Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
It was an enormous task to make a second Star Wars movie. To follow up that explosion of a success, that immense phenomenon must have been terribly challenging on so many levels. What these filmmakers did with The Empire Strikes Back was a masterstroke of genius. Instead of retreading the same tone, pace, action, and style of Star Wars, George Lucas and Irvin Kershner, along with screenwriters Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan, chose to make this a film about character development and darker consequences as a second act in a trilogy. Characters would mature, the dangers they faced were more dire, there would be heavy losses, and some major revelations would surface. Whether it was the general consensus or not, I would still state that this is the best Star Wars film to date.
Despite the destruction of the Death Star, the Rebel Alliance still flees from the might of the Galactic Empire to the remote, barren ice planet of Hoth. There, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) receives a vision from a ghostly Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guiness) to seek out Jedi Master Yoda on the planet Dagobah. When the Empire finally locates the rebel’s base, an imperial assault drives them to evacuate in a crippling loss. Captain Han Solo (Harrison Ford) escapes with Wookie co-pilot Chewbacca, Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), and the protocol droid C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) aboard the Millennium Falcon, but with their hyperdrive damaged, they are forced to evade the Imperial fleet in an asteroid field. Later, they seek sanctuary at the beautiful Cloud City from Han’s old gambling and smuggling buddy Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams). Meanwhile, Luke begins his training with the wise and unexpected teacher in Yoda. However, with the evil Lord Darth Vader vehemently intent on finding young Skywalker, Luke races to save his friends from a painful vision, against Yoda and Kenobi’s warnings of temptations of the Dark Side of The Force. What awaits the Jedi-in-training is a startling revelation and great peril for him and his heroic friends.
I really like the reversal of structure on this film. It starts out with the bigger adventure aspects, and the major battle between the Rebellion and the Empire. Then, it descends into the more character driven aspects building towards very deep personal conflicts and resolutions. It satisfies your expectations up front with some peril and fun, and proceeds to exceed them with a much more emotionally powerful storyline. Where the first film had our heroes all gradually coming together for an adventure against a large scale threat, this one has them separate so to further explore their own personal journeys. Ultimately, they come out of it wounded and changed.
The film really wastes no time in establishing the darker, more dangerous tone as Luke is attacked by a Wampa Ice Creature while on patrol. It adds some well crafted fear and tension into the film. This perilous sequence further builds the bonds of friendship between Han and Luke as Captain Solo risks his life to save his friend’s. Luke’s ultimate escape from the creature’s cave gave us our first look at what The Force can do. Before, it was mind tricks and a sort of second sight. It was all very abstract and mystical, but when Luke uses The Force to pull his lightsaber to his hand to free himself, we see what that power can physically and practically do. It’s a wondrous moment that sparks the magic of Star Wars. Yet, the film shows us the true depth and nature of The Force when Luke seeks out Yoda, and brilliantly expands upon the vague ideas we got in the previous movie. Yoda teaches him to change his perceptions in that the physical has no bearing on the potential of The Force, merely your will and clarity of mind are relevant. Yoda shows Luke that it’s his own self-imposed perceptions and limitations that are the instruments of his own failures. The tests Yoda puts him through are difficult ones that are meant to confront him with frightening truths of where his path may take him if he follows his impulses and passions. Luke may have matured somewhat, but he still has an impatience and impulsive quality that puts him into danger. He’s allowing his emotions to guide him without the wisdom or experience to temper those emotions. It’s a fascinating journey that Luke takes in this film as he does begin to understand the philosophy of a Jedi, but the dire peril of his friends is something he cannot shake from his mind. He knows it’s likely a trap, and is unprepared for what Lord Vader has in store for him.
The Battle of Hoth is excellently done giving us a land battle to contrast the space battles of the original Star Wars. We see the rebels utilize some strategy in attempting to topple those awesome Imperial Walkers to buy time for the evacuation of Echo Base. It’s a big, impressive, and exciting opening to this film that has Star Wars again showing us something that had never been seen before. This sequence showcases the evolution in effects work by Industrial Light & Magic. They really achieved something exceptional here, and continued to do so throughout the film. They truly exceeded their own standards of excellence here. The first Star Wars was groundbreaking in the realm of visual effects, and ILM was motivated to keep pushing the boundaries of what was possible. The asteroid sequence is spectacular, as is so much from top to bottom here. The Go-Motion effects with the Tauntauns remain excellent, and the model effects are still some of the most impressive in cinema history. It is no wonder that this won a Special Achievement Award for Visual Effects at the Academy Awards. They, without a doubt, earned it with every new fantastic sequence of thrilling imagery. And furthermore, the matte paintings are stunningly gorgeous, and are beautifully integrated into the rich visuals of the film.
