Star Wars: Episode 5 – The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

How do you possibly follow up one of the greatest, most influential cinematic achievements in modern genre film history like Star Wars? The follow up, subtitled The Empire Strikes Back dives headfirst to the galaxy far far away, further expanding on George Lucas’s idea for a space opera. On a story conceived by Lucas and a screenplay written by Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan, the duo takes what the predecessor accomplishes and gets more intimate, more personal, more precise, offering higher stakes, and a darker tone, flirting with the idea of more mature themes such an expansive galaxy can offer.

As a sequel, The Empire Strikes Back elevates just about every aspect that Star Wars sets up. For one revolving around the intimacy and stakes, the climactic third act reaches its highest power with a lightsaber duel between Darth Vader (David Prowse, voice by James Earl Jones) the menacing Sith lord out to exterminate the rebel alliance from the galaxy for the tyrant empire vs Jedi in training Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). Director Irvin Kershner creates a suffocating atmosphere between the two enemies as they stare daggers at each other circling the area with lightsabers ablaze.

Vader has manipulated Luke to travel to the planet known as Bespin to rescue his friends Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Leia (Carrie Fisher) in order to seduce Luke to the dark side, joining him and emperor Palpatine (Elaine Baker, voice by Clive Revill) in bringing peace to the galaxy once and for all.  The fight between Vader and Luke becomes more intimate and elongated than the duel between Vader and Obi-Wan (Alec Guinness) in A New Hope.

Before the red and blue lightsabers even make contact with one another, sending sparks outward among the electrical charged weapons, The Empire Strikes Back more than sticks the landing with its ambitious potential. The second entry out of the original trilogy cements itself as the gold standard for storytelling in this galaxy.   

Given the massive bomb that gets dropped on Luke (come on, it’s been 43 years since release, we all know what Vader reveals), the duel immediately holds more of a burden in overthrowing the empire. Luke, on top of learning about the force and training to become a Jedi is given an internal conflict that further stresses the completion of his Jedi training. Opening on a frozen planet called Hoth, Luke has a force vision of Obi-Wan urging him to travel to Dagobah, a swamp planet where Luke would be trained by Yoda (Frank Oz), a reclusive enigmatic creature who knows the ways of the force. Once introduced, Yoda reveals that he’s been training Jedi for over 800 years and that Luke is far too old and impatient, being a vessel for the negative impulses the force can bring.

For majority of the film, Luke is isolated on Dagobah with this creature that’s training him to combat Vader. During their time together, Yoda pinpoints Luke’s mannerisms and mentality exactly without knowing too much. This doesn’t make Luke a poorly developed character, quite the opposite, his susceptibility to anger, rage, and confusion gives Luke something to overcome and prove that he isn’t like this mysterious father he’s constantly told about. Luke is the underdog you root for not because he’s the main character but because he has something to fight for within himself.  

But still, out of the two characters on Dagobah, its Yoda, this new character whose a puppet mind you, that gives the better performance. In his second turn as Luke, Hamill and Luke are one, so to outperform Mark is astronomical. As Yoda speaks in a riddle like manner, it’s the depth of the words that create an inseparable bond to the creature.

“Do or do not, there is no try” is but one example of the poignancy that Yoda dignifies himself with in his teachings. About halfway through their training, Luke comes under seduction to the dark side, encountering Vader in a remote part of the forest. The camera, operated by Peter Suschitzky captures a sad, understanding but helpless Yoda, fearful of what Luke can become if he doesn’t protect himself. All it takes is one frame on Yoda to understand the powerful emotion Frank Oz gets from his performance.

Joining the ensemble appearing alongside the equally important supporting characters like slapstick droid duo R2-D2 (Kenny Baker), C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), and Wookie co-pilot Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) is an old acquaintance of Han’s – Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams). As another new face to the ensemble, Billy Dee Williams quickly establishes himself as a suave smooth-talking swindler who steals each scene he appears in. The addition of Lando further justifies the enriching lore to be discovered more thoroughly. Lando, Han and Chewie to an extent have a past together that they often speak about like a secret that the audience is eager to be involved in.

As a matter of fact, anything before A New Hope (at the time of release)leaves so much of the galaxy to be desired and explored.

If A New Hope was a vessel for technology to rapidly advance with special effects and how films of this scale are made, The Empire Strikes Back is only the beneficiary to the leaps in technology. Just 12 years prior, 2001: A Space Odyssey made the vacuum of space feel attainable. Star Wars improved upon it and Episode 5 erases the doubt. The effects all created by Lucas’s Industrial Light & Magic are simply magically breathtaking. 43 years later and the practical effects, miniatures, and matte paintings all holdup given how far filmmaking has come. The stars are infinite, and the ships make lightspeed look like a joy ride down the highway. Each alien species is unique and convincing to the verisimilitude Lucas’s mind created. Without these special effects, never ending production design and practical effects, there would be no Star Wars.

It also wouldn’t be Star Wars without the remarkable score by John Williams. From the opening crawl and the sudden explosion of sound to the theme that latches onto the brain never to leave, The Empire Strikes Back is in every way the best Star Wars film ever made. Technically bulletproof all around, the only word that can describe this film is a masterpiece, setting a new standard for genre film. Irvin Kershner proved that the sequel is far superior but with the predecessor as a launchpad.

Screenplay By: Leigh Brackett & Lawrence Kasdan

Story By: George Lucas

Directed By: Irvin Kershner

Music By: John Williams

Cinematography: Peter Suschitzky

Starring: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Billy Dee Williams, Anthony Daniels, David Prowse, Kenny Baker, Peter Mayhew, Frank Oz, James Earl Jones

Where to Watch: Disney Plus

Edited By: Paul Hirsch

Release Date: May 21, 1980

Running Time: 2 Hours 4 Minutes

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 94%

Rating: 5 out of 5.

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