Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)




Almost no one was prepared for Star Wars to be the hit that it was.  That includes director George Lucas, the majority of the cast, 20th Century Fox and most film critics.  So little was expected of it that Alan Dean Foster, who was the ghost writer for the novelization of Star Wars, was tapped by Lucas to write up the plans for a low-budget sequel that could re-use many of the sets and not be as effects-heavy as the first, while still utilizing most of the cast.  I say most, since neither Alec Guinness nor Harrison Ford had signed on to the same three-movie deal as the others had.

The sequel had Luke, Leia, C-3PO and R2-D2 going to a remote swamp planet to pick up the local McGuffin for the Rebel Alliance, while Darth Vader went poking around for the same while also looking for Luke Skywalker, whom he was aware had been responsible for the destruction of the Death Star.  The universe had other plans for Lucas, however, and it made him (and Steven Spielberg, who ended up with some of the rights to the first movie due to being one of the few people who believed it would be a hit) a ton of money, not the least of which came from the fact that he retained the merchandising rights.  Rather than being the sequel, Foster's treatment was released as the novel A Splinter in the Mind's Eye, kicking off (along with Marvel's series of Star Wars comics) the Extended Universe, most of which has now been relegated to "Legends" status.  

Instead of a hastily-made low-budget film it became obvious that, if a sequel were to be made, it should be a worthy successor to the first movie.  Screenwriter Leigh Brackett was brought in to write the first draft based on Lucas's ideas, and a good portion of her script was used.  However, it was Lawrence Kasdan's treatment, written largely with guidance from Lucas, that fleshed out a lot of the actual story that would affect the series down the line.  For the most part Lucas originally intended to put up money for it (most of the money actually was from his earnings from the first movie), while sitting back and letting Gary Kurtz handle the day-to-day supervision and Irvin Kershner, who had been one of Lucas's teachers in film school, direct.  

It seems strange at this point, especially after the huge amount of control he wielded over the prequel series, that Lucas was willing to relinquish that much control.  Truth was Star Wars wore him out, and, while he wanted to see the story carry on, he also wanted a break.  He didn't exactly get what he wanted, but without Lucas looking over Kershner's shoulder, what eventually happened was the mythological archetypes we were introduced to in the first movie quickly became characters that we cared deeply about.  

While the destruction of the Death Star was a major blow to the Galactic Empire, the base on Yavin's moon was compromised, and the Rebel Alliance was forced to find a new new home on the ice planet Hoth.  Meanwhile, Darth Vader (David Prowse / James Earl Jones) and a fleet of Star Destroyers have been dispatched to look for the Rebels, and specifically Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), whom both Vader and the Emperor recognize as having significant force powers.  Near death after being attacked by one of Hoth's native predators, Luke sees a vision of Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) telling him to seek out the Jedi master Yoda (Frank Oz) on the planet Dagobah. 

Shortly after his vision he is rescued by Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and taken back to the rebel base.  However, just as the base gets up to full operational capability, a probe droid sends enough footage back for Darth Vader to recognize it as the new base, and it is immediately attacked.  Most of the troops get away, with Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) and C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) fleeing with Han and Chewbacca in the Millenium Falcon, and Luke heading off in his X-Wing Fighter with R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) to Dagobah, where he does as Obi-Wan told him to and begins his training with Yoda, who is reluctant at first.  Meanwhile, pursued by the Empire and lacking hyperdrive capability, Han and the rest of his crew seek sanctuary in Bespin Cloud City, an off-the-grid mining community run by Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams), an old friend of Han's.  Unfortunately, Vader remains one step ahead, and he ultimately lays a trap for Luke. 