The Empire is presented perfectly here. The reveal of the fleet and the Super Star Destroyer creates a sense of scale and power to their presence. To me, they feel like an even more formidable military force than they were in the previous film. We have more troops, more ships, more personnel, and more resources, and their early victory over the Rebellion sets a tone of desperation and danger for our heroes. Darth Vader himself is clearly unleashed in this film. He’s not held back by Tarkin or the Emperor. He’s assuming complete command over everything, and stops at nothing in attempting to crush the Rebellion and obtain what he wants. There’s no one stopping him from Force choking Admirals, and promoting people to take their place, putting the fear of death into them to motivate their success. Once the Emperor does endorse his quest to capture Luke Skywalker, Vader uses every resource at his disposal, such as the bounty hunters, and becomes an even more frightening threat. This is a major part of why I think this is the best film of the franchise. The villains are out in full force, not hiding behind protocol or deception, and showing their near ever-present might. Nowhere else in the saga do the antagonists feel so hell-bent on crushing our heroes, and they’re nearly winning for most of the film. It’s said that a hero is only as great as the enemy he faces, and this film shows us the vast scale and threat of the Empire like no other. Our heroes are left with a steep failure to rise back up against for the next film.
I do like that, for all the darker tone and subject matter, the film never forgets to inject fun and humor at appropriate moments. We still get the overly excited panic of C-3PO, the cute moments with R2-D2, and the humorous quips and sharp banter between the other heroes. Even Yoda is given a nearly hilarious introduction into the film as he plays with Luke’s misconceptions, and has a playful time with him and his droid friend. It’s all handled wonderfully to keep the film lively while never intruding upon the more dramatic and dire aspects of the film. It’s a perfect balance, and it wouldn’t feel like Star Wars without it.
Speaking of Yoda, he proves to be an inspirational achievement. I can definitely understand the apprehensions of the filmmakers in putting what was essentially a Muppet on film, and hoping it will come off as life-like. However, with the amazing work of designer Stuart Freeborn and performer Frank Oz, this magical character came to stunning life. Every word spoken had the weight and gravity of the most talented and credible actor behind it. There are many subtle expressions worked into Yoda that further created a believable character that an audience never questioned the realism of. This was all vitally important due to Yoda’s poignant role in the film in training Luke in the ways of the Jedi, and bestowing upon us the deeper ideals, wisdom, and philosophies of The Force. Because of the brilliant work of all these fantastically talented effects masters and performers, he were treated to one of the most fascinating, insightful, and endearing characters of this saga. We were previously intrigued by The Force, but I feel that Yoda truly made us believe in its power beyond all imagination. He opened up our minds to its possibilities, and the potential it had within Luke. Through Yoda, The Force was wondrously mystical and magical, and taught us the weight of commitment and responsibility to becoming a Jedi. Everything that needed to be known about The Force was revealed to us in this film by a rubber puppet, and we never doubted it for an instant. That is the magic of cinema.
The Empire Strikes Back is filled with some tight pacing and urgency. The signature intercutting between storylines creates that great rhythm which keeps the film engaging without drawing any one scene out too much. There’s almost always something interesting developing even if it’s not a rousing action sequence. This is greatly helped by the expert, tight editing by Paul Hirsch. He and director Irvin Kershner knew when to cut to the right angle, and when to let a shot play out. And the film is shot so dramatically perfect with solid compositions and superb camera movements pushing in at the right moments and giving the film scope and scale with sweeping and subtle camera work. Lighting is always excellent giving personality and mood where needed to the appropriate scenes. Irvin Kershner really helped up the visual storytelling in The Empire Strikes Back, and the refined, polished quality enhances the overall picture immensely. George Lucas was the executive producer and did have creative input, but he allowed Kershner to make the movie his own. So, while it is generally Lucas’ story, this is Kershner’s film through and through.
This truly is an emotionally powerful film hitting us with a vast array of pain, fear, sorrow, heartbreak, and disturbing revelations and insights. Our heroes are put through a maelstrom of hell in their journeys. Luke learns the most from it on the most personal of levels which challenge him right down to his core. I love seeing the maturity take form in Return of the Jedi showing that he has learned a great deal from these events, but he had to experience some terribly hard learned lessons. Sometimes, we can only learn to commit ourselves to change when faced with the absolute worst of consequences, and that’s Luke’s journey here.
Even Han and Leia are faced with their own pain and heartache. Their love for one another is apparent almost from the start. They wouldn’t be so mad with one another if they didn’t care so much, but it takes a series of worsening pitfalls and dangers for them to begin to genuinely show that affection. This is punctuated like a dagger through the heart in the Carbon Freezing Chamber scene where they have the most heartbreaking of parting words. It is undoubtedly this moment, where we see the severe anguish on Leia’s face, that motivates Lando into taking action. Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher have amazingly sharp chemistry in all their scenes together selling every nuance of Han and Leia’s relationship. It’s a very emotionally natural progression of two characters who really did not like each other at first trying to hide their feelings through conflict, but their true emotions break further and further into the surface. It is glorious work on both actors’ parts as well as Irvin Kershner’s detailed and masterful direction.
