The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
Written by Lawrence Kasdan & Leigh Brackett
Directed by Irvin Kershner
The Star Wars movies are always viewed collectively as trilogies, but I thought it would be interesting to examine one in isolation, as the product of a year in a landscape of other movies. Empire Strikes Back was released at the start of summer that also included The Blues Brothers, Airplane!, Caddyshack, Friday the 13th, and The Shining to name a few. It’s no surprise that the second Star Wars film dominated the box office and was the number one hit domestically and internationally. I’d be willing to bet people saw Empire that hadn’t seen the first picture as that is something that happens today with all sorts of film franchises. I have to wonder what a person like that thought as they were watching. I think the film does such an excellent job communicating who its characters are that even if you don’t get every detail, you understand from an archetypal perspective what is going on.
The Rebel Alliance has regrouped on the ice planet Hoth, hiding from the Empire while planning their next move. Luke Skywalker receives a vision from his dead mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi to visit a Jedi master named Yoda. This is delayed when Imperial forces surround Hoth and begin an assault on the Rebel base. Luke escapes with R2-D2 in his X-Wing while his friends are pursued by Star Destroyers into an asteroid field. Han Solo and Chewbacca maneuver the Millennium Falcon into a safe enough spot and make repairs while Solo and Leia hash out their unrequited feelings for each other. Meanwhile, Luke is surprised by Yoda’s strange nature, and Yoda is very doubtful about the young man’s ability to master the Force. Darth Vader convinces the Emperor to allow him to lure young Skywalker to the Dark Side, but of course, we know Vader’s motivations are not about serving his master.
I think many viewers will agree that Empire is the best of the original trilogy and arguably the whole series. But why is that? Well, first, the characters are so clearly written and allowed to have emotions and conflict. The dynamics between Han and Leia are fantastic. You get why they become a couple but also why it all falls apart before The Force Awakens. They are utterly horrible for each other, too stubborn to ever compromise, but that passion draws them to one another. Kylo Ren later becomes such a great combination of the two, the tragic product of their union.
I had forgotten about what Yoda was like in this first appearance. He is extremely pessimistic about Luke’s ability to become a Jedi and doesn’t let up once he reveals who he is. Before that, I interpret his mischievousness as both a test and sign that he sees Luke as a waste of time. When Yoda speaks to the disembodied Kenobi, he is always expressing confidence that this effort will fail. I have to say, I am not too clear on Kenobi’s motivations in this picture. Why is he so insistent that Luke be trained? To kill Vader? To prevent Luke from following his father’s path? As I look at Empire as a standalone movie, I want to see if these things can be understood within the two hours and seven-minute runtime.
I also see Yoda’s comment that “there is another” as a clear reference to Leia, made more apparent when she is sensitive to Luke’s call on Bespin. However, I have always thought that George Lucas did not plan for them to be siblings based on the kiss in the first act. I don’t believe he had this series mapped out in great detail, and so my read is that Leia was simply another Force-sensitive person. The decision to make them siblings in The Return of the Jedi was just a sloppy way of writing the characters out of love triangle in a movie that didn’t have time to deal with it. This is also the best written Leia ever was in the series, clearly a leader within the Rebellion but still human, with a temper and vulnerabilities. What they do to her in Return of the Jedi is borderline criminal, relegating her to almost a prop for the entirety of that movie. But back to Empire.
It’s so clear that this was the best action-adventure movie across the whole landscape of 1980. The special effects and production design are beyond anything else being done in other films. It’s almost unfair how good Empire is from an aesthetic point of view that it makes everything else look like pure shlock. I should note, Flash Gordon came out that winter, and it feels like a bad joke put up against Empire, which was still playing strong in theaters in December.
I don’t think Empire is the best film of 1980 based on my own personal tastes, but as you will see later this month, it is still one of my favorites to come out of that year. One of the best things about Empire that so many modern films could learn from is how not to overcomplicate your narrative with plot and instead use a long runtime to develop your characters and give them room to breathe. While epic in scope, the Marvel films struggle with developing many characters beyond a collection of traits. I also don’t think they are as accessible to a new person as much as Empire was.
A few interesting things to note about Empire that have been primarily forgotten include a short film played before the feature in specific locales. The picture was Black Angel, the directorial debut of art director Roger Christian and takes place in a Medieval European fantasy setting. It’s available to watch on YouTube, and I wouldn’t be surprised if a review for it pops up here before the month is over. Critics were divided over the picture with some getting caught up again in the classic sci-fi serial nostalgia while others not liking the second act lack of a conclusion. My personal feelings are that it is better than the first picture in terms of production value and plot but still has rough edges. When the special effects start to dominate the screen, I feel my eyes glaze over. I honestly wish we had gotten more of the Dagobah sequences because the dynamic between Luke and Yoda was one of the best parts of the film.
Star Wars has become oversaturated, to say the least. I loved The Last Jedi because it surprised me at every turn in a way I hadn’t been watching a movie like this in a long time. The Rise of Skywalker is one of the worst experiences I’ve ever had watching a film, all of my expectations dashed against the complete bloated mediocrity of the affair. I just wish they had found some way to keep things streamlined as in Empire, keeping the cast manageable and not feeling the need to dash around to a dozen planets in two hours. I think it’s safe to say we can’t ever go back to Star Wars the way it was in 1980, but here’s to hope that it can become something that feels special again in the future.