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

Call me sheepish (or a bog-standard copy-cat), but having kick-started HeyUGuys’ Video Vault tribute to the Star Wars saga with my own take on A New Hope, I have found myself unwilling to relinquish my soap box just yet. As a result, here’s my retrospective review of the second film in George Lucas’ (largely) esteemed franchise: Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, about to arrive on Blu-ray in every half-decent retailer near you.

Now, for a long time Empire Strikes Back was my least favourite film in the original trilogy – I know, kids are stupid – it spent half its time in tedious conversation with a rubber puppet and the rest being all dark and serious and (forgive me) boring. Where was the swashbuckle? The happy ending? The Ewoks? Naturally I have grown to love Irvin Kershner’s sequel – joining the rest of the civilised world in championing it as not only the best in the series, but one of the finest movies ever made.

Having relocated to Hoth for a bit of a winter break, the Rebel Alliance is regrouping after the events of the first movie. On a routine surveillance mission, Luke Skywalker is preparing to return to base when he is suddenly clawed off his taun-taun by the planet’s abominable snow-thing. Han and Leia have problems of their own, as they intercept an Imperial signal and destroy a probe droid, but not before it has alerted the Empire to their location.

Saving Luke from his predicament in time to take on Vader’s infantry, the rebels separate when their defences prove futile. As Luke heeds a ghostly vision’s advice and heads to the Degobah system, Han and the others depart Hoth with the Empire in hot pursuit, taking refuge first in a dubious asteroid and then on the mining colony, Bespin. Betrayed by acquaintance Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams), Han is subsequently probed (literally) for information regarding Skywalker.

Alerted to his friends’ situation while learning about The Force from Jedi Master Yoda, Luke departs for Bespin against his teacher’s wishes – promising to return and complete his training once his friends are safe. Ambushed by Vader, and too late to save Han from being encased in carbonite, Luke loses his arm in battle, learning a terrible truth in the process: that Darth Vader is in fact his father. Taking a leap of fate and escaping death, Luke reunites with his friends (sans Han), whose own escape was facilitated by a repentant Calrissian, and prepares to save Han from the clutches of Jabba the Hut.

The thing I love about The Empire Strikes Back – and the thing I missed during my informative years – is how funny it is. Obviously, I’m not talking hysterics or giggles of the inadvertent variety, but a good humoured script that plays its characters off one another to charming – and occasionally comic – effect. While A New Hope was a particularly massive technical achievement, it is hardly famed for its adept characterisation. A cast of archetypes, it worked because it attacked its story with infectious bravado, more than happy to accept its standing as a fairy-tale in space.

Kershner, however, injects a welcome dose of soap opera into Lucas’ universe, beautifully complimenting the creator’s expanding mythology and increased interpersonal conflict. Han Solo and Leia Organa in particular benefit from this greater emphasis on character, their relationship deepened through Lando’s intrusions and their unrequieted feelings for one another, ultimately leading to a very real emotional climax – important because of the lack of story resolution come the closing credits. R2D2 and C3PO continue to brim with personality, too, with the former’s resolve and the latter’s prissy pessimism comprising an engaging double team, C3PO’s ability to rub everyone and their space-ship up the wrong way leading to some of the film’s most entertaining scenes.

For many, however, it is the narrative expansion that gives Empire its edge. By introducing Yoda and the Emperor, Lucas teases a history that will not be further explored for another thirty-odd years. The Empire Strikes Back isn’t the whole story, but it nevertheless manages to deliver an accomplished and hugely satisfying story in its own right. In willing to not only tease a wider mythology but leave the story in disarray and its heroes in transit, Empire is the main argument for the saga being more than just children’s entertainment. For better or worse, it is Star Wars at its most mature.

From Hoth to Bespin, Yoda to Lando and the frying pan to the fire, Star Wars: Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back is an absolute delight. To the tune of John Williams’ Imperial March, Kershner duly rises to the challenge and delivers the movie George Lucas never could. Sure, I never grew up wanting to be a two-foot tall frog puppet living in exile on a swamp planet but, like I said, kids are stupid.

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