20th Century Fox
Directed by Irwin Kershner
Produced by Gary Kurtz
Screenplay by Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan
Story by George Lucas
Cinematography by Peter Suschitzky
Edited by Paul Hirsch
It’s hard to believe now, I know. especially since for many years now, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK owned the crown as being the best of the STAR WARS movies (at least until “Rogue One” took the title.) But for a lot of years before that, even the most rabid of STAR WARS fans actively hated THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. They hated the darker storyline, they hated that for most of the movie our heroes are on the run and they especially hated that the movie ended on a bleak cliffhanger with Han Solo’s fate in doubt and the Rebellion definitely on the losing end of the conflict raging throughout the galaxy.
And this war has been going on for an awfully long time, hasn’t it?
Me, I like the fact that the Empire lives up to the title of the movie. THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK and boy, do they strike back hard. In the three years between “A New Hope” and this movie, The Rebellion has been on the run, forced to retreat to the ice planet of Hoth. It gets so cold on Hoth that it makes Brooklyn in February look warm. Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) Princess Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) Han Solo (Harrison Ford) Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) and C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) lead the band of rebels stationed on Hoth but they aren’t safe there for long. Darth Vader (David Prowse/James Earl Jones) has been sending out robot probes on thousands of worlds to find the rebels and once he finds them on Hoth, he attacks with a vengeance.
During the Empire’s assault on Hoth, Our Heroes are separated. Luke, inspired by a vision he has of his Jedi Master Ben Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) goes off to the swamp planet of Dagobah along with R2-D2 in search of Yoda (Frank Oz) greatest of Jedi Masters to complete his training. In the meantime, Leia, Han, Chewbacca and C-3PO find themselves the target of an army of bounty hunters hired by Darth Vader to track them down. The nearest refuge they can find is on the Cloud City of Bespin, now administrated by Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) the previous owner of The Millennium Falcon and an old frenemy of Han’s.
It turns out that Lando has made a deal with Darth Vader and the bounty hunter Boba Fett (Jeremy Bulloch) to give over Han Solo in exchange for the safety of Leia, Chewbacca and C-3PO. A deal that Darth Vader reneges on because he’s the bad guy and why wouldn’t he renege? Can Luke Skywalker save his friends from the vile clutches of the Dark Lord of The Sith? Especially when it means giving up his Jedi Knight training? Training that Master Yoda and the Force Ghost of Obi-Wan Kenobi assures him is essential to his being able to face Darth Vader in combat?
There’s a lot of reasons why THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK held the crown as the best of the STAR WARS movies for so many years. First is the screenplay, written by Leigh Brackett who had been writing Space Operas since the 1930s and knew the genre inside and out. If you’ve never read her stories about Eric John Stark then you need to stop reading this review right now, go over to Amazon and download her stories right NOW. You read her original work and you understand why George Lucas wanted her to write the screenplay for this movie. Leigh Brackett also enjoyed a long and successful career in Hollywood, writing some of the best and most successful Westerns.
And Irvin Kershner was a director who had worked in Hollywood for many years but didn’t want to direct this movie and only took it because George Lucas felt he could bring a dimension to the characters that a sequel needed. And he was right. All of the characters (even the non-human ones like the droids and Chewbacca) get moments where their characterization is enhanced. Most people will cite Han Solo’s incredible flying of The Millennium Falcon though an asteroid field as his defining character moment. But for me it’s the moment just before he’s put into carbon freezing and he tells his best friend Chewbacca to look after Princess Leia. Harrison Ford puts a lot of emotion into that brief scene.
Mark Hamill tries his best to do a lot with Luke Skywalker in this movie but let’s face it…Luke is the least interesting character here. Yoda tells the Force Ghost of Ben Obi-Wan Kenobi that he can’t train Luke and he’s right. No matter what Yoda tells Luke, he does the opposite. He’s untrainable. There’s the now classic scene where Yoda lifts Luke’s X-Wing out of the swamp: “There is no try. Either do or do not” which kinda exemplifies the fact that at heart, Luke Skywalker is untrainable. Considering what we learn about his father in the prequel movies, it would seem that trait runs in the family.
I’ve always heard/read that Billy Dee Williams and the role of Lando Calrissian was only included/created because George Lucas took to heart complaints that there were no major black characters in the first STAR WARS and I’ve always kinda not wanted that to be true as Lando is so smooth and cool that I prefer to believe that George Lucas always had this character in mind from the start and let’s be honest; don’t you like the thought of Lando Calrissian/Billy Dee Williams being the original owner of the fastest and coolest starship in the galaxy?
Carrie Fisher continues to add depth and characterization as Princes Leia, especially in her scenes with Han Solo as against her better nature her affection for Han develops. Harrison Ford also grows into the role of Han Solo, especially in showing how Han is respected as a leader in The Rebellion. I love the scene where upon finding out that Luke hasn’t reported in from patrol (he’s been bushwhacked by a Wampa) Han snaps out orders left and right for people to find out where he is and he’s obeyed without question. It’s easy to dismiss Han Solo as just another space pirate but in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK we get to see him as not only a competent and respected leader but as a damn savvy strategist. The ways that he escapes from more than one Star Destroyer in the asteroid field chase are nothing less than brilliant and earns him a kiss from Princess Leia.
As I said earlier, until “Rogue One” I always (as many others) would have cited THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK as the best of the STAR WARS movies and it’s still up there in my personal ranking as the third best of the series. It’s that rarest of movie creatures: a sequel that manages the near impossible feat of being better than the original movie. Enjoy with my most enthusiastic of recommendations.