Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

It is a dark time for the Rebellion.

After the triumphant finale of Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back opens with quite a reversal. The destruction of the Death Star has provided only a short-lived victory, belying the fairy tale ending of Star Wars. The Empire is, as the title of the sequel film indicates, striking back, once again ascendant and on the move. The battle for the Death Star may have been won by the Rebels, but the war to restore freedom and justice to the galaxy is far from over.

It’s commonly held today that The Empire Strikes Back is the best of the Star Wars films, but it was not heralded as such immediately upon its release. The shift in tone from the first film was confusing and disappointing to many fans and critics who had praised the first film for its sense of swashbuckling adventure. Additionally Empire’s cliff-hanger ending was a major gamble, leaving audiences without resolution until the release of Return of the Jedi in 1983. The Empire Strikes Back is also the “darkest” film in the original trilogy and many equate the film’s dark atmosphere and the lack of clear victories for the good guys with complexity or maturity. I don’t disagree that The Empire Strikes Back is both the best of what has now become known as the Star Wars saga, nor do I disagree that there is a maturity and character development present in the film that is central to making Star Wars what it is today. But like so many commonly held notions, it’s worth revisiting exactly what makes The Empire Strikes Back so good. Empire would end up being more than a sequel to a well-loved 1977 cinematic phenomenon. It signalled a shift in George Lucas’s ambitions for the Star Wars films, transforming them into a mythic saga that would shape cinema for good or bad for the next four decades.

On that note, it’s worth thinking about how The Empire Strikes Back plays as a sequel to Star Wars. Between summer 1977 and 1980, the film (titled simply Star Wars II in the early screenplays and treatments) would evolve from its original conception as a more straightforward sequel into to a film that critically expanded the scale, themes, and ambitions of the series. In the interim between the two films, Star Wars, originally simply the name of the original film (the series in 1977 was referred to as The Adventures of Luke Skywalker) was retitled Episode IV – A New Hope. This episode titling would first appear in print for the 1979 release of the screenplay for Star Wars and was then appended to the opening of the film for its 1981 re-release. Many of these decisions hinged on Empire’s most famous moment: Darth Vader’s climactic revelation to Luke Skywalker that he is his father. It’s not only a phenomenal twist, but transformed the entire trajectory of the series. Once Lucas had made the decision to make Vader Luke’s father, which he would one day explore in a prequel trilogy, it necessitated the renaming of the film as Episode V. But in many other ways Empire bucks the trends of most sequels, of its time and today, while also introducing narrative elements that have become almost de rigueur, even if Empire does them better and with greater finesse than its imitators over the years. Later cliffhanger sequels, such as The Matrix Reloaded (2003) or Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006), leave viewers hanging, but play more like the first part of a two-part film than self-contained narratives with unresolved elements.

Rather than simply repeat the beats of the first film, as so many sequels do, The Empire Strikes Back jumps ahead and drops the viewer into the middle of the action, expressly setting it up as a continuation rather than a repetition. The film opens as Star Wars does with an Imperial Star Destroyer after a pan down from the star field of the opening crawl. But rather than find the massive ship in active pursuit of the heroes, it is deploying “thousands of remote probes into the far reaches of space,” as the end of the opening crawl explains, setting up Darth Vader’s “obsession” with finding Luke Skywalker as central to the film’s structure as a series of chases, traps, and feints.

Once the probe droids are deployed, the camera follows one individual probe across space until it lands on the ice planet, Hoth. The revelation of the probe droid, with bulbous eyes and insect-like legs as reminiscent of Moebius’s designs for Alien (1979) the year before as anything in the first film, sets up the way that Empire will build on Star Wars’ space fantasy legacy. Remember that Star Wars was not only a hit that would spawn its own saga, but a film that had a major impact on late-seventies film culture, as its success greenlit a number of space and science fiction films across the genre spectrum, from the aforementioned Alien to Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) to the James Bond film, Moonraker (1979). The Empire Strikes Back faced the challenge of not only continuing what was at that point the most popular film in history, but a film culture that was becoming saturated with science fiction and fantasy works.