The returning cast shows a lot of growth. Primarily, Mark Hamill matures with the character of Luke Skywalker. He carries the heaviest weight in this film with a great deal of subtle emotions and deep rooted fears. You feel the honest depth of Luke in Hamill’s performance as he struggles with his training, and the thread of fear that is ever present as he battles Darth Vader. He tries to mask and control his fear, but he slowly realizes how outmatched he is as Vader gains the upper hand. Hamill delves deep into a real well of pain and desperation by the end which really penetrates powerfully into an audience. Mark Hamill was required to stretch his acting abilities much further than the first Star Wars film demanded, and he rose to the task admirably and successfully. The wonder of Yoda is also sold through Hamill’s performance, and the urgency of the latter half of the film is driven by his remarkable acting.
We also get Harrison Ford maturing Han Solo as well. He shows a lot more responsibility to himself and his friends, conveying respect to his fellow rebels, and leaving behind that “out for himself” arrogant attitude. The more juvenile aspects only really show up in the heated moments when rash action is necessary, or when he’s arguing with Leia or 3PO. However, when circumstances become more grim, Han shows that he is a far more matured character handling the situations with a lot of earnestness. Ford probably puts in his best performance as Han Solo in this film because it has the most for him to work with between the romantic arc with Leia, the comic timing with Chewbacca and C-3PO, and dealing with the betrayal of Lando. It was a strong and diverse spectrum for Ford to work with, and by no surprise, he achieved it with ease.
I truly love the addition of Lando Calrissian. Where Han Solo was a very roguish outlaw, Lando’s a gambler. He can come off as a legitimate businessman, but is able to manipulate people and events to his liking. With Vader, he succumbs to the might of the Empire only until the stakes are too high where not acting is too costly of a choice to make. Even with appearing in less than half the film, Lando has a strong character arc to traverse. He tries to bargain everyone’s way out of a worse scenario while betraying his friends to the Empire, but as I said, when he sees the price of bowing to their demands, he shows who he is deep down inside by trying to save Han’s friends from a potentially terrible fate. Billy Dee Williams puts in an excellent performance showing off Calrissian’s smooth charisma, but also reflecting the frustration and dire weight of Lando’s situation. He walks the line of friend and adversary very masterfully. Lando’s struggling with the effort to do right by everyone, and you can see that painful internal conflict play out in Billy Dee’s performance.
And of course, many fans would be remised if I did not make mention of Boba Fett. The fascination with this bounty hunter really stems from something like Clint Eastwood’s The Man With No Name character. A gritty, mysterious man who doesn’t speak much, but when he does, it carries a great deal of weight. Fett is someone who only speaks when he has something important to say. That creates intrigue. It makes him standout because it creates a certain looming presence. Also, the original voice for Fett provided by Jason Wingreen was absolutely perfect with its right amount of grit and vile attitude. A voice can tell you a lot about a character’s personality, and get that with Wingreen’s voice work. Additionally, Vader tells Boba Fett, specifically, “No disintegrations.” That lays an air of ruthlessness on Fett, and smartly spotlights him amongst the other eclectic bounty hunters in that scene. Plus, where everyone else has failed to capture Captain Solo and the Millennium Falcon, Fett succeeds using some subversive cunning of his own, which demonstrates the character’s intelligence. He’s a subtly developed character that quickly builds that air of mystique around himself. Furthermore, all of this is done without Fett ever having to fire a blaster. He physically does very little in the movie, but it’s the results of his actions which count. It surely helps that he, like Darth Vader, is hidden under a mask and armor. It makes you wonder more about who he is.
I honestly believe this film features John Williams’ best work of the Star Wars saga. With the more character driven story, he is given a broader canvas to work with, and to create a more diverse and powerful score. The beautiful compositions pull at the heartstrings making one feel the immense weight of emotion throughout the film. Every moment of magical wonder, ominous threat, romantic richness, and rousing excitement is lushly and gorgeously on display in every note he commits to this score. “The Imperial March” is the most notable debut here creating a militaristic musical presence for the oppressive Galactic Empire, and is one of my absolute favorites. However, Leia’s theme gets a sweeping enhancement accentuating the film’s romantic feelings. I own the scores for all six films on CD, but this is the one I listen to most often because of its wider breadth of artistry and cinematic beauty.
