Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back

OK folks, here we have my final contribution to the Star Wars series of Retrospectives. It’s been a rough old ride with Episode III and Episode IV retros, as I have found myself wanting to write more than I could possibly expect any of you to stomach, and have edited, curtailed, held back, contracted, cut, simplified and erased just to get a more manageable read length. Even with all this effort to abridge myself, both of the other retros have been of the 4000 word length variety, and I’m probably going to run in to the same problem with Episode V, however, I will endeavour to keep the word count down as much as is humanly possible.

Oh well, in for a penny in for a pound, I hope to do a good job, and create an entertaining read whatever the length, as we all know length is not quite as important as girth…ahem! Anyway, moving on from vaguely ribald innuendo….

Here we go.

In 1980 George Lucas gave us his much anticipated follow up to 1977’s all conquering STAR WARS, and it was a very different animal to its progenitor. George might once have told you that the reason for this is simply because Empire is the ‘middle’ part of his much bigger (at the time 3 part) story, and therefore is darker, more dramatic and less likely to have any kind of a happy or resolved ending. It’s the middle after all, and the middle is usually where everything goes to hell in a hand-basket right? Well, Empire certainly was all those things and more, but I’m not certain it was all quite the Lucas’ preordained design he sometimes made it sound. Speak to many fans of the series and you will quickly uncover a ton love for this movie, and it is often cited as the best of all six films, both from a critical and fan point of view. So much love in fact that you have to wonder why George Lucas felt compelled to steer the series so far away from its such admirable qualities into…..well you know…into errmm, the muppet kiddie, comedy slapstick type thing of later efforts.

But before we go there…

A short bit of context before we move on, if i may.

Thinking back to early 1980, I do remember the hype around the release of the film. It was such a big deal that a new Star Wars movie was on the way. Clips of great snow battles and giant mechanical dog type things (the AT AT walkers of course), started appearing on all the kids TV shows and of course many other TV and Radio spots began running too. I remember one program doing an early feature actually from the Dagobah swamp set, while they were still shooting there. The buzz was certainly ramping up, but for some reason my own living memory of it is a little patchy. Weirdly (considering the detail in which I remembered my cinema experience of the first movie, I have absolutely no recall of seeing Empire at the flix at all, even though I know I did. Strange, because I was nine by the time it came out, so you’d think I would remember better. I do remember seeing it again a year later along with Star Wars in the ‘Double Feature’ re-release (this is when Star Wars first became Episode IV: A New Hope). For that matter, I also remember where I saw Return Of The Jedi (both times) in ;83. Once with my dad at the old Cannon in Bury St Edmunds, and the second time at the fleapit in my home town. I got in trouble for the second one, but that’s a reminisce for another time.

Back to ‘EMPIRE

So, I have no memory of seeing the film, but I know I saw it. I also remember the ramifications of seeing it, one of which was an increased awareness and lust for toys! It was with Empire that Palitoy’s licensed versions of the US Kenner action figures really made a huge impression on me. Up until the release of Empire, I had been given a few original Star Wars era figures, but after Empire, I got my act together and started really pestering my mum about it. The toy lines definitely served to further cement the Star Wars universe into the minds of kids everywhere. Around the time of ‘Empire‘ I was bought a large model kit of the Millennium Falcon, which was actually a little beyond my model-making abilities at the time (it had a wiring loom for illuminations and everything), but i loved it so much, and gazed at it in awe of how cool the Falcon was.

Star Wars seemed to come of age with Empire, and even as a nine year old I felt (a disturbance), sorry i just couldn’t resist it – anyway, yes it was clear that, as all consuming as the first movie had been, Empire was steadily carving all new levels of awareness and acclaim for the series.

The ‘Is Darth Vader really Luke’s father or not?’ question, was the subject of playground fights the world over.

I have already waxed lyrical (in my Star Wars retro) about how much of an old fart I am, and how much Star Wars (meaning Episode IV) means to me. But when thinking free of the biases and subjective shackles of ‘time and place’ and being as objective as i can possibly be, I am also certain of Episode V‘s (bugger all this Episode business, from now on the movie will be referred to as merely ‘Empire‘), as I said; I am certain of Empire’s superiority in the series. It’s a great movie, and great on it’s own terms.

Much of the feel and flow of the movie (and how it differs from others in the series) is frankly due to Lucas handing scriptwriting and directing duties to other folks who employed a possibly more mature and sassy sensibility to it. More about that later.

After the triumphant and awe inspiring lead in and first scene of Star Wars, the equivalent opening of Empire is (probably intentionally) a more low key affair as befitting the more measured and sombre overall feel of the entire movie.

