Part of the reason for my change of heart is that A New Hope is a little bit tainted when you watch it straight after Revenge of the Sith. Perhaps that's my fault. Perhaps it's old George's. I'm not hear to muck rake. I've done enough of that already with the prequels.
Whereas A New Hope's showdown between Obi-Wan and Vader is all a little anti-climactic after watching young Anakin burn half to death on a volcanic planet, Empire's Luke vs Vader showdown is still epic. And also, A New Hope leaves you crying out for more. It may have quite a nice self-contained story, but it left so much unexplored and Empire goes deeper and darker and is all the better for it.
One of the reasons I didn't watch Empire all the way through until I was about 15, even though I grew up watching A New Hope on video frequently, is that as a child I had the attention span of a fish. I used to only watch Die Hard from the moment the terrorists took over the building. The stuff before: boooooring! I'd fast forward through loads of films just to get to the first major turning point in the scripts.
I still find the stuff on Hoth a little boring. Is it just me? Luke out in the snow goes on and on. I feel like it's filler. Even the battle with the Empire and the AT-AT's is drawn out too much for my liking. It's only the stuff between Han and Leia that really pops. You can tell the screenplay is written by someone else other than Mr Lucas. The dialogue fizzes and the performances are way sparkier than before. It pleases me no end that Empire co-screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan is involved with The Force Awakens. Ford and Fisher have great chemistry and to be honest, I could have done with a lot more of this than watching Luke piss about in the snow.
To top it all off, there's this wonderful bit of family-friendly incest. It makes me wonder how important incest is to making a box office success. With Back to the Future and this, there's definitely something funny going on and I'm sure Freud would have loved to have been around to see these films. Look at the way Chewbacca and C-3PO are looking on. I guess as they were in the prequels, they might actually know just how wrong this is. Perhaps they could have mentioned it to someone.
Abrams has clearly been taking notes from Empire. As soon as I saw this shot, I thought of good old fanboy Kylo Ren in the Force Awakens trailer. Which leads me to wonder, is Abrams making some kind of point about Star Wars fans by having Kylo Ren obsessed with Vader? Have all the fans turned to the dark side? Have we all been corrupted and lured into being horrible about the prequels, because our obsessive fandom has started to warp our fragile little minds? Probably not.
Empire is also where we start to get these wonderfully brief bits of backstory starting to emerge about dear old Darth Vader. We see a glimpse of him without the helmet, we meet the Emperor and hear of Anakin Skywalker. Vader is being transformed from a plastic action figure into a damaged human being before our very eyes. Of course, the prequels have sucked any mystery out of this backstory now and ruined the big reveal, but it's still news to Luke and that's kind of all that matters.
Luke and Kermit have a great time on Dagobah, which is so brilliantly crafted and a thousand times more believable as a place than any of those CGI cities in the prequels, that you wish Lucas had just dreamed a little smaller sometimes. It's great to see that after the events of the prequel trilogy and spending 20 years in a swamp that Yoda has developed a sense of humour. He's so serious in the prequels that it's easy to forget that he's almost as fun as Kermit the Frog in Empire. He sounds younger and happier than ever before which is a little strange, but the puppetry makes him appear older than the CGI pinball-version in the prequels. Dagobah goes on a bit too, but next week I'll probably be complaining that The Force Awakens is too fast-paced so don't listen to me.
It's also great to spend a bit more time with Chewie in Empire. He's so expressive and so watchable. Peter Mayhew does a great job beneath the costume and Ben Burtt's sound design is just beyond words. I could go on about this at some length, but we all know just how important Burtt's work is on Star Wars. In terms of characters though, what he has done with R2 and Chewie is just incredible. If anything happens to Chewie in The Force Awakens, there will be tears I can tell you.
Anyway, let's move on swiftly before I star blubbering. Then we get into the whole Lando double-cross and reversal before Empire takes its rightful place in cinematic history. Forget all that stuff with Boba Fett and his new Kiwi accent. It's when Han delivers his iconic improvised comeback to Leia that Empire cements itself in the hearts of fans across the world. It's what boys across the globe have probably tried to imitate with their girlfriends a thousand times, most often to receive a resounding slap or the sight of their partner welling up suddenly. Only Solo gets away with a line like that fellas.
With so much iconic imagery in the saga so far, it's hard to imagine how it could be topped, but Empire manages it with ease. The duel between Luke and Vader takes place on two fantastic sets, beautifully lit and perfectly complemented by the sound of Vader's breathing and the sabers clashing. It is of course aided by the poignancy of Anakin trying to get his son to join him and Luke's stubborn refusal. The stakes are so high because we know damn well Luke isn't ready for this, so it's gripping stuff, no matter how many times you've watched it before. Just look at these images. Good luck topping this J.J.
Another hand is lopped off, Han is frozen in carbonite and Luke and Leia are left with their arms around each other like they might still get it on. It really is a dark place to leave it, but that's exactly what they did. I wonder what it was like back in the early 80s to have to wait three years to see how this story ended. AND without the internet to constantly keep updating you with who is on set, where they're filming, what time Harrison Ford takes a poop in the morning etc.
Also, one final thought. After quite a lot of C-3PO being carried around on Chewie's back in the film, I wonder if C-3PO would have been considered the original trilogy's Jar Jar if it had been released at the end of the far more cynical 90s. He certainly annoyed the piss out of me.