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

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

Directed by: Irvin Kershner

Premise: The fifth film in the Star Wars series. Taking place several years after the events of the original Star Wars, Darth Vader (David Prowse and James Earl Jones) intensifies his efforts to destroy the Rebel Alliance, Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) and Han Solo (Harrison Ford) get romantic, and Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) begins training with Yoda (Frank Oz).

What Works: The Empire Strikes Back is one of the best and most important science fiction films ever made. Although the original Star Wars was the technical breakthrough, Empire Strikes Back is the narrative milestone that set the bar for which science fiction and fantasy films still strive. From the opening, in which Luke Skywalker is nearly killed by a snow monster and the Rebels lose a major ground battle, to the cliffhanger ending that leaves not only the fate of the main characters in limbo but questions the nature of the conflict between the Empire and the Rebels, Empire constantly undermines audience expectation and raises the stakes. The film achieves this with two underlying themes. First, as the title of the film implies, the hero’s struggle against oppression is just that—a struggle—and after a major win like the destruction of the Death Star at the end of the previous film, that struggle gets harder. Luke discovers this in his frustrations with Jedi training and Leia and Han find that their blossoming love affair also makes them more vulnerable. By increasing the character’s struggles, The Empire Strikes Back forces its characters into new states of awareness and to make choices that require sacrifice. Second, after establishing the moral line between good and evil in the original picture, this new film refuses to take the protagonist’s goodness for granted. The original Star Wars presented a fairly straightforward binary between the good guys and bad guys with no equivocation between them. The Empire Strikes Back challenges that, while not giving up the idea that villainy and heroism exist. Luke discovers that he has the capacity for good and evil and literally has some part of the darkness he is fighting within him while new character Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) sacrifices bits of his integrity to appease what seems like a greater good but with each choice he finds himself further from his ideals. By simultaneously suggesting that the struggle is going to get harder while at the same time raising the personal stakes, Empire Strikes Back moves its characters and the Star Wars story to a more mature place with issues and themes that would not be out of place in a high profile piece of Oscar bait. The Empire Strikes Back also made some new strides with special effects. The battle on Hoth features the pinnacle of realistic stop-motion animation (enhanced somewhat in later editions of the film) and the space battles are even more dynamic than they were in the original film. Most impressive is Yoda, a puppet constructed by Stuart Freeborn and operated and voiced by Frank Oz. Yoda transcends the realm of special effects to become a character as real as any of the human actors in the film; it is easy to see the influence of Yoda on later characters from Jabba the Hutt in Return of the Jedi to Buzz Light Year and Woody in Toy Story to Gollum in The Lord of the Rings. The Empire Strikes Back also includes a score by John Williams that rivals the original as it incorporates existing themes and combines them with new themes, including the ever popular “Imperial March.”

What Doesn’t: The changes to The Empire Strikes Back in the 1997 Special Edition hurts the pacing of the film in several scenes. The original cut has been made available on DVD although its picture and sound quality is less than optimal.

DVD extras: The 2007 DVD release of The Empire Strikes Back is a two-disc edition that contains both the 2004 edition and the original 1980 version. This release includes a commentary track, an Xbox Game Demo, and a Lego Game Trailer.

Bottom Line: The Empire Strikes Back ranks not only as one of the best science fiction and fantasy films ever made but it also sits alongside The Godfather Part II as one of the best sequels.  In the thirty years since its release, Empire can be pointed to as most directly responsible for many films made since such as Back to the Future Part II, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, X2: X-Men United, and The Dark Knight.

Episode: #301 (August 15, 2010)