Directed by Irvin Kershner
May 17, 1980 (Kennedy Center) / May 21, 1980 (United States)
After a brutal assault on the rebel base on the ice planet Hoth by the Empire that scatters the Rebel Alliance, Luke travels to the planet Dagobah to learn the Jedi ways while Han and Leia are pursued by a mysterious bounty hunter.
Quite possibly the greatest sequel of all time. Scratch that it is definitely the greatest sequel of all time. Science has proven that. I think the guy won a Nobel Prize. Don’t quote me on that.
Star Wars: Episode IV-A New Hope was like nothing else that had had that had hit movie screens before. In terms of its effect on popular culture and how it handled its genre it was unlike its theatrical predecessors. It is a tough thing for a sequel to any film to be as good or as unique as the original. Empire pulled off the impossible. Not only was it as good as the original but it also was as unique as its predecessor. It was filled with sights and sounds and sets unlike anything else. The AT-AT walkers and Cloud City location were original film creations unlike any other.
Empire also saw Darth Vader (voiced by James Earl Jones/David Prowse in costume) become much more of a villain. In the original film he was essentially Grand Moff Tarkin’s bitch. For a powerful space wizard, he was very deferential when it came to the older military officer. That is one of those things that stuck out to me. It did not bother me but that he went from essentially a second fiddle to a much more active participant in the story was noticeable to my very young mind. But Darth Vader was cool as hell so who cared?
Often in science-fiction films, at least to that point, the audience traveled to planets that were an awful lot like Earth on a spring or summer day. Not in Star Wars and definitely not in Empire. Hoth was one giant frozen wasteland. A giant North Pole if you will with bipedal polar bears that liked to hang their next meal from the roofs of their ice caves. It still impresses me.
The little kid that was sitting in that movie theater with so much excitement when they began the ground assault on Hoth still gets just as excited at that scene. Though possibly impractical in real life, the AT-ATs are some of the coolest space machines ever put on film. They are thoroughly menacing things that drive home the threat of the Empire.
Along with the returning cast we were treated to new characters that became just as iconic as the originals. That is not easy to do. There are many film series out there but few of the characters that show up in the sequel become as big of a deal as those from the original. Even some of the characters from the first film are no big deal no matter their importance to the actual story.
Billy December Williams (that is his middle name) as Lando Calrissian was perfect casting. Lando was just as roguish and as much of a bad boy as Han Solo (Harrison Ford). He was a greedy character that sought to protect himself but also had a moral core and loyalty to his friends. He was more complex than one might expect and played with a charm and charisma that only Williams ever had.
I am not sure if I knew much of anything about Billy Dee Williams before this movie, but I knew going in that everybody else seeing it knew something about him. And he killed it here. It is clear he was enjoying himself and that translated to the audience. I remember reading somewhere he took the part because his kids were fans.
We were treated to the addition of speech impeded Yoda (voiced by Frank Oz). I think he spent one too many years on Dagobah and it showed. The dude was as crazy as a loon and jerked around the first living person he had seen in about probably twenty years.
Who besides George Lucas knew a puppet could become a plausible film character? Yoda was not something out of The Muppet Show but rather a puppet designed to look real and be able to react like a real thing and interact with actors. For the most part Yoda worked but when the camera was straight on him for dramatic purposes, he looked a little weird to me. Still does. There is one point he even looks a little cross eyed. But the performance was so good it did not matter. He was as real of a character as any in the movie.
Though having made a brief appearance in A New Hope with the special edition and his appearance in the Star Wars Christmas special being completely ignored, this was the actual film universe introduction to the legendary bounty hunter Boba Fett (Jeremy Bulloch portrayed/voiced originally by Jason Wingreen). I have heard people complain that Boba Fett really did nothing in this movie and they cannot understand the fan love of him, but what they do not get is that you do not have to do much to be cool. Cool is attitude. Darth Vader was the coolest character in the original film, and he did almost nothing most of the time. The same thing with Boba Fett. Always leave the fans wanting more. He looked cool and he acted cool and so he came off as cool.
In Star Wars: Episode IV-A New Hope Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) was a bit of a dreamer that was searching for adventure. I do not think that character trait was necessarily gone by the end of the first film, but it was definitely eliminated here from the character by the finale. By the end of Empire he realized how serious things were and how significant his part in events was going to be. Plus he had to contend with the single most shocking revelation in film history.
The original Planet of the Apes had an impressive twist at the end, but I do not think fans were ready for “No, I am your father.” That was one big “Holy crap!” moment that would be hard if not impossible for any movie to equal today. It was out of left field yet completely in line with what had come before in the series.
I think in the first film it was clear that Han Solo thought Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) was cute but not anything more than that. Star Wars is not a film universe designed for sophisticated romantic stories. What happened between Han and Leia was not sophisticated, it was still well done. That scene where C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) interrupted Han and Leia on the Millennium Falcon makes that droid one of the most significant cock blockers in movie history.
The Empire Strikes Back put things in a bit of an uncertain situation. The Rebellion was on the defensive after Hoth. Luke had been given a life altering revelation by his arch nemesis as well as losing his hand to his dad! And the future of Han Solo was one big question mark. Would they be able to get him back or would he be lost forever?
Empire solidified John Williams standing as one of the great film composers. The man by this point in his career had done several blockbuster films as well as generally having a solid résumé beforehand but by this point he was locked in as a legend. While the music did not necessarily tell the story, it highlighted the story. It highlighted the emotions of the scenes. It conveyed the feelings of the characters.
One of those fun facts that just puts a smile on my face is that the footage of Luke trudging through the snow and collapsing was reportedly done just outside of the hotel in which the film crew was staying. Supposedly the weather was so bad they could not leave, and they just got creative and opened the doors and sent Mark Hamill outside while they stayed in rolling. I just think that is a great story.
Star Wars: Episode V–The Empire Strikes Back is a great film. It is that rare sequel that equals the original in just about every way. This is most definitely a watch it!