Fan reaction to The Last Jedi has been mixed to say the least, but it’s not the first divisive film the Star Wars series has ever had. That honor goes to The Empire Strikes Back.
Today the general consensus is that Empire Strikes Back is the best Star Wars movie. It has an audience score of 97% on Rotten Tomatoes and an 8.8/10 on IMDb, compared to A New Hope’s 96% and 8.7/10, respectively. These user scores weren’t generated until decades after the original trilogy was released, but it’s not like fan opinion could have shifted that much, right?
What would fans have been saying on the internet in 1980?
A Million Voices Cried Out
Before the internet, sci-fi fans got their entertainment news from magazines. The biggest sci-fi magazine of the ‘80s was Starlog, a magazine that focused more on movies and television than on prose.
The magazine also provided an outlet for fans wanted to speak their mind in the form of a letters column, making it the closest thing to an internet forum or social media app circa May 1980.
Thankfully, Archive.org has a collection of Starlog, so let’s take a look at issues #39-41. What were the fans saying?
As with The Last Jedi, fan reaction was mixed to say the least. Some felt it was better than the first one, some enjoyed it but had complaints, and some were disappointed. But what’s most interesting is how specific comments or criticisms mirror those of The Last Jedi…[Spoilers for The Last Jedi and The Empire Strikes Back follow.]
That’s Not True, That’s Impossible
There’s been speculation online about whether or not it’s true that Rey’s parents were really just nobody. I mean, Kylo Ren is a bad guy, he could have been lying. It turns out some fans were similarly skeptical about the revelation of Luke’s father.
Robert L. Beedy-Scarola:
Is Luke related to Vader? Most think so now that Vader came right out and said it. Well, I say, do you believe everything you hear? Vader may have lied just to enlist Luke to his side. Vader would then dispose of Luke once he got what he wanted.
Just how many fans remained in denial until Return Of The Jedi? It’s hard to say without a published poll, but accounts from people “who were there” posted on Reddit and Quora suggest it was a fairly high amount. One historical record that backs this up is a Seton Hall University 1981 yearbook account of David Proust’s visit:
The answer to the question which haunted millions since the release of the movie “The Empire Strikes Back” was answered by an expert, November 11, 1980.
David Proust, who portrayed Darth Vader in “Star Wars” and the current sci-fi epic laid it on the line.
“I am Luke Skywalker’s father,” he said.
Did you feel like The Last Jedi left too many unanswered questions? Empire Strikes Back viewers felt the same.
I know they wanted to leave something to settle in the other sequels, but they left a little too much. For instance, Han Solo’s predicament. The movie should not have ended until Han was either killed by Boba Fett or Jabba or rescued by Lando Calrissian or Chewbacca, the former, preferably. Also, the fate of Bespin is not told. Was it taken by Lando’s troops, taken by Imperial troops or destroyed by Vader? I like Lando Calrissian and Billy Dee Williams was very good playing the part.
There was also the unresolved question of there being “another.” Fans speculated away.
And, one of the biggest questions in my mind is who is Yoda’s “other” student? Could it possibly be a girl — a love interest for Luke? I have 1,095 days in which to draw my own conclusions.
Could it be Vader himself? Considering that there was an equilibrium of power between the good and dark sides of the Force, it would not be impossible to turn Vader into the antithesis of what he is now, especially if Luke (who, except for Yoda may be the most powerful member of the good side of the Force) is truly his son.
I suggest Princess Leia. She is young enough for the training; she withstood Darth Vader’s tortures; she is dedicated to the cause; Princess Leia, not Lando, “heard” Luke’s cries for help; Han Solo is not in shape to be going anywhere for awhile and he is too old. I wouldn’t be surprised if in the third film, Leia, instead of Luke, destroys the Emperor. Of course, it will be the year 2000 before we find out.
Keith was a little off in his guess on the release year of Return Of The Jedi, but was surprisingly close on the release year of the first prequel.
The “Ship” That Made The Kessel Run In…
Some modern fans Star Wars have expressed disappointment about their favorite “ship” being invalidated. There were 1980s fans who expressed the same disappointment (before Return Of The Jedi invented the sibling connection).
C’mon Leia, why don’t you take a look around? Can’t you see what Luke is up against? You could have a “nice guy” like him. Instead, you are turning your back on him. Forget that it was Luke that saved you from having your atoms scattered throughout the galaxy. Forget that it was Luke, and not Han Solo, that wanted you rescued from the Death Star detention area. But you don’t need to remember all that, Leia. As long as hot-lips Han is around, who needs Luke anyway?
