Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back Review
Long ago in a galaxy far, far away … there were three little films that literally changed the way we looked at Cinema. Under the ever-dabbling hands of their creator, they too have been changed and altered and doctored and modified in the years since they first wowed the world. Now unleashed onto Blu-ray in possibly the most eagerly mass-awaited release since the format was born, we can see if any of the old magic remains in any recognisable form.
Like I'm going to bother introducing these movies to you.
So, basically, all that follows is my own personal view on the cult phenomenon that is Star Wars, as someone who was there at the start and has, literally, grown up with it. And, like all role models, such as your own parents, I went through a phase when I turned my back on it, poured scorn over my earlier obsession with figures and playsets and collectible cards, and sought imaginative sustenance elsewhere. In fact, it wasn't until George started tinkering with the Special Editions back in the nineties that my passion for the Force was reignited with the warm, organic hum of dancing lightsabers. Although I could quote all three original films, word for word, on my death-bed even if I never saw them again until that moment, I actually haven't sat down to watch them properly for a few years. The only Star Wars-related stuff I've seen lately is Family Guy and Robot Chicken … which does make seeing them now a somewhat awkward pleasure. In other words, I'm already half-laughing at them.
Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (10/10)
“You came here in that thing? You're braver than I thought.”
Farmboy Luke Skywalker (Mark Ham – oh forget it, you know who everyone is!) runs away and joins the rebellion to fight the tyrannical Empire. He gets a five-minute tutorial in martial arts, falls-in with some rather dubious characters of ill-repute, causes trouble with the authorities and commits vandalism on a cosmic scale. Well, we've all been there, haven't we? But instead of an ASBO, he gets a great big medal, a new wardrobe and his own X-Wing!
Lucas definitely hit the ground running with his opening gambit. The 70's were already full of Sci-fi movies, but the genre was running out of that grand old escapism that had been the province of the old Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers serials. It had gotten all heavy with social comment, environmental warning and learned speculation. We'd had Planet Of The Apes, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Silent Running, Solaris, Logan's Run and his own THX1138 – now it was time to light up the stars with laser-bolts and mighty explosions and to dodge dastardly baddies in constant cliffhanging set-pieces, and to laugh-along with a couple of cute, loveable robots. His great conceit was to blend in a used, retro-tech sensibility with all the shiny stuff, and to embed Samurai nobility and mysticism with all of those spectacular space-battles because these elements elevated the inherent hokiness of the simple good versus evil narrative into something altogether more mythic, and affecting. Of course, he would go on to blur these distinctions much, much further as the story progressed and evolved over the two movies that followed, but basically he was telling a fantastical parable of what it is to simply “grow up” with the fate-bound innocent of Luke just standing in for us.
Ostensibly a rescue mission, ANH gathers almost every convention and cliché going from Westerns to War flicks, and uses them all to its endless advantage. Luke's moisture-farming days are over the moment the Jawas stop by to haggle. He's “not such a bad pilot” himself (a bit like his Daddy – hint, hint!) and he's an extremely quick learner too. I mean once he's taken his first steps into a larger world … well, he can do anything. He can work the canons on the Millennium Falcon without even having been shown where they are. He becomes a master of on-the-hoof planning, his rescue of Leia a storming achievement for such a short stormtrooper who'd never before set foot off the dust of Tatooine. He can even climb aboard a Rebel X-Wing Fighter and blow up the Empire's showboating new Death Star whilst pretending that he's just going after Wamp-rats in his T-16 back home. Not bad for a rural hick-from-the-sticks.
Together with Obi-Wan Kenobi (“I wonder if she means old Ben Kenobi?” Well, duh, how many other Kenobis do you know, Luke?), smug pirate Han Solo and lumbering, stretched-ape Wookiee Chewbacca, they blast off in the sexiest, coolest space lozenge ever to make the Kessel Run in a handful of parsecs. They might not be singing from the same hymn-sheet regarding the Force, but this disparate gaggle of soon-to-be-heroes swiftly come to the same conclusion when they slide out of hyperspace - “That's no moon.”
