Recently, the Museum of Modern Image here in New York City has been doing a screening series called “See it Big: Summer Movies (’70s & ’80s Edition)” which is probably about exactly what you think it is. Part of this series includes the original Star Wars trilogy, making sure to emphasize, yes, these are the Special Editions. I hadn’t seen Star Wars or The Empire Strikes Back in theaters since the Special Editions were released so I decided that I should at least try to make it to one of these and I chose The Empire Strikes Back because it’s the least altered of the three movies.* I’ve seen The Empire Strikes Back countless times (literally; I literally could not count for you the number of times I’ve seen this movie), but this time watched it in a slightly different way.
(*Though I still cringe at the added scene of Vader returning to his Star Destroyer from Cloud City. In the original version, he simply says, “Bring my shuttle.” You know what? I can figure out the rest. That he uses that aforementioned shuttle to return to his Star Destroyer. But in the Special Edition, the line is changed where he specifically says where he’s going and we get to see his shuttle make the journey to the Star Destroyer where we then watch him walk off his shuttle in unused footage from Return of the Jedi.)
The Empire Strikes Back often gets labeled as a movie that ends on a cliffhanger. A trend that is very in vogue right now with the release of Fast X, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse and now Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One. I guess this all depends on what the definition of a “cliffhanger” actually is since Across the Spider-Verse and Fast X literally end during the middle of scene and, I assume, both of the next installments will pick up where we left off. The Empire Strikes Back is a full movie. It does not end on a cliffhanger or in the middle of a scene. As the Millennium Falcon tries to escape Cloud City, the pace of the movie gives you a sense that it’s wrapping up. It’s just a movie where, as the title might suggest, the Empire had a pretty good result, but our heroes end on a minor victory by escaping. Everyone’s stories, for this movie, are over. Even Han’s story is over.* His current state is not ideal, but it’s also stable. The movie doesn’t end on a scene where we don’t know what’s going to happen to him. We know exactly what’s happened to him.
(*Harrison Ford wasn’t contractually obligated to appear in a third movie. As his star was on the rise, there was enough of a fear that Ford may not return for the then titled Revenge of the Jedi so a plot point had to be inserted that would explain his absence. (In one of the final scenes of the first draft of The Empire Strikes Back, Han Solo is still very mush present and is sent by Leia to find his powerful father who can help with the Rebellion.) Anyway, Ford returned for Return of the Jedi and then two more Star Wars movies after that.)
Here’s the thing, I’m not opposed to the idea of two-part movies. Or having some issues be unresolved when the movie ends that can be addressed in the second part. I just don’t like the feeling that I’ve only seen half a story when I leave a theater. The first half of a two part-movie should still be a complete movie.
Let’s go back to the Star Wars example. The first Star Wars is pretty much a complete standalone film. The Rebel Alliance blows up the Death Star and they win. Every single person we meet from the Empire of any importance was blown up except for Darth Vader. And Vader flying away in his TIE-Fighter and a couple of mentions of an Emperor are the only hints there’s more story to come. (Keep in mind, when Star Wars was first released in 1977, there was no “Episode IV” on the title card.)
The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi feel more connected to each other, to the point Empire today would probably be titled The Empire Strikes Back Part One. But, again, Empire doesn’t just end during the middle of a scene. Return of the Jedi doesn’t pick up right where we left off. In fact, it ends with each character’s fates so stable, Return of the Jedi takes place a full year after the events of The Empire Strikes Back. You can’t hang off of a cliff for a full year. So that is not a cliffhanger. You don’t walk out of The Empire Strikes Back thinking you’ve only seen half a movie. You wonder what’s going to happen next, how our heroes might regroup … but with today’s trend Empire would have ended right after Vader reveals their relationship to Luke with Luke literally hanging off a cliff.
Come back soon for “Please Stop Showing Us Half A Movie (Part Two).” (Yes, I’m dividing this up to make a point.)
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