The gigantic and unexpected success of 1977’s Star Wars had turned a film that initially seemed like a joke into the biggest event in the world. Suddenly, 20th Century Fox, who had initially believed they had a flop on their hands, were clamouring for more and George Lucas now had the clout to make the story he wanted to tell, knowing it would be a hit. The safest thing to do would be to replicate what had come before, but Lucas had other ideas. Forty years on, The Empire Strikes Back stands not only as the best of the Star Wars films, but a remarkable and powerful movie on its own terms.
Unlike with Star Wars, Lucas elected to take a smaller role in the making of the film, contributing the main story but otherwise handing the screenplay and directing duties to other people. The final screenplay would be credited to Lawrence Kasdan, who would later write Raiders of the Lost Ark and Leigh Brackett, best known for Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo and who would pass away in 1978 before filming began. To direct, Lucas chose Irvin Kershner, one of his former mentors, whose more relaxed, character-focussed style would serve the more complicated story better. Lucas had final approval on all production aspects, yet debate has raged for years as to how much of the film is his responsibility. Certainly, the narrative and plot is his work, even if the final script is not his own.
The movie picks up three years after the original film, with the rebels in hiding from the Empire following the destruction of the Death Star. The fleet is in refuge on the ice planet Hoth, where Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) is spearheading the Rebellion’s survival. Darth Vader (James Earl Jones, David Prowse) is relentless in his pursuit of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), who has been identified as the person who destroyed the Death Star. Following the Empire’s discovery of the base, a ground assault is launched and the key players are forced to evacuate the planet. Leia escapes with Han Solo (Harrison Ford) aboard the Millennium Falcon, while Luke heads to Dagobah to continue his Jedi training with Master Yoda (Frank Oz). Vader’s attentions turn to manipulating Luke to the Dark Side so he decides to chase the Falcon and force him into a trap. This leads to the cloud city of Bespin, where Han’s old friend Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) is governor. With everything in place, the stage is soon set for Luke and Vader’s confrontation and the biggest twist in cinema history.
The Empire Strikes Back has a stronger emphasis on character, motivation and relationships than any of the other films in the saga. The expected romance between Luke and Leia is subtly phased out in favour of pairing the Princess with the smuggler, a development that enriches both of them- Leia becomes more open and less duty-bound, while Han starts to reveal a vulnerability and warmth that makes him far more than a wise-cracking scoundrel. Luke, meanwhile, is no longer the wide-eyed farm boy- his experiences of tragedy and war have started to shape his personality and his training sequences with Yoda reveal a lot about his psyche- his hot-headedness and recklessness standing in tandem with his sense of honour and loyalty to his friends. Even Vader, previously a menacing servant to Tarkin, is given the opportunity to step into the limelight. His obsession with finding Luke is based not on vengeance for the destruction of the Death Star, but in his belief that there’s a possibility of turning him into his apprentice and overthrowing the Emperor. Future films would go on to dilute Vader’s legacy- the Disney trilogy relegates him to a minor footnote, while the prequel trilogy is unable to fully pull off his transition into evil. In Empire, Vader is at his coldest and most ruthless- much of what makes him so memorable is established here. He’s arguably the saga’s most influential and important character, the one who the entire story is based around.
The saga has rarely gone as dark and foreboding as it does in Empire. It’s rare for any film, let alone one as big as this one, to end with the heroes being utterly defeated and crushed (in recent times, only Avengers: Infinity War has dared to end as dourly as this film does). By the end of the story, the rebellion is pretty much in tatters- Han has been encased in carbonite, Luke is both physically and mentally beaten by his encounter with Vader and Leia has lost confidence in her own ability to lead and command. The film’s use of comedy is played far more subtly than in the other films. C-3P0, for example, spends much of the movie clashing with Han, who has little time for his overly thought out analysis of various situations. Yoda uses goofiness and annoyance to ingratiate himself with Luke, a decision which helps develop their relationship and make the Dagobah scenes more believable. It also, of course, plays in contrast with the film’s denouement, which reveals the truth about Luke’s father. The revelation that he is Vader’s son is a game-changing moment, both for the film and the saga. The story has slowly built to this moment, laying in small but subtle cues without giving the game away, while the series must now directly address their future interactions. Contrast this with A New Hope, where the decision to merge Anakin and Vader had not yet taken shape but Vader’s killing of Ben Kenobi takes on a deeper, more tragic meaning- Luke’s father figure has been slain by the very person who IS his father. Empire offers emotional stakes and a trajectory for the universe to follow. Return of the Jedi’s biggest flaw is that it arguably went too far in the other direction- sacrificing story and character for spectacle and toy sales.