The Empire Strikes Back had already secured a much larger budget than Star Wars, but even then it ended up going over budget to roughly $33 million. The good news is that it shows on the screen. The visual effects in Empire were a leap forward from the first film, not only in the sheer number of them on screen (almost double the 360 VFX shots in Star Wars, with over 600), but also in what they were able to realize. The film looks fantastic, which is due in part to the work of cinematographer Peter Suschitzky (who would go on to many collaborations with 3 Brothers Film favourite, David Cronenberg) and the recruitment of director Irvin Kershner, whose style involved a great deal of time preparing camera set-ups and encouraging on-set improvisation, more than Lucas was often comfortable with. But it pays off in scenes like the famous carbon freezing chamber sequence, when Han Solo replies “I know” to Princess Leia’s declaration of love. Kershner, one of Lucas’s old teachers from film school, was a Hollywood journeyman whose love of the craft of an individual sequence really shows in the film. His influence is felt mostly through the slower pacing and the time spent in developing characters. It’s something I recall as a child during the Dagobah and asteroid field scenes, which seemed to take forever, but upon growing older I recognized how these scenes do some of the heaviest lifting in terms of character and building the context for the film’s final duel between Luke and Vader.

An unconventional sequel, Empire has a tone and visual atmosphere noticeably distinct from its predecessor, but also a different narrative structure and themes. Lucas’s detractors often attribute this to Lucas not screenwriting the film, as he had done for Star Wars. But it’s important to note for the record that Lucas did write the second and several subsequent drafts of the screenplay, but that he choose to relinquish his screen credit to Hollywood veteran, Leigh Brackett, out of respect when she died shortly after turning in her first draft in March 1978. Although the gloriousness of Empire can’t be solely attributed to Brackett’s input, she is famous for writing several classic Hollywood films including Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep and Rio Bravo, and so her influence is often overstated. That said, the basic story structure of the film didn’t change significantly from the first draft Brackett turned in. But it was only in the second draft that Lucas had the foresight to fix a story that was quickly becoming unwieldy by uniting the characters of “Father Skywalker” and Darth Vader.

In spite of Brackett’s limited influence on the film, I take Brackett’s history with Howard Hawks to be instructive in attempting to differentiate The Empire Strikes Back’s stylistic and narrative feel. If Star Wars was Lucas’s John Ford film—classically composed, full of forward momentum, an adventurous romp—Empire is the Howard Hawks film, equal parts snappy dialogue and intrigue, with a strong “hang out” vibe, especially in its central portions. It’s a comparison that shows the continuity between the two films’, while acknowledging their formal differences. Empire isn’t an art film, even if Kershner often goes for a slightly less-conventional approach at times than Lucas does in Star Wars. For example, Kershner favours more crane shots or low angles than Lucas did in the first film, even if Kershner still maintains a medium close up as the standard for dialogue sequences, along with close ups. There’s still great clarity to the visual storytelling, but Kershner favours more variety of camera set ups. In the early claustrophobic setting of Echo Base the camera is frequently at a slightly low angle, looking up, while crane shots give us a great view of the Millenium Falcon in the hanger bay, staging dialogue on multiple planes. Low angles are used on the bridge of Darth Vader’s Super-Star Destroyer, Executor, emphasizing the pit crews low position next to Vader and his command crew, magnifying the mystique of the Dark Lord. A comparison between the visual style of the first two films  testifies to how Lucas establishes a stylistic template in Star Wars that then allows for minor variation to lend Empire its distinctive visual flavour.

The Empire Strikes Back is also a film shrouded both visually and narratively in mystery. It’s about various hunts or searches: Vader hunting down Luke and the Rebellion; the Empire and Boba Fett chasing Han, Leia, and the Falcon; Luke searching for Yoda. Everyone in Empire is looking for something or fleeing something. Visually the film has many scenes of claustrophobic narrow focus, in the cramped hallways of Echo Base on the ice planet Hoth, the engine rooms of the Millenium Falcon, or the misty swamps of Dagobah and steam shrouded carbon freezing chamber on Cloud City. The scenes on Hoth, despite the memorably cold and snowy environment (filmed in Norway), most often depict the characters hiding in caves and tunnels. Even space and flight is no longer wide open, as it is in the first film, but full of asteroids or clouds, creating corners and hiding places that emphasize shadows and surfaces. Suschitzky and Kershner make a great use of lighting and camera set ups to generate potent atmospheres throughout the film.