Battle-stations, tractor-beams, detention centres and trash compactors soon become grist-for-the-mill as Luke learns to use the Force and become the gullible patsy for the Alliance. Han learns the meaning of honour, even if that entails incurring the wrath of despicable mob-slug, Jabba the Hutt, and Chewie discovers that he will always win at Harryhausen Chess. And old Ben Kenobi gets to feel a presence in the Force that he won't soon forget.
As much as we love to mock Lucas' skills as a writer and director, he was ingenious at world and character creation. I don't mean the crazy topographical one-stop-shop – desert planets, forest moons, ice-worlds, city-globes – but the genuine lived-in aesthetic and cosmopolitan vogue he was able to invest his cultures, environs and creeds with. When we land on Tatooine, there is a real sense of the otherworldly. John Williams' exotic and playfully mysterious music enveloping the dunes as the utterly bizarre Jawa sandcrawler makes its entrance helps make this one of the most realistic of alien worlds that we've seen. Hardly any gimmicks – no intricately elaborate Pandora here. Just a desert and an ungainly, distinctly un-ergonomic vehicle. The opening act of Planet Of The Apes and the Nostromo's landing on the-then unnamed LV-426 in Alien are the best other examples of the unbelievable simply made believably out of this world. And we only have two funky looking robots as our conduits into this tale – and one of them is just a whistling bucket, whilst the other is gleaming, golden Dale Winton. Nobody had experienced anything like this before. No, no not even Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress. The Mos Eisely Cantina is another hallowed example of how we were, collectively, sold into this fantasy, hook, line and sinker. It was the Western saloon, and the set-up hadn't changed since the days of the Duke. Familiar to us, then, but completely subverted. I know they don't serve droids in here … but I wish George would reinstate the wolfman to his colourful menagerie of jazz-loving patrons.
While we all adore Hamill, Ford and Fisher, dodgy hair and puppy-fat and all, one of the greatest elements of ANH is the presence of Peter Cushing. Whilst renowned fellow thesp Alec Guinness couldn't really mask the embarrassment he felt at uttering such whimsical, fairytale dialogue even during the first production, Cushing simply excels as the apparently “smelly” Grand Moff Tarkin. Giving the best performance in the entire trilogy, Cushing totally inhabits the harsh Nazi-like character with absolute conviction. He's quite happy to trade sarcastic quips with the imprisoned Princess, but he's far more eager to show-off his big new weapon to her. Naughty Grand Moff Tarkin. And soon there are Aldaraan chunks everywhere. Cushing fell back on his clipped, single-minded arrogance from Baron Frankenstein and marshalled it with his customary supreme intelligence and erudition. We always think of Vader as the main adversary, but Tarkin was infinitely more callous at this stage in the game.
The final attack on the Death Star is, without doubt, one of the most exhilarating sequences in motion picture history. Iconic. Exciting. Reverent. And ultimately cathartic to a degree that very few other films have been able to match. There's poor old William Hootkins getting turned into “Porkins-scratchings”. He didn't have much luck with flying did he? A Great White Shark made mincemeat out of him and his little Coastguard helicopter in Jaws 2, as well. Luke's big buddy, Biggs, getting barbecued so soon after their little reunion – and then swiftly forgotten about … even doddery old Ben got more respect and Luke had only known him for a few hours! Lucas absolutely nailed this finale, and it is difficult to imagine a more rousing wallop of universal crowd-pleasing.
A walk on the Darth side ...
You know, I look at Vader now and I wonder just how I ever feared him. An asthmatic control freak who obviously never listened to Edna Modes' warnings about wearing capes, he struts and finger-points, his head-turning so exaggerated at times that you'd think Dave Prowse was performing in a silent movie. Let's be honest, the former body-builder and Hammer monster must have felt like a complete idiot on-set. His face hidden away, his voice overdubbed – it could have been anybody in that costume. Except Kenny Baker.
Seriously, though, there was a time when he was the ultimate villain. Raising the Rebel commander off the ground and audibly crunching the guy's neck before hurling him into a wall. There would have been a few parents squirming a little uncomfortably during that classic early scene back in the day. Mind you, the Dads would have been too distracted by Carrie Fisher's jiggling royal boobies to have cared. (Taped down? Look at them go!)
