Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

24 Nov


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

When you make a sequel to a largely successful film, you have to take it in new directions. Bring back the characters if you must, but take them somewhere new and raise the stakes in their shared situations. After the surprise success of “Star Wars,” George Lucas was determined to create two following chapters to complete a trilogy as a whole, knowing that millions of people will see the sequel and will most likely see a third one. With Lucas’ story brought to life by new writers (Lawrence Kasdan and Leigh Brackett) and a new director (Irvin Kershner), “The Empire Strikes Back” (which Lucas called “Episode V” when he saw potential in telling three additional episodes as back-story, which would come years later) removes the joyfulness of the original “Star Wars” and takes the series in a dark, thought-provoking direction.

And boy, what a direction it took! Who doesn’t know the identity of Luke Skywalker’s father by now? It was the most shocking twist in not just the history of science-fiction but also film in general (arguably), and many people had to tell their friends and family either about the twist or to see the movie for themselves. (And they also quote it…or misquote it: “Luke, I am your father,” instead of “No. I am your father.”) To add on to the darkness, when you think there may be hope for good to triumph in this one, evil gets the upper hand and things have gotten even worse for our heroes. That was not the case in “Star Wars”—will it be the case in “Return of the Jedi,” the trilogy’s end?

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The film is set a while after the Death Star has been destroyed and Luke (Mark Hamill) and Han Solo (Harrison Ford) have been with the Rebellion, whose base is on the ice planet of Hoth. But when an Imperial Probe Droid arrives, the Rebels must evacuate before it’s too late. But before long, the planet is invaded, as Darth Vader (David Prowse; voiced by James Earl Jones) is certain his adversary, Luke, is present. Luke gets a vision from the spirit of his late advisor, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness), and so he escapes with his faithful droid, R2-D2, to the planet of Degobah to learn the ways of the Jedi from wise Jedi master Yoda (Frank Oz). Meanwhile, Han, Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), Han’s first mate Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), and worried droid C-3P0 (Anthony Daniels) are having problems of their own, going through an asteroid field, barely escaping a strange gigantic creature, and dealing with a bounty hunter named Boba Fett, who is hunting Han for Jabba the Hutt (who Han owes money) and is in cahoots with Darth Vader.

The film cuts back-and-forth between these two stories, and it was a smart move to show both sides go through so much and bring more to this universe that we’re still learning about. They’re both intriguing in their own way. For Luke’s side, it’s learning to stretch all emotions in order to conquer his nemesis and not let his anger get the best of him. Yoda tries his best to teach him, but Luke is too aggressive and impatient to concentrate on the tasks at hand. For Han and Leia, it’s getting from one dangerous situation to another. So we have one story that’s psychological and another that’s action-packed. They intersect at the end, when both sides of the story come into place with a race to save companions and a lightsaber battle with Darth Vader. By the end, evil has almost triumphed, but there’s a ray of hope as Luke reunites with at least most of his friends, as they set off to rescue Han from Jabba the Hutt and find some answers to new questions.

The aforementioned twist is the defining moment in the film. It occurs near the end of the film, after Luke nearly gets himself killed fighting Darth Vader, having fallen into a trap which used his friends in danger to lure him in. it’s no secret now, with the prequel trilogy showing how it came to be, but back in 1980, audiences gasped and were shocked. Even today, it’s a tragic moment when Luke realizes who Darth Vader is and would rather die than join him. It’s the most complex, compelling scene of any “Star Wars” film.

All the actors do fine work, having grown into their roles (and Billy Dee Williams, as a conflicted friend of Han’s named Lando Calrissian, is a welcome addition). But I can’t get through this review without talking about Yoda. This character is a masterpiece of state-of-the-art puppetry. I can tell this thing is Muppet-like, but at heart, I see Yoda as a real character—it even appears like his facial expressions change when they need to. Frank Oz’s Grover-like voice he lends to the role really helps a lot as well.

I also can’t let the review end without even a mention of John Williams’ fantastic score (which I, like an idiot, neglected to mention in my original “Star Wars” review). Williams’ score provides one of the best movie soundtracks of all time—rousing, dark, exciting, etc. This is also the first appearance of his infamous “Imperial March,” Darth Vader’s theme that brings the film to a darker, more operatic level.

And of course, the visual effects still hold up, with the exception of one—when Luke is falling through a tube, it doesn’t look convincing by today’s standards. But that’s one little nitpick I found in an excellent film. “The Empire Strikes Back” is easily the best film in the “Star Wars” franchise and one of the best, most rousing, brilliant science-fiction films ever to grace the screen. And so, Lucas has opened a door to another sequel that would provide the answers we’ve been waiting for, which would be released three years later (a long time to wait but better late than never). How would “Return of the Jedi” turn out? Join me in the next review.

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