After the now obligatory ‘A long time ago, In a galaxy far far away’ and John Williams’ Fanfare theme, we get a similar text crawl as before (Lucas got in to a lot of trouble for doing the intro the same way as he did with Star Wars, and it’s one of the stories about him that still endears him to me, despite ‘other things’ that don’t). Once the movie proper begins, we see one of the Empire’s giant Star Destroyers launching what turn out to be Imperial probe droids. The text crawl had mentioned Vader’s increasing determination to find Luke (although it doesn’t really explain why Vader has suddenly developed this interest in him (other than if we assume, he’s looking for the dude who KABOOMED the Death Star out from under him). We certainly don’t know how he knows who he’s even looking for, if you see what I mean?). Anyway, the probe droids are sent out (presumably all over the galaxy), and we follow one of them landing on a giant Ice planet which turns out to be exactly where the rebels have set up shop.

The ice planet in question is Hoth, and is our location for the first act. This cold, white and desolate place helps to establish the pervading naturally downbeat flavour of the mix of textures. In quite a literal sense, and almost brutishly simple; it is the polar (excuse the pun) opposite of Tatooine’s hot, dry desert feel (although, have you ever noticed that the actual ‘heat’ is never really mentioned in Episode IV?).

I won’t go into too much further detail of the ‘synopsis’ of the movie, we’ve all seen it a bazillion times after all.

I will mention however that Empire is renowned for being unusually arse about face in terms of the usual flow of events in movie making. Whereas in most movies that feature huge spectacular battles, you would expect that battle to occur at the very least beyond the middle of the movie (with most having them more towards the final act). Empire on the other hand, has its biggest battle at the beginning in the first act. No sooner had we established the Hoth setting, and done the whole Wampa attack business with Luke using the force (presumably not for the first time since the Death Star run), plus some excellent business with the developing relationship between Han and Leia, we get a large scale land battle. This attack features the now indelible (although quite spectacularly silly) AT AT walkers. It’s the highest octane, most action orientated section in the entire movie, and at the time it really pushed ILM in to uncharted territory.

Oh, watching it again I am reminded of another slightly funny contrivance that we all accept so readily. That is this situation where all the rebel ships (in this case, the Snow Speeders of the Hoth battle) are veritable Ford Pintos and have to catastrophically explode when they get hit by enemy fire. However, whatever Luke’s piloting can usually take a knock or two. If I was in Rogue squadron, I’d be lobbying for some of that extra shielding that Luke’s rides always seem to have.

Oh I almost forgot, the beginning of the movie also features a cool bit of schoolboy ‘Corr Blimey!!’ when we see a group of the giant Star Destroyers suddenly having a huge shadow cast over them. What could possibly cast a shadow over a ship that’s over a mile long? Yup, you guessed it. Star Wars introduced us to the enormous Star Destroyer, but Empire ups the ante by revealing that these piddley little ships are just the babies, and if you want to see something really big, take a look at THIS!! The holy sh*t motherlode of bad boy mega-ships; the Super Star Destroyer! Also known as ‘Command’ ships, these things are of quite ridiculously large proportions. Vader’s ship is called ‘Executor’, and there are apparently many more of them about too.


Directly after the battle, Luke goes off in his X-Wing to Dagobah to see Kermit, I mean Yoda and learn how to be a Jedi. The rest of the gang escape from Hoth in the Millennium Falcon and run in to major imperial hassle.

Actually, this bit has always bothered me too. How come when leaving the planet, from the same place remember (it’s not like Luke was somewhere else on Hoth, they were all together more or less), Luke gets away completely unchallenged by the myriad Imperial Destroyers and TIE Fighters in the area, not to mention Vader’s command ship, and at the same time the rest of the gang in the Falcon have got Imperials all over them like flies on a poo. Talk about your plot contrivances, of course Luke has to get to Yoda without delay, start learning how to do handstands (always handy in a duel with Darth Vader), while Han, Leia and the rest eventually have to get caught in order to further the story.

Anyway, these type of contrivances are pretty minor, and we don’t worry about them too much. Particularly when a movie is as good as this.

So what’s so good about it? Well, most would point to the ‘darkness’ of it, and yes I suppose it is dark, brooding and dramatic. But it isn’t depressing, or drab. It manages to be really funny too, and sports some of the best dialogue anywhere in the saga. This brings me to the most unusual thing about it. For his own reasons George Lucas opted to bow out of Directing, and hired Irvin Kershner to Direct, and Leigh Bracket and Lawrence Kasdan to write the screenplay. I think this must explain why Empire is so different to the other films. Much as I still love George, he can’t write meaningful dialogue for toffee, and this has always been a problem with the ability of we, the audience to connect with the characters. Lucas tries to overcome this by hiring really veteran actors for roles that require gravitas, but things can unravel a bit with the younger cast members. Mark Hamill copped quite a bit of flack for not being the best actor in the galaxy, although I feel this is unfair, and perhaps only slightly holds water in context of him playing opposite Alec Guinness, and Harrison Ford a lot of the time. I actually think Hamill acquits himself very well, and have never had any trouble keying in to his performances at all. I think in Empire, Hamill’s part (although super prominent once we get to Dagobah), is somewhat overshadowed by the frisson between Han and Leia. But that’s no fault of Hamill’s. If I may be so bold, the Prequel movies are unique in the series as having spectacularly inert dialogue, even that which is delivered by the veterans.

