The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) faces for the evil Darth Vader (David Prowse) for the first time in "The Empire Strikes Back."

Directed by Irvin Kershner. Screenplay by Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan; story by George Lucas. Produced by Gary Kurtz. Music by John Williams. Photographed by Peter Suschitzky. Edited by Paul Hirsch. Production designed by Norman Reynolds. Starring Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Billy Dee Williams, Anthony Daniels, David Prowse, Peter Mayhew, Kenny Baker, Frank Oz, Alec Guinness.

For many fans of the fantasy juggernaut Star Wars, it is the second film, The Empire Strikes Back, that is typically regarded as the best. There are many reasons: it has an intelligent screenplay that strives to deepen the characters established by Star Wars (1977). And it expands the universe of that first film, marshaling peerless technical credits towards the goal of furthering an ongoing saga. It looks great, a visual feast that uses cinematography and special effects to generate a sense of wonder and delight. It manages the tricky task of having both an epic scope and an intimate sensibility, and its surprising climax has become the stuff of cinematic legend. But the most crucial reason for Empire‘s staying power is, I think, its mastery of Star Wars‘ mythological ingredients, and how it elevates them beyond the safe confines of the original. Although the first Star Wars was popular and influential, with The Empire Strikes Back, the series proved it was good for the long run.

When George Lucas made Star Wars, he cited his inspirations: Saturday matinée serials, old westerns, comic books, ancient myths, fairy tales. But the key influence was mythologist and writer Joseph Campbell, who explored the power of myths (that is, any epic story that touches us deeply). His theory was that different cultures tell essentially the same stories, brimming with identical archetypes and universal themes that help us give some form and clarity to our very lives.  Lucas, who Campbell would later call “the best student I ever had,” managed to tap the broad appeal of the great human myths in Star Wars, and you can see in that first film the joy with which he assembles his building blocks of archetypes (the farm boy, the princess, the dashing rogue, the clowns) and classic story traditions (the call to adventure, the assault on the castle, etc).  But it is in The Empire Strikes Back that those elements are put to real work, populating a fraught and powerful tale that is like the second movement of a symphony, one that resonates back through the first and changes our expectations for the third. And within it we find the compelling themes, dark corners and scary psychology that make these stories so vital for us. Mythology is serious business, and the differences between the two films bear that out: Star Wars is about why myths are fun, but Empire is about why they are important. (The third film, Return of the Jedi, is preoccupied mainly with the mechanics of how myths must conclude, which is not as interesting.) Throughout, Empire gives the feeling of a storyteller that is through being cheerful; now he wants to get under your skin.

Consider the opening passages of Empire (“Episode V”), where Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) explores the frozen tundra of the planet Hoth, new home for the dogged and frightened Rebel Alliance. Before long, Luke is attacked by a vicious snow monster. He escapes, but finds himself lost and on foot in the middle of a blizzard. When Han Solo (Harrison Ford) learns of Luke’s disappearance, he tears himself away from his own pressing business in order to search for his friend, and Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) is forced to shut the home base gates behind him for the night, perhaps leaving both of the important men in her life to die. This segment is like a little mini-movie that is soon resolved and brushed aside. Is it only intended to mark time until the real plot of the movie kicks in? Not at all; it is a pointed effort to open with a sense of dread instead of security. While we are pretty sure that Luke is not going to die (not with a movie and a half to go), to put him in such danger so early immediately evokes a sense of desperation that will permeate the picture. And it brings Luke so close to death that it preserves the eerie mystery of the snowy apparition he sees of Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness), who has travel advice for Luke. And it re-establishes the friendship between Luke and Han—smartly, since much of the plot will rely upon it.

That plot of The Empire Strikes Back can be summed up in three simple words: “It gets worse.” Most heroic stories are about overcoming the defenses of villains, but Empire knows it is the middle of a larger story, and so it mines drama out of just the opposite: the monolithic Imperial forces weaken the Rebels to practically the breaking point. After Luke is rescued, we immediately jump into another crisis, as the appearance of a probe droid proves that an invasion is coming. As the weary Rebels prepare to evacuate their home yet again, we are plunged into a spectacular land battle involving the Imperial (AT-AT) Walkers that ends in ugly retreat. This by itself is clever in how it sidesteps the structure of the original Star Wars, as the film front-loads its stupendous action sequence and then moves on to uncharted territory. The story splits into three plots: Luke pursuing his Jedi training, Han Solo and the princess evading Imperial attackers, and Darth Vader (David Prowse, voice of James Earl Jones) orchestrating the search for both Solo and Skywalker, whom he chillingly now knows by name.

