor but, judging by how furiously they were fighting, Vader probably changed his mind several times as to whether he would let Luke live or die. It's this opportunity, when young Skywalker is fully defenseless and out of options, that Vader asks Luke to join the family business like a very special episode of "Hitler and Son." Too bad Luke was trained in the Jedi arts by the Winston Churchill of Force users.
Some audience members and critics wanted to see a rehash of the original Star Wars. Reviewers like Vincent Canby of The New York Times were a little less than accepting: "I'm not as bothered by the film's lack of resolution as I am about my suspicion that I really don't care. After one has one's fill of the special effects and after one identifies the source of the facetious banter that passes for wit between Han Solo and Leia (it's straight out of B-picture comedies of the 30's), there isn't a great deal for the eye or the mind to focus on."
Outside of that dud, other famous reviewers and publications seemed to side with Empire's creative team...
"On the story side as well, Lucas has strengthened his hand by providing a plot motivation for Darth Vader (that I don't think I should reveal here since it comes as part of the film's surprise finale). Suffice it to say that it's a twist straight out of Greek mythology, and should serve Lucas well in the episodes that lie ahead." - Arthur Knight, The Hollywood Reporter
"Having already introduced their principal players, the filmmakers now have a chance to round them out, assisted again by good performances from Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher. And even the ominous Darth Vader (David Prowse [voiced by James Earl Jones]) is fleshed with new – and surprising – motivations." - James Harwood, Variety
"By far the most imaginative part of the Star Wars trilogy. This middle, bridging film is chained to an unresolved plot and doesn’t have the leaping comic-book hedonism of the 1977 Star Wars, but you can feel the love of movie magic that went into its cascading imagery. George Lucas kept the first movie hopping by cutting it into short, choppy scenes; Irvin Kershner, who directed this one, is a master of visual flow, and, joining his own kinks and obsessions to Lucas’s, he gave Empire a splendiferousness that may even have transcended what Lucas had in mind." Pauline Kael, The New Yorker
To drive this point home, here's Siskel and Ebert fighting a rogue critic in the name of Star Wars' honor...
So much has been written about the famous twist (even in this blog) that it's a moot point. But for fun, here's an article from 1978 in which David Prowse reveals the surprise ending of Empire Strikes Back nearly two years before its release. Apparently this was a lucky guess on his part and he likely didn't know the twist until the movie was released in theaters. But it's good to know that he was the worst at keeping secrets.
And in the name of all things topical, here is The Last Jedi cast's December 1st, 2017 appearance on Jimmy Kimmel. In the clip below, Mark Hamill reminisces on his own experience hiding the greatest spoiler of all time from everyone he knew and loved. He riffs on this often told tale with some new bits of info. Rumor has it that The Last Jedi contains more mind-blowing twists in the great tradition of Empire's 111th minute.
Best Performance by a Human: Luke's reaction.
Best Performance by a Non-human: The big twist.
Best Line: THE line. "No, I am your father."
Rating: 3 out of 3 surviving members of the Skywalker family (by the time Empire takes place).
This was originally posted on Mindctrlaltdel.tumblr.com