I have to admit that when I first saw The Empire Strikes Back I was not happy.  I was also eight years old, never really expected a second Star Wars movie (since, other than Vader escaping after his TIE Fighter is damaged by Han Solo), that movie basically wrapped everything up well.  Looking back as an adult, there was much, but to a five-year-old it was good versus evil, with good winning and that was that.  At eight years old I definitely remembered much more of the film (and I had the large comic version to tide me over until the next movie came out), but I was also looking at three years between this movie and the next.  Empire is a darker, less idealized film than its predecessor, and is harder for a child to process.  George Lucas himself thought he had made presented a turkey, but was soon found out that most people considered this better than the original and, down the road, it is safe to say that no other Star Wars movie has reached the same peak for both story telling and excitement.  

It is easier to take 40 years later, especially since all one has to do to see the rest is just move on to The Return of the Jedi on Disney+.  No three-year gap waiting to see what happens next, just right on to the conclusion.  I wouldn't say, though, that Empire still doesn't raise the stakes and create the kind of narrative tension it did all that time ago, since it is hard not to immediately jump into the last, even when these movies have been around so long that most people know how the original trilogy comes to a close.  

The truth is, as much fun as it is to watch all three of the first trilogy together, this is really where it is at for the development of nearly everything that would happen in prequels, sequels and both Legends and Canon extended universes.  Han Solo is no longer just a handsome rogue, but someone who is discovering where his personal beliefs lie while he also starts to develop romantic feelings for someone for the first time in quite a while.  Leia is not just a damsel in distress, but an important Rebel leader that needs protection, leaving Han often unsure if he is doing everything the right way.  Luke still has much of the restless energy he had as a young boy on Tattooine, but it is slowly becoming tempered by a growing maturity and sense of purpose, which grows even further under Yoda's teaching.  And, finally, Darth Vader gets to be the central villain, but not just a tool of evil; during his fight with Luke in Cloud City, it quickly becomes apparent that Vader has his own agenda, separate of that of the Emperor, and falling perfectly into what would later be worked in to the "Rule of Two" when it came to Sith Lord and apprentice.  

The other thing Empire does well is further immerse us into the universe the story takes place in.  It's still as dingy and used as ever, but we get more detailed glimpses of how the people in the Galaxy actually live, and how different it truly is.  Cloud City is not just a mining colony, but a full-fledged metropolis with a police force and a population living a working to middle-class lifestyle, at least until the Empire shows up.  So far the only other films that have gone far into showing us day-to-day lifestyle under the Empire are Rogue One and Solo, with The Mandalorian also expanding on this with its setting in the early years of the restored Republic.  We still see, within these movies, largely those societies affected directly by the Empire, but it is also a reminder that there are those going about their usual business and not always affected by the conflict.  

Not only did this advance the story significantly, but also, like the first movie did, advance how special effects were used in movies.  Happily, although the Special Edition is the only version widely available, most of what is here was left alone.  A few more background ships were added, the matte lines erased and Ian McDiarmid added in as the Emperor rather than the fuzzy projection seen in the original, and some of the shots of the exterior of Cloud City were expanded.  Largely, though, the movie you are seeing is the same, with nothing significantly altered in the story, and no unnecessary scenes added back in.  The AT-AT and AT-ST are still go-motion models, the sets and matte paintings remain intact and, in the end, everything still looks much more solid and like a real world, unlike the prequels.  Most importantly, Yoda is still a puppet, and while he may not be able to jump around with a light saber in that form, he still looks more like an actual living creature.  It is no surprise that the Child, another member of Yoda's species, was largely done with puppetry in The Mandalorian. 

While Star Wars is definitely required viewing before The Empire Strikes Back, it is the latter movie that really needs to be seen to eventually understand everything that is Star Wars and the universe it exists in.  It may lose a little bit of the impact it had back at the time when, although most people were aware many of the situations brought up would be resolved, it still left the fate of the Galaxy up in the air.  This, of course, was a good thing, as the anticipation of what was to come in some ways outweighed what we got in the final chapter, as good as it was.  

Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
Time: 124 minutes
Starring: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, David Prowse, Billy Dee Williams, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, James Earl Jones
Director: Irvin Kershner

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