Although we understand little bits about where Vader hails from – this “old religion” malarkey – ANH benefits from the mystery that surrounds him. Sadly, his confrontation with Obi-Wan is poor. It was actually pretty poor even back in 1977, but we were all too smitten with the sight of those glorious lightsabres to notice.
Leaving him spinning off into space at the end, crippled and defeated, but not gone … was pure genius.
The Boys in White …
Something went very badly wrong in the cloning lab, didn't it?
The Imperial Stormtroopers, so feared throughout the galaxy, have little in common with their illustrious, super-agile, deadly accurate and battle-hungry Clone Trooper predecessors, save for a similar fashion sense and an obvious love for breathing-in their own sweat. Forget what Obi-Wan says about the precision of their blasting, these chumps couldn't find their own backsides with both hands and a homing beacon. “Look, sir … droids,” one marvels at his own deductive powers. What's he found, anyway – a droid-dropping?
These guys lurch about on Dewbacks, fall for the oldest Jedi mind-trick in the book, roast a couple of desert-dwelling OAPs and pick on some much smaller people. However, when it comes to catching the Empire's Most Wanted, Vader would be better assigning Stevie Wonder or even Stevie Hawkins to do the job. Searching through the shanties of Mos Eisely it appears that the only “locked” door for miles around is not enough to trigger any suspicions in their minds. Not even clonking his noggin on a blast-door can knock any sense into our favourite “Clumsy-trooper”. And yet they can still evoke a shudder or two when we see them en masse, all gleaming with Emperor-approved Daz-White, or running about in squads as Death Star klaxons sound. The persistent buggers who keep blasting away at Luke and Leia as they prepare to do an Errol Flynn across the chasm have plenty of raw aggression, as do the ones hefting open the door behind them and shooting through the gap. These guys, at least, demonstrate some of the right stuff, even if their brothers-in-arms prefer to talk about drills, worry about a prisoner they've just stunned and actually run away from one howling idiot and an elongated werewolf. Actually, we'll let that last bit go because Han's comedy-kamikaze act is one of the film's most cherished moments, even if Georgie-porgie has gone and embellished it with an unfeasible number of goons filling a hangar that wasn't there previously.
Variations on a theme.
One of the best angles of Lucas' creation of enemy forces are their various roles and specialities.
If only an orange tab on the shoulder denotes you as being a Sand Trooper, it is still a distinctive slice of insignia. But then there's the TIE Fighter pilots, with their grey or black suits and super-cool helmet design. Their craft all seem to have a loose wingnut on the dashboard, though, because they're forever trying to tighten it whilst they're flying.
And let's not forget the Teutonic flavoured Imperial Officers, the kepi-wearing yes-men that Vader likes to practice his Force skills upon, and those black-garbed Death Star Commanders, with their salad-bowel helmets. Not so long ago, and a galaxy a little bit nearer, these boys would be wearing sombreros!
Music of …
John Williams was already a prime composer for the movies by the time he made the jump to hyperspace for Lucas. Personally, I cannot abide the “actual” main Star Wars fanfare, the bit that even newborn babies recognise, but I do dearly love his vast and deeply lush thematic scores for the Original Trilogy as a whole. Highlights from ANH would have to be alien weirdness he creates for Tatooine when Artoo and Threepio first arrive there and encounter the scrap-hungry Jawas, the Force theme, which creeps into your blood and stays there and, best of all, his super-dynamic action motif for the TIE Fighter Attack as the Falcon is pursued away from the Death Star.
He would give the tuba the best role it has played in the movies, that's for sure, and he would develop these themes as the trilogy went on, and greatly add to the Star Wars repertoire with even more grand Wagnerian pomp and power … as we shall see.
Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (10/10)
“And I thought they smelled bad on the outside!”
Now I know that it is trendy and cool to cite this Irvin Kershner directed instalment of the Original Trilogy as being the best of the lot … but I honestly can't argue too much with that. For me, personally, it has always been my favourite entry. Of course it suffers from the “Curse of the Middle Movie” syndrome, having to slot in after the pretty much complete ANH and to climax both unfulfilled and on a bit of a downer, but note-for-note and scene-by-scene, ESB delivers some of the most audacious and exciting set-pieces of the entire series, boasts infinitely superior character work and humour, possesses a genuine sense of important plot development and, yep, you guessed it, gains strength from that deliciously darker and more mature aspect.