Solo’s solution is simple: run and hide. The Empire is unstoppable, and their fighters pursue the malfunctioning Millennium Falcon even into a deadly asteroid field, one of several unforgettable set pieces that the movie offers. During a lull in the chase, there is time for quiet interludes punctuated by developments, most notably the love story between Han and Princess Leia, who is harsh to the pirate but loses her frigidity when they escape the ice planet. The love scenes are tender and direct, with screwball-style dialogue that is wisely brought down to a low simmer. The moment where Han sweetly massages the princess’ rough hand is Ford’s most charming in all the Star Wars pictures. Vader, meanwhile, enlists the help of his own foolish commanders and later a collection of bounty hunters that include the cold and brutal Boba Fett (Jeremy Bulloch).

Meanwhile (lots of meanwhiles here), Luke acts on Ben’s advice and journeys to the distant swamp planet of Dagobah…which is a set, but a beautifully realized one, married with matte paintings to create a noxious and unpleasant environment. It is here, of course, that we meet Yoda (Frank Oz), who first seems to be a gnome-like pest but gradually reveals to Luke that he is deep and knowledgeable (Standard mythology trope: hero pays attention to insignificant-seeming character who later is shown to be most significant indeed). Yoda puts Luke through his Jedi coursework: running, jumping, and stressing his connection to all things via The Force, never more pronounced than when Luke struggles to raise his spaceship from the bog water and fails, while the diminutive Yoda does so with ease (“Size matters not.”) Empire is Oz’s best performance as the Yoda, who is made all the more loveable by the fact that he is so odd and off-putting. And if you don’t think puppetry can be acting, watch the way Yoda’s face communicates dignity, pride, hope, resignation. It stands in stark contrast to Yoda’s scenes in the prequel Star Wars films, where Yoda, animated entirely by computer, expresses himself in a way that feels labored. Here he feels real.

The Dagobah scenes are also fascinating because they are so risky–so quiet and intimate for an epic space adventure, but crucial, because they upgrade the nature of the Force from a murky plot device in the first entry to a genuine philosophy that the film treats with a sincere reverence. There are long discussions about what The Force is—its good and bad sides–and it is here, in Empire, that The Force is fully realized as a metaphor for all beliefs, as well as the tricky mores that we are taught when we are young. When Luke has an altercation with an evil hallucination that soon shows his own face, it suddenly clicks for us: this is not just a simple story of good versus evil. This is something bigger. Yoda calls the dark side “quicker, easier and more seductive,” and that is when the real theme of the entire trilogy slides in: the idea that anyone can fall astray, and everyone deserves redemption. That’s important.

The plot threads merge together again in Cloud City, an airborne metropolis that inspires awe in the audience and fear in Luke, who has a premonition of terrible things happening there. The film is unclear about the timelines involved (Did Luke spend a week in training? A month?), but nevertheless Luke takes off while Han and Leia enjoy the hospitality of the smooth-talking Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams), who administrates Cloud City but has a secret up his sleeve. The Imperials close in, and Luke comes face-to-face with Darth Vader, in a duel that makes one of the great climaxes in modern film: not only has it been well-prepared for two whole films, but it consists of shocking violence and a shocking reveal. What makes that moment (no, I won’t spoil it, even though everyone knows what it is) so striking is not just the information it conveys, but the way it shatters the unprepared Luke. It teaches him a hard lesson that he was not ready for, and brings the story to a close that leaves an audience troubled, but hooked, and forces one to reevaluate everything they think they know about their world view. Very mythic.

The successes here are typical of the craftsmanship in The Empire Strikes Back; the way the screenplay excels at juggling several different elements. Screenwriters are frequently instructed to “keep things alive,” to have your story elements always in play lest they be forgotten. The Empire Strikes Back has an entire galaxy to “keep alive,” and it does so, with the concepts of The Force and the major plots, and also with the little moments that take thread throughout the narrative: C-3PO’s (Anthony Daniels) ineptitude with human interactions, Chewbacca’s affection for his friends. The definitive way that Darth Vader deals with the incompetency in his work force, which provides wicked bursts of black comedy. The defective hyperdrive on the Millennium Falcon, and how it eventually dovetails with the plight of poor, abused R2-D2, who earns his keep a hundredfold by the end. These are hallmarks of Lawrence Kasdan’s excellent screenplay (Leigh Brackett, Kasdan’s credited writing partner, died shortly after delivering an unused draft; her credit is a tribute). Kasdan, who also wrote Raiders of the Lost Ark and then moved on to film-noir pastiches (Body Heat) and perceptive dramedies (Grand Canyon, The Big Chill) may be the unsung hero of Star Wars–he took Lucas’ basic ideas and, in his script, gives them weight.

