Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980) Review

Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980) Director: Irvin Kershner

“…I am your father.”

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After the unexpected explosive success of A New Hope, pressure had risen to create a Star Wars sequel that adequately built upon the excitement for the original. Interestingly enough, George Lucas had suffered from too many health conditions as a result of the stress from making the first film so he persuaded Irvin Kershner, an independent film director and lecturer at USC (a former professor who once taught George Lucas), to direct the new film while Lucas wrote the story and produced the film. In total, Kershner spent about three years directing Empire, which became the singular praiseworthy film achievement of his career, but he later turned down the opportunity to direct the third part of the trilogy, Return of the Jedi. Lucas initially hired Leigh Brackett, a science fiction writer, to draft the script but he did not like the initial draft and she suddenly died of cancer so Lucas wrote the script himself with significant help and re-writes from Lawrence “Larry” Kasdan, the now-legendary screenwriter. Ever the independent film-maker, Lucas sought to liberate himself from the constraints of Hollywood by financing Empire himself, securing approximately $33M in private financing and loans for the film.

The setting of the story takes place approximately three years after the original. The Rebel Alliance has established a secret base on the remote frigid ice planet of Hoth (they were driven away from their former base at Yavin IV by the Empire). Much like cold, foreboding terrain of Hoth, the atmosphere of The Empire Strikes Back is decidedly dark and ominous. The story is unique, entirely distinct from the original, as Luke experiences tremendous growth amidst a series of independent obstacles. Darth Vader and the evil Empire have now regrouped themselves after the destruction of the Death Star and are hunting down Luke and the rebels by sending probe droids throughout the galaxy. One afternoon on Hoth, Luke travels out into the snow to investigate signs of life when he spots the site of a crashed meteor which turns out to be an Imperial probe droid, but before he can inspect it closer, Luke is attacked by a wampa snow creature and dragged back to the creature’s icy lair. Luke narrowly escapes by using the force, demonstrating his fledgling abilities to the audience. He snatches his lightsaber, cuts himself down, and also slices off the wampa’s arm. As Luke escapes the cave and ventures out into the snowstorm, Obi-Wan appears as a “force ghost” in a vision to Luke, instructing him to travel to the Dagobah system for training in order to become a Jedi Knight under the tutelage of a mysterious Jedi known as master Yoda. Just then, Han locates Luke and they both return to the base the following morning. Meanwhile, the probe droid informs the Empire of the location of the rebel base on Hoth. The Empire then launches an all-out attack on Hoth which leaves the rebels scattered and facing near destruction. Han and Leia escape on the Millennium Falcon whose hyperdrive system malfunctions so they lead a trail of TIE fighters dangerously through an asteroid field, while escaping into hiding. Darth Vader hires a notorious bounty hunter known as Bob Fett to track the Millennium Falcon. Han and Leia grow together romantically during this period. At the same time, Luke escapes on his X-Wing ship to Dagobah, the swamp planet, to find the legendary Jedi Master Yoda per Obi-Wan’s force-vision. On Dagobah, Luke finds an odd little diminutive creature (played by Frank Oz and created by Jim Henson) whom he later learns to be the very Jedi master he is seeking. Yoda reluctantly agrees to train Luke despite his misgivings.

