Film reviews

The Empire Strikes Back (1980).

Empire Strike Back - Yoda.

No, not try! Do, or do not. There is no try.”

Just what would American cinema be without the wisdom of Jedi master Yoda? Without the saga-defining twist that shook audiences around the world? Without the iconic Imperial March accompanying the Galactic Empire in their relentless pursuit of the Rebel Alliance?

With the widespread success of the first Star Wars film in 1977, George Lucas didn’t take long in getting to work on the sequel – while forming ideas for a possible seven further films to come. It was here, with The Empire Strikes Back three years later, that the entire saga really found its narrative footing, providing the backbone on which both Star Wars trilogies rest.

Now knowing Star Wars would be a trilogy at the very least, Lucas felt more free in his storytelling. Empire truly feels like the middle part of a trilogy in the best possible sense. The screenplay is full of action, wonderfully paced, not having to rush through plot details to wrap up the story before the film’s end, while also dropping several hints about where the next film would go. One memorable scene (though are there really any scenes in this movie that aren’t memorable?) even employs metaphorical imagery; something one doesn’t attempt in a major Hollywood movie unless they’re supremely confident in their film.

Confidence is something George Lucas has never lacked, and that didn’t always work in our favour, but when combined with certain other essential elements in 1980, it helped create what most would say is the best Star Wars movie of all. One could argue it belongs alongside the all-time greats in any context.

The film opened on the ice planet of Hoth; a stark contrast to the sandy deserts of Tatooine in the first movie. Though Star Wars climaxed with a major victory for the Rebel Alliance as they managed to destroy the Death Star, you get the sense in this sequel that all their victory served to do was anger the Empire – and now the Rebels are on their radar like never before.

In fact The Empire Strikes Back couldn’t have had a more appropriate title, because from the start that’s exactly what the Empire intend to do. Having just been introduced to the Rebel base on Hoth, the first major piece of action we see there is its evacuation, in a scene that rivalled the final twenty minutes of Star Wars – the difference being, of course, that this was the first twenty minutes of Empire.

The famous, intimidating AT-AT Walkers were introduced in Empire's opening action sequence - setting the perfect tone for the rest of the film.
The famous, intimidating AT-AT Walkers were introduced in Empire’s opening action sequence – setting the perfect tone for the rest of the film.

No doubt about it; The Empire Strikes Back was a much darker movie than its predecessor, with its characters under greater threat from all angles. Even the usually trustworthy Millennium Falcon refuses to work properly for most of the film. From the moment Luke lands on Dagobah to find Jedi master Yoda, who will instruct him on his way to becoming a Jedi knight, the harsh environment is against him. And we see Darth Vader systematically kill off any Imperial troops who fail him as they pursue the protagonists.

One of the nicest touches to this film for me was actually that aspect of showing you the inner workings of the Empire – the Imperial troops come across as real people with genuine concerns for their life when something goes wrong, knowing they have to face Lord Vader at the end of it.

Needless to say the film was – and still is – astoundingly beautiful and brilliantly well shot. Most of the credit for this must go to director Irvin Kershner, whom Lucas hired when he decided to focus more on producing (having directed the original film himself). Apparently Kershner appealed to Lucas because of the director’s focus on character development, and it was a wise choice across the board considering the finished product.

But let’s not pass over the soundtrack. Once again John Williams provided a score that was as iconic as Star Wars, and I would argue he even outdid himself in this sequel. Is that Imperial March not one of the most iconic pieces of music in cinema history? It’s one that always remains in my head for at least a few weeks following any viewing of The Empire Strikes Back, and when I’m sitting in the cinema waiting to see The Force Awakens a few weeks from now, I guarantee you it’ll be going through my mind on loop as I ponder what a high bar has been set.

Though this movie carried an unmistakably darker tone, it was also a funnier film than its predecessor. C-3PO is on top form with his sarcastic quips and sense of self-importance, while Luke’s encounter with Yoda is hilarious before we find out that this little green creature is in fact the grand master Jedi we’d been hearing so much about.

That was the entire point of course; to show us that one shouldn’t judge on appearances, and although Yoda only features for barely more than a third of this movie, the amount of wisdom he is able to impart not just to Luke, but to all of us in that time is astonishing. For any typical kid growing up, they couldn’t have found a better teacher in the world of film than little master Yoda, who taught as much in what he left unsaid as in what he did say. His design, though not overly elaborate, was Lucas’ finest moment as it pertains to creature creation.

While the action zips along (you hardly notice the time going in), a subtle plot point appears out of the blue mid-way through the film, when we get our first glimpse of the Emperor, mastermind behind the Galactic Empire and the only one Darth Vader answers to. They discuss the ‘new threat’ of Luke Skywalker and speak of the possibility that he could be turned to the dark side; a brief scene but a vital one for getting the audience emotionally invested in the showdown between Vader and Luke to come – and to tease the involvement of the largely unseen Emperor, whom we know must come into play at some point if the Rebels are to ultimately win this fight.

It ended – rather frustratingly for audiences at the time, who would have to wait a whole three years for the next film – on one of the most iconic cliffhangers ever; Han Solo frozen in carbonite, his fate unknown as he is taken to Jabba the Hutt by the renegade bounty hunter Boba Fett, while Luke and Leia recover from what amounts to defeat at the end of the movie. And that’s after Darth Vader reveals that he’s Luke’s father before inviting him to overthrow the Emperor so “we can rule the galaxy as father and son”.

Audiences were left somewhat unsatisfied with Empire's ending - but that only built anticipation for what was to come...
Audiences were left somewhat unsatisfied with Empire’s ending – but that only built anticipation for what was to come…

In contrast to the first film, this wasn’t a battle the good guys won. The Empire really did ‘strike back’ for most of the movie, and a lot of the time was spent fleeing or hiding from them. At the end of this sequel, audiences were left with the uneasy feeling that the score was level at one apiece; and something would have to give in the third and final part of the trilogy.

10 / 10

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