Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980) Director: Irvin Kershner
“…I am your father.”
Surely, Empire is one of the greatest sequels ever created, on par with The Godfather, Part II. After the unexpected explosive success of A New Hope, pressure had risen to create a sequel that adequately built on the excitement of the original. Interestingly enough, Irvin Kershner, an independent film director and lecturer at USC (he was a former professor who taught George Lucas), directed the film. Instead, Lucas wrote the story and produced the film. Lucas initially hired Leigh Brackett, a science fiction writer, to write the script but he did not like the initial draft and then he suddenly died of cancer so Lucas wrote the script himself. Kershner spent about three years directing Empire, which became the singular praiseworthy film achievement of his career, and he later turned down the opportunity to direct Return of the Jedi. Lucas sought to liberate himself from the constraints of Hollywood by financing the film himself, securing approximately $33M in private financing and loans.
The setting of the story takes place approximately three years after the original. The Rebel Alliance has established a base on the remote frigid ice planet of Hoth (they were driven from the former base at Yavin IV). Similar to the setting of Hoth, the atmosphere of Empire is decidedly cold and dark. The story is unique, entirely distinct from the original, as Luke experiences tremendous growth and a series of independent obstacles to overcome. At any rate, Darth Vader and the evil Empire have regrouped and are hunting down Luke and the rebels by sending out probe droids. One afternoon on Hoth, Luke goes out to investigate signs of life when he spots the site of a crashed meteor which turns out to be one of these droids, but before he can inspect closer, Luke is attacked by a wampa snow creature and dragged back to his icy lair. Luke narrowly escapes by using the force, demonstrating his fledgling abilities to the audience. He snatches his lightsaber, cuts himself down, and cuts the wampa’s arm off. As he goes out into the snowstorm, Obi-Wan appears 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 master Yoda. Just then, Han locates Luke and they return to the base the following morning. Meanwhile, the droid informs the Empire of the location of the rebels. The Empire launches an all-out attack on Hoth that leaves the rebels scattered in near destruction. Han and Leia escape on the Millenium Falcon whose hyperdrive system malfunctions so they lead a trail of TIE fighters dangerously through an asteroid field, where they escape in hiding. Darth Vader hires Bob Fett, the bounty hunter, to track the Millenium 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 Yoda per Obi-Wan’s force-vision. There Luke finds an odd little diminutive creature (played by Frank Oz and created by Jim Hensen) 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 Millenium Falcon they manage to escape the Empire through an asteroid field and into a cave they fly to the Cloud City of Bespin to meet with Han’s old friend, 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 tracking the Millenium Falcon. They are captured and imprisoned. Back on Dagobah Luke senses the trouble facing his friends and he eventually decides to stop his training to help them, against the advice of Yoda. Luke’s training has not been complete and he does not yet have sufficient control over himself. Darth Vader, meanwhile, intends to freeze Luke in carbonite. He tests carbonite freezing on Han Solo, who manages to survive despite being frozen into a giant carbon block. Darth Vader gives the frozen graft of Han Solo to Boba Fett, the notorious bounty hunter, who claims the prize for Han Solo by delivering him to 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 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 city, Darth Vader cuts off Luke’s right hand and famously announces to Luke: “I am your father” and he implores Luke to join the Empire and rule the galaxy. Emotionally distraught and in disbelief, Luke rejects Vader’s offer to join him, and he leaps down to his near death. He narrowly enters an air shaft on Bespin and manages to cling to a suspended antenna. He uses the force to communicate with Leia who persuades Lando and Chewbacca to turn around and save an injured Luke. In tatters, they all escape aboard the Millenium Falcon as R2-D2 repairs the broken hyperdrive system. The troupe rejoins the rebel fleet and Luke’s hand is replaced by a robotic one, at the same time Lando and Chewbacca take the Millenium 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 had either Han dying or disappearing at 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.”
Upon its release the film was not as financially successful as the original, and at the time it received some mixed reviews, it has come to find its place atop the greatest of the Star Wars films (myself included). The Hoth scenes were shot in Norway, and the crew experienced a massive snowstorm, 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 this snowstorm. Remaining shooting took place in London. Mark Hamill was given a different script that did not reveal Darth Vader was Luke’s father in order to preserve the shocking reveal. The correct dialogue was only known by a handful of staff and actors before the film’s release.
Empire is an incredibly powerful sequel. The visual effects are extraordinary for a young company with a limited budget in the first film, to becoming one of the great production companies ever. 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, 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. Again, the John Williams score is incredible and apt – it introduces the memorable “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 completing this trilogy. Empire is often conveyed as the film that truly broke the trend of sequels being inferior to their originals.