The Empire Strikes Back hits 40 this month. Does its reputation as the best Star Wars movie still hold? Does the film that brought the cliffhanger back to cinemas still have us hanging on?
Author: Martin Breslin
Anyone lucky enough to be too young now to have seen The Empire Strikes Back at the time of its release, in 1980, can at least allow themselves to be jealous of those of us who are old enough to never forget it. These were the days before the era of the multiplex, when blocks really were busted. You’d have a long wait in a queue snaking round an Art Deco building, giving you plenty of time to scrutinise that poster of the giant Darth Vader (David Prowse and James Earl Jones) with his hand held out towards us, towering over the rest of the cast painted in miniature. Cinema interiors were dressed with lobby cards on Empire. People smoked in the theatre. Usherettes still came in with their trays of goodies, so you didn’t have to leave.
There was also a supporting programme. In many territories outside North America, seeing Empire meant first sitting through Black Angel, the Roger Christian short commissioned by George Lucas as an amuse-bouche. If you were ten, this narratively undernourished, lights-down delay was torture. Still, Black Angel is worth checking out on YouTube for its exceptional atmosphere-building and eye-popping use of its Scottish locations, and for Christian’s intro in which he points out a fascinating influence of his short on Empire itself.
Finally, the Fox fanfare. Adrenaline rush. A long time ago… And then the terror that they might be playing the first film by mistake. Star Wars was already a cultural phenomenon, but no one knew how a second one was supposed to start. Seeing the original title blasting into the starfield was not what we were expecting. Neither was the news that it was somehow ‘Episode V’.
Two magical hours later, you were climbing the theatre steps, still dealing with the double shock of the film’s big twist and its lack of resolution, while John Williams’s new theme for Darth Vader was drilling itself into your brain, insisting that you came back to have this thrilling experience all over again. After all, you’d have had to. It was the only Star Wars you were getting for the next three years.
Film critics, most of them older than ten, were not unanimous that Empire was a triumph. Some complained that it lacked the freshness of the original. Others that it was dark and pretentious for a kids’ film. Many more that the cliffhanger was a cheap cop-out. Forty years later, it’s those gripes that have dated more than Empire has. Within a few years of Return of the Jedi’s conclusion to the trilogy, and with the boom in sell-through home video giving new jet fuel to the saga in living rooms, general agreement had hardened that The Empire Strikes Back is not just the best of the three, but one the finest sequels and, dammit, greatest movies of all time.
Watching it now, it’s hard not to feel ambivalent about how the film has been changed. Few would carp about the investment that’s gone into upgrading the picture and sound, or even the digital re-compositing done on the VFX to remove the ugly by-products of the old optical printing process. Compared to the others in the trilogy, Empire hasn’t suffered as badly from Lucas’s scalpel-happy plastic surgery since the 1997 special editions. However, he has still left one small but ugly scar: replacing Vader’s terse, pissed-off ‘Bring my shuttle’ line after the duel, almost for the sake of it, with a graft of an incongruous outtake from the first film.
It matters because ‘Bring my shuttle’ was a character moment. It was a subtle, between-the-lines glimpse at Vader’s emotional state of mind at that critical point. That anger tells us something of his feelings about revealing himself to his son Luke (Mark Hamill) and his failure to win him. It matters because Empire, of all the Star Wars films, worked hardest on characterisation.
Clearly, it’s the best Vader film. He’s a terrifying despot, killing lieutenants left and right, and coolly wielding that reputation to scare the bejesus out of others. But he’s also a man with an obsession, within which we can glimpse pain and vulnerability. It’s not trivial that we are shown his scarred head. Empire is also the best Han Solo (Harrison Ford) film, impossible not to love for his weakness for reckless heroism, and as one half of several comedy double acts: with Chewie (Peter Mayhew) of course, but also with Leia (Carrie Fisher), Threepio (Anthony Daniels) and, perhaps most enjoyably, with the Millennium Falcon.
Empire brought such a perfect marriage of writing, direction and performances that made it the standout film for most of the regular cast. It’s Luke’s best film. It’s Leia’s. It’s a masterly use of Threepio, who in most of the subsequent films is a missed opportunity for comedy. His hissy tiff with Artoo (Kenny Baker) in the Hoth corridor at the beginning is one of the film’s minor joys. Director Irvin Kershner put the effort in to shaping the characters in a way that Lucas just didn’t care about. He gives all of them an extra dimension, a depth that keeps bringing us back to Empire. Look at how Han and Luke say goodbye, with something between them understood and left unspoken. Look at Chewie’s Hamlet moment with Threepio’s skull.
