The Year was 1980.
Though three years had passed since A New Hope’s release, it was never truly gone. In the time between A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back, there was a huge jump in Science Fiction. Films like Alien, Star Trek: The Motion Picture and The Black Hole jumped on the sci-fi wave and kept audiences busy. If you didn’t want to go to the movies, you could always watch the original Battlestar Galactica.
My father was always a stickler for presentation when it came to movies. It had to be the biggest screen and the best sound available, if possible. My parents took my brother and I on what felt like one of the longest road trips to see the movie. Like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, some films were presented in a 70MM format. In the early 80’s, saying “Panavision” was like saying “IMAX” today. The only problem with this was that Dad decided we should sit like 3 rows from the screen. It remains one of my favorite Star Wars related experiences.
There was a bit of a scare before the film was made. Sometime before production, Mark Hamill was involved in a car accident that broke his nose and part of his cheek. The reconstructive surgery required part of his ear to fix his nose, and anyone watching the film could tell that he looked pretty different from A New Hope. It was like watching Nicole Kidman in Moulin Rouge and then following that with The Stepford Wives. Still, the accident didn’t get in the way of production and it’s believed that Hamill’s damaged look may have actually helped add some authenticity to the Wampa scene, where he’s attacked by a Yeti-looking creature.
If A New Hope was the feel good movie of the year, with heroes winning the day, then The Empire Strikes Back was a downer of a film. Everyone you rooted for in the first film is made to face a challenge that completely knocks them down a peg. It’s almost a perfect middle part to any trilogy. There’s an improvement in nearly every part of the process in the movie, despite the fact that George Lucas didn’t have the directorial duties. It’s as if most of the money earned from A New Hope was moved to ILM’s R&D department. The sound and visual effects have improved, thanks to better blue screen work and recording equipment and the rotoscoping for the lightsabers is sharper. John Williams was brought back to score the film, which features a new theme both for the Empire, Yoda and Han & Leia’s love story.
From a writing standpoint, The Empire Strikes Back serves as the best example of Lucas getting out of the way. Though the story is his, the screenplay was written by both Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan. Between the two of them and director Irwin Kershner’s input, Empire has the tightest characterization of all the films (in my opinion). We’re given a love story that’s both subtle and believable, a villain worth hating without being overly campy, and a hero who discovers that as good as he believes himself to be, he still has much to learn. There’s also an element of comedy peppered throughout, with James Earl Jones and Harrison Ford getting some of the best lines and/or moments. New characters are introduced in the form of Jedi Master Yoda (Frank Oz), Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams), Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) and Boba Fett (Played by Jeremy Bulloch and voiced by Jason Wingreen. On a trivia side note, Frank Oz and George Lucas would reunite some years later in Jim Henson’s Labyrinth, produced by Lucas.
The film opens with the Empire sending out probes to locate the rebel forces. There a focus on the Rebellion, stationed on the icy planet of Hoth. The audience is allowed to catch up on our heroes. Luke Skywalker is slowly learning the ways of the Force and is coming into his own. Han Solo and Chewbacca remain his friends and have stayed behind, rather than choosing to leave. Both gentlemen have an awkward approach towards Princess Leia, who continues to lead the Alliance. When Han and Chewie stumble on one of the Empire’s droids, it’s clear they’re going to have to be ready for battle.
The audience is brought back to the Empire’s viewpoint with a grand introduction to former henchman turned major villian, Lord Darth Vader. Seeing as he survived the attack on the first death star (and no one challenged him) he saw fit to give himself a promotion. With the promotion came some perks, including a super Star Destroyer complete with his own little pod chamber. Vader begins a relentless assault on the rebel troops in his search for Luke, who he’s recognized as having some Force abilities. This turns out to be Vader’s one big mistake. While his attentions are focused on the Millenium Falcon, Luke travels to the planet Dagobah to see out Master Yoda. As this was some time before CGI, the original Yoda was more or less a Muppet. Mind you, this was probably a shock to a many viewers. Obi-Wan was good, but this little green fellow was a Jedi? How did that even happen? Still, he was awesome. Through Yoda, Luke gains more skill with the force, but he leaves before he can finish.
The battle itself is an air to ground one, with giant walking tanks (AT-AT’s) on the Empire’s side and Snowspeeders for the rebels. While it’s a great fight, the Rebels are forced to escape their home, looking more like the Quarian Migrant Fleet in Mass Effect by the end of the film. The scene is a great example of how the technology in the Star Wars universe has grown. New ships such as the Tie Bomber also made an appearance. For each film in the series, you’re introduced to some new vehicle and/or weapon. One can only hope that with The Force Awakens, we’ll see more than just Tie Fighters and X-Wings.
Vader eventually catches up with Solo and the Princess by way of Boba Fett, a Mandalorian Bounty Hunter working for Jabba the Hutt. Cinema audiences still wouldn’t see Jabba until 1983’s Return of the Jedi, but it was a good foreshadowing. Under the impression they’ve escaped the Empire, Han & Leia head over to the Cloud City at Bespin, where Han is reunited with his old friend Lando Calrissian. Here we gain a bit of backstory on how Solo acquired the Falcon. It all seems a little too perfect and safe until we all discover that the bad guys (yet again) have the drop on our heroes.
Solo is tortured, along with the rest of the friends in an effort to lure Luke to Bespin. The Empire uses the Cloud City’s carbonite system on Solo as a test (considering that the process could kill him) for when Skywalker arrives. This results in one of the best one liners in the original trilogy, as well as one of the saddest scenes. Five year old me cried so much, this film was just depressing at every turn.
With the stage set for the showdown between Luke and Vader, the Lightsaber battle was cut between the escape of Leia, Chewie and Lando, who takes the place of Han as the Millenium Falcon’s pilot. The fight is slow compared to the prequels, but Vader is his best here, easily besting Luke with one hand at the start while trying to seduce him to the Dark Side of the Force. It’s a beautifully lit sequence by cinematographer Peter Suschitzky that would end with a revelation that would leave audiences questioning the film for the 3 years leading up to Return of the Jedi. Luke is able to escape Vader, but given the knowledge that he could be his father, everything changes for him from a character standpoint. Why did Obi-Wan lie to him about it? Can he, knowing Vader is his father, kill him? Should he, even? Granted, as anyone who’s seen Pitch Perfect knows (or anyone who’s studied basic German), Vader means Father in German. How he didn’t see that coming is beyond me. Then again, when I first saw the film it was news to me, too.
So, there you have The Empire Strikes Back, easily the best film in the entire Star Wars saga. It’s proof that a Star Wars film can be made without Lucas controlling every aspect of it – though it should be noted that as Executive Producer, he was on hand in just about every other scene. We’ll around out our Star Wars coverage on the Eve of The Force Awakens’ release with Return of the Jedi.