Star Wars 5: The Empire Strikes Back (1980) Movie Review

The first thing you notice about “The Empire Strikes Back” is just how sophisticated everything is. From the direction right down to the smallest props, “Empire” marks a giant leap in narrative as well as technology. No surprise, considering the mammoth success of 1977’s “Star Wars”. After that film, Lucas could have made a $100 million dollar movie about his grocery list. With money to burn, “Empire” surpasses its predecessor by leaps and bounds.

Having survived their initial encounter with Darth Vader and the Empire, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), Han Solo (Harrison Ford), and Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) are knee deep in the Rebellion. After being chased by the Empire’s forces to the ice planet Hoth, the Rebels find their isolated hideout not so isolated after all, as the Empire comes knocking. Leading the search is Vader himself, who seems to have developed an obsession with finding Luke, not to mention an impatience that keeps getting his officers killed. After a battle on the planet Hoth, Han Solo and Leia make their escape on the Millennium Falcon with Imperial ships in hot pursuit. Meanwhile, Luke has gone to Dagobah, a swamp planet, where he meets Yoda (voiced by future director Frank Oz (“The Score”)), a deceptively powerful Jedi Master.

Technically speaking, “Empire” represents a major advancement in visual moviemaking. Coming out just 3 years after “Star Wars”, Lucas and company have outdone themselves on every level. The stop-motion animation is much more convincing, and the lightsabers actually look like fearsome weapons of personal destruction. I dare say that you could show the original “Empire” in 2004 and cinemagoers would be hardpressed to tell it was made 24 years ago. It’s that good.

If the technology has surpassed the original, the addition of Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan to the writing crew and Irvin Kershner behind the camera marks two of the best decisions Lucas ever made. Aside from “Empire’s” obvious darker theme, you’ll notice the change that comes with a new director in other, subtler ways. The hallways are darker, shadows cover more of the character’s faces, and the action is dead serious. The gloomy atmosphere that pervades the film matches the mood of a Rebellion that’s on its last legs. The scenes on Hoth, in particular, make for excellent gritty adventures.

Kasdan and Brackett’s script, working off Lucas’ ideas, gives maturity to “Empire”, something that was sorely lacking in “Star Wars”. The inter-personal conflict between the characters are more convincing this time around for the simple reason that the characters aren’t given hokey lines to say. The image of Luke as a farm boy is gone, replaced by a harden soldier who is beginning to become aware of his special place in the universe. Han Solo, though still roguish, has begun to realize there’s more to life or than just rewards. Even when he decides to leave the Rebellion, he does so reluctantly.

Lucas must have also let Brackett and Kasdan in on the revelation that Luke and Leia are brother and sister, because “Empire” has successfully moved the unaware siblings’ relationship away from romance to sibling affection. Of course it helps that Han Solo and Leia have essentially become bickering lovers. By the end of the film, all traces of the awkward realization (by the audience in hindsight) that Luke was chasing his own sister have been excised. The physical separation of the three main characters for half of the film also helps to cement the separation between Luke and Leia in the viewer’s mind.

More than “Star Wars”, “Empire” benefits from the Special Edition treatment. There are a lot of added scenes, including an actual appearance by the ice beast that ambushed Luke at the beginning of the film. The furry white beast is seen devouring what’s left of Luke’s Tom-tom as Luke hangs from the ice cave. Also, in our first view of the Emperor (via hologram) the dialogue between the shrouded villain and Darth Vader has been altered. The Emperor now explicitly mentions that Luke is the son of an “Anakin Skywalker”, and also mentions that it was Luke who “destroyed the Death Star”.

The rest of the Special Edition additions are aesthetic only. There are the usual cluttering of scenes with background actors and creature CGI. Of particular note are the scenes in and around the Cloud City, where whole walls were removed and CGI “skyline” inserted. But as was the case with “Star Wars”, and will probably be the case with “Return of the Jedi”, the added scenes are nothing you could live without. As such, I suppose they really don’t harm the film any, except to remove the “purity” of the original version — that is, if one cared about such things.

It’s no accident that “The Empire Strikes Back” is considered the best film in the trilogy, far superior to the rest in the series (including the CGI disasters “The Phantom Menace” and “Attack of the Clones”) in every way. The reason the film is so perfect in tone and writing is because Lucas didn’t write and direct. We all know Lucas is a genius; the man has enough imagination to fill up a city block. But let’s face it, as a writer and a director, he has a lot of growing up to do. Watching the maturity evident in “Empire” — and the lack thereof in “Star Wars” — proves that.

Irvin Kershner (director) / George Lucas (story), Leigh Brackett, Lawrence Kasdan (screenplay)
CAST: Mark Hamill …. Luke Skywalker
Harrison Ford …. Han Solo
Carrie Fisher …. Princess Leia
Billy Dee Williams …. Lando Calrissian
Anthony Daniels …. C-3PO
David Prowse …. Darth Vader
Peter Mayhew …. Chewbacca
Frank Oz …. Yoda (voice)
Alec Guinness …. Obi-Wan Kenobi
Jeremy Bulloch …. Boba Fett

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