On a purely visual level, Empire has lost none of its appeal. The film looks extraordinary, from the icy terrains of Hoth to the asteroid field to the swamps of Dagobah and the city in the clouds, it contains the most diverse series of locations of any of the films. The excitement level is raised a notch as well. The attack on the rebel base is as thrilling as it is dangerous, the star destroyers loom large against the miniscule Falcon as it dominates the screen, the asteroid chase has scope and consequence and the final, climactic lightsabre battle is both physically destructive and narratively progressive. One of the main complaints of Disney’s recent films is that the conflicts and battles lack threat and menace, either because they don’t add to the story or because the combatants don’t have the necessary relationship to make it work- the showdown in the Rise of Skywalker is visually stunning, but there’s no tension or suspense to the scene as its obvious who’s going to survive. That sense of unpredictability is present in Empire- even now, there’s no guarantee that these characters are going to come through unscathed.
Aside from Lucas, the person who has helped define the franchise more than anyone else is the main composer John Williams, who has worked on all three trilogies over the course of four decades. He won an Oscar for the very first film and the prequels and sequels are arguably made better by his work on them, but it’s in The Empire Strikes Back where he is truly at his best. Not only does he reintroduce most of the themes from his previous score, he also creates several new pieces- Yoda’s Theme, Han Solo and the Princess and the foreboding and triumphant Imperial March. Williams’ music sets mood, tone and pace and reveals a complexity and a nuance that enriches the movie. Williams was at the peak of his career when he worked on Empire, hitting a purple patch of film composition as he collaborated on the likes of Superman, Raiders and E.T. no other composer is likely to ever be as significant to Star Wars as Williams is and his future replacement is going to have a very tough job indeed.
Star Wars turned its leading actors in stars. The Empire Strikes Back gives them a chance to grow and develop their roles. Hamill, whose career has never quite reached the heights it arguably should have done, is the film’s emotional anchor, the person who must shoulder the heaviest load. He proves more than capable and his heroic, likeable performance is a world away from the shelled-out, hollow character who inhabited The Last Jedi. Harrison Ford went on to even bigger things after Empire, but his work here helps give Han three-dimensionality and depth. Like with Vader, Han is at his strongest in this instalment. The tragedy of Carrie Fisher has diluted the legacy of the saga, and Leia is often defined more by what she wore than what she was like as a character, but it doesn’t detract from the strength of her on-screen personality. There’s a reason Leia is stronger than the likes of Padme and Rey- she is written as a real person with feelings and failings, not a reactionary Mary Sue who can do everything straight away or a dull politician with long-winded exposition disguised as dialogue. Fisher also brings her own spunkiness and vitality to Leia, an extension of herself telescoped onto the screen. Billy Dee Williams makes his debut as Lando Calrissian and the usual faces of Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew, Kenny Baker, David Prowse and James Earl Jones also return. The newer editions of the film have Ian McDiarmid as the Emperor, replacing Clive Revill who originated the part in the original theatrical release.
The Star Wars saga is no longer the same as it used to be. Commercialism has replaced ingenuity and repetition has led to staleness. Lucas’ decision to sell the rights to Disney has arguably weakened its impact and turned what was something special into something treated with a shrug. The Empire Strikes Back represents everything that Star Wars should- a heroic, tragic, funny, awe-inspiring, shocking, thrilling space opera that transcends genres to emerge as one of the fullest, most satisfying endeavours in the history of cinema. It proves totally that the middle child of a trilogy need not be problematic- along with The Godfather Part II, its existence enriches, rather than undermines, the greatness of the world in which it exists.
Dir: Irvin Kershner
Scr: Lawrence Kasdan and Leigh Brackett
Prd: Gary Kurtz
Cast: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Billy Dee Williams, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, Peter Mayhew, David Prowse, James Earl Jones, Frank Oz, Alec Guinness
Music: John Williams
DOP: Peter Suschitzky
Run time: 124 minutes
The Empire Strikes Back celebrates its 40th anniversary on 20th May 20202