Is this STILL the best chapter of the Star Wars saga? No pressure, J.J.
It’s one of the most debated arguments in modern cinema: Which chapter of the original Star Wars trilogy is the best of the saga? For many, the answer is simple – The Empire Strikes Back. It could be the defining example of a sequel that builds on the ideas of its predecessor, and expands the scope of the mythos in profound ways. Empire is rich in story, creativity, effects and characterisation. 35 years later, it is the only “Episode” in the franchise that stands up to close scrutiny, and repeated viewings have yet to dim its monolithic appeal.
From the first few seconds, it just has me. The LucasFilm logo fades to black and that iconic pre-title tag sets the tone. And then John Williams’ incendiary score erupts across the surrounds and real-life is rendered dull by comparison. While watching The Empire Strikes Back, it wouldn’t be cheesy to say that we are transported to a galaxy far, far away. It’s a universe so innately crafted by George Lucas that rewatching the film feels like revisiting old haunts. The trilogy is so rooted in our culture that it’s common to look upon these films as dear friends, and having one without the other two would never sit right. That said, it is with The Empire Strikes Back that Lucas’ idea transformed into the respectable behemoth we know so well today.
Empire is the consummate “space opera,” that middle-ground between serious science fiction and hyperbolic fantasy; a fairytale of intergalactic dimensions. These are films made for children, yes, but the trilogy’s second movement manages to obliterate the age barrier. There’s something for all tastes here. With strong direction and a thoughtful screenplay, its the best Luke Skywalker and his friends have to offer. The fact that the production was fraught with problems is almost hard to fathom given the results on-screen. Dogged by rewrites, cast complaints and a ballooning budget, Lucas seemed wise to turn down the director’s chair. After the technological nightmare that was A New Hope, he chose to focus on the financial side of the production. And you really have to congratulate Lucas there. He funded the film out of his own pocket, going against the producer’s maxim that you should never put up your own money.
He also invested deeply in the continued development of Industrial Light and Magic, the effects company that would later give us the T-1000. The studio also incorporated THX (named after Lucas’ debut feature), which has produced countless reference-quality restorations of classic films. While I’m always quick to point-out Lucas’ flaws as a writer and director, his importance in the landscape of cinema gives me a begrudging respect for him. The Empire Strikes Back is also a large part of that.
The directorial reigns were passed to the late Irvin Kershner, who was known for small-scale character dramas. “Kersh” was reluctant to accept and only relented after his agent pleaded with him to take the job. He’d taught Lucas at USC, so they already had a short-hand together. The pair divided their attention across the various aspects of the film. Kershner wasn’t fond of filming the effects shots, so Lucas handled those. He did, however, make the most of a solid script and the cast seem more natural here than they did previously. Whatever the pains they went through to make the film, it barely seemed to matter on its release in 1980. Fans were blown away by the revelations, and although critical reception was muted at first, Empire has grown in stature over time.
Set some years after A New Hope, the opening of Empire surprises in its choice of locale. Instead of returning to the harsh desert landscapes that filled part IV, we’re treated to the polar opposite – the ice-cold terrain of Hoth, arguably the most well-known of these imaginary worlds. The battle that opens the film has proven difficult to beat, even in today’s world of CGI excess. For sheer excitement, it starts the picture in considerable style. We find our heroes scrambling to protect their Rebel Alliance, with Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) still ignoring their clear attraction. Soon, we’re flung into the first of many skirmishes with the dreaded Empire. That sight of the AT-AT’s strolling through the snowy landscape is cinema cool in its purest form. It’s iconoclastic and has been replicated with varied success in a dozen video game spin-offs.
I believe Empire has the best Darth Vader entrance in the entire trilogy. You know a character is pretty serious when he has his own music cue (damn, Williams, you’re good). The “blackest brother in the galaxy” is such a major element of Episode V, as readers will surely know, and his scenes are some of the most memorable. With modifications made to that infamous suit, he also looks more opposing here. Add the voice of James Earl Jones and we get a cinematic adversary for the ages. At least in Empire. We won’t talk about the Hayden Christensen years.
And herein lies the key to the film’s success: The characters. Each chapter adds a new layer to a member of the group, building on relationships and changing their perspectives on the universe. Luke takes the biggest leap, venturing into the bogs of Dagobah in search of Jedi Master Yoda (voiced by Miss Piggy himself, Frank Oz). His all too brief appearance provides some of the most resonant sequences in the film. Like some weird, fucked up version of The Karate Kid, the young hero trains his body and soul as Yoda spews silly philosophical wisdom that would give a fortune cookie indigestion. And there’s nothing like the moment in which Luke realises the true power of the Force, as Yoda retrieves Luke’s sunken X-Wing from the swamps. It could be the movie’s grace note. Hamill deserves a lion’s share of the credit for these scenes, making Skywalker’s interaction with a puppet natural.