We return to Empire because it’s the one with the substance. Star Wars shone in part due to its obvious classical forebears, taking its cues from Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Empire takes this licence and runs with it. Star Wars’ symbolism of light and dark is brilliantly developed in this film, reaching its apotheosis in Cloud City, introduced as a paradise — listen to John Williams’s heavenly cue for the flight of the Falcon through the clouds — which turns out to have hell hidden in the basement. The design of the carbon freezing chamber could not be accused of being overly subtle. From here, Vader emerges as Mephistopheles to Faust, or as Satan to Christ in the wilderness, offering power and riches to Luke in return for his soul.
Empire appeals to us at our most primal by reinforcing motifs of hunting and predating. The story is driven by Vader’s hunt for Luke of course, aided by Boba Fett (Jeremy Bulloch) and the parade of bounty hunters, but the film is littered with predatory iconography. It’s in the pursuit of the Falcon, the Wampa attack in the snow, the swamp creature that swallows Artoo, the leeching Mynocks and the space slug. In Empire, if it doesn’t want to turn you to the dark side, you can bet that it wants to eat you for breakfast.
In a film that loves its metaphors, Threepio’s fate is perhaps the most emblematic of the whole piece; Empire is the chapter in which everything has to be blown apart in order to be rebuilt. Then there’s Yoda (Frank Oz), the archetypal storybook stranger by the side of the road. Those critics in 1980 who were irritated by the philosophising muppet missed the point. It’s with good reason that the character has passed into the culture as a byword for wisdom. What child comes away from Empire without taking some of Yoda’s teaching with them?
Lucas has talked since about the risk in placing a muppet in such a crucial role, and also front-loading the major action sequences. His success was down to credibility, earned through the effort that went into making them the best they could be. A muppet? Then it will be the most sophisticated muppet yet created. A battle in the snow? An asteroid field chase? They will be the greatest visual effects battles ever seen.
Today’s audiences might scoff at stop-motion Tauntauns and the other limitations of the pre-digital era. But those action sequences in Empire remain outstanding because of the obvious hard work that went into pulling them off. They work for the same reason that the 1933 King Kong still works. We can see the physicality of the elements on screen, and the blood, sweat and tears of the artists at ILM who made them. See that TIE fighter smashed by the asteroid? Freeze-frame it to see the pilot spinning from the wreckage. They didn’t go to the effort of painting that in because they had to, but because they really wanted to. Empire is jewelled with many of these loving little details.
That drive for quality has undoubtedly been an inspiration to the filmmakers who grew up watching it. However, looking at the cinema of today, The Empire Strikes Back’s more obvious influence isn’t always positive. The cliffhanger may have seemed outrageous in 1980, but it had some justification, given that Star Wars was born out of the Saturday morning serials of the thirties and forties. In 2020, for better or worse, cliffhangers are now an intrinsic part of the business model for tentpole movie releases, whether they are part of established long-running series, such as Marvel’s MCU, or a studio just has its fingers crossed that they’ll get a shot at lucrative sequels. Empire is also responsible for a whole lot of daddy issues, from Lucas’s own Indiana Jones to The Lion King to Harry Potter to Guardians of the Galaxy. What felt elegantly classical in 1980 has become safe, bankable formula.
We might reflect on these as dubious legacies, contributing to a steady homogenisation of the multiplex menu. But that’s not really Empire’s fault, any more than Jaws is to blame for Sharknado. Success will always breed imitation, and the copyists will only serve to point out just how good those originals really were. Empire remains great because, after now having seen nine of these, it’s clear that this was the film where everyone brought their A-game.
Is The Empire Strikes Back the best Star Wars film? Probably not. Star Wars was lightning in a bottle, a startling original that never could be replicated by a sequel. It is however the best made Star Wars film. It’s a film that still gives enormous pleasure through the quality of the work on the screen, from Lucas and Kershner as creative helmsmen, through Lawrence Kasdan’s screenplay, the entire cast, the artisans of ILM and the maestro John Williams. You’ll go far to find a crew more completely at the peak of their powers. The result of that quality is a film that makes it possible for the audience to care, to surrender to the journey to the galaxy far, far away. Empire allows us to believe.
Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back is available to watch on Disney+.