Harry Potter’s Empire Strikes Back? Don’t Make Me Laugh

12 reasons why Deathly Hallows: Part 1 is no Empire Strikes Back … or even The Two Towers

Monday, November 29, 2010: The Empire Strikes Back director Irvin Kershner died this morning. As it happens, this essay, just published Friday, is probably about as in-depth a paean to that film as I will ever write. As one of the all-time great sequels and the most-admired of the Star Wars films, The Empire Strikes Back was a constant point of comparison in evaluating other sequels. Few if any films to which it was compared benefited from the comparison. I’d like to think Kershner might have appreciated this essay. (Warning: Spoilers ahoy.


To the unenchanted, myself included, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 plays as a dark, confusing downer without much magic, action or emotional weight. Enthusiastic fans, though, have dubbed it a deeper, more mature film, even going so far as to compare it to one of fantasy cinema’s most revered classics: Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back.

Not that anyone, so far as I know, is actually putting Deathly Hallows: Part 1 in the same league as The Empire Strikes Back. That’s obviously crazy talk. Still, as a dark, penultimate chapter with an indefinite ending setting up the triumphant finale, could Deathly Hallows: Part 1 reasonably be considered, in its own modest way, a loose counterpart to Empire Strikes Back?

Or, failing that, how about a somewhat less revered point of comparison? Say, The Two Towers, another dark prelude that’s cropped up in discussion around Deathly Hallows: Part 1?

Um. No. What makes The Empire Strikes Back so great as a sequel is that it is not only darker and more mature, but also grander, more heroic, more romantic, funnier, richer, and in practically all ways more ambitious than its predecessor. The Two Towers may not outdo its predecessor in the same way, but its inventiveness, visions and vistas take the world of The Fellowship of the Ring into utterly new places, enriching the series with many of its most memorable elements.

Even by the more modest standards of Harry Potter films, Deathly Hallows: Part 1 doesn’t do anything like that. Here are a dozen reasons why.

  1. Spectacular action scenes. ESB and TTT boast unprecedented set pieces that still awe today: the Walker assault on the Hoth Rebel base; the siege at Helm’s Deep; the asteroid-field dogfight; the Ent assault on Isengard; the first encounter and lightsaber duel of Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker.
  2. The HP series has offered magical action scenes in the past — Harry’s battle with the dragon in Goblet of Fire comes to mind, and folks like Quidditch — but what action there is in DH1 is strictly been there, done that: a couple of ho-hum chase scenes, a couple of pedestrian showdowns. Nothing to write home about.

  3. Visionary new locales. ESB and TTT offers dazzling imaginative settings: frozen Hoth with its Rebel base melted into the ice; the rustic Nordic grandeur of Edoras; the asteroid field; Helm’s Deep; Yoda’s swamp world of Dagobah; Saruman’s terrible workshop; Bespin’s Cloud City.
  4. The HP series has taken us to some magical places, above all Hogwarts itself — but DH1 has only one halfway interesting imaginary setting, the Ministry of Magic. Nothing to compare to the eye candy of previous films. (There is some nice natural scenery dimly echoing the rugged beauty of Rohan in TTT, but that’s about it.)

  5. Memorable new characters and creature designs. ESB and TTT introduce memorable, consequential new characters and state-of-the-art creature effects — sometimes at the same time, the crowning examples being Yoda and Gollum. Consider also Treebeard and the Ents; Taun Tauns, Wargs and winged Fell Beasts; Lando Calrissian, Éowyn, Éomer and Faramir.
  6. Characters and creature effects, of course, have been a stock in trade of the HP series. For nearly a decade, a who’s who of British thespians sporting outrageous prosthetics and even more outrageous performances have brought to life a supporting cast as colorful as Batman’s rogue’s gallery; and we’ve seen everything from giant three-headed dogs to Hippogriffs.

    DH1 is a veritable “Mii Parade” of characters, many familiar, some new — but do we meet anyone here remotely as consequential or memorable as even a Lando or a Faramir, let alone a Yoda or a Gollum? Or, to cite HP touchstones, a Sirius Black or even a Dobby? As for creature effects, we’ve seen big snakes and house elves before.

  7. The hero’s journey. In ESB, Luke progresses and matures significantly as a hero. At the end of the original Star Wars, he was a wet-behind-the-ears Alliance recruit who made a spectacular shot at the battle of the Death Star. In the sequel, he goes from being a rising Alliance leader to training with Yoda and finally confronting Vader one on one. On Dagobah, he comes face to face with his frailty and his fears; battling Vader, he is physically and emotionally crippled, but summons the strength to reject temptation and call for help. In the end, Han’s fate as well as the endgame with the Empire is in his hand(s).
  8. By contrast, Harry is actually less active and effective in DH1 than, say, a couple of installments earlier, in Order of the Phoenix, where he led Dumbledore’s Army. The new film opens with the Order ignoring Harry’s objections to its decoy strategy for moving him to the Burrow; Hermione doesn’t even ask Harry before pulling the needed strands of hair from his head. Once at the Burrow, Harry immediately wants to leave, and Ron has to talk him down. Hermione covers his butt most of the film; even Ron saves his life at the frozen pond. The one move I can think of that is clearly his initiative — seeking out Bathilda Bagshot — is a disastrous mistake. Not that it’s his fault. I’m just saying.