Let's face it, the majority of this movie is nothing short of magnificent.
Our initial act, on the white-out world of Hoth, is both economical and epic. Within minutes we are right back in the thrall of the main characters. Without any naff exposition, we can suss out the burgeoning relationship between Han and Leia … and it doesn't feel at all awkward, wrong or contrived. In fact, it would have been quite easy to have ditched Leia almost altogether and just carried on with the blokes and the derring-do, the Princess merely acting as one of their commanders-in-chief. But feisty Fisher could never be sidelined or shelved. Her sparring with Ford is brilliantly done, despite Leigh Brackett's screenplay having to adhere to the dialogue of lumpen wordsmith, Lucas, and a real sexual tension exists between the two. An opportunistic shelter-from-the-storm snogging session sets the tone, and that pivotal scene in the carbon-freezing chamber … yeah, Han, “I know”, mate. It gets me every time. Gone is the frivolous Boys Own attitude from ANH, replaced with a spark that carries a little bit more heat and depth than we would have expected. Both his arrogance and her nobility are credibly undermined, the galactic class-divide breached. Somehow, Han Solo found a way to extend the bridge across the emotional chasm.
The film is superbly paced too, despite a lot of the big stuff occurring in the first third.
There is a tremendous sense of jeopardy to Luke's capture by the Wampa, real unease as the Probe-droid rises from its crash-site, and then the sheer rampaging brilliance of the AT-AT attack, the Norwegian Army providing a neatly robust gung-ho attitude to the frozen Rebel defenders. The fact that ESB kicks-in with a big battle, as opposed to ANH which ended with one, showed real nerve. But the truth is that even though the rebels lose this time, we can still regard it as a victory … from a certain point of view … as it is really a tactical retreat. But this reversal of narrative momentum reveals that overarching climb of George's bigger picture beginning to take effect.
The escape from the wreckage of Echo Base and lift-off for Han, Leia, Chewie and Threepio, and their subsequent evasive flight on the Millenium Falcon through the asteroid field, whilst being pursued, hell-for-leather by fighters and Star Destroyers is possibly my favourite sequence of all set in Lucas-space. This is real edge-of-the-seat stuff. A perfect blend of humour in-extremis – the bloody Falcon's stubborn refusal to work properly - devil-may-care model-stuntage, incredible visual effects and sheer, heart-in-mouth excitement. For every sharp manoeuvre, there is a quip and a perfect spat between Han and everyone else, the set-piece thundering along with exquisite timing and spot-on character beats. Love that shot of the Falcon spiralling down out of the way of three Destroyers on a collision course! As much as I can enjoy and admire the action in the prequels, they have nothing to match this. No soul, by comparison.
There is a definite foul-up, time-wise in ESB, though. Luke manages to go all the way to Dagobah, meet up with Frank Oz in Shrek's back garden and train and train and train until he is good enough to cut his own head off … and, at the same time, Han and Leia have a smooch in a space-slug's gullet (that old rogue really knows how to treat a lady – she must have felt like royalty!), sit off on the backside of a Star Destroyer and float away with a stream of Imperial poodoo. Now, I know how they get around this - different star system, different time-scale – but it still rankles (or should that be Rancors!). But you have to forgive this streamlining for Luke's quasi-esoteric relationship with Yoda. As a kid, I was always bored by this section, but now I adore it. The wizened imp's masquerade is wonderful, his mixed-up patois something I think works well with the character's age – almost like a galactic strain of dementia – and the reveal is spellbinding. Luke's special Forces training is fun … and I love the fabulous setting. The concept of the deep Dark tree is a bravura element of surrealism, an almost Tolkein-esque episode that works on many levels. The way I feel now, I rather wish that there were more scenes set on Dagobah.
But, hey … two words – Boba and Fett.
