Every film franchise comes with the question of ranking the films against each other. With Star Wars, there are many who hold Episode V, The Empire Strikes Back, to be the best.
This makes no sense. Episode V is as close to terrible as the franchise has ever come.
Before I get into why Episode V is my least favorite, I feel I should lay out my personal ranking of the six films. My favorite is Episode VI, Return of the Jedi, with Episode III, Revenge of the Sith being a close second. ROTS was, I think, a greater technical achievement, but it felt rushed, and Harrison Ford beats Hayden Christensen every time. Episode IV, A New Hope is third. It and VI are essentially the same movie, but VI had more momentum behind it. Episode II, Attack of the Clones, is fourth. It would be first except for the clumsy romance it’s riddled with. Episode I is next to last. The Phantom Menace is, again, good except for some major missteps. Episode V is last.
It would be absurd to call The Empire Strikes Back a bad movie. And it’s essential to the greater story, so it should be watched. But I can’t think of a reason to watch it again and again. And I can’t get into this without analyzing the plot, so spoiler warning from here onward.
I can’t stand the Hoth scenes
The Hoth scenes, which form the first third of the movie, make little sense. They leave so many unanswered questions, like:
- Why are the Rebels on Hoth at all? It’s inhospitable, and there’s no evidence that there are resources of any kind to be had there. The Rebellion has ships enough to hold everyone in Echo Base, so why don’t they just get in their ships and hide in deep space? That’s a much better strategy. Again, it’s not like when they were hiding on Yavin 4, with its habitable climate and prebuilt infrastructure, or at Sullust, with its mining resources and sympathetic populace. They’re in a place almost as difficult to live in as deep space, so what is gained?
- Why do the Imperials send only six Star Destroyers to blockade Hoth, then keep three of them close together? They found the main Rebel base. Last time they found the Rebels they sent the Death Star. This time around they send a single squadron. And they keep three of them clustered together. This is not a good blockading strategy.
- Why aren’t the Rebels flying X-wings? They’re flying T-47 civilian aircraft, which they’ve strapped laser cannons onto. That’s stupid. They have real military air-and-space craft. Instead of winterizing T-47s, winterize the T-16s. Or get out-of-the-box winterized craft. Winterizing lousy vehicles like T-47s is just dumb.
Do not send ground troops down to wander the halls and DO NOT GO THERE YOURSELF!
- Why does Vader go down to Echo Base? The shield is down, you idiot. Do the orbital bombardment plan you were supposedly doing. Do not send ground troops down to wander the halls and DO NOT GO THERE YOURSELF!
- How does Vader get from Echo Base back up to the Executor so fast? He’s there to see the Millennium Falcon take off, then he’s on the Executor to chase them. Was Vader even in Echo Base, or does he just send costumed proxies to intimidate people?
Beyond all this, the Hoth scenes are also saddled with the residue of a cut storyline in which an army of wampas attack Echo Base before the Empire arrives. These scenes would have been padding, and were eventually called off because all the puppetry magic for this movie was earmarked for Yoda.
The Asteroid Sequence is also Really Frustrating
Immediately following the Battle of Hoth, Luke Skywalker and the rest of the characters split up. Luke goes to Dagobah, while Han, Leia, Chewbacca and C-3PO try to go along with the Rebel fleet. The Millenium Falcon’s hyperdrive is non-functional, however, so they fly into an asteroid field to evade Vader’s Death Squadron, before sneaking away to Bespin, where Han’s friend Lando Calrissian might be able to help fix the Falcon.
This sequence has really good visuals and music. Han’s plan to float off with the Executor’s garbage was really neat. But it ultimately feels like filler, especially the portion with the space slug. It also breaks a big portion of the universe rules for the series:
Space is big and other planets are far away. To get from one planet to another requires either years of time or some way to travel at relatively faster than lightspeed. In Star Wars, faster than light travel is achieved by jumping to hyperspace, a shadow dimension where motion works differently. This is impossible without a hyperdrive. And even if the details of how hyperspace travel works hadn’t been established as yet, the Falcon still can’t reach lightspeed according to the script.
And yet, Han and his passengers are able to travel to Bespin, arriving, according to Lando Calrissian, just after Vader and Boba Fett, whose ships do have functioning hyperdrives. So, the subplot about the Falcon being unable to quickly traverse interstellar space is solved by the Falcon quickly traversing interstellar space. From a screenwriting standpoint, this is so Han and Leia can be stuck alone and fall in love, and it works in this aspect, but still…this is really baffling. I mean, it was pretty contrived in Attack of the Clones when the Jedi Council tasked Anakin to vacation in Tuscany with Padme, but at least that didn’t break physics.
Also, the asteroid chase sequence contains a bizarre moment in which Darth Vader assembles a squad of bounty hunters, only to immediately dismiss them. It’s not the most confounding scene in Star Wars, but for how short it is, it probably has the greatest concentration of confusion. Does Vader travel with a crew of bounty hunters hidden away onboard? Apparently he does, since there’s no clear way for all these bounty hunters to join Death Squadron mid-chase, and the Imperial officer doesn’t seem to recognize them, so Vader must have had them in a spare room somewhere. All these people are assembled. Vader gives them their mission, setting up an awesome story…and then an officer reports that the Millennium Falcon has been located. Boba Fett is the only bounty hunter to appear again, and he mostly just stands around until he is accidentally defeated by Han Solo being blind and clumsy. (Boba Fett is much cooler in the Legends stories.)
So, do I hate The Empire Strikes Back?
No. Of course not. It’s great. The Dagobah scenes are perfect; the Bespin scenes are almost perfect. (The side thing about Chewbacca having to fix and carry C-3P0 always seemed dumb to me, but I suppose they had to come up with some way for 3P0 to be part of the foot-chase later on.) The music is great. Many people forget that The Imperial March didn’t appear until Episode V. Yoda’s Theme and The Asteroid Field are good too.
Overall, though, Empire feels like a lot of iconic moments strung together without much of a plot underneath. It’s difficult to pick a protagonist out of the cast because no one takes proactive action until the third act, where Luke flies off to save his friends, against Yoda’s wishes. Every other action, large or small, is simply various characters reacting to their immediate circumstances. Many good scenes, adding up to a great viewing experience even, but not really a good film.