The revisionist “everyone hated Empire too ” myth rears its ugly head again. This time, Rian Johnson is lamenting how The Empire Strikes Back disappointed him as a kid. But these kinds of claims have been made before.
The deal for Disney to buy Lucasfilm was announced in October of 2012.
CRITICAL OPINION: THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK‘S ORIGINAL REVIEWS
Sitting here in 2014, the 34th year since its release, it can be hard to believe that The Empire Strikes Back wasn’t always lauded as the movie masterpiece it clearly is. On the contrary, its arrival back on May 20, 1980, was welcomed with an array of mixed, lukewarm, and indifferent reviews on both sides of the Atlantic from newspapers, magazines, and TV critics alike.
Mark would go on to cite several mixed to poor reviews of The Empire Strikes Back, and then wrote:
So you can see that The Empire Strikes Back covered the spectrum of critical opinion back in the early ’80s, from deep disdain to casual indifference, from mild appreciation to high praise. Reviews from 1997’s Special Edition era would be kinder, the intervening years cementing the original trilogy into the foundations of popular culture, and today the film regularly tops popular movie polls worldwide and is lauded as one of the great movie sequels.
Which goes to show, it’s all about a certain point of view.
The Last Jedi would be released to theaters on December 15th, 2017.
On December 19th, Chris Taylor wrote and published the following story at Mashable:
‘Last Jedi’ haters are nothing new. Plenty of fans hated ‘Empire Strikes Back’ too
The darker middle chapter of an expected trilogy was a crushing disappointment for many Star Wars fans. People had waited years for this sequel, and what did they get? Two main characters became uncomfortably connected. A whole middle-of-the-movie subplot went nowhere. And Luke Skywalker seemed irrevocably tainted after a surprise revelation.
We speak not of The Last Jedi, which — mild spoiler alert — has some fans upset in part over aspects of the above. Rather we speak of initial reaction to what is now widely recognized as the best and most artistically important Star Wars movie, The Empire Strikes Back.
On its release in 1980, the long-awaited Star Wars sequel actually received a mixed reception. Largely because it was so very different from its predecessor, it took audiences several viewings to figure out whether they actually liked it. Star Wars was a blast, but this one was a downer, man. They didn’t even blow up a large evil spherical object at the end.
Like The Last Jedi, Empire took a number of what were seen as enormous storytelling risks at the time. Not least of which was making you wait years years to find out whether the shock revelation — “I am your father” — was for real or not, and whether Han Solo would be released from carbonite.
In a world where Star Wars was still considered a flash in the pan, this non-ending — in a kid’s movie! — was seen as the height of arrogance.
In the immediate aftermath of its release, both top critics and fan publications alike were shaking their heads.
Certainly, once we enter the VHS era of Star Wars, when everyone’s had a chance to watch each of the original trilogy a zillion times, Empire becomes widely known as the best.
Adjusted for inflation, even The Phantom Menace did better business than Empire — as did The Force Awakens.
But what’s even more interesting than that, is a study performed in February of 2010, and published on the website The Secret History Of Star Wars. And guess what it studies? The critical reaction to The Empire Strikes Back.
On Page 1 the writer states:
The following project is among the more ambitious ones I have set out to document on this site, and certainly the most difficult. It began in 2005 and has been ongoing until now. The aim of this project was to measure the critical and public response to the original trilogy–at the time of their original release. There are a few reasons why this is seemingly necessary. One is that there is a notion that the trilogy was universally loved–this was cemented during the 1997 re-release, where the films were now the subject of ponderous analysis of Jungian undertones, mythic subtext, and a golden status as some of the most important works of 20th century culture. No doubt all these are true to one degree or another–however, this view was not necessarily what was held during their time of original release. Although the big picture of the films never changed–in 1997, Star Wars was the most popular, Empire considered more serious and artistic, and Jedi a slightly disappointing ending–the degree to which they were beheld as good and the focus and approach reviewers took veered to a degree from those who beheld them some twenty years earlier.
Secondly, while I note that there is a difference between the re-release in 1997–which basically continues into today–and 1977, that difference has been grossly exaggerated as well. This came from a study conducted by website Rotten Tomatoes in 2005, which claimed that based on a sampling of vintage reviews from 1977-1983, the prequel trilogy was better received. This gave prequel-defenders at the time a seemingly reputable study to validate themselves, but it made everyone else scratch their heads–given the horrendous reputation of the prequels, and a swath of corresponding reviews that anyone could look up themselves, how could this be possible? Had the world really undergone a total amnesia since 1983?
Several times over it would seem. First, the writer examines the 2005 Rotten Tomatoes study.
