CINEMA CLASSICS: Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

Rod returns to a galaxy far, far away for the greatest chapter. 

Who made it?: Irvin Kershner (Director), Lawrence Kasdan, Leigh Brackett (Co-Writers), Gary Kurtz (Producer), LucasFilm Ltd., 20th Century Fox.

Who’s in it?: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Billy Dee Williams, Anthony Daniels, David Prowse, Peter Mayhew, Kenny Baker, Frank Oz.

Tagline: “The battle continues…”

IMDb rating: 8.8/10.

After the release of Star Wars in 1977, the gigantic success guaranteed demand for a sequel. Three years later, fans were treated to a film that had all the major characters return: Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), Darth Vader (David Prowse), Alec Guiness’ Obi-Wan Kenobi in “Force Ghost” form, and the two droids R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) and C-3PO (Anthony Daniels). But this time, there would be a lot more thrown at our heroes. While the Death Star in A New Hope was the major threat for the characters, in The Empire Strikes Back, the threat is on a much more personal scale, and at the end of the film, they will be left in a dark and uncertain place.

As a kid growing up, I did like The Empire Strikes Back but it was harder for me to be invested in what was going on when compared to Star Wars or Return of the Jedi. I was most likely only responding to the visual spectacle happening, such as the wonder at a character like Master Yoda, and what R2-D2 and C-3PO were up to. For the longest time, Jedi was my favourite Star Wars film, but when I got older, I began to recognise a lot of the themes that were incorporated into Empire. It soon replaced Return of the Jedi as my favourite. Having said that though, the others in the Original Trilogy are great movies, too.

Straight away, it’s noticeable that there has been a change in tone. No longer is it all lighthearted adventure and fun, even though there were moments of darkness in the previous film, such as Luke’s Aunt Beru and Uncle Owen being killed, Obi-Wan severing the arm of an aggressive patron in the Cantina, and the destruction of Alderaan and the death of all its inhabitants. No to mention the demise of Obi-Wan at the hands of Darth Vader. But, overall, Star Wars wasn’t as serious as Empire. However, there are moments here, much like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, that were even darker than its predecessor whilst incorporating some humour amidst all the gloom. This film is definitely the bleakest of the Original Trilogy because of what the characters go through, both mentally and physically.

A lot of the credit for the successful execution of The Empire Strikes Back goes to director Irvin Kershner and eventual screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan, who also worked on the screenplay for Raiders of the Lost Ark, and their efforts on this film are invaluable. Lawrence really knew how to advance the story along from Star Wars, and how to effectively create more layers to the characters. He wrote a screenplay with a lot of psychological aspects to it, as well as philosophical ones, too. Irvin as a director was able to take all of that and turn it into a film just as effective as the writing that went into it. I think it was great that George chose Irvin and Lawrence, because he obviously recognised talent and that these filmmakers could bring a lot to the sequel. Regardless of your thoughts on Lucas, I believe that his choice to get both Kershner and Kasdan involved is commendable and vital. He had his focus on things elsewhere, with both his company Lucasfilm and the film industry as a whole. It was a gamble that paid off.

This film used to be the first introduction of Master Yoda (Frank Oz). At first, like Luke, we didn’t know that he was in fact the Jedi Master that Obi-Wan instructed Luke to seek on Dagobah. In some ways, Yoda not revealing his identity straight away can be seen as a way for him to test Luke’s patience, which is one of the fundamental strengths a Jedi must possess. Luke is very keen to see Yoda, and lines like “How far is Yoda, will it take us long to get there?” further exemplify Luke’s impatience. With Master Yoda, we get a much more detailed idea about what the Force can do, and more of what a Jedi must do mentally to accomplish these feats. As a result, Yoda is able to instill in Luke what Obi-Wan never really had the time to teach him, due to Leia being held captive on the Death Star and getting the tractor beam out of action.

Once Master Yoda reveals his identity to Luke, Skywalker is adamant that he’s ready to undertake the necessary training, to which the seasoned Jedi replies, with a response that really sums-up Luke’s feelings about his life alluded to in Star Wars: “Ready, are you? What know you of ready? For eight hundred years have I trained Jedi. My own counsel will I keep on who is to be trained. A Jedi must have the deepest commitment, the most serious mind. This one a long time have I watched. All his life has he looked away… to the future, to the horizon. Never his mind on where he was. Hmm? What he was doing. Hmph! Adventure. Heh! Excitement. Heh! A Jedi craves not these things. You are reckless!”