Narratively, and formally in individual scenes, Empire exhibits a classicism that draws on several genres: from the Western, to the war film, to the screwball romance. Like a Western, Empire involves “death marks” and bounty hunters; the act of fleeing a pursuing army on the frontiers of space isn’t unlike outrunning the calvary in the old West. An early scene where Han and Chewbacca destroy the Empire’s probe droid is like a canyon shootout, where they surround and blast it from both sides. Empire also draws on war films, literally, in the film’s largest combat sequence in the Battle of Hoth, where the trenches full of Rebel soldiers flee the imposing phalanx of Imperial Walkers. The film introduces the towering walkers through a Rebel soldier’s binoculars, first revealing a massive leg and requiring the binoculars to zoom out to take in the full scale of the walkers. The walkers, animated in stop-motion Ray Harryhausen-style, have a jerky movement to them that emphasizes their mechanical nature. The walkers are perhaps one of the most memorable new vehicles introduced in the film. In other aspects the film follows the structures of generic repetition, including variations on characters and vehicles from the first film, from “snowtroopers” to TIE Bombers. In another war film moment, as occupants of the Millenium Falcon hide in the asteroid cave, the sound of bombers detonating far above gives the character’s moment of respite a sense of danger.

Of course, classic Hollywood films aren’t the only influence on Empire. Once again in Lucas’s work we find echoes of the Japanese master, Akira Kurasawa. Echoes of Kurasawa’s 1975 film, Dersu Uzala, about a Russian soldier and the titular nomadic hunter, can be seen in moments such as Han helping Luke to survive the ice storm by stuffing him into the tauntaun’s carcass, much as Dersu pulls the Russian soldier into a grass hut. For such a brief scene, it is incredibly evocative, with the strange texture of the tauntaun blubber and Han using Luke’s lightsaber burning itself into my childhood imaginary: “And I thought they smelled bad on the outside!” Likewise, the introduction of Yoda is similar to that of the nomadic hunter in Kurosawa’s film; he is first viewed as eccentric and unimportant and only later reveals his knowledge and power. It’s a trope that recalls not only this particular film by Lucas’s cinematic hero, but fairy tales and a larger mythic framework.

Empire develops the Cambellian mythological framework Lucas had begun to explore and introduces a Jungian psychological aspect as well, consistent with the Eastern philosophy Lucas was interested in, in the scenes with Yoda and the Force. This thematically expands on the concept of the Force from the first film, which is mostly about trusting one’s inner self. Empire introduces distrust of pure self-knowledge as essential to wisdom.

Yoda is one of the film’s grandest creations and one of the most important characters in the Star Wars saga. Yoda is a marvel of filmmaking magic, as he is both perfectly believable as an alien being but also incredibly of a piece with the Muppets that performer Frank Oz was best known for (as a kid, who didn’t wonder why Yoda and Grover sounded so similar?). The classic fairy tale element of a sorcerer or sorceress in disguise, a powerful being who presents him or herself as more humble than they actually are, is a powerful one. It sets up Luke as needing to to learn to not trust his initial perceptions, or at least his prejudices.

Yoda’s introductory scenes are not only the source of some of Empire’s most humourous moments, but are also central to one of the film’s most important narrative themes, the notion that people are often not what they initially seem. This can be seen in Yoda, as noted, Lando, and finally, Darth Vader himself. Lando is the opposite of Yoda, as he initially seems like a friend, but sets up a betrayal. Yoda’s and Lando’s reversals set up the film’s final revelation of Vader’s identity.

Upon revealing himself to Luke after Luke expresses frustration and impatience, Yoda intones, “I cannot teach him… Much anger in him. Like his father he is.” This is one of the first hints that the story that Luke was told about his father in Star Wars may not be the whole story. In the scene immediately prior, we are introduced to the Emperor who appears via a hologram to Vader, and refers to Luke as the “Son of Skywalker.” Vader is also for the first time made more complex and his loyalties are put in question, as he resists the Emperor’s impulse to simply destroy Luke, arguing that if Luke could be turned to the Dark Side he “would be a powerful ally.” Why Vader himself would be invested in Luke’s survival becomes clear at the end of the film, but the seeds are planted in this pair of earlier scenes. 