This study, while noteworthy for the effort, is fundamentally flawed in many ways. To start, the comparison between prequels and originals is unfair–the prequel trilogy takes its rating from websites and the like, while the original trilogy reviews are sources like New Yorker and Newsweek, very different sets of reviewers; RT has a solution to this problem, which is the “top critic” filter, which only counts legitimate publications. When this is selected, we see that the prequels’ ratings fall drastically, on average being comparable to its ratings for the originals. Phantom Menace goes from 62% to 39%, Attack of the Clones from 65% to an equally moldy 38%, and Revenge of the Sith’s proud 83% becomes 69%. Now, onto the problems with those original trilogy ratings.
First is that their source sampling is rather low–you can browse the sources they used, and for the most part they don’t exceed fourteen or fifteen per film; I counted 48 in total. This is impressive in its own right, but a study on the films’ reception cannot be accurate when accounting for so few sources. My own study has the same limitation, however as I have included about twice the amount of sources, amounting to 82 popular and [ed: amount forthcoming] academic, it is at least useful as an indicator or guideline. Secondly, and this will be dealt with in the second part of this study, is the context when one is comparing the films to the prequels–the films came out in different eras, and were viewed in different ways. Thirdly is that, because there was no star-rating system in the OT era, perception of the reviews is subjective–an issue I hoped to minimize in my own study. I found that RT’s assignment of “rotten” or “fresh” for these reviews to be very inconsistent as well; for instance, I felt that New York and New Leader’s review of Empire, while not overtly positive by any means, merited about a 3/5, while RT tallied them as “rotten” (2.5/5 or less), which to me is not representative of these two reviews–that their conclusions are either “fresh” or “rotten” with no sliding scale makes measurement even more imprecise. Their sources are also a bit random, with a high proportion of political magazines such as New Republic. Also problematic is the “rating” RT assigns–the percentage isn’t actually a rating. It is a measure from the “tomatometer”, which is a ratio of “fresh” reviews (positive) to total, which isn’t always helpful in determining anything specific.
Here were the writer’s basic findings with regards to The Empire Strikes Back:
Empire reviews were very often tinged with disappointment. Particularly, critics felt that the film lacked the humour and sense of fun that the original had. However, even these “disappointed” reviews gave the film a relatively good rating, usually 3/5 (60) or 3.5/5 (70). On the score results, this means the film overall has a much lower rating than Star Wars, but a better tomatometer rating–which means, basically, that there was less ultra-low reviews and more general recommendations (hence the tomatometer score), but less overall enthusiasm (hence the overall score).
Critical Response to Empire
If critics were attracted to Star Wars in part because of its post-modernist leanings, their reaction to Empire should be a bit predictable. Empire stripped away the humour, the parody, and the references that made up a large part of the pleasure of the first film. This was by far the biggest issue critics had with the sequel. Nicholas Wapshott complained in the Times that Star Wars functioned as a tribute to nostalgia and therefore couldn’t sustain sequels. David Denby in Newsweek notes that “kids, of course, did not take the movie [Star Wars] as parody; for them, it was simply a grand romantic adventure story. And that was part of Lucas’ plan–to appeal on both levels.” He complains that Empire “only works on one level”, noting that the references to other movies have now been replaced with references to the first film itself.
So, when you take away the post-modernist elements, what do you end up with? The same things people loved about the first film other than its nostalgia: adventure, magnificent special effects, thrills and suspense, visual lyricism, and an imagination unrivaled in the movies. You also had improvements over Star Wars: some critics, such as Nicholas Wapshoff in the Times and Janet Maslin in New York Times, thought the characters in Empire were stiffer than Star Wars (perhaps because the humour was reduced), but some thought the characters were better defined, such as Gene Siskel. Critics across the board also concluded the special effects were much more impressive than in Star Wars (except Gene Siskel, who strangely thought they were less impressive).
However, the deficiencies were almost unanimously noted–even when they liked the film, critics usually acknowledged that Star Wars felt fresher and was more fun; some gave points in that it had now been balanced with maturity and sophistication, such as Winnipeg Free Press. In the three years since Star Wars, Hollywood had changed a lot–Superman, Star Trek The Motion Picture and The Black Hole had come out, as well as a slew of knockoffs, and the novelty of a space adventure had begun to wane, but critics were impressed that Empire demonstrated how to do it right. The film overall scored more general recommendations than Star Wars (the tomatometer), but this is binary (yes/no) and does not account for strength–the film was not as well liked in terms of overall score. Empire took itself very seriously, and while it had some humour and a very thrilling sense of adventure, the joy and energy of Star Wars were sorely missed. Many critics outright disliked the film–Star Wars was mass-audience enough to win over non-genre-fans, but Empire had no intro and no conclusion and depended upon taking the previous film and itself on face value. The massive hype now in place also played a role. Stanley Kauffman, who disliked the original, writes in New Republic a review that is a mere three paragraphs, concluding: “Star Wars has so far grossed $400 million worldwide. Empire will do as well, I suppose. I wish I could care. That’s a lie. I don’t wish that at all. Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”
Most critics didn’t feel this way, of course–while many were unprepared to take a sci-fi film on total face value (as opposed to the fun sense of nostalgia of Star Wars), many viewers and critics were, as they liked Star Wars for this reason as well, and the film had mostly positive notices. Much like Star Wars, viewers wrote in to papers to complain of a poor review–in letters to the editor, A. Munro wrote in the Globe and Mail that the paper’s review “was typical of the reviewing done by your entertainment reporters on science fiction movies. It also shows that there are no science fiction fans there as well.” Some critics thought it was as good or better than the first film. These included Tom Rogers in Films in Review, Charles Champlin in L.A. Times, Leonard Klady in Winnipeg Free Press and Clyde Gilmour of the Toronto Star. Overall, the film was considered successful and impressive. The most flattering review was from Gary Arnold, writing for the Washington Post. He writes that the film is “a stunning successor, a tense and pictorially dazzling science-fiction chase melodrama that sustains two hours of elaborate adventure while sneaking up on you emotionally.”
