The Empire Strikes Back is NOT darker than the original A New Hope

We’ve got a fascinating four-page Empire Strikes Back piece in SFX 166 with a director interview and behind-the-scenes observations, on sale from this Wednesday. Like the rest of the world, the writer of that article sincerely thinks The Empire Strikes Back is (a) the best Star Wars movie, and that’s mostly because (b) it’s a much darker story that the others.

However (and I need to get this off my chest) I personally disagree - I think A New Hope is much darker.

Nearly every Star Wars fan I know talks up Empire at some point, and all those in earshot nod their heads knowingly. Hmm. I love Irvin Kershner’s sequel, of course, but the problem is I’ve always felt the first Star Wars movie, 1977’s classic, is not only the more exciting film, it’s also darker than its Boba Fett-blessed sequel.

Which movie is it where you get to see the smouldering corpses of Luke’s executed foster parents? You’d have to be a peculiarly callous person to think that’s lighter than Han Solo being temporarily frozen. The early series of scenes on Tatooine (remember Ben and the droids heaping the bodies of murdered Jawas onto a fire…) demonstrate the efficient ferocity of the Empire’s shock troops more than any other part of the series. It might be the only time when Imperial Stormtroopers are shown to actually be good at killing things. These guys are proper death squads, not the blaster-fodder Keystone Kops who are later stationed on Cloud City or Endor. And while we’re about it, their Death Star destroys an entire planet! At no other point in the first trilogy does the Empire perpetrate such a genocidal war crime.

It’s also on the first Death Star that Princess Leia gets tortured. Sure, Vader cut off his son’s hand in a wonderful scene from Episode V – but I’m disappointed more people aren’t traumatised by him invasively interrogating his own daughter while Imperial Guards look on in A New Hope. That sinister moment, as she cowers in her cell from the needle of the Mind Probe, is one that stuck in my mind as a young cinema goer. By comparison Han Solo’s no-questions-asked electrical torture on Cloud City looks like some kind of fratboy prank.

C3PO gets blasted to bits in Empire, but it has the feel of comedy about it; Chewbacca puts him together again while he whines about being back-to-front. In the first Star Wars, R2D2 is shot in the head during a battle, and we hear him scream as C3PO looks to Leia for solace. When the X-Wing touches down, and R2D2’s oil-streaked husk is unloaded, C3PO begs for parts of himself to be donated to the repair effort. You tell me which of the two films is darker from a droid’s perspective.

You can surely think of other examples too (dismemberment in the cantina bar, X-Wing pilots engulfed by fire and more). I’m not detracting from The Empire Strikes Back, it's an accomplished movie that rightly deserves to be in every sci-fi fan's DVD collection, and I hope you enjoy the feature about Irvin Kershner’s work in the next issue. But I'd ask you to challenge the next person who tells you that "of course Empire is better because it’s so much darker" – A New Hope is the grittier film, and you can tell everyone I said so. Send all flame emails here or join us on our forum to share your own views, and (of course)...

... may the Force be with you.