Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back 4 stars
Story by George Lucas, Screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan
Directed by Irvin Kershner
If you think of the Star Wars trilogy as a three-act structure and within each three acts lie three acts under that, then you can put it into a much broader context. Therein lies the essence of The Empire Strikes Back, which is more quiet, more somber, and more deep than its predecessor of 1977. It is, to quote Irvin Kershner, like the second movement of a symphony. The Star Wars universe is broadened to a more dramatic and operatic level and the story of Luke, Leia, Han, Chewie, C-3PO, R2-D2, and the Rebellion V.S. the Empire moves forward. Whereas A New Hope plunged us into a non-stop perilous adventure into the depths of space, Empire is concerned with creating more depth and meaning to these already grand and tall tale mythological characters. It slows down to develop character, yet there’s a lot of action too. It shocks and surprises. It’s a tale about love, determination, and revenge. And, oh yes, it introduces the dreaded Imperial March (Darth Vader’s Theme).
Since last we left, the Rebels have defeated the Empire in one stunning move. Now, as the title suggests, The Empire Strikes Back. Vader has escaped in his tie fighter. The Emperor (who was not even seen or heard of in A New Hope) lives on. The only great loss is Grand Moff Tarkin, the general of the Death Star if you will. So, as the opening plot summary suggests, Vader is obsessed with finding Luke and the Rebellion. Why and for what purposes is still unknown. The Rebel base is now relocated to the ice planet, Hoth. The gang’s all here, together again: Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Princess Leia, Chewbacca, C-3PO and R2-D2. Space probes are dispatched into the far reaches of space and eventually stumble upon the Hoth Rebel system. And that is where our story opens.
The opening of Empire’ is not as grand as its predecessor but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It is the second act of an epic trilogy so it is more patient to start off slow. Han saves Luke who has been attacked and held hostage by a huge abominable snowman. This scene gets added treatment in the special edition of 97′. It’s a scene that pretty much establishes setting: the violently freezing climates of the ice Planet of Hoth. Back at the base, Princess Leia and crew are just settling in and are gearing up for another attack. Luke and Han are never closer as Han saves his butt for the second time, but Han is getting ready to go back to Tatooine to settle his debt with Jabba. This is the scene that sparks a budding romance between Han and Leia, and their chemistry couldn’t get any better. Han’s brooding bad boy image seemingly frustrates a bewildered Leia, who fights off and denies any notion of a romantic encounter with the ever-roguish Han Solo. She resists him in disgust and calls him a “scruffy looking nerf-herder” before giving Luke a kiss. Luke fans definitely rejoiced as their nave hero gets a kiss from the girl. But we all know Han is the perfect match for Leia. Her disgruntled disposition, which she makes very obvious, is evidence of her attraction to the Captain. It’s the proverbial bad boy attraction.
As we get reacquainted with our heroes, an Imperial probe has located the Rebel’s hidden base. This sets off one of the grandest set pieces of the movie: The Empire Strikes Back at the Rebel Base. AT-AT walkers march into the battlefield with colossal gusto as they stomp their way through the icy ground. The Rebels don’t have much of an attack plan. They stumble upon the Imperial code but have little time to strategize. They stand their ground but the walkers are too powerful. Their shields are impenetrable to their attackers’ blasters. Luke, of course, manages to get a few but the Imperial Forces are too strong. They want their revenge and rightly so. The Rebels have no choice but to evacuate and fall back to their rendezvous point. Leia escapes with Han, Chewie, and 3PO in the Falcon, and Luke with R2 in his X-Wing. What follows is the most exciting sequence in the film as Han and Chewie evade Imperial Destroyers and Fighters, before cruising headlong into an asteroid field to lose their attackers. They swiftly dodge and evade tie fighters in the field before taking shelter in a large asteroid nearby.
Meanwhile, Luke strays away from the Rebel rendezvous to receive proper Jedi training from Master Yoda. The Dagoba system is a grand set piece: a dark and foggy terrain of murky swamp. It is the perfect atmosphere that adds to the mystery of the then unknown identity of Yoda. Their first encounter sets up a character trait in Luke that has been made clearly evident in the first film: he is reckless and inexperienced. Luke condescends to the mere sight of Yoda: a small, dwarfish, green creature with pointed ears that makes him look like an aging gremlin (comes to life with Jim Henson’s puppetry). Yoda, of course, plays along and acts like the curious old man. He is disappointed at his narrow-mindedness. When Luke finally finds out, through the spirit of Obi-Wan, he pleas and insists on his readiness. Yoda, at first, denies his acceptance and quickly dismisses his case, saying he is “too old”. Yoda’s sudden arrogance is a mirror of the condescending superiority of the old Republic’s Jedi Council (this theme is a central one in the prequels). But of course, with the Jedi facing extinction (Yoda is the last Jedi), one cannot be picky for a disciple. Luke is, after all, the son of the prophetic chosen one.