Ultimately, though, Master Yoda agrees to train Luke. The regimen Luke undergoes in the scenes set on Dagobah is very important. After a physical session of acrobatics, Luke and Master Yoda have an exchange about how Luke needs to make sure he doesn’t go down the same path Vader did, and Luke wonders about how he will know the good from the bad. Yoda tells him he will know when his mind is calm. They are then in front of a mysterious cave that is strong with the Dark Side of the Force. Before entering, Luke asks him “What’s in there?” to which he replies, “Only what you take with you.” Luke then starts to equip his weapons and Yoda says to him, “Your weapons. You will not need them,” but Luke ignores this and equips them anyway. Once inside, Luke is confronted by a seemingly-real Darth Vader, but it’s not really him. They have a very short duel, and Luke decapitates Vader. His helmet falls to the ground and then the face plate explodes to reveal Luke’s own face beneath. Now, if you’re watching this film for the first time, as it would have been for fresh audiences back in 1980, you would see the face of Luke inside the helmet of Vader to be a warning that he could potentially join the Dark Side. But, for those who have seen this film and the prequels set before it, this is naturally a clever foreshadowing of Vader’s revelation to Luke later on. I wonder how many people back then guessed the reveal?

The scene where Luke struggles to lift the X-Wing out of the swamp is one of the pivotal scenes, having many purposes. It begins with Luke moving stones around. Artoo alerts Luke to the fact that the X-Wing has completely sunken into the swamp, which interrupts his concentration, causing him to fall to the ground, and in the process, throwing Master Yoda to the ground as well. Before Luke attempts to salvage the X-Wing, he says to Yoda, “Master, moving stones around is one thing. This is totally different,” to which the wise one replies, “No. No different! Only different in your mind. You must unlearn what you have learned.” What this does is to show that Luke isn’t yet grasping the concept that the Force allows a Jedi to move objects regardless of the attributes they possess, because it all comes down to a Jedi’s mind and how they see things. Yoda brings light to another aspect of the Force and the perspectives a Jedi has, which is that trying should not be a consideration, and that you either succeed in doing something or you fail in doing something. As Yoda says, “Size matters not. Look at me. Judge me by my size do you? Hmm? Hmm. And well you should not. For my ally is the Force, and a powerful ally it is. Life creates it, makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us, and binds us. Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter. You must feel the Force around you. Here, between you, me, the tree, the rock, everywhere. Yes. Even between the land, and the ship.” Yoda shows Luke in practice what he has been telling him in theory. After the Master successfully lifts the X-Wing out of the swamp, Luke is amazed and says, “I don’t… I don’t believe it.” The ultimate revelation about why Luke wasn’t able to accomplish this feat, is when Master Yoda replies, “That is why you fail.” Luke has a lack of faith in the Force and his ability to use it, and while he feels it, he cannot fully control it.

During the continuation of his training, Luke has a vision of Han, Leia and Chewie in pain, which makes him become deeply concerned about their fate after Yoda tells him that it is the future he sees. Luke asks him if they will die, and Yoda uses the Force to sense what their fate will be. After a few moments of meditation, he tells Luke that it’s “Difficult to see. Always in motion is the future.” Still, Luke cannot get the vision out of his head that his friends may die, and wants to rush off to save them immediately. Master Yoda and Obi-Wan’s concern, though, is that he would be throwing away the rest of his training and make him less-equipped to defeat Vader in the long run. But Luke is insistent on attempting a rescue, so he leaves Dagobah for Bespin.

Yoda is not the only new character introduced in this film (well, new at the time anyway). You also have the bounty hunter Boba Fett (Jeremy Bulloch), who is one of the scoundrels going after Han Solo in order to claim the bounty that Jabba the Hutt placed on this head. There are other bounty hunters introduced, too, but Boba is the only one actually shown doing things, and we get more insight into his character from something as simple as Vader saying to him “no disintegrations,” alluding to a possible experience that Vader may have had with Boba. It underlines that Fett is a character to take notice of.

There’s also the introduction of Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams), who is an old friend of Solo’s who has become the owner of Cloud City on the planet Bespin. At first he’s angry at Han for some past disagreement, but he shows that he was just fooling around by embracing Han and welcoming him, as well as Leia, who he is instantly blown away by (who can blame him?). However, the pleasant nature of the visit is short-lived because, after C-3PO goes missing, it’s soon revealed that Lando has had to make a deal with Darth Vader, a deal that keeps getting worse. And the reason the Empire knew they were there is because Fett tracked the Millennium Falcon after it had hidden itself from the Empire. Understandably, all of this doesn’t go down well, and Han is tortured before being put through the infamous carbon-freezing process.

One of the most remembered exchanges in the Star Wars saga is Leia finally admitting her feelings to Han when she says to him, “I love you.” Being true to the man he is, he responds with a simple, direct “I know,” which was actually a line improvised by Ford. It’s a stroke of genius from him as an actor; another one that comes to mind is in Raiders of the Lost Ark when the scene with the swordsman takes place, and instead of the huge choreographed fight that was intended, Indiana Jones simply shoots the guy dead, as suggested by Harrison when he was very sick at the time of filming.

