Looking Back at Empire -- 1980 Reviews

After I posted a short little rant yesterday about one critic's urge to reveal all the pertinent plot twists of the forthcoming Matrix sequel, Jaquandor talked about another recent spoiler. As many avid fans did in the early months of 1999, I perused the The Force.Net with daily glee, balancing my anticipation for the first Star Wars film in 16 years with a bit of trepidation. I didn't want to know anything too deep about the plot or get any data that might change my first-viewing experience. Yet, I was too tempted to turn down a picture of the back cover of The Phantom Menace Soundtrack. Needless to say, John Williams has a penchant for letting you know exactly what is happening in the movie in the track titles. I was extremely bummed. I had hoped to avoid knowing too much, but like a moth to the fire, I got burned.

Of course, my motivation for 'blind viewing' of the movie comes from my memories of The Empire Strikes Back, the best of the original trilogy (my counterpart will disagree -- he prefers Episode IV, and somehow thinks Return is underrated). I have very fond memories of that film, and remember being absolutely stunned when [highlight to read]Vader told Luke that he was his father [Note: though it is difficult to conceive that there are some people out there who don't know the plot twists of Empire yet, I'm not going to take any chances, especially since it would by hypocritical considering the topic.]. I don't care what anyone tells you, no one saw that one coming, and it was such a great surprise.

Today, thinking back to that time and correlating it to the Matrix, I wondered if any critics back then had the balls to reveal or even hint at the explosive (!) plot twists in Empire in their reviews. To that end, I started crawling around the internet looking for original reviews back from 1980. What I found was unexpectedly hilarious.

The Washington Post's review by Judith Martin is quite favorable, but retrospectively comical. While she gives the film an overall thumbs up, she displays an amazing amount of short-sightedness on the notion that this science-fiction series may someday have followers:
    "Its originator, George Lucas, has revealed that the two pictures are actually parts four and five of a nine-part sage, as if audiences will some day receive the total the way devotees now go to Seattle for a week of immersion in Wagner's complete Ring Cycle. Nonsense."

Of course, my favorite critique is this one, whose assertions are almost insulting:
    ""The Empire Strikes Back" has no plot structure, no character studies let alone character development, no emotional or philosophical point to make. It has no original vision of the future, which is depicted as a pastiche of other junk-culture formulae, such as the western, the costume epic and the Would War II movie. Its specialty is "special effects" or visual tricks, some of which are playful, imaginative and impressive, but others of which have become space-movie clich├ęs."

Remember, this is a positive review. I can't imagine what she would have said for a movie she really liked. I did note that, despite her disdain for the genre, she didn't spoil the movie in the review. Kudos for her. Obviously these days Judith is resting comfortably at Trembling Hills with a sedative drip.

Next, I came across a unfavorable review from that paragon of dimwittery, The New York Times. Vincent Canby was so befuddled by the fact that this was a 'middle movie' of a trilogy that he made it the central message of his review:
    "Strictly speaking, "The Empire Strikes Back" isn't even a complete narrative. It has no beginning or end, being simply another chapter in a serial that appears to be continuing not onward and upward but sideways. How, then, to review it?"

There are those who 'get it' and those who don't. Clearly, Vincent is master of the obvious. He is one of those people who criticized The Fellowship of the Ring because it had no resolution. What a rip-off (aside: there were actually people in the theater in DC who were shocked that the movie just 'ended', learning during the credits that there were two more)! However, once again, there was no spoiler. So, while Canby is still trying to master the opposable thumb, at least he ruined no one's fun.

Finally, I present an unequivocally positive review from another 1980 Washington Post reviewer, Gary Arnold. Mr. Arnold can barely contain his praises for the movie (the piece clocks in at over 3100 words), but you get the sense that he's the kind of person who can't wait to tell you all about the movie. Indeed, he talks about the entire film in sequence, barely avoiding a blow-by-blow accounting, while staying away from key spoilers. Well almost:
    "Deftly setting up new surprises in Episode VI, Kenobi laments, "That boy is our last hope." To which Yoda replies with a gleam in his eye, "No … there is another."

Yeah, thanks dickhead. At least he didn't reveal the central spoiler (although, I can easily picture this guy going around to parties and asking people who haven't seen it, "Oh, let me just say one line from the movie... [darth vader voice] Luke, I am your father!!!").

So, apparently critics haven't gotten any smarter or stupider over the years, they just are.

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