In science fiction cinema, (for whatever reason, this happens most frequently in SciFi) there are what I call “the Holy Sequels.” Great second installments in beloved franchises which surpass the original, or in the case of certain franchises, are held on an equal level to a superb first entry. The Holy Sequels are Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Aliens, and of course, the greatest of them all,
Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back.
Director Irvin Kershner was hesitant to direct the film at first, having concerns about trying to follow up one of the greatest films of all time. But in following it up, he ended up making one of the greatest films of all time.
This movie did so much for science fiction, for movie sequels, and for Big Reveals. For what it’s worth, Flickchart says this is the 2nd best film of all time (behind only its predecessor), Watchmojo has it at 5th, and IMDb has it at 12th. IGN when ranking the top 100 science fiction films, said being beaten only by Alien and 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s fuckin’ great. That being said, I don’t feel as though I entirely need to praise it. Everyone knows Empire Strikes Back, everyone knows how great it is.
I’ve said before on this blog that a Star Wars movies needs to be only to things: 1) a story of the struggle between good and evil 2) fun. And yes, there are the moments where everyone struggles with good and evil; Han wants to leave the rebellion when he hears Jabba the Hutt is looking for him, Lando has to decide between helping his city and selling out his friend, Vader feels the call to the light when he learns of Luke’s parentage, Luke sees his connection to Vader and struggles with that both in the cave and in the Cloud City, not to mention the decision he makes in trying to decide whether or not to leave his training on Dagobah.
That covers the good-and-evil, so how about the climactic action sequences? When Luke gets captured by the Wampa early on and manages to use the force to pull his lightsaber out of the snow, it feels monumental. Then, later on, when Yoda pulling the X-Wing out of the swamp, you get the same feeling. But nothing is quite as climactic as watching the AT-AT faceplant during the Battle of Hoth.
Han, Leia, C3PO, and Chewbacca spend much of the movie on the run from the Empire. Every scene in the asteroid field is just a blast.
Han and Leia
The Millenium Falcon makes for a tight setting. It makes Han seem all the more heroic, it makes Leia seem more witty, and it makes 3PO that much more annoying. It gives the Han and Leia romance a more close-quarters, live-in-the-moment feeling. Think about it; you’re in a ship in the deep of space, with the Imperial fleet at your back, at any second you could be crushed by an asteroid or shot down by a tie fighter. This fear is never overtly stated, but one can feel this tension looming in the background and motivating this romance.
Usually, I wouldn’t talk about celebrity stories like this one, but oh my goodness, this popped up as I was writing this post, and as the saying goes, when life gives you lemons. In Carrie Fischer’s recently published memoir, she admitted to having an affair with co-star Harrison Ford during the production of the original film. Part of me wants to gasp in surprise and be astonished. The other part of me quietly says, “Well, that makes sense.” It isn’t a real surprise that their chemistry from real life would carry over onto the set. My only question is: does that count as method acting?
Leia’s a delight in this movie. While she’s not quite as much of a heroic leader as she was in A New Hope, she finds herself in a better place than where she is at the start of Return of the Jedi. In this film, her main role is to be the sassy, wise-cracking companion to Han. And sure, she and Chewbacca do get into an exciting little firefight with stormtroopers towards the end of the film, Leia’s performance in Empire Strikes Back is more remembered for things like the phrase “Scruffy-looking nerf-herder.” And there’s also a widely-accepted theory which suggests that Leia is considered force-sensitive, which started with her being able to hear Luke as he held on for dear life in Cloud City, and continued with stuff like her sensing when (Spoiler alert?) Han dies in The Force Awakens. (I’ll do us the courtesy of spending no time talking about her kiss with Luke.)
Just to talk quickly about set design, the contrast seen in the various locations in Cloud City is stark and useful. From a distance, the city is shown as bright, standing out against the bright blues and whites of the sky and clouds. This builds a motif of a heavenly paradise. Contrast this with the later scenes in Cloud City, such as the sunset, or the room where the rebels are being imprisoned, or, most noticeably, the carbon freezing chamber. The freezing chamber clashes most noticeably with the establishing shots of Cloud City; instead of white and blue, the freezing chamber is orange, black, and navy blue, giving it a hellish feeling.
