The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker), Harrison Ford (Han Solo), Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia), Billy Dee Williams (Lando Calrissian), Anthony Daniels (C-3PO), Kenny Baker (R2-D2), Peter Mayhew (Chewbacca), Jeremy Bulloch (Boba Fett), Temuera Morrison (Boba Fett’s voice – special edition), Frank Oz (Yoda), David Prowse (Darth Vader), James Earl Jones (Darth Vader’s Voice)
“Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back – It is a dark time for the rebellion. Although the Death Star has been destroyed, Imperial Troops have driven the Rebel forces from their hidden base and pursued them across the galaxy. Evading the dreaded Imperial starfleet, a group of freedom fighters led by Luke Skywalker has established a new secret base on the remote ice world of Hoth. The evil lord Darth Vader, obsessed with finding young Skywalker, has dispatched thousands of remote probes into the far reaches of space…”
Star Wars was a rousing success. It had a lot of problems but it still got the reception it deserved. The first film was a bona fide hit, but so much of its success depended on the promise of more, and a bad sequel could’ve killed the franchise and caused even die-hard fans to retroactively hate that which they once loved (See: The Matrix, Pirates of the Caribbean). It was up to The Empire Strikes Back to pay off some of those checks cashed by the first movie, and pay it did.
After a wholly unnecessary — but very entertaining — introduction that eats up a quarter of the run time (it introduces the following pieces of information: everyone’s still helping the rebels, Han and Leia’s relationship status is set to “it’s complicated”, Luke is still using the force, space yetis are assholes) we get to a sense-shattering battle. The rebel forces, in small terrestrial aircraft called Snow Speeders, fight to hold off the Empire, piloting giant robot cows called AT-ATs (the holy grail of toyetic creations for small children who see this movie ever since it was released), long enough so that they can escape the planet Hoth to lick their wounds and await another chance to attack the Empire. Right out of the gate (relatively speaking) we have an action sequence nearly as thrilling as the assault on the Death Star. What wonders does this movie have in store for us?
Luke and R2 board an X-Wing as they escape the planet head for the planet Dagobah, where the magical ghost of Ben Kenobi has told him that he will find the Jedi Master Yoda, who will train him in the ways of the force. Meanwhile Han, Leia, Chewie, and 3PO narrowly escape the Empire in the Millennium Falcon and are pursued by the Imperial Fleet and Vader himself who hopes to torture Han to get Luke Skywalker out of hiding. The narrative now splits into two parts as Luke undergoes his training and Han and company dodge the Empire, these plot threads will rejoin at the end of the film.
Splitting our heroes up is rather a strange decision in retrospect. One of the things that really worked about the first was the argumentative camaraderie between Luke and Han. Han thinks Luke is a dumb kid, Luke thinks Han is a sleazy jerk. Hilarity ensues. Not only that, but we’ve split up R2-D2 and C-3PO, and since Han can already translate for Chewie that removes the only useful thing the protocol droid does (being corny comic relief is not useful). To add insult to injury, R2 spends a good chunk of the movie on a swamp jungle planet where his own abilities are fairly worthless, though he at least does some stuff by the film’s end. The droids’ loss, however, is, Chewie’s gain as the wookie steps up in this film and actually has an effect on the plot. Peter Mayhew’s acting gives a shockingly large amount of personality to head-tilts and monster growls.
Sending Luke on his own journey seems like a bad idea, he’s not terribly likable or strong on his own, but the film finds a nice foil in Yoda. Frank Oz’s voice has pretty much dominated my childhood so it takes away from the immersion just a bit to be hearing Grover every time that Yoda opens his mouth, but Oz gives a great performance as the wrinkly little gremlin. He calls Luke on his shit like no character has at this point, and it helps Luke grow a bit as a character. The Dagobah sequences tend to make the movie drag a bit but they impart a lot of information and really get to the core of what the Jedi Order, The Force, and this series of films are all about: zen, calm, the process of not letting ones emotions conquer their actions. None of this will pay off until the next movie and that also kind of detracts from this film but I couldn’t think of a better way to handle this scene and I have a soft spot for it since I know where it’s going.
Without Luke to hold the group together, Han and company spend the movie in one long bickering chase scene as they try in vain to fix the Millennium Falcon’s warp drive so that they can outrun the Empire and meet up with the Rebels. Han tries to shake his pursuers by hiding in an asteroid field (another truly great breathtaking action sequence, I’m sure it’s dynamite in the theater) before running off to a friend’s outpost on the planet of Bespin.
Bespin’s cloud city is where the film’s climax takes place, and it is a unique and breathtaking place in which to set a third act. Han’s friend, Lando Calrissian is the leader of the city. I barely remembered Lando from previous viewings of this film (for some reason Empire had largely departed from my memory banks) but Billy Dee Williams is a delight and so is the character he plays. The thing is, and this is really more an observation than a gripe, Lando from a plot standpoint is really just a surplus Han Solo. This of course makes sense as Han and Lando are friends and would thus be of similar personalities, but he really just steps in to play the Han role once Han is busy being a statue. There’s even an accidental (I assume) bit of lampshading at the end of the film as we see Lando and Chewie in the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon and Lando is wearing a shirt/vest combo that looks just like Han’s.
