In 2015, Disney came out with “The Force Awakens.” It was the first good Star Wars movie in over 30 years and was only prevented from being the biggest box office hit of all time by the fact that Chinese people were apparently not huge fans of the franchise yet. That tremendous success came a bit easier because “The Force Awakens” was essentially a remake of the original “Star Wars” with a few modern flourishes. Two years later (and with a spin off flick in between) and Disney is at it again with the second part of a third trilogy. How does “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” (2017) measure up to the first sequel in the first trilogy? Is trying to sustain a now 40-year-old franchise a bigger challenge than following up on film that literally changed global popular culture? That’s what this edition of KIMT’s Weekend Throwdown considers as we pit “Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back” (1980) vs. “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” (2017). May the best Ugnaught or Porg win.
With nerd culture ruling the entertainment roost in the early 21st century, it’s probably hard to appreciate what “Empire” meant when it came out. It cemented in place the new creative and economic paradigm created by “Star Wars” (1977) and which still dominates Hollywood. It also existed in the age before we were saturated with information every waking moment. “Empire” was perhaps the most anticipated motion picture in decades and audiences went in actually knowing very little about it. Viewers who loved the first film may have expected more of the same, but that’s not what they got.
Set several years after the destruction of the Death Star, the Rebel Alliance has set up operations on the ice world of Hoth. They’re still hiding from the Empire and from Darth Vader (David Prowse/James Earl Jones), who is obsessively searching for Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). After Imperial forces land on Hoth, Luke travels to the Dagobah system to train under a Jedi Master named Yoda (Frank Oz) while his friends Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) are sent scurrying for cover and wind up in Cloud City, where they are betrayed by Han’s old friend Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) and turned over to the Dark Lord of the Sith. Defying pleas to stay and complete his training, Luke flies to their rescue only to wind up needing rescuing after he learns the most shocking revelation in cinema history…Soylent Green is people. Wait, that’s not it.
It feels kind of silly to recap the plot of “Empire” in even that perfunctory manner because it’s nearly impossible to grow up now and not be exposed to it in some way. Heck, most Americans probably know more about Boba Fett than they do Thomas Paine. But something that likely gets overlooked is that “Empire,” as “Star Wars” before it, is a legitimately great motion picture. Not great for a sci-fi flick. Not great for fanboy nerds. Not great for a disposable piece of entertainment to occupy a couple of hours. The storytelling and filmmaking in “The Empire Strikes Back” is magnificent. The subject matter may be somewhat juvenile but the presentation meets and exceeds the standards of the most mature and sophisticated of movies.
The plot is propulsive, with short and dynamic scenes that get into and out of the emotional and physical action as quickly as they can. The costumes, sets, and special effects still look great, which is not something you can say about much science-fiction from any past era. Even the mix of stop-motion and puppetry used for something like the Tauntauns on Hoth comes off as good or better than a lot of modern CGI. And the emotional beats of the story, which takes a dark and menacing turn from “Star Wars,” only get more powerful and compelling every time you watch it.
When George Lucas made “Star Wars” and when director Irvin Kershern and writer Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan made “Empire,” there was only one standard for movies. Whether you were making a western or a comedy or a family drama or a sci-fi spectacle, you were expected to shoot for the same level of cinematic craftsmanship. An all-ages adventure in outer space and a provocative journey into the dark heart of the Vietnam War might be telling completely different stories to completely different audiences but each was expected to bring the identical amount of skill and professionalism to the task.
That no longer seems to be the case as critics and audiences continually embrace movies that simply aren’t very good and sometimes are outright terrible. The “Star Wars” prequels were huge commercial hits and got generally okay to good reviews despite being profoundly awful. So when “The Force Awakens” come out, people didn’t care that it was one of the most derivative films of all time. They were just so happy it didn’t suck.
