Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
Release Date: June 20th, 1980 MPAA Rating: PG
Director: Irvin Kershner Actors: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Billy Dee Williams, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, Frank Oz, David Prowse, Alec Guinness, James Earl Jones
long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” For the second time, an epic story of good and evil clashing in the boundless reaches of space begins with that unforgettable phrase (particularly interesting since although it’s entirely futuristic, it’s actually set in the past). And again, the Academy Award-winning “Star Wars” theme music introduces a movie of astounding proportions – thrilling starship battles, lightsaber duels, monstrous alien life forms, and highly creative creature designs frequent this groundbreaking science-fiction masterpiece. Although it opened to mixed critical reviews in 1980, “The Empire Strikes Back” has since become recognized by many as superior to its predecessor, frequently outranking “Star Wars” as the most impactful and rewarding of the franchise.
Although the celebration over the destruction of the Death Star was grand, it was not an absolute win. Imperial forces are still considerable, and Lord Darth Vader (famously voiced by James Earl Jones) is now obsessed with locating Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). The young Jedi-in-training has teamed with Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Chewbacca, R2-D2, C-3PO, and the remnants of the Rebel Alliance on a secret base on the ice planet Hoth. When probe droids discover the hideout, Vader commands a ground assault (led by iconic, elephantine vehicles of terror) that forces the rebels to flee.
Han and Leia manage to escape (with a little help from an asteroid field and tricky starfighter maneuvering) to Cloud City, where longtime gambling acquaintance Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) could prove helpful. Meanwhile, Luke journeys to the Dagobah system after being instructed by a vision of his deceased mentor, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness), insisting that he resume his training in the Force by a miniature Jedi Master called Yoda (voiced by Frank Oz). The little, twitching, green, Muppet-like creation is one of the film’s greatest achievements, crafting a character that is equal parts hilarious, insightful, and influential. His words of wisdom are incredibly quotable and humorously jumbled, while his appearance is cute yet appropriate and timeless thanks to the practical effects. Yoda’s introduction is topped only by the climax that reveals the shocking relationship (long since spoiled by popularity) between Luke and Vader.
The love story has evolved considerably, with Leia and Han constantly bickering to cope with their feelings. Han has become more sarcastic, cynical, and quick-witted; Leia is more emotional, caring, and properly stern. The two are perfect for one another but afraid to admit it. Their chemistry is just one of the many elements that has turned more mature and serious than previously examined in the original film.
The dialogue is also noticeably less careless and the mood darker, focusing on alternations of coy romantic banter and an ominous approach to the themes of betrayal, redemption, and sacrifice. Inner conflicts are heavier, while predicaments, decisions, and consequences more disastrous. Promotions in the Galactic Empire are instigated by execution; torture is more vivid; villains are more numerous; loss is more agonizing; and happy endings are more elusive. In fact, “The Empire Strikes Back” is largely a middle chapter with no conclusive beginning or end, devoid of origins explanations and exhibitive of an apocalyptic cliffhanger. It doesn’t excuse the obvious linking storyline, but it does allow for a deeper examination of the characters, which are certainly more abundant and morally complex. And they continue to impress with singular visual designs, makeup, costumes, idiosyncrasies, and speech. In addition, the sets are again astonishingly creative (earning an Oscar nomination), the adventure nonstop, the music superbly riveting, revelations genuinely breathtaking, and the hum of clanging lightsabers utterly hypnotic (contributing to the Academy Award win for Best Sound).
– Mike Massie