Although May 4th is known the world over as Star Wars Day, many also choose to celebrate the popular, generation-spanning science-fiction saga on May 5th as a play on the word “Sith”. This can extend Star Wars Day into three day celebration of the influential science-fiction series and, as a result, I am using each of these days to look back at the Original Trilogy!
Released: 22 September 2019
Originally Released: 17 May 1980
Director: Irvin Kershner
Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment
Original Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Budget: $33 million
Stars: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, Peter Mayhew, David Prowse/James Earl Jones, Billy Dee Williams, and Frank Oz
Three years after destroying the Death Star, Luke Skywalker (Hamill), Han Solo (Ford), and Princess Leia Organa (Fisher) and the Rebel Alliance have been constantly hounded by the Galactic Empire. Having been driven from their hidden base, the Rebellion is scattered, with Luke journeying to refine his Jedi sills and Han and Leia relentlessly pursued by Darth Vader (Prowse/Jones).
George Lucas’s science-fiction “space opera” was a near-immediate hit upon release and, almost immediately, talks began of producing a sequel. Despite the filming of Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope (ibid, 1977) proving a harrowing experience, Lucas wasn’t finished with his story and soon relented to the demand for a follow-up but had to navigate the minefield of sci-fi films and media that Star Wars had subsequently inspired. Having financed much of the film himself in order to maintain creative control, creating his own film studio in the process, Lucas turned directing duties over to Irvin Kershner, and filming began on 5 March 1979. Filming ran into a few snags when star Mark Hamill was injured in a car accident and Harrison Ford first voiced his desire for his character, Han Solo, to be killed off, both of which necessitated a number of rewrites. Conversely, the film’s now-iconic twist was kept a closely-regarded secret, with only a handful of cast and crew being in on the dramatic revelation, ensuring that audiences were shocked at the reveal. For me, even now, The Empire Strikes Back is the best Star Wars film in the entire saga, with Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Edwards, 2016) a close second. Fittingly, the film was massively profitable, making over $550 million at the box office but, interestingly, opinions on the film were divided when it first released, with many critics dismissing it outright. Since then, the film’s reputation was increased and it has, rightfully, been lauded as one of the greatest films ever made. Although Lucas would return to the film, restoring, augmenting, and remastering it, of the three films in the Original Trilogy it has received the least amount of alterations and changes, which, to me, says a lot about the standard to which The Empire Strikes Back was made.
So I said in my review of A New Hope that, while I like Star Wars, I don’t really think that much of the first film Lucas released; it’s far simpler, narratively, and lot of its characters and concepts seem jarringly out of place with the rest of the saga. Today, I have another confession: I actually preferred A New Hope over The Empire Strikes Back as a child. If I’m being totally honest, Star Wars: Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (Marquand, 1983) was my favourite as a kid and was, as I recall, the first Star Wars movie I actually watched from start to finish (or, at least, the first one I remember enjoying). Over the years, however, my opinion has changed and I have come to regard Empire as the greatest Star Wars film of them all for its bleaker tone and the way it raised the stakes against our heroes.
Luke Skywalker is back, a little older and a little less naïve than in the last film; now a Commander in the Rebel Alliance, he has attained a degree of notoriety amongst his peers (and the Empire) for destroying the Death Star and is no longer the wide-eyed, inexperienced farmboy we knew. That’s not to say that he’s become this battle-hardened soldier, though; Luke remains this adventurous, optimistic character through whom we are introduced to the complexities of the Force. Guided by the spirit of his deceased mentor, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness), Luke splits off from the Rebellion to travel to Dagobah and seek out another Jedi Master to further refine his skills. On the desolate swamp planet, he encounters the wizened Yoda (Oz), a curious little hermit of a creature who speaks in riddles and vagaries regarding the true nature of the Force and what it means to be a Jedi. Luke’s training is physically and mentally gruelling as he is forced to learn harsh lessons about his distracted ways and the anger boiling inside of him. Still, he learns much from Yoda and in a comparatively short length of time, certainly enough to motivate him to interrupt his training to rush to the aid of his friends. This, it turns out, proves to be his harshest lesson so far but, again, Luke’s motivations are clouded by his desire to help the ones he loves and to get a measure of revenge against the man who killed his father and his mentor: Darth Vader.