Wow! For a guy that does virtually nothing other than stand around looking immeasurably cool – well, immeasurably cool for a bloke in padded dungarees and wearing a missile on his back and a TV antenna on his head – he has the biggest profit margin in this or any galaxy you care to mention. So much adoration and celebrity built up around this really rather inept mercenary that you can truly imagine him on the cover of GQ. Mind you, he's certainly more impressive than raspy reptilian Bossk or the subliminally glimpsed Arab fat-boy, Dengar, as they leer down at the snooty Imperials from the poop-deck of the Executor. I like the way that Vader singles out the Fettster for the stern “No disintegrations!” As a kid you really felt like he was “one of us”, always taking the joke a bit too far and getting into trouble with the teachers.
I will say that parts of the Cloud City act can be a little clunky. Billy Dee Williams is smarmily charismatic as Lando Calrissian, but he does shift the balance of the Force with regards to the main ensemble. It is very easy to resent him coming in to the established group, and I don't just mean his legendary betrayal of Solo, either. This was our first taste of the general expansion of the Star Wars universe. Yoda was something else entirely and a focal addition to the narrative. Lando ended-up running and fighting with our heroes in Han's place! In ROTJ he even flies the Falcon! As a kid I really didn't trust this guy at all, and I still don't. For some reason, I wish Chewie had kept on squeezing when he took him by the throat.
But, Bespin proprietor be damned, Cloud City saw Luke donning those classic khaki fatigues and facing-off against the Sith Lord in one of the most thrilling and game-changing set-pieces the genre had, up to this point, ever delivered. Of course we all love the three-way stand-off between Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan and twiglet-headed, face-paint champion Darth Maul in TPM, but this remains my favourite lightsaber duel of them all. It covers some ground – the atmospheric carbon-freezing chamber, Luke getting sucked out of the Big Round Window, the perilous gantry – and it features some decent choreography. Vader taunts and Luke wrestles with his anger. The “lost limb” device is brought in very keenly indeed, but not before Luke puts the hurt on Darth with a shoulder-sizzle that has the Dark Lord smarting with a highly amusing “OOOOHHH!” Like you're going to feel that little chafe on your ravaged body, Darth. And then we get the family news! Young minds were never the same again.
Other bits that loiter in the imagination …
Lobot is a great little reminder of Robert Duvall's THX1138 and actor John Hollis provides some startling presence with just some wacky head-bling and a couple of controlled hand-signals. The ghastly little Ugnaughts teasing a frantic Chewie with bits of Threepio's blasted body. The great shot of a hologram officer winking-out as, in reality, his command bridge has been obliterated by an asteroid. Julian Glover's steady determination as AT-AT chief, General Veers, and little Yoda prodding the ground with his Gaffi Stick to distract himself from Luke's head-scrambling encounter in the Dark Side Tree. But the little secondary glance that Vader gives to the point in space into which the Falcon has just vanished, and Admiral Piett's breathless anticipation of a mental choking is, perhaps, the most well-constructed and cleverly reflective.
A walk on the Darth side ...
Vader is awesome in ESB. His despatching of practically every Imperial Officer in the fleet makes him one seriously badass boss. If he's going to waste you for losing someone in an asteroid field, what chance does a real enemy stand? But this was when we first peeked beneath the helmet to survey a month old pizza and a fried egg slapped on the back of his head. The poignant and eerie reveal made us stop and think … and, at from this point on, we could no longer regard him as merely a comic-book villain. We'd seen the inner vulnerability. Admiral Piett, who also spies this state of meditative undress, conveys our twisted and confused feelings perfectly with his awkward but restrained reaction.
And there's a lot of even more mixed-up emotions dancing together when father and son confront one another. You still can't help thinking that George was making this up, film by film, as he went along, and not playing from some larger, dream-spun canvas as he claims. Ha-ha, he was laughing, I've just dished-out the biggest genre shock of all time. Oops, how do I get out of this now?
The Boys in White …
I don't think that the Stormtroopers are any clumsier this time out. They still can't shoot to save their own lives, and their body armour is just as ineffective as it ever was. But, asides from those awesome Snowtroopers who penetrate the base on Hoth (and I wish that we could have seen more of those – and we do in a great deleted Wampa scene on the full Saga set) they are reduced in menace to the point of set-decoration. Look at how pathetic they are when Lobot and the handful of Bespin security guards ambush them. No fight. Not even a fist shook in consternation and an angry “Grrrr...” muttered from under their helmets. Okay, you got us … we give up. Lead us to the cells, then.