One thing that the Star Wars series seems to have difficulty with is character design. Wait, let me finish. The Star Wars series has so many cool-looking characters that it has difficulty making a character that matches the badassery and intrigue that you get just from looking at them. In 1999, everyone saw Darth Maul and was fascinated by his character design. Then he was non-ceremoniously rushed out of the live-action franchise, and was relegated to television. In 2002, they had a guy who looked exactly like Christopher Lee, and he played some cross between a Jedi and a Sith, and he was… I don’t know. Somewhat interesting, I guess. But he, too, didn’t do a whole lot before being rushed out of the series. Fastforward to 2015, and we’ve got Captain Phasma, a powerful-looking chrome-plated stormtrooper. And she did nothing. Huge let down.
Some might say that this all started in Empire Strikes Back with everyone’s favorite Mandalorian bounty Hunter – Boba Fett. The fandom all rallied behind a bounty hunter character who, when you think about it, didn’t do a whole lot in Empire. He followed the Millenium Falcon to Bespin, was occasionally sassy to Darth Vader (admittedly, a bold move), and got to bring Han Solo in carbonite to Jabba, only to be nonceremoniously killed in the next film. I love Boba Fett’s character design, but I often feel as though his fandom is just a fluke.
“No, I am your father.”
When talking about movie villains, I always think back to the American Film Institue’s 100th Anniversary list of Heroes and Villains, in which they undertook the arduous task of ranking the best heroes and villains all of film (at the time, 2003) had to offer. Vader came in third place among the villains – losing only to Psycho‘s Norman Bates and Silence of the Lambs’ Hannibal Lecter. And I tried to think of why this is the case – what makes Vader such a great villain? What makes him evil? The Emperor outranks him, and coordinates the war. The most evil thing in the series is the destruction of Alderaan, but that’s Tarkin’s command; as far as we know, Vader has nothing to do with that. Doesn’t that mean that Vader is just the figurehead?
Well, yes, that’s technically right, Vader is not the villain on the universal scale, but he provides a singular antagonist for our ragtag band of heroes. Note the fact that, in the previous film, Luke reacts much more violently to Vader killing Obi-Wan than Leia does when Tarkin blows up her home planet. This is because Luke vs. Vader is a personal conflict, whereas Tarkin vs. Leia and Alderaan is a universal conflict. (At least that’s one potential reason for Leia’s under-reaction.) When Vader kills Obi-Wan in A New Hope, he transcends his role as mysterious figurehead and becomes some type of monster. This sets Luke on a quest for revenge and gives him a personal stake in the rebellion.
That’s what makes the “I am your father” moment so impactful. When Luke goes into the cave on Dagobah, and confronts the nightmare Vader, he finds his own face in Vader’s mask. Of course, this foreshadows the reveal later on, but it also goes to show the implications of this reveal. Luke’s relation to Vader means that Luke will have to come to terms with the evil inside of him. This shifts Luke’s quest from revenge to understanding and reconciling.
Favorite Scene: Vader’s reveal to Luke is really only the climax of what is otherwise a simply spectacular duel. It’s well choreographed, and while one wouldn’t expect the main character to die in the second movie, the duel does provide some consequences by having Luke lose his hand. Luke’s loss in the duel comes as kind of a Chekov’s Gun moment, in which the movie delivers on the promise made on Dagobah; since Luke interrupted his training, he was fated to lose the duel. Luke’s loss doesn’t come as a lack of skill, but instead comes as the consequence of him skipping his training.
Favorite Performance: This movie has better performances than one might be inclined to think. First, I have to give it up for the actors who don’t get enough credit for their iconic roles. God bless Frank Oz for his Yoda voice, or Peter Mayhew for his vicious physicality as Chewbacca. I’m still delightfully annoyed whenever I hear Anthony Daniels as C3PO, and you gotta love Kenny Baker (may he rest in peace) as R2D2.
Carrie Fischer is wonderfully sassy as always, Billy Dee Williams’ Lando is the perfect amounts of slimy and charming, and I can’t express just how much I love the smooth power of James Earl Jones’ voice. The one performance everyone shits on from Empire Strikes Back is Mark Hamill. The way he screams “No!” during the bridge scene seems to rub people the wrong way. I beg to differ. How would you react if you heard the man who killed your mentor was your father? You’d probably scream and cry at the same time. (Paul Dano screams and cries at the same time in There Will Be Blood and it’s lauded, but when Mark Hamill does it it’s called campy. That’s bullshit.)
