Monday Morning Movie Review: Portly’s Top Ten Best Films: #1: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

As far as I can tell, the very first installment of Monday Morning Movie Review—simply “Monday Movie Review” back then—was a review of The Empire Strikes Back (1980).  I wrote it on 28 September 2020, which seems like just a few days ago.  Pretty crazy to think it’s been almost three years since this blog started running movie reviews on Mondays.

Indeed, in the interest of saving time (today is my school’s big Spring Concert, and I’m chaperoning a trip to Washington, D.C., later in the week, so time is at a premium), I’m quoting extensively from that original review.  Work smarter, not harder, eh?

Growing up as a chubby kid in the 1990s, I was a huge Star Wars fan.  That was long before the new trilogy retconned/soft-rebooted everything and destroyed the legacy of classic Star Wars, and even before the prequels made the flicks even more cartoonishly ridiculous.  I’m not even a huge critic of the prequels—they were never going to live up to the perfection of the original trilogy—and I enjoyed some of the fun world-building and thorny trade blockades of Phantom Menace (1999; although that’s all a bit too technocratic for a space opera).  But the magic of the original trilogy is more than the sum of its parts, and it’s based on rich storytelling and exceptionally strong character development, with nearly every major character growing and evolving over the course of the three films.

So it is that I would argue that The Empire Strikes Back is not just the best Star Wars film, but the best film of all time.

Empire catches the main trio of Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, and Han Solo at transitional points in their development:  Luke at the beginning of his Jedi training with Master Yoda; Leia assuming great command responsibilities in the Rebellion while also wrestling with her feelings for Solo; and Han feeling the tug of his old life (and debts) while maturing as a man capable of great self-sacrifice for his friends.

Indeed, one of the greatest crimes of the latest trilogy is that it undoes most of these developments—Luke is an apathetic, nihilistic loser; Leia is a stunning incompetent leader; and Han reverts completely back to his old scoundrel ways.  Three films’ worth of careful and complex character development is jettisoned for easy “fan service” and to highlight a new, highly forgettable trio of protagonists.

But I digress. Empire is incredibly refreshing to watch today—and still fresh!  For one, the practical effects look way better than the CGI visual orgies that all blockbuster films have become.  The lightsaber battle between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader at Bespin is slow and methodical, nothing like the insanely acrobatic duels of later films.  But it’s more realistic—and more intense.  It’s also full of tension, as Vader creeps about in the darkness of Cloud City’s underbelly, startling Luke at opportune moments.

Luke is clearly unprepared for that battle, highlighting the wisdom of Yoda’s words.  But had Luke stayed on Dagobah and continued his training, what would have become of Han, Leia, Chewie, C-3P0, and R2-D2?  Luke was brash to duel Vader so early, but that same recklessness likely saved his friends (with the exception of Han).

Much of the plot of Empire focuses on Luke’s desire to train as a Jedi Knight, while also wanting to help his friends.  Yoda and the ghost of Obi-Wan Kenobi warn Luke not to go to Cloud City, lest he succumb to the whims of the Dark Side.  Earlier, Yoda expressed frustration at Luke’s inability to live in the moment, and his restlessness and impatience.  I always thought it was interesting that while Luke failed to save Han Solo and narrowly escaped from Cloud City, he did manage to resist Vader’s carbonite trap, and the seduction of the Dark Side—suggesting both Vader and Yoda underestimated Luke.

Perhaps the most intriguing scene of the film, however, is when Luke enters the evil tree on Dagobah.  Something subtle I never noticed before:  Yoda tells Luke he will not need his weapons, but Luke takes them anyway.  That sets up Luke’s encounter with an image of Darth Vader, who Luke beheads, revealing Skywalker’s own face behind the mask.  Yoda later refers to this as Luke’s “failure” in the tree.

What was the failure?  That Luke embraced the Dark Side in his assault on Vader, thus reflecting his own susceptibility to it?  The scene certainly suggests one path forward for Luke:  that he will possesses the same traits as his father, and is just as likely to embrace evil as he is good.

That central conflict is what makes Empire so good, and what elevates it from a mere kid’s popcorn flick into art (although, let’s face it, it is a good kid’s movie, too).  Luke must wrestle with himself and his own immaturity.  He has to make hard decisions that evolve equally bad trade-offs:  go to Cloud City and save your friends and very likely fail—or yield to the Dark Side; or stay and train on Dagobah while letting your friends die.

The result, we know, is a mixed bag:  Han Solo carted off to Jabba the Hutt, Luke losing a hand, and the gang licking their wounds, but alive.  The incredible plot twist that Vader is Luke’s father (imagine learning that in 1980!) also weighs heavily on Luke’s mind, as the film suggests he is struggling with the idea that his heredity is destiny.

There’s way more great stuff about The Empire Strikes Back—Leia’s Force sensitivity, Chewbacca lugging around C-3P0 on his back, Lando Calrissian looking cool in his cape—but that’s a good overview for now.  It’s a must-see film, and very much deserving of the status of “Best Film in the Star Wars Franchise.”

It also deserves my #1 spot.

May the Force Be with You.


2 thoughts on “Monday Morning Movie Review: Portly’s Top Ten Best Films: #1: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

  1. I had a sneaking suspicion last night that you might plump for the same movie as me for your top choice and I’m happy to know that you haven’t. In fact, your choice has surprised me somewhat.

    One day, we may wax lyrical on the Star Wars movies but not today. I’ve posted the link for this piece on TCW and hopefully, a few may post their thoughts though in all likelihood, they’ll probably just pop over and read it.

    Thanks for the time it has taken you to write these lists and for putting up some interesting choices, some of which I will check out in the future. Thanks also for letting me post my own reviews. It’s been a hoot, mate! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. One aspect of the Star Wars movies (the originals) that always struck me – and not in a good way – was the kiss between Leia and Luke. Later on, Luke tells her she’s his sister to which Leia responds, ‘I think I’ve always known’ or something like that. I guess incest is okay in a galaxy far, far away…

    Liked by 1 person

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