Mind you, as blind as they are when engaged in a shootout, they can't half get excited about it. Look at the little foot-and-hip jiggle a few of them do as they await some incoming laser-bolts. I don't know about you, but the Imperial Riverdance troupe could be well worth the price of a ticket.
Variations on a theme.
Now there were some great modifications to the ranks of the Empire. We had the aforementioned Snow Troopers, with their plastic mini-capes and sinister little eye-slits. Plus we had lots more to do with the Imperial Officers. In fact, this is one of the film's assets. The amount of combined dread and black humour used to signify the risky position these unfortunate ruperts find themselves in when out Rebel-bashing is grave cause for concern. What would be the worst news you could get as an Imperial minion? To be informed that you've just been promoted to commander of a Star Destroyer, that's what. Don't bother filling out those pension forms … and I'd skip the promotion party if I were you. However, there's always the one that got away – step forward Admiral Piett (Kenneth Colley), you shall live to fight another day. Well until ROTJ, anyway.
Music of …
Now we're talking.
This is when Williams introduced the fabulous, all-domineering Imperial March. Nothing the Rebel Alliance had in their orchestra could ever hope to match this bold and strident martial theme of indomitable strength and system-gobbling aggression. But although this became the most memorable theme from the film after the main title fanfare, Williams also folded the London Symphony Orchestra into the mystical side of things with his eloquent Yoda theme, which branched out from the Force theme to establish a heartwarming coda for Luke's understanding of his destiny, and his steady transformation into Jedi Knight. And he delivered the best sustained action sequence of the Original Trilogy with the delirious passage for the escape from Hoth and the chase through the asteroid field. This was Williams at his riveting best.
Episode VI: Return Of The Jedi (8/10)
Richard Marquand took over the directing chores for the third episode of the Original Trilogy and, for me, the series bowed-out with a slapstick, Muppet-filled whimper and not the much anticipated bang. But, to be fair, it is difficult to see how things could have gone differently. This was, when all said and done, a franchise that was living on in the expanded galaxy of merchandise and appealing to the kids was an absolutely essential aspect. And, thus, damn them, the Ewoks were born.
Yes, those furry little bastards whose toothpick arrows could apparently penetrate the armour of Imperial Stormtroopers and whose guerilla tactics could outwit the Emperor's “crack legion” - his words, not mine – seem determined to derail the momentum of the trilogy's closing chapter. It's fashionable to hate them, I know, but I'm afraid I can't go against the flow. It isn't even the things, themselves, so much … it's the reactions they create from the characters around them. Like everybody chuckling all nicely together when Artoo bleeps and bloops at the end of ANH, it just cheapens things and makes your teeth itch.
But the film still has a great deal to enjoy.
The opening act is, by far, the most appealing and also the deftest handled by Marquand. Our guys must attempt a covert, SAS-style raid on Jabba's Palace to free Han Solo. And it's a great piece of work too. As each member of the hit-squad infiltrates the seedy slug-parlour and seemingly meets with disaster and capture, the suspense becomes ever-more colourful and frivolous. A bloated six-breasted dancer cavorts with a head-tentacled “fittie”. A fat bloke mourns for his fallen pet Rancor. Boba acknowledges the murderous tenacity of a fellow bounty hunter and tickles the chin of a dune-sea whore. Threepio translates a message that spells out his own doom. Droids, who shouldn't really have any feelings, scream and wail in pain down in the gruesome Jabba-dungeon, and the inordinately creepy pale blue meanie Bib Fortuna seems to call his slimy mob-boss a w*nker on a couple of occasions! And, all the while, our uber-cool smuggling hero hangs on the wall like a piece of modern art for the Marquis De Sade. And we haven't even got to the Sand-barge and the Sarlacc Pit yet!
But when we do … it's Jabba-dabba-doo time!!
