Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back

4 stars.

Theatrical release: 6/20/1980
[PG]; 2 hrs. 4 min.

Produced by Gary Kurtz
Screenplay by Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kazdan
Story by George Lucas
Directed by Irvin Kershner

January 19, 2016

Review Text

And so here we are: The best of all the Star Wars films (seven, as I write this). That's the conventional wisdom, and I agree with it wholeheartedly. The Empire Strikes Back showed what a sequel could and should be by taking the runaway success that was the first film and not simply cynically capitalizing on it as a property, but ambitiously advancing it as a part of a timeless storytelling saga. It's evident that director Irvin Kershner and the Lucas company wanted to deliver a worthy successor, and they most definitely did. This is a sequel that transcends the original in virtually every way.

Acting, directing, visual effects, production design, music, storytelling — you name it, and Empire steps it up into the stratosphere of an epic. Darth Vader, now obsessed with finding young Luke Skywalker, is more cold-hearted and terrifying than ever (dispatching and replacing admirals at the first sign of failure, which is good for some dark humor). If the original offered up a new hope and a major victory for the Rebellion, it was decidedly short-lived, as the Rebellion has now desperately holed up on the ice world of Hoth (which provides a nice contrast to the desert locales of the first film's Tatooine).

Everything about Empire oozes a darker and more moody atmosphere. John Williams, whose score of the original film was already legendary, composes here a masterpiece of unforgettable cinema symphonics, with the big, bold, iconic "Imperial March" as the signature centerpiece. I mean, wow, that score. It's emblematic of what you can do with the middle chapter of a trilogy. Now that we know who these people and what their stakes are, we can drop them into the middle of a very big and dramatic mess that doesn't have to be cleaned up until part three (or Episode VI, if you must). In the meantime, we get to really live inside and explore this universe and go to the most dramatically potent places.

After the big set-piece that is the Rebellion's escape from Hoth (and what an entertaining battle it is, showing how the franchise was determined to continue to raise the bar in terms of both the conceptualization and execution of the action sequences), we split up the band into multi-tiered character-and-plot building arcs centering on the budding Han/Leia romance as they attempt to evade Vader's fleet of star destroyers, and Luke's adventures on Dagobah to learn the ways of the Force from Jedi Master Yoda.

So we get a great action sequence that involves the Millennium Falcon flying through an asteroid field while being chased by TIE fighters. It plays like an exhilarating rollercoaster ride. With exploding TIE fighters. And then there's the frying-pan-to-fire realization when our heroes understand the nature of the cave they've attempted to hide inside. Great stuff. In the meantime, the Han/Leia romantic material is handled with the right modulation of grounded characterization and tempered restraint that allows it to flourish rather than flounder amid painful dialogue (I'm looking at you, Anakin and Padme).

Empire's realization of Yoda is proof that you can appeal to kids with a lovable creature without sacrificing a credible character and your adult audience's intelligence in the process (I'm looking at you, Jar Jar). Yoda is a brilliant design of puppetry, wonderfully performed by Frank Oz. He's as or more believable than many human characters in many movies. Yoda's monologues about the Force and the Dark Side are at the very core of the Star Wars mythos. Luke's inability to grasp Yoda's lessons put him in the audience role of skeptic, with Yoda turning us into believers.

All roads point to Cloud City, where all the plot lines converge into a masterful package of sci-fi adventure featuring terrible (for now, at least) fates for our protagonists. Han is betrayed by Lando (who tries futilely to band-aid all the bad things going on), frozen in carbonite, and handed over to Boba Fett for delivery to Jabba. Leia, Chewy, and the droids nearly get turned over to the Empire. And in what is one of the great twists in cinema history, Luke faces off in a much-anticipated lightsaber duel against Darth Vader (all exceptionally executed with great tension and atmosphere) only to learn that Vader is his father. If there's a greater moment of grand, shocking melodrama in a movie with this kind of profile, I'm at a loss to think of it.

And that's why Empire is the cream of the Star Wars crop. Amid a sensational storytelling journey and a brisk adventure ride, it goes all in, goes dark, takes our characters to the brink, and then leaves us thirsting for more. Every time I get to the end of The Empire Strikes Back, I immediately want to watch Return of the Jedi.

Previous: Star Wars: A New Hope
Next: Star Wars: Return of the Jedi

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21 comments on this post

    Awesome review!

    I don't think Empire's ever going to be topped, honestly.

    Unless Disney tries to reboot / rehash this one too for part VIII (let's hope not!!)

    Where to even start? It's easy and fun to rip apart something everyone derides (cough Phantom Menace cough) but it's hard to pay sufficient justice to such a spectacular work of art as this. What can I say that hasn't been said? Let me give it a try.

    I think this is the movie that showed everyone that dark stories can work, thus setting things up spiritually for the darker, grimier shows of today (see Breaking Bad), much in the same way that A New Hope set the template for the modern action/sci-fi movie. However, it closed out on a note of hope with, of course, perfect music from the one and only John Williams.

    And of course, this movie gave us my favorite Darth Vader Line: "You have failed me for the last time, Admiral." (If that's a promotion, I'd rather not imagine a dishonorable discharge under Vader. At the end when the Falcon escaped, Piett looked like he was ready to wet his pants.)

