With Irvin Kershner’s Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980) released forty years ago this month, BBC critic Nicholas Barber writes that he finds the Star Wars film considered as the best to be “slower, stodgier, more contrived, convoluted, and repetitive.” Indeed, Barber is not alone in his opinion – notable reviewers such as Vincent Canby at The New York Times were also underwhelmed with the first sequel to George Lucas’s Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977). Instead, Barber argues that the original is the greatest entry in the franchise, “with its wealth of history, mythology, politics, and technology.”
George Lucas’s fellow movie brat, Steven Spielberg, may have invented the summer blockbuster with his Jaws (1975) two years before, but it is Lucas who’s responsible for the multimedia franchise as we know it today.
The Star Wars saga is a hotbed for sequels, merchandise, and derivative works, and it all started with a relatively modest passion project from a young auteur.
It birthed a new era of filmmaking.
And it killed the Hollywood Renaissance.
If you don’t know what to watch next, Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977) is available on Amazon Prime.
The epic space opera was nominated for ten Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay, and won eight, including two special Oscars. The auteur also penned the script.
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, Galactic Imperial Senator Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) flees an Imperial Star Destroyer under the command of Darth Vader (David Prowse, voiced by James Earl Jones) after stealing the plans to the Empire’s Death Star for the Rebellion.
Vader captures Leia’s starship, but not before she dispatches two droids, C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) to the desert planet of Tatooine bearing a message for retired Jedi Master Obi-Wan “Ben” Kenobi (Best Supporting Actor nominee Sir Alec Guinness).
The droids are discovered by farm boy Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), the son of Obi-Wan’s apprentice, Anakin Skywalker, who enlists smugglers Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) to fly Obi-Wan to the Death Star so they can rescue Leia.
Originally titled Star Wars, it can be an obstacle to divorce A New Hope from the mythology that is its legacy for this critic, who was born into a world already saturated with Star Wars and has no way of remembering a time before it, or experiencing it how audiences did upon its release.
Except for Irvin Kershner’s Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980), all Star Wars films are inferior to A New Hope. Knowing the downturn the saga will take before even going into the one that started it all, it can be a lot to ask to fall in love with it at first sight.
Regardless, A New Hope is an imaginative Wild West fairytale set in outer space, a prototypical hero’s journey explored through a once-in-a-lifetime creative mind.
Like the commoners in Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress (1954) and the “cripples, bastards, and broken things” in HBO’s Game of Thrones (2011-2019), the good guys here are two bickering robots, an orphan, an eccentric old man, and two criminals.
As for the villains, they are not the Emperor himself, but, rather, his bureaucratic henchmen. It goes to show even the unlikeliest person can do the right thing, and even the lowest government official can be an oppressor.
And in the hands of any other screenwriter, Princess Leia would be a damsel in distress. Instead, she is an assertive, straight-shooting leader who saves herself, and her rescuers (none of whom “get the girl” at the end).
It’s almost enough to make up for the movie’s lack of intersectional diversity.
But Star Wars is more praiseworthy than A New Hope. Unethically, Lucas has revised each rerelease of his masterpiece beyond recognition to retroactively co-opt it into the mythos he wove around it, thus bastardizing the version that his fans first obsessed over.
When you unleash a work of art into the world, it belongs no longer to you, but, rather, to the audience it inspires – otherwise, of what worth is that inspiration?
Revisionism aside, Lucas may be the worst thing to happen to his own creation, but he’s also the best, like how Star Wars is the best and worst thing to happen to cinema.
Love it or hate it, if moviemaking has always been about making money, then Star Wars is important, and Lucas was forward-thinking enough to singlehandedly anticipate the zeitgeist even as we know it today.
To all the viewers who made it one of the top grossers of all time (adjusted for inflation), A New Hope is a nostalgic, childlike dream bringing strangers together, and that is what keeps them coming back to the series again, hoping (in vain) to relive that movie magic for the first time.
After a string of teasers since filming began last year, the final trailer dropped Monday night for J.J. Abrams’s Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker (2019), with tickets going on sale ahead of its December 20 release, according to The Guardian. The finale to the saga which began with George Lucas’s Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977) promises lightsaber battles atop sinking ships, characters jumping across jungle canyons, as well as plenty of tearful closeups. Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Lupita Nyong’o, Mark Hamill, Ian McDiarmid, and Anthony Daniels all star, and the filmmaking team confirmed back in May that old footage of the late Carrie Fisher would be repurposed into the new movie.
With a hero from a desert planet who goes on to help destroy a galactic fascist’s superweapon, J.J. Abrams’s Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens (2015) can be read as a companion piece to George Lucas’s Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977).
In a similar vein, Rian Johnson’s Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi (2017) aims to be as game-changing a sequel as Irvin Kershner’s Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980), but as it shoots for the moon, where does it land among the stars?
If you don’t know what to watch next, Star Wars: The Last Jedi is available to stream on Netflix. The epic space opera was nominated for four Academy Awards. The filmmaker also served as scriptwriter.
Rey (Daisy Ridley) arrives on the planet Ach-To to train in the Jedi arts with exiled Master Luke Skywalker (Mark Hammill) so she can defeat Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and his master, Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis).
At the same time, Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) flees a First Order dreadnought with a comatose General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) and Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo (Laura Dern); Poe plans to fight, but Holdo plots an escape.
Poe sends former First Order stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) and a mechanic named Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) to Canto Bight to rendezvous with the hacker DJ (Benicio del Toro) so he can deactivate the First Order’s tracking device.
It is refreshing to see a popular entertainment franchise like Star Wars and all its self-contained stylistic formulae churn out a “critic’s film” to be deconstructed through an authorial lens.
From a postmodern context, it is the most thematically ambitious release in the saga (not to say “ambition” always translates to “success”), and it needed to be after The Force Awakens inaugurated the third trilogy with a beat-for-beat revisit to A New Hope.
If The Empire Strikes Back is most remembered for its “big reveal,” then The Last Jedi is defined by its subverted expectations.
That said, as a sequel to The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi fails to satisfy some of the foreshadowing introduced in its parent film. While this is intentional, dramatically, it’s still… well… unsatisfying.
Maybe these films would have better consolidated this experiment with the mainstream myth that is the Star Wars universe if the same director had shot both of them.
In any case, the overarching poetry of Star Wars is the past rhyming with the present, and using the Rotten Tomatoes audience reception score for a litmus test, The Last Jedi complements The Empire Strikes Back as the movie even more beloved than A New Hope, the one that started it all.