For all its dazzling effects, epic mythology, iconic performances, and spectacular worlds and characters, the original Star Wars trilogy is essentially the tale of a boy and his father.
This week, that relationship takes center stage in the Reel Rumbles ring as the question that has been lurking about since the final curtain closed on George Lucas’s original space opera is answered: which is the better film, The Empire Strikes Back or Return of the Jedi?
It’s almost scary how close these two films are to being the same movie. Though darkness permeates one (Empire), and light shines on the other (Jedi), they both follow similar formulas. They use motifs of discovery, invasion, and separation, in their first 40 minutes. For Empire, it is an attack on the Rebel Base at Hoth that forces Luke to follow Obi-Wan’s advice and seek out Master Yoda for Jedi training in the Dagobah system. Meanwhile, his friends zip into an asteroid belt for a quick escape from Imperial Fighters. In Jedi, the Rebels are in pursuit, seeking out the frozen body of Han Solo, a captive of Boba Fett and Jabba the Hutt. Luke’s arrival sets in motion a chain of events that leads to Boba and Jabba’s deaths, a Rebel escape, and a drool-inducing vision of Leia in her golden bikini. Like in Empire, Luke returns to Dagobah to finish his training, while the others make for the new Rebel Base to plan a final confrontation with the Emperor and his minions at the newly constructed Death Star.
With the groundwork lain, the second act of each film continues to parallel the other, like two great heavyweights feeling each other out. In Empire, the gang splits into two factions, each with their own missions: Luke’s to begin his Jedi training with Yoda, and everyone else, to simply escape the relentless forces of Darth Vader. Their escape takes them into a trap on a strange locale – a city in the clouds. Luke senses something is amiss and rushes to an ill-conceived showdown with Vader in order to save them. In Jedi, Han, Leia, Chewbacca, and the gang, arrive at Endor, a forest planet, on a mission to destroy the power source for a shield that is the new Death Star’s only protection. Luke leaves Dagobah upon Master Yoda’s passing to confront Vader, whom he has learned is his father, one final time. The final acts of each film boast startling revelations, though Jedi’s is considerably more telegraphed. Who can argue that “The Force is strong in my family. I have it, my father has it, my sister has it.” hits with the same force as “No, I am your father.”?
Therein lies the problems Jedi faces to keep pace with its predecessor. It tries to match Empire’s fancy footwork, quick movement, and relentless offense, but ultimately falls to its originality and anything-goes temperament. In 1980, before Empire burrowed its way into the heart of pop culture – if you were sitting down to watch it for the first time – you would have been on the edge of your seat as the stark, dreary atmosphere gave way to attack, betrayal, and defeat for characters you had grown to love in the classic 1977 original.
With the Rebel Base overtaken, Luke’s failings as a Jedi, C-3PO blasted to pieces, Han and company betrayed into the clutches of Lord Vader, and Luke’s miserable and humiliating performance against Vader in the film’s third act, it certainly didn’t play out like you would expect, especially given the bright optimistic outlook of the original. Add to that a hint from Yoda that, “There is another,” thus making Luke’s success not mandatory to a happy ending, and a bombshell revelation about Skywalker’s past, and audiences couldn’t prepare for what would happen next, nor believe their eyes when it came to pass. In contrast, Jedi has few surprises. From the outset, you know the bond between Luke and Leia. You know the effects it will have on Han and Leia’s relationship. You are aware of the turmoil inside Vader, and where that will lead him. Ultimately, there is no mystery that good will come out on top in the end. None of these realities are gripes, but they do prevent Jedi from rising above its competition, because with Empire, the world of that galaxy far, far away is still a mysterious place full of wonder, danger, surprises, and excitement. In Jedi, the wonder and excitement are there, but all else is gone.
This round goes to Empire, 10-8.
If there is any round where Return of the Jedi can land a few good blows, it is this one. Think for a moment about what Jedi must accomplish in its two hours. It must draw two of the most successful chapters in film history to a satisfying and credible conclusion. It must do justice to the characters audiences have grown to love. It must balance screen time for an ensemble cast. And it must play to both younger and older audiences, who had become fans of the series thanks to the previous two installments. For all practical purposes, it succeeds. With a rousing finish that includes what is perhaps the series best, and most poignant, moment between father and son, as well as three remarkable set-pieces (the Sarlaac escape, the Battle of Endor, and the last flight of the Millennium Falcon through the bowels of the new Death Star), Jedi keeps things fun and exciting while giving an audience tormented by the events of Empire everything they could ask for in the closing chapter of a trilogy that would forever change the terrain of the movie industry.