    Not to get off topic, but I just realized, it's funny that I mentioned Breaking Bad seeing as to how Rian Johnson, who directed what is widely regarded as BB's best episode "Ozymandias", is directing Episode VIII.

    I don't typically hold reviewers to the fire over star ratings, as a four star system is not the most precise measure of a film's greatness. But in this case, given that all Star Wars reviews were released (and presumably written) at the same time, I feel compelled to point out the obvious disconnect between this review and the one for Episode 7. In particular, Jammer states:

    "The Empire Strikes Back showed what a sequel could and should be by taking the runaway success that was the first film and not simply cynically capitalizing on it as a property, but ambitiously advancing it as a part of a timeless storytelling saga."

    Absolutely correct. Yet Jammer gives Abrams' derivative, forgettable little film a four star rating, thereby placing it on the same level as Empire Strikes Back? I would suggest that Episode 7 is the very definition of "capitalizing on [Star Wars] as a property". Its entire story is a flagrant rip-off, with no original ideas.

    To give Episode 7 a star rating equal with Empire Strikes Back is a travesty.

    So, yes, the star ratings are only a guide and there is a range in which they cover. I went back and forth on some of them, honestly. But at the end of the day I had to settle on something and picked what I felt best summarized my feelings.

    Empire would of course be an enthusiastic 4, whereas TFA would be a marginal 3.5 bordering on 3. I disagree that TFA is forgettable. Derivative, yes, I suppose, but in a good way and effective and well executed.

    Thanks for the reviews, Jammer, and I think most here get that star ratings aren't the final word on your opinion! :)

    I'm not a big Empire man myself, I mean don't get me wrong, I'd put it at a 3.5 - 4, but I do feel like movie taken on its own seems to be missing a narrative. Is this movie about Luke's training? Is this movie about Vader's life in the Empire? Is this a movie a wake-up call about how impossible the odds are for the rebels? I'm not sure. These are all MINOR nitpicks though, and I only list them to establish what I liked in Episodes IV & VI.

    That said, I'd love to check out the blu-ray of this, at it may yet change my mind.

    Jammer, sorry as noted my rage against TFA blinded me to the fact that you gave it 3.5 stars, not 4. That's 2 more than I would have given it, but at least you are not putting it on the same level as Empire.

    Let's just hope Episdoe 8 doesn't try to remake Empire and have Snoke saying "Rey, I am your father!".

    It's either Luke or Han, who will say "I am your father" to Rey (In Solo's case Force ghost version).

    Even though like most here, I am a Trekkie first, Star Wars has a deep impact on me and it's great Sci-Fi saga was probably one of the best films series in our genre. I don't know if JJ Abrams can do an equal task to Lucas' original as Lucas proved he couldn't remake the original with his prequels.

    TFA was a good movie, but it was no where near the original New Hope.

    I despised that Vader was made into Luke's father in this episode. It marred what was otherwise a stellar outing, and directly contradicted what Ben had said in episode IV (a certain point of view, my ass).

    The idea that the hero has within him what he despises the most is such a cliche, and I found it trite and contrived. It would have been much better to leave Vader as the evil villain, and also leave off his redemption in VI--yawn.

    But all in all this one was great, and I think my favorite moment is all the films is when Yoda is whacking R2 D2 with his cane.

    As a child in the 80s I saw both back to back and I was a bit thrown by the contradiction in Obi Wans "Vader killed your father" bit. That said I don't know how you tell this kid, 5 minutes after you meet him that his Dad and your best friend became space Hitle,r.

    As a kid (first watching it, although the original version, in '96 or '97) I had kind of mixed feelings about this film, I liked it and thought it was good, better than Jedi, but I thought both sequels were pretty big steps down from the first.

    Then I thought it was just a bit too constantly dark, numbingly so, and I still feel that way to a degree (in particular, I don't like that Luke fails or otherwise is made to look bad in pretty much all of his scenes with Yoda) but I have grown a lot more appreciative and enjoying of its strengths, still a great movie although not quite as much as the first.

    Despite my having some qualms, a big part of what makes the film so impressive is that it does go in a very different tone and direction from the first film, rather than being at all a rehash, while still being true enough to the first film's spirit.

    For many years, this was my favorite SW film. But it has diminished in my esteem, mainly because it ends with the story unresolved and it was never satisfactorily resolved to my satisfaction ("Return of the Jedi" is still the worst SW movie IMO, including the prequels). It's a shame: I wonder what would have happened if they let the same screenwriter wrap up the story.

    Episode V, while a favorite, will be known for two things.

    That Vader is actually Luke's father, and that Lucas is a big liar when he claimed he had wrote out the entire trilogy in the beginning. Instead we get a steamy scene of Luke & Leia making out, big time, while in episode VI, we find out they are actually brother and sister! You can almost hear the midiclorides scream out in disgust, then silenced. Oh, then we get the scene where Han & Leia make out, big time. If it wasn't for 3CPO being a C-Blocker, those two would had went horizontal. Leia gets around. Weren't Han and Luke buddies?? What's the equivalent of the Mile High Club in space, in a galaxy, far, far, away?