It may be Luke’s story that provides the foundations, but it is the dynamic between Han and Leia that succeeds the most, with those confrontations adding much-needed levity to the improbable heroics. The love triangle introduced by Han’s old friend, Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams), would be perfunctory were it not for the fact that it reveals other sides of Han’s personality. We believe that he really feels for Leia, humanising the roguish space pirate. For perhaps the only time in the saga, the characters feel like real people with real concerns.
The screenplay is the most beautifully written in the continuum to date. After a first draft penned by Leigh Brackett, who had worked with the legendary Howard Hawks, it dropped into the hands of relative newcomer Lawrence Kasdan – co-writer of this year’s The Force Awakens. At the time, he was adding the finishing touches to a certain script called Raiders of the Lost Ark. Their work brings a certain credibility to the enterprise. It’s also interesting to note that Lucas has since attributed much of the success of Empire to his screenwriters, and even admitted that getting someone else to write the picture was a good idea. If only he’d had that realisation prior to The Phantom Menace.
Empire bypasses many of the problems that face sequels. It offers enough avenues to explore in Return of the Jedi without seeming redundant. In many respects, the surprises that occur in the last act are more powerful than anything Jedi has to offer. By shaping a darker and more serious film, Lucas was certainly wise, since The Empire Strikes Back is the most dramatic of the bunch. He would later pull a similar trick for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984). I am, of course, talking about the film’s final third. The story takes off in unexpected directions when they reach Cloud City (the series’ most blatant rip from the Flash Gordon serials). With the group imprisoned by Imperial troops, their only hope is Luke who has arrived for his climactic duel with Vader. Every Star Wars fan knows these events so well, but this piece wouldn’t be complete without mentioning that lightsabre battle. Cornered by Vader, he drops one of cinema’s most infamous bombshells. It has been lampooned in everything from Austin Powers to The Simpsons. If you don’t know it, well, I’m not going to tell you. But you should probably brush up on your pop-culture.
It’s also worth noting that the twist is the most significant alteration Lucas has ever made with the series, retconning everything we had learned in A New Hope. But no-one ever seems to mention that. It’s certainly more substantial than Greedo shooting first. Were it not for this thematic gut-punch, the legacy of the film might have been different. Those dying moments are the most significant of the trilogy – the very reason why Empire trounces A New Hope and gives Jedi a run for its money. The emotional clout is aided by Han’s fate, who is sealed in carbonite and taken away by fan favourite Boba Fett (Jeremy Bulloch). Leia confesses her love for him, and Han, not missing a beat, replies “I know.” Just perfect. The fact that it was ad-libbed by Ford makes it all the greater. Sometimes, a bad-ass should stay a bad-ass until the bitter end.
Such a plot twist also concludes the film on a downer and results in one of the most famous closing shots in cinema history. Nearly four decades later, The Empire Strikes Back has aged alarmingly well. What else is there to say? Despite the alterations imposed by the 1997 “Special Editions,” DVD releases and now the Blu-Ray, it is still a seminal work of fantasy, providing entertainment value rarely matched in the blockbuster realm. There are people out there immune to the allure of Star Wars, which is a shame, as this one Episode alone remains a deeply rewarding piece of work.
Watch it again, you shall…
- The book, Star Wars: The Annotated Screenplays, reveals that the original script did not have the “Episode V” tag and was at one point called Episode II.
- To preserve the dramatic opening of the movie, Lucas insisted on moving all the credits to the end of the film. Although the Writers’ Guild and Directors’ Guild had allowed this on Star Wars, they weren’t so accommodating here. They fined Lucas, who ended up paying them around $250,000. As a result, Lucas dropped his membership in the Guilds and the Motion Picture Association of America, a move that would hinder his hiring choices on later films.
- Kershner’s other directorial credits include Eyes of Laura Mars (1978), Never Say Never Again (1983) and RoboCop 2 (1990).
- The carbon freezing chamber is the only time in the original trilogy that Darth Vader and C-3PO can be seen on-screen together.
- In the asteroid scene, one of the asteroids is actually a shoe thrown into the shot by the overworked effects crew.