Another key scene for Empire’s thematic exploration is when Luke enters the cave on Dagobah. It’s an explicitly mythic sequence rooted in Lucas’s interest in Campbellian mythic archetypes and Jungian psychological features. Besides being an explicit trial of Luke’s ability to face the Dark Side of the Force (“What’s in there?” “Only what you take with you.”), the scene can be seen as a temptation or, in Jungian terms, an encounter with the “shadow” aspect of our personality, that which is unconscious, instinctive and irrational. The fact that Luke’s shadow should take the form of Darth Vader — with his own face behind the mask — is perhaps a greater hint than merely that Luke might fall to the Dark Side. In narrative terms, it suggests that Luke is not immune to danger, raising the stakes for the final act of the film and its climax. To return for a moment to audience perceptions of Star Wars, one could imagine that audiences enamoured of the upright and upbeat Luke Skywalker of the first film may not have been especially pleased by the suggestion that their hero had anything in common with Darth Vader, even before the family relation revealed at the film’s end.

The Dagobah and asteroid chase scenes, although they slow the film’s pace, are incredibly important to what makes The Empire Strikes Back work. The Dagobah sequence culminates in Luke’s failure to lift the X-wing out of the swamp, and Yoda’s insistence that “size matters not” before he lifts the ship out to Luke’s incredulous exclamation of “I don’t believe it,” which is another important theme. The ability of characters to accept or believe different things becomes another key motif of the film. In The Empire Strikes Back characters are often denying agency—Han and Lando both exclaim “It’s not my fault!” multiple times—or rightly or wrongly accepting responsibility or denying it. Consider, for another example, Luke’s initial response to Vader’s revelation (“Nooo! That’s not true! That’s impossible!”). Further, it’s a film about growth and exploration, often of a character's own persona or desires, known or unknown to themselves.

This is explored in multiple sequences, from Luke’s refusal to heed Yoda and Obi-wan’s warnings to the tumultuous romance of Han Solo and Princess Leia. Han and Leia’s romance is, upon a straightforward reading, clearly in the vein of classic screwball romances of the 30s and 40s, but it even has elements of a Shakespearean comic romance, akin to Benedict and Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing: a couple bickers, their social and moral codes keeping them at odds until they declare their love for each other. 

My recent and frequent rewatching of the film convinces me that Han and Leia’s is a subtle and complex relationship for this type of film. It’s very easy to read Han Solo as almost a predatory character, convincing Leia that she needs a scoundrel in her life. I won’t offer a defence of the character’s behaviour carte blanche, but I do think that any honest reading of the film has to acknowledge how the relationship in the film is developed earlier, in their encounters on Hoth and how it plays into Han’s false front of bravado as well as Leia’s sense of being torn between duty and feelings, her position of authority and power in the Rebellion. All this is established long before their encounter in the Falcon’s engine room. Even Leia’s much commented on kiss with Luke Skywalker earlier in the film, despite future revelations, seems as much or more motivated by Leia wishing to cut Han down to size in front of his friends as it is by any romantic sparks between her and Luke. When Leia finally exclaims, “I love you!” as Han is lowered into the carbon freezing chamber, it’s a moment showing a character finally expressing her own long held feelings rather than one of emotional manipulation.

The truth is that romance stories of this type have a long history. Han and Leia’s romance is anchored in both generic conventions and the history the two characters share on screen, starting with their banter in the Death Star escape in the first film that Anton commented on being so sharp. But the influence and omnipresence of the Star Wars series is also places a burden on the relationship’s dynamics: it’s easy to see how impressionable young men, enamoured of Han Solo’s cool, and in a culture that idealizes “bad-ass” characters, could think that his style of flirtation is something to imitate and not a reflection of Solo’s own insecurities and weakness. It’s less an indictment of the film and rather a comment on the way that many people consume cinema today.

Empire is perhaps the most actor-focused of the original trilogy. Mark Hamill does a remarkable job as Luke Skywalker, especially acting opposite a puppet and droid for long stretches of the film. But Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher give what is perhaps their greatest Star Wars performances here. In the first film, Ford isn’t quite what we know him as today yet. His Solo is cool, but aloof, sharp tongued, but a bit wooden. In the opening scenes of Empire, as he barks back an irritated response to Chewbacca’s request for help with the Falcon, the classic Harrison Ford most people recognize is in now full force, combining his grumpy demeanour with a glint in his eye. And Carrie Fisher’s Leia is never better either. Fisher is equally comfortable in command on Echo Base as she is blasting stormtroopers in those white hallways of Cloud City. But she has the hardest role, managing to embody that regal leadership with an increasing sense of softness and vulnerability.

