Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (United States, 1980)

December 08, 2015
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back Poster

For three years, we waited. As bits of news filtered through the Hollywood grapevine into the trade papers and Starlog, we gobbled them up. Still, by early 1980, not much was known about Star Wars 2 (officially retitled The Empire Strikes Back by the time of its release). Speculation was rampant about the direction it would take but no one expected what the film delivered. Not only did it advance the storylines of the three principal characters but it interjected one of the greatest shocks in movie history. Unless you had it spoiled, there was no way to predict what Darth Vader would say at the climax of his lightsaber duel with Luke.

It only took four words - “I am your father” - to re-align the Star Wars universe. All these years later, we have become accustomed to Vader’s identity. It’s no longer a secret. In fact, it formed the basis of the prequels. But, in 1980, this wasn’t something any fan had on his or her radar. The Empire Strikes Back was already a great movie by the time the scene arrived some 110 minutes into the proceedings. The revelation took the film to another level and virtually assured that no other Star Wars film, past or future, will surpass it as the best the saga has to offer.

This a dark movie - as dark in its own way as Revenge of the Sith, although perhaps ultimately not quite as bleak. If A New Hope was about optimism and the victory of good over evil, The Empire Strikes Back is about the triumph of darkness. If this was a fight, the Empire would have won by a TKO. Okay, so Vader (David Prowse) doesn’t “convert” Luke (Mark Hamill) but he accomplishes pretty much everything else. He finds the Rebel’s new hidden base and destroys it. He captures Han (Harrison Ford) and Leia (Carrie Fisher), tortures them, then gives Han to the bounty hunter Boba Fett. He defeats Luke in a lightsaber duel (the one we had been anticipating since Vader and Obi-Wan crossed blades in 1977), takes his hand, and leaves him with an impossible truth. In the end, we’re left with our heroes looking toward the future because the immediate past offers no solace.

The ice and snow of Hoth make a welcome contrast to the arid terrain of Tatooine. As The Empire Strikes Back begins, the rebels are hiding out there while star destroyers patrol the galaxy looking for them. Vader eventually figures out where they are and, in a thrilling sequence, a squadron of snow speeders must tackle a group of Imperial Walkers to buy time for the evacuation ships to get away. Leia escapes aboard the Millennium Falcon but, since its hyperdrive is broken, Han is forced to pilot it into an asteroid field to “discourage” pursuit. During a break in the chase, he and the princess make it clear that Luke is the odd one out in this love triangle. Meanwhile, the would-be Jedi has headed for the swamp world of Dagobah for an encounter with Obi-Wan’s old teacher, Yoda (Frank Oz), a wizened old creature who sounds suspiciously like Sesame Street’s Grover.

The Empire Strikes Back introduces three new significant characters. The most notable is Yoda, the first muppet to show up in the Star Wars universe. As a way of attracting children, Yoda was infinitely more successful than either the Ewoks or Jar-Jar Binks. Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) gives people of color their own hero in a galaxy that had, to that point, been mostly white. We also get a glimpse of the Emperor. In the original theatrical release, this spectral being was played by Elaine Baker using the voice of Clive Revill. However, for the Special Edition, Lucas understandably shot new footage using Ian McDiarmid (complete with new dialogue). From a continuity standpoint, this is probably the most important change made to any of the three movies for the re-releases.

The Empire Strikes Back is engrossing from start to finish. At the beginning, of course, we’re just excited to see new material featuring the characters we came to love in Star Wars. Their ongoing stories go in expected directions at times (Luke seeking training to become a Jedi) but, more often, along unexpected paths. The Han/Leia romance, for example, is counter to what many expected after the events of Star Wars. Most fans believed the farm-boy would end up with the princess.  Lucas may have initially thought that as well (consider who gets the kisses in A New Hope) but he changed his mind along the way. The endgame in the Cloud City provides the long-anticipated lightsaber duel between Vader and Luke.

The special effects have taken a quantum leap from what they were in A New Hope, which were far and above the industry norm of the late 1970s. There’s nothing in The Empire Strikes Back that doesn’t stand up well 35 years later, whether it’s the AT-ATs attacking the base on Hoth, the Star Destroyers flying around the galaxy, the asteroid field where the Millennium Falcon plays hide-and-seek with the TIE fighters, the swamps of Dagobah, or the Cloud City of Bespin. Even Yoda, a puppet, is believable. For each of the Star Wars films, Lucas always sought enhancements and improvements in the visual effects department. Without CGI at his disposal, it’s amazing that he was able to accomplish the dazzling battles and planetscapes.

Many experts in the field of movie scores have ranked John Williams’ work in The Empire Strikes Back as some of the best music he has composed. In addition to re-using the most memorable/popular themes from A New Hope, he introduces three new movements: Yoda’s theme, the Han/Leia love theme, and the memorable Imperial March. Williams was in peak form when composing for the second Star Wars film; his work here is more complex and nuanced than what he provided for A New Hope and doesn’t show the indications of repetition that became evident in his subsequent scores for the series. 

The film’s dialogue is stronger than that of any of the other five Lucas-produced films. This may be because the screenplay was written (at least officially) by Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan. Kasdan in particular is known for his ability to generate strong interpersonal relationships. This was the writer/director’s first credit but within five years, he would assemble an impressive resume: Raiders of the Lost Ark, Body Heat, The Big Chill, and Silverado. Dialogue, which one could argue is a weakness of A New Hope, is a strength here.

It also helps that the actors have grown into their roles.  Mark Hamill, who had some shaky moments in 1977, is greatly improved in this second installment.  His final scenes resonate with emotional turmoil; we can feel his pain. Harrison Ford’s cockiness is in full evidence without any of the stilted moments that hampered him in A New Hope. Carrie Fisher’s Leia shows a soft, vulnerable side to go along with her spunk. Lucas’ decision to bring back Alec Guinness isn’t an entirely successful move. It’s sad to see the great actor reduced to a shimmering cameo - and even more depressing to see how little effort he puts into the admittedly limited role. Perhaps the real shock is that Guinness agreed to appear at all considering his well-publicized negativity regarding the original.

So how much of Empire is Lucas? That question has been debated over the years. The story is definitely his, having been hammered out once it became apparent that Star Wars would launch a franchise. Lucas’ detractors have attempted to overinflate director Irvin Kershner’s role in the process. But, until his death in 2010, Kershner, a journeyman filmmaker before being hand-picked to helm The Empire Strikes Back, downplayed his part, generously deflecting much of the credit to Lucas. The truth is that the collaboration between the two, with no small input from Kasdan and producer Gary Kurtz, resulted in a product that neither likely could have achieved on his own. In many ways, Lucas functioned as a co-director but Kershener’s ability to work with actors likely resulted in the more relaxed performances from the stars.

The Empire Strikes Back is a true classic. It has scope and grandeur. It has heroics and tragedy. It can make us laugh and cry. It can make us get up and cheer. It can shock us to the very core of our beings. The characters are larger than life and the space battles thrilling all these years later. This is space opera at the highest level. A New Hope was the purest kind of fun. The Empire Strikes Back is a richer, more fulfilling experience - not as heady, perhaps, but with deeper roots. It’s said that middle chapters of movie trilogies are often weak links but The Empire Strikes Back defies that “rule.” This is cinematic greatness.

For the original review, click here.


Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (United States, 1980)

Ranked #29 in Berardinelli's Top 100
Run Time: 2:06
U.S. Release Date: 1980-05-21
MPAA Rating: "PG"
Genre: Science Fiction/Adventure
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1