Empire’s screenplay sparkles and entertains consistently throughout the whole movie (although some Lucas dialogue obviously made it too, like my favourite: “Detach Cable” “Cable Detached” awesome!), and the characters seem like they’re having a lot of fun flexing their acting chops. All the principals shine.

Here’s a face moment from early in the movie:

Han: Well Princess, it looks like you managed to keep me here a while longer.

Leia: I had nothing to do with it. General Rieekan thinks it’s dangerous for anyone to leave the system until they’ve activated the energy shield.

Han: That’s a good story. I think you just can’t bear to let a gorgeous guy like me out of your sight.

Leia: I don’t know where you get your delusions, laser brain.

[Chewie laughs]

Han: Laugh it up, fuzzball.

Great stuff.

Even the character of Yoda managed to be quite amazing. If you think that’s hyperbole, I suggest you watch Empire, then watch Episode 1 and compare the difference between how believable, sincere and absorbing Yoda is in the former, and how…….err not any of those things, he is in Episode 1. The only variable (if we excuse the puppet itself), is the quality of the script.

Speaking of the Dagobah stuff for a minute, and upon watching it again for this retro; I think the Yoda puppet is still actually very good (I’m watching the 2004 SE DVD version of the movie), and although I’ve recently read that the Episode I puppet Yoda has been replaced by the Episode II and III CG Yoda on the upcoming Blu-Ray (a good thing, as the Episode I Puppet was inexplicably beyond terrible), and even though the limitations of the Puppet used in Empire, are not only obvious, but also promote the unavoidable movement characteristics recognisable to anyone who’s seen the muppets (particularly with actual Muppeteer Frank Oz with his hand up Yoda’s tailpipe), I would be very sorry to see Oz’s work get mangled into some kind of CG realised amalgamated version. Leave Empire and Jedi’s Yoda alone George, or I’ll come shave your beard off.

Everything works so well in this movie, and it’s amazing how far they came compared to Star Wars. The saber duel between Luke and Vader may not be of the kind of kinetic proportions of Ep1, but it’s still a bloody good fight, and both combatants look good. I love that moment on the gantry just before Luke becomes a one hand clapper, when Vader swings, Luke dodges and Vader’s saber hits the hand rail, sparks fly. Meanwhile, Luke manages a glancing blow to Vader’s shoulder. Remember that most of this is shot ‘in camera’ and you have to give the makers kudos. It’s perfectly timed, and looks great even now.


A quick note on the Special Edition – I think most people would agree that of the three original movies, Empire is the most successful in SE form in terms of the effect of George Lucas’ ‘fiddling’. The fact that it appears to contain the least amount of fiddling is not a coincidence. Luckily, George had no opportunity to put a crappy song and dance routine into it (Wampa Rocks?), and the enhancements are for the most part really positive and often subtle.

Really, the only scene that I don’t like in the SE version is Vader’s conversation with Sidious where they discuss Luke. While I think it is entirely appropriate that Ian McDiarmid was installed, replacing the original Emperor which looked really different, I’m not so sure that the altered dialogue is very successful. I accept that McDiarmid is nearly thirty years older than when he first played the Emperor in Return Of The Jedi, but there’s something not working about the prosthetics and make-up of his more recent portrayals (he looked positively bizarre in parts of Episode III), including this bit in Empire. The dialogue is clunky as hell though. I wonder if they’ve changed it again for the new Blu-Ray edition? To my sensibilities, the exchange between Vader and Palpatine takes a further bashing once you watch Episode III.

Anyway, it is completely wonderful, that I have very little else to even say about the SE edition. It just shows you how good the movie always was. Oh, I could do without Temura Morrison replacing the Boba Fett dialogue, but that’s just nitpicking.

Well, i said I would try and keep the word count down for this one, and I feel now in closing that I’m going to manage it (Ben pauses while the cheers of Star Wars epic retro fatigued readers die down).

Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back remains a cracking good movie, objectively the best of the saga, and represents a taste of what could have been a direction for the other episodes. When fans of the series lament the prequels, or shake their heads in disbelief at the Ewoks, lack of actual peril, and THAT bloody song and dance routine from Jedi SE; It is EMPIRE that they have in their minds eye. It is EMPIRE that shows them what could have been, and it is EMPIRE that remains the absolute pinnacle of Star Wars‘ greatness.

Hands down, best scene has to be Han’s freezing in Carbonite. It gives me goosebumps just thinking about it while typing these words. Everyone is on top form, the drama is spot on, the lighting is perfectly set. Chewie howls in desperate emotion, the music swells, the pathos rises and then comes the best two lines in the movie:

Leia (in suddenly realising her feelings): “I love you”

Han (looking piercingly at Leia): “I know”

It’s heart melting, and so supremely satisfying that you can’t quite believe it just happened. But it did.

That’s it then, I am spent – I have enjoyed writing these retros immensely, even though I’ve been sleep deprived, grouchy and generally hard to love. Hopefully it’s been worth it (ask my wife)

Ben Pegley

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