Star Wars Month: The Debate of 2010 – Is Empire the Best Film?

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I expect this debate to rage for some time. So let me cut to the chase, with any pretense of an answer: Is Empire Strikes Back the best Star Wars film?

Sure, it’s a thought that we casually consider when discussing George Lucas’ canon, or when discussing the best sequels of all time. Or discussing just why Star Wars started to veer off the path with portions of Return of the Jedi. We look back to the emotions, the dismembered appendages, the exotic locales, the asteroid chase, the paternal revelation, the AT-AT Walkers, Yoda, Carbonite, and it’s hard not to be floored by all that was accomplished in the franchise by a single movie.

Given that this is the 30th anniversary of the masterpiece, it’s led to a whole new flurry of discussion about just what it was in Empire that built upon the hysteria surrounding the first Star Wars, and insured that this would not be some mere sci-fi fluke, but would go on to become of the most definitive franchises of all time.

I’ve always felt that Empire was the most visually involving title in the franchise, with the greatest locales and sense of place. I also think it features the best acting of any Star Wars film, and makes the best use of the toys that Lucas introduced to the world in 1977.

I could run through the devices. The Millennium Falcon is more agile and exciting, as it evades the Star Destroyer, and then soars off to the Cloud City. The lightsaber duel at the end is far more fluid and exciting than the rigid, formal Vader-Obi-Wan showdown of the first film. R2-D2 is funnier. C-3PO becomes far more interesting as a dismembered android. Darth Vader, going beyond merely the figurehead of pure evil, starts to show some emotional complexity. The Force, which in the first chapter was used primarily to fool storm troopers, takes on a whole new prominence in Empire. Luke and Leia communicate. Luke and Ben reconnect on Dagobah. The psychic chat between Vader and Luke at the very end of the film is one of the creepiest doses of telepathic chitchat that I’ve ever seen.

If it sounds like I’m fumbling for an answer to the key questions, well, I am. I don’t know if the second film is better than the first. But I know that every time I think back to my favorite Star Wars moments – the scenes that I want to revisit on the hunt for a deeper understanding, almost all of them are in Empire. Yes, Chapter IV has the bar scene and the Death Star destruction. But if you set aside the latter, my next three favorite Star Wars scenes are all to be found in Chapter V.

If the X-wing sequence at the end of A New Hope is the single greatest Star Wars sequence, consider these, which would all rank right below:

Sequence #2 – The Revelation:

Sequence #3 – The Carbonite:

Sequence #4 – The Ice War:

I mean, these are scenes I used to play out as a kid, pretending I was on the front lines of Hoth, and that I was confronting my evil father who had just sawed off my arm. I can remember playing out the latter in the front yard, along the busy street, with passersby looking in dismay as I fell to the ground, faked tears, and pleaded with the Vader of my mind’s eye.

I’m always hesitant to say that any continuation of a story is better than the origin – that any sequel can trump the original. But of all the Star Wars movie, the one I think of watching the most is Empire Strikes Back. For me, it is the most operatic, shocking, and engrossing.

So given that we’ve now officially kicked off Techland’s Star Wars Month, 2010, and that this is the 30th anniversary of Chapter V, feel free to chime in: Does The Empire Strikes Back supercede A New Hope? Why? Why not? I’ll watch the comments, and will go back through both movies this week, and will return Wednesday or Thursday with a more thorough, thoughtful, musing.