Having undergone perhaps the most significant character arc in the last film, Han Solo’s arc in Empire is intertwined with that of Leia’s as both characters are now in denial of their true feelings towards one another. Luke throws a spanner into the works as he is still infatuated with Leia but, luckily (especially in retrospect…), the film doesn’t dwell on or descend into a bitter love triangle thanks, largely, to our main characters being separated for the majority of the film. Accordingly, though now a Captain in the Rebellion and actively aiding their cause, Han is anxious to leave to pay off his debts but finds himself fleeing the Rebel base on the ice planet Hoth with Leia in tow and forced into a dramatic cat-and-mouse game with the pursuing Empire thanks to damages to his ship, the Millennium Falcon. This will-they-won’t-they attraction between Han and Leia helps to flesh her character out a bit more, too; still a competent and devoted leader in the Rebellion, Leia’s outspoken nature and forthrightness is revealed to be a front for her true feelings. Having denied or suppressed her personal desires due to her complete focus on bringing down the Empire, her interactions with Han allow her façade to slip and show her as a more vulnerable and layered character. Ultimately, when faced with what could be Han’s death, she is unable to hold back her true feelings and expresses them with a passionate kiss and cry of “I love you” to which Han, ever the loveable rogue, simply replies: “I know”, indicating that they were both in love for a long time, perhaps forever, but unable to properly express it due to their nature and commitment to playing a certain role (the competent, unemotional leader and the daredevil smuggler, respectively).
Once again, our heroes are supported by the bickering droids C-3PO (Daniels) and R2-D2 (Baker) as well as the loveable Wookie, Chewbacca (Mayhew). Each play a pivotal role in supporting the main narrative and the arcs of the main characters: C-3PO is the awkward comic relief always ruining potentially romantic moments between Han and Leia and ultimately learns of a betrayal against his companions, R2-D2 is the blank slate Luke can convey his concerns and doubts to on Dagobah and later finally repairs the Millennium Falcon’s hyperdrive so the character’s can beat a hasty retreat, and Chewbacca is shown to be much more than a brutish, growling bodyguard as he desperately tries to repair the Falcon, puts his mechanical ability to better (and more comedic) use trying to repair the damaged Threepio, and explodes into anger and anguish when they are betrayed and Han meets a bitter fate.
This latter plot point is due to the film’s other new addition, Lando Calrissian (Williams), a smooth talking former smuggler turned respectable businessman whom Han is forced to turn to for repairs and shelter. Williams excels in the role, exuding a slick and flawless charisma while still appearing somewhat disreputable and shady due to the nature of his past and his business. Ultimately, of course, he is forced to betray Han and the others to the Empire to keep the Empire from interfering with his business but this immediately backfires on him when Darth Vader continuously alters the terms of their agreement. Similar to Han in the last film, Lando is then forced to re-align himself with the Rebellion and join their cause in order to remove the Empire from Cloud City and try to rescue his old smuggling buddy. That proves much harder than first anticipated thanks to Darth Vader employing the services of a number of unnamed bounty hunters, chief among them an individual who would go on to become one of the franchise’s most popular characters: Boba Fett (Jeremy Bulloch/Temuera Morrison). Now, I like Boba Fett, don’t get me wrong; he has a cool look, a cool voice, and is a very mysterious and enigmatic character but I’ve never really understand why he is so popular amongst Star Wars fans. Taken in a bubble, using only the two films he appears in as a reference, he is only ever portrayed as competent once and that’s in this film and largely because Darth Vader allows him that chance. Otherwise, he’s just a nameless, faceless grunt who pursues the Millennium Falcon and takes possession of Han’s frozen corpse by the film’s finale.
Thankfully, however, Darth Vader is greatly expanded upon in Empire; no longer a mere puppet of the Empire, Vader is proactively leading the Imperials seen in the film and even has his own Super Star Destroyer, the Executor, which is, like, three times the size of other Star Destroyers. The obsession with finding the one responsible for destroying the Death Star has, apparently, reawakened Vader’s passion and he is a far more intimidating and threatening presence in this film. Quick to anger at the incompetence of his subordinates (and no longer on the leash of other high-ranking Imperials), Vader doesn’t hesitate to kill those who fail him (he even utters a dry quip while doing so at one point). However, Vader isn’t just a cold, merciless machine; he promotes Captain Piett (Kenneth Colley) and entrusts him with hunting down the Millennium Falcon and makes a point to order his bounty hunters (in particular Boba Fett) that he desires his prisoners, especially Luke, to be captured alive. When meeting with the Emperor (Ian McDiarmid),Vader is even able to subtly steer his master towards attempting to turn Luke to the Dark Side of the Force rather than kill him and all of this comes to a head when the film’s big twist is revealed. During his dramatic and engaging lightsaber duel with Luke, Vader is far more aggressive and competent as a swordsman than before and, in revealing the truth to Luke, reveals yet more layers to his personality; you get a sense that he is absolutely overwhelmed, almost addicted, to the power of the Dark Side and he appears visibly shaken when Luke escapes his clutches at the lasts second, all of which does wonders for expanding on what was previously little more than a one-dimensional character with a cool look and an intriguing past.
The Empire Strikes Back takes everything that worked about A New Hope and expands upon it masterfully; the galaxy is opened up much wider to include such locations as the desolate ice world of Hoth, the putrid swamps of Dagobah, and the beautiful copper-red skies of Bespin. Thanks to a far larger array of memorable characters and locations, we finally get a sense of the scope of Lucas’ galaxy; strange alien creatures don’t just walk the streets, they inhabit entire asteroids and take up such lucrative professions as bounty hunters, all of which only adds to the “lived-in” feeling of the world Lucas established in A New Hope.