Empire is the most well-made of the Star Wars films. Unlike the flat direction of Lucas or the lethargic pacing of Richard Marquand’s JediEmpire gets the most out of its actors and plants them in a universe that is daunting and persuasive, climaxing in a horrific scene over a vast expanse that communicates an incredible sense of scale, and makes that work for the drama, rather than at a right angle to it. The use of color is arresting, the model work and set design is unmatched even by later entries, and the film hums with an electricity that you can’t fake, because it is there even when the picture is quiet. I adore the way the movie pauses for little moments, like R2-D2’s tenuous worry for Luke, or the chilling shot where Rebel soldiers spot the Imperial war machines over the horizon—tiny dots that are inching inevitably closer. And then there is the scene where Luke approaches Darth Vader for their first time, their creepy silhouettes frozen before springing into action. No moment in the entire saga better captures the mythic import that Lucas wanted to achieve; the sense of a classic tale unfolding in front of us. Everything is bolstered by John Williams’ glorious score, which itself remains Williams’ masterpiece of interweaving leitmotiv with vibrant incidental pieces.

The word that people usually select to describe The Empire Strikes Back is “dark,” and it is, but a more descriptive word, I think, is “grand.” It employs a large canvas to tell a sweeping story, and yes, there are “dark” spots, but they have to be there. Campbell writes in his book The Hero With a Thousand Faces about the need for myth—the hunger for children to learn (and adults to be reminded) about values, morals, and the other tools we use to understand the complex world around us. Campbell affirms what the myth-makers did, like the Brothers Grimm, and even the writers of the Bible, that the world is a challenging and complicated place. It’s a fact of life.

These dark spots aren’t just ways to ramp up the drama, they’re platforms to address the big questions: Who are you? Are you a good person? What is “good?” Where did you come from?  What do you really want?  One of the pointed undercurrents of Empire is how small victories are countered immediately by big defeat, how safety is frequently destroyed. Sometimes life is like that, and that’s important to learn. At the climax of Empire, Luke Skywalker learns something scary about himself, and his past, as we all do at some point in our lives. These central questions create a commonality that resonate with audiences; it’s an assurance that the things they feel, and the things they will feel, are universal and timeless. That is why such a thing affects us more than, say, a political drama shackled by topicality. It’s part of an ageless system that extends through Gilgamesh,The Odyssey, Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter–they’re the stories that really last because they’re all about the same thing: friendships, a quest, knowing your lineage, testing your limits, possessing pure character. They speak to us.

It may seem curious, to lavish so much praise on a film that begins in midstream and stops in mid-sentence. It is merely act 2 of 3, just a bridge. But it is a perfectly made bridge. Other sagas have borrowed from Star Wars’ example in creating trilogies by breaking one story in half, but they usually make the mistake of being all setup, no payoff. Empire does have lots of setup (including one line by Yoda that is a direct hook for a sequel), but it is a satisfying experience because it is a well-told story, however “dark,” of bravery against adversity, and finding your skills wanting against the unstoppable. It is personal and restrained in its spectacle. At every moment, something is being advanced, and it is free of the bloat and nonsense that usually typify a sequel to a success. It’s a real movie, in exactly the same way that something like Pirates of the Caribbean 2 is not.

The Empire Strikes Back was directed by Irvin Kershner (The Eyes of Laura Mars), who brought an artistry to Star Wars that bestowed even the lesser entries with a bit of its prestige; that is how effectively it resonates with the other films in the series. Kershner was known as a methodical director, frequently behind schedule, unafraid of improvisation, and the end result is a picture that is graceful rather than workmanlike. Kershner’s filmography is varied and sometimes not very memorable (e.g.: Never Say Never Again, Robocop 2), but with The Empire Strikes Back he surpassed himself, because he was connected with what Star Wars is, and understood it perhaps even better than its own creator. He passed away on November 27 after a long life of filmmaking and teaching, and he left behind a legacy that few have: by solidifying the success of The Empire Strikes Back, he gave the 20th century one of its great stories, one of its magical entertainments. As long as there are children and adults who yearn for a good, deep yarn, there will be an audience for Star Wars, and I submit we have Irvin Kershner to thank for its longevity. Said Kershner at the time: “I told George the only way I would do the film is if I felt I could top the first one.”

And he did.


NOTES: Lucas and Kershner reportedly clashed over which line to use when Han responds to Leia’s declaration of love: Kershner wanted “I know,” while Lucas favored “I love you, too.” Kersh stuck to his guns, which just proves what a good choice he was for the director’s chair. I never met Mr. Kersher, but I’ve read and heard so many interviews with him over the years that I felt like I had, just the same. This review is lovingly dedicated to his memory.

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