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Masterpiece Memo: The Empire Strikes Back

I have a vivid memory as a child browsing the collection of Star Wars figures in a store, and the new set on display. Part of the excitement was that they had the word “Empire” on them, a word I could hardly read, and did not know what it meant. Had I even seen The Empire Strikes Back yet? I’m sure I had. Likely I had not made the correlation between the word Empire spoken out loud and seeing it in print. It was Star Wars 2 for a while no doubt. My role as a child was not to make that correlation, it was to get swept away by the phenomenon – which I did from the moment I knew of Star Wars.


What really stands out for me above all of that was that back then, as a small boy, I couldn’t always fathom how the Empire could manage the retaliation worthy of the film’s title. The bad guys don’t win in movies, let alone strike back. At the end of movies, the baddies don’t win the battles, they don’t capture the hero, the goodies don’t appear sad at the film’s end. Star Wars and movies themselves are a learning curve, an education, from childhood to adulthood, that inform you that sometimes the enemy prevails. The first Star Wars space adventure entitled A New Hope was indeed just that for the world of cinema in the late 1970s. The Empire Strikes Back is now rightly known as the darkest of the trilogy by some distance. The tone not only imprints on you, but continues to lurk in your melancholic shadows long after. But in the very grand way cinema can capture you with its emotive powers.

Back then George Lucas was the conceptual hero. He wrote and directed first Star Wars film, and then three years later handed over the directorial chair to a former mentor you might say in Irvin Kershner. An unorthodox decision, even as Kerhsner (on the back of the thriller Eyes of Laura Mars) expressed himself, who took some persuasion. Well sure, would you want the responsibility of following up on the most celebrated science fiction blockbuster ever? The screenplay changed hands and version many times over two years, Lucas created the story, with Leigh Brackett (who sadly died of cancer before the movie’s release) and Lawrence Kasdan eventually claiming final screenplay credit. The writer credits caused much confusion in the industry, even Kershner had his wrists slapped at one point when he got involved, but once Lucas got his check book out again the handbags were put away – he would make back the hefty costs of The Empire Strikes Back‘s film production and aftermath within months of it’s 1980 release.

Huge box office revenue aside, critically and publicly it took a while for Episode V to get off the ground. This had nothing to do with the magnetic quality of the picture of course, this was more about expecting more of the same adventuresome success of the 1977 film. Over time reviewers and audiences warmed to The Empire Strikes Back and soon became the highest rated of the trilogy. Following the 10 Oscar nominations (and 1 special effects statuette) of Episode IV three years earlier, the Academy didn’t shine on the subsequent gem in quite the same way. I would have added at the very least 5 to the mere 3 nominations with a Picture nod for sure, but also Director (Kershner), Screenplay (Brackett and Kasdan), Editing (Paul Hirsch), and Cinematography (Peter Suschitzky). The snowy landscapes echo the vastness of the series while still seeming far, far away from the endless depths of the black space. Beautifully shot throughout, mixing light and darks to sheer perfection, giving the scope for the intricate action and embedding room for the characters to breathe. John Williams’ score is once again a master work, the amount of piercing music compositions he has in his filmography is hard to comprehend.

Amidst the more emotionally engaging interactions – this is a sci-fi adventure riddled with thought-provoking themes and developments – the pace does not let up. Rebels temporary base on the snow-enveloped Hoth, is soon invaded by the classic AT-AT Walkers (toys that made an incredible Christmas morning surprise one year) in yet another remarkable battle sequence, both exhilarating and visually stunning. As per usual too the space chase scenes are fantastic, as is the unavoidable but compelling aura of tension and doom. Chunked into varied and always stunning locations (Lando’s lucid Cloud City is in tone a million light years away from Yoda’s murky Degabah system), The Empire Strikes Back refuses to rely on just the star-filled space to capture your wonder.

This is about character ultimately, and pitch-perfect in their depiction. Han Solo and Luke are now clearly friends, in the opening rescue mission Han risks his own life to save Luke – he has clearly evolved from couldn’t-care-less renegade pilot to loyal soldier and friend. The turbulent chemistry that forms the relationship between Han Solo and Princess Leia is also such a central theme, again flawlessly realized on screen, it is at times one of the most memorable aspects of the film. Clearly in love, and both as bad as each other, Han and Leia’s relationship grows in a familiar, realistic way, the bond seemingly getting stronger as circumstances threaten to endanger them. C3PO and R2D2, who are actually separated for a significant amount of time here, also squabble like old ladies, though C3PO’s “Be careful” as they part ways for a while upholds their true companionship. With Leia’s causal insults like “scruffy looking nerf herder” followed by Han’s retort of “Who’s scruffy looking?” aligns the stubborn romance with an accessible humor. While The Empire Strikes Back is the most brooding of the set, it also has some of fine comedy moments that never distract from the film’s dark core – the great Yoda and R2D2 fighting over a small flash lamp, and the usual banter between Chewbacca and Han Solo, providing two examples. Even the consistent malfunction of the Millennium Falcon provides some dumbfounded light-heartedness.

On the dark side of the coin, Darth Vader is as menacing as ever, relentless, ruthless, as he barks orders and brings commanders to their knees, clutching their throats, as he terrifyingly evades every obstacle. This is the Empire’s day. The great disturbance in the force for Vader and The Emperor turns out to be one of the greatest story-line identity revelations in cinema history. We can only imagine how disturbing this must have been for children and adults alike for the first time. I am thankful I am not of the generation that had to endure their first Star Wars experiences through the awful initial three episodes that began in the late 1990s. That was a darkness in the force that even the mighty Obi Wan and Yoda didn’t see coming. Luke’s training on Degobah, while distancing from the expected excitement, is ultimately as integral to the whole narrative as any space battle, and coincides with the young Jedi being lured into the dark side himself. Exhilarating.

With Han Solo frozen in carbonite handed over to bounty hunter Boba Fett en route to Jabba the Hutt, and Luke losing his hand in a near-fatal light-saber duel, the gloomy proceedings and your senses are heightened with the still nerve-tingling “I am you father” declaration. I still get shivers. That, and when Leia tells Hans she loves him, and he replies “I know”. Though for me the real heart-rendering moment, and I could cry, comes when the despaired Luke cries out to Leia for help, and from afar she somehow hears / feels his plea – her daydreamy expression of realization is a thing of pure cinematic magic. Turning the ship around to rescue him, they are reunited, a poignant moment as Leia and Luke embrace, having barely spent any time together throughout this whole chapter. It’s a pretty grim close for Vader too as the Millenium Falcon makes its escape. But a somber atmosphere in it’s unforgettable final moments, which makes The Empire Strikes Back a true masterpiece of film-making and story-telling, coveted by the famous shot of the broken group (R2D2, C2PO, Luke and Leia) standing by the window looking out into an uncertain future, for not just them, but the audience watching where ever they may be in the universe.



  1. Steve Schweighofer Steve Schweighofer November 6, 2016

    Easily the best of the series and one of the best films of that year. It's the only episode that can stand on its own, gives audiences something they aren't expecting and truly grounds itself in conflict and uncertainty – something is at stake here and we're not sure all will be well at the end.

    The evening I first saw it, Mount St Helens has erupted that morning not far away in Washington State. On the walk home from the theatre we crossed a bridge and were treated to a dark, blood-red sunset sky (caused by particulate in the atmosphere). After experiencing The Empire Strikes Back and its menacing ambiguity, it was the perfect ending to the day.

  2. […] true marvel of cinema, the brilliant middle chapter of the original Star Wars trilogy, The Empire Strikes Back helped kick the 80s off in bold style. The darkest, most emotional of the space saga, our beloved […]

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