There’s no overstating just what a cultural milestone the first Star Wars was in 1977. It completely changed the landscape of science fiction and movies in general. Pretenders and ripoffs of all shapes and sizes came out or were rushed into production and everybody wanted to put their movies in space. But for all the money it made and for all the millions of people who now loved Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Princess Leia, it would have been completely useless, utterly fruitless if the follow-up hadn’t been good. If 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back was merely okay, or even not-so-great, would we still be talking about the franchise after all this time? I submit we would not. Luckily, Empire is brilliant. Whew.
It’s been pretty much roundly accepted at this point that Empire is the series’ best film, but that wasn’t necessarily always the case. It was barely nominated for any Academy Awards (unlike its predecessor which was nominated for a bunch) and it only won Best Sound as well as an honorary Special Achievement for visual effects. And yet we all agree at this point that it’s the best one. I know I think it is. Didn’t always feel that way; it has the least amount of creatures and it’s not a happy ending so as a kid I didn’t watch it nearly as much as the other two. But as an adult, I realize that it’s the movie that made the saga what it is. Without it, the whole thing would fall apart.
Right up front, I want to talk about why this movie is raised in my estimation: the writing and directing. I’m not taking anything away from George Lucas with A New Hope. At all. It’s an astonishingly good adventure movie with a lot of great moments and humor and heart. It’s perfect, like I mentioned in my last essay. But I think Lucas realized what a struggle it was to get it that way, and since Empire was being funded entirely by him, he had a lot more riding on it than simply a new sci-fi movie. He hired people who could bring his vision to life and allow him to his more comfortable position of producer, which is, I think, where his strength really lies. Ideas and guidance.
The first draft was written by legendary screenwriter Leigh Brackett who had written some of Howard Hawks’ best films in the ’40s and ’50s, like The Big Sleep and Rio Bravo. She passed away in 1978, unfortunately, but you can see a lot of her influence on the finished film, specifically in the romance and combative banter between Han Solo and Princess Leia. Brackett could write brassy women like no one else, and Leia is the brassiest. Thereafter, Lawrence Kasdan was brought in to flesh it out. The two of these writers together created at once the most believable relationships of any of the films and the most spiritual and philosophical.
There also needs to be mad praise heaped upon director Irvin Kershner. He never really got his due as a filmmaker and Empire is easily his best, but he manages to make the world feel lived-in, richer, deeper. The director of photography was Peter Suschitzky, who puts a kind of matte haze over things, which rather than making it look and feel duller, actually gives it more vibrancy. Everything in the movie is shot dynamically and there are layers to the blocking and shot construction beyond merely putting things in the foreground. Take the moment where Captain-turned-Admiral Piett comes in to talk to Darth Vader; Vader at once appears in total control and in a vulnerable position, with his helmet off at the start. It’s an expository moment that conveys character. Genius.
This is also the movie that splits Luke off from being just a farm boy done good into the spiritual center of the films. Following the attack on Hoth by the Empire (which, by the way, is so f****ing cool!), Luke goes off to Dagobah with R2-D2 to find Yoda while Han, Leia, Chewie, and C-3PO are constantly on the run from Vader. It isolates Luke, yes, but it also makes his internal struggle more apparent. He needs to learn the ways of the Force, he needs the teachings of Yoda to allow him to blossom, and he needs to doubt himself so that he can eventually overcome it. Everything that makes the idea of the Force magical is solidified in this movie, with Yoda, the silly little puppet, proving that “luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.”
At the same time, we see the reach of the Empire has not diminished since the destruction of the Death Star. Grand Moff Tarkin was killed and now we get Vader unleashed. He’s hellbent on finding Skywalker and wiping out the Rebellion, and he’ll force choke all of his underlings to do it. He needed to be kept in check by the relatively more civilized Tarkin, it would seem, and now that the person in command is gone, Vader has all the power. Giving the villain this much onus is a dangerous thing, but they set him up so nicely in this because it’s all leading to that big reveal at the end. When Luke finally faces Vader in Cloud City, we can see that the Dark Lord is just playing with him. He fights the first half of the duel with his lightsaber with only one hand. He’s in no way threatened by Luke, and in tossing debris at the boy, he’s showing how strong the Dark Side truly is.
All of this heavy, mythical stuff is balanced by the episodic adventures of the Millennium Falcon. It’s on the blink, so Han has to think quickly to escape without light speed for most of the movie. It’s through this constant adversity that he and Leia begin to connect. It’s clear on Hoth that they have feelings for each other, but neither is willing to say it outright. They prefer instead to exchange verbal jabs. This makes their romance feel all that much more realistic, and it endears them to the audience. We want them to get together because they aren’t just making doe eyes at each other and whispering sweet nothings. When they finally kiss, it’s interrupted by 3PO and the audience has romantic blue balls. Despite all their running and how much we want them to get together, the movie does the smart thing by having them fail, and having Han frozen – effectively dying. His is a great loss and Leia’s sadness is our own.
It’s pretty rare to talk about a sci-fi movie in terms of emotion and character relationships. This is why The Empire Strikes Back works so amazingly well. It introduces universal themes and strengthens the ones it already had. It’s the kind of movie that makes sure there isn’t a wasted character, or even a wasted moment or glance. It’s the most grown up film in the franchise and I keep discovering its depths the more times I watch it. This movie gave fans a lot to cling on to and without it we would absolutely not still be talking about any of it.
Next time, to wrap up this series, I’ll talk about the movie I loved the best as a little kid but has become something of a missed opportunity. Not across the board, mind, and there’s still plenty to love. Return of the Jedi on Wednesday, folks!
Images: 20th Century Fox/Lucasfilm
Kyle Anderson is a film and TV critic for Nerdist.com and has been thinking about Star Wars since he was probably 8 years old. Now he’s a dinosaur bone. Follow him on Twitter.