1980 retrospective: You have learned much, young Star Wars
The Empire Strikes Back, later re-titled Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back is directed by Irvin Kershner and stars Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Billy Dee Williams, Anthony Daniels, David Prowse, Kenny Baker, and Peter Mayhew. George Lucas served as executive producer and wrote the film's story.
In 1977, George Lucas forever changed the film industry and the blockbuster concept with the release of his fun, fresh, and exciting Star Wars. The success was off the charts, giving way to helping shape Star Wars into the worldwide phenomenon that it is today. Taking into account the way that A New Hope ended, a sequel was inevitable, and the now millions of roaring Star Wars fans would certainly come back hungry for more. By 1980, the year The Empire Strikes Back was released, there was only one such notable example I can think of in which the sequel arguably surpassed its predecessor. That sequel being The Godfather Part II having out shined the worldly beloved The Godfather, though if you want my personal take, I thought the first Godfather was impossible to top (sorry to all you Godfather Part II and III fans out there). But with regards to Star Wars, how could George Lucas and company possibly find a way to not only keep his franchise going strong, but make it even better and more interesting than it already was before? The impossible did indeed happen. Lucas worked and worked his Star Wars brain cells enough to not only deliver a worthy follow-up to one of the cinema's most lauded treasures in A New Hope, but deliver a sequel considerably better than A New Hope.
Lucas heavily limited his involvement in The Empire Strikes Back's production, wanting be independent from Hollywood and also hoping to finance the film with his own money. It seemed like a foolish decision, as many Hollywood producers back then scoffed at the idea of investing one's own money in a project. Turns out the only real trouble that Lucas had during development was in writing the screenplay alongside science fiction author Leigh Brackett. Brackett wrote a first draft in early 1978, but she died of cancer before Lucas could get a chance to speak with her about it. This left Lucas with having to write the next draft himself, which is when he thought up the idea of using Episode numbering as well as the film's infamous plot twist. Lucas offered the directorial role to Irvin Kershner, but Kershner initially turned it down believing that he could never match the success that A New Hope achieved. Kershner's agent made him change his mind, though.
If we all thought A New Hope was a fun and exciting space adventure, then we have another thing coming with The Empire Strikes Back. The fifth episode in the Star Wars universe belongs in a rare breed of films that can be accurately described as a story in which the villain wins. I mean, the title The Empire Strikes Back would automatically tell you that this is a point in the Star Wars time period in which the Empire and the The Dark Side experience some form of success. It's not so open-ended like Wrath of Khan is as a title. So even though this is a film that has its villains emerge victorious, there's no reason to feel cheated or overly upset because there is no sense of closure with this movie. Yes, there will be another sequel. And besides, where's the excitement in watching nothing but the heroes succeed? And as this is a Star Wars villains' film, it requires a darker tone and a more ambitious approach in handling its character development. There is no greater indication of this than the infamous twist, which is so well known in the public eye that I don't know why I'm hesitating to just state it. I suppose I want to be kind to those of you out there who may be reading this and just happen to be new to Star Wars.
Taking place three years after the end of A New Hope, the Rebel Alliance is experiencing hard times in their on-going fight with the Galactic Empire. The Rebels, led by Princess Leia, were driven away from their home base on Yavin IV and set up a new base on the freezing ice planet, Hoth. Luke Skywalker sees the force ghost of the deceased Obi-Wan Kenobi, who instructs Luke to travel out to the swampy Dagobah system in order to find the Jedi Master Yoda and train with him to learn more about the ways of the Force. The Empire locates the Rebel base on Hoth and forces the Rebels to flee once again. Luke travels with R2-D2 to the Dagobah system, while Han, Leia, Chewbacca, and C3PO fly on the Millennium Falcon, attempting to escape from Darth Vader and the Imperial Fleet. Han, Leia, Chewy, and C3PO eventually make it to Cloud City, where they meet up with Lando Calrissian, an old friend of Han.
Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, and company all reprise their respective roles from A New Hope, and it is worth mentioning how much better Hamill, Ford, and Fisher are with their acting and handling of lines from the script. They all show a lot more confidence in what they're doing, not seeming as if they are trying to force anything or look as if they fear being fired at a moment's notice. But the thing that is really ironic about this film is how this was the least amount of involvement that George Lucas had in a Star Wars episode, and it is considered to this day by many to be the best chapter of the Star Wars saga. Considering that the film continued to take the franchise in the right direction and has basically everything you could want in a Star Wars film, how could you not say it's not the best Star Wars episode? Or let's take it a step further? What's not to say that The Empire Strikes Back should be considered the greatest film sequel of all time?
- The battle on Hoth is the film's most memorable action sequence, in which the Rebel fighter jets combat the Empire's sturdy AT-AT Walkers. Lucas was inspired by the tripod alien ships from H.G. Well's War of the Worlds in his creation of the Imperial walkers, and to successfully create the stop motion movements of the Walkers, animators studied the walking patterns of elephants. If you've seen an elephant walk, you can see quite a striking resemblance with that of how the Walkers maneuver. Anyway, what makes this battle so neat is how it really is a metaphor for the entire movie: The Rebels desperately try to combat the Empire, but this time around, Darth Vader and company are just too much to overcome. The Rebels' guns and turrets stand no chance against the mighty force of the Walker blasters, which easily destroy everything in sight. Even better is how the film can't mask anything or attempt to be sly with its animation or effects, having the battle take place in a bright, snowy environment where basically everything is in plain sight. Lucas planned for this to happen, feeling that he didn't want to "cheat" in a way that someone could with a space battle.
- Luke and Darth Vader engage in the film's lightsaber duel, and much like the Hoth battle, the duel continues to effectively tell the story without plummeting into sheer fan service. Luke tries several times to swipe at Vader, but Vader is able to counter nearly every one of his moves. Vader knows that Luke is good, but that he still has much training to still complete, and because so, Luke isn't able to win. Luke has his lightsaber knocked out of his hands, and gets surprised by a Vader sneak attack, which would be typical setbacks for a premature Jedi.
- It is a rather painful exercise to try and talk bad about such a highly regarded film like The Empire Strikes Back is. The only thing that I can say did upset me in some way was how little C-3PO made an impact on the story. The majority of the film is him following Han and Leia around, usually objecting to anything they choose to do and telling them the odds of survival, a massive no-no in the Star Wars universe. Having a character be annoying in a film is one thing, and that one thing is usually comic relief, but the goal should be to properly using said character's annoyance in a way that can enhance the story, instead of having them come off as wasted space. Han and Leia pretty much take the words right out of your mouth whenever they tell C-3PO to shut up, even going so far as to temporarily shut him down. And in case you were wondering, no, C-3PO is in no way annoying like Jar-Jar Binks was (not even close).
As with all great films, every great thing you could say about it has pretty much been mentioned before by someone else. So what possible new thing could I possibly leave you with about the most acclaimed Star Wars episode? Only this: if there ever was a debate about the greatest movie sequel of all time, then I'm stumped to think of a better choice than The Empire Strikes Back. Not The Godfather Part II, not Terminator 2, and not even Aliens, the latter two of these three being right up there with The Empire Strikes Back in my book. It didn't seem possible that a film as popular and as influential as A New Hope could be matched, let alone leapfrogged for the title "Best Star Wars Movie". But George Lucas did it. He made the impossible happen. He took a story, an idea, a galaxy of endless potential, and a saga that won the hearts and adoration of millions worldwide, and he made it even better. There will never be another The Empire Strikes Back, no matter how ambitious that the new trilogy gets with its new story. One can only wonder what this film would have been like had George Lucas been the director and maintained more creative control.
Recommend? Absolutely, though see A New Hope first.
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