The introduction of Billy Dee Williams as Lando Calrissian in the film’s last stretch is also a massive boon to the film. Lando adds to Han and Chewbacca’s backstory, offering just enough of a tease about their past adventures with his lines about once owning the Falcon. It’s notable that Lando is the first black actor to have a major role in Star Wars, and his introduction in the press leading up to the film’s release suggested that he would become one of the central characters, something important as far as representation in science fiction films goes, and many years before such things became common. Lando would potentially be a fourth member adding to the core trinity of Han, Luke, and Leia. Lando’s arc within the film is one of a man who has to balance his various responsibilities to his loyalties to his friends. It’s yet another instance of the sequel’s repetition with variation, as he takes the Han Solo role from the first film. With Han’s fate up in the air at the end of the film, Lando even dons Han’s clothes as he and Chewbacca take the Millenium Falcon in pursuit of Boba Fett and Jabba the Hutt.

The Empire Strikes Back’s ending is its most notable feature, and where it really stands out not only among the other films in the Star Wars saga, but in the history of mainstream filmmaking. In its final act, Empire manages to leave several plot points unresolved—Will they rescue Han Solo? Is Darth Vader Luke’s father?—while offering a satisfying conclusion to the events of this particular film. It’s something that is often not noted when people speak of the film’s “cliffhanger” ending, and rarely replicated by other films.

The major action set-piece and narrative climax of the film is Luke Skywalker’s showdown with Darth Vader in Cloud City’s carbon freezing chamber. First the film resolves the Leia, Lando, and Chewbacca escape aboard the Falcon, finishing with the crosscutting between their flight and Luke’s arrival on Cloud City before settling into its climactic showdown between Luke and Vader. The lightsaber battle is a step up in intensity from the fencing in Star Wars, but not yet the kung fu style of the prequel trilogy. Vader’s strikes are vicious and nasty, going for brute force over finesse, and we see the impact on the room around them. When Vader slices Luke’s hand off, it’s genuinely shocking and brutal, and Luke is clearly in pain. The set up to Vader’s paternity reveal is to put Luke into a state of shock and confusion. When Vader offers Luke a chance to join him and defeat the Emperor, and “rule the galaxy together as father and son,” it's clear what has motivated Vader’s obsession to find Luke Skywalker throughout the film. Luke, however, chooses not to give in to the Dark Side, and leaps to possible death, only to be rescued by the Falcon, thanks to Leia’s ability to hear his cry for help. It’s the first indication that Leia has any Force sensitivity, implications that Lucas would build on in Return of the Jedi to resolve certain plot points. As Vader and Luke communicate back and forth via the Force, Luke also pleads to Obi-wan, “Why didn’t you tell me?” The tension rises until the Falcon finally makes the relieving jump to lightspeed and an end to flight from danger that has been sustained the duration of the film.

The finale of The Empire Strikes Back places the heroes back together aboard the Rebel medical frigate—sans Han Solo, of course. Although it appears that they are back where they started, on the run from the Empire, the journey they have gone on is a journey more about self-discovery and personal growth than anything else, as the Rebellion has made no gains in their struggle against the Empire. However, new revelations and hard won lessons abound for both Luke and Leia. Their relationships with the other heroes and villains remain unresolved, but given new poignancy. The final shot of Leia, Luke, and the droids staring at the galactic spiral as the Falcon leaves on a rescue mission reflects the film’s ultimate resolution, while maintaining a sense of openness, mystery and wonder. The galaxy has now been opened up. What they’ll find in the future remains to be seen, but as Luke’s final words to his friends in the film note, “May the Force be with you.”

It’s not an exaggeration to say that without The Empire Strikes Back the Star Wars saga and its sequels  would not be what they are today. It’s a masterful bit of worldbuilding and character development, equal parts mood piece and classic Hollywood adventure. It’s an exciting chase, but also a spiritual journey, and it represents for me everything that makes the Star Wars films more than just another science fiction series and a grand example of the rich and rewarding possibilities of popular filmmaking.

10 out of 10

Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back (1980, USA)

Directed by Irvin Kershner; screenplay by Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan based on a story by George Lucas; starring Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Billy Dee Williams, Anthony Daniels, David Prowse, Peter Mayhew, Kenny Baker, Frank Oz.