Cert: U Runtime: 124 mins Director: Irvine Kershner Starring: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Billy Dee Williams, Frank Oz and Alec Guinness
You must unlearn what you have learned
Nostalgia may play a part in the reason I love The Empire Strikes Back so much, but there’s far more to it than that. This film has a fully realised sense of escapism, wonder and adventure that wasn’t quite nailed in the first Star Wars film. I’m not a huge fan of Episode IV, I think it’s relatively clunky, wooden and dated, but let’s not talk about that; Episode V is where the Star Wars universe really blossomed and became something truly special. George Lucas’ limitations as a director and writer of dialogue have thankfully been sidelined this time round; here we have a different director and new scriptwriters who take the genius of Lucas’ imaginative story and enhance it with rapid-fire pacing and brilliant comic-book melodrama.So what’s the story, after receiving a vision from Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) and fleeing the ice world of Hoth with his friends after an Imperial attack, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) travels to the marsh planet of Dagobah, where he is instructed in the ways of the Force by the legendary Jedi Master Yoda (Frank Oz). Meanwhile, Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) make their way to planet Bespin, where they are greeted by Han’s old friend, a shifty gambler named Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams). Ambushed by the Empire shortly after their arrival, Han and his friends are imprisoned by Darth Vader. Luke leaves Dagobah to rescue his friends, and is met by Vader and a startling revelation.
This has often been praised as the best of the Star Wars films, and I agree entirely with this opinion; as all exposition was dealt with in the first film, Empire gets down to business almost immediately. As there’s no loose ends to tie up (leave that for Return of the Jedi), it ends with an astounding cliffhanger that has rightly gone down in cinema history.What makes Empire stand out is its darkness; the full-blown optimism of the first film’s happy ending pushed aside for deepening conflict, worsening odds and a greater awareness of the sheer power and evil of the Dark Side of the Force. Saying that, optimism is here too; as Luke undertakes training from Yoda, the Jedi Master, who hopes his new young apprentice will learn the ways of the Good Side and not become seduced into evil as Darth Vader did. Meanwhile, after a breathtaking assault on their temporary home base of Hoth, the Rebels are forced to separate, with Han Solo, Princess Leia, Chewbecca and C-3PO flying through asteroid fields, taking sanctuary in a mysterious cave and finally seeking refuge in the spectacular airborne Utopia of Cloud City, where Solo is reunited with his old friend Lando Calrissian.As for Darth Vader, his quest to find Skywalker, for reasons unknown, is bordering on the obsessive; is there something about Luke we don’t know? Why is he destined to meet Yoda and become a Jedi? As previously mentioned, Empire is dark; it begins gloomily and ends with merely a glimmer of hope after a finale of tragedy, betrayal and revelation.Empire’s atmospheres are bleaker than anything seen in the Star Wars universe to date. The ice planet Hoth is barren, desolate and so cold at night you could freeze to death. The swamp planet of Dagobah, where Luke receives training, is a sinister, brilliantly gloomy world of forests, bogs and murky rivers. Even Cloud City is revealed to sit atop of a world of limitless space and bleak emptiness.
The action is often superb; the battle on Hoth is probably the best aerial fight sequence of the entire trilogy, though it’s possible that Jedi’s concluding space battle outdoes it. The asteroid sequence is exciting, funny and wonderfully backed by a classic John Williams score. The final half-hour is a fantastically dramatic crescendo of high drama; Luke and Darth Vader’s light sabre duel is a superb sequence, brilliantly staged and lit, very powerful and the culmination of the film’s darkness.Another scene of great power occurs on Dagobah, where Luke enters a cave of horror and is confronted by a surprise visitor, leading to an even bleaker twist of events. There’s absolutely nothing in the first Star Wars film that even comes close to the power of this moment, it’s arguably George Lucas’ strangest, most unsettling moment in any of his films.Yet, despite the fact that Empire is the darkest Star Wars film, I also find it to be the funniest. Han Solo is splendidly grouchy, and wonderfully played by Harrison Ford. C3PO’s campiness is hilariously taken to the logical limit, while Yoda is a glorious new addition to the cast of characters; his early scenes are extremely funny. Darth Vader has developed a wickedly nasty sense of humour; his penchant for killing off unsatisfactory lackeys becomes shamefully amusing. I love the scene where the computer operator tries to keep his cool in the background even as Vader’s telepathically choking the commanding officer right next to him.Carrie Fisher, Billy Dee Williams and Alec Guinness play their roles without a hint of irony, as it should be. Escapism can lazily be delivered with a knowing wink, which can be a cop out when the creators don’t have the imagination or the verve to create a truly convincing, sweeping world of wonder. The puppet-work on Yoda is pretty amazing, even to this day. I just don’t think of him as a puppet, more a real character. Frank Oz’s voice work is just perfect, effortlessly switching to playfully mischievous to wisely dignified. Mark Hamill as Luke is less of a bland, wet fish as he was in the first film; here he has actually has conflicts, both inner and outer, to deal with, and he handles the job nicely, especially in the ending.Overall, The Empire Strikes Back is a remarkable example of screen entertainment; it has the proper sweep of a real space opera, it has confidence, imagination, beauty, humour, excitement and a truly brilliant story. It may very well be one of the best blockbuster movie of all time.