Furthermore, the film’s special effects and action sequences are easily 100% better than those in A New Hope; the Millennium Falcon doesn’t just lazily list to the left during space scenes, it spins and darts and flies all over the place to outmanoeuvre not just the smaller, faster TIE Fighters but the massive Star Destroyers as well. Space battles are actually few and far between in Empire in favour of more character-building moments, lightsaber combat, and ground-based action, meaning that the Falcon is left to carry the entirety of the film’s space battles and, thanks to its improved manoeuvrability and the tension-building sequences in the asteroid belt, it does so wonderfully. I mentioned the ground battles earlier and I would be remiss to not spend some time talking about easily one of the film’s most impressive effects sequences, the battle of Hoth, in which the Rebel Alliance is set upon by gigantic All-Terrain Armoured Transport (AT-AT) and All-Terrain Scout Transport (AT-ST) walkers; these incredibly well-constructed machines are brought to life through a combination of models and traditional stop motion techniques and really make an impact, decimating the Rebel base and forcing them to flee into the vastness of space.
Aside from Lando and Boba Fett, Empire also introduces another pivotal character to the saga in Yoda; a wizened old crone, Yoda reveals more about the intricacies of the Force and guides Luke’s training, however reluctantly. Like Obi-Wan, Yoda is clearly haunted by the mistakes and events of a vaguely-defined past and is continually disappointed by Luke’s impatience and conflicting feelings of attachment, fear, and anger. This comes to a head when Luke battles a vision of Darth Vader and, reacting out of instinct and emotion, sees himself literally reflected in Vader’s gruesome visage and, after Luke rushes off to help his friends, Yoda is left despondent but secure in the knowledge of “another” who could be trained to take Luke’s place.
Similarly, as mentioned, lightsaber combat is significantly improved in Empire; although we only really get one actual lightsaber battle, it is leagues above the plodding, awkward affair seen in A New Hope thanks to Luke’s youthful exuberance and desire for revenge. The fight has many layers to it, too, with Vader clearly toying with Luke in the early going and somewhat taken aback by Luke’s tenacity; in the end, though, while Luke is able to land a glancing blow on Vader, experience and ruthlessness allow Vader to easily (and literally) disarm Luke with a mere swing of his red-tinted lightsaber. It is in this moment, while Luke is in agony and overwhelmed by fear and anger, that Vader drops perhaps the biggest twist in movie history: not only did Obi-Wan lie about the fate of Luke’s father, Anakin, but Vader himself is Luke’s father! It’s a startling, shocking revelation given so much poignancy thanks to John William’s booming, iconic score (the unforgettable “Imperial March” debuts in this film, which elevates it even more in my opinion) and Luke’s agonising reaction. Shaken by this revelation, Luke willingly plummets to an unknown fate, apparently perfectly willing to die and only saved by luck or the will of the Force and the film ends with Luke’s hand being replaced with a cybernetic prosthetic, Han a prison of Boba Fett and encased in carbonite, and the Rebel Alliance in tatters. Luke’s faith in everything he was told is shaken and he and his friends gaze out into an unknown future, ending the film on an incredibly bleak cliff-hanger that masterfully sets the stage for the final showdown with both Vader and the Empire.
Star Wars: Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back is still the best Star Wars film ever made. It just is and that’s all there is to it but, if you want to get technical, just look at what it offers: the effects are bigger and better, the score is more iconic and bombastic, the characters are more nuanced and layered, and the lore is greatly expanded upon to show that there is so much more than even the titbits we were fed in A New Hope. With its far grittier, more mature, and bleak atmosphere and ending, some of the saga’s most memorable characters and, of course. one of the greatest reveals in movie history, The Empire Strikes Back stands head and shoulders above its predecessor, offering exciting space and sci-fi action, an emotionally charged and engaging lightsaber battle, and far more intriguing themes regarding destiny and portrayals of the futility of battling against a superior force. Empire very much sets the tone for the remainder of the Star Wars saga and many of the subsequent films and spin-off media would take their cue from its revelations and direction, for better or worse, and its influence to the franchise cannot be understated.
Where does Star Wars: Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back rank against the Original Trilogy, and the other films in the Star Wars saga, for you? Do agree that it is the best film in the Original Trilogy and the saga or do you, perhaps, prefer a different Star Wars film? Are you a fan of Boba Fett? If so, what is it about his character as portrayed in this movie that you find so appealing? What did you think of the other characters introduced in this film, like Lando and Yoda, and the way existing characters were developed? What was your reaction upon hearing Darth Vader’s revelation for the first time? How are you celebrating Revenge of the 5th today? Whatever you think, comment below and let me know, and be sure to check out my review of the final part of the Original Trilogy.