Almost all reviews make mention of the “saga” element that had now become part of the film: that Empire is actually Episode V, and that Lucas says he intends to make nine films in total. Publicity from the filmmakers had begun to mold public perception.
So how on Earth did this “everyone hated Empire too” myth get started anyway?
Well, apparently it can be traced back to an initial edit on the WikiPedia page for The Empire Strikes Back. A user named KDogDS made the following edits when the negative review from Vincent Canby was added:
The year 2006 was one year after Revenge of the Sith was released in the theaters, and some Prequel defenders were hot to use the “everyone hated Empire too” myth as well to defend those films. Some of them weren’t old enough to understand what they were doing.
So at least some writers like Mark Newbold and Chris Taylor may have used the edits of a 15-year-old 10th grader for part of their research. This is why I refrain from using WikiPedia. What’s worse, is that they may have cherry-picked reviews and fan letters to the editor to make a pre-approved point.
So where does KDog’s citation go to? It does indeed go to a Canby review from the NY Times. But an interesting sentence towards the end of that negative review seems to have been overlooked:
I’m also puzzled by the praise that some of my colleagues have heaped on the work of Irvin Kershner, whom Lucas, who directed “Star Wars” and who is the executive producer of this one, hired to direct “The Empire Strikes Back.”
Here’s what Canby had to say about Rocky:
Most of the film was photographed on location in seedy, Philadelphia neighborhoods, and it’s one of the film’s ironies that a production that has put such emphasis on realism should seem so fraudulent.The problem, I think, comes back to Mr. Stallone. Throughout the movie we are asked to believe that his Rocky is compassionate, interesting, even heroic, though the character we see is simply an unconvincing actor imitating a lug.
Here’s what Canby had to say about Witness:
One follows ”Witness” as if touring one’s old hometown, guided by an outsider who refuses to believe that one knows the territory better than he does. There’s not a character, an event or a plot twist that one hasn’t anticipated long before its arrival, which gives one the feeling of waiting around for people who are always late.
Here’s what he had to say about The Exorcist:
Yet “The Exorcist” is claptrap. It has hardly any narrative to speak of, and what it has contain* more loose ends than the first draft of a 2,000‐page novel. The entire Iraqi sequence is superfluous window‐dressing. Unlike a lot of extremely dumb vampire movies, it’s about nothing else but what it says, demonic possession and exorcism. Though I admit to being skeptical, even that would be defensible and possibly fun.
Here are his thoughts on One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest:
There are some unsettling things about “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” I suspect that we are meant to make connections between Randle’s confrontation with the oppressive Nurse Ratched and the political turmoil in this country in the 1960’s. The connection doesn’t work. All it does is conveniently distract us from questioning the accuracy of the film’s picture of life in a mental institution where shock treatments are dispensed like aspirins and lobotomies are prescribed as if the mind’s frontal lobes were troublesome wisdom teeth.
Here’s what he had to say about Godfather II:
The plot defies any rational synopsis, but it allows Mr. Coppola, in his role as director, to rework lots of scenes that were done far better the first time: family reunions, shoot-outs, ambushes and occasional dumb exchanges between Don Michael Corleone and his square, long-suffering wife, Kay (Diane Keaton). “Oh, Michael,” says the slow-to-take-offense Kay when Michael is about to sew up the Vegas rackets, “seven years ago you told me you’d be legitimate in five years.””Part II’s” dialogue often sounds like cartoon captions.
Here’s what he had to say about Alien:
Thus — familiarly but with immense promise — begins “Alien,” Ridley Scott’s new, elaborately produced science-fiction film that opens today at the Criterion and other theaters. However, as this voyage continues, familiarity consumes the promise and leaves as residue the memory of some shrieks from shocks of a most mundane kind.
You get the picture. There’s a lot more to this story than just the raw numbers, as the writer of the study from The Secret Story Of Star Wars indicated.
Martin and Denby’s names wouldn’t be added to the WikiPedia entry until years after 2006.
There’s a reason that most of us who were alive at the time believe this myth to be rubbish. That’s because it is.
World Class Bullshitters provides their own research:
Originally published here.