“No, I am your father.” – Darth Vader
The Empire Strikes Back was the most important Star Wars sequel ever made simply because it was the first sequel. If it stumbled and failed to at least match the hugely successful Star Wars, then who knows how the Star Wars franchise would’ve fared. Maybe creator George Lucas may have been able to complete the trilogy and the films would not have been so revered as they are to this day.
Fortunately for everyone, Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back turned out to be much, much better than expected. As it stands, it’s still the gold standard for Star Wars films that hasn’t been matched more than 30 years later.
The Empire Strikes Back’s opening crawl tells of a Galactic Civil War taking place long ago in a distant galaxy. The Rebel Alliance has scored an impressive victory when the farm boy-turned-rebel Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) destroyed the Galactic Empire’s massive Death Star battle station. The celebration was short lived for the Rebels, who were forced to flee their headquarters to the frozen planet Hoth. Darth Vader (David Prowse, voiced by James Earl Jones), commanding the imperial fleet, leads an exhaustive search for Luke and the Rebels with the intent of crushing the rebellion.
An imperial Star Destroyer battle cruiser launches several probe droids throughout space to find the Rebel’s new headquarters. One of them lands on Hoth and begins its mission. A few miles away, Luke Skywalker is out on patrol riding a tauntaun, a bipedal beast of burden. After checking in with his friend Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Luke and his tauntaun are attacked by a wampa, a yeti-like predator. The tauntaun is killed while Luke is knocked out. Waking up in the creature’s den, he manages to escape, but is lost in a raging blizzard. Before long he succumbs to the pelting snow and collapses. Before passing out he sees a vision of his old, deceased mentor Obi-Wan “Ben” Kenobi (Alec Guinness) and is tasked by the specter to go to the planet Dagobah and continue his Jedi training.
Han Solo returns to the Rebel base and announces to Rebel leader Princess Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) that he intends to leave the base to pay off his debt to the gangster Jabba the Hutt. He and Leia get into a heated argument, which underscores the smoldering romantic tension between the two. Then they learn that Luke hasn’t returned yet from his patrol. Fearing the worst, Han heads out with a tauntaun into the white maelstrom to look for his friend. He eventually finds Luke unconscious, but they’re forced to spend the night out in the tundra.
The next day, a Rebel patrol rescues them. Back at the base the celebration over their return is cut short with the news that a probe droid transmitted their location to the Empire. The Rebels are forced to evacuate as Darth Vader arrives with his fleet and dispatches a contingent of imperial walkers, ambulatory tank units shaped like quadrupeds, to attack the Rebel base. To delay the imperials, Luke and a group of fighter pilots fly several snowspeeder fighter craft and engage the walkers, but the fight is one sided. The walkers are too armored for the snowspeeders. Still, the fight gives the Rebels enough time to evacuate. However, Leia is blocked off from her route to an assigned ship. This forces her and the protocol droid C-3P0 (Anthony Daniels) to leave with Han and his Wookiee first mate Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) in his ship the Millennium Falcon.
Once in space, Han finds out that the Millennium Falcon’s engines are damaged and the ship can’t jump into hyperspace. Pursued by imperial ships, Han hides out in an asteroid field to make some repairs. During this time, the feelings between him and Leia grow stronger and the two begin a romantic relationship.
While Han, Leia, Chewbacca and C-3P0 escaped Hoth, Luke and his astromech droid R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) managed to flee Hoth as well in his X-Wing fighter craft. Instead of rendezvousing with the Rebels, Luke instead goes to the planet Dagobah, a planet covered in dense vegetations and swampy environments. The X-Wing crashes into a swamp, but Luke and the droid are able to make a camp. Before long, they are visited by a diminutive, goblin-like being (Frank Oz) that claims to know Yoda and takes Luke to meet him.