Vader, meanwhile, has become ever increasingly obsessed with his hunt for Luke. A scene where Vader communicates with the Emperor through the visual transmission is altogether eerie and shocking and gets spiced up in the 04′ DVD editions to make the Emperor look even more hideous. The Emperor is a mysteriously scarred old man. Audiences at the time were probably a bit shaken and disturbed by his appearance. Questions arise from his appearance: How did he become the Emperor? How did he dismantle the Galactic Republic? How did he get scarred? All questions would be answered in the prequels nearly two decades later. Vader’s conversation with the Emperor is of “the son of Skywalker”, a rather elusive phrase to conceal the identity, and they plot on a method to seduce Luke. Emperor: “The son of Skywalker must not become a Jedi.” They agree to turn him and the nature of the Sith is revealed a bit further: as greedy, deceptive, and mysterious masterminds. Returning to the other side of the parallel plot-line, Han and company escape the caves of a monstrous space creature. Again, they must elude the Imperial forces and cleverly hide their whereabouts on a Destroyer. Little do they know that they are being tracked by notorious bounty hunter, Boba Fett, as they take off into hyper-space.
If you are as of yet unaware of the then shockingly surprising plot twist that unfolds during the last 20 minutes of The Empire Strikes Back then you are a.) oblivious to the world and the surroundings you inhabit, and b.) not a Star Wars fan. But this little nugget of intrigue is part of what makes Star Wars a huge cultural phenomenon. I am aware that I reference Star Wars many times as a space opera but I stand by this glorious euphemism. Because it perfectly describes what draws a wide array of movie-goers, not just sci-fi comic book geeks. If Star Trek is the geekiest of sci-fi T.V. and movie franchises then Star Wars would be its distant, yet more popular, cousin. Granted, there are probably more Spock costumes than Vader costumes at the Sci-Fi Con or Comic Con, but there’ll be more Vader costumes during Halloween. Is that a good thing?
The scene in Cloud City has two motives: as a short back story for the rogue pirate Han Solo, and a plot point to take us into the third act. We meet Lando Calrisian and are charmed yet suspicious of his friendly disposition. Of course we all know that he sets up his old friend in a shifting deal he made with the Empire. As a result, Han is incased in carbonite as the bounty of Boba Fett for Jabba the Hut. Vader has now sprung the trap for young Skywalker and Luke’s increasingly perceptive mind senses his friends in danger. What he cannot sense is that it is a trap. So he dashes into it headlong, disregarding the warning by Yoda and re-enforcing his reckless behavior. As he leaves for Cloud City, Yoda reveals another juicy nugget of information: there is another Skywalker. So in we are plunged to the rescue and the concluding third act. Luke finds Leia and the others and is lured into the carbonization chambers of the fate filled duel with Darth Vader. Of course, the duel itself seemingly fails to carry many connotations upon initial viewing other than the obligatory climactic showdown between good versus evil. That is if you lived in 1980 and saw the movie in theaters without spoilers. But today it is like a widespread myth that everyone in the world already comes to know as a given. I, myself, saw it the first time and was already aware of it: Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father (like you didn’t know already).
The duel is quite the spectacle, I might add. By this point in the movie, we know of the Emperor and Vader’s plans to seduce Luke and we know that Luke is heading into a trap. Suspense is not a Star Wars mainstay but adventure and the chase and the saber duels are all that matters to most fans. It doesn’t hurt that it was well setup through two fine acts of masterful writing. But back to the nature of the duel: most fans will tell you that this is one of the turning points of the movie and of the entire saga and rightfully so. To do this, I must go back to my paradigm of the trilogy as a three act saga, meaning that the end of the second act is the second plot twist. Luke and Vader duke it out mano y mano, and the results are sharp fencing technique and a dichotomy of the ever so proverbial conflict between Sith and Jedi. To be blunt, Luke’s saber skills are weak. He has not completed his training and has received little to no practice with the lightsaber. The only motivation Luke has is rescuing his friends and avenging his old master Obi Wan. Vader’s saber skills, however, are at its peak. He has mastered the Sith art of channeling his anger into his fencing and the sweeping force of his saber skill is unrivaled. The duel comes down to Vader infamously severing Luke’s saber holding right hand completely off and then confessing his paternity to Luke. Vader: “I am your father.” Luke: “No. That’s not true. That’s impossible.” Vader: “Search your feelings, Luke. You know this to be true.” Luke: “Noooo. Noooooooo!” The rest is history.
My favorite Star Wars movie is still, undeniably, A New Hope. I thought it was not only a marvel of excellent craftsmanship and revolutionary effects, but a sweeping tale of romantic escapade. It was the hook and how compellingly alluring it was to the mind and the senses. And it had to be. Otherwise there would be no sequel, let alone a multi-billion dollar franchise. But The Empire Strikes Back will always be the one I admire most. It was the most daring and darkest of all Star Wars. Sequels, or in this case second acts, are always the toughest to conceive. How would it rival or possibly surpass the original which became a cultural phenomenon? George Lucas did the right thing stepping down as director and doing 2nd unit with a writing and producing credit. Making a movie as painstakingly grand and epic as Star Wars is hard work. Making a second is harder and making a second one to match that greatness and ultimately surpassing it in grandeur and scope is damn near impossible. But they did it and it expanded the franchise into deeper realms of cinematic escapism. That’s why it’s ranked as the best among critics and audiences, I suppose. Imagine a world where Star Wars flopped. Geeks would get laid and pop culture wouldn’t have anything left to parody. Now, that’s pretty depressing.