21. The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

Director: Irvin Kershner

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

Out of the original three “Star Wars” films, my favorite has to be “The Empire Strikes Back.” A “Star Wars” fan dating back to not long after I first learned how to read, I didn’t warm up to “Empire” right off the bat. Back then, I wasn’t too keen on stories where the bad guys gained even the smallest of advantages over the heroes. But if there is one constant about a long-lasting war, it is that both sides must suffer setbacks before the conflict is settled. After destroying the Death Star in the first movie, this time it was the Rebellion’s turn to taste the bitterness of defeat.

The series was truly at its creative zenith here. During a time when George Lucas still knew how to make decisions that didn’t blow up in his face, he turned the director’s chair over to Irvin Kershner, who was initially hesitant. After all, how could anything top “Star Wars”? Lucas also hired others to write the screenplay, the first being Leigh Brackett, no mere amateur by any stretch. Brackett was responsible for writing or co-writing the screenplays for movies such as “The Big Sleep” starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, and several John Wayne star vehicles, nonetheleast of which were “Rio Bravo,” “El Dorado,” and “Rio Lobo.” With that background, in addition to her credentials as a sci-fi author, Brackett was a perfect fit. Sadly, shortly after turning in her first draft of “Empire,” Brackett succumbed to cancer in early 1978. Although Lawrence Kasdan was in the early stages of his career, his screenplay for “Continental Divide” earned him the attention of both George Lucas and his friend Steven Spielberg. When Brackett passed away, the job was Kasdan’s. He did not disappoint, and when Lucas and Spielberg joined forces for “Raiders of the Lost Ark” the following year, they knew who to hire for scriptwriting duties.

Another giant risk Lucas took was with the character of Yoda. This may be recognized as “Darth Vader’s movie,” and Han Solo is as macho as ever, but even these strong characters are outclassed. Like the shark from “Jaws,” the entire movie hinges on the Yoda puppet, voiced by Frank Oz, appearing as nothing short of convincing. Luke Skywalker’s Jedi sensei is by far the most interesting character in “Empire.” It is Yoda who is responsible for my favorite scene from any of the “Star Wars” movies. More than any of the big space battles, the lightsaber duel, the Han/Leia romance angle or the infamous reveal of Luke’s true parentage, the one moment in “The Empire Strikes Back” that makes the hairs on my arms stand on end is the scene where Yoda uses the Force to pry Luke’s X-Wing fighter out of the swamps of Dagobah. He uses this to show Luke what he could be capable of, if only he would set aside preconceived notions and believe that the impossible is actually possible.

“Empire” boasts the most diverse group of locations for our heroes’ adventures. In addition to Dagobah, we have the ice planet of Hoth, the cloud city of Bespin, and even an asteroid field where the Millennium Falcon hides from the Empire inside a “cave.” This movie also features what I believe to be the finest musical score in the legendary career of composer John Williams. “The Imperial March” has solidified its place in pop culture. Several other tracks are quite memorable, such as “Asteroid Field,” “Lando’s Palace,” “Han Solo and the Princess,” and the track which accompanies my favorite scene, “Yoda and the Force.”

As alluded to above, George Lucas hasn’t been free of mistakes, especially concerning the prequels which must not be named. He has also erred by going back and making changes to the original “Star Wars” trilogy on a number of occasions, changes which no one among the fanbase had called for. Before writing this review, I had the great fortune of watching the original 1980 theatrical cut of “The Empire Strikes Back” (on the Limited Edition DVD) for the first time since before the release of the 1997 “Star Wars” Special Editions. It is clear to me, now more than ever, that this is the only version I should ever watch from here on out.

Like any great second chapter, this one uses what worked the first time around to its benefit, while simultaneously raising the stakes. Of the few complaints about “The Empire Strikes Back” that pop up, the one I’ve heard most often is that the ending isn’t really an “ending.” I can understand this frustration, even as I disagree with it all in the same breath. To me, it’s a perfect artistic move to have this end on something of a cliffhanger. Things are looking pretty bleak by the end. We’re fairly confident the Rebels will eventually win the day, but we’re not quite sure how. That’s a great hook for your next chapter. If “The Empire Strikes Back” is guilty of anything, it’s setting the bar at an almost impossibly high level. What it can NEVER be considered as is a bad movie, not just by true fans of “Star Wars” but of film in general.

  1. Sylvia Williams says:

    Very professional and well researched review!! Have to agee that this movie is the best of the “The Star Wars” series.

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