Directed by: Irvin Kershner || Produced by: Gary Kurtz
Screenplay by: Lawrence Kasdan, Leigh Brackett || Starring: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Billy Dee Williams, Anthony Daniels, David Prowse, James Earl Jones, Kenny Baker, Peter Mayhew, Frank Oz
Music by: John Williams || Cinematography by: Peter Suschitzky || Edited by: Paul Hirsch || Country: United States || Language: English
Running Time: 124 minutes
When the original Star Wars debuted in 1977, it changed movies forever. It, along with Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster debut, Jaws (1975), destroyed the American New Wave of the previous decade and heralded the coming and yearly dominance of the Hollywood summer blockbuster ever since. Many film critics and academics have long mourned the passing of the movie-brat generation and Hollywood’s “devolution” back through the looking glass into the standard storytelling style of Hollywood’s Golden Age, but in just as many ways it launched an iconic franchise that the general public could actually relate to and appreciate. Absolving Lucas and Spielberg of any guilt caused by the bastard offspring-imitators of their original creations, Star Wars brought to the mainstream movie-going public a great motion picture-experience. It hearkened back to the original cinematic attractions that first dazzled people upon the invention of cinema: The idea of cinematic spectacle and the simple joys of seeing things move.
Despite what many younger viewers may think, Star Wars was not initially conceived as a massive blockbuster trilogy, nor was it ever thought of as a canonical universe that necessitated the backstory of three (incredibly disappointing and offensive) prequels (1999, 2002, 2005). The episodic nature of the franchise came later. Still, The Empire Strikes Back was the point in the evolution of the franchise where all this famous backstory, including and especially the Darth Vader/Anakin Skywalker fall-from-grace plot, came into fruition. Lucas had the foresight and lack of total dictator-like arrogance back then to hire a great screenwriter (Lawrence Kasdan, who would later go on to pen Raiders of the Lost Ark  and… Star Wars: The Force Awakens [Q4, 2015]) and a great director (Irvin Kershner) to take the burgeoning series in a new direction. The original franchise’s trilogy-arc became established and the story took an even darker and grander route than the first film.
Needless to say, The Empire Strikes Back is the best film in the series and one of the greatest films ever made. It’s immediate and lasting pop culture impact is arguably as influential as the original, and it’s screenplay (notably devoid of any contributions by Lucas) is one of the strongest movie-epics ever written.
Again, not to beat a dead horse, but this is important to recognize: The Empire Strikes Back = the best SW film (neither written nor directed by Lucas), Star Wars (aka A New Hope) = the second best SW film (when Lucas had nowhere near total control on his film, where his original script was rewritten at least three times, and the master footage was saved in editing), Return of the Jedi (1983) = the third best SW film (featuring notable screenwriting contamination by Lucas for the sake of franchise merchandise, including and especially the Ewoks), and The Phantom Menace (1999), Attack of the Clones (2002), and Revenge of the Sith (2005) = a shitty, incoherent backstory, written and directed by Lucas with any and all creative decisions under his complete control.
Anyway, Empire is a great film for a long list of reasons; its fantastic space-battles, ice-planet shootouts, gorgeous location-shooting and effects, and the now classic first confrontation between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader are just some of the most well-known money shots of Kershner’s brillian direction. One doesn’t even have to know anything about SW to appreciate the superb lighting and deliciously creepy, suspenseful mood in the lightsaber duel; the same goes for the awe-inspiring AT-AT battle and numerous other sequences on the snow-planet, Hoth. Even the slower moments on Dagobah where Luke meets and learns under Yoda are so elegantly constructed and dripping in narrative and thematic tone. Empire’s imagery and iconic soundscapes are as artistic and cinematic as anything from the American New Wave, The French New Wave, or Hollywood’s Golden Age.
As for the story and characters, they too have advanced and expanded beyond their simple yet strong establishment in the original SW. Empire does everything an epic, blockbuster sequel should do: It expands upon the source material and takes the story and characters in a new direction, while still maintaining the original thematic DNA of its predecessor. Not only are Luke, Han, and Leia back (with both Skywalker children’s dialogue much improved), but they grow and change even more than in the previous film, and an organic, emotional, and most importantly believable romance is crafted between Solo and Leia.
So, the story is great and the character-drama is at the franchise’s most intense. Leia, Luke, and Han go through some really tough shit together, Bill Dee Williams is introduced as the super-cool Lando Calrissian, and of course Darth Vader returns as an even more foreboding and threatening villain than in the first film. His character is fleshed out and deepened considerably, and his backstory revelation is unquestionably the most iconic story-twist in all of cinema. Not to mention, James Earl Jones’ debut as the voice of Vader is awesome.
The greatest thing about Empire is how it transcends classic Hollywood schmaltz and melodrama by epitomizing true drama and cinematic grit. Though SW’s imitators have swamped Hollywood to this day through Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) and JJ Abrams’ Star Trek reboots (2009, 2013), Empire’s narrative is anything but cheap drama. Some of the franchise’s most famous moments come from the quieter scenes on Dagobah where Yoda (Frank Oz) teaches Luke the ways of the Force. It builds on the introduction by Alec Guiness’ Obi-Wan Kenobi in A New Hope and remains the most iconic explanation and contemplation of the Force’s meaning:
“For my ally is the Force. And a powerful ally it is. Life creates it, makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us and binds us. Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter. You must feel the Force around you. Here, between you, me, the tree, the rock, everywhere! Yes, even between the land and the ship.”
Arguably the greatest narrative strength of the film is Luke’s arc. Not only is he more mature and battle-hardened at the start of this movie, he also grows immensely throughout the picture and develops realistically and visually during his time with Yoda. When he finally faces off against Vader in the Bespin Cloud City, the internalization of the characters and the searing conflict between them shines brighter and hotter than the brilliant choreography and intense violence they commit.
This was back when lightsaber duels actually meant something to the greater story and the characters fighting them —- you don’t see four-armed, quadruple-saber wielding cyborgs breakdance-fighting against poker-faced gits with mindless choreography, devoid of any emotional investment whatsoever. Every strike in Empire’s saber-duel means something, every line of dialogue advances the story and the relationship between the characters, and we as an audience actually care about the outcome, about who wins or loses and how. There’s much at play, here, besides the fact that Luke and Vader are swinging glowsticks at each other.
As a part-2 to the original Star Wars, or even a standalone film, though, Empire stands head and shoulders above the rest of the franchise pantheon and most every epic Hollywood (or any other film industry) has ever produced. I would put The Lord of the Rings (2001-2003) above the original Star Wars trilogy in terms of sheer consistent quality over their total running-time, but that’s really splitting hairs, and no single other installment from either trilogy bests Empire. No other blockbuster has shocked us and pop culture quite the way Empire did, which is why it established the benchmark of quality second acts in film trilogies to this day.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: The Empire Strikes back is more or less the pinnacle of Hollywood blockbuster spectacle, a powerhouse of good looks, brawn, and brains; Lawrence Kasdan, and to a lesser extent, Leigh Brackett, took the modern space-adventure franchise in a new, darker direction and succeeded on all fronts. The characters are deeper, the action is more vicious, and the story’s twists and turns set the industry-standard for quality epic-storytelling.
Kershner’s superb direction brought out the dark yet humanistic flavor of the Star Wars saga in ways we weren’t prepared for. Every scene is crafted with care and its numerous set-pieces have aged amazingly well.
—> The Empire Strikes Back receives MY HIGHEST RECOMMENDATION.
? Ben… why didn’t you tell me?