But put all those performances to the side for right now. You know who I want to talk about. Everyone’s favorite space cowboy; Han Solo. Han’s such a badass in this movie. Harrison Ford eloquently rattles off lines that might sound cliche if said by anyone else. When told that his Taun Taun (ice camel) will freeze in a number of minutes, he masterfully scoffs, “Then I’ll see you in hell!” Or when 3PO tries to warn him about navigating the asteroid field, you get the strong-willed “Never tell me the odds!”
Ford’s performance shows a great deal of range; take a look at the scene when the gang first arrives in Cloud City; Ford so quickly changes gears from apprehensive to aloof to joyful. Then there’s so many other things he conveys. His smug flirtation: “Scoundrel? Scoundrel! I like the sound of that.” His wrath in punching traitor Lando. His fearful, pained response to “I love you,” the famed “I know.”
Going back to AFI’s list of heroes and villains, the Institute ranked Han as the 14th greatest hero in film history up to that point. With a Han Solo movie on the way, it will be difficult to imagine or even watch anyone in the role other than Harrrison Ford. Will Alden Ehrenreich fit the role? Probably. But Harrison Ford has given a more nuanced performance than you would usually find across four appearances in a billion-dollar franchise.
Favorite Quote: I bet you’re expecting me to say “
Luke, I am your father,” aren’t you? Well, yes, true, this quote changed cinema forever, but y’know what’s actually my favorite? When Lando tells Han “I’ve just made a deal that will keep the Empire out of here forever,” only to open the door and reveal Darth Vader sitting at the table, waiting for them? That shit’s heartbreaking, and it’s such a clever truth which hides an awful betrayal.
And of course, there are a number of poignant Yoda quotes. “Do or do not, there is no try,” is something my teachers always liked to quote as a means of appealing to the kids, but I prefer things like when Yoda explains the force by saying “Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter,” calling Luke to be something greater.
Academy Awards/Nominations: Lucas started a campaign to get Frank Oz nominated for the role of Yoda, which the Academy never got behind. The only other Oscar that Empire won was Best Sound Mixing.
Fun Fact: I feel like this post has been all about the Big Reveal, so let me just include some smaller fun facts before I get back to talking about the Big Reveal again: in Yoda’s hut, Mark Hamill had to hit his head on the ceiling 16 times before director Irvin Kershner had a take he liked; When Vader says to Han “We would be honored if you would join us,” this is the only time he speaks directly to Han; for the role of Yoda, Lucas originally wanted Muppet extraordinaire Jim Henson, who in turn recommended Frank Oz.
Check out this post about the whole process of keeping the twist a secret. The only four people who knew about the twist before the movie released were Lucas, Kershner, Mark Hamill, and James Earl Jones. Hamill was told about the reveal moments before filming the scene. James Earl Jones voiced the “No, I am your father” line, while on-set, David Prowse voiced the line “No, Obi-wan killed your father.”
If you like this movie, also check out: This movie set a precedent for sequels in Hollywood; the second installment must always end on a down-note, preferably with some minor-to-major-tragedy. With this in mind, check out these sequels, good or bad: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Amazing Spiderman 2, The Dark Knight, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, or the second season of Avatar the Last Airbender. Among derivative works, check out Marvel’s Darth Vader comic series, set between A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back.
Geez, almost 2500 words later…
Empire Strikes Back is often lauded as the greatest of the Star Wars films, and with good reason. Since it’s so widely remembered for its shocking twist, it’s easy to forget just how well it excels at literally everything else. This movie is one of the greatest things to come out of the 1980’s, film or otherwise. I know that I spend a lot of time in this Personal Favorites series talking about just how iconic certain movies are, but I have to say that there is no movie franchise more iconic than Star Wars, and no Star Wars film more iconic than Empire Strikes Back. The story of Luke and Vader, Han and Leia, and the Light Side versus the Dark will live on in popular culture for many, many years to come.