When Princess Leia took some Jabba-snot and made a bikini out of it, every male hormone in the world soared higher than little Anakin's Midichlorien count. When Luke did his little salute to Artoo and his new lightsabre shot into his hand, the scene was set for a frantic Douglas Fairbanks-style table-turner of laser-cleaved henchmen, ghastly tentacles and heroes hanging by their ankles over certain death. As with all the best Star Wars action set-pieces, comedy was woven expertly into the dynamics. Sadly, with the retina-scorching explosion of the sail-barge, the film had peaked for me, action-wise. Although Luke's final meeting with Yoda is too succinct and contrived – he gets there just in time to be with him as he is absorbed into the Force – it remains one of the film's highpoints, and it makes you realise, unashamedly, that you can love an ugly latex puppet perhaps a touch too much.
There's some mileage to be had in the allegory of an indigenous primitive population taking on and defeating a hostile and technologically superior invasion force, but for God's sake, did it really have to be a gaggle of teddy-bears? I'm afraid that I have tended to duck out of the last act of ROTJ for a great many years, skipping from the electrifying speeder-bike chase to the levitating Threepio, and from Luke's enigmatic exchange with Leia about their family to his final confrontation with Vader like a Force-skimmed stone across the surface of a Dagobah swamp.
Now, at last, I have brought balance to the Force and properly watched the full adventure for the first time with as close to an open mind as I could muster.
Well, my heart still sinks as we are compelled to watch an absolutely cringe-worthy reunion for our heroes in the Rebel armada – Ford's cocky half-smile making it look as though he has just been shot in the face, and his ridiculous reply to Chewie, “It's gonna be rough, pal, I didn't want to speak for you” when it is revealed that he is the commander of the commando strike force tasked with destroying the Imperial reactor utterly stupefying considering all that they've been through together – and the entire ethereal ambience that Caroline Blakiston tries to evoke as the dignified Mon Mothma, babbling on about the sacrifice made by the Bothan spies that nobody, least of all, us, gives a damn about. The Rebels are less fun than the Imperials. And it still sinks even lower as we approach the forest moon of Endor – so lush a place that Admiral “Cake”bar has to describe it as such twice. Pay attention, you Bo'selecta headed-aliens at the back of the briefing room!
I still cannot summon any excitement for the final battle – either on the ground, or in the heavens – and I utterly hate the climactic celebrations. They are justified, of course, but I cannot buy into the loss of the new improved Death Star and around fifty Imperials from the bunker as being the collapse of the Empire. Okay, so the Emperor has gone too … but how does everyone else around the galaxy know that? And if Colonel Gaddafi's loyalists can still fight on in Libya and never admit defeat, I'm pretty sure that the planets full of Imperials are still hungry for Rebel-blood.
Hey, hasn't Yoda got one of those? A Gaddafi-stick?
A walk on the Darth side …
Vader was a different character now. He had unmistakably mellowed. Father-son confessions had taken their toll. We'd had time to digest all of this and it was so tantalising to think what direction the Sith Lord would go in after such a revelation. Even when goaded by Ian McDiarmid's sublimely sinister Emperor, it is hard to work out whether we should be cheering or not as Luke finally gains the upper hand – slicing off one of pop's in tit-for-tat retaliation. Vader is now old and a confirmed cripple and, after all, he's just trying to get the family back together again ... after threats from the Mustafanian Child Support Agency.
Of course, it is Palpatine who steals the show here. His croaking “You … want … this?” as he taps Luke's lightsaber is phenomenal, as is his insistent beseeching of “Strike me down!”
The Boys in White …
ROTJ presents us with the absolute worst foot-soldiery that the Empire has ever put in the field. These goons are pathetic, weak-willed pacifists who fall over themselves to be first in the path of a laser-beam. This Endor contingent – jeez, whoever recruited and trained them must have felt their throat constricting way before the bunker was blown out of the woods by the Rebel Scum (that's an official title, folks!). What use is an armoured helmet if someone can just punch you out through it? Look at the dopey Scout who falls for Han's tap on the shoulder and then runs around the corner to find himself facing a mob of grinning rebels. Now, I'm not suggesting that he go all Johnny Rambo on their scummy asses, but to just shrug and give in the way he does is … well, it's crap, isn't it? And not content with letting the side down so badly with him, the Empire then sends out three squads of super-new “Cowardly Troopers” who trot like jessies out of the bunker only to be surrounded and disarmed by yet more scumbags and tree-huggers without even a single “D'OH!” amongst them. “Oh, we're just no good at this game, are we?”