Meanwhile, something else is about to go down in Cloud City, and that is the battle between Luke and Vader. This lightsabre duel is more about Darth testing the skills that Luke already possesses, to see the potential he has, and to find out where his weaknesses lie. But the fight is not only a physical one, it’s a mental one as well, because Luke is facing his first real one-on-one battle with a very experienced Force-wielder. Vader really gets into Luke’s head in a major way, affecting him emotionally and mentally. What Vader then reveals to Luke is one of the best twists in cinematic history. To be honest, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know that Darth Vader was Luke’s father. It was a major reveal then. If Empire had been released today, this revelation might have been spoiled massively on the Internet, on a scale even worse than Homer Simpson ruining the twist whilst leaving a showing of the movie. But there is much more to The Empire Strikes Back than just the big reveal. Oh, and I would like to point out that Vader doesn’t actually say “Luke, I am your father,” but actually says “No. I am your father.” A small distinction, but the OCD and/or perfectionist in me likes to see that quoted correctly.

The film ends on a cliffhanger, much like the old serials that both Star Wars and Indiana Jones were partly inspired by. Han’s fate is uncertain. Lando, having convinced Chewie and Leia that he’s to be trusted, is about to embark on a search with Chewie for Han’s whereabouts. Luke puts his arm around the shoulder of Leia to comfort her, as they, along with C-3PO and R2-D2, look out into space. The Empire Strikes Back is the classic middle-act of a trilogy where nothing is truly resolved, and the audience wonders how the heroes are going to get out of the situation, or how things are going to pan-out for them in the next act. It’s not hard to imagine, given that this kind of thing happens a lot with sequels, that the wait from Empire to Jedi was as frustrating as it was exciting all those years ago.

I can’t do a review of a Star Wars film and leave out an appraisal for the awesome musical compositions of master composer John Williams. For many, the standout theme that Williams introduced into the saga here was the “Imperial March,” and while it is certainly a very important and powerful cue, there are others that have an impact. “The Battle of Hoth” theme is thrilling and frantic, with lots of momentum and urgency to it. Master Yoda’s theme is very powerful and also emotional, especially because of my own feelings towards him as an inspirational character. His theme makes me feel centred, calm and has a certain kind of familiarity to it which makes me feel connected to the film as a spiritual experience. You also have a love theme between Han and Leia, which is an important development in the narrative. Williams also brings back familiar connective themes from Star Wars, too, so there’s a lot of excellent musical indulgences to lose yourself in.

Now, this will come as no surprise after how much I focused on the Dagobah portion of Empire, but if I had to choose my favourite character from the entirety of the Star Wars series, it would have to be Master Yoda. Back when this film came out, and even to this day, the way Yoda was performed both on-set and vocally was so believable, bringing to mind the more modern equivalent of Gollum from The Lord of the Rings. Of course, that was a great performance using motion-capture as opposed to physical puppetry, and then CG animation combined with it. Many of the things that Master Yoda says about the Force can be applied to our world, and this is another aspect of the character that is very powerful.

Overall, The Empire Strikes Back deserves its lofty place in the Star Wars saga, and certainly its place in cinematic history. It is still a great example of how to do a sequel, and to do it well! It takes what was great about the previous film and applies new challenges to the story for the characters to face, ensuring that it doesn’t feel rehashed. There is much more to it than there appears to be on the surface. Many enjoy this film and the others in the series for the action scenes, the dogfights in space, and the lightsabre duels, but where I feel the film is the strongest is in its emotions, its characters, and the spirituality and philosophy represented by Master Yoda.

May the Force be with you!

Best Scene

While the scenes on Dagobah lay the film’s thematic groundwork, the Battle of Hoth is really what demonstrates Empire as an all-time classic sci-fi/fantasy flick.

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • The shots where Luke uses his Jedi powers to retrieve his lightsaber from a distance were achieved by having Mark Hamill throw the lightsaber away and then running the film in reverse.
  • Hamill had to bang his head 16 times on the ceiling of Yoda’s hut before Irvin Kershner was satisfied.
  • George Lucas was so impressed by Frank Oz’s performance as Yoda that he spent thousands of dollars on an advertising campaign to try and get him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Lucas’s campaign ultimately failed because it was felt that a puppeteer wasn’t an actor. Lucas felt this wasn’t fair to Oz, who actually didn’t mind.
  • Yoda’s iconic manner of speech has the parts of speech in Object Subject Verb order. Very few languages on Earth use this and most are based in the Amazon river basin.
  • An oft-quoted myth is that the Wampa attack on Luke was devised to explain the actual scars on Hamill’s face because he had been involved in a car crash and had to have reconstructive surgery. Hamill did indeed survive a serious car crash in January 1977, but did not have any visible scars by the time Empire began filming over two years later.

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Rod Petrie

Gamer since 1988 at the age of five. First system was the Nintendo Entertainment System. Favourite retro systems - NES, SNES, N64, MegaDrive, PS1, and PS2.

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