  9. Keeping score. ESB gave the world John Williams’ immortal, ominous “Imperial March” or “Darth Vader’s Theme.” TTT introduced Howard Shore’s haunting “Rohan” theme. Does DH1 offer viewers anything new they’ll be humming on their way out of theaters? Or after watching the Blu-ray for the tenth time?
  10. Wizards redivivus. Gandalf was triumphantly reborn White in TTT. Ben Kenobi returned in spectral form in ESB. Dumbledore appears in DH1 only as a glimpsed corpse, and possibly as a pair of eyes in Harry’s magical mirror shard. (Don’t tell me about the next film. We’re talking penultimate films here.)
  11. Romance. ESB is far more romantic than its predecessor. The tension and chemistry between Leia and Han, from the wary glances across the command center to the last longing look at the carbon-freezing platform, is classic stuff. It’s one quotable line after another: “I’d just as soon kiss a Wookiee”; “Sorry sweetheart, haven’t got time for anything else”; “I think you like me because I’m a scoundrel”; “I know.”
  12. I won’t defend TTT on this front — the Aragorn–Arwen subplot is surely one of the trilogy’s big mistakes — but I submit that there’s more chemistry even between Éowyn and Aragorn than Ron and Hermione. If anything happened in DH1 to set hearts fluttering, I missed it. At any rate, DH1 isn’t particularly romantic even by the standards of some previous installments in the franchise.

  13. Humor. ESB and TTT are way funny — funnier than their predecessors, arguably. Besides the romantic comedy between Han and Leia, See-Threepio and Artoo-Detoo are at the top of their comic-relief game. Yoda: Funny also. Funny bits in TTT include Legolas and Gimli’s orc-slaying competition, a mortified Gimli asking Aragorn to toss him, and Merry and Pippin drinking Ent-water.

    DH1 isn’t without a few mildly funny bits — the polyjuice bits are amusing, and there’s Hermione’s seemingly all-inclusive bag — but I can’t think of a single exchange remotely as funny as Han and Leia’s exchange about discussing things in a committee. Is DH1 even one of the funnier HP films to date? I doubt it.

  14. Inspiration. The best of Yoda’s koan-like sayings are memorable and even potentially uplifting; you could see them being quoted by a homilist, or at least a motivational speaker. “Wars not make one great.” “Size matters not. Look at me. Judge me by my size, do you?“ “Try not. Do or do not, there is no try.” TTT also includes some noble lines, such as Sam’s speech about the “great stories” that “really mattered,” and his affirmation that “there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo, and it’s worth fighting for.”
  15. Past HP movies have offered some insightful thoughts: for example, Dumbledore’s remark to Harry at the end of Chamber of Secrets that “It is not our abilities that show what we truly are, it is our choices.” Does anyone in DH1 say anything likewise worthy of being remembered and quoted?

  16. Earned poignancy. Most poignant plot twist left unresolved by the end of the film? ESB: Han is frozen in carbonite and turned over to Boba Fett. (Bad guys do that sort of thing.) TTT: Gollum’s fledgling faith in Frodo, and incipient redemption, are shattered forever by his capture and rough treatment by Faramir’s men. (Tragic misunderstanding.) DH1: Hermione obliviates her own parents, erasing her existence from their memories without their consent or knowledge. (Wait, she’s one of the heroes, right?)
  17. Emotional climax.The emotional climax of ESB is a pivotal, defining revelation for its hero — a moment of shattering force that has become one of the best-known lines in cinema, endlessly parodied in movies, television and so on. TTT is less successful here (due to the deferral of Shelob and a misconceived detour to Osgiliath), but it divides its emotional climax between Treebeard’s realization of Saruman’s treachery and Sméagol succumbing to Gollum after the “betrayal” of his master.
  18. What’s the emotional climax of DH1? The death of Dobby? A character we know only from the second film, who gets like two scenes here?

  19. More coolness. ESB coolness not cited so far: the Falcon escaping from the space slug; Luke’s vision-duel at the cave; Yoda effortlessly levitating the X-wing out of the swamp; Luke falling into infinity after his battle with Vader. TTT coolness not mentioned so far: Gandalf’s mid-air battle with the Balrog; Saruman knocked flat at the rousing of Théoden; Gandalf’s arrival with the Rohirrim at Helm’s Deep; Andy Sirkus’s bravura Sméagol–Gollum dialogues.
  20. What’s DH1 got to compare with any of that? Seven Harry Potters? Harry and friends riding the porcelain express to the Ministry of Magic? Ron Weasley gawking at a vision of Harry and Hermione’s imaginary semi-naked snog? Give me a break.

I know, I know, the filmmakers are following the books, and if only I had read the books, Deathly Hallows: Part 1 would be a better movie. But the fact is, seven films in, Harry Potter feels here like a series that’s about shot its wad. There’s just not a lot here that we haven’t seen before, and certainly nothing obviously going beyond previous installments in the series.

That doesn’t mean Part 2 won’t be a reasonably satisfying, slam-bang finale — something that might plausibly be compared to Return of the Jedi or The Return of the King. That doesn’t make this film anything like The Empire Strikes Back, or even The Two Towers.

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