Star Wars: Episode V—The Empire Strikes Back (Special Edition)
Screenplay : Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan (from a story by George Lucas)
MPAA Rating : PG
Year of Release : 1980 (original release) / 1997 (re-release)
Stars : Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker), Harrison Ford (Han Solo), Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia), Billy Dee Williams (Lando Calrissian), Frank Oz (Yoda), Anthony Daniels (C-3P0), James Earl Jones (voice of Darth Vader)
You have to wonder if George Lucas and director Irvin Kershner were nervous about releasing "The Empire Strikes Back" back in 1980. "Star Wars" had become the most successful film of all time, and there was extraordinary pressure to create something just as good, if not better.
So what did they do? Instead of following the same cheerful tone and pop culture mentality of the first, they instead created a dark middle installment that leaves more questions than answers. Looking back on it now, how gutsy was it for them to end the film where they did: with the unanswered question of whether or not Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) is really Darth Vader's son, Luke only half-trained as a Jedi Knight, the Rebel Alliance battered and fleeing the Empire, and Han Solo (Harrison Ford) frozen in carbonite and in the hands of Jabba the Hutt.
It was a gutsy move indeed, and also a brilliant one because it made it clear that "Empire" was not a sequel to "Star Wars." It is part of a continuing story, and continuing stories don't always wrap up nicely at the end of each installment (for a good example, look at J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings"). When "Empire" ends, there is no question that there must be a third installment, and the films are given the feel of being small parts of a larger whole, unlike most sequels that are simply retreads of a good idea.
The film's plot (Lawrence Kasdan and Leigh Brackett writing from George Lucas' story) takes the risk of breaking up the central characters. While Luke takes R2-D2 with him to Dagobah to be trained in the ways of the Jedi by Yoda, C-3P0 joins Solo and Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) who spend most of the movie in the broken-down Millennium Falcon being chased by Imperial Star Destroyers and Tie-Fighters. They eventually make it to Cloud City, a gas mining operation run by Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams), an old buddy of Solo's who proves to be just as slippery and charming.
"Empire" also ups the ante by delving deeper than its predecessor dared. It discards most of the popcorn serial mentality of "Star Wars," and buries itself in the idea that the good guys don't always win all of the time. When viewed in context of the entire Trilogy, "Empire" is almost like a bridge between "Star Wars" and "Return of the Jedi," deepening its already established characters, and setting up situations to be resolved in the third installment.
While that doesn't sound like much, "Empire" is actually the best of the three. With success under his belt, Lucas was able to go full throttle with the special effects. The movie is jam-packed with visuals in every corner of every frame, extended in the "Special Edition" which adds even more digital texture to Cloud City and a few new shots of the Wampa ice creature. There film features several invigorating action sequences, including the Imperial Walker attack on the Rebels' hideout on the frozen planet of Hoth, and a heart-pounding chase scene through an asteroid field.
"Empire" adds a layer of romance by finally making good on the sexual tension between Han and Leia established in "Star Wars." The film also expands on the Jedi religion, giving it more substance through the teachings of Yoda, an amazing puppet built by Jim Henson's creature shop, and voiced and operated with incredible subtlety by Frank Oz. It might sound crazy, but I think Yoda turns in the best performance in the film. He easily manipulates the audience's perception of him, being at one time chattery and amusing, and then, serious and stoic. The camera doesn't flinch from moving in close to Yoda's face (a rarity with puppets), allowing us to see remarkable expressions of emotion: disappointment, earnestness, and fear.
Few realize the great risk Lucas and company took with this film. It dared to be more than its predecessor while still giving the audience what it wanted. "The Empire Strikes Back" may always be the middle child of the "Star Wars Trilogy," but it will always remain the strongest, both in its breathtaking visuals and its ability to leave open-ended questions that entice the viewers, rather than infuriate them.
©1997 James Kendrick