#337) The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
OR “The Dark Father Part II”
Directed by Irvin Kershner
Written by Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan. Story by George Lucas.
Class of 2010
NOTE: As with my “Star Wars” write-up, this post is about the original, unaltered “Empire Strikes Back”.
The Plot: A slightly less long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, Darth Vader (David Prowse, voiced by James Earl Jones) is in pursuit of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and the Rebels, and has tracked their base to the ice planet Hoth. After the Empire’s attack, Luke travels to the swamp planet Dagobah and begins his Jedi training with the wizened yet wise Yoda (Frank Oz). Meanwhile, Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) escape onboard Han’s ship with the Empire in hot pursuit. They seek shelter on Cloud City, run by Han’s old buddy Lando (Billy Dee Williams). Will our heroes escape the clutches of evil? Will Vader lure Luke to the dark side of the force? And why does everyone have a bad feeling about everything?
Why It Matters: The NFR praises Kershner and states that the film is often cited as the best of the original trilogy.
But Does It Really?: No sequel can top its predecessor, but “Empire Strikes Back” comes pretty damn close. “Empire” manages to avoid all the pitfalls of a sequel and successfully expands the worlds and characters of the original. Many NFR films have sequels, but rare is the one worthy of Registry recognition. “Empire Strikes Back” justifiably ranks on this list not only as a great sequel, but a great movie, period.
Everybody Gets One: Irvin Kershner was baffled when his former USC pupil George Lucas approached him about directing the “Star Wars” sequel, having been primarily known for helming low-budget character studies like “Eyes of Laura Mars”. Kershner finally accepted the job, and started meeting with screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan to find the humanity underneath the hardware.
Seriously, Oscars?: The highest-grossing film of 1980, “Empire” received three Oscar nominations, winning Best Sound (over “Raging Bull”, which I gripe about in that post). In addition, “Empire” received a Special Achievement Oscar for its visual effects.
- With this viewing, I paid close attention to the intentional differences between “Star Wars” and “Empire”. The main characters are all pushed beyond their original archetypes, and all of the first film’s reliable machinery (the Falcon, the droids) malfunctions at some point. Amazingly, the film takes a full 180 from the original’s optimism without betraying the characters or their universe. It speaks volumes of Kasdan’s screenplay, as well as the strong foundation of Lucas’ original character work.
- Speaking of the screenplay, film noir legend Leigh Brackett wrote the first draft of “Empire”, but died shortly thereafter. Lucas was unsatisfied with Brackett’s work, and “Raiders of the Lost Ark” screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan was brought onboard. Despite still receiving screen credit, Brackett’s contributions to the final film are disputed.
- The opening Wampa attack was NOT added to explain Mark Hamill’s reconstructed face after a car accident, which occurred a full two years before “Empire” started shooting. Besides, it was only a broken nose.
- Han and Leia are at each other’s throats the whole film. What happened between the two movies? This is one of filmdom’s more extreme “We’re in love, but we hate each other” tropes, to the point where it actually made me uncomfortable watching it.
- Despite his dislike of “Star Wars”, Alec Guinness agreed to return as Obi-Wan for “Empire”, on the condition he receive a small percentage of the film’s profits. Guinness completed his scenes in one day.
- You can never convince me that George Lucas had this whole trilogy mapped out from the beginning. Exhibit A:
- The battle of Hoth is stop-motion animation’s final hurrah before the movies switched over to computers. I blame the California Raisins.
- The asteroid chase is an exciting bit of movie magic, with effects that still hold up quite well. And it appears Han and Leia are graduates of the “Star Trek” school of stumbling for the camera.
- Yes, Yoda has jumped around and had lightsaber battles, but Senile Muppet Yoda will always be my favorite. Kudos to Frank Oz, as well as the entire team of puppeteers.
- I always found it hilarious that despite an infinite amount of alien species in the Star Wars universe, Dagobah is home to lizards and snakes.
- With all this interplanetary travel, everyone in this galaxy must be extremely jet-lagged. It’s a wonder Han and Leia didn’t take a nap when they got to Cloud City.
- Continuing the film’s theme of subverted expectations: Lando Calrissian, the series’ first morally complex character. Billy Dee Williams does a wonderfully subtle job of navigating Lando’s duality. Works every time.
- Of course Lando is untrustworthy; he keeps mispronouncing Han’s name! Some friend he is.
- Yoda speaks of another. Is it Rey? Was she a Kenobi this whole time? “Episode IX” hasn’t come out yet, I need to know!
- “I love you.” “I know.” I don’t care if Harrison Ford ad-libbed it or not, that exchange is perfect.
- Everyone gives Mark Hamill crap for his dramatic “Noooooo” once Luke learns the truth about his father. To be honest, so did I, until I finally saw this movie on a big screen as intended. The revelation is an operatic crescendo in an unapologetic space opera, and Hamill’s emotional reaction is perfect for the moment.
- In my head canon, while Han was in carbon freeze he had very vivid hallucinations of being on Earth as both an adventurous archeologist and a jaded cop/not a robot.
- “Empire” was a smash hit and work began immediately on the saga’s final chapter. “Return of the Jedi” can’t live up to its predecessors, but judged on its own merits provides a satisfying conclusion.
- The biggest influence “Empire” had was actually behind the scenes. George Lucas left the Writers Guild and Directors Guild over a dispute involving credit placement (A film with no opening credits was a rarity in 1980). This made Lucas’ hiring pool of writers and directors for future projects much more limited.
- John Williams’ “Imperial March” is second only to the main theme as the most iconic “Star Wars” music. Like the Wicked Witch of the West theme, the march has become shorthand for impending evil.
- Lawrence Kasdan has continued penning Star Wars scripts, including “Return of the Jedi”, “The Force Awakens” and “Solo: A Star Wars Story”.
- I’d like to point out that “Empire” has had the least amount of changes made to it for the Special Editions and video releases.
- Like “Star Wars”, many moments and characters from “Empire” have found their way into pop culture. Mel Brooks as Yogurt in “Spaceballs” immediately comes to mind.
- Despite his limited screentime, Boba Fett is the film’s breakout star. Seriously, he does nothing in this movie. I haven’t even mentioned him until now.
- “Ben….Leia….Tom Selleck….”
- Bad Lip Reading is always enjoyable, but man oh man do I love “Seagulls! (Stop It Now)”.
Further Viewing: Turns out Peter Mayhew would deliver Chewbacca’s dialogue on-set during production. You will never hear Chewbacca without a Surrey accent again.