Luke and R2-D2 accompany the small green person to his muddy hut and Luke becomes irritated by the person’s eccentric behavior and syntax. The being rummages about his dwelling and speaks gibberish to the point that Luke scolds him about wasting time. Seeing the young man’s impatience, his demeanor becomes serious and says to an unseen person that Luke cannot be trained. In response, Obi-Wan’s disembodied voice implores that Luke has potential. Luke realizes that this person that he dismissed moments ago is indeed Yoda. Startled by his error in judgment, Luke joins in the conversation and practically begs to be trained as a Jedi. Finally, Yoda gives in agrees to train him.
Time passes in the bog as Luke learns the ways of the Force, the mystical energy field wielded by the Jedi. He grows in mind and body as he undergoes physical and mental training. He also begins to have explicit visions. One of them is a precognitive one. Luke sees that his friends Han and Leia are in trouble. This convinces Luke that he has to leave to save his friends. This concerns Yoda and Obi-Wan, who now appears as ghostly presence. They believe that Luke hasn’t completed his Jedi training and is vulnerable to Vader and the Emperor (Ian McDiarmid), who want to lure him into embracing the dark side of the Force. Luke is adamant about leaving Dagobah, but promises to return to complete his training. As he leaves with R2-D2 in his salvaged X-Wing, Obi-Wan laments that Luke is their only hope. Yoda replies “No, there is another.”
Back on the asteroid field, Han and his group are forced to leave their hideout because it turned out that he piloted the Millennium Falcon inside of a giant whale-like space creature. Outside the field, they resume their cat-and-mouse game with the imperial ships. During the maneuvers, the Falcon is able to evade the Star Destroyers by piggybacking onto the side of one of their hulls. The Rebels are finally able to shake their pursuers when the Star Destroyer jettisons its garbage and they drift away with the debris. The plan works as the imperial fleet jumps into hyperspace, but they’re unaware that nearby in a small ship, a bounty hunter called Boba Fett (Jeremy Bulloch) is tracking them.
Going through his navigational charts, Han realizes that they’re near the planet Bespin. He knows an old friend there, Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams), who runs a floating mining facility there and can offer them a safe haven. When they arrive in the luxurious floating city, they’re greeted warmly by Lando, but they don’t realize that they have walked into a trap that will lure Luke Skywalker into the hands of Darth Vader.
No argument here that Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back is a bonafide masterpiece. It may be hard for some to picture the anxiety that so many fans had when this film went into production. That is because generally sequels are inferior to original films and sadly, that holds true for the most part to this day. It exceeded expectations for many though hard as it is to believe today, received some mixed reviews from critics. Fortunately, the film has stood the test of time and has grown in stature as people saw its merits.
Comparing The Empire Strikes Back and the original Star Wars, it’s obvious that the sequel is darker, more adult and reflects an ambiguity that belied the simplistic nature of the first Star Wars film. Oddly enough, the film wasn’t always meant to be so dark.
George Lucas began pre-production he hired screenwriter and sci-fi author Leigh Brackett to turn in a draft that was known as Star Wars II. Lucas wasn’t happy with the first draft, but Brackett passed away before she could revise it. Lucas then tinkered with the script that had Luke’s father and Darth Vader as two separate people. He decided to up the stakes for Luke by changing his father’s identity and on the whole made the script darker. It was also at this point that the Episode sub-heading started to appear. Lucas eventually turned the script over to Lawrence Kasdan who just finished writing Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Then Lucas turned his attention to producing duties. Unfortunately, this meant he didn’t have time to direct the sequel so he hired his old USC professor Irvin Kershner. These choices were fortuitous for the film since the input from Kershner and Kasdan elevated the film into loftier heights. Needless to say, the film’s script was a tightly guarded secret that few were privy to. Even the revelation about Luke and Vader was only known to a handful of people. In fact, during the filming of Vader’s infamous revelation, different lines of dialogue were used, including one where Vader revealed that Obi-Wan killed Luke’s father.
