Every month we take a look at a movie on the Internet Movie Database’s List of the TOP 250 FILMS OF ALL-TIME. These are movies that transcend a simple “My Favorite Scene” column. These are movies that are hard to just pry five gems from, but we do and examine the film overall. We’re on our twelfth installment in this series. Click on the links for The Shawshank Redemption, The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, The Dark Knight, Pulp Fiction , Schindler’s List, 12 Angry Men, The Good The Bad and The Ugly, The Return of the King, Fight Club, and The Fellowship of the Ring to check out previous installments.
At #12, we come to the first of the (soon-to-be) eight films in the Star Wars franchise on the IMDB Top 250: the undisputed fan and critical favorite – Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back. Appropriate timing, since we are now less than a month away from the return of Darth Vader in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, and The Empire Strikes Back is undoubtedly the ultimate Vader film.
The Empire Strikes Back is a perfect film. Flawless. 1977’s A New Hope opened the door into the Star Wars Universe, but it’s Empire that turned it into an international phenomenon that continues to enrapture audiences today. It defied all the conventions of its time. It was a sequel back when sequels were rare and frowned upon. The bad guys won. It ended on a cliffhanger promising a next installment. In the franchise-heavy cinema of today, none of that is shocking, but in 1980 it was unreal. From a craft standpoint, the film pushed the F/X of its day so hard that they still hold up. Irving Kerschner took over directing for George Lucas and Lawrence Kasdan (who wrote Episode VII and has written the Han Solo spin-off scheduled for 2018) penned the screenplay. This allowed Lucas to serve as producer, which I think is where he’s most talented on a movie set. His strength is his imagination, and it has always worked best in consultation with other talented people who can keep said imagination from running off the reservation. Regardless of Kasdan and Kerschner, this is Lucas’ film. This was his vision and he took a very simple hero’s journey in A New Hope and blew it up into a vast universe of endless possibilities in Empire.
Just think of everything in the Star Wars Saga that came from The Empire Strikes Back. Boba Fett, Yoda, Lando Calrissian, Emperor Palpatine, and the massive war machines of the Empire (AT-ATs and AT-STs) all first appeared in this installment. This really was a film where the bad guys were allowed to win. The Empire mercilessly kicks the heroes introduced in A New Hope across the galaxy. They’re frozen, shot, blown apart and put back together backward, kidnapped, dismembered, and traumatized by an extremely displeased Vader (not at all happy that team of welders didn’t fix that exhaust port on the Death Star; just not happy at all). Literally the entire film could be a “best scene” in any other film, and I may have pushed the boundary of “scene” a wee bit, but here are my Top 5 scenes from The Empire Strikes Back.
1. The Cloud City Duel/I AM YOUR FATHER
This is not only the best scene in the Saga, but probably the scene most associated in the public consciousness with Star Wars overall. Empire is the only film that shows Vader at the height of his powers (though we’re certainly hoping to see more of that in Rogue One). His duel with Luke, though not the athletic feat some of prequel duels were, is miles better than A New Hope‘s, and shows’ Vader’s command not only of the saber put of his Force Powers. But, with all that, you can see he’s holding back. He’s not even trying and he’s nearly killing Luke. The “why” to all of that comes in one of the biggest plot twists in film history. I cannot imagine what it was like to sit in a theater in 1980 and have “I am your father” dropped on my head. With all the spoilers and speculation these days, it’s almost impossible to achieve that level of turning something on its head. I also can’t imagine having to sit on the uncertainty of that for three years until Return of the Jedi came out. It’s one of cinema’s most iconic moments, and no matter how many times you watch it; it never grows old.
2. The Battle of Hoth
Ok, yes, I am pushing the boundaries of what constitutes a scene by counting the entire Battle of Hoth, but they’re my rules so I can make them bendy when it suits me. Having just come off such a triumph at the end of A New Hope, the Battle of Hoth made it clear how far the Rebellion was from even denting the Empire. The AT-ATs and AT-STs are still among the coolest vehicles the Saga has seen, we get our first of what will come to be dozens of variations on a normal stormtrooper with the snowtroopers, and it’s not only a great character showcase for the entire cast, but an amazing F/X adventure sequence.
3. Meeting Yoda
Frank Oz is a miracle worker. Even with the CGI Yoda that was used in the prequels, I still don’t think they ever managed to wring the kind of emotion and performance detail out of Yoda that Oz was able to with his puppeteering skills and voice work in Empire. It’s such a misdirect that this tiny demifrog turns out to be the mightiest of the Jedi. Up to that point, the only Force users we’d seen were Luke, Obi-Wan, and Vader, all of whom fit the warrior mentality, but when Luke travels to Dagobah to find Obi-Wan’s master, his and the audience’s expectations are thwarted by the appearance of this stick-wielding gremlin. I love how goofy and weird Yoda is when he’s messing with Luke (and I wonder how much of that is genuinely him gone a bit mad from sitting in that swamp for 20 years), and how quickly through the nuances in his voice and the change in his bearing, Oz can sweep so much dignitas and authority into the character.
4. Carbonite Freezing Chamber
Empire is filled with classic sequences, most of which would steal any other movie, and Han’s carbon freezing is a great example. It’s a wonderful way to force Han and Leia’s love story forward, introduces us to Boba Fett, shows again how callous Vader is, and the concept of someone just being flash frozen is so cool you again have to credit the boundless imagination of Lucas. There’s something I’ve wondered since Episode I came out. During this sequence, Chewie, with the jumbled bits of Threepio strapped to his back, loses it and Fett goes to take a shot at him. Vader deflects the blast. Why? What does he care about a wookie? Is it that the bit of him that’s still Anakin remembers Threepio and building him and THAT is why he alters the shot? Just another theory in a series that inspires more fan theory and speculation than any other.
5. Never Tell Me The Odds
This is classic Han Solo. Most of the characters have their best moments in Empire, but that’s definitely the case with Solo. Not only does he get great parts in Hoth and Bespin, but he gets my favorite Han/Chewie/Falcon moment of piloting the always-underrated freighter through an asteroid field to escape pursuit by a fleet of TIE Fighters and a Star Destroyer. Set to John Williams best score of his career (which is saying A LOT), this is the cagey smuggler at his best. RIP Han. We’ll never tell you the odds.