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

The best instalment of the entire franchise reaches beyond the stars to bring us giant revelations, confrontations and set pieces that firmly establish Star Wars as an unrivalled space epic. 

Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes BackUSA
4.5*

Director:
Irvin Kershner

Screenwriters:
Leigh Brackett
Lawrence Kasdan
Director of Photography:
Peter Suschitzky

Running time: 125 minutes

Alternate title: Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back

This is one in a series of reviews including:
The Phantom Menace (Episode I)
Attack of the Clones (Episode II)
The Revenge of the Sith (Episode III)
– Star Wars / A New Hope (Episode IV)
The Return of the Jedi (Episode VI)
The Force Awakens (Episode VII)

OTHER LINKS

“It is a dark time for the Rebellion. Although the Death Star has been destroyed, Imperial troops have driven the Rebel forces from their hidden base and pursued them across the galaxy.
Evading the dreaded Imperial Starfleet, a group of freedom fighters led by Luke Skywalker has established a new secret base on the remote ice world of Hoth.
The evil lord Darth Vader, obsessed with finding young Skywalker, has dispatched thousands of remote probes into the far reaches of space….”

Wholly unexpectedly for a franchise’s second film, Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back is better than its predecessor. But there is more to its greatness: This instalment is also a very strong contender for the best film overall in all three Star Wars trilogies. Not only does it contain one of the biggest plot twists, but it introduces us to Yoda, shows the meaty part of Luke’s development as a Jedi, interweaves three major storylines, builds on and improves Harrison Ford’s already superlative comedic performance in the role of Han Solo and shows us an unforgettable city in the clouds.

And yet, the start is far from promising. On the ice planet of Hoth, where the rebel Alliance is hiding from the Empire, the décor looks wildly underfunded and makes us wonder for a moment whether we are watching a ground-breaking space epic or a cheap studio-bound production with people walking around inside stuffed animals. For a moment, the latter is true: The stalagmites and the stalactites look ludicrously plasticky, and when Luke is attacked by a snow monster called a wampa, it might as well be a child’s version of a white woolly mammoth/yeti/polar bear monster – not as imagined by a child, but as built by one.

Fortunately, things quickly pick up from there, and in the first act in particular, we have Han Solo and Princess Leia to thank for the entertainment. The sexual tension between them, lightly veiled in a cloak of insults, is just about thick enough to cut with a lightsaber, and it becomes ever clearer their verbal altercations are in fact merely attempts to persuade themselves they don’t really like each other.

The film is tightly wound around the stories of three characters or groups of characters: Darth Vader, Luke and the crew on-board the Millennium Falcon. This is the first time we get a proper look at the full reach of Vader’s power, and the scenes in which he kills incompetent underlings simply by raising his arm inspire real fear. At the same time, however, Vader gradually reveals his obsession with tracking down Luke, and it is only late in the film that we realise (at least, without the foreknowledge provided by the origin trilogy) why this is. Meanwhile, Luke is on the swamp planet of Dagobah training as a Jedi, while Han, Leia, Chewbacca, who fled Hoth along with the Rebels after a violent attack, make their way through an asteroid field, where the fireworks between the smuggler and princess finally go off.

Out of these three story lines, the one with Luke and Yoda is absolutely mesmerising. Not only are we seeing a young fighter come into his own by trial and error, but we learn a great deal from the tiny and wise green man with the funny ears who speaks with the very unusual speech object-subject-verb pattern. Perhaps the most important sentences in all of the Star Wars films come from Yoda, strapped to Luke’s back while he is running through the Dagobah jungle:

“A Jedi’s strength flows from the Force. But beware of the dark side. Anger… fear… aggression. The dark side of the Force are they. Easily they flow, quick to join you in a fight. If once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny, consume you it will, as it did Obi-Wan’s apprentice.” 

This tension between light and dark is, of course, the major theme throughout the prequels, and while Yoda may at first appear to be a playful jester, his words are saturated with the wisdom of his 900 years. He is a delightful creature, especially for anyone who hasn’t seen him before, and much of this instalment’s greatness is a direct result of the interaction between him and the young Skywalker.

But these scenes on Dagobah are also profound for another reason: They contain the only instance of slow motion used in any of the Star Wars films, when Vader appears to Luke in a dream. This moment comes shortly before Luke sees his own face inside Vader’s mask. In a way, this scene is not far removed from Jesus Christ being tempted in the desert, and the second half of the film is a remarkable depiction of Luke’s resistance to the power that the dark side promises to offer those who yield to it.

The reason Episode V is one of the major narrative accomplishments of the franchise, however, is the big revelation that Darth Vader is, in fact, Luke Skywalker’s father. As Luke hangs on for dear life after losing his right hand to Vader’s lightsaber, dangling above a seemingly bottomless reactor shaft, and receives the shattering news of his heritage, the moment marks the culmination of the first meeting between father and son. Although this is not the full story (the second penny drops at the start of Episode VI), the impact is enormous.

Added to this development, there is also the first kiss that Han and Leia share, even as they continue to taunt each other and thus create, by a long way, the funniest instalment of the franchise. My personal favourite swipe comes from Han, who has no time for Leia’s cautious rationality in the midst of a crisis and shuts her down with: “No time to discuss this in committee”. Simultaneously, Luke and Leia are (for the moment) inexplicably growing closer as well, and the princess’s ability to sense that Luke is in danger proves to be one of the film’s instances of emotional magic.

And lastly, this episode is notable for its inclusion of the all-terrain armored transports, or AT-ATs, which look like giant metallic chameleons with four legs and no tail. Used by the Empire, they appear on the planet of Hoth and inspire another biblical comparison – to Goliath. And of course, David (the rebels) wins because Goliath cannot see properly and moves about too awkwardly to gain much of an advantage in a battle.

Episode IV may have laid the groundwork, but Episode V builds a mighty palace full of details, drama, comedy and the deeply credible development of its characters. It is not a mere bridge between the beginning and the end of the overarching narratives: It gives us plenty of connections between people and shows us things we never thought possible, including the first glimpse of Darth Vader without his helmet. Yoda’s famous command to Luke – “You must unlearn what you have learned” – applies to us, too. This is a brand-new world, and it is so gratifying to have Luke, Leia, Han, Chewbacca and the droids be our guides on this journey.

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