Where Lawrence Kasdan, who had previously worked on The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark, starts to slip up is in the direction he takes from Lucas. This of course is not Kasdan’s fault, as the Star Wars legacy is ultimately Lucas’s to do with as he pleases. Nevertheless, the shortcomings of Jedi bear his mark, no matter how much or how little he actually had to do with it. The Ewoks’ debut begins to take the series into dangerous areas of pandering to children. While the first two chapters are clearly all-ages entertainment, they have a sense of maturity about them that rarely shows its face in the later prequel trilogy (e.g. a pint-sized “Ani” Skywalker, Jar-Jar Binks, and juvenile dialogue: “You’re breaking my heart!”). There is some of that here, and since Lucas took much more of a hands-on role in the development of those later films, it stands to reason that he was ultimately the champion of creations such as the Ewoks, the contrived brother-sister plot twist, and some of the heavy-handed exchanges that result from it. With Empire, the highly talented Kasdan was able to build on a solid first draft from legendary crime and western writer Leigh Brackett (The Big Sleep, Rio Bravo) to produce a tightly plotted and quickly moving screenplay full of surprises that leaves audiences clamoring for more.
Edge goes to Empire, 10-9.
This is one area where the combatants are evenly matched. In Jedi, you are dealing with virtually the same cast continuing to do what they had perfected in the previous film. While Empire gives the performers better dialogue (much less on-the-nose than what is seen in the final chapter), Jedi has the best individual scene in the saga, thanks to the efforts of James Earl Jones, David Prowse, and Sebastian Shaw, who bring Vader to life with more depth than ever before. But it is Prowse, who really stands out here. Without the use of facial features, he conveys to audiences what they are about to see from the Dark Lord as he watches his son tormented by the Emperor’s hand. For the first and only moment in the trilogy, Vader demonstrates humanity, a possibility hinted at throughout the film. You want Vader to take action, and you know he will as a crescendo builds amid the Emperor’s lightning bolts and maniacal glee. Prowse is able to sell audiences on what is coming through simple head and body movements, and when that moment comes, there is a cheer and a sorrow you have to let out immediately.
It still works after all these years, and all these viewings: even round.
Who knows why Lucas didn’t take full control of these films as he did the prequel trilogy? After the success of the original Star Wars, it certainly seemed as if he had the pull to assume responsibility had he really wanted it. Thankfully, he didn’t. Instead the directing chores rest on the shoulders of two far more capable men: Irvin Kershner (Empire) and Richard Marquand (Jedi). Kershner previously directed Eyes of Laura Mars, a psychological chiller featuring Faye Dunaway and Tommy Lee Jones. He was also instructor to Lucas during his time in film school at USC. Though he seems to be stepping away from his comfort zone with Empire, he doesn’t get lost in the glitz and glamour of Lucas’s world, instead efficiently handling action scenes and focusing his efforts on the weight of the characters. He still manages to do a fantastic job of bringing the space battles to life with a terrific chase scene through an asteroid belt and a haunting frame of Yoda announcing to Obi-Wan that Luke is not their last hope: “No. There is another.” Under splotches of red lighting, the heavy burden of uncertainty plays out with an almost diabolical cynicism. Luke is making a big mistake facing Vader before the training is finished. His mortality is called into question, and this ratchets the intensity of that moment, and those to follow, upward. Eye of the Needle director Richard Marquand, who would go on to helm the steamy Joe Eszterhas thriller Jagged Edge, does a fine job of keeping Jedi on track, but he doesn’t accomplish anything that Kershner already has in the previous film.
Scorecard: 10-8, Empire.
Return of the Jedi takes a lot of heat for the Ewoks. Since it was a precursor of things to come, it probably should. But it is one of the best wrap-ups to any trilogy in the history of film that suffers from only one major shortcoming: it follows in the shadow of one of the best films of all time. Jedi even lands a walloping haymaker by winning the nod for best moment in the series: Vader’s turn and the subsequent fallout. But it takes a real beating from its competition in every other moment of battle, a testimony to Empire’s greatness more than its own failings. In the end, Return of the Jedi puts up a great fight, stunning the favorite on more than one occasion, but it ultimately fails to answer the final bell.
Outcome: The Empire Strikes Back, TKO.