Speaking of Han, he’s finally the lovable rogue that the first movie wanted him to be. While he had some decent roles before Empire, this was the debut of the Harrison Ford that audiences know and love and was the start of a six movie marathon of great roles (2 rounds of Han Solo and Indiana Jones, Rick Deckard in Blade Runner, John Book in The Witness, and Allie Fox in The Mosquito Coast; I have no reason to believe he was bad in Working Girl or Frantic, but I haven’t seen them so I can’t comment.) Since Luke is busy standing on his head and arguing with a muppet, Han is basically the action hero this time and he carries the movie up until the third act where he gets removed from the playing field so Luke can show up and try and stop Darth Vader.
I can’t speak as well for Leia. Carrie Fisher has improved immensely in the three years since Star Wars but her character’s role in the series hasn’t really been well-defined. She’s not quite a damsel in distress, nor is she a moony-eyed love interest, but almost all she does for the first three quarters of the movie is complain and roll her eyes. Leia is still insolent, childish, and filled with bravado she really can’t back up. She does get a little to do in Cloud City but it’s largely as support to Lando and Chewbacca with her only noteworthy moment in the movie being when they establish that she has a mental link with Luke via The Force.
But more than any other character The Empire Strikes Back (and really the whole Star Wars saga if I’m being honest) is about Darth Vader. Just like with Luke, a lot of this stuff won’t pay off until the next movie but this whole story hinges on Vader. Post-Star Wars, Vader seems a lot more unhinged than he did last time. Where in the first movie he simply choked a man for a few seconds for his insolence, now he’s just murdering underlings every time they make a mistake, part of this is likely due to Grand Moff Tarkin no longer being around to keep him in line but it also has to do with his obsession with finding Luke and turning him to The Dark Side because SPOILER ALERT Luke Skywalker was the name of his childhood sled. Empire is really the linchpin in any argument to how spoilers don’t ruin movies because even though Luke being Vader’s son is practically encoded in humanity’s DNA at this point, it’s still a really effective moment.
Hamill has grown as an actor but Luke hasn’t really grown much as a character; he’s a bit more mature but still largely the dumb kid from Tattoine he was in the first part. We don’t really get to see growth from Luke until his showdown with Vader. The almost casual way that Vader lops off Luke’s hand, the camera doesn’t even linger on it it’s just there one second and gone another, and then drops the paternity bomb is just wonderfully devastating. Luke is distraught and disoriented, his entire worldview has been challenged and destroyed and he has to adjust and grow from this experience. I honestly wish that they would have ended the movie with Leia and the gang flying away from Cloud City grim-faced and unsure of their future instead of tacking on the optimistic epilogue that the film has.
New writers (George Lucas provided the story for this film but not the screenplay or script) Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan wrote an amazing movie here. It feels more constrained in that the world feels more defined here and less like anything can happen, but Empire is plotted so tightly and efficiently that it’s a marvel to behold.
Star Wars did an excellent job of subtle world building but its handle on exposition was fairly clunky. It’s a testament to the skill on display that this two hour movie can spend thirty minutes on a completely unnecessary subplot about space yetis and frost bite and still manage to cram a two-tiered three-act plot in what remains. Long indulgent and largely inconsequential opening scenes are kind of a hallmark of the Star Wars series and Empire has the most unnecessary one, yet still the one that works the best. Empire has a lot more forward momentum, letting the audience pick up the story as we go rather than having characters sit down and discuss it. The pieces of information fall into place gradually as we progress instead of being presented for our characters to react to. The pace is frenetic but every scene and set-piece are given the right amount of time to be effective before moving on to the next thing.
Irvin Kershner is a much more sure-handed director than Lucas (which is surprising considering that he went on to direct the overly maligned but still not terribly amazing Robocop 2) and keeps the movie flowing a lot more smoothly than its predecessor. My one big complaint is a total nitpick, but every time we jump to the Imperials it hits on the exact same crescendo in The Imperial March and after the third or fourth time it begins to feel like a joke. It would have been smarter to use the same notes played in different octaves and speeds based on the mood of the scene than to just bombard the audience with bombastic menace every time we go see what Vader is up to.
In the previous column I mentioned that reviews of this series tend to be either massively overstated or overly critical and while I can’t address why there’s not a whole lot of middle ground with the love and hate, I do think I understand the reason for the polarity. Fans when thinking of Star Wars tend to think of Empire Strikes Back, memory overlays its stronger performances, effects, and story-flow onto the other two films in the series whether they deserve them or not. Similarly I think the detractors caught the first Star Wars, were turned off by the low-budget look of what appears to the untrained eye to be a big budget film, and never looked back, maybe giving Empire thirty minutes or so before just writing the series off as not for them.
Everything about The Empire Strikes Back is wonderful. The pacing, the sets, the memorable set-pieces,the cinematography, the characters. There were fair gripes to be made about the first film’s overall quality but anything I can say bad about Empire just feels nitpicky. The effects look great for their time and creatively use a variety of techniques to recognize the vision of the filmmakers. The special edition of this movie has almost no noticeable changes (mostly it’s just incorporating actors from other films into roles initially played by different actors) and I think that can be owed to how well-realized the vision of this movie was.
So, if for some reason you still haven’t seen Star Wars or if you’ve just never really connected with the first film and gave up, give Empire a watch. It’s fairly stand-alone as far as the story goes and it’s, if not the best movie in the series full stop, the best-made movie in the series.
If you want to see the original theatrical cut of this film in a decent way then you’re out of luck. George Lucas has even released a statement in response to those who have insisted he put out the original untouched versions in HD with the correct aspect ratio, but it can be found for free online. But you can get the retouched version of the movie on DVD, Blu-Ray, and Amazon Instant. Or just get the whole sextet on Blu-Ray.
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