While perusing my website’s ever-growing archive of movie reviews (you can find it HERE), I eventually came to the Star Wars films. It was there that I made an alarming discovery. Out of all the Star Wars movies I’ve written about, there were only two I haven’t reviewed, “The Empire Strikes Back” and “The Return of the Jedi”. I won’t rehash my deep adoration for the franchise, but this was particularly jarring, especially since these are my two favorite Star Wars movies. So it’s time to plug those two gaping holes starting with “Empire”
“The Empire Strikes Back” is an important movie to me for a number of reasons. Not only do I think it’s the very best Star Wars film. I also think it’s one of the best sequels ever made. And on a more personal level, it’s the movie that really opened up cinema for me in an entirely new way. I remember leaving the theater as a kid in awe. Not just at the incredible world George Lucas had expanded on or the swagger and swashbuckling of my favorite character, Han Solo (Harrison Ford). But it was the storytelling which left the youngster me utterly amazed and wondering what was coming next.
“Empire” released here in the States on May 21, 1980 and was a box office smash. It opened to fairly mixed reviews, but over time and following countless reappraisals, the film is rightly heralded as a great Star Wars movie and one of the greatest movies ever made. Directed by Irvin Kershner and co-written by Lawrence Kasdan and Leigh Brackett, “Empire” mixes an immersive story with great characters and dazzling world-building. And it all emanates from the creative mind of George Lucas.
While 1977’s “Star Wars” ended on a high note for the fledgling rebellion, the fitting title of “Empire” hints at the sequel’s darker tone. We see little in terms of victories for the rebels beginning with the film’s epic opening as Darth Vader (David Prowse/voiced by James Earl Jones) and his imperial troops lay siege to the hidden rebel base on the snow planet of Hoth. It’s quite the opening; one that does a great job reintroducing the major characters and raising the stakes which only get higher as the story progresses.
After being forced to evacuate on the Millennium Falcon, Han, Leia (Carrie Fisher), the loyal furball Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), and protocol droid C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) find themselves pursued through space by Vader and his fleet of Star Destroyers. Meanwhile Luke (Mark Hamill) and the spirited astromech droid R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) are on their way to a remote swamp planet called Dagobah following a vision from Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness). Luke’s old mentor (slain by Vader in the previous film) tells him to seek a Jedi Master named Yoda (puppeteer Frank Oz) who will complete his Force training.
Of course the movie finds a way to bring all of our heroes back together, this time in Cloud City where we’re introduced to fan favorite Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams), the administrator of the floating mining colony. From there the movie gives Star Wars fans everything they could possibly want. There’s a daring escape, an epic showdown, a franchise-driving revelation, and an amazing cliffhanger that would set the table for the trilogy’s finale that would come three years later.
“The Empire Strikes Back” is a landmark movie for a number of reasons. Not simply because it’s a spectacular sequel with a great forward-moving story and cutting-edge special effects. But it also injected so much into pop culture, much of which still flourishes today. “Empire” launched Star Wars to heights that neither George Lucas or the world could have expected. And for many kids in the early 80s (like me), “Empire” etched Star Wars so deeply into from our childhoods that it left a permanent mark. And my love the franchise hasn’t waned a bit since.