Back aboard the Millennium Falcon, Han and Leia manage to escape the Empire through an asteroid field and into a cave populated by a massive creature before flying to the Cloud City of Bespin in order to meet with Han’s old friend and fellow scoundrel, Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams), a questionably trustworthy gambler who eventually betrays the group to Darth Vader via the bounty hunter Boba Fett who has been secretly tracking the Millennium Falcon. The group is captured and imprisoned. Back on Dagobah, Luke senses trouble facing his friends and he eventually decides to abruptly stop his Jedi training to help them against the advice of Yoda. Luke’s training has not yet been complete and Yoda believes Luke does not have sufficient control over himself. Darth Vader, meanwhile, intends to freeze Luke in carbonite. He tests the carbonite freezing process on one of his new prisoners, Han Solo, who manages to survive. Darth Vader offers the frozen block of Han Solo to the bounty hunter Boba Fett who claims a prize by delivering Han to the criminal gangster Jabba the Hutt (per A New Hope, Han Solo owes a significant amount of money to Jabba). At the last moment, Lando has a change of heart. He regrets his betrayal and so he helps Leia and Chewbacca escape imprisonment, but they are too late to save Han. Then, Luke arrives and fights Darth Vader in a dramatic light saber duel that leaves him resoundingly defeated. While dangling high above the cloud city, Darth Vader cuts off Luke’s right hand and famously announces to Luke: “I am your father.” He implores Luke to join the Empire and rule the galaxy with him. Emotionally distraught and in disbelief, Luke rejects Vader’s offer, and he leaps downward to his near death. He narrowly enters an air shaft on Bespin and manages to cling to a suspended antenna where he uses the force to communicate with Leia, aboard the Millenium Falcon, who persuades Lando and Chewbacca to turn around and save Luke. In tatters, the group escapes aboard the Millennium Falcon as R2-D2 repairs the broken hyperdrive system. They rejoin the rebel fleet and Luke’s hand is replaced by a robotic one, at the same time Lando and Chewbacca take the Millennium Falcon, pledging to rescue Han Solo from his carbon captivity under Jabba the Hutt. Thus, the film ends on a dark note as we discover exciting new details about Luke’s past, and the heroes are left in an unresolved moment of despair.

A few random fun facts about the film: Harrison Ford, being the curmudgeon that he was, did not agree to appear in a third film for Star Wars so there were various plot points that featured either Han Solo dying or disappearing entirely by the end of the film. However, he was eventually persuaded to return again. Apparently, the wrinkles of Albert Einstein were partly used as inspiration for the creation of the Yoda puppet. The scenes of the wampa attack on Luke helped to explain the large scar on Luke’s face, as Mark Hamill was in an automobile accident between filming the first and second Star Wars films leaving his face scarred. The famous scene in which Leia professes her love for Han was likely ad-libbed with Harrison Ford simply replying: “I know.”

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Upon its release, The Empire Strikes Back was not as financially successful as the original, and at the time it received some mixed reviews, but it has since come to find its place atop the greatest of the Star Wars films. The Hoth scenes were shot in Norway, and the crew experienced a massive snowstorm while filming, some of the crew could not even escape from their hotel rooms. In fact, the scene of Luke escaping the wampa cave was shot during the snowstorm. Remaining shooting took place in London. Mark Hamill was given a different script that did not reveal Darth Vader was Luke’s father as a way of preserving the shocking reveal. The correct dialogue was only known by a handful of staff and actors before the film’s release.

To me, The Empire Strikes Back is an incredibly powerful sequel. The visual effects are extraordinary for a young company with a limited budget, it takes risks by presenting a story with an unresolved conclusion as the villains seem to be in an elevated position, and by now it stands as a sequel against which all future sequels are compared. Endlessly re-watchable, the plot is compelling, the characters have significant obstacles and they are developed in intriguing ways (we see a glimpse of Darth Vader’s head and learn he is in fact Luke’s father, meanwhile Luke has transformed from a boyish farmer into hopeful Jedi Knight working to complete his training, Han and Leia fall in love only to face betrayal, and Han’s friend Lando realizes the error of his ways and tries to do the right thing). We are also introduced to the Emperor, who is a Sith lord, while he was merely mentioned or alluded to in the original movie. It is a rare gift to be able to present heroes as dejected and on the verge of total destruction at the end of a classic epic film, but Empire manages to complete the task with flying colors. Once again, John Williams’s score is pitch-perfect and gripping throughout the film –it introduces the unforgettable “Imperial March” in this film. Empire is ominous, dark, foreboding, shadowy, and because of this, it is a near perfect and delightfully unique hero tale that sets up the plot brilliantly for a third part to complete the trilogy.

Return to my survey of the Star Wars series

4 thoughts on “Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980) Review

  1. Pingback: Reviewing the Star Wars Series | Great Books Guy

  2. The Empire Strikes Back was actually the first Star Wars film I saw, and in the cinema, when I was ten years old. And I must say, having better story material and character depth than A New Hope, that it was one of the best first impressions for a sci-fi legacy that I could have asked for.

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