    @ SlackerInc, the same screenwriters that wrote Empire, Lucas and Kasdan, did finish the story with RotJ; all that Leigh Brackett contributed to the Empire screenplay was the first draft.

    Here's my problem with Empire: tauntauns.

    I love, love, LOVE tauntauns. The idea of having a domesticated furry tusked dinosaur to ride is fantastic. The problem is in the realisation. Normally, you'd expect a special effect to look good from a distance, and be a bit disappointing close up. But tauntauns are the opposite: close up, they are (to me) really convincing. When you see Luke and Han sitting astride the beasts, they look *real*. You can practically smell them. But then it cuts to a long shot, and what I guess is a stop-motion (go-motion?) model... which while it's nice enough, just looks like what it is - a little model. It's the least convincing bit of model work in the entire trilogy, and stands out a mile.

    What's even more baffling is that in the special editions, they didn't seem to touch these shots at all. I was actually looking forward to them getting those sequences right after twenty years, finally making them look consistent with the close-ups using CGI... and what did we get instead? More Wampa, which nobody asked for.

    So, of all the “Special Editions,” for lack of a better term, Empire was the one with the fewest changes. Apart from touching up SFX, which I have no problem with, the one major change I can recall is the insertion of all the shots of Vader getting onto his shuttle after his duel with Luke, flying in his shuttle back to his Star Destroyer, leaving his shuttle after it’s landed on the Star Destroyer, etc., etc. Ugh.

    Now, as I wrote in a comment to Jammer’s ROTJ review, I believe George Lucas has a rich and wonderful imagination, and I’ll be forever grateful for these stories and worlds that are products of his imagination. But a great filmmaker, Lucas ain’t — and the addition of these shots demonstrates everything that is wrong about Lucas as a filmmaker.

    Clearly, the point of highest tension in Empire is when Vader tells Luke that he’s his father, and Luke must decide how to respond to that. After Luke chooses to let go and fall down into the shaft rather than join Vader, everything else is just wrap-up. And yet, if you watch the 1980 version, this denouement is handled masterfully. The pacing, especially the use of quick wipe-cuts between Luke and Vader, is wonderful, and the pace is underscored nicely by the John Williams music. In short, this sequence manages to deal with quite a lot of story/character material in incredibly economic fashion, all while keeping things moving and, ultimately, getting the hell out of Dodge before the shock of Vader’s revelation can wear off.

    If you ask me, it’s positively Casablanca-esque, which is the highest compliment I can think of to pay a movie. When you think about it, all of Casablanca is basically people standing around talking. Yet if feels so much more exciting than that. This is partly because we actually care about the people who are standing around talking. But it’s also because the camera is always moving in a way that heightens the drama, and because of a fantastic job of editing. Casablanca is a stage drama, but because of the way it’s edited, it has the pace of an action movie. Put another way, there’s absolutely no fat here. Nothing unnecessary has been left in the final product, and there isn’t a single shot that lasts longer than it needs to last. For example, there are a number of very quick shots of various characters, a second or two each at most, that last just long enough to capture a character’s reaction and tell us everything we need to know about what that character’s thinking. It’s a remarkable specimens of lean, tight filmmaking.

    The same can be said of the denouement in the 1980 version of Empire. In contrast, the Special Edition’s long, looong shots of Vader getting into his shuttle, being in the shuttle, getting off the shuttle, blah blah blah, which completely ruin that pacing. And to what end? Vader is wearing a mask, so it’s not like we’re learning or feeling anything about Vader’s character that we don’t already know or feel. So the entire point of these shots show more Stormtroopers? To show that Vader already had the shuttle from ROTJ back in Empire days? Who cares?

    I can just see Irvin Kershner, the editor, and the entire editing team working a 20-hour day to get this absolutely perfect back in 1980....and then, twenty years later, George Lucas sitting alone in front of a computer saying, “MORE STORMTROOPERZ! MORE SPACESHIPZ!”

    Again, I say: Ugh.

    Sorry, rant over.

    I must say, this film is damn perfect. I didn't grow up on Star Wars, but by god I love this movie so so much, especially the god. damn. score.

    I saw this way back in 1980 in the movies. It, and the two V television mini-series are the 2 long-awaited cliffhangers I remember from my childhood. While I don't dislike the prequels like so many do, I do not like the Disney stuff (and refuse to watch any of it-I saw the entire trilogy because I didn't know any better for Ep VII, and for ep VIII and IX, friends bought me opening night tickets as a gift and I didn't want to disappoint them. Still, I think this movie (despite the nostalgia factor) is extremely way done.

    The only points that I always wondered about were how (or if) the Rebels got Luke's X-Wing back, and why Luke didn't have half the fleet chasing him when he left Hoth the way Han did. (I mean, it would have made sense that he eluded them since he had a working hyperdrive, but it doesn't even seem that any Imp noticed he was leaving. I guess it might make sense as Vader actually saw the Falcon take off and could alert his navy to zero in on it)

    Despite these niggling points that stayed with me for 40+ years, it really is a great film

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