Those who denigrate the Star Wars prequels forget that the original trilogy had its problems, too.
Star Wars (i.e. “A New Hope”) was remarkable for its time: a rollicking sci-fi adventure with astonishing special effects. But that first film hasn’t aged particularly well. Or, rather, it was never particularly good, and the outdated special effects no longer mask its stilted dialogue and over-telegraphed plot twists. Mark Hamill’s performance as a petulant Luke Skywalker grates on the nerves. Alec Guinness seems disinterested (he was). The final battle lasts ten minutes too long.
Return of the Jedi isn’t great, either. It establishes the misguided trajectory that would eventually doom the prequels. As with Episodes I through III, in Jedi, storytelling takes a backseat to merchandising interests. The Ewoks are the original trilogy’s equivalent to Jar-Jar Binks: cute, fun characters who sell toys but do little to improve the film itself.
Also like the prequels, Jedi feels derivative; the filmmakers seem to run out of ideas. The Death Star superweapon threatens the galaxy again? Luke leaves his companions to visit Dagobah… another time? The film can’t even find anything interesting for several key characters to do; Han Solo’s character arc flatlines, and Harrison Ford sleepwalks through the picture.
That leaves Empire Strikes Back, easily the strongest film of the original trilogy.
What does Empire get right? In short, the movie makes bold gambles that pay off. For example, it skips past several years. That interval might have confused the audience; instead, it helps us believe that our heroes have developed some genuine camaraderie. Another Empire risk? It stakes the entire film on a puppeteer’s performance. Somehow, improbably, Yoda works. Finally, Empire gambles by scaling down the story. A New Hope and Jedi go big, depicting critical battles in a galaxy-wide fight for freedom. Empire goes small, focusing on individual relationships: the hero trio with each other, Luke with his new mentor, Luke with his dad.
Speaking of that paternal reveal, “I am your father” is the primary reason Empire’s climax works. Without that horrifying revelation, the Cloud City sequence would feel too small, almost mundane. “Han and Leia chatting in their hotel room” hardly feels like the build-up to a grand finale. But because Vader’s declaration is so delightfully shocking, it lends gravitas to Cloud City’s dinner parties and dull chase scenes.
Empire is the only great Star Wars film. It retroactively redeems A New Hope, transforming that film into an essential preface. It redeems Jedi, in that Empire’s so good that it makes us curious to see the story shake out. It even nearly redeems the prequels; after all, we wouldn’t have cared about Anakin Skywalker if Empire hadn’t made Vader so enigmatic.