Variations on a theme.
Well, this time out, we've got Imperial Scouts, highly trained and specialised Tupperware-helmeted troopers who joyride around Endor (erm … that's forest moon of) and can be outrun, out-manoeuvred and outgunned by almost anyone.
And here we get a brief glimpse at those crimson bodyguards for the Emperor. That shiny plastic look makes them appear like Christmas Tree baubles. Sadly, they don't actually do anything, although they are supposed to be incredibly elite shock troops with amazing fighting skills. They probably don't like being seen near Stormtroopers.
Music of …
John Williams does the trilogy and the saga justice with his work on ROTJ. The major themes return with more power and emotion, anchoring the sense of impending destiny with the arrival of the Emperor, the passing of Yoda and the further revelations regarding the Skywalker clan. A return of the TIE Fighter Attack cue is most welcome during the Jabba Sand-barge sequence but, best of all, is the gothic male choir that wails and moans with awesome Gregorian doom as Luke and Vader clash for the final time. Getting away from the ludicrous paint-ball scrap taking place down on THE FOREST MOON of Endor , this sequence is made all the more staggeringly effective because of how Williams handles it. Those voices send shivers up and down the spine and make the hairs stand up on the back of the neck. Not since Alfred Newman scored The Robe has there been anywhere near as beautifully dark and haunting a religious motif as this. Suddenly, all the Muppets and furry Ewoks, all the lousy Imperials and sappy celebrations fade away. This is where ROTJ gains its substance and delivers on all the epic dynastic drama.
George's tinkerings ...
There are plenty of little changes in the Original Trilogy, which you will have read all about already. I have given up being bothered by what new bits are added, or what is taken away, so long as the essential stuff remains untouched. But, for the record, the added rocks that hide Artoo look suspiciously bogus, Ben's new Krayt Dragon call sounds stupidly hilarious to me (reminding me of the scene in Spies Like Us when they pretend to be aliens) and it is like Graham Norton getting his handbag out in disgust at something, the return of the trumpets for the rebel attack on the Death Star is most definitely welcome, as is the removal of the Wampa arm-rod. The lightsaber colour tweakings are a total mixed-bag and lack consistency – really, who from Lucasfilm actually QC'd this? They fix them in one shot, but not another. I gave up keeping track and, you know, I' realised that I'm not all that concerned either way. Having Wicket able to blink now is nice. But what about the rest of the furry tribe? Why are they “blink-less”?
And the much-mooted and ballyhooed Vader cry of “Nooooo!” is … actually quite okay in my book. Well, his first shout of “No!” is. That sounds great and I think it works well in the scene. But the second, and much longer cry as he hurls the crusty old Emperor over the rail sounds … well, it sounds a tad too much, and isn't strictly necessary. But I can live with it.
No, most importantly for me, I suppose, is the frame-removal in the cantina that now has Han and Greedo shooting simultaneously. It's still not right, of course, but I think I quite like it. Both have itchy trigger-fingers, and the fact that we see Han slowly preparing to pull his blaster before any bolts are shot leaves you in no doubt that the wily smuggler isn't intending to let old pucker-lips get away with his taunts.
So what have we learned about the Empire and the Rebellion and the Forceful hand of Fate?
Never volunteer to be an Imperial Officer. Or a spy, if you happen to be a Bothan. Never take droids from a Jawa. Don't skit the local loony with a waste-paper bin on his head … he could just turn out to be your dad.
Oh, and never, ever stand having a chat in a doorway in the Star Wars universe. Man, have you seen how fast those things come down!
We've also learned, again, that George knows a cash-cow when he sees one and that, as a towering hypocrite, he just won't leave things alone.
But whatever your opinions about how Lucas has tampered with the films, you can take it from me – the magic is definitely still there.
May the Force ...oh, how's it go again? May the Fuh … ahhh, it's on the tip of my tongue. Oh, forget it. See you later, nerf-herders!