The Empire Strikes Back also showcases a lot of great imagination in its production design. It’s great seeing the scope of the Echo Base hangar with the full size X-Wings and Millennium Falcon there along with various other Rebel Alliance vehicles. The integration of the ice caverns into the technology of the base is done with a lot of attention to detail for an interesting visual aesthetic. However, the most notable environments are the swamps of Dagobah and the immaculate Cloud City of Bespin. Yoda’s adopted home gives us a location full of lush life where one would imagine that The Force is very strong here, as life is what creates it and allows it to grow. This was all created on a soundstage, and that is just a fantastic accomplishment. This makes me think why the same effect of depth and all encompassing realism couldn’t have been achieved for the Genesis Planet sequences in Star Trek III: The Search For Spock. In that film, similar environments were created on a soundstage, and are blatantly obvious as being set on a soundstage. Here, Dagobah looks and feels like a wholly authentic environment. Never does it feel like a fabricated set. That’s the immense care and hard work that were put into these films by exhaustive crews and talented artists.
Still, it is Cloud City that is my favorite Star Wars environment. I’ve never seen another design in science fiction quite like it. The rounded buildings and corridors with their subtly textured stark white walls give us a very picturesque locale. It also feels like something elegant and futuristic that would come out of the era of 1980. It feels like a peaceful city, and is surely a new, unique, and welcoming world to visit. However, once things turn ill for our heroes, we are plunged deeper into the more industrial bowels of the city where it just gets darker and darker both literally and figuratively. I think the overall design is beautifully inspired, and I am so glad to own the book The Art of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. I fond memories of reading through this gorgeous large format book, and being inspired by the designs and matte paintings. It made me want to run home and watch the movie that night.
While there is not as much action here as there was in the first Star Wars, there is no shortage of imagination. I absolutely love the asteroid chase sequence as the Millennium Falcon weaves its way through this near certain death trap to evade the forces of the Empire. John Williams’ score in this sequence is another one of my favorites which reflects both the rousing adventure aspect and the high tension and danger of it. What Han does after escaping the asteroid field to further elude the Empire is ingenious, and perfectly on-the-mark for Solo’s craftiness. It shows his intelligence and sharp thinking that define the cunningness of his character.
The entire climax is just brilliant all the way through. Lando, Leia, Chewie, and the droids escaping Cloud City is wholly exciting giving us some fun and dramatic beats along the way, but ultimately, a sense of elation as they fly away on the Millennium Falcon. However, it is the confrontation between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader that is the centerpiece of the film. The dark tone reaches its pinnacle in the shadowy, smoky Carbon Freezing Chamber where their duel begins with a chilling line from Vader, “The Force is with you, young Skywalker, but you are not a Jedi, yet.” That dark environment, with its moody orange and blue lighting, establishes an ominous, foreboding atmosphere that is only heightened in the latter two parts of their escalating duel. While it was never clear in the context of the film, after seeing a schematic of Cloud City, I could see that Luke actually does descend further and further into the depths of the city until he literally falls out the underside of it. That descent is such a perfect metaphor for what is actually happening to Luke in this battle with Vader. For the first two sections, it’s Vader testing Luke, seeing how proficient and resourceful he is. He wants to be able to inform the Emperor of how advanced Skywalker is in his training, and how susceptible he is to the Dark Side. However, the final part on the gantry is Vader letting loose entirely, and we see how truly outmatched Luke is against the dangerously aggressive Dark Lord. Here is where Luke pays the price for rushing headlong into this confrontation without the proper training. Yet, the action is not the ultimate pay-off. The legendary and climactic revelation in this scene is shocking, and I’m sure, back in 1980, this left audiences stunned and in disbelief. Mark Hamill’s acting in this scene is intense, and couldn’t be more perfect. It’s a culmination of all the emotional trials he has battled through this entire film, and it hits him with all the dread in the universe. It creates that final emotional stinger which carries the momentum of dire peril through to the film’s end, and leaves an audience in suspense for the resolution of everything in Return of the Jedi.
The Empire Strikes Back is an absolute masterpiece of cinema, in my honest opinion. I would not change a single frame from the original theatrical release, period. The late director Irvin Kershner did a marvelous job focusing this film so tightly and strongly on the characters, making their development the core of the story without losing what makes Star Wars entertaining and rich. All that was crafted for this film from the screenwriters to Kershner’s input, made this not a sequel, but a second act in a trilogy. That opened up the possibilities far wider allowing for growth to occur, and consequences to be faced that would require a final chapter to resolve fully. The characters are hurt physically and emotionally, but also, they learn a great deal from their defeats. The film may have a down ending, but that final scene where everyone is gathered back together, mending their wounds and setting plans to rescue Han, leaves an audience with hope that they will return for further heroics and redeem their losses. As time has gone on, my choice for favorite film of the saga has shifted from the original Star Wars to The Empire Strikes Back due to the depth of character, emotion, and consequence in the story. Even more so now, I can vastly appreciate the level of filmmaking artistry and talent on display here from all involved, and it should be always heralded as one of the finest works of cinema.