Luke’s relationship with Vader was undeniably turned upside down with this film. By having his worst enemy be his father, the film underlined its ambiguous nature. If Vader was Luke’s father does that mean that Luke was capable of evil? He had many warnings about it that he failed to heed until he confronted Vader and it nearly undid him. Thanks to Hamill’s acting and the sweeping, operatic direction and editing, for a moment we’re convinced that Luke was so conflicted after the reveal that it seemed as if that he could’ve been lured into the dark side of the Force. But unlike his father in Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, Luke showed that he had more strength than his father. He was able in the end to ignore temptation and reject the dark side. Luke underwent a brutally fast emotional crisis, but he demonstrated by jumping into his seeming death that he would rather die than give in to Vader’s corruptive influence. That is why Luke Skywalker is a true hero.
Other heroes in the film have their own transformative episodes. Han Solo and Princess Leia have a classic, smoldering love/hate relationship that was oozing with unrealized romantic tension. The non-stop, rapid-fire banter between the two was scintillating and harkened back to the old Hollywood romantic classics. Who can forget the immortal final exchange between Han and Leia before he is lowered into the carbonite? She professes her love for him and he non-chalantly replies “I know.” It was to Kershner’s credit that he allowed Harrison Ford to ad-lib the line since that simple phrase encapsulates everything you need to know about Han. He’s a rakish rogue with snappy and brusque dialogue who has a practical outlook. At the same time, Leia, who came off as an acid-tongued, cold-hearted shrew lowered her tough defenses and allowed herself to love someone. Both actors certainly turned in the best performances as these star-struck lovers and they make a terrific onscreen couple. That’s odd considering that Carrie Fisher admitted she was on drugs when filming some of these scenes.
It has to be pointed out that this sequel proves that Lucas didn’t have the entire storyline mapped out as he would like us all to believe. That is because before Han and Leia became a couple there was a subtle triangle between those two and Luke. In the original Star Wars, he was clearly enamored by her though he never expressed it. Then there is the ultimate ick-factor scene in this film when Leia, by trying to make Han jealous, gives Luke a big, smoldering kiss on the lips. Then we find out in the next film that Luke and Leia are siblings. OK then. Strangely enough, when Lucas went ahead and did these special editions with updated f/x, that was one scene that could’ve been excised, but he let it stay. On that note, this original Star Wars film had the least amount of tinkering done by Lucas, which points to how well the film stands to this day.
That is due to the film hitting all the marks in terms of inspired acting, rich cinematography, lush music, introducing new characters, and a nearly flawless yet unconventional story. In the last regard, Lucas set out to craft a film that has a different plot than the original. There isn’t another Death Star, the characters have clearly grown and changed, especially Luke who faces the ambiguity of life, and even the narrative structure is different. The big battle between armies happens roughly instead of the conclusion. The climax instead focuses on the tense lightsaber duel between Luke and Vader. It was something audiences have wanted to see ever since the original Star Wars and the filmmakers delivered a thrilling and suspenseful fight that is still one of the series’ best lightsaber duels. Heightening the tension is that Luke is still a novice and Vader is largely playing with him. Then there is the shocking revelation about Vader being Luke’s father that regrettably is a muted today if one were to watch all the films chronologically since the relationship is plain to see.
The only complaints about The Empire Strikes Back are rather miniscule. There is the scientific goof of how the Millennium Falcon was able to get from Hoth to Bespin without going into hyperspace. The increased amount of bickering and griping from the characters can be seen as annoying to some (non-fans obviously) and there is the ending itself. It’s a huge cliffhanger and a downer. Han is captured by Boba Fett, Luke nearly succumbs to Vader and the Rebels are on the run. It’s an ending that is a far cry from the celebratory mood of A New Hope. Plus, unlike cliffhanger films these days, there was a long wait for the conclusion, which added to the frustration when the lights came on.
Those quibbles aside, Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back is a marvelous film that wrote the book on how sequels should be done and is one of the very best films ever made.