Film * Irvin Kershner * Mystic Space Nazis * 1980
Before I start, we all agree that this is the best Star Wars movie, and that it’s not even close, right? I understand that it’s impossible to separate this from the rest of the original trilogy, because you need A New Hope to set all this up, and you need Jedi to close the deal out. Yet all the best stuff happens here, in this Dark Middle Chapter™, so even if it probably can’t stand alone as a story, it’s still the reason to show up in the first place. The first chapter of the trilogy is dull in places because, well, it’s unfiltered George Lucas and ugh. However, it’s also a slower burn because it’s the story responsible for setting up the epic. It’s a Fellowship of the Ring situation. There’s a lot of world-building that needs to happen up front which can put a damper on the action. Empire has no need to do any of that legwork. The universe is established, so let’s get on with it already.
Here are some iconic Star Wars things which were cool then, are still cool now, and will pretty much remain cool for all time.
- Lightsabers, obviously.
- Darth Vader is a fucking boss. Goddamn.
- Princess Leia is fierce and hot.
- Yoda is a fucked-up wizard Muppet and I love him.
- The following ship designs: X-Wings, TIE Fighters. That is all.
- Han Solo, even though his alpha shtick wears a little thin after a while.
- The soundtrack and the sound design.
Probably other things, I don’t know. What I do know is that Luke is still an obnoxious little bitch, so that apple doesn’t fall too far from the old tree. Now, most of those things were introduced in the first movie. However, Empire doubles down on everything A New Hope introduced and made them better. Light sabers? Obi-Wan v. Vader is dull and wooden. Luke v. Vader is dynamic and brilliantly shot and iconic. Darth Vader? In the first film he’s menacing and cool-looking, but doesn’t do all that much. In Empire? He keeps choking dudes out and starts getting obsessive about chasing Luke down. Then he fucks his own kid up because he’s so dark.
Meanwhile we get a few more Star Wars elements that are introduced and some that just get worse as time goes by. Boba Fett shows up and sure, the helmet looks cool but he doesn’t actually do anything except whine to the far superior badass Darth Vader about his prize. C3PO is the actual worst, and just gets more and more grating. Beyond these things, the only thing Empire lacks is a big fuck-off space battle. Okay, sure, you get the Millennium Falcon doing loopey-loops while dodging vast albino space Doritos and that’s all right. Also the Battle of Hoth makes up for a lot by itself. Why does the Empire build a bunch of robot dinosaurs with laser-mouths? Because if you had the limitless resources of an entire galaxy at your whim, you absolutely would too.
Well shit. I guess I still like this movie.
So how are those space Nazis holding up after their Death Star blew up? Pretty okay, as it happens. Striking back, even! They revel in exerting their clear technological and numerical supremacy over their Rebel enemies. The entire first act is a show of force. The Rebels cannot run, cannot hide. The Empire’s reach is limitless. As soon as you think you’ve hidden and are safe, the clean white ships of oppression show up and wreck your whole shit. I mean, what is a Star Destroyer other than a mobile manifestation of the Ministry of Love? One of those parks in your orbit and goodbye personal and economic freedom. Yet the Rebels are a canny lot, and are willing and able to sacrifice troops and equipment to get their leadership to yet another temporary hidey-hole. The Empire is vast and strong beyond knowing, but like any large structure, the Empire is not nimble.
We have to wait until the next movie to watch the Empire fall. If you think that’s a spoiler, I don’t know what to tell you other than be less dense. What, you think this is a story in which the heroic Rebel Alliance is finally and ultimately crushed by the galactic Empire run by a couple of black-robed space warlocks? No, c’mon. The Empire will fall, we know that as soon as we find out there is such a thing. The question is how. In both films we’ve seen that the Empire is beyond strength, beyond power. Sure, they kind of fucked up the engineering on the old Death Star, but not before they managed to toast an entire planet. Besides, they don’t even need that thing to fully oppress and dominate entire star systems. They have all the infrastructure to churn out the machinery needed to continue repressing everything and everyone, not to mention a raft of ready and willing Stormtroopers to man the war machine. The Empire, under direct control of the evil Emperor and his loyal minion, is strong beyond strength.
I’m not going to get into Return of the Jedi territory here, because that would be cheating. However, the blueprint of failure is all right here. After all, the dark side is about power at the expense of balance and morality. As soon as something undermines that power, it all falls down. Vader is obsessed with Luke beyond reason. Yeah, yeah, he believes in some mystic ‘chosen one’ destiny nonsense, but in actuality Luke is not worth the expense. Vader is probably responsible for a good deal of important administrative work that is clearly not a priority to him due to his obsession. He should be tearing around the galaxy keeping the proletariat in line, blowing shit up and dropping Stormtroopers off on random planets to remind them who’s in charge. Yet here he is, on some frozen backwater bullshit planet chasing his personal obsession. The more the Rebels slip away, the more Vader throws at catching one or two people.
The main problem with an autocracy of any size is that if the guy in charge fails, the whole system fails. Now, the man in charge is the Emperor. We know very little about him at this point. He’s a spook in a hood and is the only creature in the universe who can get Darth fucking Vader to kneel. The Emperor is also on board with Vader’s Luke obsession. Of course we know this is because Luke is the destiny-boy who blah blah whatever. The point is both of the autocrats, the space dictators, have lost focus. They’re getting wiggy around the edges and are needlessly freaking out about this teen-boy who blew up their space station. Meanwhile, they tighten the yoke on their own people, which does not exactly sow employee appreciation. There’s the running joke throughout the film of various admiral lackeys failing and sequentially getting Force-choked by Darth Vader. Yes, it’s cold-blooded and awesome, but it’s also evidence of a strongman losing his grip.
The Empire might be striking back, but the rot is clearly setting in, and it’s targeting the head. This tends to be how totalitarian regimes go. The dictator loses focus, gets distracted by an obsession, and everything falls apart. Since this is a space opera, there’s no land war in Russia to act as the Empire’s undoing, but there is a one-track obsession with a single dude who by himself poses exactly zero threat. As the story moves to its conclusion, it’s clear how this Empire is going to end. The autocrats will overreach in their folly, and their war machine will be picked apart by the opposing forces.