Fans even disagreed about the “I know” line.
Somebody should tell Harrison Ford that when a woman tells a man, “I love you,” “I know” is not an acceptable response. That scene was not funny, it was infuriating.
Empire Strikes Back is fantastic. The special effects are superb. And Han Solo’s “I know” is the best line since Rhett Butler’s “My dear, I don’t give a damn.” I love it.
There are modern fans believe politics didn’t enter geek culture until the internet age, but Starlog proves it was there much earlier.
George Lucas has made a movie even more racist and sexist than the first. I would think that Billy Dee Williams would resent being the token black in the film. Also, there was only one other woman, apart from Carrie Fisher, in the movie.
If you’re racking your brain to remember that other woman in Empire Strikes Back, the author was likely referring to Brigette Kahn’s “Other Rebel Officer,” the only other woman with a speaking line.
I Have A Bad Feeling About This
Starlog staff writer David Gerrold presented his own set of criticisms in a review entitled “Empire Strikes Out.” Despite the punchy headline, he didn’t actually hate it; he just didn’t think it was amazing as mainstream critics were saying.
I liked it. I really did. I just didn’t like it enough.
Just about every other critic in the country has been telling you how good the picture is; they’ve been falling over themselves to tell you. It’s embarrassing. I feel guilty for not liking it as much as I’m supposed to.
His initial criticisms are those of a hard science fiction fan pointing out scientific inaccuracies. For example, when the Millennium Falcon lands inside that giant space slug on an asteroid, there shouldn’t be any gravity that they can just walk around, and they should be wearing suits to protect them from the lack of atmosphere. The latter problem returns in The Last Jedi when Leia is blown into space.
Gerrold also wonders how a space slug can survive on an asteroid without a food source, how the Falcon can get from the Hoth system to the Bespin system when the hyperdrive is broken, and a few other smaller nitpicks that he dismisses himself as nitpicks for a movie that’s more science fantasy than science fiction.
When he gets to his story criticisms, things become more subjective. He feels that the lack of a McGuffin — the thing that everyone is after, like the first movie’s plans to the Death Star — weakens the sequel. He feels that the movie is too fast paced, and that the pacing led to an unsatisfying climax. He felt like Luke didn’t actually grow or learn anything, and that Yoda should’ve put the ship right back where it was after lifting it up, to make Luke learn to do it himself.
But his criticisms of the story’s structure are what I found most fascinating:
Structurally, the film is flawed by its need to imitate its predecessor’s “formula” of fast-paced cross-cutting. We cut back and forth between Luke and Yoda on Dagobah and Leia and Han in the asteroids, and the time sense of both sets of events is distorted. How long were Han and Leia fleeing? How long is Luke studying?
Cutting between different stories happening in different places is so commonplace today that we take it for granted, but back then it was still considered a bit avant garde, confusing, or just bad craft. George Lucas first played with this technique with American Graffiti, and in the documentary The Making Of American Graffiti he explains:
It was one of the first movies to ever tell four stories simultaneously and have the four stories not really be connected with each other. The studio said that was impossible, you can’t do that. You have to tell one story, then the next story, and the next story.
Well, now, all of television is done that way, I mean, almost every television show has got that style. But at the time, it was extremely controversial. And one of the reasons a lot of studios wouldn’t touch it is because I was trying to intercut these four stories.
People don’t realize, with these kinds of movies … it’s because they’re fresh and they’re different and they’re experimental that, I think, people still like to watch them. Now, the whole industry sort of moves in that direction and they become the standard, but people forget that at the time those movies were made, especially American Graffiti, it was a very avant garde movie.
Gerrold’s complaint about Empire Strikes Back’s structure mirrors the studios who passed on American Graffiti:
Why not stay with Han and Leia until they leave the asteroid and head for the Bespin system, then cut to Luke arriving at Dagobah and stay with him until he leaves?
Changes the pace? Yes, it slows it down. It also suggests some scale of distance between these places. (Crosscutting also implies simultaneity — a concept which most modern physicists say is impossible, especially on an astronomical scale. Sorry.)
Film is a medium that continues to evolve, so who knows, maybe one day the pacing of The Last Jedi won’t seem as odd to people. Maybe the answers given in later films will be satisfying enough that people no longer question them.
Will The Last Jedi ever considered the best Star Wars movie, even better than Empire Strikes Back? I’m not so sure about that. But we’ll see.
As for Gerrold’s review, fans of course responded with a mix of praise and vitriol, just as you’d expect from the pre-internet internet. The more things change…