I’m not sure people are going to have to same reaction to “The Last Jedi.” It has a solid opening and a great ending, followed by a second great ending, and a few truly inspired moments in between, but the middle hour of this two and ½ hour flick is kind of a disaster area. I came out of “The Force Awakens” knowing immediately I was going to watch it in the theater at least two or three more times. I’m not sure I’ll ever watch “The Last Jedi” again.
Picking up almost immediately after the end of the last film, we see the First Order attacking a fleeing Resistance. Apparently the loss of Starkiller Base hurt less than a stubbed toe. The situation evolves into a slow speed chase through the stars with the First Order playing the part of the LAPD and the Resistance standing in for O.J. Simpson and his white Bronco. Former Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) is demoted to the sidekick of a brand new character and shunted off into a wild goose chase that comes off like something out of a “Men in Black” movie. Hot shot pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), who was like the sixth or eighth most important character in “The Force Awakens,” gets a storyline where he has to learn the difference between strategic leadership and reckless heroics. It’s a decent idea, though I’m not sure we need to spend quite so much time with a puffed up version of Wedge, but it winds up making no dramatic sense at all because the conflict entirely stems from Poe’s commanding officers refusing to explain their plans to him for absolutely no reason. There’s honestly a good 15 to 20 minute chunk of the film that would have been eliminated if either Leia or General Holdo had one 30 second conversation with Poe.
Meanwhile, Rey (Daisy Ridley) finds Luke Skywalker a bitter and slightly broken man who refuses to have anything to do with her or any plans of saving the galaxy. She also finds herself having trans-galactic chats with Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) about their tragic pasts and possibly joint destiny. This stuff is the only bit of the middle of the movie that’s any good, though fans of Luke won’t like him playing second fiddle to Rey, who remains the most wonderfully perfect person to ever live, and plenty of franchise fans are going to want to tell writer/director Rian Johnson “That’s not how The Force works!”
Another thing you need to know about “That Last Jedi” is that Johnson takes most of the mysteries and lingering questions posed in “The Force Awakens” and either answers them in a dismissive and underwhelming manner that kind of mocks viewers who took them seriously in the first place or blames Luke for screwing everything up.
To his credit, Johnson has not cranked out another version of “The Empire Strikes Back,” even though “The Last Jedi” has to do a lot of the same narrative work to service the overall third trilogy, and there are some truly wonderful moments in the movie. However, it seems like a lot of critics are going hog wild because Johnson smashes the black-and-white morality that Lucas gave us in the original trilogy, ignoring that Lucas himself did much the same in the prequels, and both highlights and undermines the slightly aristocratic framework of the first six films where the story revolved around special people who were better than everyone else. Johnson replaces that with a much more democratic sensibility. Unfortunately, those critics are ignoring all of the really, really, really stupid and ill-considered storytelling on display in “The Last Jedi.”
“The Empire Strikes Back” takes this Throwdown, with “The Last Jedi” coming in at no better than fourth or fifth best Star Wars flick depending on how much you like “Rogue One” (2016). And if you’re wondering why this Throwdown did not include “Attack of the Clones” (2002)…stop.
“Attack of the Clones” sucked.
I know it sucked.
You know it sucked.
Everybody knows it sucked.
We don’t need to revisit it.
Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back” (1980)
Directed by Irvin Kershner.
Written by Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan.
Starring Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Billy Dee Williams, Anthony Daniels, Davie Prowse, James Earl Jones, Peter Mayhew, Kenny Baker, Frank Oz, Alec Guinness, Jeremy Bulloch, and John Hollis.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)
Written and directed by Rian Johnson.
Starring Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Andy Serkis, Lupit Nyong’o, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Gwendoline Christie, Kelly Marie Tran, Laura Dern, Benicio Del Toro, Joonas Suotamo, Jimmy Vee, and Frank Oz.
"Luke, listen to me. 'Rosebud' was the name of his sled...wait, that's not it."
I will laugh my butt off if J.J. Abrams kills her five minutes into the next movie.